Monday, August 30, 2010

The Spymaster's Lady & My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne

Titles: The Spymaster's Lady
            My Lord and Spymaster
Author: Joanna Bourne
Publisher: Berkley Sensation (2008)

The Spymaster's Lady is one of my top books read this year. I heart this book with the biggest, mushiest, lurviest heart there is and can't say enough good things about it. As one might expect, I then went into My Lord and Spymaster with some pretty high expectations. Why don't I give a little blurb for each and then some details on my thoughts.

In The Spymaster's Lady, Annique Villiers and Robert Grey find themselves imprisoned in the same French jail cell. Annique, a French spy, because it is thought she will betray her country and Robert because he is an English spy. A Very Bad Man threw them in jail and Annique plans to get them out of there as fast as possible. What she does not know is that Robert has come to France specifically to find her and then dabble in a little absconding. There's a lot more to this plot than the little I'm sharing here but it unfolds so beautifully - with some very nice surprises - that I don't want to share more than a brief introduction. I'll help myself to an old stand-by and reassure you that it'll "keep you guessing until the end."

Let me just get the unfortunate flaw out of the way now so I can focus on all the awesome: the villain is pretty sucky. I don't just mean that he sucks because he's bad but that his character is not so very well done. I called him a Very Bad Man because that's about all there is to him. His Badness is even expressed in not very creative ways. Thankfully his bits are separated into short chapters that I skimmed the first time and skip altogether in subsequent reads (and I've probably read this book 4 times in the last few months). Otherwise this book is one shining gem of book greatness. I honestly can't say enough about how awesome this book is. The plot is exciting and nerve-wracking, the characters (both main and secondary - excepting villain, see above) are fantastic and perfectly depicted, the romance is beset with believable impediments (a must in sgwordy's world) but the h and h are also very authentic as a pair, and did I mention the awesome plot? the awesome characterization? and the awesome hero and heroine? Oh, I did? Then don't let me skimp on the writing which is just gorgeous! I mean, just a total joy-to-experience lovely with very impressive depictions of languages and dialect.

Ok, so maybe now you can see with what expectations I went into my second Bourne novel. In My Lord and Spymaster Jess Whitby's father has been accused of treason. To prove his innocence she'll have to employ her considerable intelligence and all her cunning from her old life on the streets. As she attempts to gather steal some information from Captain Sebastian Kennet there is an attack on her life. He helps her to escape and, as a favor to a friend of hers, takes her into his protection (don't worry - it makes sense with the plot even though my brief description sounds weird). What she doesn't know is that he is the one who gathered the evidence against her father.

I'm going to start with what I liked and then make a few comments as to why I didn't enjoy this one as much as the other. First off, AND ALL SERIES WRITERS PLEASE TAKE NOTE, a couple characters from TSL show up in MLaS and I was not subjected to the recap/character outline that just screams (while beating you over the head) that a book is part of a series. And what blissful heaven it was. When the first familiar character showed up, I literally cringed as I waited for the laundry list of what is currently in the cannon, as it were, about the character. And, oh joy, it never happened. In what can only be described as a breath of fresh air, the familiar characters showed up, did their jobs, were as awesome as they were before, and acted just as I would expect from previous time spent with them. Thank you, Ms. Bourne!!!!! Thank you so very much for letting your characters speak for themselves! Thank you, thank you, thank you! (As you can see the "laundry list" technique is a huge pet peeve of mine.) The writing is as lovely as in TSL and the characters are, once again, very well done. Where MLaS lost me (and this should be viewed as a relative term because I still liked the book and it's on my Keeper shelf) was its lack of follow-through with plot. The plot is quite good with lots of what-ifs and various characters that might be "whodunit" but it still fell rather flat for me. I didn't feel like I was following its twists and turns but, instead, I was just hanging out with the characters as they moved from one dangerous situation to another while I waited for the end. Also, it's a romance, we know certain things about the romance formula that make several endings impossible. Since the impediment to our h and h being together relied very heavily on what I thought was one of the impossible endings I didn't believe there was anything really standing in the way of them being together.

So, to get the maximum enjoyment possible from these two novels I suggest starting with MLaS so you don't have the crazy high expectations going into it. I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more had I not read TSL first. However, no matter what, you really must read The Spymaster's Lady. It's just too damn good to miss! 

TSL -  4 of 5 stars
MLaS - 3 of 5 stars

Like "miniature bread?"

