Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E Feist

A fantasy epic this time.

Magician: Apprentice is the first of the Riftwar novels by Raymond Feist.

When it was first published 1982 under the title of Pug and Tomas, I doubt anyone realized the scale of the invasion that would pour into the world of fantasy. This story (sort of a SF/Fantasy hybrid) chronicles an alien invasion (through a rift between worlds) against Midkemia, a world populated by humans, dwarf in mines, elves in trees, and the barbaric Brotherhood living in the dark forest. This modest beginning spawned so many sequels that Raymond Feist resorted to employing co-authors.

What made this series so successful?

While its scope and characters are reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, the style is very different. I've often heard Lord of the Ring referred to as a travelogue with its long descriptions of places, the Magician: Apprentice is more of an action/adventure story. Raymond Feist is a master of economy and action. Everything transitional and ordinary is left out; only the active and extraordinary is told.

Chapter two climaxes with Pug being selected to be the Magician's apprentice. Other authors might feel obligated to say something of the life of the new apprentice, the changes, cares, concerns and crises, but not Fiest. Chapter three skips what can easily be imagined by the reader and jumps to
Since he (Pug) had taken on the position of Kulgan's apprentice fourteen months ago, everything he had done seem to go wrong.
Thus, the book jumps from crisis to crisis, from action to action. The reader never has a chance to stop and admire the scenery, but is on the go all the time.

This is not to say that Fiest doesn't paint a picture of Midkemia. The description is there, but intimatly intertwined with the action. The reader sees the beauty and complexity of the dwarves' mines while Tomas is being chased through them, fighting for his life, and the design of the castle while defending it from alien attacks.

Fiest is particularly adept with swordplay and the book features several sword fights and training sessions.

The main characters are Pug, the talented, but complicated magician's apprentice, Tomas, his best friend and an apprentice warrior, and Carline, the haughty, immature, spoiled princess.

One warning: As the first novel of an epic series, little is resolved at the end of the first book. Regardless, the adventure alone is worth the read.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cat on a Blue Monday by Carole Nelson Douglas

How many books are sold with cats on the cover or in the title and fail to deliver a haughty and independent feline fantasy?

Cat lovers (Who else buy these books?) will be satisfied with this third Midnight Louie adventure: Cat on a Blue Monday. Midnight Louie is a tomcat, man about town, who authors his own chapters, (edited by Carole Nelson Douglas). As he explains it, he is manually challenged, so the editing is required. In addition to Louie, there are many other well crafted feline characters, including a tarot reading fortune teller, and a feminist kitten counterpoint to Louie’s macho persona. He is a sample of Louie’s writing.
The cathouse I am in search of should not be hard to find ... it is home to seventy some residents of the feline persuasion, which means that the super sniffing powers of my nose alone could find it from a six-block radius ... I have overlooked a fourth clue ... a yellow police tape ... circles the house and tends to give away the location just a teensy.
Characters are a real strong point here. The story includes so many interesting characters
  • Temple Barr, the amateur detective and P. R. agent
  • Matt (nee Matthias) Devine, ex-priest and love interes
  • a sympathetic drunk priest
  • a fiesty old nun who was Matt’s grade school teacher
  • an old lady with a house full of rescue cats
  • her niece who raises Birman show cats
As with every good mystery, the plot twists and turns until all the threads are tied off and the evil doer is uncovered and punished. A great fun read.

My only complaint is the rather long postscript. After the murderer is uncovered in chapter 38, the book turns into a sweet and silly romance where boy meets girl and falls in love. If you want to read a good cat mystery, simply closed the book at the end of chapter 38.


SPOILER for War and Peasby Jill Churchill.

SPOILER for War and Peas by Jill Churchill.

The regular entry for War and Peas by Jill Churchill is here.

SPOILER for War and Peas by Jill Churchill.

SPOILER for War and Peas by Jill Churchill follows.

The killer is a lesbian, an evil lesbian. With no other motivation than being a jilted lesbian, left for a man, the killer unbelievably murders multiple people. This is an embarrassing example of literary homophobia that was inappropriate when written in 1996, and even worse when read in the 21st century.

It is a shame when such a clever writer descends to such prejudiced and defamatory plot devices.

War and Peas by Jill Churchill

War and Peasis number 8 in a long series of Jane Jeffry mystery novels by Jill Churchill.

While I’ve read many novels by Robin Cook (see Blindsight this month), this is my first Jill Churchill, so I can’t make generalizations on the series.

Jane Jeffrey (star of the series), along with her girlfriend Shelley, stumble onto the solution of various crimes (Who killed the nice Ms. Regina Palmer?) and other mysteries (What happened to the potential valuable potentially valuable Little Beauty pea seeds?). This is chatty mystery is mixed with “bizarre flights of imagination” where the two ladies “chew over relationships” as opposed the standard police approach of considering evidence.

What is the mystery? Here's Jane’s synopsis:
Too many relationships, too many people whose real feelings are unknown.
Jane and Shelley solve all the real and imagined mysteries through gossip generously interspersed with fashion and cooking tidbits:
  • In the 1920s women tied their hair in rags to curl it
  • Clean the rim of molasses jars to keep the caps from sticking
  • Recipes for backed beans
  • Critiques of everyone’s fashion sense
Overall: a delightful mixture ot the ABCs - Austen, Bombeck and Christie.

Blindsight by Robin Cook

Blindsight is one of a long series of murder and medicine novels by Robin Cook.

If you are not familiar with Robin Cook, Blindsight is an excellent introduction. It showcases
his two trademarks. First, there's a heavy dose of technical medical jargon. For example, this book includes: hyperpyrexia, antecubital fossae, cardiac myopathy, and the ever popular pseudophakic bullous keratopathy. No worries if your Latin is rusty; these terms are either obvious from the context or only peripherally relevant for the plot. Anyone can easily read Robin Cook, though if you're up on the jargon, that adds to the fun.

