Review: “Magic for a Price,” Devon Monk

Pros: Tense, with great payoffs
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Magic for a Price is the ninth novel in the “Allie Beckstrom” series by Devon Monk, and it reads like it may well be the last–I guess we’ll see! The first book in the series, Magic to the Bone, blew me away. There was a bit of a slump after that–it’s great that Allie has flaws such as her intense stubbornness, but for the span of a couple of books she was so stubborn she kept putting people in danger, and she just wasn’t learning from her mistakes, which grew very frustrating. Finally she started to grow as a character (without losing her flaws altogether–nicely done) and things picked back up again. Magic for a Price is almost as good as the first book, and better than all the ones that came between.

 

Allie’s world seems to be coming to an end. The spirits of two long-dead magic users are attempting to take control of all magic. The magic in Portland has been poisoned and is killing people, and it’s possible that poison could spread to the rest of the world. Using magic makes Allie violently ill; she can’t trust the spirit of her dead father (which is possessing a corner of her mind); and the forces of the greatest group of magic users in the world have been turned against her and her friends.

 

Magic for a Price is a grand, sweeping finale to the various plots of the “Allie Beckstrom” series. Do make sure that you’ve read the rest of the series, because obviously book nine is not where you want to jump in! (Especially if I’m guessing right and it is the series finale.) The book does leave a few threads untied, which not all readers will be happy about, but I personally don’t need to have everything wrapped up in a bow. I found the book quite satisfying, and felt that the most important things got resolved. The payoff for for continuing through the mid-series slump is great.

There’s plenty of action packed into this novel, and it’s gripping and tense. I was riveted to the page throughout all of the machinations and battles. Allie has truly come into her own, but is still a nicely flawed character. I even shed a few tears, and that’s a good sign that I’m connecting emotionally with a novel.

There are plenty of twists, turns, and shifting alliances in Magic for a Price. The secondary characters put on a good show, and we get plenty of satisfaction out of their resolutions as well. All in all, a worthy successor to the promise of the first books.

All we had was us.

Well, and cookies.

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New Blogroll

The old blogroll got blitzed in the reorg, so I’m starting it anew. It’s mostly going to be links to other review sites, so please don’t ask for links to unrelated stuff. Anyway, that’s why it’s looking so sparse right now! Do feel free to suggest review sites for the list.

As for an update: I’ll be reviewing the ninth Allie Beckstrom book, followed by a Robin Cook novel (not a good one), a couple of Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels novels, Diane Duane’s “Omnitopia Dawn”, a couple more Tanya Huff novels and an anthology… eh, you get the idea. I’m also working on making some recipes from a couple of review cookbooks–one of Asian pickles, and one of lunch box lunches.

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Review: “Magic Without Mercy,” Devon Monk

Pros: Tight, tense plotting; interesting developments
Cons: I hope you can remember the previous books well…
Rating: 4 out of 5

Allison Beckstrom is trying to ‘cure’ magic–someone has poisoned it, and people are dying right and left. She isn’t entirely sure where to start, however, and to make matters worse, she’s being hunted. The Authority has been co-opted and wants her dead. The police believe she embezzled money from her father’s company; she’s being set up, but she doesn’t have time to clear her name. The poison is spreading incredibly quickly, and she’s relying on a dangerous madman to help her neutralize it. She can’t settle anywhere without her hunters catching up to her, however, and her friends have been placed in grave danger just by helping her.

 

Magic Without Mercy is Devon Monk’s eighth Allie Beckstrom novel. The plot and its background have gotten pretty complex, so I do not recommend jumping in at this point. I absolutely adore the world-building in these novels; the use of magic is original, fresh, and fascinating. So too is the fusion of magic and technology that plays a role in the plot.

Due to previous events, Allie’s response to magic has become quite unusual. The smell of it sickens her. The use of it flattens her. And now she sees magic all the time without the need to cast a Sight spell, even when it makes things more difficult for her. I love that Allie sees magic; it allows her to share the experience with the reader in a way that helps to keep magic fresh and interesting even after eight books. It also provides a flow of complex information to help keep the plot moving in new directions.

