Sunday, September 16, 2012

"The Dead were very real. And the Dead were here."

4 out of 5 stars

Eleanor Fitt has problems. Her beloved brother, Elijah, is missing; her mother keeps throwing Eleanor at every rich bachelor she can find; and the walking dead have suddenly made an appearance on the streets of Philadelphia. Plus, because it's 1876, Eleanor also has to deal with petticoats, parasols, and corsets while dealing with all these problems.

Yeah, try running around, fighting off ravenous zombies in this getup!

To be honest, it took me a while to get into this book and start liking it. I don't know about anyone else, but when I start reading a novel, I expect to be swept away, to be immersed in the story and the characters. In the best books, I get so involved with the words on the page that I'm able to ignore completely the world around me, to block out everything but those characters and that story. Yet with Something Strange and Deadly, for the longest time, what I was reading was just words on a page, people moving and talking and doing stuff, but without any emotional involvement from me. I often found myself... not quite bored, not quite bewildered, but in a strange state of expectancy, waiting for the characters to develop into more than just names on the page, waiting for the story to take off and actually start going somewhere. Though it took a while (to the point that I was almost ready to give up on the book), that all changed and the story and characters finally managed to grab hold of my imagination.

I think part of my problem had to do with Eleanor. Though she tried to be a proper Victorian maiden, she rebelled, often in small ways, but still she fought. For that, I should've liked her, but there was just something about her voice, her attitude, which grated on me. She often came across as whiny, self-indulgent, and imperious. Her nickname, “Empress,” given to her by another character, Daniel, was justly deserved, at least at the beginning of the novel. Thankfully, she grew as a character, losing some of that imperiousness along the the way and gaining a bit more humility. (Oh, and towards the end of the book, because she's called Miss Fitt, as is proper, there's a lot of 'misfit' jokes as her rebellious nature comes out in full force, which grow tiresome after a while.)

There's a mystery at the heart of the book, revolving around the man, the necromancer, who has caused the dead to rise, and as a mystery, it's easy to solve: You know who the necromancer is within a short amount of time. It's watching the others figure out the man's identity which propels the action. Speaking of which, there's a lot of that, from the very first chapter, and once the story coalesces the action picks up speed as well. Zombies, martial arts, pulse bombs, Spirit-Hunters. Now, with everything that's going on, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a steampunk novel, but it's not; it's more of an alternative history with a few neat gizmos and gadgets thrown in.

And zombies. Don't forget those zombies.

There's also romance running through the novel, with two suitors vying for Eleanor's hand, and here's where Dennard got creative. As the story progresses, you think you see where that romance is going, but Dennard throws a curveball and switches things up (am I mixing my metaphors here?), keeping you on your toes. It was a nice change of pace.

In the end, I have to say, though I wasn't expecting it, I found myself completely wrapped up in the story, so that when the end came I was almost pissed that the book was over. However, because of the way that ending was set-up (there's an obvious sequel in the works), I find myself eagerly awaiting the next adventure of the intrepid Miss Eleanor Fitt and the Spirit-Hunters.

Read September 11-14, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program September 16, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"We had none of us girls been born to inherit a crown, and yet it has overshadowed us all our lives--and blighted them."

3.5 stars

From the blurb: England's Tower of London was the terrifying last stop for generations of English political prisoners. A Dangerous Inheritance weaves together the lives and fates of four of its youngest and most blameless: Lady Katherine Grey, Lady Jane's younger sister; Kate Plantagenet, an English princess who lived nearly a century before her; and Edward and Richard, the boy princes imprisoned by their ruthless uncle, Richard III, never to be heard from again. Across the years, these four young royals shared the same small room in their dark prison, as all four shared the unfortunate role of being perceived as threats to the reigning monarch.

First off, I have to say, I'm a bit peeved at this book. According to the blurb, the impression that I got was that the stories were supposed to be told from the viewpoints of Katherine Grey and Katherine Plantagenet (which they were), and the two princes in the tower. Of course, I didn't know how those two princes, Edward and Richard, would be able to tell their story. Through hidden letters perhaps? A secret diary or journal? Who knew, but whatever the case, it would've been a most interesting tale. So, naturally, I was disappointed when I realized the book was only told from the viewpoints of the two women as they worked to solve the disappearance of the two princes.

Anyway, to these two women: The first is Katherine Grey, the prettier, more vivacious sister to Lady Jane Grey, the doomed and ill-used Nine Days Queen. Katherine's story is told in the first-person, in her voice, and while her life story is laid out according to historical sources, Weir slips in imagined instances where Katherine discovers information and artifacts linked to the princes in the tower, which creates a fascination in her to try and solve the mystery of their disappearance. The other Katherine in the book is Katherine Plantagenet, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Gloucester, future King Richard III. Her story is told in the third-person, and because the princes disappeared during her father's reign, her part in the novel has more urgency to it. In fact, she's quite frantic about solving the mystery because, ever the dutiful daughter, as Richard rises to power and as she's exposed to the stories of his behavior, Katherine refuses to believe that her father could've behaved in such dastardly ways and steadfastly tries to prove all his critics wrong.

Though the novel is touted as being one of historical suspense, revolving around the princes in the tower, it didn't feel that way to me. Yes, each Kate tries to solve the mystery in her own way, but that particular "mystery solving" plot device didn't seem to be driving the novel, at least not as much with the Katherine Grey storyline. And with the Katherine Plantagenet storyline, solving the mystery was less about, you know, solving it than it was about a slightly naive daughter trying to clear her father's name. Instead, it was each Kate's life propelling the plot, especially their romantic entanglements, with the only suspense coming when events finally catch up to the girls and they find themselves incarcerated in the Tower of London. Frankly, while I enjoyed the book, I'm not quite sure what the point of it was. After all, Weir has explored the mystery of the princes in the tower in her non-fiction book on the subject (The Princes in the Tower), and if she wanted to explore the lives of the two Kates, she could've written a non-fiction book or books about them as well.

