The Sharing Knife: Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold: B-

From the front flap:
In a world where malices—remnants of ancient magic—can erupt with life-destroying power, only soldier-sorcerer Lakewalkers have mastered the ability to kill them. But Lakewalkers keep their uncanny secrets and themselves from the farmers they protect, so when patroller Dag Redwing Hickory rescued farmer girl Fawn Bluefield, neither expected to fall in love, join their lives in marriage, or defy both their kin to seek new solutions to the perilous split between their peoples.

Fawn and Dag see that their world is changing, and the traditional Lakewalker practices cannot hold every malice at bay forever. Yet for all the customs that the couple has challenged thus far, they will soon be confronted by a crisis exceeding their worst imaginings, one that threatens their Lakewalker and farmer followers alike. Now the pair must answer in earnest the question they’ve grappled with since they killed their first malice together: when the old traditions fail disastrously, can their untried new ways stand against their world’s deadliest foe?

If I didn’t like Dag and Fawn, The Sharing Knife: Horizon would be one of the most boring books I’ve ever read.

Having reached the end of their river voyage, Dag and Fawn pause long enough to witness the marriage of Whit and Berry before parting ways with Fawn’s brother and his new bride and heading to New Moon Cutoff, a Lakewalker camp where a renowned medicine maker, Arkady Waterbirch, lives. There, Dag finds an explanation for some of his abilities that is far more positive than the dark alternatives he’d been fearing and apprentices with the fastidious Arkady for several months.

Arkady is opposed to Dag practicing medicine on “farmers,” but when a child stricken with lockjaw needs his help, Dag goes willingly, knowing that he might be sacrificing the incredibly valuable apprenticeship as a result. The boy survives, but Dag’s actions throw New Moon camp into a tizzy so he decides to head back up north with newly pregnant Fawn rather than succumb to the restrictions the camp leader wants to oppose on him. A little way down the road, he’s joined by Arkady, staging his own protest against the leader’s decision.

Along the way they acquire various traveling companions—farmers and Lakewalkers both—until their party numbers more than two dozen. Dag fashions a trio of necklaces designed to help veil farmers’ grounds and protect them against malices. These are put to the test right at the end of the book when the party stumbles upon a particularly awful malice and Fawn (with help from Whit and Berry) proves again how resourceful and useful farmers can be if allowed to help. The implication is that the tale of this deed will spread far and wide and help foster a sense of cooperation between the two peoples.

Most of the book focuses on what Dag is learning and, true, it can be kind of interesting sometimes. Bujold has created an admirably consistent world for her characters to inhabit, so all of the detail about the healing techniques Dag is learning pretty much makes sense. It’s just that the narrative moves so slowly. I never do particularly well with a story whose whole plot is, “And then they walked a lot,” and that’s essentially what this book becomes in its second half.

Also, there’s too many characters at the end. Some of the new ones are interesting—I’m fond of Dag’s patroller niece, Sumac, and I can see why the half-Lakewalker siblings Calla and Indigo are important as a preview of what Dag and Fawn’s own children might be like—but many are nondescript. It’s easy to forget some of them are even there; I certainly did so more than once.

Ultimately, I did enjoy The Sharing Knife series and, though it’s easy to fault it for being too long and rambly, I don’t have any particular recommendations for how it could be made shorter.

Additional reviews of The Sharing Knife: Horizon can be found at Triple Take.

The Laughing Cavalier by Baroness Orczy: B

From the back cover:
The year is 1623, the place Haarlem in the Netherlands. Diogenes—the first Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ancestor—and his friends Pythagoras and Socrates defend justice and the royalist cause. The famous artist Frans Hals also makes an appearance in this historical adventure. Orczy maintains that Hals’ celebrated portrait of The Laughing Cavalier is actually a portrayal of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ancestor.

What a perfectly abysmal blurb that is. Egads.

