Monthly Archives: January 2013

The House on Durrow Street

The House on Durrow Streethouse-on-durrow-street

Galen Beckett

Ballatine Books, NY,NY  2010


I must confess that the reason I picked up this sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is that I wanted a book I would be able to put down.  I was pleased to find that the second book is better written than the first.

Mr. Garrit finds a friend among the Siltheri, the illusionists.  The love scene between him and Dercy is quite tender and sweet.  Mrs. Quent finds a journal of her fathers and bittersweet we find that he made the same errors in judgment that Mrs. Quent has made.  As she becomes Lady Quent and is swept up by high society we are swept up along with her.

It is Rafferdy the magician who holds the story together through the two books.  He is caught up between his habit of being useless and entertaining and finding himself in positions of authority.  He must learn the truth of the adage that he who does nothing does the most harm.  Thankfully his curiosity feeds our own as he explores the occult, the hidden truths, of this world.

As we learn a bit about the history of this world through Mrs. Quent’s father’s journal and from Mr. Rafferdy’s father we better understand some of the odd social stylings.  From the illusionists and from the still frustrating astronomical references we get hints about the threat that is truly the center of the story.  This also helps in appreciating the magical system.  We also get to explore the magical house as it is renovated for the family to move back in.

The secondary characters are still rather two dimensional.  It’s very difficult to care about the coming out party of Mrs. Quent’s sisters although this sets the scene for a great deal of important action.  I continue to be intrigued by the wildwood and Mrs. Quent’s relationship to the trees.  This is much more pronounced in this book.

It’s encouraging to find the author improving her skill as she continues to write.  There is a third book and maybe I’ll get to it before the year is out.  It’s not a compelling tale but it’s a nice escape.  Some of that I’m sure is still the allusion to the English authors mentioned in my review of the first book in the series The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

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Posted by on January 27, 2013 in Fantasy


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If you liked the Hunger Games…

hunger_games_trilogySince the popularity of The Hunger Games  there seems to be an influx of dystopic trilogies with older teens as the main characters.  The Matched – Crossed – Reached Series by Allie Condie is one example and the Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth is the latest.

Contrary to my typical pattern I have picked up the Divergent Trilogy even though the third book isn’t yet published.  Veronica Roth is up for a teen choice award for her work and it caught my eye, especially since I had the other two trilogies already under my belt.

In The Hunger Games Trilogy the setting is a post war United states divided into factions based on resource production.  Katniss comes from probably the poorest section and is thrust into a political situation that she doesn’t have the education or experience to understand.  Her choices are all based on instinct, on her heartfelt ethic.  She is buffeted by forces she can not begin to match and her successes are because she is well marketed as one of the people.Matched-Trilogy-Box-Set-Matched-Crossed-Reached

The Matched Trilogy is not set in our landscape specifically.  Although the world could very well be ours there are no landmarks that indicate it.  If Katniss is on the outside the characters in the Matched Trilogy are much closer to the action.  The main character Cassia may not initially be aware her Grandfather was one of the originators of the revolutionary plan, but she has been given the training to respond when she does learn the truth.  Her skill in this world is to identify and sort patterns which allows her an understanding of the political situation far beyond her age or experience.  When she makes a choice it is an active one, based on her understanding of the patterns and her awareness of the pieces that are missing.

The love triangle in this story is much more honest than in the Hunger Games.  The triad (Cassia, Ky and Xander) grow up together as best friends.  When the day comes to be “matched” with her life partner Cassia is surprised and pleased to find herself paired with her best friend.  When she discovers the match was manipulated and she should have been paired with her other friend, the one who’s family is suspect, all three of them have to deal with the feelings and implications of this news.

Disney has the movie rights to this trilogy and we may see it released in the very near future.

tumblr_m4n3nfsNRH1r8epazWhich brings us to Divergent and Insurgent.   Again the setting is the United States, specifically Chicago.  I struggle with the idea that the Sears tower stands while Lake Michigan is nothing but a swamp, but Ms. Roth knows her landscape well.  The first book gives us no real history of the wars that lead to this Society being structured into 5 factions. Like the characters we accept it as a given.

We do learn that the factions were formed to “eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the worlds disarray… Those who blamed aggression formed Amity…Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite…Those who blamed duplicity became Candor…Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation… And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.”

Beatrice is raised by the Abnegation faction but at 16 all the children are given an “aptitude test” and then they have the opportunity to chose their own faction.  The belief “faction before blood” means for most of them if they choose a new faction they will not see their families again.

When Beatrice takes her aptitude tests she finds she is resistant to the mind controlling drug used to create the scenarios.  Her test is “inconclusive” which means she is Divergent.  She comes to her choice of factions knowing in her heart she isn’t selfless enough to stay with Abnegation.  She chooses Dauntless.