I will say this: Weir did a good job of presenting a fair portrait of Richard III. She drew Katherine Plantagenet as basically a mouthpiece for for the Friends of King Richard Society, those dedicated people who believe that everything written about Richard was a lie and he was actually a very good, downright saintly man. As this mouthpiece, Katherine refuses to accept the evidence coming to her of Richard's actions, searching (in vain) to find alternate explanations and trying to reconcile what she knows about her father with what she's hearing about him. The resulting image is what I believe to be the fairest picture of Richard. It's the image of a man who was ruthless, who wanted power, who (yes) had his nephews murdered, but a man who was also devout, a family man, a man who truly grieved when his brother, Edward IV, died. Basically, a man who was no more evil than any other man (and woman) who came to power and did ruthless things on the way or while there, but who was painted as the blackest of villains because it was expedient to do. A man who was not Shakespeare's deformed hunchback, but a man with a slight deformity who became beaten down by his enemies and history. So while Richard's Friends might not like the resulting picture, I think it's one which will satisfy all but the most obdurate on the subject.

Speaking of representing an historical personage accurately, Weir portrayed Frances Grey, and to some extent Henry Grey, as the abusive parents they've long become accepted as, a view which has come under fire in the past few years.  Some researchers and historians are now saying that that image has been overblown and colored by personal animosity, either on the part of Jane herself or her tutor, Roger Ascham.  Weir addresses this issue in her (detailed) author's note; she explains that she questions the theory that there has been a deliberate attempt to blacken Frances' name down the centuries, and that new research suggests that the traditional view of the Suffolks in indeed correct, though "it is conceivable that a chastened Frances mellowed after Jane's execution, as portrayed in this novel, and that Katherine and Mary never suffered the rigor and expectations that their parents imposed on Jane."  There has been some discussion over Weir's ability as an historian, with some seeing her as lax or sloppy, or pandering to public popularity, but I think this author's note shows her dedication to her research and to seeking out the best, most logical explanation for disputed issues.

In the end, A Dangerous Inheritance was entertaining reading (though the quick back-and-forth between the two Kates got a bit dizzying at times, especially since Kate Plantagenet's interludes were often rather short), but rather pointless, unless you've never heard of or read anything about the two princes in the tower. If that's the case, then you should read this book as it presents an interesting and logical solution to the centuries-old mystery within a fictional framework, making for an easy and well-written read.

Read September 3-11, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program September 15, 2012

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Sometimes my past felt like a heavy chain about my neck, but a Huntress wouldn't let it prevent her from moving forward and taking action."

5 out of 5 stars

Agghhhhhh! I've finished it! There's no more book to read!

*pauses for breath, is startled by a new thought*

Agghhhhhh! I'm going to have to wait a year or more until the next book comes out! NOOOOOOOO!

Okay, I will try to keep my gushing and fawning to a minimum, focusing instead on a review of the story. Though I can't promise some fan-girl enthusiasm won't slip through.

This, the second entry in Ann Aguirre's Razorland series, picks up where Enclave left off. Deuce, Fade, Tegan, and Stalker have found sanctuary in the topside settlement of Salvation. Each has found a place with a foster family and a place in the settlement, with varying degrees of success. Though it makes Deuce wary, she finds herself growing comfortable with the care she's given by her foster family, the Oakes, and while she isn't exactly happy spending her days in school when she considers herself full of all the knowledge she'll ever need, she complies as she doesn't want to make trouble. After all, she's already turned a few heads with her Huntress behavior, behavior seen as unwomanly and not in keeping with the strict religious tenets upon which Salvation was founded. But things in Salvation aren't quite as idyllic as they seem. The Freaks, or Muties as they're known by Salvationers, are behaving in ways never seen before. They're becoming smarter... and that is not a good sign for the people behind the flimsy wooden walls of Salvation.

Yeah, I don't think those are gonna hold.

Outpost is a more thoughtful entry in the series than the first book. Don't get me wrong, there's still lots of ass-kicking, especially by Deuce (who finds she has to prove herself all over again to the community--mainly the men-folk, that is), but even with the growing crisis outside Salvation's walls, there's time for Deuce, Fade, Tegan, and Stalker to grow in ways in which they never had the opportunity to grow during their adventures on the way to Salvation. There's more time for drama, confusion, mixed signals, romance, and character expansion. As we watch these kids (for that's what they are, no matter what they've been through or how they see themselves) mature, we delve deeper into their personalities, their pasts, how they think, and their hopes for a future. And though Deuce is at the center of the novel, this book is really where Tegan comes into her own. In Enclave, Tegan was a shell-shocked survivor, barely able to pull her own weight in the group dynamic, needing to be cared for by the others. When we saw her at the end of the book, she was half dead due to the massive injury she'd received to her leg. In Outpost, she's not only survived her injury, she's spreading her wings. She grows in confidence and discovers she has a lot more to offer others than she ever thought. She even finds it within herself to forgive Stalker for how he treated her when she was held captive by his gang, something she swore she would never do.

As with Enclave, the story is a page-turner, and the writing keeps you involved as you await each new development with breathless anticipation. Aguirre has a knack for writing heart-pounding action, yet she's also able imbue her characters with real emotions and depth. Once again, they grow and change, behaving just as real people behave. It's hard for me to express just how much I adore reading Aguirre's novels. My eyes fly across the page, and the pages flip by fast enough to raise a breeze, even though I try to slow myself down in order to savor the story rising up from those pages. All I can say is that if you'd like to get in on this new trend of post-apocalyptic YA novels, but don't know where to start, start with Aguirre's. Pick up Enclave and I guarantee, as soon as you finish it or perhaps even before then, you'll be rushing out to the store to grab Outpost. I'd say Hollywood needs to pick up these books and make it into the next series of blockbuster movies, a la "Harry Potter" and "The Hunger Games," but I'm afraid Hollywood would screw up the magic that is Razorland.