The Laughing Cavalier, one of two prequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel, tells the story of a penniless foreign adventurer who passed down his exceptional qualities—such as “careless insouciance”—to his descendant, Sir Percy Blakeney, the hero of the more famous work. This fellow, a half-English rogue enjoying the life of a vagabond in The Netherlands, goes by the name of Diogenes and has for companions/minions two fellows calling themselves Pythagorus and Socrates. When Gilda Beresteyn, sister of one man and former love of another who together conspire to kill the current ruler, overhears of these plans, Diogenes and his men are hired to spirit her away so that the assassination atttempt may proceed without her interference.

What follows is essentially a lot of what one would expect. Diogenes’ swaggering merriment (and, indeed, I ought to have counted the number of times his countenance, eyes, or laugh are described as “merry,” because the total would easily be in the triple digits) and saucy attitude make him the perfect adventure hero, capable of deftly handling many abrupt reversals in his fortunes. Gilda is the feisty and sensible noblewoman who is indignant at her plight at first but eventually comes to see that her captor is far more honorable than he originally seemed. The would-be traitor, Stoutenburg, is reduced to impotent fury by Diogenes’ constant smirking and eventually has his plans ruined and loses Gilda, whom he had planned to eventually woo back to his side.

As a story, the plot is not very deep or complicated. It takes fully one quarter of the book to simply arrange the details of the caper, making one antsy for Gilda to just get abducted already! Once she is, most of the rest of the book is comprised of simply moving her from place to place. The conclusion is fairly predictable, too. That the two leads end up together is neither a surprise nor a spoiler—this is a story leading to eventual parentage, after all—but it’s still fun to read their banter, even though Gilda’s sudden realization of her feelings comes rather out of the blue. I could very easily picture their relationship unfolding on screen—perhaps because it’s not exactly a new idea. (The Princess Bride comes to mind.)

I also really enjoyed the setting. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book taking place in The Netherlands before, so all the snowy landscapes, misty windmills, and icy rivers fit for nocturnal journeys on ice skates offered something new and different, even if the story itself did not. Also, there were tons of nifty Dutch honorifics and swear words! If you ever want to insult a Dutchman, apparently all you need do is call him a “plepshurk.”

In the end, I enjoyed The Laughing Cavalier and will read the follow-up volume, The First Sir Percy, at some point in the near future.

This review has been crossposted to the Triple Take blog, where K and I did a “double take.” You can find her review here.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 1 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill: B-

From the front flap:
London, 1898. The Victorian Era draws to a close and the twentieth century approaches. It is a time of great change and an age of stagnation, a period of chaste order and ignoble chaos. It is an era in need of champions.

Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, Dr. Henry Jekyll, Mr. Edward Hyde, and Mina Murray are those champions and together they comprise the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Recruited by the enigmatic Campion Bond, under orders from the mysterious “M,” these six adventurers are pressed into service by their empire in its time of need. Now they must face the nefarious Doctor and his vile plan for world domination. But things are not entirely as they seem; other factors, cryptic and corpuscular, are also at play. A remarkable drama ensues.

“The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.”

It’s 1898 and Mina Murray (Dracula), back from her Transylvanian adventure and now divorced from Jonathan Harker, works for a mysterious person named Mr. M, whom she assumes is Mycroft Holmes, brother of the great (and currently presumed dead) detective. Mr. M claims to have the welfare of the British Empire at heart when he assigns Mina to recruit various unsavory fellows.

She has already teamed up with Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and together they venture to Egypt, where they pick up opium-addled Allen Quatermain (from the African adventures penned by H. Rider Haggard); to Paris, where they restrain the murderous Edward Hyde and his mild-mannered creator, Dr. Henry Jekyll; and to a girl’s school in London where Hawley Griffin, the invisible man, has been having his way with the students. Each recruit ultimately joins the cause, though their motivations for doing so vary widely, and when the team is assembled they receive their first assignment: retrieve some stolen Cavorite, a mineral that enables flight, which is now in the hands of a Chinese crime boss.

Their journey takes them into extremely squalid areas of London and into contact with some very unsavory people, but the real story begins when they turn over the recovered Cavorite to their go-between with Mr. M and Griffin decides to see what he can learn about their mysterious leader’s identity. Up until this point, I hadn’t really enjoyed it very much, but the last three chapters are actually pretty cool, with a lot of action and the characters functioning together more as a team, though of course one can never forget that some of them (notably Griffin) are not remotely trustworthy. The conclusion is an exciting one, and I liked it well enough that I intend to continue on with the second volume.

