Colored Pencil Painting Portraits

There is absolutely no denying Alyona Nickelsen’s talent and skill. The drawings – or colored pencil paintings – shown in this book are gorgeous in their photo–realism… my only complaint, I think, is a bit of spot–blindness in some facial expressions. I used to draw, all the time, and always found it both fascinating and frustrating how hugely a single line could affect an expression; I remember spending a very long time on one drawing, and found it amazing how, without ever touching the mouth, I could create the impression of a smile by darkening a line of the eye. Erase that back a bit, and the smile faded. There’s a reason most of the portraits you’re going to see in museums or art books are of solemn sitters, or Mona Lisa smiles: a big toothy grin is very hard to pull off without straying into goofy territory. Teeth are hard.

I’m not sure it’s entirely fair for someone as talented as Ms. Nickelsen to put out a how-to book. The odds against reaching anything remotely close to her level is so remote that it’s almost a book full of fail. But if you go into this with the expectation of learning tips and tricks and tools and techniques (phew, didn’t think I’d get the full alliteration out of that), and of being better than you were before you read it – then you can’t fail. And of course there’s the option of just paging through the incredible artwork on every page and admiring its evolution. Either way, this is highly recommended.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief

I loved this. I loved it so much that I let out a happy little yip and hit request immediately when I saw its sequel pop up on Netgalley, and another when I got it – I can’t wait.

Lisa Tuttle has worked with George R.R. Martin, so I would expect her to know what she’s doing, and she does. She knows how to build characters without bending herself or her narrative into knots to make sure I picture them just as she wants me to; the main characters of this book are excellent companions. Miss Lane and Mr. Jasper Jesperson, striving to build a private investigation practice in 1893 London, are neither of them perfect. As the book begins, she has fled a position with a psychical research group upon discovering that a woman in whom she had perfect faith, a friend, was planning to conduct a fraudulent séance; I kept wanting to poke the author, or the character, asking if they didn’t want to make some kind of stand against such fakery or something? At first it felt cowardly of Miss Lane, although I surely understood her feelings of betrayal. In the end, where her moonlight flit could have seemed like an out-of-character maneuver included solely to put chess pieces in place for the next move – it didn’t. It made sense – and because it made sense and worked for the character, the rest of the plot evolves organically from it.

And as for Mr. Jesperson – he is a bit arrogant, a bit of a Sherlock Holmes-wanna-be, a bit over-focused on his own ends… but as it turns out, he has reason to be a bit arrogant, and good cause to expect to emulate Holmes – and his vision isn’t so tunneled that he can’t see a child in distress. The kitten incident was a beautiful illustration of his abilities and capabilities.

And his mother is terrific.

The writing has an effortless-seeming clarity that makes the pages fly by. The author manages the disparate elements of the plot like an expert juggler, keeping all the balls in the air until they fall neatly into their places. I love the way the climax of the action is handled. The left hand (and the reader) doesn’t really know what the right hand is doing, and the right hand can’t let the left know without sabotaging the whole plan. Miss Lane is put into a position where she has to accept the possibility that her new partner has let her down at least as badly as her last friend and partner. And Mr. Jesperson has to handle the situation with an aplomb and pragmatism that would do Holmes proud.

Another area where the writing shines is what feels like effortless exposition – or withholding of exposition. Just enough of the characters’ stories are told to make them extremely engaging while still leaving lots of ground for future books to cover (lots of future books, I hope). I love that there are lots of things in both Miss Lane’s and Mr. Jesperson’s pasts that aren’t detailed – including in their shared past, as some of their very first cases are alluded to like the Giant Rat of Sumatra (“the curious affair of the deodand”). (Wow – I never heard of a deodand before- what a fascinating thing.) I love that … shall we say, to avoid spoilers, the origin of a certain, er, fashion accessory is never, ever provided. Why does Miss Fox wear an eyepatch? I have no idea. And what’s lovely about it is that no one ever asks, and Miss Lane never explains. It would, after all, be indelicate to discuss it. Fantastic.

Best of all, the author knows how to avoid that thing that has been driving me straight up the wall so much lately: recapping. So, so many books lately feature characters doing something, and then meeting someone who wasn’t there and telling them all about it, or simply thinking about what happened a couple of chapters ago – during which the writer thoughtfully provides her apparently amnesiac reader with a summarization of those events, sometimes using just the same phrasings. Lisa Tuttle doesn’t do this. “I gave him all the details, finishing just as we reached the station.” I could just hug her for that.

