Monthly Archives: February 2014

Review: A Nameless Witch

What woman wouldn’t want perky breasts, a firm yet pleasingly rounded butt, and glossy locks? Few, that’s for sure, but then again, most aren’t witches.

In A. Lee Martinez’s A Nameless Witch, the title character has been cursed with just such an affliction—a pleasing enough form for a mortal woman, but an inconvenient one for someone who should be perceived as peculiar, off-putting, and mysterious. Fortunately, she is taken under the tutelage of Ghastly Edna, who shows her how to dirty her face, layer up, and affect a limp for maximum effect. Life is going pretty well until Ghastly Edna is killed, leaving the protagonist alone but for a demonic familiar named Newt (who resides in a distinctly unthreatening duck body). Off on a quest for revenge, our unnamed witch soon settles in a growing town where she discovers an appetite for human flesh that can be held at bay with self-control, but that self-control is tested when Wyst of the West, a White Knight, rides through, and her urges become simultaneously carnal and cannibalistic as they venture forth to continue her quest for vengeance. Revenge, magic, love, and cannibalism—what more can a person ask for in a tale?

Martinez is very, very clever, and his knack for turning conventions upside-down and poking fun at them are in full form here. Many passages had me laughing aloud, whether about Newt’s insatiable bloodlust or troll unmentionables or droll observations on what is or isn’t proper witchly behavior. As a fluffy, one-shot fantasy, it works, but it’s not Martinez at his best (to date, of what I’ve read, I think that honor goes to Divine Misfortunes, a tale of misbehaving gods and the mortals left in their wake).

While the ideas behind the story are clever, the execution falters a bit. I never truly felt that our protagonist was in real danger (nor, indeed, that the revenge quest itself was something she felt strongly about; it seemed more of a ploy to put her and the knight on a mini-quest together than anything), and while the tension of whether she would be able to resist devouring the man she came to love was present, it was almost too amusing to be taken seriously as plot tension. I found Wyst of the West kind of boring as a character, so I might have been rooting for some cannibalism, but that’s just me. The ending, while dramatic, didn’t really feel climactic, leaving me vaguely unsatisfied.

Martinez’s works would be a good fit for Terry Pratchett fans (and vice versa). Additionally, Jim C. Hines’ Jig the Goblin series (beginning with Jig’s Quest) offers a similarly sympathetic look at a usual-villain-turned-sympathetic-protagonist.

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Review: Boneshaker

Confession time: I have been trying to read Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker for a couple years now, but it’s always due back before I’ve had a chance to read it. Now, I have made it assigned reading for myself (sci fi and fantasy week in my RA class), and it was as delightful as I thought it would be.

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Part of Priest’s Clockwork Century world, where the Civil War has dragged on while other progress has sped up, Boneshaker is set in Seattle, but not the Seattle we would recognize. In this world, the Gold Rush happened earlier, bringing people west to make their fortunes—or so they hoped. Opportunity abounded, and one person hoping to cash in was Leviticus Blue, an inventor hoping to win the cash prize offered by the Russians for inventing a machine that would drill through the Klondike ice. The invention, Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill worked—until it lost control and cut a swath of destruction that destroyed homes and buildings, killed countless people in the rubble, and unleashed the Blight, a toxic gas that created zombies of the remainder of survivors. A massive wall was built around the city to keep the toxins and undead contained, and it’s outside of this wall that Briar Wilkes, Blue’s widow, escaped with her son Ezekial. Determined to clear the family name, Ezekial, or Zeke, takes off for the dangers within the wall, and Briar follows after, determined to ensure that her son doesn’t die over the secrets she’s kept from him.

This book almost feels like it’s pandering to me personally—a strong female protagonist (and other strong women to boot), airships, mad scientists, danger, and zombies. In steampunk fiction, strong women seem to be more the norm than exception, which I love. There is no romance in this story, just the determined love of a mother trying to save her son. The grittiness is appealing to me, and even the book’s formatting lends to the impression: the paper is slightly yellow in color, as though from Blight gas, with somewhat faded brown print, like an old map that was hidden for years in a family chest along with who knows what other secrets.

