Archive for November, 2012

Romance Saturday Extravaganza: Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance”

Lois McMaster Bujold is back in the saddle again.

In CAPTAIN VORPATRIL’S ALLIANCE, the fifteenth volume of Bujold’s saga about the family and friends of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, we get a chance to spend a goodly amount of time with Miles’s cousin Ivan — the titular Captain Vorpatril — and the unusual galactic woman he marries, Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua (called “Tej” for short).  This isn’t your ordinary Vorkosigan novel, especially as Ivan is known mostly for his conflict avoidance and for his lack of brilliance compared to his genius biological cousin Miles and his genius cloned cousin Mark.

Anyway, Ivan is a competent soldier and commander who’s achieved the rank of Captain and works for Admiral Desplains in Galactic Operations (or Ops).  And while Ivan’s very, very good at his job (he views it akin to snake handling), the fact of the matter is that Ivan is a paper pusher — or as military types would be more likely to call it, a REMF.  (Don’t try to translate that at home.)

Ivan meets up with Tej on the domed planet of Komarr, one of the Barrayaran Imperium’s three planets, after his disreputable relation Byerly Vorrutyer points Ivan in Tej’s direction.  By, you see, is known to Ivan as an operative of Imperial Security — otherwise known as a spy to you and me — and By’s come calling in his professional capacity.  By believes that Ivan is Tej’s only hope; even though By doesn’t know Tej’s real name and doesn’t know Tej’s real circumstances, either, By actually is proven right with this snap judgment.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ivan meets up with Tej, who he believes is called “Nanja” and is supposedly a Komarran citizen, at the place where she works — a rather small, dingy ceramics shop.  He buys an ugly vase for his cousin Miles, attempts to make small talk, then tries to pick her up . . . and can’t do it.

But since By told Ivan that “Nanja” needs help, Ivan is bound and determined to give her that help.  He ends up outside her apartment complex, which of course scares her no end; she invites him upstairs, and he thinks, “Wow!  I’ll finally be able to figure out who this Nanja is, and why By wants me to protect her!”

But that’s not what happens at all.

Instead, Tej and her “odd sister,” the blue-skinned, rather exotic Rish, end up stunning Ivan and dragging him up to their small apartment.  This, of course, is a mighty come-down for Ivan as he’s known for his remarkable prowess at womanizing.  Then he gets tied to a chair and left; they go away, presumably to sleep and deal with the problem of Ivan in the morning.

However, some thugs try to break into Tej’s apartment.  Ivan, who’s no fool even when tied to a chair, talks loudly enough to wake the women.  They stun the men, untie Ivan, and go back to Ivan’s apartment as it’s the safest place any of them can think of to be . . . then Ivan goes to work as he doesn’t want to admit any of the last several hours’ worth of events have happened.

All of this, thus far, is farcical and is played that way on purpose.

But things take a darker turn soon enough, as Tej admits to Ivan what’s been going on; her family’s been eliminated in a Jacksonian shakeup, and she and Rish are on the run.  Ivan hides Tej and Rish, then By comes calling again, this time only a bare handful of minutes before the Komarran police show up (as they believe Ivan has kidnapped or perhaps even murdered “Nanja,” whom they know as a Komarran national due to Tej’s excellent false identification).

So what is Ivan’s solution?  He quickly marries Tej in the Barrayaran form, which allows for a minimum of two witnesses (which he has: By and Rish) and must be performed in a circle of groats (which, not so coincidentally, he has, as it’s a Barrayaran staple breakfast food).  Then, as the police break down the door, he yells out, “Unhand Lady Vorpatril!”

None of this is a spoiler as it all comes from the sample chapters Baen Books put up at their own Web site.