Read August 30-September 3, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program September 8, 2012

A powerful ending to a powerful series.

5 out of 5 stars

This is the final novel in Conn Iggulden's violent, bloody, exhilarating, dramatic, masterful series on Genghis Khan and his descendents, focusing on Kublai Khan as he transitions from scholar to warrior to Great Khan of the Mongol empire.

You know, as much as I loved this book and the series, the thing I most took away from the story arc is the confirmation that men are pigs. No, dogs. No, pig-dogs. And I don't mean men as in “the human race.” I mean men as in the gender. Men are the ones who revel in war, who drive their armies across the land because the land they've got isn't good enough. Men are the ones who destroy cities, melting down precious artifacts so they can stare at the bars of pure gold and silver in glee, who set fire to libraries because they don't contain any knowledge they need, destroying generations worth of learning. Men are the ones who kill the men and children in enemy villages/towns, who kill the women but not before passing them around and raping them several times over, keeping them around to act as slaves for a few years before the women finally give out from the abuse. Men are responsible for all the misery in the world.

Anyway, to proceed to the actual review and step off my soapbox: I hate to categorize novels along gender lines, but I have to admit that there are historical fiction novels with storylines aimed more towards men (having more action, war, bloodshed, violence, etc. and less “mushy” stuff) and women (having more romance, personal conflict, drama, basically lots of “mushy” stuff). Iggulden's Genghis series is most definitely a masculine historical fiction series: heavy on the violence, light on romance. However, that's not to imply that characters are cardboard cutouts and no time is spent on character development. Far from it. As with all of Iggulden's previous books in this series, each character is imbued with humanity--the good, the bad, the ugly, the saintly. No one character is ever mixed up with another due to vague descriptors or similar voices.

Speaking of characters, though there are many others in the novel, it's Kublai who takes center stage (naturally). The evolution of his character, from a sheltered scholar to canny general to visionary leader of the Mongol nation, is fascinating to watch. Iggulden lets us peer into the mind of this legendary man, lets us see his fears, his machinations, his strategies and battle plans; only with Genghis did we see this kind of intimacy, their outer strengths as well as their inner fears and doubts. And I believe Iggulden did this on purpose, to forge a link between grandfather and grandson, creator of the Mongol nation and its savior.

For the first time, I actually have a nitpick about one of Iggulden's books, and it concerns the character of Guyuk, who seems to undergo a 180 degree shift in personality. While, admittedly, we didn't see a lot of him in the previous novel, what we did see of Guyuk seemed to imply that he was somewhat happy-go-lucky, willing to go where others led, and not much inclined to put up a fuss if plans seemed to go awry. Suddenly, though, in Conqueror, Guyuk has become a narcissistic psychopath: Things must go his way or else people begin to die. Perhaps it was the delay in him being named Khan that brought about this change in personality, but when he does, finally, become Khan, he remains a bloodthirsty (beyond even Mongol standards) tyrant, so that when his death comes, it's a welcome relief, both to the Mongol nation and to the reader. Perhaps that kind of personality shift is completely natural under such stressful circumstances, but it was still jarring.

Aside from the minor point, once again I was blown away by Conqueror. The power of Iggulden's writing is damn near awe-inspiring and it makes me quite eager to pick up his other series concerning Julius Caesar.

Read August 23-30, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program September 8, 2012      

Sunday, August 26, 2012

If Conn Iggulden weren't already married, I'd be badgering him with twenty letters a day, asking him to marry me.

5 out of 5 stars

With this, the fourth entry in Conn Iggulden's masterful series on Genghis Khan, the story has become even larger than before. Though Iggulden tried to avoid the, as he called it, “Russian novel syndrom” by introducing a new character on every single page, there are still enough new faces to keep things interesting. And even though the occasional character disappears and seems to have been forgotten, don't worry, you won't miss them for long, once you find yourself swept away by the action and drama of the other storylines.

I remember in World History, when we briefly learned about the “Mongol horde,” seeing those maps that had a big red splotch over the central Asian continent which tapered down to an arrow and that arrow swept over eastern Europe, pointing directly at western Europe. The teacher (and the textbook) droned on about how the Mongols thundered out of Asia and took Russia by surprise, knocking that country and its armies flat before going on to rape, pillage, and destroy cities in Romania, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Eastern Prussia, and Croatia. Just as the horde was ready to invade Italy, the Mongols returned home, leaving only smoldering rubble and dazed but lucky survivors in its wake. Yet that information never really penetrated my imagination. I could see how close the Mongols came to taking over the known world, but I never comprehended the actual meaning behind that close-call. Not until I read this novel and saw this campaign of destruction through the vivid writing of Iggulden. This army of warriors, with their never-before-seen tactics and mobile units, if they hadn't returned to Asia, could have taken over the world. Think about that for a moment. No renaissance, not as we know it; no Tudor dynasty, no Elizabethan era; no Ferdinand and Isabella. The ships that traveled to America might not have been headed by Christopher Columbus. We could conceivably be speaking Mongolian or Chinese right now rather than English. The Mongols were that successful. Empire of Silver brings that success to life in the most sensory, dramatic, and terrifying way.

The novel begins three years after Genghis's death and his son, Ogedai, is the heir to the empire Genghis built. But he's not Khan, not yet. He's put off the coronation ceremony in order to build his capital city, Karakorum, an achievement of which his father would've never even conceived and a project which many see as pure foolishness. Unfortunately, Ogedai's delay makes his ambitious brother, Chagatai, bold. His challenge to Ogedai's position reveals a terrible secret Ogedai has been carrying for years: his heart is fatally weak and has been for years. He suffers silently through the twinges and pains in his chest, medicating himself with gallons of wine and the dangerous powder of the foxglove. This revelation adds an air of desperation to the actions of all the brothers, none more so than Ogedai as he broadens the reach of Genghis's legacy by sending out armies into southern China and across the vast expanse of Russia's landscape to the formerly impenetrable heart of Europe.

