Thursday, August 29, 2013

Battle of the Books (2): The Secret History vs Theodora

For those of you new to my Battle of the Books, I read two books of similar story, setting and/or genre and pit them against one another.  I base my judgements on the following criteria:

1. Main Character
2. Supporting Cast
3. Worldbuilding
4. Pacing
5. Plot Development
6. Plot Resolution
7. Style/Use of Language
8. Cover Art (Tiebreaker only)

Today's Byzantine Book Battle pits A Secret History by Stephanie Thornton against Theodora: Accress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy.

This match-up was a bit more challenging than I expected.  For some silly reason, I assumed that it would be far easier to draw comparisons when the story was with the exact same character and exact same storyline.  Instead, this makes it somewhat harder:  with the plot taking the (more or less) exact same trajectory, and using (more or less) the same cast, you have to rely on nitpicking to draw the lines.
1. Main Character - Thornton
Here is one huge difference right off the bat.  A Secret History is told in the first person, using Theodora's own voice.  Duffy's Theodora is told the in third person.  By using the first person, you get a clearer view of Theodora, seeing her as more impatient, impetuous and sassy.  Thornton also uses dialogue to better effect, giving a clearer characterization and letting the characters be the IN and a part of the world, rather than just occupying it.  Both authors, though, do a fine job of giving Theodora a spine and a great deal of resilience. 

2. Supporting cast -Thornton
Thornton, again, delivers with her dialogue.  By living in T's head and using more dialogue than description, the reader is given a clearer picture of the people around her.  Not all supporting characters are given the same amount of screen time, of course, but the few that are seem better fleshed out.

3. Worldbuilding - Duffy
Duffy, hands down.  Whereas Thornton's dialogue gives better opportunities to illuminate the personalities of the characters, Duffy's third person prose allows for better description of the age and the area.  For readers completely unfamiliar with the time period, Duffy gives a wider canvas on which to paint the story.  The politics, religion and culture of the time are far more clear in Duffy's version of the story.

4. Pacing - Thornton
Thornton covers all of Theodora's life in one 450-page novel.  Duffy's story goes from childhood through her being crowned Empress.  (There is a second book, The Purple Shroud, that covers the rest of her life.)  Not that covering a life at a leisurely pace is wrong, but I prefer Thornton's complete story in one volume.  There are enough series out there.

5. Plot Development -Duffy
(Possible Spoilers)
Toward the end of Thornton's story, there is a bit of a melodrama about Theodora's son, and it felt shoehorned in and awkward, as if the author was grasping for something amazing to happen to the protagonist, since her meteoric rise and ongoing challenges and victories weren't enough.  Duffy's story felt more plausible, and more like the author kept with the known sources for the root of her plot line(s). 

6. Plot Resolution - Thornton
As previously stated, Thornton's A Secret History covers a woman's entire life.  The story is wrapped up in the most logical and inevitable way there is.  Duffy's Theodora stops just at the climax of our heroine's social climb.  You can pick up the second book, but do you want to?

7. Style/Use of Language - Thornton
Duffy really likes commas.  A lot.  I am not opposed to long sentences, but it's not uncommon to see one sentence that goes on four or five printed lines in the text.  If I were listening to an audiobook, it might not make a difference.  It does make a difference when reading a printed copy, and I had to reread a single sentence to get the meaning. 

Final Score:
Thornton: 5
Duffy: 2

As another reviewer friend has stated for me, Thornton's book read a lot like Kate Quinn's novels.  If you like her style (and I really, really do), then Thornton is the clear favorite.
HOWEVER, if you like your books more descriptive and heavier on paragraphs than on spoken dialogue, you'll probably prefer Duffy's depiction of the Byzantine empress. 

If you have an idea for another Battle of the Books match-up, post your suggestions in the comments!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday - Memorable Secondary Characters

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  

Of course, I'm a horrible lazy person and don't post weekly, which rather defeats the purpose.

This week's subject is "Top Ten Memorable Secondary Characters."
I have chosen to define "secondary" characters as "neither the protagonist(s) nor the antagonist(s)" because otherwise I don't know what to do with myself.

In no particular order:

1. The Weasley Twins from the Harry Potter series
     They earn a place on this list just for their no-holds-barred, over-the-top exit from Hogwarts.

2.  The Dragon from Voyage of the Basset.
     This is one of my favorite books, hands-down.  I almost cried with joy when I found a copy at a bookstore.  The dragon marks a pivotal turning point in the story and has so many words of wisdom.  There are other great characters and creatures in this story, but the dragon is the one that sticks with me.

