What Janine was Reading in June and July of 2013
With only a few exceptions, 2013 continues to be a disappointing year for me. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
This novel is narrated in alternating first and third person. The first person sections are in the POV of Bartimaeus, a djinni whom twelve year old Nathaniel has summoned and tasked with stealing the amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace, a powerful magician who stole it himself. The third person sections let us into Nathaniel’s head – it turns out that he wants revenge on Lovelace for an injury to his pride.
I can’t decide whether this book is middle grade or young-ish YA. On the one hand of the two main characters is a djinni and the other is twelve years old. On the other hand, the world this novel is set in is quite dark. Some parts of the novel are riveting, while others drag. There was very little appreciative growth in either Baritmaeus or Nathaniel, but this is only the first installment in a trilogy.
Although the characters themselves didn’t change much, what did change was my perception of them. I began the novel thinking Baritmaeus wasn’t that nice and Nathaniel a lot more sympathetic. By the end of the novel I saw this in the reverse. That impressed me. But though the book was written competently, and there were some funny jokes and amusing footnotes, some of the humor struck me as mean spirited and much of the book felt grim. C-/C.
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
My husband and I started reading The Curse of Chalion to each other (something we do from time to time) but only got through a hundred and seventy pages. The novel begins with its protagonist, Cazaril, wandering the countryside of Chalion homeless and wearing rags. Charity and the death of a well-dressed stranger bring Cazaril a bit of coin and good clothing, and he uses these to make himself presentable to the provincara, a noblewoman whose household he once served, in the hope of earning a position with her and thus, some food and shelter.
Eventually Cazaril, himself a member of the nobility but also a war veteran fallen on hard times, succeeds beyond his wildest imaginings—and also beyond his desires. He becomes tutor to the royesse Iselle and her lady in waiting Betriz, to whom Cazaril is attracted. Unfortunately this position beings him to Chalion’s royal court, and to the notice of old and powerful enemies who believed him dead.
Cazaril was a sympathetic protagonist, weary but also wise and, despite a great deal of fear, courageous. The side characters were likewise interesting and appealing, and the writing lovely. While the mythology of the world was not as fascinating as some I’ve come across, it was fresh. I was a bit annoyed by the use of terms like roya and royina where perfectly sound words like king and queen could have served, or provincar in place of duke, but appreciated the promise of political intrigue, which I generally like.
The main problem for me was the pacing. This novel was slow. And when I say slow, I mean really slow. Court life was portrayed in painstaking detail with a lot of ominous goings on but few actual turning point events. I’m sure it didn’t help that my husband and I read this book aloud to each other, which of course, made the process of reading slower than it would otherwise be. This had all the makings of a good book otherwise, and we may even go back to it at some point, but since we’ve moved on to other books it gets a DNF.
The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers
In this novella, Carrie, the heroine, meets Brian through an online personals ad. The ad stipulates that they will meet for an hour once during lunch a week to kiss and he will not touch her below the shoulders. If one of them wants to break it off they will simply not show up the following week. Carrie, who cries when her best friend exhibits married bliss, agrees to this, and when they meet it turns out Brian is a great kisser and the chemistry between them is remarkable. So it’s not surprising that she soon begins to want more.
Jayne and Dabney graded The Story Guy in the A range and I can see why. The author has a strong voice and the dialogue is especially charming. The kisses are hot and Brian at first comes off like a quirky and mysterious character. The novella kept me turning the pages and I wanted to like it too, but the more I thought about The Story Guy, the more it fell apart.
The characters did not feel fleshed out to me. Carrie seemed to exist in the vacuum of this story, and not to have lived much outside of it, despite being in her thirties. Brian’s life was even more circumscribed, though in his case there was a better reason for that.
A lot of my problems with this novella boil down to the way Brian’s secret was handled, and how a third character came across to me as more of an obstacle to the HEA than a person. I was annoyed with Carrie for pushing at Brian’s boundaries early on, and annoyed with Brian for deciding not to “burden” Carrie with his life, without letting her make her own decision, later on. Still, because of the pretty writing and the hot kisses, this gets a C/C+.
A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant
I loved Grant’s first two books so much that it hurts to write this mini-review. But well, everything about the first half of A Woman Entangled was so careful.
The heroine was careful—careful not to set a foot wrong by paying attention to any unsuitable man’s suit, including the hero’s, careful not to miss an opportunity to curry with her aristocratic relatives who had cast out her father for marrying her mother, an actress. Careful to cultivate her beauty and exploit every opportunity that could bring her into the social circle of a titled man who would consider marrying her and by doing so, improve her family’s circumstances.
