book log: 45) Madeleine Robins — Lady John

Note – I received a review copy through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Reprint ebook edition of a Regency romance first published in 1982. I’m not a follower of historical romances in general and Regency romances in particular, so I’m looking at it from the perspective of someone who reads the occasional romance rather than someone who goes into nitpicking detail about exactly what type of glassware they had on the table in a particular decade. If you’re a hardcore Regency reader you’ll need to look at someone else’s review.

With that in mind, my first impressions weren’t good. I found the characters as initially introduced very two-dimensional, and in one case decidedly unpleasant. I really did think I might have trouble getting through enough of it to give it a fair chance. And then I realised that I was eagerly reading to see what happened next.

Lady John is a young war bride and widow who met her husband on the Continent and has never met any of his family save for a younger brother. She’s invited by her late husband’s family to visit them in England, mostly out of courtesy and some curiosity. She gets on very well with most of them, particularly her mother-in-law, who is set on helping her into society with a view to a fresh marriage.

But when her brother-in-law brings home a guest one night, Lady John and her new family are startled by his cold and rude behaviour to her. The last time she saw Menwin was on the Continent, just before Lord John proposed to her, and they had been friends then…

Misunderstandings abound, and I found some of them rather too contrived, particularly the way in which both Lady John and Menwin had never questioned what they were told by a third party some years earlier. But the scheming by various characters to put things right was entertaining, and I found this a fun light read once I got past the first couple of chapters.

The first few pages are available as a free sample at Book View Cafe, and it’s worth taking a look if you like Regencies.

http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/lady-john/
http://www.librarything.com/work/1576198

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2011 book log: 102) Edward Gorey — The Lost Lions

I feel rather guilty about taking so long to write my review of this one, partly because Pomegranate were clearly hoping for timely reviews to drive sales for Christmas gifts, and partly because so many of my friends would doubtless have been very happy to help with the “Christmas gift” sales figures…

102) Edward Gorey — The Lost Lions

Note: I received a review copy of this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Pomegranate provides a treat for Gorey fans with this new edition of a title from 1973 which has been long out of print as a standalone book, although it was available in omnibus format. Hamish, a beautiful young man who likes being outdoors, opens the wrong envelope one day, and finds himself on a path to fame and fortune in films. He finds this to be less appealing than one might imagine, and prefers to raise lions… The story is told in a bare 14 pen-and-ink illustrations with one sentence per illustration, and can be skimmed in a few minutes, but Gorey does a great deal with those 14 illustrations. It’s not as blatantly macabre as some of Gorey’s work, but still has that eerie, off-kilter humour that was his trademark. And the book might take only a few minutes to read the first time, but you could lose yourself for hours looking at the detail in the drawings and thinking about the things implied therein.

There are other books which are more accessible to new readers and I’m not sure this one would be ideal as someone’s first introduction to Gorey, but you don’t need much familiarity with his body of work to appreciate the faintly sinister whimsy of The Lost Lions.

At US$13, this edition isn’t cheap, but you do get what you pay for. Pomegranate have a done a superb job on the physical production side. The book is a small hardback with high quality paper in sewn signatures, and crisp reproduction of the pen-and-ink illustrations. It’s laid out with one sentence and illustration facing each other per page spread, on a 6 inch square page size that makes it easy to take in the whole illustration at once while still being large enough to see the fine detail. The cover illustration is in colour, but the interior illustrations are in the original black and white. If all you want is access to the story, there are other options, but Pomegranate’s new edition is a gorgeous presentation that’s a joy to handle. This is a perfect “indulgent treat” for anyone who loves both beautiful books and Edward Gorey.

My review copy came packed with two Pomegranate catalogues, and one of their Edward Gorey bookmarks, which was a nice item in its own right, and I think well worth the $2 catalogue price if you like nice bookmarks. It’s crisply printed on heavy stock, and comes in a heavy plastic protective sleeve, from which it can be easily removed if you prefer to use it without the sleeve.

Hardcover smyth-sewn casebound book, with jacket. 32 pages, 6½ x 6 inches.

ISBN 9780764959578

Edward Gorey — The Lost Lions at the publisher’s website.

Librarything entry, with more reviews.