As with all of Iggulden's novels in the Genghis series, this one is no less action-packed, no less dramatic, no less heart-pounding or pulse-racing. More than any other historical fiction novelist I've read, Iggulden excels at placing us right in the midst of battlefield action. The movements and tactics of the armies, the speed and immediacy of battles, the mud and sweat, fear and blood, the reality of war and death is expressed on the page with such breathtaking skill the reader feels his heart rate quicken and his palms moisten. I cannot stress just how amazing this ability is, both from a reading and a writing standpoint. Yet this kind of kinetic writing doesn't come at a sacrifice to the rest. Far from it. Iggulden has the ability to place the reader into the minds of his characters, allowing us to see their motivations and urges, from the dramatic and sinister, to the quiet moments of family interactions or the wandering thoughts of someone who is bored. Even something as simple as a character suffering from saddle sores is conveyed in an almost poetic manner.

Bottom line, this series started at the top and has maintained its stellar qualities through each succeeding entry. There's been no sophomore slump, no weak link in the chain. Each novel is stellar and if they could be read as stand-alones, I'd recommend picking this one up today. But you'd be missing out on so much, so, please, start at the beginning; pick up Genghis: Birth of an Empire, continue on through Genghis: Lords of the Bow and Genghis: Bones of the Hills before picking up Khan: Empire of Silver (so you can finish with Conqueror). Read them. Savor them. Once you start, I promise you won't want to stop. As the Yorkshire Evening Post put it: “Empire of Silver serves as confirmation that Iggulden's majestic series has developed into an historical fiction master class.” Amen.

Read August 14-23, 2012
Reviewed August 27, 2012        

"Open your eyes and greet the world, Huntress. From this day forward, you will be called Deuce."

5 out of 5 stars

If I could, I would kneel at Ann's feet and worship her as a god. I would sit there for hours, or for as long as she would let me, and absorb all the knowledge and wisdom I'm sure she exudes. Because that's the only way I could ever find the talent and capability to write as well as she, if I ever could, that is.

Enclave is Ann's first YA offering and it kicks serious ass. Frankly, and as much as I loved The Hunger Games, if the two were matched in a head-to-head smackdown, Enclave would win hands down and leave The Hunger Games limping, bruised, with a couple of black eyes and perhaps a torn-off ear. It's that good. Then again, Deuce, the protagonist of Enclave, is the natural heir to the bad-assery shown by the star of Aguirre's other series, Sirantha Jax.

Deuce lives in the enclave, an underground dwelling built into the remains of the New York subway system after the second holocaust, in the near (or far) future. It's a hard life: only if you survive the first fifteen years do you get a name; until then, you're only identified as a 'Boy' or 'Girl' brat and a number. During those years, you train as either a Breeder, a Builder, or a Hunter. When you get your name, you also get your arms scarred, the number of which identifies you for life: two for breeder, four for builder, six for hunter. Hunters have the most dangerous life, having to go outside into the tunnels in order to find food, all the while braving the marauding monsters called Freaks. Almost-human, but yet not, with razor-sharp teeth and claws for fingernails, they eat the dead, even their own, and attack anything that moved. They've always been a threat to the enclave, but lately the Freaks are becoming more bold, more intelligent, which makes them even more terrifying.

Deuce is proud of becoming a Huntress, proud that she can now justify her place in the enclave. But she's not so proud to become the partner of Fade, an outsider who joined the enclave after surviving for years in the tunnels on his own. Of course, Fade's not too happy either, especially when the two of them discover some unsettling truths about the Freaks' behavior and it seems as though all Deuce wants to do is carry on the enclave's party line, one of defiant ignorance. That all changes when Deuce slowly begins to question all that she's been told growing up in the enclave, especially when she's put into a situation not of her making which results in her and Fade being exiled. As the two make their way Topside, Deuce finds herself facing new vistas, new truths, and new feelings unlike any she's ever known before.

Deuce is one of those rare YA characters who actually grows and changes as the story progresses. Not always for the good, perhaps, but she doesn't remain the same character she was at the beginning of the novel. Because she's so young when the story begins (even though, in her society, Deuce is seen as grown up), the novel is a coming-of-age tale, albeit one that happens to mix in some knife fighting, ass-kicking, and Freaks. As with her other novels, Aguirre infuses even the most minor of characters with a depth and nuance, peopling the plot with a variety of likable and not-so-likable people who also manage to morph as circumstances change. Then there's the story, which isn't at all straightforward or predictable. It starts at one point, you think you see where it's going, and then it takes a turn. It's full of drama, heart-pounding action, and pathos; there's not a moment where the reader's attention drags or feels overwhelmed by exposition. There's nothing extraneous; it's a lean, tight, engaging book that moves even when the characters aren't.

My final words? I can't recommend Enclave highly enough. If you are a fan of the ever-expanding YA post-apocalyptic genre, you would do well to read Enclave. Once you do, you'll be hooked. Ooh, and then you can join me and we can create the cult of Ann Aguirre! There'll be t-shirts and everything! C'mon!

Creepy guru not included.

Read August 11-13, 2012
Reviewed August 26, 2012

Monday, August 13, 2012

This is truly the Tarzan and Jane saga brought to life.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Okay, I'll admit it, I've never read the original Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I have seen the movies starring Johnny Weismulller and Maureen O'Sullivan. I know, not the best way to be introduced to the series considering how much the books were changed from page to screen, I'd imagine, but you've got to admit, Weismuller's Tarzan created quite an impression in the cultural consciousness. So, since I haven't read the books, I don't know how Burroughs portrayed Jane, but I would imagine in not the most flattering of ways--a lot of cowering, crying, and "Oh, Tarzan, help me!" So it was rather exciting to see a book about Jane which both told the Tarzan story from her perspective and was also written by a woman. Even better, the novel is authorized by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, meaning the author couldn't just slap something together and call it a story of Jane.

