Monthly Archives: June 2010

“The Scent of Rain and Lightning” by Nancy Pickard

The Scent of Rain and LightningMy rating: 4 of 5 stars
Several recent mystery stories from Laura Lippman have delved not only into the whodunnit aspect of crime fiction, but also the impact it has on the characters and the community. Following that trend is Nancy Pickard’s “The Scent of Rain and Lightning.”

On a hot afternoon, Jody Linder is visited by her three uncles to let her know that Billy Crosby is being released from prison. Billy was sent to jail 23 years earlier for the murder of her father and on suspicion of doing something to her mother.

Jody is shaken by the news, especially as she’s just returned to town to teach English at the local high school. The mystery of who killed her father and where her mother disappeared to that fateful evening has haunted her for years and there are whispers in town that maybe Billy didn’t really do it.

At this point, “Scent” flashes back to the fateful afternoon, showing the events that led up to the death of Jody’s father and her mother’s disappearance. But while the story leads up to the events, putting in place a variety of potential suspects, it avoids telling us who was killed, why and how until late in the story. Instead, the story looks at the nature of justice and how Billy Crosby probably deserved to go to jail for a series of other crimes but may or may not have been the one who killed Jody’s father.

Pickard carefully introduces each character and then shows the fall-out and implications of the crime. The story develops in surprising ways with sympathetic and flawed characters. Even the suspected murderer Billy has his moments when you may feel more for him that animosity. Pickard also helps us understand that Billy’s family suffers just as much as the Linders do when Billy is arrested, tried and convicted of the crime.

The story sets up a number of potential other suspects as well as a myriad of motives. When the big reveal comes, it’s a satisfying resolution to the mystery, but also one that has some interesting implications for the characters we’ve got to know during the story. The novel looks at the nature of justice and forgiveness as the story unfolds.

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“The Girl Who Played with Fire” by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium, #2)My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As was the case with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” this one takes about 200 or so pages to really get rolling, but once it does, it’s a pretty entertaining ride all the way to the end. The big difference is that with the characters of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist firmly established from the first book, we have a quicker entry into the world of “Fire.”

It’s been a year since the events of “Dragon Tattoo” and in that time, the friendship between Salandar and Blomkvist has eroded. Salandar decides to travel the world with her new-found wealth and continues her obsession with becoming nearly invisible to the world-at-large.

Meanwhile, Blomkvist is working with a couple on a book and articles about the sex-trafficking trade in Sweden. The expose could prove to be explosive and damning to many of those discussed in the trade, but what Blomkvist doesn’t know is the roads will all lead back to Salandar and an incident that happened to her when she was 12 years old. (The book constantly refers to it before finally revealing what happened in the last third of the story. The foreshadowing is a bit obvious at times and it feels like Laarson is trying to say, “Pay attention because this will be important later.”)

Returning from her trip, Salandar hacks into Blomkvist’s hard drive and discovers what’s going on. She goes to confront the couple writing the articles, to give them a piece of the puzzle. Then the couple is found killed as well as her guardian. Saldandar becomes the prime suspect, but thanks to her efforts early in the book to stay off the grid, she can go to ground without much trouble and elude the authorities. She and Blomkvist also are able to correspond via her hack of his computer and he sets about proving her innocence in the affair, all while uncovering how it all ties back to her.

As with “Dragon,” I found myself wondering how much of Blomkvist was based on Larsson’s life and how he viewed himself. At one point, Saldandar reflects on her various romantic entanglements and sees how she never let anyone get to her, except, of course Blomkvist. And, of course, his status as that middle-aged stud who the women can’t resist continues. There’s also a section where his lover, Berger, reflects on his skills and how she needs what he provides as well as what her husband provides.

Those details aside, the novel works well enough and while we know that Salandar didn’t commit either murder, the central mystery of who did and why keeps the book going. The novel does stumble a bit in the middle segment, while Salandar is the prime suspect in that it moves her off-stage for this segment. She’s referred to and speculated on, but not seen or heard from. This leads to the story having to double back a bit and repeat some portions once she does enter the story again, much to my frustration.