It is the skills she learns preparing to qualify for Dauntless initiation that prepare her for her role in the rebellion.  Unlike the other books Trice’s role is not to support the rebellion, but rather to stop it.  She recognizes the faults in her society but the rebellion plans a tyrannical mind control of the populace by one of the factions.  The resistance of the Divergent to the drugs is all that stands in the way of their success.

In the second book,Insurgent the war between the factions is in full swing.  Trice struggles throughout this book with both guilt and grief because of her own choices and actions in this war.  She also explores issues of trust especially in her relationship with Four, who we learn was also raised as an Abnegation named Tobias.  We see more of the roles their family relationships play in the political situation.  The issue of “faction before blood” is not as easy as it sounds.   Especially not for the Divergent.

We meet the factionless and find they are more than the homeless vagrants we thought they were.  In fact the percentage of Divergent among the factionless is higher than anywhere else.  We begin to see the advantages of being Divergent outside of the mind control scenarios.  We also, by the end, learn more about how both the factions and the Divergent were created.

I liked all three series for very different reasons.  They all explore flawed societies and revolutionary change.  I liked Hunger Games for its characters.  The story of a vastly complicated political upheaval from the point of view of the average folk was very appealing.  The way these “little people” had an impact and the way society manipulated them spoke strongly to my understanding of our current political climate.

Katniss is a very talented, intelligent and surprisingly sympathetic character.  She has a complicated personality and ethical viewpoint.  She is adaptable but determined to hold true to herself even as she is just finding out what that means.

I liked the Matched series for its story.  The notion of society being able to find your “perfect mate” is as appealing as it is appalling.  The way the revolution ends up using the same tools to manipulate the population that the government used rings true to my experience.  The fact that all of the characters have positive and negative qualities, different skill sets and good reasons for the choices they make kept me engaged.

The thing I liked the most about Matched was the role the creative arts play in politics.  The society has limited access to art.  Cassia is given two poems that are not on the approved list by her Grandfather before he dies.  This interest in the arts is what drives her beyond the choices of either the society or the revolution.  I also enjoyed the exploration of the emotional landscape of Cassia, Ky, and Xander.  The love triangle overlaying the friendship triangle pushes and pulls these characters in interesting ways.

Perhaps it is because the Dauntless are always younger, but in the Divergent and Insurgent books I truly felt the characters acted their age.  The struggle between trusting your own instincts and trusting what you are taught by your elders is crucial to this age group.  In this series, more than the others, the information our main characters is given is the truth.  It is just colored by the perspective of the person delivering the information.

I enjoyed the perspective of the Dauntless.  The challenges these young people face as they train for their initiation and their willingness to embrace life is inspiring.  That these risk taking behaviors are not always reasonable just adds to my sense that the characters are truly acting their age.  Trice notices there aren’t many older Dauntless but she doesn’t bother to stop and wonder why.

Any of these are good teen reads.  Each of them takes you deeply into their world and keeps you there without having to make comparisons across the genre.  If you liked one series you may find you like them all.


Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Teen Fiction


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The Alchemy of Stone

Alchemy of Stone

51k3KQ8qQuL._AA160_Ekaterina Sedia

Prime Books  2008

isbn:  978-1-60701-215-3

This is a beautiful and terrifying book.  It is very definitely it’s own story.  I wish I could say what it’s like.  It’s revolutionary like The Hunger Games but it’s not at all like that.  It’s about what it means to be human like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but it’s not at all like that.  It’s a fantasy of alchemy like The Mistress of Spices but it’s not at all like that.

E. Sedia in one short novel establishes a world and then tears it apart.  There are themes like those above but also loyalty and betrayal.  There is the exploration of progress versus esthetics.  She touches on the role of religion as one of the upholding pillars of society.  She evokes the courtier versus the commoner.  She even hints at the importance of sexual identity.

The main character is a machine.  In a world where the two largest political powers are the alchemists and the mechanics her creator is a mechanic.  Still he allows her (though we find she may have manipulated him) to apprentice to an alchemist and thus become a member of the other opposing faction.  Both Mattie (our heroine) and her maker Loharri tend to be more reasonable and centrist than their party line.  However they are each also very devoted to their political factions, as much or more than they are devoted to each other.

But that makes it sound like a book of politics when it’s really a book about autonomy.  Mattie has free will and has been declared independent.  Still Loharri has programmed her to continue to depend upon him and retains the sole ability to “wind her up” when she runs down.  Mattie’s legal status versus her actual status is reflected with her friendship with Niobe another alchemist but a foreigner to the city.

