Review of Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic

April 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic by David J. SchwartzGooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib
By David J. Schwartz; Narrated by Janina Edwards
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 21 October 2013[UNABRIDGED] – 12 hours, 11 minutes

Themes: / urban fantasy / mystery / community college / magic / secret agents /

Publisher summary:

Meet the newest professor at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic, Joy Wilkins. She may suffer from face blindness, but Joy can still recognize people by reading their auras — a skill that comes in particularly handy for her real work as an undercover agent with the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs. Her mission: to discover the source of weaponized demons being trafficked through the quaint school on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and to locate her predecessor, the school’s missing History of Magic professor. But just as her investigation gets under way, the brutal murder of Joy’s handler — and mentor — sets her on the trail of a secret society known as the Thirteenth Rib. With the clock ticking down to the next attack, Joy will have to find new allies and uncover ancient secrets if she’s going to have any chance of defeating a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the entire world.

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib (hereafter referred to as Gooseberry Bluff ) is a book that had a lot of good ideas, but suffered a bit on execution. I was originally attracted to it because it seemed like a cross of modern urban fantasy with mystery–and in many respects, it was just that. The issues I had with it are more about how it wrapped up the various plot lines, and what was left to the imagination.

The premise is simple: Joy Wilkins is the new professor of history at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic (GBCCoM), but she’s also an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs (FBMA). Joy’s job as an agent is made somewhat more difficult by the fact that she has face blindness; luckily, she is very good at reading auras, so her disability isn’t the end of the world. Very few people (relatively speaking) are good at reading auras. She is assigned to GBCCoM ostensibly to investigate the disappearance of the previous history professor, Prof. Drake, and to investigate the source of demon trafficking within the school. There are some other side stories in the book, and some character- and world-development that is done through the course of the narrative.

The characters are rather interesting and varied. Schwartz emphasized diversity in his characters, something relatively few authors seem to feel comfortable with, and that’s to his credit. The characters–whether they’re the narrator (Joy, the face-blind African American woman who’s also an agent in the FBMA), Andy (the transgender assistant who is biologically a male but self-identifies and dresses as a female and prefers to be referred to with feminine pronouns), the gay president of the college, the Indian FBMA case handler, or the (apparently stereotypical white male) FBMA case handler, to name a few–are all believable and deeply developed. On the one hand, it felt like Schwartz may have been trying “too hard” to be SO DIVERSE but on the other, the diversity and the character traits opened up by this diversity were well-handled; rarely did it seem like a character was diverse just to be diverse.

The world didn’t need much development in general, given that the book takes place in modern-day “Gooseberry Bluff, MN” (a city on the St. Croix river). The rules for the various types of magic weren’t particularly well-defined, but this book wasn’t as much about the magic as it was about the mystery, so that can be forgiven. When needed, such as when explaining the demon-summoning, the rules were at least internally consistent.

The biggest issue I had with the book is that it had a lot of plot lines, and they weren’t all wrapped up particularly well. In addition, perhaps because of all the parallel plot points, the wrap-up to the main story line felt rushed. Some of the plot lines were:
-The main plot line, Joy trying to solve the disappearance of her predecessor at the school and the demon-trafficking
-Related sub-plots of assassination attempts and trying to determine why Joy’s FBMA case manager is trying to keep her off the job
-The president of GBCCoM’s time away from the school
-A romantic relationship between two other professors at the school
-A student (Margaret) who is very strong, magically-speaking, but very novice
-Another professor at the GBCCoM trying to bring back her sister’s soul

In the end, the main plot line was wrapped up but the sub-plots weren’t particularly discussed. I was left thinking that the case manager is just a jerk (he was certainly painted that way), but a lot of time was devoted to him. The main plot line was wrapped up, though with a lot of things falling into place “at the right moment” or Joy “figuring it out” suddenly at the end. The other plot lines were not specifically wrapped up–in fact, one of them was left wide open (the last one I listed). It seems like Schwartz spent so much time doing the world-building, that by the time he needed to wrap up the story, it felt rushed. I wasn’t exactly sure how Joy connected the dots or what exactly happened.

The narration by Janina Edwards was pretty good. There were a few times when I had to back up my recording and re-listen to a few sentences, but I think that was more attributed to awkward phrasing or unusual words than the actual narration. When I closed my eyes, I could see a confident African American woman as Joy–I actually had the picture of my 7th grade reading teacher in my head (thank you, Mrs. Barrett!). If you’re one who likes to listen at greater than normal speed (1.25x, 1.5x, 2x), you might have a hard time–I did. But the book was short enough that I didn’t mind listening at 1 or 1.25x speed.

It will be interesting to see what (if anything) else Schwartz does with this world. I would like to know how some of the other plot lines wrap up, and why Margaret seemed so “important” in this book. I would hope, though, that in future books, less time is spent on world-building and more time is spent telling the story evenly, so that it doesn’t need to end up rushed as this one did at the end.

Posted by terpkristin.