The book is a good one and Salandar is an intriguing character. The moments when the story explores her and what makes her tick are fascinating and the final third as the mystery begins to finally unravel is worth the investment.

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Booking Through Thursday — The Reviews Are In

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Do you read book reviews? Do you let them change your mind about reading/not reading a particular book?

Yes I do read book reviews of all sorts, shapes and sizes. I will read professional reviews by those I know have similar tastes to myself to find new books or series. In the professional reviewer world, I often find that a glowing recommendation from Stephen King means that the book is probably going to be right up my alley and I will immediately head out to find it either at the library or bookstore.

I’ll also read the reviews on various social networking books sites, but I tend to read those AFTER I’ve read a book. I sometimes disagree with people on what exactly constitutes a SPOILER and while most are good at labeling the information, there are some times when it just jumps out and ruins the book.

Generally, reviews won’t make me change my mind about a book, though it is interesting to consider what others did or didn’t like about the book. It sometimes gives me something to think about and to ponder and it may encourage me to re-read the book with a different eye in the future. Also, where a review is published and who writes it is something to consider. As helpful as Amazon reviews may be, I find that you have to be careful in reading them as it seems only the most polarized views tend to show up–either the reviewer loves it or hates it. I realize that we all have our own set of favorites, but I can’t believe that every book is the best one ever written.

Hence why I tend to look at and trust book bloggers who have similar tastes and interests and social networking reviews on LibraryThing, GoodReads and Shelfari more than the reviews on Amazon.


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“Acacia” by David Anthony Durham

Acacia: The War with the Mein (Acacia, #1) My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When it comes to fantasy, I often wonder if writers these days are paid by the pound. Glancing over the spines of the novels in the sci-fi and fantasy section at the bookstore or library, it certainly seems that way. I often wonder if the word “epic” should be translated “book so big you can hurt someone if you dropped it on them from the top of a flight of stairs.”

There are a lot of writers who fall into the category of epic being little more than an excuse to have a huge page count and to give readers a severe case of cramps holding the book. Terry Goodkind is the most obvious culprit to me, though I’ve heard Robert Jordan can be the same (I’ve not read any Jordan and have no plans to in the near future). But then you’ve got an author like George R.R. Martin who embraces the term and delivers book that are, for lack of a better term, truly epic, packed with character and world building and a narrative thrust that keeps moving forward and rarely devolves into extended navel gazing.

Somewhere in between those two extremes of Goodkind and Martin is “Acacia,” a story that advertises itself as an epic fantasy and certainly has the page count to back-up it up. David Anthony Durham has previously written some historical novels. The attention to detail and creating an authentic sense of time and place is both an asset and a detriment to “Acacia.” Durham’s attention to detail and world-building is admirable, when its being done right, but there are times when it brings the entire story to a halt and gets a bit tedious. A lot of these are in the first 200 or so pages as Durham has to laboriously put pieces into place so he can give us the payoff in the next two thirds of the book. It makes the novel difficult to wade into.

Durham’s world is an intriguing enough one with various political factions vying for power. Several factions have controlled the world of “Acacia” at various times, each one working to build alliance and overthrow the other for as long as time can recall. It’s an old struggle and it’s not one that is going to end any time soon. One interesting aspect is the idea that each ruler comes into power with lofty dreams of changing the system of rule only to find the system is far too entrenched to make such radical changes without destroying their grasp on power and the world as it is.

In the universe of “Acacia,” the ruling family rules with the help of a hired naval fleet and an interesting pact. Each year, the party in power provides a quota of slaves in return for the continued co-existence with another faction of might and a drug that keeps the rest of the populace sedated and in line. This deal with the devil as it were keeps the status quo and allows the in-fighting amongst factions as each one goes into and out of power. There are different names and personalities to things, but each ruler realizes that this is the system and it’s going to take more than political capital and intestinal fortitude to change things they have or are willing to sacrifice.

