May 3

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Fantasy books are incredibly difficult to review. Either you love them or you hate them. There seems to be no middle ground. And somehow every plot sounds the same. So how am I going to tell you effectively about good this little book really is. Little by fantasy standards, only just over 300 pages.

Katsa was born ‘talented’ on a world where ‘talented’ people are viewed with great suspicion and forced to live at court and serve the king. In that way they can be closely supervised and supposedly the king is wise enough to use their skills for the greater good. Katsa’s grace, or talent, is killing. When she inadvertently kills a baron during a court dinner, she immediately is cast in the role of the King’s personal assassin. She is forced to spend her life breaking bones and removing heads all at the whim of the king. 

Katsa is very uncomfortable with this role. And in reaction she sets up a secret council who works to help the helpless not only in her own kingdom, but in each of the seven kingdoms in her world. This council hears of the kidnapping of King Liend and Katsa begins the search and rescue. Thus begins the adventure.

I loved Katsa as a character. She was strong and caught in a violent profession, but somehow she maintains her humanity. She cares for others, even to the extent of trying to avoid her King’s commands. The scene where she declares her independence is absolutely wonderful. I felt like cheering.

OK so the names are silly, and they get sillier. That is a common fault with debut fantasy authors. But otherwise there is very little to fault in this captivating adventure story. Certainly it was the cause of a very late night because there was no way I was going to sleep before I found out what happened.

May 3

Teatime for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith

Believe it or not this is the first book in the extensive No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series that I have read. I greatly enjoyed a radio play based on the first book, so before commencing this book I did have some idea of the main characters and of course, the white van. Now I wish I had the time to go back and savor the other 9 books.

Precious Ramotswe is having a few problems. First and foremost, her little white van has a very strange knocking noise and she is certain that Mr J L B Matekoni will finally pronounce her beloved car dead once he hears the noise. So for a while she begins to walk to the office, 40 minutes in the hot sun. But very soon her secret is discovered, and a new shiny blue van is bought as a replacement. But somehow she cannot forget her faithful friend of many years.

The second problem is that the owner of the local football (soccer) club has asked her to uncover the traitor on the team that is causing them to lose every week. The team used to be undefeated champions, but now they never win. Surely someone is guilty of match fixing, and he wants to know who it is. But traditional ladies know nothing about football. How on earth is Mma Ramotswe going to know who the culprit is?

And her assistant is no help. Grace Matkusi, who received 98% on her examinations, has doubts about her fiancee. He has just hired a new assistant manager in his furniture store to oversee the beds department. This woman was Grace’s archrival at business school and has most certainly lied about her results. Now it seems that Violet is after more than just Grace’s reputation. This problem requires Mma Matkusi’s undivided attention and there is no time left to help with any other investigation.

But a little willingness to listen to small voices and female logic and ingenuity saves the day. But what about the white van? Tune in next time…

McCall Smith portrays a lovely, peaceful Africa full of gentle people with long traditions. This is so far from the media image of pirates, massacres, and boy soldiers that it seems like a foreign land. I would dearly love to visit his Botswana and even meet Patience and Grace for they are so charming and adorable that I am sure we would be dear friends.

This is not a crime novel. It is book about people and all the things that happen to them in the course of their daily lives. And sometimes people need help. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is there to oblige.

 

May 3

Dexter by Design by Jeff Lindsay

Is anybody noticing a theme? For the last two months I have been reading a lot of crime fiction. It is certainly making it very interesting to compare writers styles and themes. The Dexter series of books is promoted as a very different crime novel, one in which the leading character is a serial killer. Certainly this series is different, but I am not sure that I am going to join the ‘critical acclaim.’

Dexter is a blood spatter specialist for the Miami police. He arrives on a crime scene long after the rest of the forensic team and draws his own conclusions about what happened. But this part of his life only plays a very minor part of this novel. This book is far more about the ‘dark side’ that Dexter successfully hides from the world, the side of him that thoroughly enjoys his self-appointed role of vigilante executioner. You see Dexter takes it upon himself to rid the world of the scum that the courts put back on the streets.