 3. Ginger from Black Beauty
     Poor, poor Ginger.  If you haven't read Black Beauty, you're missing out on a good falcon punch to feels. 

4. Iron Horse from the Iron Fey series
     Iron Horse gets on the list because, of all the cleverly crafted fey creatures Kagawa created for her series, he's the only one whose name I actually remember.  Also, because his name is a pun.  He's clearly named after railroad technology, but he's also a giant horse made of iron - when he wants to be.  And that's friggin' sweet.

5. Brimstone from Daughter of Smoke and Bone
     At first Brimstone set off my Sketchiness Alarm in a major way.  What was he hiding from Karou?  Why in the name of corn is he doing with all those teeth?  When his purpose is revealed and the "magic" of the chimaera is explained I think my jaw dropped into my lap.  SO CLEVER.  Read this book.  Read it right now.

6. Faithful (in all his incarnations) from the Tortall books by Tamora Pierce
     I always knew that if cats could speak, they would be sarcastic. He's there for Alanna - and for other Tortall heroines, when they need him.  And he's a black cat with purple eyes.  I want one.

7.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice
     This woman!  I love every scene she's in, from explaining her "natural taste" in music (she doesn't play) to giving everyone unwanted advice to the pivotal scene in which she makes a complete butthead of herself.  She has all of Lady Violet's pride with non of her cunning or self-awareness.

8. The other half-dragons from Seraphina
     I couldn't pick just one.  By their existence, they open a new world for our heroine.  Each of them has gotten by in their lives, overcoming difficulties and prejudice to find their place in the world.  This gives the reader hope for Seraphina - and makes her the center of a smaller world in which she doesn't have to hide everything about herself.

9.  Lady Silence from The Terror
     This book gave me the chills AND the heeby-jeebies.  At the same time.  Of all the characters in the story, Lady Silence - the mysterious Eskimo woman who's missing her entire tongue - is the one that stands out to me.  What happened to her?  What does she want?  What secrets is she hiding?  Why is she hanging out around two doomed and stranded ships in the middle of the Arctic?  Just thinking about it makes me want to read this book again, and be creeped out all over again.

10.  Falcor from The Neverending Story
     Tell me you didn't want your very own luck dragon after reading this book (or watching the movie and THEN reading the book).  Because then I know you will be a liar.  Not only can he fly without wings, but he's supportive and helpful.

And that's all for today.
I'm sure there are many, many more I've forgotten.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Book Review: Cuckoo's Calling by JK Rowling

Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
Series:  Cormoran Strike, Book 1

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, thelegendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

Normally I let a book stew in my mind for a while before I write a review, but I don't know if that is going to help me out with this one. I have to confess that mystery is generally not my genre of choice, but my coworker told me that this book had a terrific ending and that it was worth a read anyway.  So here I am.

As the blurb says, this is about a down-on-his-luck detective trying to solve a case about a world-famous supermodel whose death was ruled a suicide.  As with many series' initial books, there are a lot of moving parts to this story:  there's the relationship with Strike and his family and his past, his growing friendship with his new secretary Robin, his finances, his injury - and of course there's the whole part of the book about a potentially murderer supermodel, who had a fine slew of her own problems. 

At 455 pages (US Hardcover) this is not a "light reading" sort of book.  With all the moving pieces and web of characters zipping in and out of the narrative, you have to pay close attention.  Strike interviews character after character, his clever secretary using her wiles to track them down one by one, and there is always the impression that something increasingly important is being revealed with every scene.  Something is being revealed with every interview or conversation, no matter how unreliable or biased the character seems to be, and of course the author/Strike doesn't reveal which details are the important ones, since that's pretty much what makes a mystery interesting.  

As the book goes along, the stakes rise (as they should with any fiction story), and the characters introduced and details revealed become more and more engaging.  But, still, right up until the Big Reveal, I was pretty much at a loss for what was about to happen.

Did the ending surprise me?  Yes, yes it did.  Did I have a clue who the real murderer was?  No, no I did not.  In that respect, I suppose this book was fairly well done.

And that's the problem I have with the mystery genre.  The book is only considered "good" if the reader has no idea what's really going on as they get into the final passages of the book.  If done correctly, everything makes complete sense in retrospect.  And that, in return makes me feel like a drooling moron as I'm reading a mystery.  (This is because, as my husband tells me, I am doing it wrong.  Apparently that's not "how you read a mystery."  I was unaware, until last night, that one is capable of reading an entire genre wrong.)

