Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Review: Tea Set and Match

Tea Set and Match Tea Set and Match by Casey Blair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is, in part, what I wrote about the first book in this series:

"The setting, unfortunately, is of the scenery-flats variety. I felt it was only just barely worked out enough to enable the plot. For example, there's never any definition of what magic can and can't do or how it works, enabling it to do whatever it needs to, and to provide analogues of contemporary technology like fridges... There are occasional intrusions of right-now-this-minute US liberal concepts... without any attempt to make them feel organic to the setting. It feels like it's mashed up out of bits of traditional Japanese and contemporary American culture, with some on-the-fly fantasy elements papered hastily over the seams."

All of that very much still applies in this second book, and for me is by far its biggest flaw, though there are also a number of careless typos (like "wide" for "side") and consistent misspellings (like "borne" when it means "birthed" rather than "carried," and "leant" when it means "loaned" and not "leaned"). Also, some missing question marks, and hyphens where they shouldn't be.

This lack of attention to key elements of execution drags it down from the Gold tier of my Best of the Year list, where the originality and reflective depth would have placed it, to the Bronze tier, meaning only just a recommendation. But if you don't care about plausible worldbuilding and don't notice mechanical fumbles, this is a warm-hearted, sometimes profound and overall enjoyable book.

I have to say, though, I did grow a little tired of Miyara, the tea princess, tearing into someone in what seems like a highly judgmental and confrontational way (presumably mitigated by her always calm formal tone, but it was hard not to read it as bitter and accusing) and, rather than making an enemy for life, instead forcing them to confront their own issues and end up doing whatever it is she wants them to do so that she can continue to save all the less-powerful people from her position of privilege. She is a little too perfect and successful, and her role as a catalyst in bringing everyone together (which she several times remarks on) makes everything about her. So far, it's not quite so irritating that I don't want to read the third book in the series, because there are some definite strengths here that I don't often see, but I'm slowly cooling on it.

Because it started as a web series and is only now being reformatted as three books, there's a lack of what I call "previously-on" to reorient the reader to the events and people of the first book. I did manage to remember who everyone was relatively quickly, which is not so much a tribute to their characterization as to how strongly they are related to the main character; it was those relationships, not their personal qualities, that I mostly remembered. But if it had been longer since I'd read the previous book (I read it three months ago), I would have struggled.

In summary, then, a book with considerable strengths balanced by equally considerable flaws, with the potential to be much better given a bit of work.

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Friday, 3 February 2023

Review: Prince of Blue Flowers: Adventures of Takuan from Koto

Prince of Blue Flowers: Adventures of Takuan from Koto Prince of Blue Flowers: Adventures of Takuan from Koto by Ryu Zhong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy a good Asian fantasy, and a fun trickster tale, and this is both of those things. I initially put this on my "heist" shelf, but it's not really at the planning level of a heist; it's more the trickster character seizing his opportunities to put one over on the greedy people he encounters. The setting is mostly classical Chinese in feel, though most of the names (including the named gods) are Japanese.

I got a bit of a Monkey: The Journey to the West feel from it, not least because the trickster also has ambitions to fight demons as a monk, though he gets expelled from his monastery because of one trick too many.

There's a formula that ends each chapter, as in traditional tales.

Overall, it's a fun ride, and it's good to have a trickster character who isn't just motivated by greed or mischief but is directing his natural exuberance to a noble end.

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Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Review: Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a great entry in the series; a good few of the gags are recycled from earlier books, and while it uses most of the characters and the setting from the hilarious The Code of the Woosters , for me it didn't catch fire in the same way. Still enjoyable, to be sure, but feels formulaic in a way that other Wodehouse (even if it's written to a formula) doesn't.

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Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Review: Leafy Greens: An A-to-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus More Than 120 Delicious Recipes

Leafy Greens: An A-to-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus More Than 120 Delicious Recipes Leafy Greens: An A-to-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus More Than 120 Delicious Recipes by Mark Bittman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've known for a long time that I ought to be eating more leafy greens, but the ones I get from the fruit shop go off quickly, they're often bitter, and I didn't really know how to cook them for best results. Now that I've started a small garden, I can grow my own, and this thorough and informative book has encouraged me to plant more greens - since I now have more ideas on what to do with them, and more information about their nutritional properties.

Looking forward to trying some of the recipes with my own fresh produce (though you could certainly buy greens and cook them with the guidance in this book).

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Review: Emma’s Dragon: London and Pemberley

Emma’s Dragon: London and Pemberley Emma’s Dragon: London and Pemberley by M. Verant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first book in this series, a Pride and Prejudice AU fanfic with OOC Mary Bennet (as the author says in his afterword to this book, she's basically Mary Shelley, although I don't think Mary Shelley was a lesbian). This one doesn't attempt to base itself at all closely on Emma (the book), though Emma (the character) is the same kind of sometimes-oblivious meddler. Both her friend Harriet and her eventual love interest Mr. Knightley are of African descent in this version, which allows the introduction of an overt political note that was much subtler in Austen's novels.