This is a good first foray into steampunk for readers who prefer the darker stuff. It is a bit of a commitment at 414 pages, but the pacing is suspenseful enough to keep the pages turning, switching back and forth between Zeke and Briar. If you can handle your alternate history with a dash of weirdness, give Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman a try, blending Victorian history with characters from literature… and lizard people. If the fantastic inventions have captured your fancy, but you’re not so sure about the zombies (much less lizard people), try the works of steampunk’s grandfather, Jules Verne (no zombies, but there are inventions galore). And because I can’t resist recommending one more favorite: try Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, another steampunk-esque romp with pirates, airships, and betrayal; it’s not so much steampunk in a historical setting as fantasy with steampunk elements and just a hint of the supernatural.

I so dearly want to rave about other favorite steampunk reads here, but I realize that some of them have entirely different appeals and tones to them, so I won’t, but if you’re curious about what else is out there, drop me a comment, and I will try to hook you up with something you’ll enjoy.

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Review: The Mirror Crack’d

I have just made the acquaintance of one charming Miss Marple, by way of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked (originally titled The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side in its British release). She is a dear, and I would love to sit and knit with her and drink tea and discuss the recurring nature of humanity at large; I can see why so many readers see in her a kindred spirit.

The Mirror Crack’d begins quaintly enough, with life in St. Mary Mead going on in its relative quiet though new Developments are going up regularly and word has it that movie actress Marina Gregg is moving in. Miss Marple has been getting a bit restless and frustrated (not helped by the interfering presence of one Miss Knight who is forever asking, in the condescending manner of too-chipper caretakers “if there’s anything we need” when she full well should be using the proper second-person pronoun “you”); fortunately for her, Dr. Haydock has just the cure for her doldrums: unraveling a murder mystery. On the day of Marina Gregg’s fete, Mrs. Heather Badcock suddenly takes ill and dies of an overdose slipped into her drink. Who could have done it? Her henpecked husband? Marina Gregg’s seemingly-devoted husband, intending to poison his wife? The butler? The photographer? While detectives are on the case, it’s Miss Marple’s keen eye for human nature that will ultimately unravel the case.

Cozies are one subgenre I have not read much of, so I used this as an opportunity to observe master of the art Agatha Christie. I was somewhat expecting the curious details of small-town residents and their private motivations and histories, and I was not surprised at the lack of gory details surrounding the deaths themselves. What I wasn’t expecting was the droll humor, largely present in the dealings of Miss Marple with Miss Knight (the former’s tactics to discreetly shake off the latter’s doting presence made me smile as she sent the woman off on futile errands as far away as possible to buy some quiet time). I also wasn’t expecting the forceful personality of Miss Marple. I knew somewhat vaguely that she was an older woman who sometimes knitted, but I wasn’t expecting to find this vibrant woman with whom I wouldn’t mind chatting with and getting to know. In a way, I wish I had read this a few years earlier so I could have gotten to know one of my grandmother’s favorite characters and been able to talk with her about Miss Marple. As it was, through Miss Marple, I could certainly hear echoes of some of my grandma’s views on celebrities and their lives and affairs.

One of the things I knew to look for when I helped my grandmother pick out books from the library was murder mysteries without a lot of graphic violence or explicit material, and this is something I often hear from older patrons I help in the library; Miss Marple stories definitely fit that bill. This would also be a good choice for those looking for a series with strong character appeal as the book is as much about its protagonist as it is the mysteries she solves. Setting is another strong appeal here as many readers long for the (idealized) small town simplicity of places like St. Mary Mead where even if terrible things like murders occur, there is still a timeless charm to them.

Miss Marple’s keen eye for details reminded me a bit of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache, whom I first met recently in Still Life, and both tales have the charming small-town air about them. For more cozies, I found an entire website dedicated to the subgenre, which I will definitely be perusing to bolster my RA skills.