There are a couple of niggling things that bugged me. In the Beckstrom books magic always has a price. Death spells don’t tend to happen for the simple reason that a commensurate price must be paid: such a spell would kill the person who cast it. By casting a Disbursement spell the caster can at least choose the form most prices take, such as headaches, muscle aches, or fever. The problem is there’s a lot of heavy-duty magic flying around in this installment, and it sometimes seems like casters don’t pay an appropriate price. At least once this was even pointed out and yet subsequently ignored.

Allie is highly unusual as magic-users go. I think the ‘what is Allie’ train has been chugging along for too long without any stops. It’s been a couple of books without any hint about what’s going on there; this makes her magic-related disabilities start to feel like a plot device rather than an interesting plot.

I’m definitely still having fun with the Beckstrom novels and look forward to reading book nine, but I hope it has some movement in these areas.

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Review: “You Own Me,” Shiloh Walker

Pros: Gorgeously hot & sexy
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Lizzie thinks she’s happy with Noel, but she realizes all is not well when he announces that he wants an open relationship. Lizzie, who’s a little larger than society says a beautiful woman should be, doesn’t believe anyone else would want her–until her friend Selah convinces her to take advantage of the open relationship and try online dating. Now Lizzie has dates, but the one man she really wants–her best friend Decker–is the man she can’t have. He doesn’t want her, or so she thinks. For his part, Decker is forced to watch Lizzie being hurt by a man who doesn’t love her, sure that she doesn’t want him. It’s up to Selah to throw them together, and up to Decker to make Lizzie realize she’s truly beautiful, and truly wanted.

 

Generally I prefer my erotic romance to be mixed with another genre–thriller, SF, or fantasy, preferably. Shiloh Walker is one of the few authors whose work is so much fun that I like her ‘straight’ erotic romance as much as her genre work. You Own Me has a couple of wonderful non-standard protagonists, in particular Lizzie, who isn’t some thin supermodel and thus is much easier to relate to as an ‘ordinary’ reader.

Ms. Walker really made me feel the chemistry between Lizzie and Decker, and yet made their inability to connect believable and understandable. I yearned to see them end up together, and found Selah to be a nice outlet for the feeling of wanting to push them together and make them see how much they loved each other.

The sex between Lizzie and Noel is uncomfortable to read, but it’s meant to be, and that’s skillfully done. It’s also thankfully brief. There’s a lot of wild emotion in the erotic sex scenes of You Own Me, a little hint of kink, and some truly raw desire. Walker’s sex scenes are some of the best I’ve read, and over the years I’ve read many. I also shed a few tears at the emotional climax, which was beautiful. This is an erotic romance, so the joy is in seeing how things come together for Lizzie and Decker, and in experiencing the highs, lows, and sexiness along with them. You Own Me is an absolutely delightful read!

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Review: “Magic on the Line,” Devon Monk

Pros: Gripping plot
Cons: Ends in the middle of something; very shallow bad guy
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

The Authority has a new boss–Bartholomew Wray–and he’s changing everything. Several very good people have had their memories taken away, “Closed” out of their positions and responsibilities, and Allie knows she could be next. It couldn’t come at a worse time. The Veiled seem to be spreading some sort of illness, one that involves poisoned magic. People are getting sick and dying all over the city, including one of Allie’s friends, whose life hangs in the balance. The entire city is vulnerable, and Bartholomew refuses to listen to the danger.

 

Magic on the Line is the seventh Allie Beckstrom novel. I don’t recommend jumping into the series at this point; the current state of affairs and the roster of characters are too complex. I love the world-building in these books; the system of magic involving underground cisterns, ‘storm rods’, and a price paid in pain is delightfully different. The books don’t all hold up equally, mostly because Allie refuses to learn or grow through several of the middle books, leading to frustration. In Magic on the Line she’s still stubborn as hell, but is less likely to get the people around her killed because of it.

I found the plot gripping. Allie is forced to turn to a less-than-upstanding medical professional when her friend is hurt. She’s uncovering the source of an epidemic, but none of the authorities–secret or mundane–believe her, and she has no proof. Her friends’ lives are going up in flames, and she and her lover Zayvion are having a few difficulties with their respective loyalties to the Authority. There are plenty of tense moments, close calls, and tough scrapes to get through. I’m not finding myself as head-over-heels as I was at the beginning of the series, but I certainly plan to continue on with it.

