Monday, October 31, 2011

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Diana Bishop is an American scholar studying alchemy at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Her focus is the history of science, which she hopes will help her repress her witchy tendencies, but magic just won’t leave her alone. First, a powerful ancient text appears in her pile of to-read tomes. Then, witches and demons crowd into the library, all pretending to research and study but all obviously focusing on Diana. Finally, a shockingly beautiful vampire, with cold flesh but steamy eyes, begins a dangerous cross-species flirtation. She knows he only wants one thing—the magical book! Or . . . is there something about Diana?

A Discovery of Witches is both a bit purple and a bit wooden in prose and plot. It’s like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander crossed with a Kim Harrison or a Charlaine Harris—you’ve got the scholarly atmosphere and historical allusions, plus witches, demons, vampires, and humans all living in uneasy proximity. The book could have been really good—and maybe you’ll think it is. For me, the romance was not believable—both Diana and her vampire kept thinking “no,” and saying “yes,” which became rather predictable after a while. I get it, your passions are overwhelming your better judgment! Enough already! I felt the weak romance undermined the plot-development and world building.

However, I suspect many might enjoy the “American in Oxford” storyline and the appeal of the devastatingly attractive undead lover. I would recommend A Discovery of Witches to those who enjoy a gentle paranormal romance or a romantic fantasy set in academia, and to those who have a little more patience for romantic tropes.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce

Alianne of Pirate's Swoop is bored. Daughter of the legendary Lioness of Tortall, she's sixteen and ready for adventure - only her protective parents won't let her go find it.

Then she is seized by pirates, sold into slavery, and confronted by a trickster god, who makes her a wager: if she can keep her current master's children safe for one summer, she will be freed and returned home. Aly thinks it sounds like an easy bet - how hard could it be to keep four kids alive for a few months?

But the children of Duke Mequen Balitang are special. The eldest girls, daughters by his deceased first wife, are the last of an ancient royal line. Prophecy suggests they may come to power in the Copper Isles, ousting the current, fading Rittevon monarchy. With plots and conspiracies swirling around the girls, how will Aly win her wager and get home again at last?

Trickster's Choice is an action-packed fantasy adventure that takes place in the well-realized Tortall universe. Author Tamora Pierce has already explored Tortall in several other fantasy series, like Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small.

It's delightful to read a fantasy novel led by a smart, capable, brave heroine like Aly. If I have a complaint about Trickster's Choice, it's that Aly's a little too capable: she knows how to speak several languages fluently, pick locks, break codes, fight with daggers, sew, read lips, play chess, herd goats, and catch thrown knives from the air. In fact, Aly never encounters anything she can't do in this whole book. You can't have much of a character arc with a character who already knows everything. Even Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.

Nevertheless, Aly's humor and spirit help make Trickster's Choice an exciting and fun read. It's the first of a two-part series: I'm going to start its sequel, Trickster's Queen, today.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Venetian Detective

Commisario Guido Brunetti does not match our current American literary detective formula: he’s a comfortably middle-aged family man with no real vices or afflictions. He’s not an alcoholic, not terribly haunted by trauma, not carrying a bullet in his skull or a genetic abnormality in his chromosomes. In fact, he’s kind of a regular guy, with a warm marriage to a woman who is not cheating on him and two teenagers who are not on drugs, suffering from mortal illness, or hiding gambling addictions. Moreover, it’s safe to say that he, his wife, and his children are not being stalked by serial killers or super villains of any kind.

Despite-- or more likely because of-- this, Donna Leon’s series stands out. Without a frenetic high-stakes struggle in every chapter, the pacing of the books allows the reader time to breathe, appreciate Venice, and enjoy Brunetti’s wry observations of Venetian life. This is not to say that the series is without action: in every case, Brunetti tracks down a murderer, and they tend to be uncooperative.

Leon, who was born in New Jersey, has lived in Venice for thirty years, and the culture comes across well in Brunetti’s voice. From the gondolas and canals to the weather and the peculiar blend of provincial and cosmopolitan attitudes, the reader gets a sense of another land. And yet the foreign intersects with the familiar, as Brunetti and his police are investigating crimes that arise from the common twists of the human mind: greed, jealousy, anger, lust, and madness.
There are currently 20 books in the series, in the following order:

Many are also available on audio through Library2Go.

Read an interview with Donna Leon at

Monday, October 17, 2011

You have to wonder about the mother

At the beginning of We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, we know that Eva Khatchadourian's teenage son Kevin has committed a mass murder at his school. The novel is composed of Eva's letters to her absent husband, Franklin. She compares the details of her life before and after that dreadful day, and tries to make sense of what happened.

You might be picturing Eva as a loving mom, tearfully trying to figure out how her beautiful baby boy became a killer. That's not a good description of this book. For one thing, Eva isn’t always particularly sympathetic. An intellectual, chilly East Coast liberal, her acute but judgmental perceptions can be a bit hard to take.

For instance, early in the novel she encounters the mother of one of the teenage girls her son killed. The woman looks overweight and frumpy, and Eva writes,

"She was once so neurotically svelte, sharply cornered, and glossy as if commercially gift wrapped. Though it may be more romantic to picture the bereaved as gaunt, I imagine you can grieve as efficiently with chocolates as with tap water. Besides, there are women who keep themselves sleek and smartly turned out less to please a spouse than to keep up with a daughter, and, thanks to us, she lacks that incentive these days."