How are Ivan and Tej to get untangled after this knotty start?  Well, a lot has to do with the nature of Ivan’s job as aide-de-camp to Admiral Desplains; that Ivan has finally married, much less to such an interesting galactic woman, has intrigued the Admiral, who does his best to facilitate a happy outcome (at least for the time he’s involved in the book).  Next, Ivan’s mother, the formidable Lady Alys Vorpatril, and his quasi-stepfather, the even more formidable Simon Illyan (the former head of ImpSec), do their best to point out that Ivan and Tej are perfect for one another; both are quietly intelligent, capable people who’ve been overshadowed by most of their relatives for most of their lives, but see the value in each other and start to gradually build a life together.

However, then a major plot wrinkle shows up — which I refuse to spoil — and this throws a monkey wrench into Ivan’s marriage.

So will these two end up together?  Or won’t they?  And how does the sinking of the Imperial Security Headquarters building play into it all?

All of these questions will be answered, and more besides, in a book that’s thoroughly satisfying for Bujold lovers yet easy enough to get into if you haven’t read the previous fourteen books in the series.  (A neat trick, that.)

Bottom line: this is a good and involving romance with many farcical turns and a few, surprisingly revealing emotional episodes involving Ivan, his mother Alys, and his new wife, Tej.  Ivan’s a solid character, and Tej’s insights into Barrayar (coming to it as a galactic citizen, as did Miles’s mother Cordelia Naismith before her) are interesting, too.

No, it’s not as good as MIRROR DANCE, CORDELIA’S HONOR (the omnibus of SHARDS OF HONOR and BARRAYAR) or A CIVIL CAMPAIGN, but it’s still a good, involving book that will give you hours of reading pleasure and many, many things to ponder.  (And it’s funny, too!)

Grade: A-minus.

— reviewed by Barb

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A Beautiful Friendship — David Weber’s YA Homerun

Part of the beauty about YA is that there is more diversity to be found on its shelves than one would think. While the typical teenage paranormal romances seem to get all the headlines, a burgeoning (and promising) collection of steampunk and science fiction is rapidly expanding into YA territory. David Weber’s A Beautiful Friendship is one of those books.

The Star Kingdom has only recently settled on the rugged frontier world of Sphinx and were still in the process of colonizing the wild planet, and poor Stephanie Harrington has been dragged along with her parents to this new world. Now, dragged might be a misnomer, because young Stephanie is actually quite excited about exploring the untamed and undiscovered wilderness. Her excitement is tempered quickly, however, when her parents (wisely) refuse to let her explore on her own. With the casual finding of loopholes in the household rules (as teenagers are wont to do), she quickly becomes interested in something else entirely when her family’s small garden is raided by an unknown animal. The entire Harrington family is confused, however, because the only thing that was taken seems to be celery. Stephanie begins to try to track down the thief, but it eludes all cameras and lasers — until Stephanie finally figures out how the strange creature is accomplishing this feat.

Stephanie lays her trap, and finally catches sight of the most elusive of all creatures on Sphinx — a treecat,;  a lean, six legged creature with odd intelligence that Stephanie finds amazing. However, the treecat (Stephanie calls it this; at the time, nobody had even suspected such a creature existed) disappears quickly into the forest, leaving behind one very disappointed girl.

Climbs Quickly is a member of the Bright Water Clan, one of the many People which live on Sphinx. The arrival of what his people call the “two legs” has driven all of the clans deeper into the forests, leaving behind scouts to watch the homesteads of their new neighbors. Climbs Quickly, like a few other scouts in the area, has discovered the “stalk”, celery, and is instantly addicted to it. He sneaks into the farm, is discovered by a young two-leg, and flees, though her “mind-glow” (a sort of telepathy/empathy communication between the People) is stuck in his head and he always seems to know where she is at all times.

Stephanie, too, seems to know where the mysterious treecat is at all times and, after ditching her gliding lessons, attempts to track him down. However, she crashes her glider far from home and is alone, injured and frightened. Her treecat finds her and they form a mental/emotional “bond”, which allows the treecat to lesson Stephanie’s pain and fear while Climbs Quickly calls to his fellow People to come and help him save her. However, Climbs Quickly discovers that she has crashed near a death fang’s lair (Think puma on steroids here) and knows that time is running out. He has to protect his young two legs before the death fang returns and kills them both.