It also addresses a serious medical issue. Every Robin Cook book has an editorial undertone that advocates for medical reform. In this case the highlighted problem is the availability of organ donors, especially in the case where the donors must be dead. Who would you murder to spare parts?

In addition to the standard Robin Cook fare, Blindsight includes two hit men: Tony Ruggerio and Angelo Facciolo. Tony is a hyperactive child who would prefer whack than eat, sleep or anything else. Angelo in an old pro thinking about retirement. Two buddies not unlike Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson)and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) in the Lethal Weapon series. Blindsight includes just the right balance of black humor and banter to provide comic relief without detracting from the seriousness of the plot as the body count rises to dozens.

The climax brings everything together and resolves all the loose ends with several clever plot turns. A good choice for anyone who likes a good thriller and has never read Robin Cook, or a fan who has somehow just missed this one.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Spider's Web by Peter Tremayne

The Spider's Web by Peter Tremayne is subtitled A Mystery of Ancient Ireland. This fascinating historical novel takes place in 7th century Ireland. This was a time when ...
The Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women that any other western law code at that time or since. Women could ... aspire to all offices and professions ... be political leaders, command their people in battle as warriors ... had the right of divorce ... inheritance ...
Not surprisingly, the protagonist, Sister Fidelma, is female, strong, clever, and respected.

However, beyond the historical setting, complete with descriptions of culture and technology, this book is a carefully plotted whodunit with a steadily increasing body count and list of suspects. It all builds to a classic climax and resolution where all the (surviving) suspects and witnesses are collected together and Sister Fidelma unravels the spider's web one strand at a time, cutting off all paths of escape until the spider is trapped in the center.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

To Bury the Dead by Craig Spector

Craig Spector, author of To Bury the Dead, is a talented and creative writer.

In this book about an EMT gone crazy when his daughter is brutally murdered, details abound such as the autopsy report:
Scalp contusion. Linear comminuted fracture of the right side of the skull. Linear patern of contusions of right cerebral hemisphere. Sebarachnoid [sic] and subdural hemorrhage.
and an EMT incident report:
They shocked him twice and bagged him, performed CPR and hit him up with Lidocaine to stave off any premature ventricular contractions that might pitch him back into V-fib.
The brutality of murder, betrayal, deceit, and revenge is punctuated with humor, such as the obese victim who couldn't find her asthma inhaler until it popped out from a roll of fat - trust me, it was humorous on the first reading. The narrative is also lightened with interesting metaphors, such as describing a remodel of the police station as:
Making everyone who worked there feel like something in a Kafka science project.
In the end, this study of crime and punishment, pits a dedicated fireman against a high school loner. Though this story has been done before (The original Crime and Punishment), To Bury the Dead manages to add a few twists, such as the teenage loner:
... had no computer at home ... no visible video game addiction ... not even a black trench coat to telegraph troubled teen to the masses.
In the end, the the plot performs a few cartwheels and redeems the protagonists and the novel from the brutality of the world so lovingly detailed along the way.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Show and Tell - a writer's radical choice

New fiction writers are constantly harangued to "Show, not Tell." This is especially important advice for academic and non-fiction writers where telling exposition is often to the rule. J. M. Ledgard (a journalist for the Economist) follows this advice to the extreme. In his novel Giraffe, where the overarching metaphor is sleepwalking, the reader is shown a
magnificent meditation on the quiet ways in which ordinary people become complicit in the crimes committed in their midst.
Like a camera following a sleepwalker in a trance, the novel unfolds following the characters in Communist Czechoslovakia in the mid-70's importing and executing the largest herd of giraffes ever seen in Europe. With explicit reference to horrors of World War II, the novel re-explores the morality of ordinary people within a totalitarian regime.

While the detached camera view gives this novel a dreamy, poetic feeling, it did not touch me like the previous book A Peculiar Grace which was written in a similar style (see my blog entry Where is Heather Jasmine). I did not feel the echo of The Holocaust combined with the PETA-like reverence for the giraffes had the emotional impact I hoped for.

Regardless, it is a beautiful story of life in eastern Europe during a "communist moment."

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Where is Heather Jasmine?

A Peculiar Graceis a haunting novel about Hewitt Pearce, a taciturn New Englander. When confronted with an old man beaten to death with his own firewood, a girl raped and kicked (everywhere but where it shows), a cat run over by the mail truck, a young wife and daughter burned to death, and other betrayals and misfortunes too numerous to recount, Hewitt presents a flat affect, unflappable, eerily detached. After the constable prefaced the retelling of a horrific murder with "I thought I was gonna to puke again just telling you," Hewitt replies, "You know anything else yet?"

Strangely, Hewitt restraint and reserve, had the opposite effect on me. As the novel unfurled, I became more emotional and involved, not with disconnections of the Hewitt and the people traveling through his isolated Vermont farm, but with my own disconnections. In each chapter I was drawn back to my estranged daughter, either lost or not communicating or angry or not interested. At this point Hewitt would talk about the weather or the garden, but I just got sad and wondered if there was something else to feel.

A Peculiar Grace opens slowly, but gradually grabs the reader into its world of lost dreams and lost loves. Jeffrey Lent seamlessly weaves flashbacks with narratives giving a dream-like quality to the story that matches Hewitt's tenuous emotional connection to his own existence. As Hewitt imagines that his understands or doesn't care, the reader is entwined more deeply into his life, almost in an effort to balance Hewitt's nonchalance.

"I don't try to understand it but decided a long time ago, the only thing in this life worth much to me are the things most people pass by."

This books is one of those things.