The hero was careful—careful not to put a nose out of joint by reminding anyone he was the brother of the hero from the previous book, who’d married a courtesan, careful not to miss an opportunity to work, as he, though trained as a barrister, had so few of those now. Careful to cultivate his connections and exploit every opportunity to further his political ambitions, which certainly meant refraining from taking advantage of the heroine, his mentor’s lovely daughter.
The writing too, seemed careful, as though bringing a bull into this china shop would be the literary equivalent of stepping on a landmine, when it was just exactly for what I thought the story needed. Even the settings, mostly interior in the first half, seemed as confining, as stifling, as the characters’ circumstances were to this reader.
I heaved a sigh of relief when these two finally shared a dangerous kiss halfway through. I gulped a breath of fresh air when the hero’s brazen former lover appeared, and though I wished the book had been about her, I was still grateful, because her entry into the story provided the narrative engine the novel had needed and that felt like all the windows had suddenly opened in a stuffy room. From that point on, the book found its bright spots and fresh angles, and became a hell of a lot more sexy and satisfying. Ultimately, I was glad to have read this story. C+/B-
Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
I picked this up this –NA? YA?– story of a young marine on leave, grappling with PTSD and messed up relationship and family dynamics on an ebook sale a while back, and finally got around to reading it. Travis comes home to a brother who stole his girlfriend while Travis was in Afghanistan, a father who is cheating on his mother, and a mom who wants to mother him when he doesn’t know how to allow himself to be mothered anymore.
At first I wasn’t sure if I would like this short novel. Travis, the main character, wasn’t always such a nice guy and didn’t seem able to keep his hand off Paige, the ex-girlfriend who had hooked up with Travis’ brother Ryan in the hopes that Travis would want her back. Travis’ narration wasn’t always persuasively male to my ear, especially in the beginning. Some of the side characters, like Travis’ father and brother, even his mother, weren’t fully convincing to me either.
I did find the military details very believable, although that’s not a subject I know much about. And I really liked Harper, the girl with whom Travis gradually develops what may be his first meaningful relationship, and the backstory they shared. When Travis’ marine friends came to visit him, the story found its footing, becoming a lot more real and engrossing. Its ultimate conclusion packed a serious emotional punch that felt true and honest. I cried a lot, without feeling emotionally manipulated. This one rates a B- from me.
Also read and reviewed during this time period:
Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh, review here
To Love and to Cherish by Patricia Gaffney, joint review with Lazaraspaste here
To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney, epic-length joint review with Lazaraspaste here
The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan, review here
And what about you, readers? Have you read anything exciting lately? Let me know.
I believe Bujold’s Chalion was modeled after medieval Spain, which is why roya/royina are used — similar to rey/reina. I’m not sure about using provincar instead of duke though, other than to say it (duke) sounds very English to my ear.
How disappointing it is to go on a run of mediocrity, without embracing at least one book per month wholeheartedly! I think I liked Grant’s #3 better than you did. I had a much much harder time of it with the darkness that was a A GENTLEMAN UNDONE.
I think maybe my response to WOMAN ENTANGLED was more positive because I focused on things other than the hero and heroine; or, at least, I made them part and parcel of what I found really really good about this book: Grant’s references to other books! I read the whole things as a commentary about, a hyper-awareness of where romance has one thread of its origins: Austen. Though I think your point here about how careful the hero and heroine are, now that you’ve made it, merci bien (!;), I totally get and acknowledge. They are very careful pleasers/conformists, aren’t they?
The Curse of Chalion would be a really hard one to get through out loud. It is rewarding to stick with it–it becomes significantly faster-paced, if I recall correctly. Definitely one of those books that takes a while to get into.
Please pick Curse of Chalion back up! It does start very slow, but it does pick up and become awesome. It was one of my favorite books that I read last year. It’s sequel, Paladin of Souls, is the best book that I’ve read this year, maybe it even makes a top 20 of all the books I’ve ever read, and the third book is less closely related but also very good.
I would say that the Bartimeus books are definitely not for younger readers–they just keep getting darker. Although I did actually like how they ended, it wasn’t flowers and sunshine.
I cannot count the number of times I have read “Curse of Chalion”. It is one of my favorite books. I love all the court intrigue, the theology is fantastic and the action definitely kicks up to an absolutely thrilling climax. Please, please give it another try.
ps–this is not a book I would try reading out loud–much too complex.
@Hillary–yes! ‘Paladin of Souls’– I love a story with an older heroine and Ista so deserved her happy ending. And I love, love ‘Hallowed Hunt’–Bujold once said she started to write it as a romance and then the story got away. But it is the most overtly romance-y of the three.