I felt a momentary pang of actual fear during the tense standoff between Climbs Quickly and the death fang, which was very odd, because I already know what was going to happen. And yet… my throat constricted, I got a little misty eyed (my office is dry and dusty, dang it) and felt more than a little relief upon the conclusion of the encounter.

David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is one of the best-selling science fiction series out there, yet it pales in comparison to this novel. Setting hard science aside and focusing more on the compelling plot and character development, the author actually betters the story and makes this a far better read than a traditional scifi novel. His pacing, world building and plot are all fabulous, and while the reader gets to feel the emotion of the bonding between two species, one also gets to look in from the outside to see just what is going to happen next.

A simply amazing book about bravery, trust, loyalty and friendship, A Beautiful Friendship is very near the top of my YA books of the year. A definite must-read for everyone, whether they enjoy pure scifi or YA.

Reviewed by Jason

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Eloisa James’ “The Ugly Duchess” — Good Plot, Strange Romance

Long-time romance novelist Eloisa James is known for her humorous romances, many set during the Regency period of the early 19th Century.  Some of her best romances come in sets; for example, the four book set about the Essex sisters (MUCH ADO ABOUT YOU, KISS ME, ANNABEL, THE TAMING OF THE DUKE and PLEASURE FOR PLEASURE) are interlinked, with the same characters showing up again and again as each sister gets married.  And this book, THE UGLY DUCHESS, also is part of a set — alas, not an interlinked set, but one based off various fairy tales.

As you might imagine, THE UGLY DUCHESS is a take-off of the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Ugly Duckling.”  It stars Theodora Saxby, unbeautiful heiress, and James Ryburn, the Earl of Islay and heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook.  Theo is a ward of Duke Ashbrook’s and has grown up with James, thinking of him as a brother.

However, the Duke of Ashbrook has run into major money problems, and has gambled away not only his own fortune and his son’s, but part of Theo’s as well (the part he could get his hands on).  For this reason, he insists that James, who’s just turned nineteen, marry seventeen-year-old Theo without delay despite Theo’s lack of beauty.

To James’ credit, he sees Theo (who he insists on calling the childhood nickname of “Daisy” throughout) as a woman of strong character.  Because of this, James sees that Theo is beautiful in her own way, if not necessarily in society’s, and as he’s always been great friends with her, wants to protect her.  This is why he insists that Theo be allowed to make up her own mind with regards to the nuptials — but it’s also why he doesn’t tell Theo right off the bat that the Duke has gambled away everything and then some.

Once Theo realizes that the handsome James wants to marry her, her brotherly feelings for him subside; in come the romantic feelings that she didn’t even know she had.  (This despite the fact that her mother believes something is extremely hasty about the impending nuptials; Theo’s mother has a good nose.)  She kisses him, the stars collide, the world looks dazzlingly bright — really, it’s a Kodachrome moment — and the wedding goes forward.

Theo and James share one deliriously happy night, and James thinks it might work out after all.  However, in comes the blustering Duke to thank James for his “sacrifice” (that is, being willing to marry an ugly woman), and of course Theo hears it all and throws James out.  This prompts James to storm off, leave the country, and ultimately take up a most unexpected career — he becomes a pirate.

Theo, on the other hand, stays home.  She manages to forgive the old Duke before he passes away (of shame, one would hope; the death occurs mostly off-screen); she puts all of her energy and passion into the Ashbrook estate.  Ultimately, she fixes all of the Ashbrook financial problems with a goodly amount of hard work (remember, this is a fairy tale, so Theo being a financial wizard — unbeknownst to her or anyone else at the start of the book — stays right in character with the plot), buries both the Duke and her own mother, and tries to do “the good and the right.”

And they both realize they’re lonely, and of course they miss each other, but do they communicate?

