Reading as of June 30, 2020

June’s books:


Finished up Patricia Veryan’s Golden Chronicles series.  I enjoyed these a lot, but mileage varied book-to-book.  As much as I’d like to get to her entire backlist this year, I realize that’s a little too optimistic.  She’s written a lot of books, and I don’t have the budget to buy them all, which means getting at least some of them from libraries.  So now my goal is to follow this up at some point this year with the Tales of the Jewelled Man series (6 books), which has overlapping characters from The Golden Chronicles, and to read her Sanguinet Saga (11 books) next year. 

  • Love Alters Not (my favorite of the series)
  • Cherished Enemy (my least favorite of the series)
  • The Dedicated Villain (which is a fan favorite; I liked it, but it didn’t quite edge out LAN)

Continued the military SF / Space Opera series by Amy J. Murphy that I started earlier this year  (awaiting the 6th book, which I’m hoping will still be released later this summer).  This is a very action-oriented series that moves at a rollicking pace. 

  • Allies and Enemies: Legacy
  • Allies and Enemies: Empire

Audiobooks:

  • To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, with multiple audio readers:  John Glouchevitch, Christine Larkin, and Kiff VandenHeuvel.  Picked up because I loved the author’s debut, The Snow Child, and also enjoy reading about expeditions.  The bulk of this tale is set in 1880s Alaska.
  • Whispers of Shadow & Flame (Earthsinger #2) by L. Penelope, audio read by Allyson Johnson.  This is part of an ongoing fantasy romance series.  I decided to continue because I like the worldbuilding and mythology.  The relationship arc for the couple in this book is not complete, so will obviously be continued in books yet to be released.

TBR Challenge: June 2020

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is Getaway.  I didn’t actively look for a book to fit this theme.  Instead, I picked up a book I thought my mentally scattered brain could absorb and enjoy and that I was curious about.  As it turned out, the heroine of this novel is charged with persuading a mage prisoner to make a prison break to save the kingdom, so maybe that counts.

 What I read:  Asperfell by Jamie Thomas, published this year by Uproar Books.   


Summary:

Only the darkest and most dangerous of Mages are sentenced to pass through the gate to Asperfell.

Not one has ever returned.

Briony never dreamed she might set foot in the otherworldly prison. She was, after all, neither Mage nor criminal. She was simply her father’s little whirlwind—fingers smudged with ink, dresses caked with mud—forever lost in a book or the spirit-haunted woods surrounding her family’s country estate.

But Briony always had a knack for showing up where she was least expected.

Only by braving the gate of Asperfell could Briony hope to find the true heir to the throne of Tiralaen and save her kingdom from civil war. And so, she plunges into a world of caged madmen and demented spirits, of dark magic and cryptic whispers… and of a bleak and broken prince with no interest in being rescued.

Hauntingly beautiful and lavishly told, Asperfell is a must-read for fans of Jane Austen who always wished she’d dabbled in blood magic.


My Thoughts:

Technically, I’m cheating a bit on picking something from my long-standing TBR.  This is a recent release (February) that popped up very briefly in my recommendations just before the pandemic hit.  It looked interesting, I liked the sample, the price was right ($2.99 USD eBook), and so I purchased it.  Nothing in my TBR screamed ‘getaway’ to me, so I decided this suited my current mood for something fresh and not heavily hyped from my fantasy TBR.

This is a slow burning tale.  The author takes her time with the setup.  The story is told in first person (but not present tense) by Briony and begins when she is just eight years old.  She overhears a discussion between her father, her uncle and their friend Cyprias, about the murder of the king and charges against his oldest son, Elyan, for the murder.  Elyan is a mage and just sixteen years old.  He doesn’t deny the charge and is sentenced to Asperfell, a prison built by two mysterious mages centuries ago that lies in another world behind a magical gate.  Mages sent there have been convicted of a broad spectrum of crimes.  Though the blurb states ‘only the darkest and most dangerous’ are sent, I didn’t find that to be necessarily true.  The prison is run by a master mage, and only the most dangerous criminals are locked away.  The rest of the prisoners live as members of a community in shared exile, most with tasks to contribute to their society.  Some are aristocrats who live a more privileged existence than their fellow prisoners.   No one, though, has ever escaped the confines of the prison territory, the borders of which are guarded by magical sentinels.

