Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Fearless Travelers' Guide to Wicked Places

The Fearless Travelers' Guide to Wicked Places
by Pete Begler
Recommended Ages:

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

This review is based on a pre-publication proof made available through NetGalley dot com. The book is scheduled to be released March 1, 2017. I don't know anything about the author or his previous work, unless he is the same Peter Begler who has a handful of TV writing credits listed on IMDB.

Manners & Mutiny

Manners & Mutiny
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

At least twice during this fourth book in the "Finishing School" quartet, I had to close the book to have my laugh out. One time, I remember, was for a line about a mousy girl, forced to impersonate one of her chattier friends for a fancy-dress ball with an identity-switching theme, revealing she had "unexpected depths of shallowness." The witticisms fly thick and fast in this young-adult novel of paranormal-steampunk-espionage-romantic comedy. You really have to be on your toes to catch some of them, and a mild Adult Content Advisory is in order for some of the naughtier bits, not to mention how useful it would be for a reader to be able to appreciate black comedy. That reminds me of another laugh-aloud incident, in which the death of a minor villain is described by a stylish lady airily mentioning how a certain insane vampire "became peckish during our peregrinations."

In this installment of Sophronia Temminick's adventures at a finishing school for lady intelligencers, the heroine finally finishes school, in every possible sense of the word "finish." She has, if you will, the graduation to end all graduations, as far as Mlle. Geraldine's Finishing Academy is concerned. For before she can convince her teachers about an evil plot involving crystalline valves and the mechanical servants that lurk in every British household of at least middling quality, the Picklemen (evil masterminds who believe in world domination through gadgetry) strike, bringing down the huge airship that houses the girls' school. As chance would have it, Sophronia is the only student left on board when the bad guys take off, setting a course for London, high treason, and mechanized mayhem.

So, naturally, she does the Bruce Willis, Die Hard thing, while looking stunning in a low-cut dinner gown. She risks capture, death, and mass destruction in the corridors of a floating academy prowled by armed flywaymen, dastardly Picklemen, an unhinged vampire, an engine room full of innocent sooties, and three other women whose loyalties are uncertain. In her corner, she has a steam-powered sausage dog, an exploding wicker chicken, a fan with razor-sharp blades, a few other gadgets, and deadliest of all, her feminine wiles. To save the kingdom from a Pickleman takeover, she will have to be tough enough, resourceful enough, and complete enough in all the arts of a Mlle. Geraldine's girl to bring down the house, hard.

Space does not permit me to tell you how all this fits in with Sophronia's romantic dilemma between a beautiful Pickeman's son and a lower-class, black-skinned werewolf; how the vampire and werewolf interests are concerned in all the ruckus; who turns out to be secretly working for whom; and from what quarter help unexpectedly arrives at a crucial moment. Let's just say everything that happens is totally in keeping with Carriger's Parasolverse, a marvelous fantasy world in which men are men and women are women, except when they happen to be vampires, werewolves, or ghosts; and what they are, in that case, is more than enough to float my airship.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Waistcoats & Weaponry

Waistcoats & Weaponry
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the third book of the "Finishing School" quartet, Sophronia Temminick is intrigued by an offer of patronage from a certain Lord Akeldama, an elegant rove vampire based in the heart of London society, pending her completion of a course in espionage at a floating seminary for young ladies in a paranormal steampunk version of Victorian England. But while she plans to make good use of Lord Akeldama's gift of a steel-bladed fan - as useful for keeping cool and stylish as for dirty fighting - she is still undecided about where her loyalties lie in the games of intrigue between Her Majesty, the vampires and werewolves who enjoy legal status in the realm, and the Picklemen, a party of anti-undead evil masterminds who specialize in diabolical gadgetry.