That said, there are some things that bug me about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The stylized art is rather weird, for one. I’ve not read a lot of Western comics, true, but I’m used to there being some short of shading in a character’s eyes. Here, you just get one shade, which takes some getting used to. Also, I assume that the exceptionally teeny waists on the corseted Victorian ladies are intended to be a sort of commentary on their restrictive situation, but they look strange nonetheless.

This exactly parallels the treatment of the sole female on the team, Mina Murray. Moore often portrays Mina as competent and clever, and unfairly condescended to by men of her acquaintance. Indeed, he seems critical of society’s views towards women in that era, which is well and good. At the same time, though, he puts Mina into unnecessarily gratuitous situations (nearly raped twice), has her denegrate her own “ridiculous female naiveté,” and, in a frightening moment, has her seek solace in the arms of a man. Now, one could argue that Moore is showing that Mina herself is not immune from society’s influence and is only saying and doing things that are expected of her, but that doesn’t explain the attempted rapes.

Ultimately, it took a little while for me to warm up to this series, but I liked the place it was in by the end of the volume and look forward to checking out the next one. As soon as I pay my steadily mounting library fines, that is. Sheesh.

More reviews of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can be found at Triple Take.

Memories of the Future 1 by Wil Wheaton: B

memfuture1From the back cover:
The away team returns from the planet with some very good news: it’s clean, it’s beautiful, it’s populated with friendly humanoids… and they really like to do the nasty.

“At the drop of a hat,” according to Geordi.

“Any hat,” Tasha says knowingly.

Picard sends a second, larger team down to the planet to see exactly how many hats they’re going to need.

From “Encounter at Farpoint” to “Datalore,” relive the first half of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s unintentionally hilarious first season through the eyes, ears, and memories of cast member and fan, Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) as he shares his unique perspective in the episode guide you didn’t even know you were dying to read.

I came a little late to Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don’t come from a family of Trekkies and didn’t know anyone who watched the original show, so I was not glued to my set for TNG‘s 1987 debut (like I’d later be for Deep Space Nine‘s). Instead, I got into it in 1992, when my brother was watching the episodes in syndication every afternoon and hanging TNG action figures (still in the package, of course) on his walls. I began watching with him and was soon hooked, acquiring Larry Nemecek’s The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion so that I could read all about the making of the episodes and keep track of the ones I’d seen. (Side note: I still haven’t seen 1.5 of them, but I kind of like it that way. It makes it seem like it’s not quite over.)

Although I eventually came to prefer DS9, TNG still holds a place in my heart. Like many people, I never did much care for the character of Wesley Crusher, but when I spotted Wil Wheaton’s episode reviews on TV Squad, I did read a few of them. In his introduction to Memories of the Future, Wheaton explains how the site lost a chunk of its funding and, therefore, the ability to pay him, but that he wanted to at least complete reviews for the first season, and so this book was born.

If you’re looking for a tawdry tell-all book, you’re not going to find it here. Wheaton doesn’t talk specifically about his castmates much, but when he does, he has nothing but positive things to say about them. Instead, his vitriol is reserved for the writers; he critiques the way various characters are written (Wesley, primarily, but also Worf and Troi, who are particularly one-dimensional during the first season) and points out many logic flaws and other problems with episode construction. I found his arguments to be compelling—especially how, contrary to many fans’ beliefs, Wheaton himself was in no way responsible for Wesley’s tendencies to save the day and be smug about it—and insightful.

There’s a chapter for each episode including a synopsis, quotable dialogue, obligatory technobabble, behind-the-scenes memory, bottom line, and final grade. The synopses are very snarky, though occasionally he’ll break from that mold to praise a particularly nice piece of acting. Many, many pop culture references abound—Strong Bad, Pulp Fiction, Animal Farm, et cetera—which is okay when I get them but rather annoying when I don’t. I have a feeling I was supposed to find some of the snark funny, but I never did, though I think there was a pretty clever/esoteric shabu shabu joke in there.