No.  Of course they don’t.

Look.  This tends to happen a lot in romances (the dearth of communication between the principals coupled with a complete lack of the usual social skills).  But as per usual, a bit of communication right away could’ve solved everyone’s problems.

Of course, then we’d have no story.

Moving on, James has decided to call himself “Jack Hawk” and has taken mistress after mistress in his new piratical career, but it’s all empty.  He’s faking it.  He knows it.  And he’s most unhappy.

As for Theo, as it’s been seven years, she’s decided to have her husband declared dead.  But wouldn’t you know it?  Her husband, James, throws off his borrowed identity and crashes the “death in absentia” ceremony, proving to one and all that he truly is alive.

So at this point, we have a couple who haven’t seen each other in seven years.  Will they get along?  Will the passion they had years ago spark to life again?  Or will it all fade away to the point that Theo asks for a divorce?

(The last question is asked merely as a formality, of course.)

Here’s my main problem with THE UGLY DUCHESS: while it’s a good novel in many respects, I don’t really buy James-the-heir’s transformation into Jack Hawk the pirate.  And because I don’t buy that transformation, I have a hard time seeing Jack — er, James — coming in and being this big, lusty man who can’t keep his hands off his newly-adjudged beautiful wife (as in the meantime, Theo’s turned into an astonishingly gorgeous woman.  Of course.)

Plus, there’s something about Theo that bothers me, too.  She’s almost too nice; she’s been slighted from the beginning due to her looks, but she takes no overt notice of this.   About the only reason we do know that it hurts her (aside from her conversations with Lord Cecil Pinkler-Ryburn, the heir presumptive to the Duchy of Ashbrook due to James’ long absence), is due to an outfit Theo wears of swan’s down — a way of twitting everyone without being vulgar.  Hmph.  (In case you’re wondering, Ms. James apologizes for the anachronism of this at the end of the book, too . . . as Hans Christian Anderson’s story wasn’t published until 1834, yet the bulk of this story is set around 1815.)

So, we have a too-nice heroine with a “macho man to the extreme” hero.  What’s going to happen?

Well, considering this is a romance novel, expect a great deal of sex coupled with Theo’s absolute submission at the altar of her new-found husband.  And a few conversations to make us feel better about it all in the bargain.

However, I didn’t see the submission of Theo as necessary or even advantageous to the plot.  This is a very strong woman we’re talking about, fairy tale character or no; she’s brought back the Duchy of Ashbrook from the brink of financial ruin.  She’s had to bury two parents — the man who raised her, the old Duke of Ashbrook (reprobate though he was), and her mother — completely alone.  She’s borne up under immense scrutiny, first from being adjudged ugly, then by all the gossips whispering nastiness after her husband left so abruptly after the wedding.

But she’s just going to submit to her husband as if he never left?

I don’t buy it.

Yet the way the story is told is charming.  The humor that you’d expect from an Eloisa James novel is present and helps give this book some life.  And it’s actually drawn from a historical parallel, as Ms. James points out in her note at the back of the book . . . but my problem wasn’t with James the gentleman pirate, per se.

It was with the whole idea that Theo should submit to him and like it, instead.

Look.  Sexual tastes come in all flavors, and I’ve read things that have disturbed me far more than this.  But for whatever reason, I just did not like the way these two came together as a couple, as it did not seem realistic whatsoever.

That said, THE UGLY DUCHESS reads well and easily.  It has funny moments.  And I mostly liked Theo, even if I did think she was too good to be true.

Grade-wise, however, that adds up to a B-minus book that you definitely should get from the library rather than buy new.

And that’s a shame.

— reviewed by Barb

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Furies of Calderon — The Way Fantasy Should Be

Disclaimer: as you may (or may not know), I hate high fantasy with a passion. The most complaints via email I’ve received from readers is when I have eviscerated a fantasy novel in a review, saying I am “unfair” and “shouldn’t be reviewing fantasy” if I don’t like it. That being said, Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon just may have saved fantasy for me.