I’ve been making note of a few fun names that have popped up in this year’s books – like the one which used my name, except flipped, and the Mad Men character n WWII London. Here there is a set of twins named Amelia and Bedelia – and the Amelia Bedelia books (about a very Mary Poppins-ish lady, as I recall) were a staple of my early childhood. I wonder if that was on purpose.

It’s such a great title – and I love that “psychic thief” doesn’t mean what you might first think it means. And the somnambulism is a great deal of (sometimes very creepy) fun. (And I adore that cover.)

Yay, there is a second book – and I have it.

Great quote, and … well, yeah:
Why the dead should wish to communicate with the living in such a bizarre and roundabout way—materializing flowers, playing trumpets, rapping on tables—rather than sending straightforward messages through their mediums was a question no true believer would ask.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Frostbite – Joshua Bader

This was another big surprise, all the bigger for its being a very pleasant surprise. This was one of those books I regretted requesting almost as soon as it was too late, partly because I had (as always) such a backlog, and partly, quite honestly, because it was not apparently traditionally published.

It didn’t take long, though, to discover that (despite a scattering of typos and editorial errors which hopefully got picked up) the writing was good. (I sincerely hope the homonym problems and so on got fixed, because the story deserves better.) This is another example of how storytelling ought to be done. Colin Fisher has a dark cloud of bad luck hovering over his head, but the details are not divulged all at once – they’re doled out effectively over the course of the book, as he decides to stop running from the cloud and take advantage of a dubious (but very lucrative) opportunity. The danger in the story feels very real; with a first-person narrator there’s obviously a 99.7% chance that that character at least is going to survive a book, but there’s a whole lot of pain between fine and dead, and it seems consistently probably that Colin is going to suffer. Terrible things happen – and it is very much in doubt whether or not Colin will be able to stop them. He’s good at what he does, his own unique brand of magic – but he’s outnumbered.

Not only terrible things happen – funny things do too, and, happily, they actually are funny. There’s a good balance of humor and terror – similar, as others have pointed out, to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files – but it doesn’t try to be a carbon copy of Butcher or anyone else. It’s a well-realized world that Colin inhabits, beautifully detailed and absolutely believable, with a terrific cast of characters, human and otherwise. This is the beginning of a series – and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Death in D Minor

Just when you think all the angles a cozy mystery can possibly come from have been covered, some lovely writer like Alexia Gordon comes along with unique characters, a unique setting, and really solid writing. Just when you start rolling your eyes at the idea of another cozy mystery featuring ghosts, Gethsemane Brown comes along in a corner of Ireland I for one have never visited on the page before, with one of the more unusual sidekicks I’ve seen.

This is one of those books I blame for keeping me coming back to the genre. It’s worth it – just about – to wade through all the bad ‘uns just to find the occasional gem like this.

One of the happy aspects of Alexia Gordon’s writing is graceful exposition. Bear with me, because I’m probably going to compliment every author I read who knows how to introduce a character without making her look in the mirror and ponder her past, or who can show Character A catching Character B up on something the latter missed without indulging in Reality-Show-Recap-itis. It seems like it’s becoming more and more rare for writers to avoid the pitfalls, so – praise where it’s due, by all means.

This book can serve as proof that the heroine of a book, or a series, doesn’t have to be warm and cuddly to be absolutely enjoyable. Gethsemane is prickly, not socially comfortable – and very unhappy to find that getting what you asked for doesn’t always mean getting what you want. Hers is the sort of story that makes me hope she doesn’t go through this level of trouble in every book – not because it’s unrealistic or repetitious or anything of the sort, but because of a deep sympathy for her – it’s stressful.

The ghostly secondary character(s) reminded me a bit of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; I’m not sure if it’s headed in the same direction as that movie (or tv series), but I’m fine with it if it does. And I wouldn’t say that about a lesser series. But this – this was lovely, and I look forward to more.

This book came out in July 2017; the newness of the book may have something to do with the reference to “Ronald Crump”.

And if you don’t like my review, “may the cat eat you, and may the devil eat the cat.” So there. (Not really – I just wanted an excuse to quote that.)