@jmc: I got that it was modeled after medieval Spain but she used English words for the rest of the story. I didn’t even mention Royesse for princess and Royse for prince. It came across as an affectation to me, but maybe if I read more adult fantasy it wouldn’t seem so.
@Miss Bates: Yeah, I found it stifling to read about them and it was hard to get engaged in the first half. I do appreciate that Grant attempted something different but not engaging me can be the kiss of death. If this were the first Grant I had read, I might not have stuck with it. Maybe there’s a theme emerging here, with the Grant and the Bujold.
I really liked that we saw some of Nick’s work life as a barrister and what his world was, as well as Kate’s family (esp. the parents and the youngest, Rose), but I also think that for good or ill I’ve been conditioned by the genre to expect more developments within the romantic relationship in the first half of a book, and the pacing of the romance itself was a letdown.
As I’ve only read Pride and Prejudice once, and liked but didn’t love it (and that was long ago), the references to Austen didn’t excite me. One of my favorite scenes in A Woman Entangled was Will’s meeting with Lydia, his brother’s wife, outside his workplace. But then I loved the darkness of A Gentleman Undone though A Lady Awakened remains my favorite Grant. I prefer outsiders to conformists, I think.
@rebecca: That’s good to know, thank you.
@Hillary: Wow, that is high praise. Okay, I’ll talk to my husband about picking it back up after we finish with the book we’re reading now and another new one we have out from the library.
@Barb in Maryland: Okay, you’ve talked me into it. But can I ask why you feel it is better not to read complex books out loud? It is not like listening to them on an iPod, we can always stop when we are confused and look up something we read about earlier.
I bought The Curse of Chalion on sale – based on all of the good things I’ve heard about it and Bujold in general. I started to read it, got about two pages in, realized it was more than I had patience for at the time and have never picked it back up. So I’m glad that it’s not just me. I do plan to go back to it someday.
You asked about exciting reads. I’ve been in a bit of book slump too – I think it’s as much me as it is the books though. I did love, love, Among Others by Jo Walton – it has a very understated romance in it, but it’s mostly a love letter to reading SF/F as a teen. It’s set in late 1970s/early80s GB and is narrated by a 15 year book worm (it’s mostly her diary entries). She sees fairies and reads SF/F voraciously, and is trying to navigate a family tragedy, find a community, and figure out how to apply book learning to real life and omg, did Walton get the voice right – I kept hearing my HS sf/f obsessed friend Sara’s voice in my head (even though we were in SE Michigan, not Wales or England). I was only familiar with about 1/2 of the books mentioned, but that was enough for me to enjoy it – I don’t think it would work for someone who isn’t a SF/F fan or isn’t at least a little familiar with mid 2oth C SF/F (Tolkien, Heinlein, LeGuin etc).
Honestly – after writing that plug, everything else I read kind of pales. I did really enjoy Finding Master Right by LA Witt – which surprised me because LA Witt is very hit or miss for me, but this one was a hit. Not deep at all – just two friends at a BDSM leather conference who slowly realize that they want to be much more than friends. With lots of hot sex and not too much first person whining. And I enjoyed His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik.
The Bartimeous books are a trilogy. They do have a young protagonist, but the writing is denser than most middle schoolers can handle, and many high school readers have trouble with it as well. It’s a very well-written saga, once you read all 3 books. When my kids were younger we’d read a lot of books out-loud, so they wouldn’t fight over who got to read them first. Also, as an English teacher, I tried to choose books they might have trouble with reading for themselves, but would enjoy hearing them read aloud. That’s how we did the entire Harry Potter series, the Artemis Fowl books, the Bartimeous trilogy, and the LOTR series, as well as the Redwall books, and the Enchanted Forest books by Patricia Wrede, and the Tamara Pierce series with a female protagonist. The only series that we regretted finished was the Narnia books, since my one son got so upset that the big reveal was that the kids were dead in the last book, that he drop-kicked it across the room and swore he hated the entire series. We never finished the Golden Compass either, because the kids were as bored as I was reading the first book. But we all enjoyed the Bartimeous books, though they weren’t as amusing and funny as the Artemis Fowl books.
@cleo: Thanks so much for making a recommendation! And I’m glad to know I’m not the only one re. Chalion too. Among Others sounds interesting. I read SF and fantasy from the early to mid eighties. I’m familiar with Tolkien and LeGuin but only read one Heinlein which I understand was one of his later and lesser books. I probably know fewer of the books than you do, but maybe I should give Among Others a look.