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Review: The Maltese Falcon

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a gorgeous dame (of course she’s a red-head) walks into a private investigator’s office with wide, innocent, yet clearly panicked eyes, needing his help. Of course, for a gal like that, he’s willing to help; the cash incentive doesn’t hurt either. The detective lights a cigarette and kicks back to listen to her plight, not giving away his real impressions as she spills her tale. Not all is as it seems, though, about her, about her situation, about the people after her, about the titular artifact itself, and before he knows it, our hero is trying to stay two steps ahead of both the police and the bad guys.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which began in serialized form in Black Mask magazine, introduces Sam Spade, one of, if not the, most well-known gumshoe detectives (who looks, coincidentally, like Humphrey Bogart in my mind’s eye). He plays his cards close to the chest, doesn’t particularly respect authority (particularly if they are getting in his way), seems to have a knack for attracting the ladies without trying, and is just clever and resourceful enough to land on his feet when trouble catches up with him. He is, in short, what many detectives wish they could be if they didn’t have to follow those pesky rules, a real son of a gun. The wise-cracking, non-compliant detective trope feels like a cliché, until you remember that, like Dracula to modern-day vampires, he is the original, and the rest are imitators.

The Maltese Falcon had enough twists and turns to keep me guessing, and Hammett does a nice job showing readers only part of what’s going on in scenes, whether that is only through hearing half of a phone conversation or because, like whoever he’s dealing with, we don’t know what is going on behind those yellow-grey eyes. Spade is clearly a couple steps ahead and knows the score, but we as readers don’t see the connections he’s making right away, and some of them, not until the big, climactic reveal.

Reading this was a bit like peeking into a time capsule. While contemporary good guys are no longer allowed to smoke, Spade is frequently rolling and lighting a cigarette; this is frequently accompanied by a drink while chatting with a suspect. Female characters are secretaries, over-attached lovers, or damsels in distress, and they’re frequently “angel” or “sweetheart.” Secretary Effie Perine is relegated to a support/gopher role, and even femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy is tasked with making breakfast while the menfolk talk things out; these have to be viewed in light of their time, though. And the slang, by gad, that slang really is quite swell.

There’s definitely some nostalgic appeal here for anyone looking for a good old-fashioned, hard-boiled mystery. For similar reading, try fellow Black Mask contributor Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow novels. Gary Lovisi’s article “The Hard-Boiled Way” also provides a nice overview of hard-boiled detective stories, including both classic and contemporary contributions to the genre.

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Choices

This coming week is Mystery/Suspense week in my RA class. I’ve narrowed down my list, first by things I haven’t read, then to books that I’ve meant to read, and then to books that were on-shelf:

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John Grisham: An author I know of and know roughly what he’s about, but one I’ve never read. I’ve seen the movies, and that has generally been enough for me (is that a booklover heresy? Feels like it should be).

Spencer Quinn: My husband has read a couple books in the series and enjoyed them, and moreover, my father-in-law, who doesn’t normally read much fiction, enjoyed this one; sounds like an interesting departure from the typical feline detective mystery.

M.J. McGrath: The striking, simple cover art intrigued me every time I shelved it, but as mysteries are not my typical fare, I never tried it. Once I read the blurb, the arctic setting and half-Inuit female protagonist sound like elements I would enjoy.

Agatha Christie: I never read any of this classic author’s works, though I used to keep my grandmother supplied in her mysteries (as well as BBC renditions thereof). Cozies are one subgenre I probably won’t read much of on my own unless I push myself, so I feel like this is an opportunity to do so.

Dashiel Hammett: I know Sam Spade is the archetypal gumshoe, literary grandaddy to my beloved Harry Dresden, but again, this is one I’ve never read myself.

I need only read one of these, minimum, or two if I want full points, but it’s going to be a tough choice. I think I’ll go with one classic and one contemporary one. Or I could just go full-out and try them all…

Thoughts? Recommendations? Have you read any of these?

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Scatter-brained much? Or, How I Lost My Blog

Ever have one of those days when you can’t find your keys? Or you set the coffee cup down on the car and almost forget it, driving off without it? Or walk out the door without the books you were planning to return to the library? Yeeeeeah, been there, done that. And then some.

I lost my blog. This blog, in fact. I knew it existed. I remembered creating it. I was pretty sure I had posted in it a couple of times or so. I knew it had “yarn” somewhere in the title, but flipping through my e-mail accounts and online accounts turned up nothing as it had no comments. So I did what comes naturally after a long search: I resigned myself to replacing the missing item, and lo, as soon as I went to create a new one, I found my WordPress login and the blog along with it.

Time to revive this thing. I’m in a readers advisory class this semester, and I plan to use this, along with my Goodreads account, to keep track of things as I read them and get more practice reviewing. And hopefully this time, I won’t lose the keys again.

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