Book review: Pati Nagle – Pet Noir

79) Pati Nagle – Pet Noir

Note: I received a review copy of this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Short fix-up novel about a genetically engineered cat whose creation is commissioned by the security chief of a large space station. The chief wants an undercover agent who’ll be overlooked by criminals who might be suspicious of humanoids. A Maine Coon who’s been genetically engineered to have human level intelligence, opposable thumbs, and a tongue that can wrap itself around human language is a useful thing to have loitering around fast food outlets and in cargo holds, picking up the gossip. An ordinary-looking cat won’t be suspected because the high cost of gengineered animals means they’re still rare — but it’s a price that’s worth it for someone who wants to bust a drug-smuggling ring.

The book is structured as a series of short stories covering the first year or so of Leon’s life, a first person retrospective from the day the Chief collects a know-all kitten from the labs to a year or so later, when Leon’s experienced enough to understand how very inexperienced and naive he was that day. The general tone is that of a hard-boiled detective story, only here the hard-boiled tone is distinctly feline-flavoured and the setting is futuristic.

It’s a lot of fun following Leon’s emotional and intellectual development alongside his cases, and the cases themselves mostly make good stories. There are some good observations of feline behaviour worked into this. Leon’s mostly plausible as a portrait of a cat with boosted intelligence, and his relationship with his human partner Devin, a mix of self-centredness and genuine affection after a rocky start, works well. However, there are two flaws which badly broke suspension of disbelief for me.

The first is that Leon is not just super intelligent, at 4 weeks old he speaks fluent English and he’s already showing a better grasp of human culture than a human ten year old. Yes, cats develop much faster, but there hasn’t been time for him to physically assimilate that amount of information, even if he does spend all day in front of the tv.

The second is that Leon speaks to other, unenhanced animals, who appear to be also human level intelligence in their conversation, even if they’re speaking in cat rather than English, which rather undermines the point of him being genetically engineered for human level intelligence. There also appears to be a single human-level language across at least three species who are not regarded as fully sentient by the humans and other sentient species on the station. It felt as if the author was trying to appeal to readers who like to think of their cats as being just little humans in fur coats.

One of the things I did like about the book is that it touches on the ethics of uplifted animals. It’s a very light touch, and anything stronger would have unbalanced the book, but it’s made clear that Leon is under an indentured contract and is required to pay off the costs of his creation by working for whoever owns the contract. He’s effectively the property of Gamma Station Security for several years, and he’s unimpressed by this.

Overall, something of a mixed bag. It’s a fun light read, and has some laugh out loud moments, but there are some niggles which mean I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. A free sample consisting of the prologue and first chapter are available for download at Book View Cafe, which will give you a reasonable idea of the style.

LibraryThing entry

book review: Christopher Wakling — The Devil’s Mask

59) Christopher Wakling — The Devil’s Mask

Note – I received a free review copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Historical mystery set in Bristol just after the abolition of the slave trade. Inigo Bright comes from a wealthy mercantile family, but has gone into law rather than shipping. Newly qualified, he still works for the man he was legal clerk to, on one of the practice’s major sources of income — the nitpicking investigation on behalf of the port officials of customs fees owed and paid. What seems like a routine investigation of one ship’s petty smuggling gives Inigo a minor problem with torn loyalties, because his family’s business has some investment in the ship.

He sets that aside and goes on with his investigation, only to be led into a tangle of deception, threats and finally outright violence against himself and his master. And it seems to be linked with the murdered women who have been found in the city. Inigo does the sensible thing and tries to put his information before the authorities, but finds a suspicious lack of interest. If the truth is to be brought to light, he’ll have to do the digging.

I enjoyed it enormously, but more as a historical novel with a literary bent than as a mystery. The mystery’s good, but the book’s structure gives away a lot of the solution just a little too soon for my taste if approaching it purely as a mystery. The reverse side of this is that Wakling has done an excellent job of laying out the clues and leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about not just the solution to the mystery, but the society Inigo lives in. I’m partial to world-building via long, lingering descriptions when done well, as it is here, and found the book to have a good balance between plot and evoking a sense of place. The one criticism I’d have was that several characters seemed to start off as being intended to be significant players in the tale, and then more or less fizzled out. Inigo himself is an appealing character. He’s young and uncertain of himself, but has the strength of character to make difficult choices once he’s thought them through. At book’s end I was satisfied with the closure given, but wanted to know what happened to him next, which is always a good sign.

