A Man With An Agenda

I'm an indie bookseller in Vermont, sometime public servant, and voracious reader. I love antiques, cats, D&D, Victorian literature and pulpy nonsense.

 

I've been writing at least something about everything I read since May of 2010. Many old reviews have dead links to Goodreads, sorry, I'm kind of working on that, but if you look the titles up on Booklikes you can find my thoughts here. I also read a lot of arcs, but don't review them until close to their release date.

 

As a small bookseller I have a suggestion: If you prefer audio or ebooks, Try Kobo or Libro.fm - or asking your local bookseller for an Amazon (and their many subsidiaries) alternative. These are options that are similar in cost, but support local economies and fairly treated employees. When signing up you can select a participating bookstore and a portion of the sales go to that store at no additional cost. Amazon is destroying downtown America and every small purchase through a real storefront makes a huge difference. Independent Bookstores are on a rise again, but others are still struggling. Thank you for your support and shopping local.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch - George Eliot

'Middlemarch' is the daunting 5th novel from George Eliot. It primarily concerns the lives of the gentry and middle class, but showcases Eliot's dazzling ability to create worlds. The English novel typically had large supporting casts of characters and depended upon depicting shades of rural life, but Eliot was a master of crowd-work. Her four major plots are punctuated by extended sequences of social calls, gossip, and plain conversation that reverberate through the main text and give it life. I hesitate to call many of the characters minor not merely because of the their place in the plot, but in because how deftly they're drawn. These characters have layers. No matter how small their role is in the plot, like Miss Horner, or even a barely mentioned Mr. Clintup, have history and lives going on behind the scenes. They also have subtle social relationships with each other.

I read this novel at breakneck speed, perhaps 12 hours altogether over two evenings and a morning, and that allowed me to really experience the close relationships between many of the characters. Eliot provides vast insight into the inner lives of her characters, but also in their differing outer relationships with each other including all of the misunderstandings that create the two 'main' marriages of the plot, and, more cunning, the relationships which possess understanding. Dorothea and Casaubon; Lydgate and Rosamund; as fraught as their whole situation is, it was the relationship between Camden Farebrother and his family, Mr. and Mrs. Garth's mutual recalculation of their lives in the wake of Fred's note coming due (without Mrs. Garth knowing beforehand!), and even Trumbull, the auctioneer, being bequeathed a gold-headed cane seemed to be punctuation to a long-told joke.

Maybe I'm still worn out from all of that not sleeping so I could read 'Middlemarch' in time for the book club, but everything in this meandering novel is significant. It is not significant with the everything is an allegory way either. Eliot raised the bar again with her research, giving 'Middlemarch' an impeccable timeline and even mined 40-year-old medical journals for Lydgate's benefit. I loved this.

This novel merits the reams of words that have been written about it. She is rapidly becoming my favorite author. I was disappointed by Silas Marner and my appreciation for Romola is (mostly) academic. I had a bad time of it in college when I had to read this for the most boring man ever to scrape a chalkboard, but I'm so glad that I gave it another chance. Many serial novels suffer from how they were written, even with polish and editing, there's usually something disconnected. I'm including Thackeray and Dickens in that criticism, among others. Eliot was a planner and the end-notes of my edition repeatedly referenced her process. Read it in a glorious rush the way I did, or in your own serene time, but this one is worth it.

A bad movie, a nail in the coffin of John Bellairs

The House With a Clock in Its Walls - John Bellairs

I felt compelled to reread this after seeing the godawful trailer for the new film. I ended up reading it aloud to my husband over the course of a few nights. The book is still wonderful. I've linked to book reviews for the Lewis Barnavelt Trilogy at the bottom.

I thought I was over getting nerdrage at bad book to film translations, but those trailers made me see red. 'A House with a Clock in It's Walls' is a meandering book about a lonely, scared boy finding a place for himself in his new family after his parent's death, and, above all, learning about true courage and friendship.