Meantime, Sophronia is equally undecided between two suitors who come from entirely different worlds: Lord Felix Mersey, a pampered young viscount who belongs to the most Pickleman-friendly clique at the boys' school for evil geniuses at which Mlle. Geraldine's Finishing Academy frequently stops; and Soap, the dark-skinned "sootie" who rules the airship's engine room. The one young man has political connections that might be useful in Sophronia's career as an intelligencer, but will most likely mean a loss of freedom to choose her own loyalties. The other belongs to the wrong race, the wrong social class, and the wrong income bracket - all adding up to a scandal from which her career might never recover.

Torn between these two impossible choices, Sophronia struggles to master her heart while also trying to figure out who are the good guys and the bad guys in a showdown between the Westminster vampire hive and the Picklemen, starting with an impromptu operatic performance by all the household mechanical servants during a ball at her parents' house in Wiltshire. Sophronia, Felix, Soap, and three of her girlfriends from school slip out of the ball during the ensuing chaos and stow away on board a train that, funnily enough, ends up being where all the action happens when hive drones, flywaymen (think "airship-borne pirates"), Picklemen, and werewolves collide with all the force of conflicting agendas and dangerous conspiracies.

This book is a good representative of a young-adult series that combines a laugh-aloud comedy of manners, exciting steampunk action, well-conceived paranormal fantasy, complex political intrigue, and romance kept on a simmer with the lid just held on. I can scarcely recall ever reading a page by Gail Carriger (a.k.a. Tofa Borregaard) that wan't funny, steamy, thrilling, or otherwise thoroughly enjoyable, often all at one time. She's a tremendously clever author, with a head for history, an eye for fashion, an ear for witty dialogue, and a pronounced naughty streak. I say this after having read all five of her "Parasol Protectorate" novels, the previous two in this prequel series (beginning with Etiquette & Espionage), and about a third of the concluding installment, Manners & Mutiny. After spending eight-and-a-third books in the Parasolverse, I have actually entertained regrets that I don't actually live in it. It seems like such fun!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Ten Years and Blogging!

I almost forgot to note it, but as of this month - Feb. 13, to be exact - I've been writing this blog for 10 whole years. Here's my first post! I started this sucker one day when I was snowed out of work. And just think, I've moved three times since then (will soon move a fourth time), said farewell to two feline friends and hello to two more, changed jobs (gulp) six times - maybe seven or eight, if you count being reassigned within the same company - switched church bodies a couple times, published a book of more than 200 original hymns, and experienced a lot of music, movies, and especially books (like, at least a thousand of them, probably).

I hope there will be great things to report during my next 10 years of creative endeavor and cat-hair-coatd bookishness!

Cats Marching to a Different Drummer

My senior cat Sinead, 10 this year, and I are fostering another cat named Priss, 6 or so, who belongs to the lady whose house I plan to move into next month. (The lady herself is in an assisted-living facility.) And boy, am I noticing some things about Priss, a.k.a. Prissy, a.k.a. Priscilla, that are unlike my experiences with Sinead and the late, lamented Tyrone and Lionel, my original duo of cats. This cat definitely marches to a different drummer.

For example, I've noticed a more marked tendency of the clumps in the litter box to adhere to the sides of the tub, especially at the short ends, and to be buried down at the bottom of the tub as well. I'm pretty sure this is the new cat's doing. It drives me crazy, for two reasons. For one, this tendency to stick to the sides, and down into the bottom corner, makes the daily cleaning of the litter boxes extra difficult. For another, the stream of cat pee occasionally hits the rim of the tub, or misses it entirely, resulting in a smelly puddle that I have to clean up. Yuck!

On a more touchy-feely, cuddly level, Priss shows affection differently than all my cats until now. Lionel did occasionally climb up on the back of a chair I was sitting in, or even the back of my seat in the U-haul van in which we moved together from Arizona to Missouri in 2005, but his goal was to cuddle against my shoulders or the back of my neck. All of my cats, including Lionel, mostly approached me for cuddling by climbing onto my torso while I was reclining in bed or reading on the couch. Apparently there was a pecking-order for doing this, too, because Tyrone rarely cuddled this way until after Lionel died in 2007; and while Sinead has always been an in-your-face cuddler, she mostly did so when Tyrone was out of the room, until he started to decline last year and she became the dominant cat. Since Tyrone has been gone, she's been extremely adorable, often lying on her side on my chest with her face inches from mine.