Apparently you're supposed to enjoy the setup and the suspense and maybe take a few stabs at figuring it out - but I don't have the patience for that.  When I pick a HF, I enjoy reading the historical context and seeing the characters move through real historical events.  If the characters are well-written, I know exactly why they are doing what they are doing and the importance of their actions (or unimportance, depending on the period and character).  When I'm reading a fantasy and the protagonist is trying to accomplish their goal, I completely understand what they're looking for and why.

Mystery takes all of that and says "Nuh-uh, honey.  You wanna know?  Well, tough beans.  Read the last twenty pages if you want cheat like a dirty cheater, but you're only cheating yourself.  Now sit down and shut up."

So yeah.
Cuckoo's Calling.  How about I get back to that?
A lot of people picked it up because Rowling wrote it.  I wasn't going to touch it (see "Issues with the genre," above) but I read it anyway.  There are a few writing tics that become increasingly irritating once you notice them.  It's like someone popping their gum or chewing really loudly:  if you don't even notice it, it's not a problem.  But once you DO notice it, then it's all you can hear and it makes you want to punch the person.  No?  Just me?

First, for almost every character, we get a heavy-handed description of what they look like the second they enter a scene.  This isn't the worst thing ever, but cumbersome homemade metaphor spring up in the work like weeds and draw the attention from the story and into the heavy use of language.  Next, "show don't tell" is a rule that I'm not a stickler for, but once you notice that many situations are accompanied by an explanation why that person is here and what they are doing and how that matters, instead of just letting the reader figure it out - it becomes more "literary loud chewing" and that's all I could notice. 

If you like mysteries in general, I suppose this one is just as good as any of them.  The ending took me completely off-guard, and in retrospect, all of the little clues made complete sense.  But that doesn't change the fact that for most of the book, I felt like an idiot.

3.5/5 Stars - Well executed, clever reveals, decent characterization.  Did not change my disinterest in the mystery genre.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review: The Serpent and the Pearl

Title: The Serpent and the Pearl
Author:  Kate Quinn
Published:  August 6, 2013

Rome, 1492. The Holy City is drenched with blood and teeming with secrets. A pope lies dying and the throne of God is left vacant, a prize awarded only to the most virtuous--or the most ruthless. The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web...
Vivacious Giulia Farnese has floor-length golden hair and the world at her feet: beauty, wealth, and a handsome young husband. But she is stunned to discover that her glittering marriage is a sham, and she is to be given as a concubine to the ruthless, charismatic Cardinal Borgia: Spaniard, sensualist, candidate for Pope--and passionately in love with her.
Two trusted companions will follow her into the Pope's shadowy harem: Leonello, a cynical bodyguard bent on bloody revenge against a mysterious killer, and Carmelina, a fiery cook with a past full of secrets. But as corruption thickens in the Vatican and the enemies begin to circle, Giulia and her friends will need all their wits to survive in the world of the Borgias.

 For reasons I can't entirely explain, I am a bit of a Kate Quinn fangirl.  There's something about her particular writing style that has rekindled my flagging interesting in reading not once or twice, but FOUR times.  The women is batting a thousand, people.  That's worth a gold star right there.  This might cloud my judgement on her books. 

This is Quinn's first stab at a time period outside the Roman Empire.  That didn't stop her from choosing interesting protagonists, just like she always does.  Giulia Farnese is an idealistic young woman who finds her beliefs and character challenged when she finds out that her marriage was arranged for the benefit of another man.  Carmelina is on the run from Venice, hiding a bundle of recipes, a stolen relic and pile of secrets.  Using her skills as a cook and more than a little bravado, she works her way into the households of the powerful in Rome.  Last, Leonello is a sharp-tongued dwarf who would rather stab you than juggle for your amusement and is out to avenge his murdered friend.  

There's something about her character choices that make the story interesting right away.  Choosing two female protagonists in a time when they didn't possess any real power, and a dwarf when they were considered amusement for the wealthy, means that the narrative shows these three very different people trying to work alongside one another while finding their place in an uncertain world.   

As the story progresses, each of the characters find their own strengths, learning to see (and use) the world as it is, rather than how it might be.  Pragmatism rules the day as Giulia trades her respectability for a reputation that opens some doors while slamming others - and she finds how that can be a freedom and power on its own.  Carmelina begins to take ownership of her fate while Leonello starts to smooth his edges and starts making inroads into the murderer's identity.  