The book begins with a young Cursor named Amara and her teacher, Fidelias, on their way to investigate and track down a rogue band of knights. However, their disguises fail and the two are captured almost immediately. Amara is left alone in the tent while her teacher is led outside to be killed. Amara soon learns that she has been betrayed and, after secreting a dagger away from her captors, manages to escape and fly away (a Cursor is like a messenger except with the power to summon a magic element — a fury — of wind to carry them great distances). Amara realizes soon enough that she is in far over her head and flies off, struggling to find a river where she can report to the king of Alera, Gaius.

Meanwhile, a young teenager named Tavi is caught sneaking out of his house early in the morning by his uncle, Bernard. An orphan, Tavi has been raised by his aunt. Her brother, the steadholder (ruler) of Bernardholt, assists him after calmly disciplining him. As they wander out, it is made known that Tavi is Fury-less, which is a rarity in the land of Alera. As Tavi and his uncle are out, they discover that the local bully (Bittan) and his brother (Aric) and father (Kord), who is another steadholder (of Kordholt) are out, preparing to ambush a family coming to testify against them. Barnard easily dispatches them and warns them against interfering with the testimony and trial. Bittan and Kord threaten Barnard and Tavi before heading on their way. Barnard and Tavi head back out, looking for lost sheep which Tavi had been sneaking out to find before being caught. While out, they are ambushed by a Marat warrior and his two giant birds and separated. A fury-born storm breaks out, forcing the two further apart, and Tavi finds himself on the run from the Marat warrior.

Amara, meanwhile, lands near Barnardholt, exhausted from her travels and still on the run from the rogue knights. She is caught in the storm and well and, as fate would have it, stumbles into Tavi. The two stumble around until Tavi leads them to sanctuary — the Princeps Memorial, where the last heir to Alera was entombed after being slain in battle by the Marat fifteen years previous.

Butcher has something special here, without a doubt. The plot is deep, compelling, and moves the story forward at a steady pace. So unlike his Dresden Files novels, the author instead keeps everything in a third person POV while writing in a very distinct style. His characters are very believable, and you find yourself rooting for Tavi, Bernard, Amara and Isana (Tavi’s  aunt) as well as the Marat warrior leader Doroga. Each one of them is very different from one another, and the difference in cultures between the Alerans and Marats makes for some very interesting interactions.

One of the best scenes in fantasy that I’ve ever written are in this book. In the scene, Tavi, who is trying to win a challenge against Doroga’s “whelp” Kitai in order to secure his freedom and prevent the Marat from overrunning the Calderon (the valley where Tavi lives), they are sneaking into the Wax Forest, a very dangerous place, in order ot secure a special mushroom that the Marat find valuable for healing purposes (among other things). Tavi, who is about to descend into the valley, suddenly realizes that his competitor is a girl and is very flustered, as any teenage boy would be upon such a startling dicovery just before a dangerous — and eadly — competition. Tavi si stammering, while Kitai simply looks on. She does not understand Tavi’s oddness towards her, and watching the two of them go at it verbally as they head into the forest — which is protected by the Keepers of Silence, a very dangerous spider-like creature — is absolutely hilarious in the midst of the terror and danger which surrounds them. This is Butcher’s strength, the humor in the face of adversity, and I am very glad to see it included in a very serious novel.

Packed with adventure, political intrigue, romance, surprises and stirring scenes, Furies of Calderon is a must-read, and one of the best fantasy books I’ve read — ever.

Definite a must-buy.

Reviewed by Jason

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The Scorpio Races — Not Quite As Good As One Expects

Very rarely is there a book I’m anticipating that doesn’t live up to its potential. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater is one of those unfortunate few.

