Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Yet another hit for Amy, my sci-fi friend. She’s 4-for-4 now, by my memory: first she gave me a (rare!) copy of Thank Heaven Fasting (the non-sci-fi outlier); then lent me The Hemingway Hoax; then recommended Soulless and now Kushiel’s Dart.

This is truly an epic masterpiece of world-building. I will go so far as to mention J.R.R. Tolkien.

I am a little bit challenged to categorize this story further; sci-fi I suppose it is. It is also speculative fiction? These genres are a little out of my league! There is some romance; there is plenty of sex. There is political and courtly intrigue. Think Tolkien for the world-building, and then add Philippa Gregory for the courtly intrigue and playful sex, even Sharon Kay Penman’s attention to detail; but it’s never slow! Oh no, I read these 901 pages (901!) in a two-day weekend. Many long hours and some lost sleep, but well worth it.

I don’t expect to be able to do much with plot summation, but I’ll try and give you a taste. The people of Terre d’Ange worship the demigod Elua and his Companions; the words he gave them to live by are, “love as thou wilt.” Love – or more to the point, sex – is considered a form of worship, and an entire class of men and women are raised from birth to be Servants of Naamah, the goddess-prostitute. They’re trained, then, in courtly manners as well as sexual tricks, which they perform for fees until the House that trained them has been paid off, and then they are free to continue in business for themselves or to pursue whatever path they choose.

Phèdre would have belonged to one of the Houses of the Servants of Naamah, but she was born flawed, or marked, by the dart of Kushiel, the one of Elua’s companions who loves pain. For her, pain and pleasure are forever linked. She is raised by an individual, not a House, and trained for a specialized kind of service, one that combines pain and degradation with sex. Her patron/caregiver/adopted parent is Anafiel Delaunay, and he has more in mind than the profits of her work; he trains her not only as a very high-class courtesan, but as an information-gathering multilingual scholar-spy. It is unclear to the young Phèdre what Anafiel’s political goals are, but she is very talented at playing her own role in his game, and she is deeply committed. Anafiel is a beloved father figure.

All of this transpires in the first third or less of the book, but I’ll stop here. Phèdre gets involved in matters of state much larger than she could ever have expected, and it will take all her formidable skills to protect herself and those she loves – and maybe, to save her nation.

I found Kushiel’s Dart to be incredibly engrossing. I couldn’t put this book down; I just couldn’t bear to leave Phèdre in a predicament. I came to love and root for her companions; I was invested in this story. I recommend it to anyone who likes to get lost in another world – and the world of Terre d’Ange and her neighboring nations is most definitely “other,” although there are recognizable traces of our own.

Amy tells me that this is the first in a trilogy, and there are three trilogies; but she assures us that each trilogy stands alone. This first installment stands alone outstandingly well too, although I won’t say you won’t be tempted to keep reading further! She also assures us that the books, if anything, improve as the series develop. All good news there.

Has anyone else discovered these outstanding epic novels? Anyone tempted to? I recommend!

Soulless by Gail Carriger

My friend Amy told me about the Parasol Protectorate series, and I was intrigued. It took me a while to find a copy of this, the first in the series, but it was worth finding!

The cover asserts that this is “a novel of vampires, werewolves and parasols,” and so the uniqueness begins. The series is set in Victorian London, and combines the genres of paranormal romance and steampunk along with, I suppose, alternate history. And there is a mystery as well. Most interesting.

Alexia Tarabotti is a confirmed spinster of the advanced age of twenty-six. There are several setbacks to her marriageability: her father is both dead and (was) Italian; he gave her a swarthy complexion; her nose is rather large; she is tall; and her personality is far too assertive and prickly to make her a decent wife. Furthermore, she is a preternatural – meaning, she has no soul. In Alexia’s society, werewolves and vampires are well-integrated into society (if not entirely accepted in all circles). To become a vampire or a werewolf, one must have an excess of soul; Alexia’s total lack thereof means that she can, with a touch, neutralize supernatural qualities. At the opening of the book, a vampire attacks her and in defending her, she accidentally kills him. The werewolf authority sent to investigate the death is a peer, one Lord Maccon, with whom she has tangled in the past. As new vampires begin appearing where they shouldn’t, and known vampires (and werewolves) fail to appear where they should, Alexia comes under suspicion. The clever and not-to-be-daunted Alexia, with her preternatural abilities to help her along, works on solving the mystery, further motivated on repeated attempts to abduct her. Lord Maccon works on the mystery because it’s his job. The two have some personality clashes but are also drawn to each other (cue the classic romance-novel device).