Memories of the Future is published by Monolith Press, which was founded by Wheaton “on the idea that publication should not be limited by opportunity.” I’m not sure, therefore, whether anyone else ever read and edited the book before its release. There are a few instances where an incorrect but not misspelled word is used—“marshal arts” or “when Picard apologies or something”—and a lot of inconsistency in the treatment of words that come after colons (don’t capitalize them unless they’re proper nouns!). Also, the header for each episode is accompanied by some grey bars with a lot of random numbers on them. I could never figure out whether they have any significance; perhaps they’re supposed to look like an Enterprise computer display or something? In any case, some tighter editorial controls would’ve provided a bit more polish.

(Update: After realizing that the numbers never go above 26, I tried my hand at cryptanalysis. All I could figure out is that the letters for the Introduction spell “Wesley.” Beyond that, it’s either gibberish or a code too complex for a lazy person like me to bother with.)

Ultimately, while I had some complaints I still wished I had volume two immediately on hand after finishing this one and I wish, too, that Wheaton will continue beyond the first season. While he is occasionally (and rightly) critical of some aspects of the show, his perspective is undeniably interesting and, above all, affectionate.

Additional reviews of the first volume of Memories of the Future can be found at Triple Take.

Heat Wave by Richard Castle: B

heatwaveFrom the front flap:
A New York real estate tycoon plunges to his death on a Manhattan sidewalk. A trophy wife with a past survives a narrow escape from a brazen attack. Mobsters and moguls with no shortage of reasons to kill trot out their alibis. And then, in the suffocating grip of a record heat wave, comes another shocking murder and a sharp turn in a tense journey into the dirty little secrets of the wealthy. Secrets that prove to be fatal. Secrets that lay hidden in the dark until one NYPD detective shines a light.

Mystery sensation Richard Castle, blockbuster author of the wildly bestselling Derrick Storm novels, introduces his newest character, NYPD Homicide Detective Nikki Heat. Tough, sexy, professional, Nikki Heat carries a passion for justice as she leads one of New York City’s top homicide squads. She’s hit with an unexpected challenge when the commissioner assigns superstar magazine journalist Jameson Rook to ride along with her to research an article on New York’s Finest. Pulitzer Prize-winning Rook is as much a handful as he is handsome. His wisecracking and meddling aren’t her only problems. As she works to unravel the secrets of the murdered real estate tycoon, she must also confront the spark between them. The one called heat.

If you’re not familiar with the ABC series Castle, the premise is that famed mystery novelist Richard Castle has wrangled a standing arrangement to follow Detective Kate Beckett around on her cases as research for his new novel. They, and her underlings Kevin Ryan and Javier Esposito, solve a murder each episode. The cases are usually pretty lousy—someone seriously needs to start a drinking game (if they haven’t already) with instructions to sip every time an adulterous spouse is involved—but Castle’s charm and the witty banter amongst the sleuths makes the show quite entertaining. In the context of the series, Heat Wave is the book that Castle writes based on his observations and experiences. (Entertaining note: When Castle gives Kate a copy to read, he informs her that the sex scene is on page 105. It really is!)

In a nutshell, reading Heat Wave is exactly like watching an episode of Castle. Kate Beckett is the inspiration for Nikki Heat, and Ryan and Esposito have been renamed Raley and Ochoa. Castle’s even written himself in, in the form of a wisecracking journalist named Jameson Rook who, like Castle, never follows instructions to stay out of the fray when something potentially dangerous is going on. They’re investigating a case that involves marital infidelity (sip!) and a bunch of stereotyped characters like real estate tycoons, Russian mobster thugs, and discontent trophy wives. As in the show, the case is rather lame, but the humor and interaction between the characters make it an entertaining read anyway.

There are some differences, though. Beyond the mild profanity, sex, and heightened level of violence, there’s the matter of perspective. Castle, as the title would imply, is the main character of the series and the actor who portrays him, Nathan Fillion, steals every scene that he’s in. In Heat Wave, Nikki/Kate is the protagonist and is fleshed out to a far greater extent than the show manages. One thing bothers me: I’m not sure if we should assume that whatever is true about Nikki is necessarily true about Kate. We know that Castle has made up some things for the novel—like the aforementioned (and remarkably not icky!) sex scene, for example—so are his insights into Nikki automatically applicable to her television counterpart? If so, then this book is essential to understanding where Kate is coming from. If not, then it’s going to be confusing to reconcile the two.