Durham is clearly trying to follow the example of Martin with a sprawling cast of characters, many of whom you’ll like and then dislike and then like again as the story goes along. He’s also willing to make sure that no one is safe in the story, giving the story a bit more gravity than other fantasy offerings where you know that certain characters won’t die or change too much in the course of the novel or series.

But at close to 800 pages, this is only the opening round of the story. The cover proclaims this is to be a trilogy and while I liked the world here, I’m still not sure I’m anxious to jump into the next book. “Acacia” doesn’t resolve everything and is the opening act for a larger tapestry. Whether or not I’ll continue the journey remains to be seen.

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Booking Through Thursday: Past or Present

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Do you prefer reading current books? Or older ones? Or outright old ones? (As in, yes, there’s a difference between a book from 10 years ago and, say, Charles Dickens or Plato.)

It doesn’t matter to me when a book was published. A good story is a good story.

I try to read a good blend of both old and new, though a lot of what I read is newer. This is because of reviews I find, recommendations from friends and the shiny covers at the bookstore and library.

One thing I hope the revolution toward e-books will do is allow older books to remain in print and circulation longer. After all, if they only have to exist as electronic files on a server, then it shouldn’t cost as much or take up as much shelf space to keep them around.


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Summer of Series: “A Wizard of Earthsea”

A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, #1) A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
For some reason, growing up I never got around to reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea.” Part of it could be that I heard it compared to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, a series that I couldn’t quite plow my way through, despite multiple attempts as a younger reader. And part of it could have been that I was enamored with the tie-in novels for “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek,” that I never got around to some of the other original stories from the genre.

When ads began running for an “Earthsea” mini-series a few years ago on SciFi, I admit I was tempted to pick up the books, if only so I could say how the movie wasn’t as good as the books. But then I recalled how tedious I’d found “The Dispossessed” and decided against it, writing off the series as probably more of the same.

Finally, years later, I’ve finally got around to the first book of the series. I decided I’d approach it with an open mind, hoping for the best. After all, my favorite Tolkein is the book he wrote targeted for children (“The Hobbit”) so it’s possible that Le Guin could improve when writing a novel and series aimed at young adults and children.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I came away from “A Wizard of Earthsea” liking Le Guin more than I did when I started. On a positive note, I didn’t find myself not wanting to read her works ever again as I did when I finished “The Dispossessed” and I’m actually curious to read the second installment of the series.

Dury is the son of a bronze-smith whose mother died in childbirth. From an early age, Dury shows an aptitude for magic, training with his aunt, the village witch and then apprenticing with a powerful wizard. In the world of Earthsea, people and things are given one name upon their birth and later given their true name in a coming-of-age ceremony that signals their journey into adulthood. Dury becomes Ged.

As an apprentice, Ged is proud of his magical powers and eager to learn more. He’s a bit impulsive and impatience in the early stages, leading to his leaving his original master and heading out to the school for magic in Roke. He carries with him a letter from his former master saying that he could be one of the greatest wizards of all time. Ged finds out this when he reads the letter to the overseer of the academy who is slowly going blind.

This knowledge leads Ged to become a bit more arrogant in his assumptions about his power. During a duel with a fellow rival, Ged calls up a dark spiri that also brngs a black mass which attacks Ged, scarring him for life. Ged hovers between life and death while the nameless evil shadow roams Earthsea. Ged finally recovers and receives his yew staff, embodying his achievement of magehood.

If you’re worried that I’m revealing a lot of plot details from the book, don’t be. Most of what happens in those paragraphs takes place within the first 40 or so pages of the novel. “Earthsea” is one of those stories that is a blink and you’ll miss it for the plot developments. Le Guin really packs the story in, giving little or no time to readers to catch their breath, despite the fact that large chunks of time are passing during the story.