There is no arguing against the absolute silliness of this book, but it is oh! so much fun! I really enjoyed the romance that develops between Lord Maccon and Alexia. They struggle with understanding one another’s culture in their courtship: his involves pack dynamics that she’s unfamiliar with, and hers involves chaperones and proper proceedings that Alexia herself is not terribly comfortable with, being such a spinster. Carriger writes some very funny scenes; I giggled aloud. The mystery is engaging. The steampunk background was totally new to me and didn’t necessarily add anything to the appeal, other than being a layer of interest, something shiny to look at between steamy scenes.

I am surprised at myself, because I haven’t liked any paranormal romances yet; but despite the vampires (Lord Akeldama is great fun!) and the werewolves (Lord Maccon is really a sexy beast) this was an engaging, entertaining, clever story with a very likeable main character. I think I’ll seek out more of the Parasol Protectorate series! I wonder if we’ll ever learn more about the incident involving the hedgehog?? Thanks Amy for a very strong recommendation!

Teaser Tuesdays: Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

I’m listening to Definitely Dead on audio, and I’ll be honest about my reasons: somebody suggested it to fulfill my Louisiana reading need for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge, and I thought what the hey, it’s not really my usual choice but I do like to occasionally push my own boundaries. For one thing, I’m a better librarian if I have a better understanding of what Charlaine Harris has to offer. I had originally intended to use James Lee Burke (an old favorite) to complete Louisiana but here we go with a little variety.

So far, I’m still not sure this is my style, but I am enjoying the southern accent of the reader!

Here’s your teaser today:

But gosh darn it, I liked him, and it always smarts when you find out you’ve been replaced with apparent ease. After all, before his dad’s death Alcide had suggested we live together. Now he was shacking up with this young Were, maybe planning to have puppies with her.

Okay, I’m trying to flow with the vampires and the werewolves…

guest review: In Session by MJ Rose, from Mom

I posted my review of In Session a few days ago; now here’s my mother with a very different impression of it. For fairness’ sake. 🙂

In Session is a short but sweet introduction to the work of M. J. Rose and her character Dr. Morgan Snow, a sex therapist. I’ve never read her, but I will be looking for more of her work. The premise of this short story is that she manages to make contact with three fictional characters and involve them in her work. She makes a very satisfactory connection with Reacher, Lee Child’s hero, and the only one I have any experience with.

The first session (as in therapy session) is with Cotton Malone, who’s the creation of Steve Berry. Dr. Snow finds a way into his antiquarian bookstore to look at an erotic book from the 15th century. Discussion of the book leads to some discussion of his personal hang-ups, and a point is scored in favor of reflecting on and starting a resolution of these issues.

Calling this work erotic seems a bit of a stretch; there is certainly a lot more explicitness in many romance novels, I think. Perhaps in a full-length work, there’s more opportunity for a theme to blossom. In these sessions with the doctor, the issue of a sexual nature in couples’ lives is strong, but, as it should be, it’s also mixed with other aspects of people’s needs, such as dominance and trust. Eroticism is not the focus of the doctor’s work, but rather an important part in human nature that’s her area of expertise.

In the next two sessions, she meets with Reacher and Barry Eisler’s John Rain. I have to presume that she gives them accurate characterization, as all three authors have approved – and applauded – the work. The meetings are not contrived, but arranged so that the sexual issues can be raised with men who would never have consented to any kind of therapy. This book is just a taste of Rose, but I see lots of promise in her character and style.

I read a digital galley from NetGalley.

Thanks Mom! I’m glad you liked it.

In Session by MJ Rose

In Session involves a sex therapist named Dr. Morgan Snow (MJ Rose’s serial character), who undertakes to treat three heroes of serial fiction: Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone, Barry Eisler’s John Rain, and finally Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Those of you who follow this blog will recognize which of these guys brought me to Dr. Snow’s office – I’ve never read any Berry or Eisler, but Reacher is my fictional main squeeze these days. That said, my brief glimpses of Rain and Malone weren’t bad; maybe I’ll check them out one day, too.

Rose apparently challenged the three authors’ heroes to sex therapy sessions, and they told her if Dr. Snow could wrangle the guys she could treat them. So this book consists of three episodes in which the good doctor meets each of the three men, outside of a standard doctor’s office/therapy setting, and chats with them – to some effect.

