Monday, November 21, 2011

A Cozy Setting For a Nice Murder

Second English historical mystery series in a row! This one not a romance in any sense though (I hold out hope for the future, but it'd have to be a long time in the future :)) I have just completed Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce #4, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (quote from The Lady of Shallot, as is helpful cited in the front of the book).  #1-3 are of course (not of course, of course, because if I had started them over a year and half ago, it wouldn't be the case) reviewed elsewhere on le blog, but I am going to go courageous route (for the second time in a row) of not reading my previous reviews before writing this one.  Actually, of course, that makes my task a lot easier, since I never repeat myself if I can help it (and clearly I can't if I don't remember what I wrote :)) Though I have to admit, for someone who likes to original, my reviews can get pretty uniform... but I digress.

The Flavias are fun because Flavia herself is quite the character, and because so many of the other denizens of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacey are worthy of gracing the pages of a Dickens novel (oddly specific, but that's what they are - quintessentially English, somewhat one-dimensional (or is it 2d? In any case, flat) but oh so detailedly perfect in their roles.  The setting is PG Wodehouse meets Agatha Christie meets... well really, meets Homer Priceian small town insularity.  (And that's leaving out echoes of I don't know what in Flavia herself, who combines an agile mind and talent for sleuthing with the confused pre-teen perspective on life).  And the mysteries are always well-crafted, if a little too... well, a little too mystery-ish for my taste.

#4 is a Christmas tale, I think actually a Christmas special, so it's a little shorter than usual, though still well crafted.  The scope of the tale is smaller, with all the action taking place at Buckshaw (in a snowstorm) and within a few days (right before Christmas).  On the other hand, the case of characters is entirely (well not entirely) new, as a film crew has taken up residence at Buckshaw.  The variety is, I think, welcome, if only because too many murders in one small town might become ridiculous (though the film crew isn't all that different from Rupert Porson's traveling puppet show in #2).  The shortness of the book means we get less of Flavia doing things besides solving the murder, or at least getting distracted while on the trail (less of Inspector Hewitt too, I think).  And the mystery is solved a little too easily - I'd say before Flavia should have had a chance to put it all together (she figures it out by talking to enough people, but i think things fall into place a little too easily).  But that's okay, it's a good enough mystery for me.

What's more important? Well I didn't love the ending - I think I remember thinking that the first book had too melodramatic a finish and Flavia's close brush with death continues here, I think just as implausibly.  Though Flavia investigates real, live murders, she never seems to get involved enough for it to seem possible their sordid surroundings to touch her - and yet they do.  It's almost an unevenness of tone... one that is evident in a few more places in the book.  First of all, it never does become very clear who are the good guys and bad guys amongst the book's newcomers.  I don't mean the killers, obviously they're bad guys (well ok, I guess sometimes the killers aren't bad guys, but they are this time).  But everyone else... the victim, her maid, the set guy (don't know his title) the second-in-command set guy... they all seem mildly unpleasant, but we never really get their personalities resolved one way or the other.  And, more severely, Flavia herself continues to exhibit a strange mix of vulnerability and cunning, cut to the core by her sisters' cruelty, yet utterly unmoved by some pretty scary stuff.  That is, of course, Alan Bradley's intended portrait of Flavia - but it's a picture that doesn't always blend easily.  These are all minor details though, overall I find myself quite carried along by the olde-English way of life and its various livers (wow that sounds funny - but it's the right word, it is :))

So what do I really want more out of this book? Well I want a full-length novel, because I believe AB can do better with 100 more pages or so.  And I want someone to explain to me what in the universe is with the dL family anyway?! It just gets a little too weird sometimes, Harriet's presence and Father's distance, Daphne and Ophelia's harsh treatment and their very occasional lapses into human decency... oh, and why is Flavia never in school? I think it's high time we get some answers, but I don't know if we will any time soon (I should probably look that up, I bet he's answered that in an interview somewhere).  And of course, let's get Flavia some romance! A few years in the future of course, she's immature even for an 11-year-old.  Personally I'm rooting for Dieter to throw over Olivia and get together with our heroine, in the fullness of time... you never know :) And meanwhile, I'll keep reading for kicks.

