The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, by Gerald Morris–a Guest Post by CJ!

Quick note from Two: This is a guest review by our very own CJ, who can occasionally be found lurking in the comments. Everybody be nice, as it’s very nice for CJ to contribute.

There is none so cursed as those with stupid sisters.

Lynet’s sister Lyonesse is a doozy of a stupid sister. She is everything a lady should be. Beautiful if you go for doe-eyed, manipulative, and useless. Their castle is besieged by an amorous and amoral knight that thinks beheading all comers is the way to a lady’s heart. Of course with a lady like Lyonesse he is not far wrong.

Lynet on the other hand is smart and resourceful if a bit naïve. She sneaks from the castle and heads for Camelot. Armed only with the promise of her sister’s hand she seeks a knight of the round table to save her home. Along the way she meets and defeats a strange little dwarf named Roger. He helps her to Camelot. She was a bit lost if we are honest.

At Camelot she finds she is not the first to offer the hand of the fairest lady in the land. In fact, the knights suspect her sister is less lovely than claimed. To make matters worse she refuses to name her castle for fear Arthur will not aid a former enemy. All she manages to get for her trouble is a scruffy kitchen boy. She soon finds he is as dumb as he looks though not bad with a sword. She needs the help of the dwarf to counteract the idiocy.

This is the kind of story where nothing is what it seems. Morris takes the oldest of Arthurian lore and infuses it with wit and hilarity. He captures the beauty and peril of the fae world and makes it new. The damsels are savage and smart. Courtly love is seen for the farce it is and real love gets a chance.

Join the savage damsel, and the odd dwarf as they meet enchantresses, Sir Gawain, King Arthur, and more on the way to complete the quest.

Favorite Line:

‘A lady,’ he repeated. ‘I’ve just been disarmed and taken prisoner by a lady.’ He shook his head slowly. ‘I really am pathetic,’ he moaned.”

Don’t read if: you can’t stand witty banter, role reversals, enchantments, or dwarves who like farming.

Got a review idea of your own? Want to share a book, movie, or TV show you love with the Internet, where it can live forever? Head over to the Comments and Guest Reviews Page and let me know, or just email me at twosreviws@gmail.com!

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Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare

Today we’re going old-school, all the way back to the 16th century, in the town of Messina…

Don Pedro has just returned to the home of Leonato after a successful battle against unnamed foes, bringing with him his best-slash-favorite comrades in arms (Benedick and Claudio) and his bastard half-brother (John, who is, of course, a bastard in more ways than one). Everyone is overjoyed by Pedro’s arrival–successful military campaign, house full of hot soldier types, what’s not to love? Everyone, that is, except Leonato’s niece Beatrice. She and Benedick go way back, and not in a good way. They fight. A lot. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Leonato’s daughter Hero, however, is happier than most–she and Claudio are in love, and his prowess in battle means he finally has the stature to request her hand in marriage (John, meanwhile, hates that everyone is happy and wants nothing more than to make everyone as miserable as he is, so he and his cronies spend the entire play trying to screw everyone over). Minor shenanigans ensue, and Claudio and Hero get engaged. Yay! More rejoicing (except from John, of course, because he is that guy who has to wreck everything for everyone, all the time). As plans for the wedding get under way, a plot is hatched (by asshat John) to ruin the wedding.

But we don’t really care about any of that, because this whole story is really about Beatrice and Benedick. They rant about each other to anyone who will listen, and at each other whenever they’re in the same room. The back-and-forth between the two is simply phenomenal. And their constant bickering, of course, gives their friends an idea: let’s get these two together. So now major shenanigans ensue.

This play is (in my opinion) one of Shakespeare’s absolute best. It’s fast-paced and funny, with a biting wit that wouldn’t be out of place on TV today (although, yes, some of the language is a bit archaic, which brings me to another point. There’s a series called No-Fear Shakespeare, and it’s got both the original text and a modern interpretation, which is perfect for anyone who has trouble with old-fashioned language. If you’ve been wanting to try Shakespeare but find the whole olde-tymey thing a bit intimidating, try those. ) Give this play a whirl, and let me know if you think I’m right, or if I’m just making a whole lot of ado about nothing.