The court’s role in the drama is a position of figurehead.  But it is the existence of the court that prevents one political faction from overrunning the other.  The authority of the court comes from the semi mythological gargoyles.  These creatures of stone created the city originally.  They are tended to by the Stone Monks.  They are failing as a race and come to Mattie to ask for her help.

Another interesting character is the Soul – Smoker.  This is a religious character who stands like a traditional shaman outside of the society.  He deals with the souls that refuse to pass.  Literally attracting them with opium and smoking them into himself.  He carries all these souls within him until he dies and then his soul moving on leads the others to follow.

All that talk and none of it tells you anything about the book.  It’s lovely and horrible.  It’s intriguing and thought provoking.  It is not high literature, but it is well written.  If you find this sort of thing interesting you’d probably really enjoy this book.

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Posted by on January 19, 2013 in Science Fiction


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Rhiannon’s Ride Series

The Tower of Ravenstowerofravens

Kate Forsyth

ROC  NY, NY  2005

I am notorious for refusing to start a series until all of the books are at least in print.  I hate waiting a year between “episodes”.  I want to immerse myself in the world and get through the whole story.  Although I may not read the books back to back, I will at least still remember the last one before I move on to the next.  Given how much I read in the course of the year I find it’s much more difficult if I have to wait for the next book.

This series was originally published in London, England.  It does have a very British sensibility about it.  The lands and the characters are reminiscent of Scotland and Wales and the lowlands of England in both their geographic descriptions and variations in dialect.

The fictional landscape is compelling.  The different kinds of peoples, both by geography and by race, are fascinating.  Much attention has been paid to the variations in culture and manners.  Although as is common in fiction and ARP gaming you find the nobility popping up in the most unexpected places.

The first book of the series is really a story of culture shock and acclimatization.  The main character, who eventually takes the name Rhiannon – after the myth which is very much the same story as told in the Mabinogion – is our fish out of water.  She is by birth a member of a most savage race in the far reaches of the country.  But as a half breed (explained very well and not uncommon among her people) she did not acquire the appropriate genetic traits to make her accepted by her tribe.  She knows that they will kill her if she does not grow her horns by her menses and so when it arrives she hides it and plots her escape.

The story of her acculturation is complicated not only by her wildness and the fearfulness of one raised in a brutal environment.  Part of her escape from the tribe involves her killing a man, who as it turns out is one of the Kings Own.  There is also witchcraft and fairy talents (and races), necromancy and kidnapping and of course first love.

The Shining City

Kate Forsythshiningcity

ROC NY, NY 2006

The second book is typical of the middle of a trilogy.  It takes place in the capitol of the kingdom where the man who was killed was in an elite squad close to the king or Riah himself.  Our heroine lies wasting in the prison tower while all the forces of evil are lined up against her and against the kingdom. There is a great deal of court intrigue and we get to meet some of the characters that were referred as important figures in the first book.

The interesting thing about this second book is that we’ve been lead to believe that the kingdom is well and justly ruled.  Instead we find a great deal of corruption still exists.  That the leaders and much of the populous hold grudges and racist attitudes based on the war 20 years ago when the king came into power.  There is the wedding scheduled between the children of two of the great powers to seal the pact of peace that was made at the end of the war.  This is threatened by jealousy as well as those old prejudices which come closer to the surface as the wedding date approaches.

The language conventions, which at this point in the series the reader has adjusted to, become stretched to annoying in this book.  We meet the Keybearer of the Coven, the head of the witches and the school for magic users.  In and of itself this is not an issue, but she has as a familiar an elf owl.  The commentary the owl makes, things like “You-hooh fool-hooh too-hooh” grated against my sensibilities like fingernails on a blackboard.  Luckily the owl does not have a large part in the story.

On the other side of language is Rhiannon’s continuing struggle to understand the idioms of the human (English) tongue.  Her friend and language teacher occasionally succumbs to humor in recognition of the ridiculous saying things like, “The courtiers ‘o the court will court ye in the courtyard most courteously.”  Rhiannon may find these examples of language “Stupid.” but I found them delightful.

By the end of the second book everything is in turmoil, and nothing is resolved.  We know who all the “bad guys” are even if the characters in the book are still confused by the intrigue.  Still, by the end there are hints of hope to take the reader into the third book.

The Heart of Starsheartofstars

Kate Forsyth

ROC NY, NY 2007

The final book of the series suffers a bit from multiple settings and ambiguous time.  It’s not always easy to tell what is happening with one group at the same time something else is happening with another group.  This leads to a certain frustration when the reader is waiting for the characters in one scene to catch up with the character events in the preceding scene.  It also occasionally frustrates the pacing of the tension as news of the events at other settings seems to arrive suddenly and arbitrarily.