Every first day of November, the dangerous and compelling Scorpio Races take place. Highly dangerous — and rewarding — the races show just who the best riders of the wild sea horses are. The horses (called capella uisce, which is Irish and I’m not going to begin to translate or attempt to pronounce), who come from the waves of the ocean (as true steeds of Poseidon did, if you follow Greek mythology), are captured and raced, oftentimes killing the rider in the process. It is widely known that the race isn’t as dangerous as the actual riding of the horses, however, as the wild sea horses will kill a rider if their attention falters for just a moment.

Puck Connolly is too young to race, says her older brother and guardian. However, with her older brother threatening to leave the island for work on the mainland, Puck takes it upon herself to enter the dangerous race. Despite his insistence that she do not, she is entered to race at the tavern. Everyone is nervous and excited about the race, and Sean Kendrick, the youngest winner in the history of the Scorpio Races (and defending champion), has entered once more.

Sean Kendrick is a skilled rider, without a doubt one of the best. One has to be if they win the Scorpio Races. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a horse breeder, Sean quickly “tamed” a capella uisce which he rode to victory the previous year. He and his horse share a unique bond, one that most riders can never claim to have. However, Sean faces a minor dilemma before the upcoming races: he kind of has a thing for his competitor, Puck.

(This is a YA novel with some heavy romance elements, so be forewarned)

There is much talk throughout the book of the races, but that’s all it is, talk. The focus is more on the daily wonderings of a young girl with a crush and a slightly older boy with a similar crush. The actual races takes place, and while some suspense is there, one might find themselves no longer caring who wins. Horses run, riders hang on, people fall and die, race ends. You find yourself more interested on which main character is going to win, not whether or not one of them will. This is danger of having two main characters with two point of views.

The writing is slow, but interesting at times. However, with the rapidly shifting POV (sometimes it’s three or four paragraphs before the viewpoint changes), it was hard to be drawn in by the characters themselves. Also, a minor complaint (and it happens when writing first person POV for more than one character, I understand), but the voices of Puck and Sean were nearly identical. It was hard to differentiate their personalities at times because they were so similar (a complaint I’ve had with other characters in the past). The story is interesting, don’t get me wrong. I just wish it didn’t take the entire length of the book for something to happen. There’s a gigantic build up of tension and drama, and the ending left a lot to be desired.

There is a lot of potential with this novel, and having enjoyed Stiefvater’s Shiver series, I had expected a lot more. Unfortunately, I was left with an “OK” book. Nothing amazing, not too bad, but just… there. Sad, really. The premise is awesome and I really was looking forward to reading about the Scorpio Races.

Reviewed by Jason

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Michael Casey’s “The Unfair Trade” — Worldwide Financial Collapse Weakens the Middle Class in Every Country

Michael Casey’s illuminating THE UNFAIR TRADE: How Our Broken Financial System Destroys the Middle Class is a financial book to be reckoned with.  Casey has covered worldwide economics for Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, and specializes in discussing global economic trends.  That’s why Casey was uniquely situated to write about the 2007-8 global financial meltdown . . . and it’s also why his book THE UNFAIR TRADE is so very good, so very readable, and so very important.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Casey’s main argument is that no matter what the country’s name, the middle class of that country has been left behind.  This has occurred because of the rapidly-changing nature of the global marketplace on the one hand and the badly outdated financial regulations of just about every major country on the other.  This has caused the “big banksters” (as radio personality Clark Howard calls them) to isolate themselves from the middle and lower classes, and it’s why, after the 2007-8 economic meltdown, these same big banksters were helped while the middle class people who’d invested at the behest of the banks got the shaft.

Casey went all over the world and found that no matter what the country, every single middle class person he talked to was disgusted with the economy (worldwide and in-country, made no nevermind).  The belief worldwide is that the economic deck is stacked against the middle class; from China, which has an overly large amount in savings due to its own government’s policies, to the United States, where small and big manufacturers must meet the “China price” (AKA the rock-bottom price, which most of the time is provided by Chinese manufacturers), it seems impossible for the middle class to get ahead.  And more than possible for the middle class to get left behind through no fault of its own.