Tonally, aesthetically, and factually this movie has missed the mark. I know its only a trailer, but trailers these days seem to show the whole damn film. The casting is terrible. Lewis is some Hollywood kid instead of the weepy (his parents are DEAD, remember?), overweight bookish loner. Jack Black is all crazy googly-eyed as Uncle Jonathan. Mrs. Zimmerman instead of being the "wrinkliest" woman Lewis has ever seen, all smile lines, is played by Cate Blanchett with a silver wig. What a missed opportunity to bring back some great actress with a meaty role for an elderly woman.

Aesthetically, some effort seems to have been made to put it in early postwar America, but the CGI effects are plastered over everything and used for cheap laughs - complimented by bad dialogue.

Tonally, this was a book filled with gentle humor balanced with atmospheric dread and real scares. How can there be any balance in this movie?

John Bellairs books are in danger of going out of print - 'Figure in the Shadows' and 'The Letter, the Witch, and The Ring' are already gone. The book and the movie are so different that no kid who liked the movie is going to enjoy the book, creating NO demand for those sequels, and any kid with the sense to hate the movie is going to avoid the book thinking they share some similarities. More bad news: when this movie fails some asinine executive is going to think kids don't like fantasy or scary movies, when they only don't like bullshit.

The Lewis Barnavelt Trilogy:

The House with a Clock in It's Walls

The Figure in the Shadows

The Letter, The Witch, and The Ring

The Path of Daggers, The Wheel of Time #8

The Path of Daggers (Wheel of Time) - Robert Jordan

This is my least favorite so far. It has some fantastic scenes in it, but for the most part it has a lot of frustrating tangling of plot-threads and very little progress.

The new cover art was changed here, too, but it was an improvement this time. The oddly posed scene of Aviendha, Elayne and Nynaeve using the Bowl of the Winds is replaced with the fight during the flight from the Kin's Farm through a gateway.

Rand al'Thor is unquestioned master of his domain and orchestrates a campaign against the Seanchan in Altara, taking along many of his followers with questionable loyalty as war fodder. Min reads.

Egwene continues her rise as pupper Amyrlin to legitimate ruler, taking advantage of the currents within Aes Sedai politics, with the help of Siuan and Leane and others.

Nynaeve, Aviendha and Elayne finally use the bowl in spectacular fashion at the opening of the book. The Sea Folk, the Kin, and other Salidar Aes Sedai often don't make things easy. Birgitte and Lan provide moral support.

Loial has been shuffled off somewhere, while Perrin and Faile and Three Aiel, followed by Berelain are sent to Ghealdan to bring the Prophet to heel.

Morgase and co....are out of the woods for a brief, shining moment.

In many ways this book was a slog. Mat is out of the picture, and everyone's plot-lines seem full of trudging and failure.

The Wheel of Time

Next: 'Winter's Heart'

Previous: 'A Crown of Swords'

A Crown of Swords, The Wheel of Time #7

A Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time #7) - Robert Jordan

Dumai's Wells happened. And Rand al'Thor is going to be difficult from here on in. Which is why he'll need minders more than ever. Cadsuane and Sorilea come up with a plan.

I don't know why they created new art for the trade paperback here instead of keeping the much-vaunted ebook art as with the rest of the series (minus 'Path of Daggers'), but I'm going to assume its because fans hate Nynaeve. Which seems unfair. This was the single most important piece of her character arc.

 

The new cover has the back of Cadsuane's head confronting a ridiculously posed Rand and the Asha'man (nee Pips) in a scene....that doesn't exist?

'A Crown of Swords' has Rand reeling from his rough treatment in the last novel and dealing with two very different, but subdued groups of Aes Sedai. Verin, Alanna, et. al. of the Rebels have sworn fealty to him. Unheard of. Impossible! And he is also keeping the White Tower Group as prisoners in charge of Aiel Wise Ones. Unheard of. Impossible! I have to admire his restraint, actually.

Perrin and Faile, along with Loial, Min, and Berlaine are among those ensnared in the plotting of Carhien.

Mat continues south, but is pointed in a differenet direction, and a rendezvous with Egwene, now Amyrlin, and Elayne, Nynaeve. Aviendha, and Birgitte. Siuan and Leane and Logain have been Healed by Nynaeve and can touch the Power again.