And can I get in touch with his stylist?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

So I'm not actually going to write up a review of my own because le0pard13's review at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer is better (and more informed) than anything I could come up with so click here for an excellent review.

I do have a couple comments, though:

1. Read this book! It is awesome, mind-blowing, tense, illuminating, heart-breaking, and unputdownable.

2. My back aches from how wound up with tension I was for the last ~100 pages.

3. I owe Michael endless favors for mentioning this book to me. (Seriously! Cash in anytime, lp13, my debt is great!)

4. I am more convinced than ever that the War on Drugs ought to be fought in treatment centers rather than bullet-proof vests.

5. I recently read a book with a page-long acknowledgments section and a two page author's note and the book was merely historically placed fiction. This book spans ~30 years, multiple countries, politics, drug cartels, the cold war, etc and there is not one tiny peep in the book or on the author's website re his research? Hunh???? Where can I find more information on this book?

6. The communism domino theory thing truly is one of the stupider theories this world has suffered from.

7. Just when you think the internet is bereft of surprises you find a table detailing the current leaders and founders of Mexico's drug cartels on Wikipedia. On Wikipedia!!!!! My gosh, I love the internet!

8. Read this book!

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Worth your time!

You've got Dr M to thank for this one and be sure you're not drinking anything when you surf over because it'll soon be coming out your nose.

(again, what is with me and the 180s on post topics/seriousness?)

Monday, August 23, 2010

My First Nora Roberts

Title: Born In Ice
Author: Nora Roberts
Publishers: Jove (1995)

I have avoided Nora Roberts for one reason: I'm deeply suspicious of any author that needs several pages to list her/his novels. Perhaps it's unfair of me (or simply insulting (or plain jealousy)) but to be that prolific and still write good books seems so improbable as to be statistically impossible. Born In Ice, while much better than I would have expected from someone who appears to write novels with factory-like output, was not good enough to change my suspicious mind. (NR fans, please feel free to set me right! I'm always interested in being pointed to the good works - easy to miss in a three page list, methinks.) Anyway, synopsis...

Brianna runs a bed and breakfast in Ireland. It's the slow season and she has only one guest. He is an American author finishing up his latest novel. Hmm, well, actually that's about it. Huh. It's not nearly as boring as that description makes it sound, though now I'm starting to see why there's just a picture of Roberts on the back cuz how does one come up with more back copy than what I've just said? Huh. Anyway... so Grayson's working on his book and Brianna's doing her thing of running the B&B. Brianna, by the way, is awesome! If I had half the skills she has I think it'd be ~100x as many as I currently have. Holy damn, she is one talented lady! She's also excellent at dealing with Grayson's moodiness. She's got a great way of cutting right to the issue and making a person feel pretty small for being a jerk. Grayson's actually not a bad guy he's just up and down depending on how the writing is going. (I actually enjoy when a character is a writer as I think it's funny to hear authors describe their professions.)

This is another of those romances that didn't work for me because everything was too easy. Sure, Grayson had to overcome a deeply personal fear to make a change in his life but there wasn't one single moment when I didn't think he would. Also, Grayson is one of those mega-successful authors with money coming out of his ears* so Brianna, who has to scrimp and save for every improvement, gets insta-cash cuz he's around. I'm certainly happy for her but, again, too easy.

There's really nothing particularly wrong with the story, or the protags who are both decent and likable, it's just that I never had any sort of investment in it. I could have put it down at any time and not once worried about what happened to anyone. What I ended up enjoying the most was Grayson interacting with people when they mentioned his work (actually Grayson is a pretty funny guy so he often had lines that made me giggle). To me this is a bad sign. It's a romance, shouldn't my favorite conversations include the protags? I mean, at least some of the time? So anyway, this one does not get a huge recommendation from me and it wouldn't surprise me if I never read another Roberts. However, I will exit with a quote from some random guy to Grayson about his novels:

"I'll have to get it out of the way and tell you I'm a big fan."
"It's never in the way."

Awe. Some! No kidding, it's never in the way! In fact, it's paving the way to my bank account. :)

rating: 3 of 5 stars
(a rating of 3 really is the least informative isn't it?)