In 1905, intelligent, headstrong, adventurous Jane Porter is a fish out of water at the University of Cambridge, not to mention an unabashed 'old maid'. Happiest when she's at her father's side, studying anatomy and dissecting corpses, she's the only female student at Cambridge's medical program as well as a budding paleoanthropologist. She idolizes female explorers such as Mary Kingsley and yearns to one day prove Darwin's theory that the human race came out of Africa. So when an American adventurer named Ral Conrath invites her and her father to join his expedition to West Africa, she naturally jumps at the chance. When they reach that 'Dark Continent' and begin their trek into its interior, it's just as marvelous and exotic as Jane had imagined. Mother Africa's jungles also hide dark secrets... and so does Ral Conrath. When Jane and her father find themselves in peril, Jane discovers the one thing which will turn her entire world upside-down: Tarzan of the Apes.

This is not an adventure novel. This is a romance novel with some adventure sprinkled in, and those adventures, except for the last act, come in between a lot of discourse: Jane reminiscing about her life in England, Jane narrating her travels in Africa, Jane and Tarzan discovering Tarzan's past. It's only in the last third of the book that we stop reflecting on the past and concentrate on "here and now" actions. The amount of reminiscent narration might be difficult for some, especially those who are anticipating a pure adventure novel mirroring the original Tarzan novels. However, I found the background stories just as interesting as the main one and didn't have a problem with the lack of "non-stop" action.

What I did have a problem with was the third act reveal, the big denouement that all the previous archaeological and anthropological discoveries had been leading up to. I'll be honest, when I saw a YouTube video of Maxwell speaking about this book and her inclusion of the "Missing Link" as a plot point, I rolled my eyes. Then, as I read, I discovered it actually worked; after all, it's not like the story of Tarzan is super-realistic, so why not included a living missing link? I eventually got on board with it. But I could not swallow the finale. ***SPOILER AHEAD--READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!***Basically, Maxwell writes about an ancient Egyptian wonder, buried within the depths of a volcano, accessible through a crude yet abundant gold mine. This wonder, a three-thousand-room ancient Egyptian labyrinth, was supposedly visited by Herodotus and written about in his Histories. As they move through the cave, they see frescoes and murals of amazing complexity, of celestial bodies, the moon in its phases, the planets of the solar system, of geological features both native to Africa and foreign such as arctic wastes and snowy peaks, not to mention a map which looks amazingly modern. That alone is, well, laughable; the Egyptians were an amazing race of people, able to create and do many, many things. But arctic explorers? Diviners of celestial phenomenon thousands of years before we had the ability to see that far into space? Um... no. But that's not all; this "New Egypt" in West Africa also contains a library which equals, if not excels, the library at Alexandria. Oh, yeah, and a dissection laboratory, with knives and probes, and an image painted on the wall of a Caucasian man, his skin flayed, his torso opened, with his muscles and organs depicted perfectly. Good grief! Did they also discover penicillin and the DNA sequence and the cure for polio and mumps as well?***END SPOILER*** It was just too ridiculous, too over-the-top. It was as if Maxwell suddenly channeled H. Rider Haggard for the last act, which would've been fine, actually, and quite in the spirit of Burrough's original novels. But it wasn't in the spirit or tone of the novel Maxwell had written up to that point. Up 'til then, Jane was quite grounded, relatively speaking, giving a nice reality to the story and character of Jane Porter. To me, the third act just felt like a huge stumble.

Until that stumble, I was quite impressed with Maxwell's writing. When I got the book, I opened it up to the first page, just to glance at it before putting the book down to be read at a later date. I never put it down; instead, I kept on reading... and reading. The writing caught my attention immediately. Jane Porter is a fun and interesting character; yes, she's a modern woman, which may ordinarily be out of place in an historical romance, but here it's just fine. The early 20th century was all about the modern woman, so Jane's ambitions and character traits aren't at all unusual. The prose is dynamic, with action and drama scenes both having a real sense of depth and emotion; the dialogue is compelling, though it does tend to get a bit overdone in Ral Conrath's case, as if to really point up the fact that, when he does show himself to be the villain of the novel, we know absolutely that he's "The Villain." I think what Maxwell did best was show the evolution of Jane; even though she considered herself an independent woman, out in the jungle she realized just how sheltered she'd been. Watching her grow in both physical and mental strength, seeing her conquer her fears and doubts, not to mention those prejudices and assumptions which had been ingrained in her was, I think, the true force of the novel. Yeah, the romance which developed between her and Tarzan was compelling, but not as much as Jane's maturation as a person.

It may sound weird, but I really enjoyed the part of the story when Jane, who is injured when she first meets Tarzan and is rescued by him, questions how her bodily functions were taken care of during her unconsciousness, and recognizes how Tarzan took care of them while caring for her. It's kind of a gross subject, sure, but one that's nearly always glossed over in fiction, even though it's a normal human behavior. That Maxwell included it is rather brave of her, I thought.

The story is book-ended by the appearance of Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. When we first see Jane, it's through Edgar's eyes as he watches her give a lecture on the missing link she found during her African adventure. When he, rather fan-boy-like, introduces himself to her and asks to hear her story, Jane begins to tell it both to him and to us. At the end of the story, we come back to Edgar as he ponders what he heard. Jane gives him permission to tell her story in whatever way he sees fit, giving Maxwell the out she needed in order to have "her" Jane do things differently from "Edgar's" Jane. As the novel wraps up, Edgar is already reweaving Jane's tale into the Tarzan books with which history is familiar, which ties both versions together neatly.

In the end, up until the last act, I truly enjoyed the novel. I felt it kept the spirit of the original (as far as I could tell) while infusing it with a breath of fresh air. If that climax just hadn't been quite so eye-rolling....

Read from July 31-August 10, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program August 12, 2012

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Turns out, you already know how to sign!