Favorite Line:

Ha! ‘Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner;’ there’s a double meaning in that.

Don’t read if: you really don’t like witticisms, snarky women, snarky men, plots to besmirch a good name, or happy endings.

 

 

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce is an ordinary 11-year-old girl–she pesters her older sisters (who pester her in return), takes bike rides through the countryside, worships at the altar of chemistry–wait, what?

Let’s try this again.

It’s 1950 in rural England. Flavia de Luce lives near the village of Bishop’s Lacey with her father and two older sisters, in an old, rambling house called Buckshaw. For the most part, life at Buckshaw is uneventful–sure, her sisters lock her in a closet sometimes, but that’s only to be expected from older sisters.

One day, a dead bird turns up on the kitchen doorstep with a penny stamp skewered on its beak. It’s weird, but Flavia dismisses it–until early the next morning, when she discovers a corpse in the cucumber patch. What’s more, she’s reasonably sure the body belongs to the man she overheard arguing with her father late the night before. The police are duly summoned; Flavia, fascinated, tries to observe the proceedings but is sent away. So, of course, she decides to launch her own investigation into the death of the mysterious stranger. And a good thing, too, because her father is soon arrested and charged with the murder.

The clues lead Flavia down the path of history, to a mysterious suicide (or was it?) at a nearby school some 30 years before, over the loss of an incredibly rare stamp.

When it first came out, this book won all the awards, and it deserves every one of them. It’s an engaging mystery, brilliantly realized.

Flavia is one of the most original and engaging heroines in fiction today. She’s smart, she’s clever, she’s not always likeable–just like any other 11-year-old (except for the aforementioned obsession with chemistry, that is). But that brings me to another point. Despite the youth of the protagonist, this book isn’t YA. I don’t mean that it’s full of adult content or anything like that, but it’s not a kid’s book–it just happens to feature one.

Can Flavia follow the trail of clues and exonerate her father? What really happened at the school 30 years ago? Will she get revenge on her sisters? Pick up this book, dig deep, and see if you can find the Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Favorite Line:

Was I now inducted, and would I be expected to take part in unspeakably bloody midnight rituals in the hedgerows? It seemed like an interesting possibility.

Don’t read if: you have any sort of problem with stamps, pie, overly inquisitive 11-year-olds, chemistry, or bicycles with names.

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall–and it’s Detective Inspector Jack Spratt’s job to find out what happened.

DI Spratt runs the Nursery Crime Division of the Reading Central Police.  He and his small (yet plucky!) band of misfits solve the unconventional crimes that crop up in Berkshire–illegal straw-into-gold dens, serial killings by some guy with a brightly colored beard, anything involving talking animals. But it’s not all happy ever after for Spratt and his crew; their latest investigation resulted in an acquittal and the Chief Constable is threatening to shut them down.

Then a local, D-list celebrity named Humpty Dumpty is found dead. At first it looks like suicide, but then others start to die, too–the next-door neighbor, the ex-wife–and the clues keep pointing to murder by person or persons unknown. But who? And why?

If that wasn’t enough, Spratt is hoping to gain entry to the Guild of Detectives and join the ranks of famous detectives like Miss Maple, Lord Peter Flimsey, and Reading’s very own DCI Friedland Chymes. Membership means a following, legitimacy, and the chance to have one’s cases not only published in Amazing Crime Stories magazine, but adapted for prime-time television as well. It’s major, and Jack wants the credibility membership would give to him and, by extension, the entire Nursery Crime Division.

I’ve got to be honest–this one is a bit out there (but in a good way, I promise!). It’s very much a standard mystery that pokes fun at the conventions so prevalent in the genre, and does it very, very well. The nursery rhyme characters fit in seamlessly, and add a little zest that most other mysteries lack. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet presents a puzzling and compelling mystery (Bonus points if you can spot all the puns and references!).

Can Spratt, his DS Mary Mary, and the rest of the team solve the murder before the case is taken away from them? Will Spratt get accepted into the Guild of Detectives? And what on earth is the huge green thing growing in his mother’s front garden? Check out The Big Over Easy, and find out.