In the meantime, Elyan’s younger brother Keric inherits the throne.  As time goes by Keric proves to be an unstable ruler who is deeply suspicious of anyone capable of wielding magic.  Briony’s father is an advisor, but gradually he and the king’s council lose influence.  Keric becomes capricious and vicious, eventually outlawing magic.  When magic users are found and convicted, they are no longer sent through the gate.  They are either conscripted by him or killed, but not before he commits sadistic acts upon them. 

In the meantime, Briony grows up on her family’s country estate far away from the eyes of the court and unaware that she has a magical aptitude.  She is 20 when shit hits the fan for her family, and she is taken prisoner by the king’s mageguard.   Cyprias helps her escape by opening the gate.  He charges her with a mission to convince Elyan to look for a way to escape and return to reclaim his kingdom and end Keric’s cruel reign.  I did question the logic of why Cyprias might think this is possible since no one in all the centuries that Asperfell has existed has ever returned, but this does begin to make more sense by the end of the book.    

Briony is in many ways your typical spirited heroine full of determination to defeat the odds stacked against her, but the author doesn’t go overboard with her feistiness.  She is curious by nature, and often acts impetuously but with good intentions, much to the hero’s frustration.  They naturally clash at first, and he resists the idea that escape is even possible.  Briony has a lot to learn, not just about Asperfell and magic, but also about herself.  She doesn’t know what her magical aptitude is, so much of the middle of the book is spent discovering and developing that as well as learning about other prisoners there and the mysteries of Asperfell. Her relationship with Elyan is a slow-burn and understated, which I thought was really well done.  This is the first of a planned trilogy and ends at a turning point in the story.  I’m looking forward to the follow-up.

Reading as of May 31st, 2020

May’s books included:


Several of Patricia Veryan’s historical romantic adventure novels. These have been great for good, old-fashioned escapist reading in the vein of Heyer’s Georgian romances or Sabatini’s romantic swashbucklers.  I’m hoping to make it through Veryan’s entire backlist by the end of year.

  • Prequel novels to the Golden Chronicles: The Mistress of Willowvale and The Wagered Widow.
  • The first three novels of the Golden Chronicles: Practice to Deceive, Journey to Enchantment and The Tyrant.

Nicholas Eames’ fantasy series, The Band, with a lot of pop culture references from the 70s and 80s. The first book was my favorite.

  • Kings of the Wyld
  • Bloody Rose

Audiobooks: one YA fantasy and one chilling depiction of Stalin’s purges.

  • The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, audio read by Roslyn Alexander
  • Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, audio read by Frank Muller

TBR Challenge: May 2020

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is Old School.  I chose a traditional Regency era historical adventure romance, which is something I quite like (not necessarily the overused period, but definitely the balance between history, adventure and romance in the storyline) when I’m feeling nostalgic or seeking a comfort read.

What I read:  The Adventurers by Jane Aiken Hodge.  The book I read was the most recent reissue (eBook cover on the left), but the best cover I found that represents the era and mood of the novel is on the right (Coronet Books mass market paperback).

0520_TA


Summary:

After the French suffer a bloody defeat at the battle of Leipzig, the survivors of Napoleon’s army retreat through Germany. Plundering and pillaging along their way, a group of stragglers attack the Von Hugel estate. Hiding in the hayloft, Sonia von Hugel witnesses the massacre of her family. Apparently the sole survivor at the castle, Sonia is left desperate and alone.

Forced to flee for her safety, Sonia disguises herself in her brother’s clothes and begins a treacherous journey through the mountains. But, lost and weary, Sonia stumbles into an inn and finds her fate intertwined with charming rogue Charles Vincent. With no one left to help her, can Sonia trust this stranger with her life?

The Adventurers was first published in 1965 and was also published as Royal Gamble.


My Thoughts:

I know I read at least a few Jane Aiken Hodge romances when I was younger, but I barely remember anything about them.  I’ll use the excuse that I’m as old as this book, and my memory doesn’t stretch back to retain very much about what I read decades ago.   I do remember her books being rather hit or miss with me.  This one I knew I had not read before, and it was a hit.