Priss, meantime, prefers to climb atop the pillow behind my head and lie purring against the crown of my head. Or, noticing a feline vacancy on my chest, she will sometimes step down over my shoulder and lie against my cheek, facing the foot of the couch or bed, rather than face-to-face with me. Only a couple times in the just-under-a-month we've lived together has she taken the face-to-face cuddling position.

She also purrs and vocalizes in a different way from any of my own cats. I'm still trying to figure out what she means by "Meow," whereas that always seemed fairly obvious with Lionel, Sinead, and especially Tyrone. Priss also has an extremely loud, somewhat abrasive purr - the kind I have read described as a "demanding" purr, or a "manipulative" one, and whose absence from my household has always seemed a blessing. Luckily, she mostly uses the purr to signal, "Pet me, dammit." It just gets confusing when I start to do so, and she meows in a way that I can't help thinking means something like, "Not like that, idiot," or maybe, "I'm not in the mood right now." And then continues purring. For the life of me, I can't make out what signal she's trying to send me.

Sadly, the signal the cats are sending each other comes through loud and clear. After just a bit short of a month, they are still hissing, spitting, yowling, growling, and (when they come with in reach of each other) swinging at one another. It makes those moments when Sinead is hiked up on my chest, close enough for her whiskers to tickle my face, and Priss is pressed against the crown of my head, purring like a boat motor, rather tense. I keep making calming, shushing noises and trying to pet whichever cat seems a little uneasy, and hoping I don't get disemboweled when they go into fight-or-flight mode. All this feline brinkmanship makes it hard for me to enjoy doing what I generally settle on the couch to do - read a book. Which hand do I hold the book in while I'm trying to soothe two neurotic cats who are ticking like emotional time-bombs?

I'm not sure which cat is really to blame for this ongoing hostility. They're both old enough to be set in their ways. I wonder, though, which way the balance will tip once we move into the house where Priss reigned unchallenged until I took her in at the beginning of the month. I hope the house will be big enough for the three of us!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Beyond the Kingdoms

Beyond the Kingdoms
by Chris Colfer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Twins Alex and Conner Bailey have permanently moved to the Land of Stories, where Alex is still growing into her powers as the new fairy godmother. But when nobody believes her claim that the twins' dead father is alive, well, and threatening all the fairy-tale kingdoms in the guise of a masked villain, her control seems to be slipping away from her. Next thing she knows, Alex is on the run, "ungodmothered" by the fairies, and with a bounty on her head. Meantime, an old flame, in the harshest sense of the word, flares up at the long-awaited wedding of King Charlie (a.k.a. "Froggy") and ex-queen Red Riding Hood. At the same moment - suspiciously perfect timing, don't you think? - the Masked Man raids a library full of books from the Otherworld - our world, where Alex and Conner were born - and begins using a potion that can open a portal into the world described in any book to recruit an army of literary villains.

Also, the witches are worried they will be blamed for the disappearance of a dozen children, though they aren't too concerned when Dead Man's Creek starts flowing backwards and depositing coffins full of unknown corpses on its bank. But they're the least of our worries, for now. Conner and Alex are mostly worried about catching up with the Masked Man, who has actually been unmasked (but don't look for a spoiler here), as he hares his way through Oz, Neverland, Wonderland, and who knows what other fictional worlds, in search of accomplices for his next attempt to destroy all the happily-ever-afters, ever. The twins make friends of their own within the masterworks of children's literature, including the tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur - but when they finally make it back to the Land of Stories, it may already be too late to stop the Masked Man, to say nothing of a fiendish plot among the witches. Their only hope may be to recruit a fictional army of their own - opening the door to another adventure across the boundaries of many "lands of stories."