I had no history with MJ Rose and didn’t know what to expect. The blurb my mother got from NetGalley referred to Rose (or this book? it wasn’t exactly clear) as… Erotica, Health, Mind & Body, Literature & Fiction, Mystery & Thrillers, Romance. Wowza! What the heck have I gotten myself into? Well, I think these genres must refer to Rose’s work in total, because they don’t all apply to In Session. One sex scene is described in minimal detail; it doesn’t qualify as Erotica. Health, Mind & Body must refer to the therapist character; but her work isn’t covered in any depth. Literature & Fiction? I don’t think so (more in a minute). Mystery & Thrillers is the most likely candidate, just based on the home environments of the three male leads, although there’s not much mystery & thriller in their stories here. And not much Romance, either.

I wasn’t very impressed. Dr. Snow approaches one man under false pretenses and sneaks him some therapy while he wasn’t looking. The next she approaches with an appeal to his services, and they both learn from their interaction. And the third stumbles upon her in a time of need, and he ends up telling her (upon her repeated demands) about a particular sexual experience. In each case, the characters are completely lacking in development and dimension. The therapy is pitifully simplistic and straightforward. Dr. Snow repeats a few lines to several “patients.” The therapy – the growth, the learning about oneself and making progress as a sexual or emotional being – is too facile to feel real. Would it help if I came in with a familiarity with all three male heroes, rather than just one? Maybe; but the Reacher scene wasn’t really any more satisfying than the others. His voice didn’t sound like Reacher to me. Perhaps these tales were just too short. I read them in about an hour (total); there wasn’t time for the characters to develop or for there to really be a problem, a solution, a catharsis, a resolution, any meaningful change. But that reasoning isn’t fair to the short story format, because we all know that there are plenty of artists who paint beautiful pictures in brief snippets. It’s certainly possible to develop a character and, well, tell a story in the short story format. It’s just not done here.

I think the appeal of these three stories is in seeing your favorite hero in a different light, maybe getting into a different aspect of his character. It was a fun concept in theory; it got me: I wanted to see Reacher on the sex-therapy couch. But I was disappointed.

Anybody else check this one out? Any positive impressions? I think my mother liked it and maybe she’ll tell us about it here. How about any fans of Rain or Malone??

I read a digital galley from NetGalley.

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

Perhaps you noticed how badly my last Evanovich experiment turned out. Perhaps you are shocked (as am I, rather) that I tried again. Well, for one, I was still trying to figure out what people like so much about Evanovich; I hope to be the kind of librarian who at least knows something about all the different genres and tastes. Also, I spoke with a friendly regular patron after my failed attempt with one of her little-known romance novels (above), and decided I was misguided in judging her based on that. I was advised to try again with the Stephanie Plum series, and so I picked up the very first. [For the record, yes, duh, I should have started here in the first place. I did know these were her bigtime contributions. But I guess I was trying to knock out a pure-romance-genre read – again for the sake of breadth in my reading – at the same time. Failure. Note: Always read what the author is famous for.]

For those that don’t know, Stephanie Plum is reluctantly and accidentally employed as a bounty hunter in New Jersey. This first book is her intro to the business. She’s an unlikely candidate, but she needs the money – Plum is kind of a mess, but a cute one. Her first job is to hunt down Joe Morelli, to whom she lost her virginity behind an eclair case in high school. Her feelings for him are mixed, but she barely has time to even try to work them out as the corpses mount up around her, she’s stalked by a sadistic serial rapist, and somebody else is trying to kill her.

I know, just from cover blurbs and general awareness, that Plum has a ping-pong-style love triangle with Morelli and fellow bounty hunter Ranger. This love triangle and sexual tension, as I understand it, is going strong – and still unresolved – after the recent publication of Smokin’ Seventeen, the 17th (yes, true) in her by-the-numbers Plum series. On top of these there are a number of between-the-numbers Stephanie Plum novels, so that for over 20 books, Evanovich’s fans have been eagerly awaiting resolution. Or have they? Maybe they enjoy this ongoing tension and drama, but I have read a few reviews myself indicating that her readers do desire decision. I confess, this is something that would get old for me. Indecisiveness, especially of the multiple-lovers variety, is a bit of a peeve of mine.