A page-turner that brings to life the physical and moral price paid for the profits of the slave trade, even after abolition.

LibraryThing entry
hardcover at Amazon UK
Kindle at Amazon UK
paperback at Amazon UK (release date March 2012)

book review: Alex Epstein — The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay

46) Alex Epstein — The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay

Note: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Young adult novel about what happened to the sorceress Morgan le Fay between the point in her childhood when her father was murdered by Uther Pendragon, and her return as an adult to trouble her half-brother King Arthur. The book opens at the council of war amongst the Romano-British leaders where Uter (as it’s given in the book) first sets eyes on Ygraine, wife of Gorlois. Uter wants Ygraine enough to make war on Gorlois, enough to seek the aid of the magician Merlin — and with the death of her beloved father, the child Anna finds herself sent to exile by her mother for her own safety. An exile so complete that she must change her name and tell almost no-one who she is when she arrives in Ireland. A safe place with a distant relative proves less than safe when the tribe loses a battle with its neighbours, and Morgan spends years in slavery, learning a little magic openly from the village wisewoman who owns her, and a great deal more magic in secret. Then there is escape, and a few months of peace and study with a new Christian settlement, and then a chance of love with a chieftain’s son who can appreciate the knowledge of Roman battle tactics she brings. By the time she is eighteen, Morgan has learnt a great many things, but the one thing she has not learnt is how to let go of the need for vengeance. It has, after all, kept her alive through the dark times…

I found the book a bit hard to get into at first, but once I got into the rhythm of the writing I was hooked. Epstein has taken the historical period of 500AD as the basis for his story, a time when the Roman legions had long withdrawn from Britain but many of the British still thought of themselves as Roman. He’s drawn on Irish mythology and blended it with modern Wiccan practice to create a believably consistent picture of magic, in a time when both Druid priests and Christian missionaries can draw on the power of the earth, and a young exile can learn to use it to protect herself and the people she loves. The result is a solid addition to the Arthurian legend, covering an area not much touched on, and giving a plausible reason for the adult Morgan le Fay to be who she is. Here she is a strong and sympathetic character, and it’s only too easy to understand why she makes the choices she does.

The book’s been written in such a way that it can be enjoyed both as a free-standing novel suitable for someone not familiar with any of the mythology and literature that has accreted around Arthur, and as a fascinating new contribution to that ongoing literary conversation. An excellent YA fantasy novel that should appeal to adults as well.

ISBN 978-1-896580-6-30
trade paperback at Powell’s
trade paperback or Kindle ebook at Amazon UK (available now)
trade paperback or Kindle ebook at Amazon US (for pre-order)
LibraryThing entry

Book log: Vonda N McIntyre — The Starfarers Quartet

23) Vonda N McIntyre — The Starfarers Quartet: Starfarers
24) Vonda N McIntyre — The Starfarers Quartet: Transition

This is an in-progress review, which will be added to as I read my way through the collection.

Note: I received this as a review copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Omnibus edition of the Starfarers Quartet, published as an ebook reprint edition. The basic concept is a near-future setting where a space habitat is being built and fitted out for the first attempt at an interstellar voyage, using a recently discovered piece of cosmic string in the Solar System as a means of accessing almost instantaneous travel to another solar system. The habitat is set up as a university campus under international control.

In the first book, the station’s purpose is being politicised, with an attempt by the US government to commandeer the habitat and re-purpose it as a military station for use in a peacekeeping mission on Earth, nominally under international control but in reality completely controlled by the US. The university faculty vote to continue their mission as planned, even if it means making an emergency run to the string and out of the solar system.

The second book begins with the Starfarer’s arrival in the Tau Ceti system, accompanied by a parting shot from the military cruiser which had been sent to stop them. The alien contact team who were the main focus of the narrative in the first book now get to do their job for the first time.

I found the first book somewhat frustrating to begin with, as I found the writing style a little hard to get on with, particularly the way a lot of point of view characters were simply dropped into the narrative with their own chapter and then abandoned for a while. It made the book feel very bitty to begin with. But once I had a handle on who all these people were and how their individual stories started to weave together, I found it fascinating. I’m looking forward to finishing the quartet.