2012 Book Log #6: Ganymede, by Cherie Priest

Ganymede (The Clockwork Century, #4)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fourth installment in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, Ganymede is now finally getting into actual sequel territory. Like Clementine and Dreadnought, it’s a standalone story–but this time, one of the spotlight characters in fact someone who previously showed up in Boneshaker, and we’ve got clear followup to the events in that book. So if you want to jump in on this series–and if you like steampunk, zombies, and/or the Civil War era, you should–this is not the place to start.

New Orleans madam Josephine Early is spearheading a secret Confederate attempt to hand over the submersible Ganymede to the Union, in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of the ongoing war. But no one’s left alive who knows how to safely operate the machine, and so Josephine’s forced to call for help to an old flame. She’s fiercely hoping that the airship pilot Andan Cly will be able to use his skills to pilot a machine that goes underwater instead of through the air, and she’s desperate enough that she isn’t exactly ready to tell him that the machine’s drowned all its previous crews.

And without a doubt, the relationship and backstory between Josephine and Andan is one of the high points of the book. I’ve found Priest to always be excellent at what romantic notes she introduces into a story, and this one’s no exception; the prior state of this relationship is played off with the exact right understated note against the bigger picture of the current intrigues. Toss in some glimpses at New Orleans’ zombie problem AND the issue of how the problem’s spreading across the country, references back to characters in all three of the previous books, and a supporting cast of colorful characters (one of whom has a secret revealed that amusingly blows Andan’s mind) and there’s a whole lot to like here.

Bonus points as well for the amusing use of actual Civil War history. It was particularly amusing to me to see a news link going around about the restoration of the Hunley–the actual vehicle named for the man who’s referenced in this novel as the creator of the Ganymede.

All in all, great fun. Five stars.

2012 Book Log #5: Unclaimed, by Courtney Milan

Unclaimed (Turner, #2)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a romance staple to do a series of interconnected books all featuring siblings in the same family, or employees of the same agency, or what have you. Courtney Milan’s Turner series is no exception. And happily, Unclaimed, the second book in the series, turned out to be just as much fun for me as the first.

Book 1 was the story of Ash, the oldest of the three brothers; Book 2 picks up with his younger brother Mark. Mark’s an example of Milan cheerfully subverting another romance trope–because here, it’s Mark, not the heroine of the novel, who’s the one without sexual experience. This is by no means not Mark’s only defining trait, but it’s an important one that sets the course for the entire plot.

Mr. Turner–or rather, I should say, Sir Mark Turner, because the Queen has knighted him for his service to the nation’s morality–has written a treatise, the Gentlemen’s Practical Guide to Chastity. In her intro to the novel, Milan talks about how she wanted to write about a character with a rock star’s level of fame, but since she’s a writer of historicals, she had to figure out how to work it into the book in a period-appropriate fashion. Hence, Sir Mark’s Guide!

Exactly how berserk England goes over his work is one of the somewhat sillier things about the novel, but in the context of the story I was willing to go along with it. Why Mark wrote it and how he reacts to the scores of young men (and older women towing their young daughters) who fawn over him are hugely important aspects of his character. And I’ve got to say, I found his resolve to remain chaste until he finds the exact right woman for him refreshing and charming, especially after all the reading of urban fantasy and paranormal romance I’ve done for the last several years.

Set off in strong contrast to Mark is our heroine, Jessica, a courtesan who’s been paid to seduce him and ruin him in the eyes of the public. And as with Book 1, Jessica finds out fast that she genuinely likes Mark, and it doesn’t take her long at all to back away hard from the idea of causing his public downfall.