Our protagonist, Sonia, meets Charles at an inn where they play cards against Austrian soldiers who are also staying there.  They play well together and end up sharing a room because 1) she’s disguised as a boy and 2) there are no rooms left after the Austrian soldiers arrive and require the other room.  If you don’t like the young woman disguised as a boy and duping everyone in very unrealistic ways don’t worry.  The cat is out of the bag very soon, and Sonia and Charles share their stories.  Charles may be an adventurer, but he also considers himself a gentleman, and sees this as opportunity to both help her reach safety and team up to earn a little money on the side.  To be respectable, they’ll pretend to be relatives.  Early the next morning, Charles goes back to Sonia’s estate and finds that her governess, Elizabeth, is still very much alive.  He persuades her to come back to the inn with him, and the three join forces as they follow the allied army through Europe on the path to Paris, where Elizabeth and Sonia hope to get transport and seek sanctuary with a long lost, estranged relative in England. 

This is where the story really kicks off.  I really liked the found family theme.  These three may have differences of opinion, bicker about what they should do next, but they become like family over the long haul.  Charles, too, doesn’t have much of a family.  His mother was French, and there is no love lost there.  He never knew his English father.  He was invalided out of the French army after their retreat from Moscow.   He’s also a polyglot who has served as an interpreter, and war time Europe is a hot mess for intrigue.

There’s also an equally strong second chance romance between Elizabeth and her lost love, Giles, the Earl of Denbigh, who travels to Europe to gather intelligence for Lord Castlereagh.  Giles and Elizabeth met very young and were running away to America when Giles suffered an accident that left him ill for many months.  His father caught up with them shortly after the accident and took Giles away leaving Elizabeth ruined and abandoned.  She sent Giles letters and waited for him to recover and come to her, but he never received them.  His family convinced him (perhaps too easily, which is a point of contention between these two lovers) that she had died.  Broken-hearted, Elizabeth gave up and took a governess position on the continent.

Charles, in the meantime, mysteriously comes and goes. But which faction is he working for?  Sonia and Elizabeth worry what kind of trouble he’s gotten himself into, but are often too caught up in their own troubles or aren’t in a position to pursue the matter.  Sonia spends much of the novel suffering from survivor’s guilt and acting out as a consequence.  She’s also miffed that Charles keeps treating her like a sister.  By the time they do reach Paris feelings between both couples come to a head.  Charles’ involvement in wartime intrigue also catches up with him, as well as a very serendipitous reveal.  All loose strings are tied up quite tidily but satisfactorily.

I had a good time reading this and felt it had the right balance between romance and good, old fashioned historical adventure.  Just the sort of book I was in the mood for.

Reading as of April 28, 2020

Work is slow. I feel guilty if I’m not at least trying to do something work related during my office hours as each day blurs one into the other. Ultimately, I end up spinning my wheels in mostly irrelevant busy work that is more exhausting than my normal work activities (though who knows what normal going forward is going to be). My one accomplishment is that I managed to redo my home office so that it’s much more organized and functional now.

My April reading has included:


–A beautiful ode to a bygone way of life as electricity comes to a rural Irish village.
0420_tih

This Is Happiness by Niall Williams.  Of the title, the story tells us:

I came to understand him to mean you could stop at, not all, but most of the moments of your life, stop for one heartbeat and, no matter what the state of your head or heart, say This is happiness, because of the simple truth that you were alive to say it.


–Finishing up an historical series set during the time of Harold Fairhair.

0420_GWT

The Sea Queen and The Golden Wolf, books 2 & 3 of the Golden Wolf trilogy, by Linnea Hartsuyker.


–An old historical set during a troubled year in the reign of Augustus.

0420_LD

The Legate’s Daughter by Wallace Breem.


–A classic, smuggling coming-of-age adventure tale set in 1750s Dorset.

0420_MF

Moonfleet by J. Meade Faulkner (listened to audio read by Peter Joyce).


–An historical fantasy adaptation of the opera Turandot set in 13th century Mongol empire, which breathes life into the story of the slave girl of the tale.  I must confess the ending blew me away and is worth the price of admission.

0420_TBATB

The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen (listened to audio read by Emily Woo Zeller, who is always superb).

 

TBR Challenge: April 2020

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is Freebie, so I chose a non-fiction eBook I downloaded from my library.

What I read:  Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II by Vicki Constantine Croke, originally published in 2014.

Summary:

0420_EC


In 1920, Billy Williams came to colonial Burma as a “forest man” for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence and character of the great animals who hauled logs through the jungle, he became a gifted “elephant wallah.” In Elephant Company, Vicki Constantine Croke chronicles Williams’s growing love for elephants as the animals provide him lessons in courage, trust, and gratitude.