4 out of 5 stars

When was the last time you waved 'Hello'? Or flashed a thumb's up or the 'OK' sign? Well, guess what, you were using sign language. AmericanSign Language is based on several gestures in this country with which we're already familiar, like those I listed above, as well as everyday actions we take such as opening up a book or rocking a baby to sleep. Of course, the majority of signs are more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

As with all other “Dummies” books, Signing for Dummies is broken down into easy-to-understand steps. Chapters are headed with learning goals, a brief explanation of the particular subject, and illustrations of the individual signs which will be used/taught in the chapter. At the end of each chapter, under the heading “Signin' the Sign,” those signs are used in more complex sentences and expressions, allowing the user to put what s/he's learned in context. We start the book with chapters on signing basics such as the alphabet, numbers, and simple expressions, as well as learning about grammar basics, and then progress to signs grouped together by use, in such chapters as “Signing at Home” (furniture, rooms of the house, holidays, etc.), “Asking for Directions,” and “Shopping Made Easy.” In the last part of the books there are chapters about etiquette and the deaf community, the art of interpreting and finding out if you're interested/capable of using your signing skills as an interpreter, and using technology to communicate; there are also lists of tips, ten each, of ways to help you sign like a pro, how to pick up sign quickly, and the most popular deaf expressions. Included with the book is a CD-ROM which shows certain expressions and concepts (marked in the text with a PLAY symbol) acted out, allowing the viewer to sign along with the person on screen.

This isn't a book to make a person fluent in ASL; rather a person will get a rudimentary grasp of the mechanics of the language, enough to allow the reader to start communicating with someone they know who is deaf or let them decide if they'd like to learn ASL in greater depth. There are a few problems I encountered with the book. Firstly, some of the more basic signs don't seem to be covered except in combination or not at all; for example, the sign for 'sun' isn't shown except in larger words such as 'sundress' or 'sunglasses', and the sign for 'moon' isn't in the book at all. Small point, but I still noticed it. Secondly, though each sign is illustrated, showing the actions the hands take, some of the movements for the more complicated signs are hard to understand; it's also hard to understand which movement to start with when beginning the sign. However, these are all minor things. What the book does well is give the reader an idea of the language, a starting point which allows a person to decide if s/he wants to continue with ASL or find something else to study.

Read from July 1-29, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program August 12, 2012

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Those naughty, naughty gods!

4 out of 5 stars

I have been having the hardest time coming up with a review for this book. It's not because I didn't like it; quite the contrary, it was very entertaining. It's like... well, is it possible to make Cool Whip out of Greek yogurt? Because that's what this book is, fluff with a Greek flavor. It's a distant cousin to Neil Gaiman's American Gods in that it has many of the same elements--ancient gods living in modern times, weakened in power because no one believes in them anymore, as well a mortal (or, in the case of Gods Behaving Badly, two mortals) thrown in the mix, one of whom becomes "The Hero" who manages to rescue the damsel in distress and solve whatever problem is fueling the plot--just in a slightly "fluffier" version.

The gods in this novel are Greek (if you hadn't guessed), specifically the big 12 (the major gods of Olympus we've all heard about, one way or another) who are currently crowded together in a run-down London townhouse. They've fallen on hard times in the last thousand years or so and, my, how the mighty do fall: Artemis spends her time as a dog-walker, always looking for that one, modern dog which still has a trace of wolf in it and is always disappointed by the poor idiots; Dionysus still makes his own wine, but does a lot more damage with it in his role as nightclub owner, where his wine is the only thing on tap and weird, grotesque, erotic floor shows are the entertainment, which explains the club's draw; Hephaestus is still a mighty craftsman, though most of his efforts go into improvements around the house such as fixing broken furniture and improving the bathroom fittings; Aphrodite works off her mighty sex drive as a phone sex operator, panting, moaning, and faux-orgasming into her mobile phone at any time of day, to the disgust of Artemis; and Apollo has taken his Oracle to television, in a low-budget show where the set was "held together with safety pins and masking tape" and, just as in the good ol' days, the sybils did all the work. It's at the taping of the first (and last) episode of this show that Eros, who's now a Christian and suffering an existential crisis because of this, shoots an arrow of love into Apollo's heart at the behest of Aphrodite in a fit of "woman scorned" anger. Apollo falls instantly in love with Alice, a cleaner who's sneaked her friend, Neil, and herself onto the soundstage. Thus begins the complications and the drama: Alice is fired from the TV station, Neil convinces her to go freelance with her cleaning skills, as a result of which she ends up at the gods' townhouse where she's hired by Artemis and gleefully stalked by Apollo as he tries to convince the rather mousy woman of his love for her. And so the adventure begins.

This is a fun and funny book; it's entertaining and a quick read. While it may not offer up any great moments of genius, there's a tremendous amount of skill shown in the actual writing: clever and occasionally witty prose, authentic characters, and a story which evokes a genuine emotional involvement in the reader. (Yes, even in fluff, such things are possible.) Considering that this is a first novel, the high level of talent in Marie Phillips' writing is pleasantly unexpected.

Read July 18-22, 2012
Reviewed August 4, 2012

Thursday, August 2, 2012

This is probably better in its native French, but even of that I'm not so sure.

1 out of 5 stars

I'm sorry, but I just have to throw in the towel. I gave it the ol' college try (which is a phrase I've used before, but this time is apt as I'm actually going to college; part-time, true, but it counts and... I'm babbling, so I'll be moving on). I gave myself until 150 pages for the story to finally get good and capture my attention/imagination, but it never happened. One hundred and fifty pages in, I put the book down and almost sobbed with happiness because I didn't have to keep trying anymore.