Verdict: 3.5/5

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Less Compelling, More Amusing

More familiar writing... I just reviewed the new Deanna Raybourn, so of course the new Tasha Alexander couldn't be far behind.  I actually deliberately did not reread my previous reviews (I think there are two on here)  before writing this, so I have the benefit of reviewing this one entirely on its own merits :) As you know (or would know if you read this blog regularly and remembered it, finger-wiggle :)), I am not an unabashed fan of Tasha Alexander's style.  While I prefer her lighter touch and the more familiar Victorian England it generates, her writing has always left something to be desired.  This book is no different, with high-flown statements that don't come off as grand as they are meant to sound, tender moments that seem more awkward to me, and passages that just don't flow sometimes.   I realized while reading this that TA is a prime example of an author who violates the "show, don't tell" principle (which I may have, kind of, sort of, invented :)).  I don't care if Emily is overwrought, highly disturbed, angry, confused, horrified, grief-stricken.... I want to feel that myself.  And so many times, I'm instead caught by surprise by Emily's reactions, since, while they may be perfectly legitimate to someone experiencing them, we the readers don't  come close to that status, and instead are relegated to the post of distant observers.

But enough of that - yes, these books could be better-written.  But I have to say, I had no trouble at all getting through this one.  Yes, it's not that long, and the slightly bald style means little concentration is required.  But it wasn't that - I thought the plot - public exposure of private scandal + clues to a murder hidden in the British museum - was rather innovative, and definitely absorbing.  It wasn't just a whodunnit (though it was a straight detective story, don't get me wrong, not much history/thriller/fantasy thrown in there).  And even though the stakes were high, I never got too nervous... ok, maybe that's because of the writing :) But our main characters had more fun than worry sorting through the whole mess (or if they didn't, we did at least).  Admittedly, when the mess was sorted I found myself a little disappointed - the villain was I thought, a fairly obvious choice from the beginning, and most of the loose ends were tied up any which way, with little coherence to the main resolution.  But you know, at least there was ending, tidy, peaceful and everything necessary.

Oh and side note that's not really a side note, Lady Emily's eccentricities were considerably less emphasized in this book than some others.  Yes, she still trumpets herself on her drinking of port and smoking of cigars (with the addition of whiskey) and she' active in the suffragette movement.  But luckily, she's more occupied with detective work than anything else.  And, surprisingly, in detective work she's happy to take a backseat to Colin, not insisting on being in on all the action all the time - this is a refreshing contrast from Lady Julia's shenanigans (or at least antics).  We will never be entirely free from Ms. Alexander's less than subtle critiques of Victorian society, its social hypocrisy (actual the theme of this book), its restrictions on women, its downtrodden working class, but I guess we've heard it all so much before it just goes in one ear and out the other.  And guess what, TA? If you didn't like the time period as much as I do, you wouldn't be writing about it, so I know you must not care all that much :)  So let's all just sit back and enjoy a light and elegant tale of detection together.

Verdict: 3/5

Had to PS this one - I read my review from last year and guess what "tell, don't say"! points for consistency :)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Not the Universe We Know and Love

In my last post reviewing a Terry Pratchett novel, I said that, although I really like his books, there's not much to choose between them.  He's a master of comic sci-fi, satirizing our world with just the right amount of absurdity thrown in, poker-facedly masterminding creation of the utterly crazy and yet utterly realized Discworld.  That was up until his latest, Snuff.  I think every Pratchett reader (in fact, I think I'll go check now - well I couldn't find it offhand, but I'd be shocked if it isn't there - nope, checked GoodReads, always plenty of people who share my feelings :)) must be saying, what happened?! The truth is, I think I know what happened, and it's kind of (actually really) sad - Terry Pratchett has early-onset Alzheimers.  Now I knew this going into this book, was even kind of expecting it, so maybe that's the reason I felt this way? Maybe it's been too long since I read a TP and my expectations got too high, or my tastes changed? There were probably elements of that, but this was not all in my head.  Snuff was just not up to par, not in the writing, not in the humor, not in the plot, and not even in the characters.

Let's start with the plot.  Now that's the one I care about least, of course, but I was waiting from about 1/3 of the way in for this book to be over.  There was overdramatic foreshadowing all over the place, but the actual movement... well it just felt like something out of an amateur thriller's playbook.  There's always some action in the Discworld, but it's never enough to distract me from the humor and the fun bits.  But I guess in this case, there just weren't many of either not to be distracted from.  The predominance of scatological and that other inappropriate kind of humor was disappointing enough.  The lack of subtly in the writing and the clumsiness of the occasional bits of Pratchett wisdom seem to suggest that Pratchett is trying, but can't hit his stride - or even manage a steady jog.  I hope it's not his brain, it could be just a temporary slump, but this is not the Pratchett I know and love.