Review of Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

August 17, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Red Sparrow by Jason MatthewsRed Sparrow
By Jason Matthews; Narrated by Jeremy Bobb
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Publication Date: June 2013[UNABRIDGED] – 18 hours

Themes: / thriller /  spies / secret agents / Russia / sexpionage /

Publisher summary:

In present-day Russia, ruled by blue-eyed, unblinking President Vladimir Putin, Russian intelligence officer Dominika Egorova struggles to survive in the post-Soviet intelligence jungle. Ordered against her will to become a “Sparrow,” a trained seductress, Dominika is assigned to operate against Nathaniel Nash, a young CIA officer who handles the Agency’s most important Russian mole.

Spies have long relied on the “honey trap,” whereby vulnerable men and women are intimately compromised. Dominika learns these techniques of “sexpionage” in Russia’s secret “Sparrow School,” hidden outside of Moscow. As the action careens between Russia, Finland, Greece, Italy, and the United States, Dominika and Nate soon collide in a duel of wills, tradecraft, and—inevitably—forbidden passion that threatens not just their lives but those of others as well. As secret allegiances are made and broken, Dominika and Nate’s game reaches a deadly crossroads. Soon one of them begins a dangerous double existence in a life-and-death operation that consumes intelligence agencies from Moscow to Washington, DC.

Page by page, veteran CIA officer Jason Matthews’s Red Sparrow delights and terrifies and fascinates, all while delivering an unforgettable cast, from a sadistic Spetsnaz “mechanic” who carries out Putin’s murderous schemes to the weary CIA Station Chief who resists Washington “cake-eaters” to MARBLE, the priceless Russian mole. Packed with insider detail and written with brio, this tour-de-force novel brims with Matthews’s life experience, including his knowledge of espionage, counterintelligence, surveillance tradecraft, spy recruitment, cyber-warfare, the Russian use of “spy dust,” and covert communications. Brilliantly composed and elegantly constructed, Red Sparrow is a masterful spy tale lifted from the dossiers of intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Authentic, tense, and entertaining, this novel introduces Jason Matthews as a major new American talent.

When Jason Matthews retired from the CIA, he was able to provide the spy-thriller genre with a book that probably rings truer than most for how things actually work. I have to think that the main character, Nate Nash, is based either on Matthews himself or on someone he was close to.

Red Sparrow is a fairly typical spy-thriller. It opens with the main character, Nate, meeting one of his agents inside Russia, Marble. Nate is a CIA operative, a handler, of foreign spies. Marble is a high-ranking member of the Russian equivalent who is now playing for the Americans. As with most novels in this genre, the book starts with some excitement, as Nate is almost caught in his meeting with Marble.

From there, the story takes on the familiar aspects of showing both sides of the world, spy vs. spy. The Russians embody “Soviet Russia.” I’m not sure how much of that is real today, if many high-ranking officials (especially in their equivalent of the CIA/spy services) still think like “Soviets,” that there is a cold war ongoing…regardless, that’s the way they’re painted in this modern-day book. The Russians have realized that there is a mole within their organization and so develop the talented ballerina-turned-spy Dominika into a the one who will infiltrate the American intelligence community and unmask the mole. Her mission is to seduce Nate, to basically turn him into a mole for the Russians.

The entire book is fairly predictable. Right at the start of the book, once Dominika was introduced, it became obvious what would happen between her and Nate. From there, as the story evolved, even if it wasn’t obvious how they would get to the ending, it was pretty easy to tell what would happen next. But that’s not really a bad thing; that happens in almost every spy novel. Heck, if they told us how they really do things, they’d probably have to kill us….or develop some Men In Black-type flash-thing to wipe our memories of it all. Even though the story is predictable, the reader is drawn in through the characters, who are all believable. Most readers can probably empathize with Nate’s and Dominika’s feelings, can see how they feel loyalty to their countries and where that loyalty can be misused. As Marble’s story unfolds, one can see why he turned into a mole for the American spy service–and how he was able to carry out that role for such a long time. Even the Russian spy service members’ motivations can be seen and understood, even if the ideals seem somewhat outdated. Who’s to say Putin isn’t really trying to re-wage the cold war?

I enjoyed this book for what it was, a spy-thriller book that made me want to know what was going to happen to the characters. I found myself making excuses to listen so that I could see just how the next scenes would unfold, how the characters got from point A to B to C. Matthews also puts in something unique at the end of each chapter, a rough recipe for a food item that was mentioned in the chapter. I almost want to get the book in print so that I can try to make some of the dishes. I suspect that in his duties as a member of the CIA, Matthews may have been able to travel a bit and wanted to share some of his food experiences in an unconventional way. All in all, while not deep, the book was enjoyable to read, to experience along with the characters.

I liked listening to this book, though I admit I had one small problem, and that problem may be just showing my ignorance. Jeremy Bobb’s narration is fine–if a little flat. He reads the book, he doesn’t try to add too much emotion to any character. But many of the characters are Russian…and have Russian names. It took me about half the book to figure out the difference between Dominika’s uncle and the Russian spy who seems to order most of the wetwork. The names, to my ear that’s used to listening for names like Smith and Jones, were too similar-sounding for me to keep straight. First names were much easier.

All in all, if you like spy novels, you’ll probably like this book. You’ll probably like it even more if you also like descriptions of food. I wonder if spies commonly meet in restaurants!

Posted by terpkristin.