This is the fourth book of the "Land of Stories" series written by the sometime star of TV's Glee. As always, Colfer shows a range of talent far beyond singing, dancing, and acting. He really has a grasp of the craft of writing, with a comic touch that keeps the laughs coming, a knack for pulling multiple storylines together into a thrilling adventure, and an overall style that perfectly captures the tone of voice of a smart, high-spirited middle-school kid. The series started with The Wishing Spell and continues, after this book, with An Author's Odyssey. It doesn't end there; a sixth book, Worlds Collide, is due to be released in July 2017. Colfer has also published the companion volumes The Mother Goose Diaries, Queen Red Riding Hoods's Guide to Royalty, A Treasury of Classic Fairy Tales, the upcoming children's picture-book Trollbella Throws a Party, and the stand-alone novels Struck By Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal and Stranger Than Fanfiction.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & Conspiracies
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

In her second year at Mlle. Geraldine's Finishing Academy, Sophronia Temminick gets unprecedentedly high marks in an examination of the combination of high-society feminine accomplishments and covert intelligence that sets the school apart from other female seminaries in Queen Victoria's Britain - well, that and the fact that the school is housed in an enormous airship floating above Dartmoor. But the teachers reward her progress by deliberately turning all her classmates against her, in what is either a nasty setup or an extra-credit challenge. Either way, being ostracized by her classmates slows Sophronia down enough that she almost, but not quite, misses her chance to meddle in a mystery that places the school at the crux of the confict between the forces of shadow - the vampires and werewolves who are a significant part of the country's ruling class - and the Picklemen, evil geniuses who believe the future lies in the direction of human science and technology.

In Gail Carriger's steampunk rendition of reality, technology lies, in turn, in the direction of a gizmo that can aid airships in navigating the aetherosphere, an upper layer of the atmosphere that until now has been too dangerous to enter. This innocent little gadget could change the pace of mankind, boost the economy, and tilt the balance between the undead and humans. So, when a teacher and 12 students from the leading Picklemen-sponsored boys' school come aboard Mlle. Geraldine's airship, intrigue and sabotage naturally result. And just as naturally, Sophronia is close to the center of it, even undertaking a masterful (and stomach-turningly successful) bit of character assassination while she's poking around.

Meantime, Sophronia also finds her heart increasingly confused by the competing pull of two disturbingly attractive boys: one, a viscount who finds her irresistible mostly because she plays hard to get; the other, a "sootie" from the coal-powered engine room, whose protective instincts ensure he'll be part of the rescue attempt when London's most fashionable vampire hive kidnaps her best friend Dimity and her annoying, not-very-evil genius brother. The romp can hardly be complete without a ride on a werewolf's back, an exploding sausage dog, a faustian bargain with a cross-dressing 12-year-old mad inventor, and an impossibly steady flow of laugh-bombs that hit the target dead-center. Some of the gags flow out of daffy characters, such as the teacher who specializes in poisons, dresses as a nun, and says lines like "Remember, a lily doesn't change its spots." Others, by far the best and most numerous, are examples of situational humor that ensure the smarter a reader is, the more she (or he) will enjoy this book. It's simply - if I may use that word loosely - a hilarious comedy of Victorian manners and fashions, combined with a retro-futuristic sci-fi/horror/romance/espionage thriller that strains the genre boundaries of steampunk.

This is the second book in the young-adult "Finishing School" quartet by the author of the rather racier "Parasol Protectorate" series, to which it is a preqel. It begins with Etiquette & Espionage and continues in Waistcoats & Weaponry and Manners & Mutiny. One of the characters in this series stars in a spinoff novella titled Poison or Protect, while there is also a Parasol Protectorate sequel series called "Custard Protocol," with two books so far. Carriger's work also includes a handful of LGBT romances set in the same steampunk/paranormal universe.