The big takeaway from 'Crown' was Ebou Dar. I loved the hunt for the Bowl of the Winds and the other discoveries there. It was the first new location in awhile that I was excited to explore. Jordan's thumbnail sketches of different cultures may be on the shallow side, but for whatever reason it clicked here.

I realize I'd forgotten to mention the Morgase plot thread in the last review. I'll forget about it here, too. Oh, the Asha'man too. With all the over-sharing from other plot-lines I'd have liked to hear more from them as well, but it takes until 'Winter's Heart' to get a good peek at life in the Black Tower.

A much more satisfying book for me, but I can understand why many fans dislike it. Especially when looking at what's coming up next.

The Wheel of Time

Next: 'The Path of Daggers'

Previous: 'Lord of Chaos'

Wheel of Time Reread Books 5-6 by Leigh Butler

Wheel of Time Reread: Books 5-6 - Leigh Butler

Not much to add to my thoughts about the Reread for Books 1-4. Leigh is funny and insightful and I wouldn't have gotten half out of this reread if it wasn't for reading her thoughts. The only quibble I have is that often (this is on tor.com, I didn't read the e-books which may not have this) she refers to old commentary on certain issues such as 'Who killed ---------?' and links to dead pages. If those forums or arguments are mirrored somewhere, I don't know where to find them.

Most people won't be interested in the old arguments now that most questions have been settled so don't let that deter you from checking these out.

Lord of Chaos, The Wheel of Time #6

Lord of Chaos: Book Six of 'The Wheel of Time' - Robert Jordan

I have another review of 'Lord of Chaos' floating around, a fragment from my last full reread of the series in 2009. I was not impressed, and while there are still problems with the series - the first reluctant nod to homosexuality goes to a villain first of all - but as I've been saying this latest reread has been refreshing and addictive. I missed these books.

'Lord of Chaos' takes place over ten or eleven days, but a lot of stuff is happening so I won't complain. Rand gets overconfident in Andor and Carhien and ends up in serious trouble.

Nynaeve, Elayne, Birgitte, Gareth Brynne, Min, Siuan and Leane are in Salidar with the Rebel Aes Sedai, the former trying to adjust to being Accepted again and making 'discoveries' - Nynaeve still has a block on her channelling ability, which holds her back. Gareth is building an army to take the White Tower, Min is preparing to go back to Rand, and Siuan and Leane are continuing to adjust to being cut off from the Power.

Mat is once more on his own, his initial desires to escape responsibility have led him to become head of his own private army.

Perrin, a hero and Lord in the Two Rivers now, heads out with another army and Faile and Loial and Three Aiel to join Rand - who he senses needs him.

There are plots within plots and this book in many ways creates a pressure cooker. The sheer number of characters - I'm not even bothering inserting the villains and Daes  Da'mar nonsense - to move slows the narrative down. The existence of Traveling begins to ease this problem somewhat, but too many plot-lines for slim reasons don't take advantage of this.

This is still mostly a book to get through, but I found myself enjoying the pace.

The Wheel of Time

Next: 'A Crown of Swords'

Previous: 'The Fires of Heaven'

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (Time Series, #1) - Madeleine L'Engle

I'm on the wrong side of history here, but I didn't enjoy 'A Wrinkle in Time'. I'd read it before (at too old of an age) but had forgotten everything except the back garden and an alien planet.

Meg Murray and Calvin are great characters, but there didn't seem to be enough of a story for them to move within. I liked the Mrs....I loved the imagination...but it left me cold.

It's not you, its me Madeleine L'Engle.

The (Original) Secret of the Old Clock, Nancy Drew #1

The Secret of the Old Clock - Russell H. Tandy, Sara Paretsky, Carolyn Keene

A little over a year ago I read 'Secret of the Old Clock' and mentioned being intrigued, but not necessarily interested in reading the original versions of the classic juvenile detective novels. Of course, in a year's time I've become convinced I need to not only read the old volumes, but to collect them, too.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate under Harriet Adams, the daughter of the man who invented the ghostwritten series and 'Nan' Drew, began revising the series from 1959 to 1976. They were intended to address issues of racism and xenophobia as well as the problem, apparently, of Nancy Drew being an entirely too willful girl. Changes needed to be made if the series was to survive, I wholeheartedly agree, but much of the descriptive language was cut out and plots were simplified, when not altogether altered.