Elephant Company is also a tale of war and daring. When Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942, Williams joined the elite British Force 136 and operated behind enemy lines. His war elephants carried supplies, helped build bridges, and transported the sick and elderly over treacherous mountain terrain. As the occupying authorities put a price on his head, Williams and his elephants faced their most perilous test. Elephant Company, cornered by the enemy, attempted a desperate escape: a risky trek over the mountainous border to India, with a bedraggled group of refugees in tow. Part biography, part war epic, Elephant Company is an inspirational narrative that illuminates a little-known chapter in the annals of wartime heroism.


My Thoughts:

I picked this up because I often like animal stories and survival tales, and this has both. World War II in Burma hasn’t been written about nearly as much as the other theatres.  Troops that served in Burma are often called the forgotten army.  This book serves as both biography and war story for James Howard Williams (known as Billy to friends and Jim to his family).  He came to Burma after serving in the first world war, was employed by the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, and was responsible for–among many other things–the care of the working elephants in the logging camps.

The author provides extensive notes at the end of the book, but her sources are primarily from the personal papers of Williams and his family, public records, and news sources, so the story itself is limited to the Williams family viewpoint and more broadly the British expat experience.  Many of the locals that Williams worked with in the logging camps probably died during the war or just weren’t traceable or would not have left written records. Consequently, Williams’ story comes across as a little romanticized and one-sided.  Some events felt  skimmed over and a bit of mysticism in human-animal relationships creeps in.  However, the personal anecdotes, detail about life in the jungle, and elephant stories were all very fascinating.  I never knew what a forest man for a timber company does, and now I feel that I at least have a general idea.  The war section, as one would expect, was also very compelling though it’s only a third of the book.

There are quite a few stories of various elephants that Williams met (ranging the emotional gamut from amusing to heart-felt to sad), but the most important and life-changing was a tusker named Bandoola (named after a Burmese hero who fought the British in the 1820s). Of Williams’ introduction, the author writes:

The moment with Bandoola seemed transcendent.  And yet there were earthly reasons, too, for him to feel so drawn to the tusker.  They were classmates in a way: born in the same month and year, November 1897.  At the time of their meeting, they had both just turned twenty-three and were beginning their adult lives in the jungle.

Williams had a complicated, up-and-down relationship with Bandoola’s trainer (a master mahout) named Po Toke who had nationalist leanings that did not endear him to his British bosses.  Po Toke had trained Bandoola since he was a calf and deliberately developed a reputation for him as a special animal to ensure Bandoola got special treatment.  This was unusual because most calves of working elephants died from neglect while their mothers were working.   Elephants were usually released after work to feed on their own and sometimes got pregnant by wild bulls.  They wore bells so their uzis could find and bring them back in the morning.  An elephant was not considered mature enough for heavy work until around age 21.  Corporations were often unwilling to invest 20 years in the care, maintenance and training of a young elephant when they could just buy a captured one. According to Williams:

While baby elephants were being thrown away to die, the company was spending a fortune obtaining grown elephants.  In a single decade, it would purchase nearly two thousand mature workers for Burma logging alone.  And each one cost anywhere between $500 and $3,000, as much as $180,000 today.  Meanwhile, what would it cost to keep the babies alive?

Williams was able to persuade them the cost would be less.  Eventually, he was able to convince the company to give him a trial run at starting an elephant school.  The elephant mothers were given lighter loads until their calves were sent to elephant school around the age of five.  Each calf would be paired with two handlers plus young boys who wanted to be trained as uzis.  Williams also started an infirmary to help with veterinary care and keeping the animals healthy.

Of the retreat from Burma once the Japanese invade, the author provides this sobering statistic:

All told, about six hundred thousand desperate refugees headed for India, most heading west, but some taking the inhospitable northern route through the Hukawng Valley.  It was the largest migration of people in history up to that point. Only about fifty thousand were British; most were Indian.  Eighty thousand may have died in the effort.

Williams got his family out of Burma in the first wave, but several of his servants and employees from native ethnic groups who had close ties with the British were left behind (either because he felt they would be safer going home to their families or were not allowed into India).  During the war, he went back as an elephant advisor for the military and with the help of his elephants led a second much more dangerous exodus by a different route.

This was a page-turner and has reminded me that I have the war memoir Quartered Safe Out Here in my TBR.  I may move that up in my NF reading queue.