**I've always wondered at the possible similarities in horse racing success and author success. There's something like 37,000 thoroughbreds registered every year (in North America) and less than 5% of them end up making the big bucks. Percentages go up a little if you're talking just breaking even but the mega-bucks are hard to come by.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Scanner Darkly by Phlip K. Dick

Title: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Vintage Books (1977)

le0pard13 and I are back again for a look at a book and its adaptation into movie form. I think A Scanner Darkly was a suggestion (yes, we take suggestions! anything you'd like to see get the joint treatment?) from a commenter at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer. I sure am glad for the suggestion because I really liked the book and I enjoyed the movie, as well. So let's get to it.

Click here for Michael's A Scanner Darkly Film Review

Robert Arctor is an undercover police officer in Los Angeles. When undercover, he's a small time drug dealer called Robert Arctor. At the office he's disguised in a scrambler suit, as are all his colleagues, and called Fred. As Arctor, he's trying to make his way up the dealer ladder to find the source of Substance D, a powerful narcotic that eventually leads to a split in the user's brain. As Fred, he has been assigned to tail Arctor. The story centers around his increased dependence on Substance D undermining his ability to maintain the two identities.

The story addresses a pretty serious topic. But before we get too focused on the serious let's have a laugh about Arctor's weird hard-on for pistol whipping (there was a time at the beginning where I thought this was going to be a per chapter threat!) and PKD's odd dialogue style totally working for a book about a bunch of people on drugs. Seriously! It's like his dialogue style found its calling. Awesome! And if you didn't click on the book link above be sure to eventually have a visit because the second cover photo is to bust-a-gut for [now included above]. Oh the hair! The stache!

Quick note about the druggies: I'm not a huge fan of books/movies about people doing drugs. I have a lot of interest in the infrastructure of the drug trade (and its relationship to law enforcement) but stories that focus mainly on those doing drugs - and their drug-induced behavior - are of little interest to me. There was a portion of the movie that totally lost me as a viewer since I was just sitting there watching druggies be druggies, but it wasn't too long and the book was much more interesting during those parts. Actually, the movie is a remarkably faithful adaptation but the internal processes of the characters - esp Arctor - are, obviously, lost in the film. It's the windows into the users' minds that made the book more enjoyable for me in those parts. Otherwise they both do a great job of introducing the very interesting concepts of dual identities and the value of the individual vs. the group within the backdrop of a relevant societal issue.

I've always loved PKD stories because of his cool ideas but he really steps it up for this one because it's a fantastic idea laced with dead-on observations about people (as all the best sci-fi is:). Arctor often struggles with his genuine compassion for those he is tailing and his feelings are humorously illuminated as he recounts hearing this phrase from a non-using friend of his drug crowd:

If I had known it was harmless I would have killed it myself.

Besides the fact that the phrase itself makes one pause to think of how often this theme plays out in human history, Arctor's response - and what it means to the dual life he is leading - is one helluva passage. Even as he struggles with this there's no doubt in his mind that he will bust those that he is ordered to bust. Then, he begins to suspect one of his friends of a revenge narc and thinks he's being observed, ironically he's disgusted by the thought of someone acting like they are your friend just to get dirt on you (double irony, of course, is that he is being observed but only by him).

As mentioned above, the illustration of Arctor's conflict, and actually many of the conflicts and problems in the story, is humorous but it's of the bittersweet and ironic variety. Like if you didn't laugh at it you just might cry a little. I find it's one of the more successful aspects of the book. You're going along, enjoying yourself, getting totally into the story and suddenly laughing out loud. Then you peel back the humorous surface and wonder how it is you managed to laugh at the situation. Very powerful and engaging stuff.

On the face of it, this is a simple story of a rather odd undercover set-up. But the surface really is only the beginning. There is so much going on in this book! There's a hint of this before you even start reading. For exploration of this hint, you'll need to pull out what I think is the most successful publishing endeavor ever, and certainly one of the most influential books in the world, the Bible. Flip on over to 1 Corinthians 13 and read through one of the Bible's more popular chapters (and lest we overlook; oft-abused in wedding ceremonies) to get started. There's a slight catch; you need the King James Version. Follow along with me and you'll see why:

NIV - 1 Cor 13:12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

New KJV - 1 Cor 13:12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

KJV - 1 Cor 13:12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

Now, I've always found 1 Cor 13 rather poetic and layered but holy hellfire that verse 12 is just packed and so super awesome as relates to A Scanner Darkly. Ok, enough alluding, let's get on with it.