What’s most important about Casey’s chronicles aside from his excellent reportage is the analysis he puts behind same.  Simply put: Casey has found that what every single person has told him is the truth — the middle class, as a whole, is not doing better in this generation.

In fact, we are doing worse.

And there are reasons for that — pressing reasons — that Casey can’t help but mention.  Some of it has to do with how interdependent all economies are with every other economy (even dysfunctional systems like North Korea’s must take this into account).  Some of it has to do with outdated laws that don’t adequately take into account the rise of computerization and mechanization.  And some of it has to do with the bizarre symbiosis between China and America, which must be read to be fully understood.

And even where the little guys win for a change — like Iceland — there are still huge losses.  Casey went to Iceland and chronicled what happened there; the Icelandic government actually refused to bail out the three large banks doing business on their island.  So what happened instead?  Iceland’s three big banks went into receivership.  This was actually helpful to the middle class over time, because the bank’s owners had to deal with the fallout, not just the bank’s stockholders or the little people who’d put their faith, trust and savings into the bank.

But in the short run the middle class was still harmed.  (Which just goes to show that even in Iceland, the little guy still gets the shaft.)

Even though Iceland’s taxpayers were spared the agony of TARP I and II, they were really angry over the bank meltdowns, and rightfully so.  The consequence of the implosion of the three banks was staggering.  Unemployment went sky-high.  People didn’t know how they’d get access to their money (fortunately the government stepped in, so most people did not lose everything).  And at least one person was so angry over what had happened to him at one of the three Icelandic banks that he went and took the bank’s coffee machine; Casey reported that no one stopped the man because they understood that he was only acting out what everyone felt.

And that was the best-case scenario.  The worst-case scenarios (in Spain, in Greece, and in Ireland) are still playing out to disastrous effect.

Look.  You need to read THE UNFAIR TRADE to understand what’s going on; Casey’s writing is clear, distinct, often ironic, sometimes witty, and above all is extremely important.  Because interdependence in global economics isn’t likely to go away; we must make sure that the laws in place do more than shield the people who caused the trouble in the first place, as if those bad laws stay on the books, it will be impossible for the middle class to ever regain its former stature.  (Much less make any renewed gains.)

Bottom line: THE UNFAIR TRADE is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the worldwide economy.  Period.

So do yourself a favor; read Casey’s book, think about what he says, and then insist that the safeguards Casey discusses be put into place.  Because it’s most unlikely that the 2007-8 economic meltdown is the last meltdown we’ll ever see, so we’d best heed our wisest thinkers (such as Casey) while we still can.

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Patricia C. Wrede’s “The Far West:” Appealing Alternate History

Patricia C. Wrede’s THE FAR WEST (the third book in the “Frontier Magic” series) is about twenty-year-old Francine “Eff” Rothmer, who is both the thirteenth child of her family and a promising young mage.  Eff lives in an altered version of the United States called Columbia, and has worked with magical creatures and various professors during most of her short life due to her own unusual magical gifts.

One thing to keep in mind: Eff has often been called an “unlucky” child because she’s the thirteenth of fourteen children (she’s the twin sister of Lan, who is the seventh son of a seventh son, thus marked out for extremely high potential and power early).  But she found out in two previous books (THIRTEENTH CHILD and ACROSS THE GREAT BARRIER) that one tradition’s unlucky child makes for a different tradition’s extremely lucky child, to the point that she’s learned more about Aphrikan magic (called “worldsensing”) than the usual form of magic used in Columbia, Avrupan; Eff even knows a bit about Hijero-Cathayan magic, mostly because her brother Lan is interested in it.

Anyway, because Eff knows so much about the various magical traditions that are available to her, she’s become a magician to watch.  Yet for whatever reason, she’s so humble that she takes her talents for granted.  While she has learned to rely upon her abilities, she also tends to put herself down — perhaps due to being thought unlucky by many of the other frontier settlers due to her birth order for so many years.