Another mild complaint: I’m not offended by sex or violence. I literally haven’t found my boundaries yet; I can handle whatever an author throws. But! I am offended, stylistically, by gratuitousness. And I found some of the sexual references gratuitous. Again, I’m not much of a reader of romance novels; I suspect this is a staple of the steamier of that genre that its readers expect and cherish. But the random appearance of genitalia for its own sake throws me off and yes, offends me – not because it’s sex, but because it’s random. [Seekers of “clean” books, look elsewhere.]

I was conflicted during most of my reading of this book. Stephanie Plum is feisty, hectic, and cute; she has attitude; her narrative voice is funny. Funny things happen to her: awkward moments and moments of conflicted sexual tension. There is some real humor here. But I was annoyed, too. I realize that the outlandish, unrealistic, pure silliness of these story lines are part of their appeal – Evanovich’s fans appreciate this – but I don’t think it’s for me. I’m too easily exasperated with Plum and her indecision (did I say that already?) and her clumsiness and poor decision-making. These books may not be my cup – but of course that’s a subjective judgment, and that doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy them.

I was repeatedly tempted to put this book down, but I hung in there. Just as I got annoyed by Plum (I promise you, if we were friends, I would constantly be rolling my eyes, sighing, and giving her unsolicited advice. Maybe we wouldn’t be friends very long), she’d make me giggle and I’d decide to keep going. Plus, I already quit on Evanovich once, and I was determined to see this one through.

After finishing the book, I remain ambivalent. This book did make me laugh, and it did keep me turning the pages, so Evanovich accomplished several goals: suspense and humor. But I finished with the same exasperation and frustration I’d felt for the whole book. I don’t entirely respect Plum. I’ve had my share of male-female interactions, and I don’t think people behave like this in the real world. It reads like a romance novel, not like life. I’m bothered by the scene, prevalent in romance novels, wherein a man can seduce a woman by being aggressive, rough, rude, even violent. I think this is a dangerous concept to propagate. But perhaps my overarching complaint is, this book is silly. And pointing to this as a criticism rather than a selling point is a matter of my personal taste, not of the objective value of Evanovich’s work.

As a final aside, it was cute to see how dated some of the details were. Cassette tapes, and the impressive tape deck in Morelli’s tricked-out Jeep, made me flip to the front for the publication date: 1994. Rather a fun little blast from the past. As you may have noticed, I’m not too concerned with reading series in order, but I’m glad I started at the beginning of this one. I’m willing to give Evanovich credit – sight unseen – that her characters & style develop as the series progresses. I’m happy to have started off at the beginning.

Final verdict? My options would have to be pretty slim to pick up another one of these books, but at least I now understand what Evanovich fans are looking for. She’s not to my personal taste. But I can see the appeal.

did not finish: The Rocky Road to Romance by Janet Evanovich (audio)

To be fair, I barely even started this audiobook. I was trying to expand my horizons a little bit. I’ve never read anything by Janet Evanovich! –shocking, to many readers of genre pop fiction, as she’s one of the bestselling romance/mystery crossover authors out there. She’s also one of the big names here in my little library. But then again, not so shocking when you consider I’m not a reader of romance, really. I am a huge fan of mystery novels, but hers are known to be cozy, funny, romantic/sexy mysteries, which isn’t my style. But, so. I wanted to broaden my reading world and thought I’d pick up one of hers, just to know what I’m missing.

I’ll give JE the benefit of the doubt and assume I picked the wrong one. To be fair, this is a romance – not mystery – title, and not one of her more popular, just judging from circular numbers in my library.

I didn’t even make it through one cd. What I did get was the beginning of the sparks flying between Daisy – cute, hard-working, quirky – and Steve, boss at one of her several jobs and obligatorily hunky, mysterious, and distant. The dialog and general writing was just so stilted, and the characters so pat, that I couldn’t take it. I was eye-rolling so hard I couldn’t watch the road, which was a hazard, so I hit eject. The narrator, C.J. Critt, didn’t help matters any, but I don’t think I should blame her necessarily; she was playing along with the book.

I’m being completely honest about the fact that I couldn’t stand this audiobook. But note the qualifications: not my genre or my style; and not Evanovich’s star character (that would be Stephanie Plum, of the numbered series starting with One for the Money).

I think I’m still determined to give JE a try, but will aim for a Stephanie Plum mystery next time for sure. (Thanks to my mother, with whom I mostly share reading tastes, and who enjoyed One for the Money although not outrageously much.) This one made me grit my teeth.

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