As Ged heads out into the world, he realizes what he’s done and what he’s called up is something that will haunt and pursue him until he can find a way to defeat it. This leads to Ged going from place to place, trying to avoid the future that is bearing down on him.

“Earthsea” is a coming of age story for Ged. Watching him grow from a prideful young boy into a fearful young man is a fascinating journey as is his decision about what must be done to stop the forces pursuing him. And while Ged is reasonably well developed over the course of the novel, a lot of the other characters aren’t given much time or drop out of the story once their purpose to the plot is complete. It’s a bit frustrating at times or maybe it’s that I’m too used to the current fantasy-writing conventions where every character has his or her own backstory for pages on end, even if it’s not required by the plot. There has to be a reasonable middle ground, doesn’t there?

One interesting aspect to the story is the power that learning the true name of things has. I’ve seen this element in a variety of genre stories and it’s fascinating to see it incorporated here. Ged uses it to bind a dragon and make it agree not to attack a village and the power of knowing the true names of things is a fascinating one. It’s something I hope we’ll explore more in future books.

The problem with the book is the pacing. Le Guin leaps from one plot to the next with little or no time for reflection. I don’t necessarily want to see pages upon pages of Terry Goodkind-like summing up the plot by reflecting on what’s happened until now in the story, but I’d also like to feel like what’s going on is having some kind of greater impact on Ged. We do see him growing and he does change in many ways over the course of the book, but I found myself feeling like the story was too plot dependent by the time I got to the final confrontation. A bit of character work in there would have been welcomed.

However, Le Guin does avoid the temptation to make Ged go through too much of a change over the course of the story. He does learn from his errors and while he becomes more tempered as the story grows along, he still is prone to making the same mistakes. Often times, he gambles on things and he loses as often as he wins. He wins early in the story, holding off an attack on his village but overuses his powers. He also wins in researching the name of the dragon and it pays off. However, he also gambles and is pushed into it by others (it’s interesting to note how Ged is easily persuaded to push his powers by females) and it doesn’t always pay off. His being tricked by the daughter of the village witch and the magical duel are both prime examples.

“A Wizard of Earthsea” is a good book, but not a great one. I wonder if I’d read it at an earlier age if I might have been a bit fonder of it.

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Booking Through Thursday: Signed

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Do signed copies excite you? Tempt you? Delight you? Or does it not matter to you?

I have a couple of signed books by favorite authors, such as my collection of earlier works from Garrison Keillor and a couple of Star Trek novels autographed by Peter David. I like them and they’re nice to have on my shelf, but I also find that signed copies make me worry that I’m gong to somehow destroy them reading them or re-reading them. It’s almost as if I suddenly need two copies of each book.

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Booking Through Thursday: Length

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Which do you prefer? Short stories? Or full-length novels?

I’m going to hedge a bit here and say, it depends.  As long as the author gets the chance to tell the story he or she wants or needs to tell, then the length of it (in terms of page or word count) doesn’t really matter to me.  I’ve read some profoundly moving short stories over the years and I think that it takes a special ability to truly craft one.  You have to really get to the heart of what you’re trying to tell and just tell it to the readers.  (I took a fiction writing class in college and wrote short stories for’s a lot harder than it looks).

It all comes down to how effective the story is.  If you can tell the story in a short story, do it.  If it needs to be a novella, so be it.  If works best as a longer book, that’s fine also.  Again, it depends on the intent and the story being told.  I find myself reflecting on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries which, I think, worked better with the character in short stories than they did as full length novels.  “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is generally the Holmes story given to middle and high school readers for their introduction to Holmes, which I find ironic.  It was my point of entry and I enjoyed it, but looking back it’s not the strongest Holmes story and it doesn’t feature a whole lot of Holmes in the actual narrative.

That said, I think there is something to be said for knowing how and where your story will end.   One of my huge pet peeves with sci-fi and fantasy series are those long, seemingly never-ending sagas that feature a multitude of characters and a bunch of tangents that have no relation to the overall story or offer anything to the universe.  I can accept character building or world building (provided you don’t pull a Tolkein and describe every leaf on every tree) as long as it has a point and is relevant to the story.  A sidetrip just to pad out a story bugs the fire out of me.