I’m not sure how Heat Wave will fare with someone who’s never watched Castle. As a regular viewer, I found it impossible not to superimpose the actors’ voices and physical traits onto the novel’s characters and presuppose the same lighthearted tone featured in the series. There’s enough humor in the book that I think an outsider will get the feel eventually, but I worry that the lackluster mystery might turn them off before they discovered the amusing parts.

Ultimately, Heat Wave is very successful as a media tie-in book, going beyond a faithful adherence to the show’s story and characters to possibly offer valuable new information. As a stand-alone work it is perhaps less worthy of praise, but based purely on its own charms, I can still honestly say that I’d want to read more. Hopefully I’ll get that opportunity!

Additional reviews of Heat Wave can be found at Triple Take.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith: D-

ppandzFrom the back cover:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy.

What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield. Can Elizabeth vanquish the spawn of Satan? And overcome the social prejudices of the class-conscious landed gentry? Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.

The plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is generally well known. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy meet, do not get along, form incomplete and incorrect notions of each other, see the error of their ways, and eventually end up living happily ever after. To this scenario, add some zombies, toilet humor, and a whole lot of innuendo and you have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Except that’s not entirely true, because somehow by adding more, Seth Grahame-Smith has robbed the original of nearly every bit of charm it possesses.

The version I read was the deluxe heirloom edition, which, in evident response to criticism about insufficient zombie presence, includes “new words, lines, paragraphs, and all-new scenes of ultraviolent mayhem throughout.” The black-and-white illustrations of the original edition have also been replaced by color paintings. Judging by what I’ve seen of the former, this is a vast improvement, even though Elizabeth looks to be wearing the same white gown throughout the entire novel. In the preface, Grahame-Smith describes how he came to be involved in the project (he was unfamiliar with the novel until the idea was suggested, and this definitely shows) as well as how he wrote it by obtaining an electronic copy of Austen’s novel and inserting his own text (appropriately colored red), vowing to change at least one thing on every page. Sometimes the changes are indeed just a word here or there, and sometimes entire excursions to a nearby village to fend off some “manky dreadfuls” are shoehorned in between two paragraphs. Not content to merely add text, Grahame-Smith seems to delight in removing it, as well. Among the casualties are many of the cleverest examples of Austen’s snark, especially those that reveal character, like when Austen writes of Mr. Bingley’s sisters that they “indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend’s vulgar relations.”

To fit the story, the characters have changed as well. Some—like Jane and Mr. Collins—manage to emerge essentially unaltered, but the leads are very different. Elizabeth is bloodthirsty, quick to consider violence as a response to dishonor, and at one point yanks out the still-beating heart of a ninja she has just defeated and takes a bite. Ew! Darcy not only has zombie-fighting prowess, he’s now a lecherous git. He’s scandalously rude to Miss Bingley, whose transparent advances he fended off in the original with implacable politeness, and often makes lewd remarks, like, “On the contrary, I find that balls are much more enjoyable when they cease to remain private.” Again I say, “Ew!” I used to adore this couple and now I don’t like either of them! Other crass (and needless) adjustments find both Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner engaged in extramarital affairs, Mrs. Bennet afflicted with recurring bouts of nerve-induced vomiting, and Wickham grievously injured seemingly for no other purpose than to allow for repeated references to his newfound incontinence.

By and large, the zombie encounters are boring and pointless. In this regard, I think Grahame-Smith might actually have been better served by altering the story even further. If the undead menace had progressed to such an extent that our protagonists were forced to undertake a final climactic battle, for example, then their presence might’ve been leading up to something. As it is, the biggest effect the zombies have on the plot is in providing explanations for the sudden departure of Bingley’s party after the Netherfield ball and Charlotte Lucas’ acceptance of a marriage proposal from Mr. Collins. Grahame-Smith invents a number of “dear friends” of the Bennets to serve as zombie fodder, but these passages—like the Christmas visit from an entire zombified family—are so embarrassingly banal I truly hope nobody reading this book without foreknowledge of the original thinks Austen’s work contained anything similar.