There’s all sorts of stuff that could be said here about the roles of gender and sexuality in this situation. And the book does, in fact, say them. Happily, it does so in a way that came across to me as natural for the characters and their interactions, without ever getting preachy. Mark calls out the hypocrisy of society’s encouraging men to express their lusts, or at any rate not punishing them for it, while holding women to far stricter standards. An oh-so-modern and enlightened attitude for a man in the 1830’s? Sure. But as put forth by Mark, it’s sincere and believable. It helps a lot as well that Jessica has a great deal of agency as the plot progresses, especially in the final third of the story. And it helps, too, that there’s a reasonably small amount of angst and drama as Jessica’s initial goal is inevitably revealed.

As with Book 1, I had some minor quibbles with plausibility–but only minor ones. And I’m eagerly heading on to read Book 3! Four stars.

2012 Book Log #4: Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of old-school romantic suspense, then you cannot go wrong at all with Daphne du Maurier. Especially if you pick up Rebecca, which I was very pleased to finally do. Many of the elements in this book are classically Gothic: the innocent young new bride, the brooding husband, the dead first wife, the remote mansion, the creepy housekeeper, and such. They are in fact Gothic enough that it took me a bit to realize that the novel was in fact set in a modern (as of the time it was written) time frame! In that respect, du Maurier reads a lot like Mary Stewart, and if you like Stewart you’ll probably like du Maurier very much.

Our story starts off with a young woman working as a companion in Monte Carlo to the odious Mrs. Van Hopper. She’s saved from exile to New York in Mrs. Van Hopper’s company by falling in love with an older man, Maxim de Winter, who is said to be haunted by the recent death of his first wife. To our heroine’s amazement, Maxim proposes to her, and she is whisked off to his mansion in Cornwall, Manderley, as the new Mrs. de Winter.

Once there, she discovers that Maxim, his housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and the rest of the staff in the house are all still dominated by the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter–who, even after her death, is such a potent force that our shy young heroine is driven to despair. But as this is indeed a Gothic-style suspense novel, that is of course not all. For there are suspicious circumstances indeed about how Rebecca died!

It must be noted that our heroine is never actually given a name–which, it turns out, was a deliberate choice of the author. The edition I have includes a section at the end in which du Maurier explains to her readers that she never actually thought of a name for the character. It works wonderfully, though, as a symbol of how so thoroughly the second Mrs. de Winter is overwhelmed by the impact her predecessor had on Manderley even after her death.

There’s an original version of the book’s ending included with my edition, too, which is worth reading and comparing against the beginning of the finished story, since du Maurier moved a lot of that material into the initial chapter of the book. From a writer’s perspective it’s fun to see her explanations for why she did that, and from a reader’s perspective and a writer’s perspective alike, I can appreciate her choices. Without going into detail, I’ll say that for me as a reader, it seemed that du Maurier absolutely made the right choice, since her original ending was way too reminiscent of Jane Eyre.

I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, even though this novel’s old enough that many of you out there who are my age or older may have already read it, or may have seen the Hitchcock film that was based on this work. (And if you’re a Hitchcock fan, I can add too that I can absolutely see why Hitchcock made this into a movie; it’s very much right up his alley.) As with Mary Stewart, the pacing is slower than a modern reader may expect. But if you don’t mind taking your time, and in fact like to indulge in an author’s rich and slowly building prose, Rebecca will reward you. Five stars.

2012 Book Log #3: Dreadful Skin, by Cherie Priest

Dreadful Skin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you like werewolves, and you like the Old West, then Cherie Priest’s short story collection Dreadful Skin is a decent way to spend your time. We’ve got three interconnected stories here, featuring the werewolf Jack Gabert and the woman who hunts him, Eileen Callaghan, an Irish ex-nun who’s tracked him all the way to America.

The characters are sketched in with Priest’s usual deft touch, though due to the length of each story and to the propensity to change points of view with each scene change, ‘sketched in’ was about all each tale had time for. I found this frustrating, for Priest’s skill with her prose did indeed mean that each story gave me pieces of a much bigger story, one that I quite wanted to experience in greater depth.