And something really dramatic happens - and the book is over.  And I'm left saying "No no no!  There has to be more!"  And there is.  It's the second book of the series, due to be released in January of 2014.

So, I'm going to deduct part of a star for that dirty, dirty trick, and still say I really love Kate Quinn.  I will absolutely be purchasing The Lion and the Rose when it hits shelves.  

4.5 out of 5 stars!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book Review: Mist

Book:  Mist by Susan Krinard
Series:  Mist (Book 1)

Centuries ago, all was lost in the Last Battle when the Norse gods and goddesses went to war. The elves, the giants, and the gods and goddesses themselves were all destroyed, leaving the Valkyrie Mist one of the only survivors.

Or so she thought.

When a snowy winter descends upon modern-day San Francisco in June, Mist’s quiet existence starts to feel all too familiar. In quick succession, Mist is attacked by a frost giant in a public park and runs into an elf disguised as a homeless person on the streets…and then the man Mist believed was her mortal boyfriend reveals himself to be the trickster god, Loki, alive and well after all these years.

Loki has big plans for the modern world, and he’s been hanging around Mist for access to a staff that once belonged to the great god Odin. Mist is certain of one thing: Loki must be stopped if there is to be any hope for Earth. But the fight is even bigger than she knows….

Because Loki wasn’t the only god to survive.

You know, I think vampires have had their day in urban fantasy and paranormal romance.  I totally got on the Greek mythology bandwagon (and positively squee'd when Sherrilyn Kenyon combined both vampires and Greek mythology in one series).  But I think it's time for me to respectfully bow out.  It's not you, vampire fiction; it's me.

And then I saw Mist sitting in my favorite bookstore, with a kick-ass heroine holding a sword with one hand while grabbing friggin' lightning with the other.  When the blurb was all "You know what I got?  Norse Valkyries in San Francisco - that's what!" it was a few quick skips to the checkout counter. 

This was me for the first half of this book.
I'll admit, I got a little twitchy with excitement while reading the first chunk of the book.  Valkyries.  Lost artifacts.  Missing gods.  Ragnarok!  Frost giants in Golden Gate Park!  Aah - so much excitement!

And then I don't know exactly what happened.

Or rather, I know exactly what didn't happen.
There was no massive cosmic war.
There were no more Valkyries.
The Frost giants didn't do anything more than show up to be the Generic Bad Guys.
Loki makes an appearance and he's kind of a dick, but that doesn't really make him "ultimate villain who will end the world" material.
Some "special" mortal characters are introduced, but their talents don't make a ton of sense in driving the plot. 

Then I got to the finale, and without trying to spoil anything, I can't say that I was blown away or felt like it was a good payoff.  Sure there was a "reveal" about Mist and her abilities, but it's not like that couldn't have been thrown into the "booyah" first half, progressing the plot along a little farther than Not At All.  The whole book, the whole set up about the missing Treasures of the Gods, all of this book is there to setup our heroine to make her the most badass thing since a shark with a laser beam attached to its head.  Once that's done, though, there's nothing left to really drive the plot. 

It's like this volume is so twisted up in setting up a series that it forgets to tell a complete story by the time the reader gets to the final page.  There's plenty of plot promise, but not a whole lot of plot delivery.  There are fight scenes, one which quickly blends into the next, and a few new characters introduced - not that they are vastly different from one another.  So yet another book falls to the Setting Up a Series Syndrome, and I am vaguely disappointed.

I can't anti-recommend this book, because I did enjoy the concept and for all that it felt like a series premiere of a new SyFy show, my time was not wasted.  I would tentatively recommend for die-hard Norse fans, and probably for Krinard fans (this is the first book of hers I've read).  I'll be a bit more cautious about reading the next book, whenever it comes out. 

3/5 stars.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Paean to Bookstores

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name...

For some people, their happy place is a jog in the park, an hour at the local bar, or a church or social club.  Wherever you go to meet with like-minded people, be identified as "you" instead of "random stranger" by a non-relative and generally feel good about your life.

For me, it's a bookstore.  When I walk into a particular bookstore here in Madison, they greet me by my first name, remember my reading preferences and have been known to ask for my recommendations.  They are more understanding of my reading habit than just about any people I know, and I choose to believe that it's not because my obsession with reading is keeping them in business.