'The Secret of the Old Clock' lost many pages, but not the plot. Nancy Drew is the courageous girl out to solve crimes and right wrong, daughter of Carson Drew and all-around capable woman. In the revised edition she rescues a little tyke who runs in front of a speeding vehicle and befriends two poor, elderly women who are taking care of the girl after her parents died in a boat explosion. They express their disappointment in being left out of the will of a wealthy relative.

In the original there is no boat explosion. No little tyke, either. Nancy learns of the speculated missing will from her father over breakfast, and an encounter with two snobby social climbers who are the daughters of the man who will inherit without the will. The family is obviously new money and their behavior makes Nancy dig in her heels and make sure somebody, anybody else gets the money instead of them.

Other characters stay the same, but Nancy's relationship with them is altered. An odd change is that a pair of young sisters - genteelly poor and kind in contrast to the snobs - have their dream changed from getting seed money to start them in tailoring and farming respectively in the original, to getting damn singing lessons in the revision is baffling. What is wrong with working for a living?

This original book is far superior in every respect, until Nancy accepts an invitation from her friend Helen Corning (No Bess and George, yet) to a camp getaway, but sneaks away to sleuth and gets into trouble. Its not getting into trouble that's the matter. Nancy interrupts a robbery at a lake house and is locked away by the crooks. She is found later by the black caretaker who has an "alcoholic glitter" in his eyes, Prohibition was still in effect in 1930. The caretaker had been given alcohol by the crooks and then locked in a shed to be kept out of the way. There's some unfortunate dialogue and Nancy delivers a lecture and...let's not go into it.

To solve her case Nancy hides evidence from the police, avoids gunfire, and in the end enjoys seeing the downfall of the social climbers as much as helping out the poor friends and relations who desperately needed the money from will. This Nancy is flawed, but I like her a lot.

Next: 'The Hidden Staircase'

The Fires of Heaven, The Wheel of Time #5

The Fires of Heaven: Book Five of 'The Wheel of Time' - Robert Jordan

Jordan's epic continues to thrive, but there are signs of it faltering under its weight. 'Fires of Heaven' finds our victorious Nynaeve, Elayne, Thom, and Julien making their way out of Tarabon assured that they had left it better than they found it. Alas....but that's another plot-line. Nynaeve is hardly a fan favorite, but I've always liked her and a tonal shift in her narration is Nynaeve at her most enjoyable. She also scores a major personal victory.

Anyway, Rand, Jasin, Mat, Aviendha, Moiraine, and Lan are headed out of the Waste after the villainous Shaido, who have quickly become a menace to the 'treekiller' nation of Carhien and everything and everyone else they run into. The changes to Mat and Moiraine's characters are particularly noteworthy.

Perrin, Loial, Faile and Three Aiel....nothing. They don't appear, so readers must presume that domestic bliss and the flowering of the Two Rivers just wasn't interesting enough. Considering how toxic Faile and Perrin's relationship can be...I probably agree with Jordan on that.

Min, Siuan, Leane and Logain are still traveling incognito to find where rebel Aes Sedai may be gathering, but run afoul of someone who could help their plans or simply drag them back to a farm in chains.

Meanwhile, in Caemlyn, some really icky stuff is going on, and one of the most depressing character arcs in the series is swanning on down into the mud.

That last may be why this book has some tarnish. I've been loving the reread much more than I anticipated, but there's no getting around some unpleasant and barely plot-necessary happenings. Then again, the series still has some great moments (I for one loved the circus), more information from the Forsaken, big sea-change moments as Rand achieves more victories and yet also suffers great losses, and another spectacular finish. Though the plot-lines no longer converge, Jordan had a knack for pulling together enough of his plots to make gripping reading.