To sum up: this is exceedingly awful. Grahame-Smith butchers the characters of Pride and Prejudice more effectively than a horde of zombies ever could. I would almost go so far as to say that I outright hated it, but every so often, an untouched bit of Austen would shine through the muck and make me smile for an instant. Now I’m going to try very hard to forget I ever read this.

Other reviews of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can be found at Triple Take.

More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman: B-

more-informationFrom the front flap:
When John Hodgman first embarked on his project to assemble, tabulate, and completely make up a comprehensive survey of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE, he was but a former professional literary agent and occasional scribbler of fake trivia—in short, A NOBODY. But during an interview on The Daily Show with John Stewart, an incredible transformation occurred—he became A FAMOUS MINOR TELEVISION PERSONALITY. Hodgman realized from this unique vantage point that he understood better than ever that THERE IS SOME WORLD KNOWLEDGE YET TO BE DOCUMENTED. And so he has returned, crashing his Kansas farmhouse down upon the wicked witch of IGNORANCE to bring you MORE INFORMATION THAN YOU REQUIRE.

I’m aware that I have a rather particular sense of humor. And so it’s really not a surprise that I didn’t find More Information Than You Require to be all that funny. I’m more apt to giggle at a silly comment than I am to laugh at a lengthy essay full of clever falsehoods, of which this book is primarily comprised. That isn’t to say that the book is entirely lacking in funny lines—my favorite is “First, get a pig’s spleen. They are often just lying around.”—but that they are few and far between.

Most of the material is at least somewhat amusing, eliciting a snerk here or there, but I don’t think I smiled even once while reading the absolutely ponderous chapter on mole-men near the end; references to Fraggle Rock couldn’t even endear it to me. I didn’t care for the recurring jokes about harm befalling cats, the occasional vulgarity, or the little page-a-day calendar blurbs that disrupted one’s flow of reading and which Hodgman himself seemed to acknowledge as annoying, saying, “You can’t avoid [reading them] forever.”

However! There are also some very nice stories buried in here, those with a more personal feel that seem to be at least marginally grounded in reality. The chapter on being famous, for example, is terrific, and I loved reading Hodgman’s perspective of being recognized. There’s also a really sweet story about vacationing in Portugal as a younger man, waiting for his girlfriend (now wife) to return from a solo journey she’d made, which includes the surprisingly touching line, “And even now, a decade and a half later, when she is out of my sight, I never stop looking for her.”

Alas, I think campaigning for more stories like that would be asking Hodgman to abandon… well, being Hodgman. I still wish the fellow well, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of his books. They’re just not my kind of humor.

Additional reviews of More Information Than You Require can be found at Triple Take.

Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller: B-

9780449210079From the back cover:
Early in the nineteenth century, in a puritanical New England town, two women did something unspeakable, something unheard of—they fell in love with each other. With nothing and no one to guide or support them, Patience and Sarah tried to follow their hearts.

And when family pressures separated them, the two women dreamed of leaving their homes, of being together. Defying society and history, they bought a farm and discovered they could live together, away from a world that had put limits on them and their love.

Patience White has been provided for. Her father’s will made certain that there would always be a place for her in her devout brother’s Connecticut home, but that isn’t enough to make Patience happy. She doesn’t want the things that a woman of her age (late twenties) should want, and though she helps out around the house, Edward’s wife, Martha, makes her feel guilty for desiring privacy to work on her paintings. When she meets Sarah Dowling, conscripted to serve as “Pa’s boy” in the absence of any male siblings and entirely unaware that her manners shock more proper folk, she is immediately intrigued.