@Fiona McGier: I hated the ending of the last Narnia book too. I think I was eleven or twelve when I read it, and while I didn’t kick the book across the room, I sure wanted to!
I know the Bartimaeus series is a trilogy but the first book was too grim for me to want to continue reading it. I liked the Golden Compass series with some reservations. My favorite in that series was the second book, The Subtle Knife. I think that series is riffing on Narnia but with a very different perspective than C.S. Lewis held.
OK, I know you have been convinced already, but I want to add my voice, too, to “please try The Curse of Chalion” again. It does get faster, and the theology and character building are amazing. And “Paladin of Souls” is even better, though I have re-read them both too many times to count.
I think reading any book with too many foreign words aloud to each other is not a great idea, I’d just continually stumble over how to pronounce the unfamiliar spellings, and it would be awkward. And this would be true of a great many adult fantasy novels.
@MD: Well, I don’t like most science fiction, which is what he likes to read, and he doesn’t like most romance, so that leaves us with fantasy, both the YA and adult varieties. The YA fantasy novels move faster, so they’re better for reading aloud at least as far as pacing. We also read the occasional dystopian and some eclectic stuff, but if we cut out fantasy it would make a wide swath in the area where our reading tastes overlap.
Count me in as another Curse of Chalion fan, although it may end up not being the book for you. There are ways in which this series reminds me of Megan Whelan Turner’s series, actually, but I do think the pacing is quite different. And main character is older, which also changes things.
I’ve had a successful August so far! First, I read The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo (nonfiction about, obviously, Anne Boleyn) which I really enjoyed after Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies. I am now tempted to try watching The Tudors…
I also just finished Joanna Chambers Provoked, the first in a trilogy following two men, set in 1820s Scotland. Loved it. Very well written, great sense of place, couldn’t put it down. (A DA recommend, as I’m sure you know.)
@Jorrie Spencer: I’ve been wanting to read Provoked! And the Mantel books too, though they seem a bit pricey. Thanks for reminding me of these.
Wow, almost all things I’ve read, many of them recently as well. This list made me laugh, because as you know we were pretty much in agreement on Rivers’ novella, but on everything else, not so much!
I read the Bartimaeus trilogy several years ago and really liked it. Dark and complex with very difficult characters, and just got better as it went (I’d agree the audience is pretty hard to categorize). Not only did I adore Curse of Chalion, I listened to it on audio, so it worked for me at that extra-slow pace. (I actually think I might have struggled with reading it, given the slow-paced start, but listening to it meant I didn’t have to wait until bedtime when I’m tired and my attention wanes). And I read Grant’s book on my recent vacation and loved it. Yes, it’s careful–what a great way to put it–but I thought that was deliberate and effective. So much of the action is internal–interior settings, as you say, and in the minds and hearts of the characters. That also reminded me of Austen (whom I love). In some ways I did miss the big concept, big drama of her first two books, but I thought the pacing of this one was best controlled and suited the story perfectly. In its own way, it was most risky, because the “low concept” book is not exactly common in romance these days. I found it so accomplished and engrossing.
As I get older, I have less attention for reading too, but I still love a slower-paced book. I suspect my many years studying 19th-century novels make me more tolerant of that than a lot of readers (not saying it makes me better, mind you, just different). I think one reason I enjoy discussing books with you so much–as we have a number of your recent reads–is that we often respond so differently so I always learn something from your perspective. I hope you find a winner soon!
The Story Guy didn’t work for me either, and after seeing 5 star and A reviews everywhere I’m glad it wasn’t just me that had issues with it!
@Liz Mc2: Well, MK Kennedy just told me on Twitter that the audiobook for The Curse of Chalion is the best she has ever listened to. I think a good narrator can make a big difference. When my husband and I read to each other, it is late, we often are tired, and sometimes we skip days. Still, some books have managed to rivet both of us even so. This was not one of them — and neither was The Amulet of Samarkand which we also read together.
Re. the Grant, I agree the carefulness was entirely deliberate, but it still didn’t work for me. I don’t feel the pace was controlled, exactly. I feel that in the first half, it was slow to a degree that didn’t seem to take into enough consideration absorbing the reader. There was a lot of set up and not much movement.
I can say that with more confidence than I can about the Bujold because I read the Grant by myself, the normal way, and for the first half I was silently pleading for something to happen in the story — something that would shatter the uneventful status quo.