The Wheel of Time

Next: 'Lord of Chaos'

Previous: 'The Shadow Rising'

Wheel of Time Reread Books 1-4 by Leigh Butler

Wheel of Time Reread: Books 1-4 - Leigh Butler

I was late in discovering the existence of the vast world of Wheel of Time fandom. Leigh Butler isn't the be-all-end-all authority, she herself would deny that, but I've found her posts and analysis of what's going on in the series invaluable for my latest reread.

Sharp analysis, critiques, quick explanations and timely reminders of which characters and subplots to keep an eye out for make this essential reading for any fan of the series. It does have a lot of spoilers so no reading before you've gotten through 'A Memory of Light'!

The Shadow Rising, The Wheel of Time #4

The Shadow Rising  - Robert Jordan

In my memory, 'The Shadow Rising' was the book that started the decline of 'The Wheel of Time' as a series before it recovered itself at the end. Uh, I was very, very wrong. In many ways it is the strongest book yet.

Rand is growing in power and has had a few shaky moments where he realizes how much more he needs to learn if he going to survive to the Last Battle. The Aiel had cropped up in two earlier books, most dramatically, of course, at the end of 'The Dragon Reborn'. There is also the matter of prophecies among the Aiel that name Rand as a great leader and it is in their homelands, the Waste, rather then in the squabbling Westlands that his next steps must take him. So he goes, along with Egwene and Matt (and a diminishing Moiraine).

Meanwhile stories with the weight of truth have reached the Stone of Tear where everyone has been recouping of Whitecloaks - a military order of religious fantatics - attacking the Two Rivers and searching for certain young men, by name. Perrin resists following Rand and travels with Loial, Faile and three Aiel to do whatever it takes to protect his home.

Lastly, Nynaeve and Elayne feel obligated to continue their quest for the Black Ajah, and clues in the World of Dreams point them further East to war-troubled Tarabon. With them go Thom and the streetwise Thief-Catcher Julien. They travel by Sea Folk ship and eventually meet up with a certain antiquarian-collecting trader turned smuggler Doman Bayle who was last seen in 'The Eye of the World'.

Oh, and there is a small matter coming to a head in the White Tower that make things very difficult for Min, Siuan and Leane.

In some ways its conservation of characters, but in others it seems like Jordan has a Plan for many of his apparently minor characters. When first reading the series it kept me alert at every interaction in the books, paying close attention because there was a legitimate feeling that a closer reading of the series would be rewarded.

Each book expands the world of this story and lays groundwork for the series, but 'The Shadow Rising' introduces the twisted door ter'angreal and the answers/gifts they provide, the World of Dreams/Wolf Dream and the prophecies that abound there. More significant viewings from Min are also introduced. The events of this novel irrevocably alter the world that the people from the Two Rivers thought they were adjusting to, and more formerly secondary characters become fixtures and important POVs.

The Wheel of Time

Next: 'The Fires of Heaven'

Previous: 'The Dragon Reborn'

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

The Prince and the Dressmaker - Jen Wang

This is in Paris at the turn of the century. Prince Sebastian is an eligible prince with a proclivity for fine gowns. He's afraid of what may happen if his secret becomes known, but he entrusts the brilliant Frances to keep his double life going. Frances caught his attention by creating a shocking gown for a client because it was what the client wanted, and Frances dreams of making a real career for herself in fashion. Sebastian - or, Lady Crystallia - need Frances to keep his secret, however. Frances becomes unsure how long she can live inside the secret she's been thrust inside of, or in how fair it is that she must pay the price of that secrecy.

This was a wonderful story that really got to the heart of a very thorny problem and did it with great, almost believable characters and illustrate a complicated issue in a sensitive, compassionate manner. The historical setting was perfectly captured in the illustrations, even if some of the characters were a trifle optimistically portrayed. I didn't mind though, I was rooting for the romance!

The Dragon Reborn, The Wheel of Time #3

The Dragon Reborn: Book Three of The Wheel of Time ® - Robert Jordan

The events at Falme are only beginning to reverberate through the Westlands, few knowing the facts -  and few those people are - can deny that Rand al'Thor is the Dragon Reborn. Mat is being conveyed to The White Tower for Healing as quickly as possible by Verin, Nynaeve, Egwene, Elayne, Thom, and Hurin, the dagger and Horn by his side. Perrin and Min and Loial stay with Moiraine and Lan and the Shienarans to be near Rand. There is tension and they are waiting, for what Moiraine can't, or won't, say.