I recently re-visited Richard Matheson’s “Duel” as an audio book (paired with an homage story by Stephen King and Joe Hill) and was struck by how incredibly effective it was because of its economy of length.  It effectively tells the story of a man’s descent into obsession, paranoia and madness over the course of an afternoon drive with a truck from hell.   The story puts all the pieces in place and slowly erodes them, giving us enough of a character glimpse of Mann to be effective but not feeling like it has to fill in his whole backstory.   It was easily as compelling as many longer novels I’ve read and yet it’s a relatively short reading or listening experience.


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Summer Series Challenge: “An Autumn War”

An Autumn War (Long Price Quartet, #3) An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Since the end of “A Betrayal in Winter,” reluctant leader Otah Machi has tried to make some changes in the way the city of Machi is rule. He’s taken only one wife who has given him two children. Otah would like to easily hand off the reigns of leadership to his son, Danat when the time comes, but Danat’s poor health could mean the child will die before that can happen. It would leave a vacuum in the top leadership role and lead to potentially more chaos than when Otah took over the throne.

Things get a bit more complicated with Liat returns to his life with her son Niyat in tow. In spite of claims that Niyatti is the poet Matti’s son, all appearances say he is the son of Otah and could be in line for succession. If Otah chooses to acknowledge him as a son and put him in line for the throne.

As if that weren’t enough, a Galt general by the name of Balasar Gice is stirring up trouble to the north. He has a poet of his own and audacious plan to invade and conquer his neighbors to the south. Balasar plans to remove the security blanket that has kept Galt at bay all these years–the andats. Liat brings news of the troop movements by Balasar and the Galts and while Otah struggles over the decision to use the andats or not to wipe out the Galts, Balasar puts him plan into motion, destroying all the andats and leaving the country open to conquest.

“An Autumn Campaign” is the third installment in Daniel Abraham’s “Long Price Quartet” and it may be the best so far. Abraham takes seeds from each of the first two books and weaves them together into an engrossing story that is rich both in well developed character and an engrossing narrative. The novel is one that finds the pigeons coming home to roost as it were with events and actions from the first two novels having consequences and a major impact on developments here. Abraham also keeps the story interesting by allowing us to see both sides of the coming conflict and lets us understand that while war is brewing, both sides have legitimate claims, fears and grievances in the upcoming battle. It’d be easy to make the Galts one-note bad guys but Abraham avoids this. The first two books found them off-stage a bit, pulling strings and maneuvering politically. Here we spend significant portions of the book getting their world-view and the novel is a richer experience for it.

The disappearance of the andats is a major turning point in the series and leads to another turning point for the series. Maati and his fellow poet struggle to find a way to bind a new andat to reset the balance of power and wipe out the Galts. But what Maati creates and the ramifications of it leave the book on a compelling cliffhanger and open up the door to a fascinating end to the series.

It’s nice to see a series that seems to have a thought-out storyline before the first chapters are committed to paper. As I’ve said before, one of my biggest frustrations with fantasy series is the lack of closure some will have, simply running on for pages and novels on end in an attempt to pad out a series for maximum profit. “The Long Price Quartet” shows the value of having a clearly defined beginning, middle and end to a story and while I’m sure Abraham has some surprises in store for the final book, just like every other surprise he’s thrown in the series so far, they’ll all be well sewn into the story either based on our knowledge of the characters or the established rules of the universe.

Reading “Autumn” I was struck again by how Abraham grounds his fantasy universe in familiar elements of our own. One particular thread that struck me is the mentions of food in the books so far. It’s not a stopping to describe some luxurious and exotic feast. Instead it’s details of the names of food, the sights, smells and tastes of them and having the characters stop to enjoy a meal or wine or tea. It’s seemingly minor, but it has a huge impact in helping the world seem a bit more real and interesting.

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