Kisses soon ensue, followed by Sarah’s inability to realize that some things should be kept secret, a journey in boy’s clothes, vague yet plentiful sex scenes, manipulation by Patience to get Sarah to agree to come away with her, familial discovery, further journeying, and finally settling into farm life in New York. The narrative alternates between perspectives with occasionally amusing results (I enjoyed their differing accounts of their final parting with Edward) but with much repetition, since each woman experiences periods of insecurity as well as triumph in the knowledge that she can leave the other wanting her. One strange side effect was that although I disliked Sarah at the beginning of the novel, due to her remarkable lack of common sense, by the end I thought she was by far the better (and more genuine) of the two, since Patience could be deceitful in her quest to get her way.

I had expected, owing largely to the rhapsodies experienced by the leads in Annie on My Mind as they read and reread this book, that Patience & Sarah would be at least a little romantic, but really, it is not. Instead, I’d describe it as carnal. When I say that “kisses soon ensue,” I mean really soon, and with little preamble as to why these women are drawn to each other. Suddenly, it’s just instant passion. There are some parts of the novel that I liked—slice-of-life passages about chopping wood and sewing curtains, card games they play with Sarah’s mother, or the stray dog that promptly adopts them when they get to their new home—but I couldn’t care much about the characters or their relationship. Plus, all the parts that I liked are sullied by the ending, in which Patience declares that now that they have their own place they will “make the bed gallop,” which makes it seem that everything they’ve done has been with coital goals in mind.

Another thing I noticed is that nearly everyone else in the novel is made to desire the protagonists. Sarah’s sister offers to do for her whatever Patience does (eww), it’s suspected that Edward likes to imagine the two of them together, Sarah’s traveling companion tries to put the moves on her (granted, he thinks she’s a boy at the time), and one of Martha’s main objections to the relationship is that Patience is fooling around with someone “outside of the family.” I’m not sure what to make of this, honestly. With Edward and Martha it could be a case of pointing out their hypocrisy, but what of the others?

In the end, Patience & Sarah was not what I’d expected it to be. If this had been a straight romance, I might not even have finished it.

Additional reviews of Patience & Sarah can be found at Triple Take.

Booked to Die by John Dunning: C-

bookedtodieFrom the back cover:
Denver homicide detective Cliff Janeway may not always play by the book, but he’s an avid collector of rare and first editions. After a local bookscout is killed on his turf, Janeway would like nothing better than to rearrange the suspect’s spine. But the suspect, sleazeball Jackie Newton, is a master at eluding murder convictions. Unfortunately for Janeway, his swift form of off-duty justice costs him his badge.

Denver Detective Cliff Janeway has a grudge against one particular thug named Jackie Newton. Newton has managed to elude prosecution for the various crimes that Janeway is sure he has committed and Janeway has developed an obsession with pinning something on him, so much so that when a bookscout is found dead with a method of death similar to other crimes attributed to Jackie, Janeway immediately leaps to the conclusion that Jackie must be responsible and spends the first half of the book almost exclusively pursuing Jackie Newton rather than considering any other leads. He flagrantly breaks established rules of policework time and again and eventually loses his badge over it.

And we are supposed to like this guy?! I can’t shake the idea that author John Dunning worried that readers might find a sleuth who collects books to be too wimpy, so he took steps to make sure he’s seen as a macho tough guy. All of the posturing to that end gets exceedingly boring, and there was one section, featuring an unsympathetic doormat who’s essentially determined to do nothing to stop Jackie’s abuse and harrassment, during which I realized I hated every single character in the book, with the possible exception of Janeway’s long-suffering partner.

Thankfully, once Janeway gives up being a cop and opens an antiquarian bookstore instead, things improve a great deal. His contact with Jackie is reduced—aside from the lawsuit Jackie files after Janeway hauls him off into the middle of nowhere and beats the crap out of him—and there’s a good deal of interesting detail about setting up his shop and hunting for treasures. After a three month interval, however, Janeway begins to get embroiled in the now-cold case of the bookscout’s murder and once again uses whatever methods he damn well pleases to get to the bottom of it.