Bartholomew Wray is rather predictable in his lack of depth, and the further the story touches on him the more stereotypical he gets. He’s one of the weak points of the story. I also can’t say that I’m thrilled with where the story ends, but then I have an aversion to stories that break off in the middle of things at the end of a book.

Magic on the Line is well worth reading!

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Review: “The VB6 Cookbook,” Mark Bittman

Pros: Delicious healthy recipes!
Cons: Not for everyone
Rating: 5 out of 5

 

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

The VB6 Cookbook: More than 350 Recipes for Healthy Vegan Meals All Day and Delicious Flexitarian Dinners at Night posits an interesting way of eating. The idea is that until 6 pm you eat vegan, and after that you eat vegetable-heavy meals with a more flexible set of ingredients, including occasional ‘treats’ (cheese, meats, fish, non-whole grains, ice cream, etc.). There are lists of unlimited fruits and vegetables–things you can eat in any amount. It’s for people who want to eat better, but don’t do well with ‘diets’. That definitely describes me. I’ve bought vegetarian cookbooks before even though I have no interest in going vegetarian, simply because I’d like to eat a lot more vegetable-centric foods, and that’s an easy way to do it. So the VB6 concept is comfortable for me, even though it takes things further than I would have on my own.

One of the things I was really looking forward to in Mark Bittman’s cookbook were the breakfast and lunch recipes. I need quick breakfasts and easy-to-pack lunches to keep my husband well-fed around his work, and most cookbooks don’t touch on those areas. We now have smoothies from the VB6 cookbook nearly every morning, which has nicely also cut down on my tendency to get beignets at our local cafe. One of my favorite features of this cookbook–something that far too few cookbook authors indulge in–is a willingness to include variations on each recipe, along with lists of further ideas to mess with. This helps you adapt recipes to your tastes, and means that the cookbook contains much more than it looks like it does.

This goes back to those smoothies I mentioned: the smoothie recipe includes four basic recipes as well as suggestions for varying seasonings and flavors beyond that. The basic smoothie recipe is for one serving, but is easily multiplied. It uses 1/2 cup of plain non-dairy milk (I love it with almond milk) or silken tofu (4 oz), a small amount of a flavoring, 1 cup or so of fruit, and ice as necessary. I liked the melon lime smoothie, although if I had it to do over I’d use the silken tofu instead of the almond milk; melon is watery, so the smoothie was very thin even with the addition of ice. The strawberry balsamic smoothie is really delicious. My favorite, however, is the cherry vanilla smoothie. Where most vegan smoothie recipes that I’ve tried clearly would work better with milk–the non-dairy milk is obviously a substitute–this recipe is truly meant to work with the non-dairy milk. The almond milk flavor works perfectly with the vanilla and cherry; I tried it once with regular milk and it was actually better with the almond milk. Besides the smoothies there are some other delightful offerings–I admit I needed to add a little extra sweetening to the Autumn spice baked oatmeal, but I’m hoping to gradually work my way out of that need. It’ll definitely be a matter of taste, but then it’s really easy to add a little syrup or honey over top.

Other breakfasts include “chorizo” tacos (made with spiced tofu); no-bake pumpkin custard (I must try this one!); broccoli scramble; orange-peach parfait; and grain nuts with fruit.

Autumn Oatmeal

Autumn Oatmeal

My favorite of the lunches is a very easy-to-pack Sweetgreen Quinoa Salad. It includes corn, grape tomatoes, and fresh basil. I absolutely love it, and it lasts well. Not all of the lunches can be saved for later; many are meant to be served right away. Some can be reheated; others can at least be refrigerated for a few hours. The recipes are delicious and not overly complex. Some examples are caponata mixed rice; curried spinach and tofu; vegetable pot pie; eggplant meatballs; and peas and carrots salad.

The snacks chapter provides more items that I like to include in a lunchbox, or of course snack on in the middle of the afternoon when I’m trying to hold out until dinner. I look forward to trying the cocktail chickpeas, as I’ve tried spiced snack chickpeas before and have quite enjoyed them. The cucumber quickles came out very well–vinegary, spicy, and just a little sweet. There are variations provided for pickling other vegetables as well (cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, mushrooms, radishes). What a great way to make things more interesting when you’re used to snacking on plain veggies. I also particularly like a chipotle tofu-based ‘mayo’ meant to go with carrots. Spicy and delicious.