The author obviously did her research. There's a great deal of historical detail: cultural, military, religious, geographical. And it's done in a way which doesn't beat you over the head in a "look at me and all the research I did!" sort of way. Yet, for all that, it didn't capture me or immerse me in either the setting, the story, or the characters. Writing about a culture completely foreign to me, as a reader, it stayed foreign and didn't connect with me even on a basic human level. As I read, I couldn't help but keep thinking about Conn Iggulden's masterful Genghis series and compare his writing to Lapierre's. Both stories deal with cultures completely foreign to Western lifestyles and mores, Iggulden's with the Mongol empire of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, Lapierre's with the Muslim tribes of early 19th century Chechnya; both stories are well researched. Yet Iggulden's, even with its foreign subject and the sometimes off-putting actions from the characters, actions which go against Western standards of appropriate behavior, pulled me in to such a degree that I barely noticed the differences between his characters and myself; I felt what they felt, I ached when they ached, I exulted when they exulted. I was in the story. Not so with Lapierre's novel. Her characters were simply names on a page; their actions frustrated, disgusted, and baffled me and I didn't understand their motivations at all. They remained decidedly and defiantly foreign.

But what really pissed me off about Lapierre's book was the fact that, even 150 pages in (one-third of the book), we hadn't even started on the main story. Supposedly the novel is about the real-life story of Jamal Eddin, the son of Imam Shamil, who was provided as a hostage to the Russian empire in order to seal a truce of peace between the two warring nations. Jamal, a young boy when he's "adopted" by Czar Nicholas I, grows up in the glittering imperial court and though he maintains his Muslim faith, he becomes an accomplished courtier. However, his faith becomes a problem when he falls in love with Elizaveta Petrovna Olenina, a beautiful Russian aristocrat; in order to marry her, he must convert to Christianity, a move he's willing to make. Until he's called back to his homeland, to his Muslim faith and rightful place as leader, and he must decide: Love or Honor. (Hence the title, see?) Sounds fabulously dramatic and romantic, yet at 150 pages in, we've only just gotten to the point where Jamal's father decides to give in to Russia's demands and send Jamal to them as a hostage. That's one-third of the book gone and we haven't even gotten to Russia yet? As Charlie Brown would say, Good grief! That certainly doesn't leave a lot of time to watch Jamal grow up in the imperial court, which should account for several years, not to mention the development of the romance between Jamal and Elizaveta or the final act to their story. Now, I can see spending some time in Jamal's childhood, setting his character up; I could totally get on board with that treatment. If only that had occurred. Instead, during all the time spent in Jamal's childhood, we really only see his father, Imam Shamil, and his father's actions: Shamil's quest to become the holiest of holy men, Shamil in his holy war to cleanse the world of every single Russian, Shamil as he rids the tribes of all traitors by systematically slaughtering all those who push for peace between Chechnya and Russian, even if that means eliminating entire villages, women and children included. Hell, the man even has his elderly mother whipped for acting as mediator in a push for compromise, because "Allah" told him so. Jerk-off. Not a character to inspire any kind of sympathy in me. So, anyway, it's all Shamil with just a little bit of Jamal sprinkled in. It's very frustrating, not to mention a very questionable move on the author's part. If it were me, I'd show Jamal's childhood from his P.O.V. and only a little bit at that; just enough to set up the situation and his abduction to Russia. Later, as an adult, during dramatic moments, Jamal could flashback to his childhood memories and follow his father's example or avoid his father's mistakes.

Stylist choices aside, this novel, what I read of it, bored me to tears and didn't inspire me to invest any emotions in either the characters or story. Which is a shame, because I heard such great things about Alexandra Lapierre and was really looking forward to immersing myself in what promised to be an exciting and romantic novel. A promise which went unfulfilled.

Read July 2-August 1, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program August 2, 2012

Saturday, July 28, 2012

What a fun, thrilling, adventure-filled ride of a book!

5 out of 5 stars

For anyone who's ever felt different, apart from one's peers, even a bit "alien" to everyone else, this is the book for you, no matter your age. In fact, even as an adult, I still suffer from such distant feelings. As such, I felt an immediate connection to the protagonist, Beatrix "Trix" Ling, the most real, dimensional, interesting character I've yet seen in juvenile fiction. She's adventurous, headstrong, doubtful of herself yet willing to go out on a limb anyway in order to do what's right and best. What's truly wonderful is she's the least irritating, whiny, mealy-mouthed M.C.; while she has her moments of poor behavior (and don't we all), she's the freshest breath of fresh air I've encountered. Trix is so real, so refreshing, so well-rounded, warm and lovable, I'm absolutely impatient to see more of her.

Trix has always believed she was special. After all, her parents told her so and ever since they died in a tragic space shuttle accident, knowing that they thought she was special has kept Trix going. Especially now. Trix is a charity case at a snobby boarding school, where her smart mouth and headstrong actions tend to get her into trouble. A lot. This last go-round, with the snooty Della, has cost Trix her coveted position on the school's gymnastic team and a trip to the state finals. Beaten, but not yet broken, Trix soon encounters the sinister Nyl, a strange mechanical man who's broken into Trix's room in order to steal the one thing left to her by her parents, a meteorite, a strange chunk of space rock she's promised to keep safe. Thus begins an adventure of a lifetime when Trix chases after Nyl and ends up in the middle of a circus. But this is no ordinary circus and when the charismatic young ringmaster invites her to join, Trix discovers her place in the universe is not so small as she believed. As she unlocks the secrets of her past, she encounters space leeches, new friends, ancient alien artifacts, potential conspiracies, and an exploding chocolate dessert.

Think of this book as kind of a Hogwarts in space. Indeed, if Circus Galacticus doesn't get the acclaim and notice that J.K Rowling's series received, then the good people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt aren't doing their jobs properly. Breezy, exhilarating, fast-paced, well-imagined and excellently written, Circus Galacticus is a sure-fire winner.

Read October 3-6, 2011
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program October 12, 2011

Fantastically rich and strange indeed....