But in this novel, he makes a mistake. He witnesses a crime, discovers that the police have found no evidence, and then carries out the execution in a very bloody manner. Later he discovers that he did not see what he though he saw. Another person was in the house at the time the crime was committed, and this second person was the guilty party. What is worse, a film exists of Dexter’s activities. As you can imagine this fact motivates Dexter to ensure that he solves the problem completely next time.

I do have a few problems with the underlying themes of this book. Dexter’s public persona is just too slick and too practiced to be believable. His job as a blood splatter specialist who can’t stand the sight of blood seems too illogical for words. And the fact that he is getting married simply to add credibility to this false persona bothers me. He isn’t honest with anyone, especially himself.

The other problem that I had with the book involves his two step-children. They are recruited and trained in Dexter’s unique vigilante style. Why, if he can’t trust anyone else, does he take these two kids into his confidence? Sorry, but this just seems wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It got me involved quickly and I hardly put it down for about 48 hours. The misgivings arrived later as I was thinking about this review. 

May 3

True Detectives by Jonathan Kellerman

Someday it would be a good thing if the publicist and the publisher actually met and discussed the book they were promoting. All the publicity said this was a new Alex Delaware novel thanks to the publicist, but Kellerman’s webpage and the publisher’s webpage and the also by… list all tell the truth that it isn’t. But, hey, it was a very good read anyway.

It was actually refreshing to read about a new ‘team’ of detectives. In this case two brothers, Aaron and Moe. Aaron is a flash private investigator, used to bending the rules and pushing boundaries. Moe, short for Moses, is a young detective working in the same precinct as Milo Sturgis. The brothers each have different fathers and it appears their resentment of each other can be traced back to their father’s partnership. The fathers were both policemen and one man died through his partner’s inaction. This kind of resentment can build in a family and at the opening of this book Moses and Aaron are barely civil to each other.

But then a missing persons case arrives on Moe’s desk. His brother is hired to investigate the disappearance because the family are quite convinced that the police are doing nothing. Not really the best basis for reconciliation. However, each man brings his own insights and talents to the search and they uncover a murder and much much more.

I quite enjoyed this book. Yes the core Kellerman plot was there, but changed enough to suit the two new leading detectives. And the LA that these men inhabit is a very different city from the one where Alex and Milo live. 

I hope there is more to come from the adventures of Moses and Aaron, but please inform the publicist that these books are not Alex Delaware novels.

 

May 2

Other People’s Country by Lee Fox

I seem to remember some controversy about this book when it was first released, but with the passage of time all controversy has faded. However, this is certainly a book that will cause the reader to re-examine his/her attitude to modern Aboriginal society.

Lola is very happy when her mother is appointed to a new job, store manager in Wandana a remote Aboriginal community in Central Australia. The new adventure is very exciting until the reality of the job hits. Lola is stunned by the school, shocked by the store and bewildered by the whole society. When the threat of violence forces the family to consider leaving this job long before the contract time is up, Lola is confronted with a difficult decision.

This book pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the poverty and other difficulties faced by Aboriginal people today. However, I didn’t find the portrayal at all sympathetic. In fact I felt that the author was indicating that any possibility of reconciliation between the white and Aboriginal societies is unlikely if not impossible. I felt that the book was very negative.

But then I saw the book listed as recommended reading on an Aboriginal culture website. Go figure…

May 2

Captain Congo and the Crocodile King by Ruth Starke

Haven’t times changed. There was a day when a book like this would be taken off any boy trying to read it and a boring chapter book shoved in his face instead. Now this graphic nove/comic book has been actually nominated as the CBC picture book of the year.

Captain Congo and his offsider Pug the Penguin are off to Africa to rescue a missing archaeologist. The man was last seen searching for the lost Treasure of the Queen of Sheba. Congo and Pug travel by tramp steamer, encountering spies, murderers, crocs and angry natives.