Eff’s position as an independent-minded career woman in a frontier settlement isn’t easy to handle.  She has all sorts of gifts, but she’s mostly immersed herself in learning about magical creatures in her home in Mill City (probably somewhere in western Missouri, or possibly Kansas).  Her father is a professor, her mother concentrated on child-rearing, and most of Eff’s sisters have quietly married rather than go after careers of their own.

Because of this — and because of the fact that Eff still lives at home with her parents, as respectable young women of the mid-1800s tended to do before marriage — Eff gets teased a lot as to when she’s going to settle down by her sisters.  (Her brothers seem to realize that Eff should be left alone, but for whatever reason they don’t try to shut down their sisters in any way.)  This lends humanity to Eff’s situation; yes, she’s a magician, and yes, she has all sorts of talents, but like most youngsters in any era, she feels like a misfit.

Anyway, Eff is so self-effacing that despite her previous adventures (from the two earlier books in this series), she doesn’t seem to think she’d make much of a candidate for the latest explorer’s expedition, even though several reputable career women are going along — one of the professors Eff works for, a member of the Army, and several other reputable scientists — which means that Eff would not be the only career woman on the trip.  In addition, Eff would know many other expeditionary members, as her brother Lan, her erstwhile suitor Roger Boden, and her best friend of many years’ standing, William Graham, are all going.

And of course Eff wants to go on the expedition, but for whatever reason, she just doesn’t open her mouth.

Well, Eff eventually does get invited (by the professor she’s been working for), and it turns out Eff is needed on the trip . . . or at least her unusual way of looking at magic is.  Because the spell that allows for any expansion of Columbia — the spell that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson themselves put into place eighty-three years ago — is now starting to break down.  The only ones who can possibly do anything about it are Eff and other the members of the expedition.

So, will Eff and the others succeed in repairing the spell?  What will happen to the magical creatures they’ve been studying if they do?  And will Eff figure out once and for all whether or not she and Roger will suit, or whether or not she and William would make a better match?

All of these questions will be answered, yet the way they’re answered leaves more room for additional books.  Which is as it should be, because a world that’s this rich in complexity needs more than three books for an adequate exploration.

Overall, I liked Ms. Wrede’s version of the American frontier.  The detailing of how expeditions work and of the varying forms of magic complement Eff’s coming of age story nicely.  And the world-building is astonishingly complete; Ms. Wrede’s Columbia feels like a place just around the corner that’s always been there, but for whatever reason, no one really noticed what it was doing before.

However, there was one thing that bothered me throughout THE FAR WEST, and that was Eff’s extreme self-effacement.  Eff is such a good character, and it does make sense that after being told she was unlucky for years that she’d have inculcated much of that (which is why she is the way she is).  But to not put herself forward for the expedition was annoying; for fifty or sixty pages of THE FAR WEST, I kept saying, “C’mon Eff, why are you doing this?”

Because self-effacement doesn’t mean you have no idea what your gifts are.  And self-effacement also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to go on an expedition where your gifts are clearly needed, either.

In a young adult tale like this one, I think it would’ve been a bit stronger for Eff to put herself forward rather than Ms. Wrede using the expedient of the female professor Eff works for saying (best paraphrase), “You must go along, or else.”  It would’ve added to Eff’s coming of age to be able to admit to herself (even if to no one else) that she really does have worth and value to the point that she says, “Yes, I want to go on this expedition.  I have just as much right to be there as my brother Lan and really, I don’t understand why I haven’t been invited in the first place.”

Because Eff does not do this, and because it’s so obvious that she should — and because no one in the book questions her self-effacement, either — I can’t give this book quite as high of a mark as I would’ve liked.

Still, this is an enjoyable book with a great setting and some wonderful characters.  It’s fun to read, fast-paced (except for the fifty or sixty pages Eff dithers about the expedition), and I’d definitely read more books set in this world or with these characters.

Grade: A-minus.

— reviewed by Barb

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