Still, this was a fun read, if quick. Fans of werewolf-based urban fantasy may find this a trifle disappointing in that the werewolves in these tales are, in fact, monsters. As such, they are not intended to be sympathetic. I myself found this a refreshing change of pace, and a nice palette cleanser after the heavy diet of urban fantasy I’ve had these last several years. Three stars.

2012 Book Log #2: Midnight Bayou, by Nora Roberts

Midnight Bayou

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nora Roberts, my main go-to author for formulaic but nonetheless entertaining romance and romantic suspense, holds that position for a few strong reasons. And among the strongest is that every so often, she does actually try to break out of formula. With Midnight Bayou, she delivers a rare oddity in my reading experience: a romance novel from the point of view of the male lead rather than the female.

Our hero, Declan Fitzgerald, has moved down to Louisiana to renovate an old house–and this being Louisiana, the house is of course full of secrets and ghosts with a bloody history, one that smacks Declan hard as he starts having disturbing dreams, hallucinations, and bouts of sleepwalking. There is of course his love interest, Lena, the beautiful owner of a local bar. As is generally the case with Ms. Roberts, the chemistry between these two is strong. And as is also generally the case with Ms. Roberts, we have the obligatory set of side characters with whom our hero has generally amusing interactions, especially the heroine’s grandmother, Miss Odette.

The book falls over for me in two ways, though. The first of these is that while I do appreciate her trying a story with the male lead as the primary POV character, it didn’t quite ring true enough for me to work. I usually find Roberts’ portrayal of male characters to be more “what the typical romance reader idealizes as a male character” rather than truly well-rounded characters, and that’s still the case here. Don’t get me wrong, Declan does have some great lines, especially in several scenes with his best friend Remy. But he still frequently comes across to me as acting in given ways because That’s How Boys Are Supposed To Act.

The second way the book falls down for me is the same way other Roberts paranormals have done for me so far: good buildup, but with a fizzle at the end where I was expecting way more of a punch than I actually got. It doesn’t help, either, that a certain plot thread with Declan (about which I cannot go into details, for fear of spoilers) doesn’t play at all well in the last couple of chapters.

So yeah. Not awful, but still not one of Roberts’ better works. I’d recommend this one only if you’re a completist, or if you’d like some very light reading. Two stars.

2012 Book Log #1: Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My first book of 2012 is a good strong start: Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, which I’ve been meaning to read for some time.

Much has been made over this novel being the “fantasy novel Jane Austen would have written”, and to an extent, I do agree with that. I could certainly see Austen, had she thought to use magic in the stories she wrote, using it the way Kowal does–as a womanly art, employed to enhance the illusion of beauty on a painting, in a room, in an entire house, or even upon a person. Yet at the same time, a comparison to Austen is inevitably going to be a burden against which many books, worthy in their own right, are going to struggle. For my money, Kowal’s prose didn’t quite resonate the same way Austen’s did. Yet this is not to say it’s bad, for it is most assuredly not. I very much enjoyed the read.

I’ve seen Shades of Milk and Honey called out for not having enough of substance going on, that it focuses upon the relationships between the characters and lacks Austen’s social commentary. For me, this charge is unfair; I certainly noted multiple points throughout the book that read as social commentary, such as our heroine’s disdain for the notion of using her talents at glamour to make her nose smaller. Moreover, while most of these characters did not come across to me with the same force as oh, say, the cast of Pride and Prejudice–though yet again, many otherwise worthy novels would suffer in comparison to that particular book–I am honorbound to point out that that very novel focuses quite a bit on the relationships between the characters. And the ultimate main plot does, indeed, come out of that. So too is the case with Shades of Milk and Honey. The eventual unmasking of a callous rogue in the cast livens up the end of the book considerably.

All in all my only lament about this novel is that the relationship between our heroine Jane and her eventual love lacks a certain force, at least at first. So to some readers, it may come across as completely out of the blue. Still, I did quite like this and am looking forward to the next one in the series. Three stars.