Cucumber Quickles

Cucumber Quickles

Bittman doesn’t go halfway on the dinners, definitely taking advantage of their more flexible nature. There’s a red paella with scallops, for example; mussels in coconut broth; chicken with fennel salad (variations include chicken cutlets with celery and watermelon salad, and pork medallions with fennel and apple salad); crisp pork on green papaya salad; vegetable curry with lamb.

The desserts chapter is pretty good too. I should note that I find many vegan desserts are still clearly substitutes, that need to be taken on their own merits rather than compared to their ‘normal’ equivalents. I quite enjoyed the gingery mango pudding made with silken tofu. It’s never going to be the same as a richer, sweeter pudding made with dairy, but if you’re trying to stick with things that are good for you then it’s a delicious alternative. I do find that the stated number of servings in his recipes lead to generous servings, which, when you’re trying to get people to switch to less fatty, more vegetable-heavy foods is a good way to go. You’ll also find desserts in here like avocado chocolate mousse, peanut butter bonbons, and cherry clafoutis.

There’s a ‘building blocks’ chapter that includes things you can make in bulk and have on hand to help you throw recipes together in a few minutes: homemade salad dressing; big-batch cooked vegetables, whole grains, or beans; pico de gallo, nut butters, tomato sauce, vegetable stock, and so on. They’re meant to help you stay on track even when things are hectic, and I think they do a good job of it.

I truly enjoyed Mark Bittman’s “VB6 Cookbook,” and we plan to keep using it–in particular for breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. As for me, I have a batch of quickles in the fridge that will get me through my snacking this week!

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Have a breakfast/lunch cookbook for review?

I’m on a kick recently of looking for breakfast and lunch recipes that fit well around work. I.e., quick, easy breakfasts and lunches that travel well. If you have a cookbook that in part or all addresses these needs and would like to send a review copy, please contact me at heather.grove at errantdreams.com

I do prefer hardcopy when dealing with cookbooks–it’s just a lot easier to work with. That said, I’ll make do with electronic if necessary. Kindle format is preferred in that case, although pdf will do.

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Non-Review: “Song of the Dragon,” Tracy Hickman

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

The elves of the Rhonas Empire have carved a path of conquest throughout the civilized lands, enslaving humans, chimera, manticores, goblins, and every other race they encounter. … But legends tell of a time when humans and the other slave races were free. There are tales of a hero who will return one day to lead them in an uprising against their masters. That hero, so the stories say, will be a human named Drakis.

But Drakis Sha’Timuran, a human warrior-slave of House Timuran, gives no credence to these legends. He fights for the glory of his House and his elven masters along with the other members of his Cohort. But as they embark on the final stage of a campaign to bring down the last dwarf king, Drakis finds himself troubled by a song–a melody that coils itself around his mind and conjures disturbing visions of dark wings, claws, iridescent scales, and fire. … Along with all the other slaves, Drakis suddenly recalls the truth of his enslavement, the terrible cruelty of his masters, and their deceit. But if everything he knows about his world and his life is a lie, what is the truth?

Song of the Dragon is book one of the Annals of Drakis. I’m not entirely sure what to say about it. I managed to get to page 379. You’d think at that point there’d be no reason not to finish it, but I put it down and just couldn’t bring myself to pick it up again. If I take a step back I can say that there are some interesting plot bits in it. The characters are very one-note, however. The means by which the elves keep their slaves pacified seems unnecessarily complex and prone to problems. And the events of the story just weren’t that lively or interesting. I had no emotional connection to the book whatsoever.

I wanted to want to finish it; I much prefer to do full reviews rather than non-reviews, especially after I’ve put that much time into a book. But it says a lot that I couldn’t scrape together enough interest to read those final 70 or so pages–and I’m having difficulty finding much of anything to talk about with regards to it. I felt very little passion or emotion in the words.

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Review: “Deerskin,” Robin McKinley

Pros: Wow. Made me cry buckets
Cons: Trigger warning; very dark material
Rating: 5 out of 5

Before surgery I picked up about 20 books that I could be fairly certain I’d love, to read in the weeks following. One was Robin McKinley’s Deerskin. It sounded interesting, and I had a vague half-memory of having loved one of her other books perhaps some 25 years ago. I couldn’t have imagined, however, just what a mark this book would leave on me.