There is an attack and then Rand is gone. Readers won't hear from Rand for most of the rest of novel, his actions can only be speculated on and guessed at. We must follow the same clues as Perrin and co. to figure out if they are going to catch up with him.

The stakes get higher with each novel, and Jordan does a fair job of building suspense as one party, from Perrin's perspective, follow after Rand; Nynaeve, Egwene and Elayne become ensnared in a plot concerning darkfriends in the White Tower at the Amyrlin's behest; and FINALLY we get a POV from Mat. He could be a frustrating character sometimes, with all the machismo and womanizing, but his incredible luck along with ta'veren powers made him always worth reading. Egwene, Nynaeve and Elayne continue to grow as characters, and theirs is still my favorite plotline of the book, and the subtle shifts in their dynamic was a tidy setup for what was coming in the future. Jordan has occasional skirt-smoothing, arms-crossed-below-their-breasts, trouble with his female characters, they are a vital part of the structure of the story. This bears repeating as so many other authors failed to create stories as dynamic for any of their characters that Jordan does for his heroines.

The cast continues to grow, with only poor Hurin being trimmed from the cast (at least for a dozen or so books), but it does so organically and hasn't reached levels of frustration yet. 'The Dragon Reborn' features more encounters with the Forsaken, new shadowspawn, lore aplenty, and a terrific showdown at the end. It is the last book which has anything resembling a tidy ending until the big conclusions start going down at the very end. These first three books cemented my love of this series.

The Wheel of Time

Next:  'The Shadow Rising'

Previous: 'The Great Hunt'

The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars - Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel's 'Glass Universe' has a fantastic premise: telling the story of the women who founded, funded, and worked in the Harvard Observatory from the late 19th century to well into the 20th.

There were marvelous strides made in astronomy during that time, and it is astonishing to think of how these women were able to parse out the mechanics and make-up of the stars from long examination of glass plate negatives.

The science was marvelous and astonishing. The women themselves, with very few exceptions, seemed to have escaped Sobel's notice. There was an enormous 'cast' of women for Sobel to profile, true, but she could have picked a few representative cases instead of picking 1, or at most 2, dramatic instances from the lives of dozens of scientists and patrons. This is unfortunate, as without a human touch to the narrative, the science made me glaze over.

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

The Broken Girls - Simone St. James

Simone St James has a lot of wheels turning in 'The Broken Girls', her sixth novel. Idlewild Hall in the present day is a third rate boarding school that closed decades ago. Fiona, whose sister was found dead on its grounds, is driven to investigate why it may be reopened and face her own doubts as to the guilt of the man who was convicted of her sister's murder. The novel weaves in and out of the past to explore the bond between four girls in the post WWII era and the tragedy that strikes one of them. Through all of this there is the legend of Mary Hand, whose spirit is said to haunt the school and infects the lives of those who hear her.
This was a chilling, suspenseful novel that makes the most of its setting and characters. St James balances her cast of characters in two timelines and makes the most of her setting. I liked how the supernatural touches didn't take over the plot of the novel.

Voyage of the Golden Dragon by Nicolas Logue

Voyage of the Golden Dragon (Eberron Supplement) - Nicolas Logue, Scott Fitzgerald Gray

This is a standalone adventure, but because of their were so few published adventures for Eberron, many DMs may choose this supplement to follow up with the 'Lost Forge'-'Shadows of the Lost War'-'Whispers of the Vampire's Blade'-'Grasp of the Emerald Claw' chain of modules.

The Golden Dragon was planned as a battleship for the air, but with the 'Last War' ended it has been converted and finished as a pleasure craft. The owners are concerned about its safety after a threat so the party is hired on as guards for the launch and maiden voyage.

Clearly, things don't go well.

I didn't review this two years ago, because I wasn't sure if I would use this for my campaign or not. The adventure is a bit of a murder mystery and involves a lot of scheming - prime Eberron business, but I feel it lacked action. I might play this someday, but its doubtful.

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