A bookstore - a good one, anyway - is a place where the imagination becomes tangible.  It's where thousands of hours of work and struggle get put out for the general public to consume and critique.  It's a place where you can meet your new idol (albeit through the pages of a book) and catch up with old friends ("Hello, Ms Author.  How did I not know that you had a new book coming out this week?").  The Norse gods sit a few paces away from Henry VIII, who is staring at Martin Luther King Jr, who in turn is just a shelf away from Ebenezer Scrooge.  Taciturn Mr Darcy waits to meet a new generation of readers who will develop a crush on him - and then Captain Wentworth will make the other readers start believing in enduring love and second chances.

As I write this, I sit in a coffee shop of a big box bookstore.  A young mother walks into the caffeine zone, trailed by her two sons, perhaps 6 and 8 years old.  Each boy is literally groaning under the weight of a shopping basket which they themselves have filled to near-overflowing with reading material.  When Mom goes to get her well-earned coffee, the younger son scampers after her, calling to his brother, "Alex*, come on!  Let's pick our treat!  Come on!"  But Alex has already pulled a massive book out of his basket and is nose-deep in it.  He looks up at his sibling as if he had already forgotten there were other people in the world.  It's clear he's already found his treat.
After placing their order, both boys devour both their confections and their books, quietly turning pages and occasionally showing each other something interesting.  Mom sits across the table from them, sipping her coffee and perusing a magazine.  I would like to nominate this woman for Mother of the Year, solely on the basis that she has cultured a obvious love of reading in her children.

It's an added bonus that this cafe is adjacent to the my favorite section of the story.  Where I sit you can see the new science fiction and fantasy titles in all their gem-colored variety.  Steampunk heroines with improbably large guns and fashionable-yet-impractical corsets.  Imperial Roman soldiers sitting on a shelf next to post-apocalyptic Robin Hood.  Pyr's epic and gorgeous covers.  All vying for my attention.  All begging me to take them home because they just might be the next amazing book I just can't put down.  Even as I know that most books just aren't, I can't help but think "Maybe this time..." 

Where else can you find a thousand lives to live - or discard - inside four walls?  Today, Tudor England.  Tomorrow, training dragons with faux Vikings.  Next week - 1960s Mississippi.  Infinite choices, and all of them worthwhile.  Any two people can pick up the same book and live the same story and yet have vastly different experiences.  Ask a stranger which Harry Potter book is the best and you instantly have a topic of conversation.  Millions of people all around the world, all complete strangers, and they all have something in common.  It's hard to think of another concept so central to the human experience as storytelling.

As Alice Hoffman said, "Books may well be the only true magic."
*not his real name.

Friday, August 9, 2013


Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a world that won’t stop talking by Susan Cain

Quiet is an informational book that attempts to explain introverts. Cain provides a lot of evidence to show how introverts contribute much to our society as a whole. She claims American society has shifted to promoting and encouraging extroverts and not enough is being done to support introverts.  This book has a lot of anecdotes to illustrate these ideas and research studies about it.

I really connected with this book, being an introvert myself. I appreciate that the author tries to define something that can be hard to define. When I mention to people that I’m reading this book they respond wither with, “You’re not an introvert” or “I’m and introvert too”. One thing this book taught me is that it is sometimes hard to judge who is introverted or not. It is more than just wanting to be alone (which I find that a lot of my friends with kids want more of, no matter whether they are introverted or extroverted). We all need time to ourselves and we all need time with people and the author does make a point to mention that none of us are completely on one side or the other. She also mentions that shyness is not always an indicator either.

A couple points I wish she explored further were self-esteem issues and other aspects of personality. She does make many references to the fact that being an introvert or not is complicated. I also wish there was more discussion on whether a person can change. She did have a chapter on nurture versus nature but not much on whether people can change from being one to the other.

I got very frustrated in the second half of the book. It turned into more of a self-help book. She even gives her insights into how teachers can help introverted kids (eye roll inserted here). As some who teaches and took plenty of educational psychology classes among a lot of others I found her tips redundant. Any teacher already knows about her “tips”.  Her tips on helping children who are introverted just sounded preachy to me. Maybe people who are not teachers and don’t know a lot about children would find it helpful but I found the classes I took almost 15 years ago sufficient.

All in all it was an interesting book. I have never highlighted a non-textbook so much in my life. It was interesting to read a book that seemed to be talking about me. Anyone who thinks they are introverted would find this interesting. If you’re an extrovert you should probably just talk to someone about it.

3 out of 5 stars