While the second half of the book is definitely better than the first, I can’t say that I really am much impressed with the mystery itself. It involves too many indistinct characters for one thing, and for another is just plain boring and predictable. Janeway continues to make a lot of assumptions about things, and seemingly has no compunction with carting away boxes of evidence (rare and valuable books) rather than leave it for police to find. I have to wonder whether anything he uncovered would ever be admissable in court. During the investigation, he also strikes up a relationship with a lady (I fight the compulsion to call her a dame, in the tradition of hard-boiled mysteries of yore) and, in Dunning’s attempt to depict how gritty and visceral their attraction is, keeps his gun in his hand throughout their first moment of intimacy. The lady is apparently fine with this, since she has a thing for violent dudes.

Ultimately, Booked to Die is a big disappointment. The idea of a mystery series with a bookseller as amateur sleuth has definite appeal, but there are so many things I dislike about the actual execution that I don’t think even the lure of booky goodness could entice me to continue with the series.

Additional reviews of Booked to Die can be found at Triple Take.

The Happiest Days of Our Lives by Wil Wheaton: B+

happiest-daysFrom the back cover:
Readers of Wil Wheaton’s website know that he is a masterful teller of elegant stories about his life. Building on the critical success of Dancing Barefoot and Just a Geek, he has collected more of his own favorite stories in his third book, The Happiest Days of Our Lives. These are the stories Wil loves to tell, because they are the closest to his heart: stories about being a huge geek, passing his geeky hobbies and values along to his own children, and painting, as vividly as possible, what it meant to grow up in the ’70s and come of age in the ’80s as part of the video game/D&D/BBS/Star Wars figures generation.

In all of these tales, Wheaton brings the reader into the raw heart of the story, holding nothing back, and you are invited to join him on a journey through The Happiest Days of Our Lives.

The Happiest Days of Our Lives, a collection of stories by actor, writer, and blogger Wil Wheaton, focuses primarily on childhood and adolescent memories as viewed through the nostalgic lens of an adult and experienced parent. In “Blue Light Special,” for example, Wil tells the amusing story of how he ended up with a Lando Calrissian action figure. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geek” charts his entry into the world of gaming. And in “The Butterfly Tree,” he recounts the story of how he got in trouble at school for the first time, and manages to perfectly capture the painful moment when a child first discovers the fallibility of adults, as his teacher punishes him unfairly and his parents fail to defend him. Having had a similar experience myself once (though, happily, with much parental defense), I thought he nailed the feeling precisely.

I’m not a regular reader of Wil’s blog, so nearly all of this material was new to me. Sometimes this worked to my detriment, though, as there were references to other stories—one about a homemade Star Wars toy and the other an in-joke shared between Wil and Jonathan Frakes—that I just didn’t get. Still, growing up in the ’80s myself, there was much with which I identified, like watching Poltergeist and being scared silly (“Close Your Eyes and Then It’s Past”) or forever being tempted to equate raspberry sorbet with a certain song by Prince (“Exactly What I Wanted”).

I also enjoyed stories like “Suddenly It’s Tomorrow,” which is about Wil’s desire need to spend more time with his family. The story that resonated with me the most, though, was “Let Go – A Requiem for Felix the Bear.” This story, about the efforts of Wil and his wife to prolong the life of a sick and beloved kitty, had me in tears. It also made me love Wil quite a lot, not only for the efforts he made to help Felix, but for how profoundly affected he was by his death.

There’s not much negative to say about the collection. A couple of the stories aren’t really stories, but are more just snapshots of recollections, like “Beyond the Rim of the Starlight,” which is about Wil’s experiences attending Star Trek conventions, and “My Mind is Filled with Silvery Star,” in which Wil puts the ’80s music on his iPod on shuffle and writes about the memories that each song conjures up. While I preferred the tales with linear narratives, I still found both pieces to be entertaining. The only real sour note is the final story, “Lying in Odessa,” which has nothing to do with being a geek or being a parent. Instead, Wil writes about an illegal poker tournament that he participated in. Since I am not a poker aficionado, there were many terms that I didn’t understand and I questioned the choice to end with this story and not one of the warm and fuzzy “family togetherness” ones.

I’m not sure the experience of reading The Happiest Days of Our Lives will convert me into a faithful blog-reader, but it has at least sparked an interest in reading Wil’s other books one of these days.

Additional reviews of The Happiest Days of Our Lives can be found at Triple Take.