I can see why you view it in terms of low concept and high concept but I viewed it more in terms of relationship chemistry. For the first half, I didn’t feel there was much of a spark between these two characters. And I don’t necessarily mean that I needed more sex (although that sure helped when it happened — and the sex was really hot in this book), but rather, more of one of them engaging the other and not just by being gorgeous. Repartee, cleverness, anger, rebellion — something was needed to light a spark.
I’d also situate my problem more with Kate than with Nick. Her social climbing didn’t bother me in the least, but she was almost wooden.
This may sound harsher on the book than what I feel. The last third really was wonderful, and the language was very good throughout. And many of the characters were great.
I’m sure you’re right that reading 19th century books affects your tolerance for slower books, because I know I used to have more of that when I was younger, and books were longer.
I learn from your perspective too. And re. finding a winner — I did really enjoy Milan’s The Heiress Effect and think you might too (I linked to my review at the bottom of this post).
@Mary: You are definitely not alone! There was a discussion on LizMc2’s Something More blog, and several people (including DA’s Robin and Sunita) had issues with it.
@Janine: Oh, Janine! Both of the Mantel books have been on sale, which is the only way I got them. I haven’t started them yet, but am still doing the happy dance. (Usually books go on sale AFTER I’ve paid full price for them.) Keep your eyes peeled for the next sale.
I was just talking to a friend of mine about audio books. I’m a neophyte and haven’t listened to many yet–and they were ones I’d actually read before. I’m a very visual person, so it has been interesting how different the audio experience has been for me. And I think there are some books that just wouldn’t lend themselves to that format for me–and maybe that was the case with TCOC for you.
I thought I was the only one who didn’t care for The Golden Compass. I bought a boxed set a number of years ago and only managed to (finally) finish the first book. I can’t stand bailing out in the middle of a book or series, so it’s always bugged me that I never read the other two.
@Hillary: I’ll add my weight behind Paladin of Souls. I love this book. Love the heroine. It is slower paced than her science fiction books, particularly the early Miles and the two Cordelia books, but it has so much–well, soul to it. Heart. It’s by far my favorite of Bujold’s fantasies, which is saying a lot.
Of course, I loved, loved The Story Guy, so our tastes might differ. :)
Oh man! Curse of the Chalion is one of my favorite books – I adore all things Bujold (though I will say that I was not a big fan of the Spirit Ring). She is on my automatic buy list. I know you mentioned that you don’t enjoy sci-fi, but the Vorkosigan Series is just amazing.
@Laura Florand: I’ll get back to this series at some point. I already have Paladin of Souls on my kindle thanks to a sale.
@JenB: Years ago I did read the two books about Aral and Cordelia and I liked the first one (Shards of Honor) a lot. The second (Cordelia’s Honor) was a decent read but not wow for me.
I had heard that “Curse of Chalion” was slow to unfold so I chose to listen to it on audiobook in the car–a strategy that has worked for me with other books (cough cough Dickens cough). I too found the beginning slow, but stuck with it because I also found it beautiful and strange (in a good way)–and then along the way it picked up, and then it started to rocket along, and before too long I was doing that whole “parking in the garage but not going inside” thing because I was absolutely riveted. (“Honey? Are you coming in for dinner or are you going to sit out there all night?”) Just finished the audiobook for “Paladin of Souls” today and it was just as wonderful.
I liked THE STORY GUY better than you did but it did bother me that the hero did not explain his difficult circumstances much sooner to the heroine – it felt like an artificial reason to keep distance. I don’t find a martyr complex at all attractive in people. And often care takers who martyr themselves like the hero are not really acting in the best interest of the person they are taking care of.
Add me to the Curse of Chalion/Paladin of Souls fan club. I think I had to go back and restart CoC because I couldn’t really get into it at first, but the second time it hooked me completely. Cazaril is a wonderful character, and the world is so richly realized. I may even like these better than the Miles series, although I’d hate to have to choose.
I’ve taken up listening to audiobooks again after a years-long hiatus, and it’s interesting how it changes the book experience. I notice baggy sections more, because I spend more time with them, but in return I get to linger over the parts I really enjoy. And yes, the narrator makes a huge difference, but tastes can vary when it comes to narration. A couple of highly recommended narrators don’t work for me at all, while others with idiosyncratic voices become a permanent part of my memory of the book.
@RevMelinda: That’s good to know. And CoC sure has a lot of fans!
Yes!!! I don’t either! I find that in real life, when people martyr themselves they get resentful and it starts to come out sideways. But somehow the martyrs we are treated to in books usually don’t have those issues. Many of them are too idealized for my taste.
A bad narrator can spoil a book as easily as a good one can elevate it. And yes, “bad” and “good” are subjective. A lot of people seem to like the Curse of Chalion audiobook though.