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Black Magic

This took me very much by surprise. Early on in the book, someone references Harry Potter to Alex Black, first-person heroine of this story, and she corrects them: “More Harry Dresden than Harry Potter.” And she’s absolutely right. If this had not been so enjoyable, it might have been a bit too close to the Dresden Files in theme and tone for comfort (set in Vancouver instead of Chicago). Alex doesn’t have Harry’s firepower as a wizard, but like Harry she has to make her living, and like him she is good at what she does.

And like in the Dresden Files, nobody’s safe. Death comes unexpectedly and early, and Alex herself (like Harry) takes a beating.

Her sidekick, however, is about as far from Lt. Karrin Murphy as it is possible to be.

So, yes, it is very, very reminiscent of Jim Butcher’s series. But, fortunately, the writing carries it off. In fact, the only reason I gave this four stars instead of five was a smidgen of disappointment in the climax; the buildup was excellent, but I thought it fizzled a bit.

All in all, though, I had a great time with this – and I just bought the second book. (They’re now being published under the pseudonym Alexis Blakely.) Looking forward to it!

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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ST:Discovery – Bored now

So CBS debuted Star Trek: Discovery last night, finally. They’ve been talking about it for – what, over a year? Two? I’ve lost track; it was supposed to debut back in May, and they never really gave an adequate reason why it didn’t. It came on my radar again when Sonequa Martin-Green’s character was killed off on The Walking Dead – right about at the same time it was announced that she was going to be the lead in Discovery. Huh. Coincidence!

I haven’t been overwhelmingly excited about this … ever. Never liked the look of the ship Discovery, nor of whatever that ship was in the premiere (what’s with the unlit bridge?); not a huge fan of Ms. Martin-Green; hated the uniforms; do we really need another prequel? And once I found out that CBS was only going to air the first episode, streaming the rest of the series behind a paywall? Pfeh. Not interested. Why on earth would I pay … *checks* Holy crap, that’s worse than I thought:
• Limited Commercials Annual Plan: $59.99/annually with a 1 Week Free Trial
• Commercial Free Annual Plan: $99.99/year with a 2-Day Free Trial
That’s appalling. (And I thought you got at least a month’s free trial – two days?!) Why would I pay that – on TOP of the ridiculous amount I already pay my cable company, plus Netflix which I can never give up because of Stranger Things – just to watch old episodes of CSI (which – give it a minute, it’ll pop up on ION Television) and Discovery? The latter would have to be pretty spectacular to make me do that.

It’s not.

I was frankly bored last night.

For one thing – this is the big debut, held back for four months? One hour, packed with what seemed like more commercials than usual, no fanfare? Really?

And … Yeah. Bored. My attention drifted like a spacewalker off her tether, and when it snapped back I … just didn’t much care what I had missed. And when I was paying attention, I was frowning about the show’s place in the timeline. SM-G’s “Number One” – Michael, which apparently does not mean she’s trans but people are running with that idea anyhow – gives the date “back on Earth” or whatever as 2280-something, if I recall correctly. Interesting; from what I’m finding the original series was set in the 2260’s. So I kept thinking things like “well, the sound effects are nice – very TOS – but why are the uniforms totally unlike anything we’ve seen before? (And what’s with the lame?) Why is the technology so different? Why introduce a brand new alien we’ve never seen before (apparently called Kelpiens) when they’ve never been heard of before in TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR, ENT, or any of the films, most of which take place after this? You’re really going to try slapping a whatever-that-generation-is tractor beam on a human being? Since when can a human being do the Vulcan neck pinch? McCoy couldn’t. Oh, lord, they injected Sarek into it… Wait. According to whatever website I found last night Sarek adopted her? So she’s apparently Spock’s adopted sister? Oh please. I am deathly tired of TOS characters’ never-before-mentioned siblings popping up.

Why are these people incapable of branching out into new space, new timeline, new storylines with no umbilical cords to what’s gone before? It’s Star Trek. It’s space. It’s the future. There are literally no boundaries (except for that purple barrier at the edge of the galaxy, of course). Why do they keep tromping over roughly the same ground?

The storytelling was … uninspired. The special effects seemed fine – but I was watching on a fairly small tv in standard definition. This was made for a bigger screen and hi-def, and I’ll bet it looked a lot better that way – but to me it was murky and I had no idea what they wanted me to be looking at in places. The acting was adequate. It got old for that one guy – *checks* Saru – to keep whingeing (yes, fine, prey species, dandy. Shut up) while the rest of the crew hardly got a word in edgewise. And … there’s an elephant in the room.