This book is right out of the 50s. It reads like a Saturday afternoon serial, one madcap adventure after another with a bare minimum of plot in between. But that is fine because that is exactly the what the book pretends to be. The presentation is so much like those comic books from the 50s that I thought for a moment time had run in reverse.

But it is a great, entertaining read.

May 2

The Silver Horse by Kate Forsyth

Ages ago I was asked to read this series because a parent expressed concern that some of the themes in the series were far too controversial for young readers.  So far I have managed to find the time to read the first two books in the series and in my opinion these two are fine.

Last August I reviewed the first book in the series, the Gypsy Crown. You will need to have read the first book, or at least a comprehensive review of the book in order for the plot of this second book to make sense. In the second book the children are negotiating for the second charm, held by a family of horse traders. Emilia must sacrifice her beloved horse to get this charm, but her confidence that the magic will succeed convinces her that it is only a matter of time before the charm can be returned and her horse reclaimed.

Again this is very much a transition book. It tells its own story, but needs to be read in the context of the full series.

May 2

Daughter of the Flames by Zoe Marriott

Every now and then I need to review a book that I simply didn’t like. These reviews usually get the most response so I am ready and waiting.

Zira was raised in a temple, training to become a warrior priestess. But on the eve of her sixteenth birthday she discovers that she is actually the daughter of the country’s former ruling family. Suddenly her life changes. She must marry for a political alliance. And with the assistance of her friends she leads the fight against the usurper.

Sorry, but this book was simply too trite. All the way through I felt the author was a Tammy Pierce wannabee. And the romance was laid on just too thick for the age group that would be likely to accept this fantastical tale.

But I have to read some bad books, it helps to appreciate the good ones.

May 2

The Goldsmith’s Daughter by Tanya Landman

This is a very unusual book for children. Set at the end of the Aztec empire the story of the fall of Montezuma is told through the eyes of a young Aztec girl.

Itacate was born just before dawn and her mother died giving birth to her. Although her twin brother, born minutes later, survived, Itacate was determined to be cursed and the prophecy indicated that she would lead her whole family to destruction. However, she survives and even convinces her father to allow her to assist him in the workshop. Her real talent for the craft is revealed and attracts the attention of Montezuma himself, bringing her whole family into danger.

A few months ago I reviewed a book for adults that was set in this same period of history, so I was interested in how the author would portray a very violent and bloody time in a format that would prove acceptable for children and young adults. By revealing the culture through the eyes of a young woman who truly believed that the sun would not rise if blood was not shed before dawn. When her brother was chosen for the annual sacrifice, Itacate is torn between pride that he was considered worthy of ensuring their city’s survival for another year and grief at the death of her twin. I believe this is a very realistic portrayal of the family response to this practice.

I did have a problem with the ‘romance’ in the story. The whole idea that an Aztec girl would encounter a Spanish soldier is hard to accept, but that he would leave his life and escape with her to the jungle is incredible. How on earth would either of them survive? A girl born and raised in a middle class city neighborhood and a foreign soldier very obviously from the unpopular invaders?

 

May 2

Cold Skin by Steven Herrick

This is one of those books that is almost impossible to put in a genre. It is set in recent history, but it is not really a historical novel. It is about a son’s fight against his father’s wishes, but it isn’t really a family relationships story. The plot is built around the discovery of a dead body, but it really isn’t a who-done-it. But it is a good book about life in small town Australia in the latter half of last century.

Eddie lives in a small town dependent on the local coal mine. He wants to leave school and go to work in the mine, but his father won’t lear of it. So Eddie drifts through life wondering what he will do when school runs out. Then one Friday night a dead body is found and every man in the town comes under suspicion. The reader follows the investigation through Eddie’s eyes, watching as Eddie discovers that people are not always as they seem.

I have always loved the way Herrick writes his verse novels. His poetry seems almost a very private expression of deep emotions, and yet even from his male characters, this ‘diary’ format works. This novel is no different.