But it's not just the the pale imitation of TP's usual style - I don't think I have read a Discworld novel yet that is so completely unfun.  It's almost as if Pratchett wants to write, besides a more thriller-esque tale than usual, a philosophical tome of sorts.  The central theme - sentient, non-human species are people too - is one that Discworld readers are eminently familiar with.  I hadn't remembered that the last book featured a creature known as the orc, but was reminded of it by someone's GoodReads review. Then there's the dwarves, the vampires, the trolls, the golems even... yes, we are all worthy of respect and common decency.  So why do we need another book pounding - and I mean pounding - it into our heads? Add to that Sam Vimes always present anxieties about class and how unfair it all is... and don't forget his crisis of conscience about his darker side and whether he lets it take over... and what you get is one heavy hunk of reading material.  Sam himself alternates between internal monologues stressing about the above issues and being supposedly supercool and tough-as-nails - but even that, the classic Vimesian grace under fire and inimitable ability to carry the day, seems mostly forced.

So overall, it's what have you done with the real Discworld? When we can we have our absurd and crude, yet sprightly alive universe of awesome dudes (Vimes and Vetinari, go Vs! :) and over-the-top something-other-than-dudes (can you say Nobby Nobbs? :)) Let's hope it's with the next book, though I don't hold out much hope of that.  I guess I can just go back and read the ones I skipped, or just reread them all.

Verdict: 2/5

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Skin-deep Life Lessons, Chic Lit at Heart

Way back before this blog started, we (you know, my we) all read Marisa de los Santos's debut novel, Love Walked In.  The G. girls and Chava *loved* it because the writing (flowery) is just their style.  Everyone else (including me) liked it because it's a solid romance.  The sequel was published around Thanksgiving when Batya was engaged (which I remember because I read it at her pre-Shabbos kallah in cl).  That one was not a romance, and in fact, did a good job of destroying the romance of the first book (okay not destroying, but certainly tarnishing).  So I was not that excited about her new book, Falling Together, since clearly, romance is not MdlS's first priority (she's got like a Ph.d in poetry or something so I would say her flowery writing is actually priority #1 :)).  And Huvi and S.b. read it over Succos and were both quite unexcited about it, Huvi saying it was everything we don't like about MdlS - overdramatic, too flowerly etc.  So you can guess that I did not have hugely high expectations for this book.

It seemed like Huvi might be right as I plunged right in to the "epic" tale of three friends-closer-than-siblings, at their center a girl supposedly wholly adorable whom I failed to find so.  To be fair though, MdlS acknowledges that she sounds annoying, having Pen assure her friend that, really, she is adorable. But on the plus side, the other two friends, (that's Will and Pen) are quite likeable.  And guess what? we get the book from their POV, not from Cat's at all.  I'm not saying that all is well with the world just because the characters are likeable - there's plenty about the book to be approached with skepticism.  The family drama, the overblown significance of little incidents, the similes I find more distracting than illuminating...

But bottom line, surprise, surprise, I think this book is even more of a romance than the first one.  First of all, we get plenty from Will's POV - a major plus, as we get nothing at all from Teo's standpoint, as far as I can remember (at least as hints of his love for Cornelia, whereas Will's for Pen, while never outright stated, is clear and obvious from the start).  And with all else that's going on, the book gives fair prominence to the playing out of the romance - so maybe I was wrong about Marisa de los Santos, she is a romantic at heart :) (one might say a chic lit writer, but I wouldn't be so cruel :)) So basically what we have is two likeable narrators and a good romance.  And not only that, I just realized this now, but a supreme lack of tension! All the uncertainty (other than romantic-wise) comes from not knowing Cat's whereabouts - but who cares about Cat anyway? Will and Pen are in good places in life, and not really in danger of losing them.  So as long as I didn't get distracted by those other things (see paragraph above :) I really enjoyed this book).

That was until almost the end.  The romance got somewhat resolved with a little plot still to go, and I didn't adore the way it finished up.  But that can be forgiven, indeed this is something I often forgive authors for, it being so difficult to do a good finish :) And after that was wrapped up, we wrapped Cat's story up - and to my surprise, I found that MdlS pretty much agreed with me the whole time - Cat isn't a "fairy tale princess" - or if she is one, she sure isn't perfect.   It's Pen and Will who come off good in this one -  Cat's going off on her own, and I say good riddance to her.  That was the end of Cat's story, but since the book is more about Pen, there were a few revelations to go.  I can't say they were earth-shattering, but neither were they wholly misguided.  Pen realizes the importance of love - can't say it isn't.  And Will realizes how important it is to fight for it, which is why he fights for Pen (don't worry, it was just a minor incident that necessitated that fight).  So it was all's well that ends well, though it could have ended sooner and just as well in my book.  Likeable characters, decent romance, and fairly non-intrusive life lessons.  I have to say, more the best of MdlS than the worst.

Verdict: 3.5/5