The “Klingons”.

They actually looked a little more like elephants than Klingons, didn’t they?

I have always hated the “Klingon” episodes of Trek. TOS not so much – they had a lot of great personalities playing Klingons in TOS. But when we got to TNG, I quickly came to hate Worf with the burning passion of sixty suns. I’ve been re-watching over the past several months, and it’s all coming back to me: every few weeks something terrible would happen to Worf, and then by the end of the episode he’d be all better, and I would be hacked off about yet another missed opportunity to get rid of him. He broke his neck – but was fine by the next episode. He almost died more, I think, than any other character on the show – not to mention the times he left the ship, or should have had his butt fired – and yet still he endured. And then imagine my disgust when he was transferred to Deep Space 9.

And every time TNG decided to focus on the bloody Klingons, I zoned out. There’s just no there there – and they kept returning over and over to that barren ground so that a bunch of leather-clad burly guys could bleat about honor and be generally annoying with their growly ugly speech-impeding teeth. (Yes, I’m racist against Klingons. So sue me.)

So here comes this new series – and of course they’re going to plop the Klingons in the middle of it. Well, sure – it makes sense. At the time they were the Enemy, and if you’re going to face a big danger they ought to be it. And – okay, it makes sense that they’re not going to go back to the original makeup. Sort of. But – no, damn it, no it doesn’t – it doesn’t make sense. If it’s within twenty years of the original series, how the hell have they evolved? Or – what? What is the explanation? And when do they plan to give this explanation? DO they plan to give an explanation, or will it be just the same as what they did last time, where for almost ten years there’s no enlightenment, not even a mention of what’s going on, until someone says “??” and Worf says that the matter is not discussed with outsiders?

“The lack of hair is empowering and logical”

They looked ridiculous. They sounded muffled, like – oh, gosh, like they were speaking through layers of latex or foam. And while I get that they shouldn’t be speaking English, the show had already lost my attention – so entire scenes where all dialogue was in Klingon were a bit lost on me, since I couldn’t be bothered to look up to read all the subtitles. And did I mention that they looked ridiculous? (Good lord, this was all driven by Neville Page and Glenn Hetrick? I’m so disappointed in them.) Was this another “Hey, we’ve got money to burn! Let’s hire a TON of makeup artists!” (Hetrick and Page don’t come cheap, I’m sure.) What in the name of Sto-Vo-Kor were they wearing? Why was that dead guy wrapped up like a mummy? In fact, why was there a whole quasi-Egyptian theme going? Is it really wise to have open flame on a starship? Do I have any real reason to care?

No. No, actually, I don’t.

And it’s all kind of a relief, in a way. I was a bit resentful that if I wanted to see the rest of the series I’d have to cough up. And now – I don’t have to, because I don’t care. I am completely uninterested. So now the resentment is cleared away, and I can go back to forgetting about it.

And I’m kind of sick of being disappointed by my fandoms. The new Doctor had better be superlative – but I’m not optimistic…

I would have liked to have seen Jason Isaacs, though. I do love Jason Isaacs. Ah well. I’ll get over it.

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A Cold Day For Murder

Marguerite Gavin gives this book a fantastic narration. She doesn’t attempt to replicate the way Dana Stabenow probably hears Kate Shugak’s ruined voice in her head, doesn’t attempt to constantly “do” ruined, for which I was grateful for the five and a half hours of the book. I’m sure it’s a good read, but it’s a great listen.

This takes place in a part of the world I’m just not that familiar with, that weird and wonderful great state of Alaska. I’ll admit it – I think my only real “experience” of it is from “Northern Exposure” and [book:To Start a Fire]. It’s someplace I think I’d have liked to go – but, after listening to this (and from what little else I know), I don’t think I’d be very welcome.

It was a little startling to hear the contempt that goes into some characters’ discussion of “greenies”… I am so enveloped in “save the planet or we die – duh” that it’s … truly weird to read about this alien mindset, valuing money – and, yes, I understand, jobs, but primarily money – far above the idea that … well, if you cut down all the trees, it will be hard to still be cutting down trees in five years, because … they will all have been cut down. Even just the simple enjoyment of the beauty of nature – meh. Let’s go for a lunar landscape – people like the moon.