On the surface you've got the plight of addicts, the difficulty of the dual life of an undercover cop, and the often hilarious attempts of Arctor to woo Donna. A constantly recurring theme just under this is the rights of an individual vs. the health of society at large. Go a little bit deeper and the title, which at first speaks simply to leading a dual life, fairly hums across every chapter, line, and theme. Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. That says it all and if I were to really get into this, massive spoilers would rear their ugly heads. I'd rather leave the finer details for the reader to discover than ruin them. I don't want to say too much about the movie here but, even though it's a fantastic adaptation (including word for word conversations), you really miss a lot of what is best about this story if you don't read the book.

It's obvious (and not just because of the author's note) that PKD isn't trying to point any fingers or make any judgments. He took a lifestyle that had an immense effect on his own life, threaded it with a great idea, then proceeded to highlight the multiple realities of drug production, use, and prevention with a keen eye for humanism. It really is one damn fine tale.

I've focused mostly on what I liked but there were a couple passages that centered around a topic that always gets my hackles up. This was the notion of a lost golden age. Like things are so shit right now but "a long, long time ago" there wasn't so much gray and justice and wisdom always aligned and blah de freaking blah! I can't stand this theme! I'm still waiting for the golden age. Would anyone seriously trade being born now for being born sometime in the past? Give me a break! Taking just being female as an example there are many Ages (and decades none too distant) that did not look kindly upon the lack of a penis. Plus, if you're constantly looking backward for a fabled golden age you certainly can't be looking forward to a time when we might truly attain an age of equality and sustainability. 

But, really, that's a small part of the overall story and other quibbles I have are pretty small. This is a great book that is so worth your time. Pick it up for the awesome story but read it attentively for the rewards of closer inspection.

A few good lines:

Fred [Arctor in scramble suit]: If you boys are psychologist types and you've been listening to my endless debriefings with Hank, what the hell is Donna's handle? How do I get next to her? I mean, how is it done? With that kind of sweet, unique, stubborn little chick?
"Each girl is different," the seated deputy said.
"I mean approach her ethically," Fred said. "Not cram her with reds and booze and then stick it into her while she's lying on the living-room floor."
"Buy her flowers," the standing deputy said.
"What?" Fred said, his suit-filtered eyes opening wide.

Now my [auto] insurance rates will go up... In this world you pay for tilting with evil in cold, hard cash.

It requires the greatest kind of wisdom to know when to apply injustice. How can justice fall victim, ever, to what is right? How can this happen?

"Life asks an awful lot."

Don't forget to check out the movie review! And, as always, many thanks to Michael for the fun of joint analysis.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Life in Books Meme

I was inspired to play along!

In high school I was: Not Quite a Lady (Loretta Chase)
People might be surprised I’m: Looking for Rachel Wallace (Robert B. Parker)
I will never be: Sleepless (Charlie Huston) **
My fantasy job is: Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliff) **
At the end of a long day I need: High Heat, To Say Nothing of the Dog (Tim Wendel, Connie Willis) **
I hate it when: Nowhere Is A Place (Bernice L. McFadden) **
Wish I had: The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett) **
My family reunions are a: Gaudy Night (Dorothy L. Sayers)
At a party you’d find me with: Lesser Demons (Norman Partridge) **
I’ve never been to: Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
A happy day includes: Lessons in French (or anything by Laura Kinsale:) **
Motto I live by: Snakes Can't Run (Ed Lin) **
On my bucket list: Flight Lessons (Patricia Gaffney)
In my next life, I want to be: The Monkey's Raincoat (Robert Crais)

**recommended reads



Even where the affections are not strongly moved by any superior excellence, the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds, which hardly any later friend can obtain. They know our infantine dispositions, which, however they may be afterwards modified, are never eradicated; and they judge of our actions with more certain conclusions as to the integrity of our motives.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Monday, August 16, 2010

Almost Heaven by Judith McNaught

Title: Almost Heaven
Author: Judith McNaught
Publisher: Pocket Books (1990)