The politics, in fact, are not at all subtle - when you've said that the main antagonist is a right-wing populist, you've conveyed essentially everything the author conveys about him, his followers, his agenda and his attitudes; and all of the main characters on the "good" side, even real people (like Lord Wellington) who were notoriously conservative, have some degree of modern liberal sensibility. Early on in my reading, in fact, I was composing a rant to include in this review about how, these days, the only virtue is orthodoxy and the only sin is heresy, so regardless of when and where your book is set, you have to give your characters the exact views that Western progressives hold this week if you want them to seem like good people... but as I read on, and got caught up in what is actually a well-written, well-told story with some characters that take only some of their depth from their models in Austen, I calmed down a bit, and when I read the author's afterword (which mentions the progressive views held by some historical people in 1812) I calmed down a bit more. I still think the politics tend to the anachronistic side, and less would have been more, but I no longer feel that they spoil the book for me.

The spec-fic element is the presence of "draca" (dragons and related creatures), apparently now only in Britain for some reason yet to be revealed - or maybe I misunderstood, and it's just that it's only in Britain that women (of a certain social status and degree of virtue, and of course that's a plot point) "bind" to draca when they marry. Some of the history of draca comes out in the course of the book, and it's fascinating stuff and makes me want to know more.

Similarly to another dragon-featuring series set in the Napoleonic Wars (I'm referring to Naomi Novik's Temeraire), despite the fact that dragons exist in this world, everything up to the point the story started follows exactly our history, including the existence of Napoleon and Lord Wellington and Mad King George and the Prince Regent; and then almost as soon as the story begins it starts to diverge. It's not fatal to my suspension of disbelief, but it does put a strain on it.

But this is quibbling. Overall, the story worked for me, there's plenty of suspense and drama, it's Austeny but also an adventure story with dragons, and as Regency fantasies go, this went well. The issues I've laid out above keep it out of the Gold tier of my Best of the Year list, but not by a lot; it's solid, enjoyable work.

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Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Review: Jeeves in the Offing

Jeeves in the Offing Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I own a second-hand paperback of this, which I have presumably read before, though I don't remember it. Maybe I picked it up to read and never actually got to it?

In any case, a classic Jeeves and Wooster, for all it was published in 1960. It pulls together elements from previously in the canon, not only the Brinkley Court setting and Bertie's beloved Aunt Dahlia, but the headmaster of Bertie's prep school (who is the stepfather of Dahlia's goddaughter, and invited himself along when she invited the goddaughter to stay); the red-haired menace Bobbie Wickham, given to ill-advised action on a whim with disastrous consequences both to Bertie and his old friend/her fiancé, Kipper Herring; and Sir Roderick Glossop, the prominent loony doctor/nerve specialist, undercover as the butler, Swordfish, to observe the goddaughter's prospective fiancé for signs of mental instability. This fellow is the son of a man Dahlia's husband Tom is trying to close a business deal with, so she can't show open hostility to him.

Cue stratagems, pickles, mistaken identity, broken engagements leading to Bertie being next in line despite quailing from the prospect, and all the usual Wodehouse shenanigans.

It sticks to the formula, for sure, but it's a formula that works, the language sparkles as ever, the reader is caught up in what, objectively speaking, are very small stakes as if they were of world-shattering importance (because, to the characters, they are), and Jeeves brings the whole thing to a satisfactory conclusion, though rather at Bertie's expense as usual. This time, there isn't a tiff between them over some fad of Bertie's that Jeeves disapproves of, which is a departure from the usual formula.

The further on the series goes, the more Jeeves fades into the background and becomes an occasional deus ex machina for extracting Bertie and everyone else from the soup, in which he has been thrashing about in the foreground for most of the book, getting deeper and deeper (though occasionally pulling off a successful scheme). I think Wodehouse realised early on that if Jeeves just solves everything there's no tension, so he keeps him out of the action altogether or has him baffled in order to let the hijinks play out, occasionally throwing another disaster in just when the characters think they're doing well. It works.

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Monday, 23 January 2023

Review: Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Classic Wodehouse hilarity. I think the Brinkley Court stories may be my favourites, probably because of the fondly disrespectful banter that goes on between Bertie and his beloved Aunt Dahlia (and the character of Aunt Dahlia herself, a hearty fox-hunting countrywoman who's also something of a schemer).

Here, the point of tension between Bertie and Jeeves (there always seems to be one) is that Bertie has grown a moustache, but Jeeves, displaying the feudal spirit of the title, doesn't let it hinder him from helping in the inevitable complications that accompany Bertie wherever he goes. He's once again engaged to Lady Florence Craye, who he very much does not want to marry (but he can't tell her that; one must be civil). Her previous fiancé, Stilton Cheesewright (previously featured in The Mating Season ) is cutting up rough about this and threatening bodily violence to Bertie; Aunt Dahlia has pawned her pearls to pay for a prominent author to do a serial in her magazine, Milady's Boudoir, so that she can sell it to Mr Trotter of Liverpool, who is under his wife's thumb; Trotter's stepson is in love with Florence Craye; Roderick Spode, previously seen in The Code of the Woosters , appears likely to expose Dahlia's schemes to her husband; and in general it's as tangled a plot as any in Wodehouse, the kind that only Jeeves can sort out (after Bertie has had plenty of alarums and excursions).

(view spoiler)

Fun plot, Wodehouse's language skills in full flower, and in general a classic. The only thing that might have improved it would have been a scene or two with the volatile French chef Anatole and his quaint grasp of English idiom, but he remains, sadly, offstage.

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