Ouch. Throughout this book Eva turns that razor-blade insight on herself, exposing her own selfishness, jealousy, and stubbornness with the same level of cruelty. Her question, specifically, is: did Kevin turn out to be a monster because of her many failures as a mother? Or did she fail as a mother because he was a monster?

We Need to Talk About Kevin presents several uncomfortable scenarios. A child killing other children; a woman who is deeply conflicted about her role as a mother; a society that, in the face of tragedy, does not come together but turns upon itself. It's a suspenseful but disturbing and even somewhat upsetting book. I recommend it if you’re in the mood for something thought-provoking but horrifying.

We Need to Talk About Kevin has also been made into a critically-acclaimed movie, starring the divine Tilda Swinton as Eva. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Americans in the Tiergarten

What would an outsider, arriving in Berlin in 1933, say about Hitler's Germany? Erik Larson found two such outsiders, who left copious impressions in diaries and letters.

They were William Dodd, the American ambassador who came to Berlin in 1933; and Martha Dodd, the ambassador's 25-year-old daughter. Larson's book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin tells the story of their initial willingness to like and accept Nazi Germany, as well as their growing disillusionment and eventual horrified rejection.

Dodd was a college professor, known for his intelligence and incorruptible honesty. But he had no diplomatic experience, no finesse, and was stubborn and inclined to lecture. He valued reason above all things, and his inability to sway the Nazi leadership with good sense shocked and depressed him.

Dodd grew convinced that Germany represented a grave threat to Western civilization, but could get no one in the United States to pay attention to his warnings.

I found Martha's story fascinating. A beauty whose status as an ambassador's daughter gave her instant social cachet, she was quite willing to have a good time in Germany, scandalously dating a number of men. Martha was pro-Nazi at first; she loved the enthusiasm of the German people, their ardent desire to rise above the wreckage of their nation’s past and create a new future. She was willing to turn a blind eye to atrocities, for a time -- until she could ignore them no more.

If you're interested in the years that lead up to World War II, you should enjoy the unique viewpoint provided by Larson's In The Garden of Beasts.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dream Park by Larry Niven

Dream Park is a quick fun read for the sf/fantasy crowd. This aptly told tale is set in 2051, where holographic imaging has advanced to provide a full-immersion experience. Dream Park is a grown-up version of Disneyland, a gamer’s paradise that offers virtual vacations in fantastical and/or historical settings. Participants play characters like wizards, engineers, healers, or warriors, and go on adventures that can last a day or week, seeking glory, fame, and experience points.

Alex Griffin is Chief of Security for Dream Park, and when one of his security guards is murdered in the course of a theft from the R&D department during a high profile game, suspicion lands on the players. With public relations in mind, Griffin is sent into the game as a new character to do his detective work undercover. He’s an all-work-and-no-play kind of guy, so to be forced to play a game for days on end, with people he considers to be nerds, escapists, and fanatics, is a real challenge.

The game he’s thrown into is a South Seas adventure featuring cargo cults, a real historical phenomena in which primitive tribes coming into contact with more technologically advanced civilizations developed a strong belief that amazing material wealth could be obtained through magical ceremonies. The adventure also includes volcanoes, undead creatures, giant serpents, and an unexploded nuclear missile. Griffin’s surprised to find himself enjoying it, especially in the company of the beautiful Acacia, expert gamer extraordinaire—until he find that the murderer is someone he never would have expected.

Niven’s work has won Hugo, Locus, Ditmar, and Nebula awards: this particular book was nominated for a Locus. If you’re looking for something simple and satisfying, with lots of action and a whodunit, Dream Park's for you.

Monday, October 3, 2011


“I’m not ashamed, you see," writes Harry Flashman of his distinguished career. "I can look at the picture above my desk and say that it is the portrait of a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward - and, oh yes, a toady."

The eponymous hero of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman is all of those things - the most reprehensible hero a hilarious series of novels ever had.

Harry Flashman hails originally from a Victorian novel called Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes, published in 1857. This novel tells how the public school Rugby transforms rowdy boys into young gentlemen who are godly, honest, and play cricket. Tom Brown's enemy at school is a cowardly bully named Harry Flashman, who gets expelled for drunkenness.

Tom Brown's bully is the hero of Flashman. Fraser makes the character his narrator, who, in his eighties, looks back upon his career and and describes how, through lying, cheating, and taking credit for other men's deeds, the drunkard becomes the most lauded hero of Victorian England.

After leaving school, Flashman gets his relatives to buy him a commission in the army, choosing his regiment with care - one that has a good-looking uniform and is unlikely ever to see foreign service. Bad luck, then, that he finds himself in Kabul, Afghanistan, taking part in the first Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in a catastrophic military defeat – the renowned British army utterly destroyed, its officers slaughtered, its reputation in ruins.

Fraser's book is a fast-paced adventure, loaded with action and intrigue. If you like historical novels, this one gives an accurate and riveting portrayal of the horrific retreat from Kabul, and the arrogance and muddy thinking that led to that disaster. As a send-up of Victorian moral hypocrisy, it is devastating – Flashman is hardly the only Victorian who uses and abuses those he can. He’s just the only one who admits it.

Be warned – this book is funny, but Harry Flashman isn't a lovable scamp. He is really awful, and the things he does, and the language he uses, are not nice. At all.

Flashman is the first in a series of books, which somehow see our hero engaged in almost every important event of the 19th century: the Crimean War, the Atlantic slave trade, the Indian Mutiny, the Taiping Rebellion, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, and the Battle of Little Big Horn, just to name a few. I can't wait to find out how he survives them all with his reputation for heroism intact.