First I must thank the SBD crew over at Sum of Me for helping me pick a McNaught to try. I certainly appreciated the detailed info re tropes/subject matter to pick from. I actually read the book a couple months ago now but am only just getting around to saying a few words. The set-up: Elizabeth Cameron had a slight hiccup during her debut year resulting in the loss of a fiance and the good opinion of England's polite society. At one time she had 15 offers of marriage, now she is trying to keep her estate running. Her dear old uncle (pushy, jizzwaddy brute!) needs her wed and fast. His hilariously stupid attempt at this is to send letters to those previous 15 suitors telling them that Elizabeth is up for sale available again. Three respond that they are willing to have her visit for a couple weeks to see if they suit. Elizabeth is, not surprisingly, appalled at this notion and makes a plan to annoy all of them so they will send her home again - unwed - so she can focus on the estate. She manages to shirk the first two pretty quickly but her time with the third proves a bit more interesting.

aside: Potential Husband #2, Lord John Marchman, Earl of Canford, was probably my favorite thing about the book. Seriously! I heart Johnny! I want him to have his own book. I want him to be the hero and to have a wonderful heroine show up and woo his cravat right off. Said heroine will come with fishing pole and avid love of boar (or whatever) hunting and the two of them will live HEA on his beautiful land and eat fish every night in their carcass-laden dining room. Can't you see it? Wouldn't he be such a darling hero? *sigh*

Ok, back to regularly scheduled programing... Basically this book was too for me. It was too long, too obvious (in general), too obvious the protags would end up together*, too sweet, everything worked out too easily, I was never too worried anything truly bad would happen, and the heroine even had a bordering-on Too Stupid To Live Moment (spoilerly, highlight if interested: I didn't believe for one second she would run off like that with her brother. If I'm to believe that then I can't believe anything about how much in love with Ian she was supposed to be. She didn't even give him a chance! That is just not-using-your-head ridiculous). Now, this is not to say that I didn't enjoy anything about the book. Though cloying, it was a nice love story and I was happy to see the characters (esp Ian) make some conscious decisions to change their lives for the better. However, there wasn't anything about the book that has made me rush out to add more McNaught onto my TBR pile.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

*yes, I do realize that every romance ends with the protags getting together but let's not forget that a main requirement for sgwordy's enjoyment of a romance is that she believes, even if only a teensy bit, that there is an outside chance the protags won't end up together

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Katherine by Anya Seton

Title: Katherine
Author: Anya Seton
Publisher: Chicago Review Press (2004), originally published in 1954

Katherine is historical fiction based on the life of Katherine de Roet and her relationship with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster in 14th century England. This book is beautifully done and well-researched by Anya Seton. And I'd be lying if I didn't say one of its most appealing aspects is that it is a true life fairy tale of love. This is no everything-smells-like-roses fairy tale, being very true to the realities and obligations of 14th century daily life - for royalty and commoners alike - but the true and enduring love between Katherine and John is, as they say, stranger than fiction. Ok, well, maybe just sweeter than fiction. 

Seton does justice to the period and the reader is rarely drawn out of the world she has created, which can often happen if a historical novel is overly influenced by the author or current societal mores. In fact, the only aspect of this novel that often seemed unrealistic to me was the use of sexual "morality" to represent purity or greediness of character. Thankfully, this was a small portion of the overall story and so did not take much away from the book.

Katherine de Roet was the daughter of a man who was knighted on the field and so was not high in the hierarchy of English nobility. She came to the notice of the richest man in England (save the King), the Duke of Lancaster, through her marriage to a landed knight who was the duke’s liegeman. After her husband’s death (or before depending on whose history you follow), Katherine began a long relationship with the duke. Even during the duke's second marriage to a Castilian heiress, Katherine was recognized as the woman closest to him in all things… well, except wedded vows.

There is not much written history regarding Katherine outside of official records of monies and property. And it is obvious that Seton takes some license with various events surrounding Katherine. However, one never feels like these detract from the truths that can be known about her. Where Seton had to fill in holes the events seem as likely to be true as any other educated guess. And this is what makes the story a compelling read from beginning to end. The undisputed history fits seamlessly with the history that can’t be confirmed making for an enjoyable read.

And speaking of the undisputed history, it's pretty interesting. The Peasant's Revolt occurred during this time and the Savoy Palace was fired (and hot damn that gets to me every time! it seems like it would have been such a beautiful building! the oppressed clearly had no thought to future museums, etc... course I can't really blame them), Geoffrey Chaucer was part of the duke's retinue and the Hundred Years' War was on with France. Seton keeps Katherine as the central focus of the story (see title) but all these events inevitably touch her life.

Anyone with an interest in historical novels will enjoy this but I can’t deny that it's the unbelievable but documented love affair that keeps me coming back to the story for additional reads.

rating: 4 of 5 stars