Great sense of humor which for some reason I didn’t expect – Bobby is a terrific character, funny without being comic relief. And the fact that a lot of the book is funny doesn’t mean that the rest of it isn’t heartbreaking. From the general poverty and misery of so many and rampant alcoholism, to the very specific pain of Kate with her trauma (physical and in memory), the disappearances she’s investigating, to the wounded yearling moose being chewed on alive by a wolverine.

I enjoyed listening to the cadences of the names. Chick Noyukpuk, the Billiken Bullet; the Kanuyaq River; Niniltna; etc. And the other names – the Lost Chance Creek, the Lost Wife Mine, Squaw Candy Creek…. It all adds to the atmosphere.

Mutt’s awesome and I want one.

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Park Bench

Wow. Just … wow.

Say you’re a park bench. A nice, traditional, roomy seat – big enough for two, or three, or four if you’re friendly, shaded by a tree in a park. Every day dozens of people go by – you see joggers taking a favorite route, or people on their way to work. Some pause to tie a shoe or take a call or catch their breath – and there’s that one bloody dog … And then there are the regulars, who come to enjoy the weather and maybe read or watch people go by – or stretch out on you to sleep, since they have nowhere else to go. Sun and rain and snow and starlight, through the four seasons, until …

The saying about pictures and thousands of words is a cliché – but it’s a cliché for a reason. As someone who has handled pencils, pens, and brushes, I know how tiny the difference is between a line that evokes an emotion or plays its part in a story, and a line that is … just a line. Christophe Chabouté is French – but that’s the other cliché about art, isn’t it? It’s universal. I didn’t have to blow the dust off my high school language course, because without a word a very clear and achingly beautiful story is conveyed – a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a climax, a denouement – and an epilogue. Sometimes funny, occasionally heart-rending… the only small weakness I can think of in the book is that one of the threads of the story seemed far too predictable – I had a terrible feeling I knew what would happen. And I was right. And it hurt.

I love this book. In fact, I think I’ll go and start it over again.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Basic Witches

I’m a bit older than the target audience for this book (actually, quite a bit older) (all right, a lot older), but the note in the description about exorcising a toxic friendship was made the decision to request it. I was curious. I’ve always had an interest in how people integrate spirituality of whatever flavor into their lives – and I ended up being deeply impressed by this book. It’s not a deep and in-depth guide to how to practice wicca, not a hardcore spellbook or grimoire or whathaveyou, as such; the prevailing opinion I’ve always encountered is that it’s flat-out dangerous to mess around with something like that on your own, especially when very young and inexperienced. (I mean, it’s the sort of thing which, even if you don’t believe in any of it, still – a bit of common sense never hurts. Never go jogging wearing earphones that render you deaf to your surroundings (especially if you’re a woman alone), be aware of your surroundings, never ever play with a Ouija board, and never mess around with spells when you don’t know what you’re doing. The demon you prevent from entering this dimension may be your own.

What this actually is is a positive, warm, funny guide to how to handle situations that are bound to come up in everyone’s life. For example, that note that got my attention about toxic friends? I’ve got two, people I work with who used to be friends who knifed me when I wasn’t looking, and whom I can’t avoid. Will the section on what to do about it make it all better? Nope. But it serves as proof that I’m not alone – I’m not the only one who is going through something like this. And it does serve as a pretty good guideline of how to manage the way I think about it.

I’m not entirely thrilled with the light tone with which demons are discussed, but maybe I’ve been listening to too many funky podcasts lately. And nothing in here seems at all dangerous – quite the opposite.

In a lot of ways this is more therapy or counsel than Magick. Well, maybe it comes to the same thing, in the end.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Happy Baggins Birthday!

Reblogging an earlier Hobbit Day post – enjoy.

Stewartry

AND FRODO

Today, September 22, marks the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Here’s a little bit of why that matters so much …

If it’s not too late where you are, enjoy second breakfast and elevensies, and make sure to keep an eye out for Entmaidens.

My dear People, began Bilbo, rising in his place. ‘Hear! Hear! Hear!’ they shouted, and kept on repeating it in chorus, seeming reluctant to follow their own advice. Bilbo left his place and went and stood on a chair under the illuminated tree. The light of the lanterns fell on his beaming face; the golden buttons shone on his embroidered silk waistcoat. They could all see him standing, waving one hand in the air, the other was in his trouser-pocket.

My dear Bagginses and Boffins, he began again; and my dear Tooks and Brandybucks, and Grubbs, and Chubbs, and Burrowses, and Hornblowers…

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