The great thing about this book is the lack of Deus ex Machina.  All of the strange and wonderful solutions have been foreshadowed or demonstrated as abilities in the earlier books. Some of the plot twists are actually quite unexpected even if they do follow a logical progression.  The threads are wrapped up in the end but there is a definite feeling of a world moving forward and the characters still having growth and challenges ahead.

The world of this series is well thought out.  The magical systems make sense and are consistent, even when the characters aren’t quite sure how they managed to achieve what they do.  The characters, for the most part, are neither entirely bad nor entirely good which is refreshing.  As much as we revile the bad guys we understand and almost sympathize with their motivations.

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Posted by on January 16, 2013 in Fantasy


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The Magicians and Mrs. Quent    51WZjMJGM6L._SL160_

Galen Becket

Bantam Books, NY, NY 2008

ISBN: 978-0-553-58982-5

The flyleaf of this book asks “What if there were a fantastical cause underlying the social constraints and limited choices confronting a heroine in a novel by Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte?”  This is a first novel for Galen Becket and perhaps in attempting to answer this question she has taken on a bit too large a task.

I must admit that I am not a great fan of the literary novels of those famous women.  I do not have the capacity to compare the style or the allusions of this novel to their works.  I do find that in attempting to emulate this style Ms. Becket frustrates my own modern sensibilities.

Perhaps I have read too much of science fiction.  I am irritated by the unexplained oddities of time and celestial mechanics that play such a large part in setting the scene for this work.  I am not at all happy with the incongruities of magic and magical systems.  The book hints that it is a genetic difference between men and women that also differentiates their abilities to do magic.  Yet at one point in the book is the, admittedly rare, example of a man doing “women’s magic”.  Our main character has a great comprehension of the magic of men but somehow is unable to form the words upon her lips.

Much like the historical novels, this book seems to take much time setting up the story before it actually gets to the action of the story.  When it does occur, the resolution of the problem happens very quickly and without the detail in narrative, as though it is unimportant.  This is a book of manners and style and cultural commentary rather than a story with attention to plot.  The plot is there, and it has its twists and turns as any good mystery might.  It is just buried under odd and often unnecessary detail.

On a positive note the characters are delightfully drawn in vivid detail.  Even though they are confronted with many personal challenges, and they change to accommodate.  We see those changes observed by others in that society setting rather than truly felt by the characters themselves.  In some ways this reinforces the lightness of the piece.  In other ways it reads to the depth and integrity of the characters themselves.

These characters are likable.  The circumstances draw us into the fantasy in the way the British upper classes always have.  We see ourselves in the lush apartments or struggling to make do or attempting to better ourselves as though social climbing was obligatory to such betterment.  It is a world apart, and therefore fascinating.  I believe it would still be so without the odd celestial physics and awkward magical system.

The book was readable enough that I am curious to see where the sequel heads.  I would like to hope that the writing style improves with practice and experience.  I can wish that the next book will depend on this first for the character exposition and much of that will be left behind in favor of the actual story.

This is not a book I would rush to read.  It was, however, a nice distraction for a time when there was “nothing to read in the house.”

For a review of the sequel see The House on Durrow Street

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Posted by on January 7, 2013 in Fantasy


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by R.J. Palacio

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY 2012


I got this book for my son for the holidays.  It was being heavily promoted and it seemed like the sort of thing he might enjoy.  I couldn’t wait to read it myself.

Wonder is a book of children’s fiction.  The main characters are fifth graders in New York.  The themes, however, are very adult.  The story is about a boy who has a severe facial deformity, or as the story more accurately states “mandibulofacial dysostosis”.  He’s been home-schooled all his life, but now he’s going to start fifth grade in a school.

The story is told sequentially by multiple points of view.  First we get August, the main character, and his sense of self and fears for starting.  Then the friends he makes at school give their take on August.  We hear from his sister and his sister’s oldest friend.  We even hear from August’s sister’s boyfriend.  The story wraps up at the end of the 5th grade year again from August’s point of view and we see how much he has grown and changed over the course of the year.

Having raised a special needs child and his sister I have to say that I was impressed with the emotional honesty of this book.  The children seem a little older, more mature than typical midwestern 5th graders, but the way they process their experience is spot on.

The themes in this book are very adult.  We often forget that children do experience these things as well.  This book is a positive, uplifting look on overcoming adversity.  It doesn’t hide or try to sugar coat the emotions the characters feel.  It honors adult support without needing the adult characters to “fix” everything for the children.

It was a difficult book for me to read.  I have seen too much of these things in my life not to be impacted by the story and the reactions of the characters.  The best thing I can say about this book, and this really is a huge recommendation, is that I found it to be genuine.

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Posted by on January 5, 2013 in Children, Uncategorized


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