 

Princess Lissar doesn’t have her dead mother’s regal presence, but she has started to inherit some of her legendary beauty. Unfortunately this brings her to the attention of her distant and uncaring father, who determines to marry her. In fleeing his madness she makes her way to a small, backwater neighboring kingdom, where she finds a job caring for Prince Ossin’s prized puppies. She’s been touched by magic, and the locals come to believe that she’s the Moonwoman of legend. She cannot, however, outrun her memories forever.

 

First, a trigger warning for rape. This is an incredibly dark tale, and it isn’t for everyone. It contains a stunning exploration of dissociation, repressed memories and flashbacks that flattened me. McKinley’s voice wanders and meanders with a lyrical loveliness; it’s rescued from being potentially slow by a magnetic, engrossing, terrifying plot. I’m still reeling from reading it.

The characterization is striking. Side characters come to life, and the major characters contain great depth. I particularly like the friendship that develops between Ossin and Lissar, which isn’t at all a stereotypical fantasy relationship. The ties between Lissar and her dogs likewise entranced me, despite the fact that I’m not a dog person.

The magic present in the tale has a fierce, mystical touch to it. It’s an occasional thing–no spells, sorcerers or mystics–but powerful when it shows its face. The Moonwoman has chosen to shine her light on Lissar, and her loving touch informs everything.

I am not ashamed to say that I shed more than a tear or two as I approached the climax of Deerskin. It enthralled me as it swept toward its powerful conclusion. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone, as long as they’re ready for the subject matter.

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Review: “The Wild Ways,” Tanya Huff

Pros: Delightful tale of magic and humor
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Charlie is a Wild Power, but she’s been acting distinctly un-Wild lately, nearly settled down with her cousin Allie and Allie’s guy, Graham. She’s even been helping to raise Jack, their Dragon Prince of a cousin. Realizing that she needs to get moving, Charlie picks up and heads out with a Celtic Rock band. She brings Jack, who needs a break from Allie’s all-too-mothering supervision. He’s fourteen after all–not four or forty.

The Gale family keeps itself to itself. Its members can take care of themselves with the use of charms and other magics, but Charlie’s Wild nature means that she can choose to involve herself in others’ affairs. Unfortunately so can Auntie Catherine, another Wild Power, and she’s decided to help an oil company by stealing the sealskins of a family of Selkies so that the company can blackmail them. Charlie, who finds herself drawn to one of the Selkies, will need every resource at her disposal to face off against one of the dreaded Gale Aunties.

 

The Wild Ways is a sequel to Tanya Huff’s delightful The Enchantment Emporium. No matter which series Huff is writing–her military SF Confederation books, her urban fantasy Gale books, or her urban fantasy Keeper books, among others–she’s a delight to read. She has a knack for providing laugh-out-loud quotes. Her writing is whimsical and unique.

“Are you scared of her?”

“Wary. Careful. Confronting an auntie has been known to end in gingerbread.”

“I like gingerbread,” Jack pointed out.

“As a career choice?”

“Oh.”

Huff’s characters come to life on the pages. My favorite in The Wild Ways is Jack, the fourteen-year-old Dragon Prince and Gale boy. He’s still trying to find his place in this world, with the threat of being judged when he reaches age fifteen hanging over his head–he’s a sorcerer with a great deal of power, something that the Gale family doesn’t approve of at all. Charlie’s take is that Jack is another Wild Power, and she’s ready to help Jack take ownership of that label. Huff draws Jack in a fantastic blend of fourteen-year-old boy and alien dragon raised in constant danger.

Charlie is great fun–she gives Huff an excuse to have the Gales interact with the outside world, and her relaxed attitude is unusual and fun in a fantasy protagonist. Her chosen milieu of Celtic festivals provides plenty of background hilarity and ambiance, as do Charlie’s friends. While the bad-guy oil company executive is a little on the stereotypically evil side, she’s a rather fun character. Also her assistant, Paul, turns out to have some depth and interest to him. As for the Selkie Charlie takes an interest in, Eineen, it’s great to see how her demeanor changes as her circumstances change, and it all makes sense in the context of her personality.

Charlie is creative in her use of her power and in how she handles the challenges thrown her way. All in all, The Wild Ways is a worthy successor to The Enchantment Emporium.

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