Favorite Line:

The lights were off, the interior dingy, and someone, somewhere, was playing the violin.

Don’t read if: you object to eggs, faded movie stars, verrucas, immortal Titans, or accidental giant killing.

Stiff, by Mary Roach

(Note: In a bit of a departure from the norm, today we’re looking at nonfiction.)

Ever wondered what happens when you die? Well, this book has all the answers (Oh, except for life-after-death type stuff. No idea what happens there.). This book is all about what happens to a body when its owner has shuffled off this mortal coil, no matter what they choose to have done to the empty husks they leave behind.

The primary focus of Stiff is cadaver research–in other words, what happens to bodies when they get donated to science. And let me tell you, it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s also (rather surprisingly, considering the subject matter) not even remotely ghoulish, morbid, or distasteful.

It’s a fairly good, detailed overview of what, exactly, will happen to a donated cadaver. Science depends so much on cadaver research. Medical students need hands-on training in anatomy; entomologists need to know insect life-cycle timelines to help in criminal investigations; researchers need to be able to test vehicle safety and land mine protection gear. Without cadaver donations, there’d be no airbags, no body farm, and surgery would be done by people who have no idea of what the inside of a human body actually looks like.

But it isn’t only about the research. Organ donation is discussed. It also covers the history of embalming and the desire to slow–or even stop–decay. The book also explores other options, from cremation and interment to less common practices, and what those processes actually mean.

Somehow Mary Roach has found a way to take a significant societal taboo and turn it into an informative, irreverent, and highly entertaining read. She makes the lives of the dead both touching and funny; never once crossing the line into disrespect or crudeness.

So if you’ve ever thought about donating your body to science or wondered what it involved, or debated the merits of cremation vs. burial, read Stiff. It just might change your view of death.

Favorite Line:

And that if there’s any danger, which I like to think there isn’t, we’re all doomed, so relax and have another Snickers.

Don’t read if: you hate bodies, researchers, gelatin, or spoilers.

Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters

A recently-wealthy, opinionated Victorian spinster goes on a Nile cruise with a new friend–what could possibly go wrong?

Amelia Peabody has just come into a great deal of money. As a spinster with no ties holding her down, she decides that it’s time to travel to all the places she’s ever wanted to go: Paris, Rome–and Egypt. While in Rome, she meets another woman, Evelyn Forbes, and the two hit it off–so well, in fact, that Amelia insists that Evelyn travel with her to Egypt as her companion.

Before embarking on a trip up the Nile, they spend a few days in Cairo seeing the sites (the Giza pyramids, the Cairo Museum)–and meeting the Emerson brothers, Radcliffe and Walter. Walter is a good, kind man who swiftly catches Evelyn’s eye.  Radcliffe, on the other hand, is loud, rude, and irritating; and he and Amelia don’t exactly see eye to eye. Not that it matters, because Amelia and Evelyn are off on their cruise.

They stop at Amarna, famous city of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, and find a pair of archaeologists working to preserve and restore the site–it’s the Emerson brothers, in fact. Fascinated by the process, the ladies decide to stay awhile and help–but end up getting far more than they ever bargained for.

With suspicious accidents happening left and right, a mummy on the loose, and Evelyn’s past coming back to haunt her, Amelia knows it’s up to her to save the day.

This is a fun one. It’s a lighthearted, thoroughly enjoyable (and informative!) mystery featuring one of the most indomitable heroines I’ve ever encountered. Amelia knows her mind (and speaks it), takes no crap from anyone, and doesn’t back down, no matter what (It doesn’t hurt that the Egyptology is dead-on–Elizabeth Peters earned a PhD in Egyptology before she became a writer, so the history and archaeology are both accurate).

Travel up the Nile with Amelia Peabody, and have a Victorian adventure unlike anything you’ve ever read before.

Favorite Line:

Men are frail creatures, of course; one does not expect them to exhibit the steadfastness of women.

Don’t read if: you have a distaste for boats, Egypt, ambulatory mummies, or tapioca pudding.