4 out of 5 stars

Like most anthologies, the stories within Steampunk! fall into three categories: Fantastic, Mediocre, and Bloody Awful. I will give the authors and editors credit, though, in that, for the most part, they're not your average steampunk. Not only are most of the stories not set in the traditional Victorian London milieu, the stories have settings ranging from Appalachia, Canada, New Zealand, Wales and beyond, from ancient Rome to futures both bleak and fantastical.

Here's a breakdown of those stories which I feel fall into the first and third categories I described above. First, the Fantastic:
--The best, most stand-out story of the entire collection was the very last one presented. Oracle Engine by M.T. Anderson concerns a steampunk-flavored ancient Rome (so creative!). The story could've easily come off as cheesy or hokey, but the storytelling, along with Anderson's incredible attention to even the smallest historical detail, makes for a riveting tale. In fact, I really wish Anderson could find a way to turn his short story into a novel or series of novels. His steampunk Rome is a city I would love to revisit.
--The Last Ride of the Glory Girls by Libba Bray. Set in the wild, wild West (kinda; when you read it, you'll understand) and revolving around a gang of girl train robbers and the Pinkerton men (and girl) chasing them, this is a rip-roaring train ride of a story. A well-written and super fun tale.
--Clockwork Fagin by Cory Doctorow. As its name implies, this is a riff on the whole Oliver/orphanage/mistreated waifs theme, with a deliciously inventive and satisfying comeuppance for the miserable orphan master. Richly detailed and immensely satisfying.
--Hand in Glove by Ysabeau S. Wilce. As I was reading the anthology, this was initially my first choice for favorite story. This piece, above almost all others in the compilation, perfectly captures the wild inventiveness and creative storytelling necessary for a successful steampunk tale. Beautifully told, with vivid imagery, this is C.S.I meets steampunk and it's stupendous.
--The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor by Delia Sherman. A ghost story in a steampunk setting. Now that's creative! Set in a manor house in the Welsh countryside, this is a charming little tale with perhaps not that much depth, but nevertheless entertaining for what it is.
--Steam Girl by Dylan Horrocks. A wonderful story-within-a-story revolving around the familiar alienation/high school-is-hell theme, with superbly entertaining results. Steam Girl is a heroine for a new generation and I would love to see more of her adventures (not to mention Rocket Boy's), especially in a graphic novel, a medium big enough and colorful enough to contain Steam Girl's exuberance.
--Everything Amiable & Obliging by Holly Black. One of the few stories set in London (in fact, I believe there was only one other story with a London-setting), this is a sugared violet, petit four treat of a confection. That's not to say it's lightweight, however. The story delves into the murky realms of what it is exactly which makes a person a person. A delightful tale with unexpected depths.

The Bloody Awful:
--Seven Days Beset by Demons by Shawn Cheng. A short story told in graphic novel-fashion. Now, I understand the steampunk angle as the M.C. (a vendor) peddles little clockwork vignettes. But the story itself is poor. Yeah, yeah, I get the whole 'missed opportunities due to stupid self-indulgence'; that still doesn't mean the story was done well or entertaining, which it wasn' all. Plus, the ending was abrupt and not satisfying, not to mention the artwork was childish and not at all creative, in my opinion.
--Gethsemane by Elizabeth Knox. First off, I don't see how this qualifies as steampunk. Other than a mention of some steam works and an airship (neither of which are all that uncommon in real life, needing the fantastical touches of clockworks, automatons and other creative additions in order to make them steampunk), the story has no connection with the genre. Secondly, as it concerns a witch and a zombie, the story belongs more to the straight fantasy genre, as there's no steampunk element to either of the two characters, explaining their condition or motivations. As to the plot, it's nonsensical and pointless, with no clear direction. On a technical level, the writing is fine, quite lyrical; it's just wasted on a poor story.
--The Summer People by Kelly Link. Now, to be perfectly honest, this story isn't Bloody Awful; however, it is another story which really doesn't belong in this anthology as there's nothing steampunk about it, which is why I'm including it in this category. Apart from the mention of some clockwork mechanical toys, which aren't inherently steampunk unless placed in context, the tale revolves around fairies. Appalachian fairies, but fairies nonetheless. Unlike the story above, however, this one is actually quite good, with excellent writing and a creative plot. Had I encountered it in a fantasy- or fairy-themed anthology, I'd be singing its praises as a real winner. However, steampunk it ain't. It just doesn't belong.
--Finishing School by Kathleen Jennings. Yes, this one is steampunk and has the elements of that genre in abundance. What it doesn't have is a storyline. What little story exists is confusing, disjointed, and just plain hard to follow. Even the fact that the tale contains elements of real-life incidents doesn't help clarify the action. Very poorly done.
--The absolute weakest link of the anthology was the very first story, Some Fortunate Future Day, by Cassandra Clare. Now, I've never had the (pleasure?) of reading any of Clare's books, though I have heard the numerous critics who call her a hack. Judging from this (thankfully short) example, I'd have to say those critics are on to something. A piece of fluff, with apparently very little thought or creativity put into it, I wonder at the editors' decision to include it. For example, the M.C. is named Rose and another girl integral to the story is named Lily. Really? How clever, naming both girls after flowers; that's realistic and, boy howdy! what a stretch of the imagination. The best thing I can say about this piece is that it takes very little time or brain power to get through it. Shallow and insipid.

I have to say, out of the 14 stories contained in Steampunk!, there was a greater-than-average ratio of dreck to gems, for which I'm extremely grateful. Kudos to the editors, for while they could've done better, they also could've done a helluva lot worse.

Read September 29-October 3, 2011
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program October 12, 2011

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Now this is what I call creative writing!

4 out of 5 stars

Some people take issue with Catherine Murdock's use of multiple P.O.V.'s (eight in all!). However, as detailed in the author Q&A at the back of the book, Murdock did what a writer's supposed to: Tell the story. If the P.O.V. being used isn't serving the story, then change the P.O.V. or do as Murdock did and add new P.O.V.'s. Perhaps eight points of view seems excessive to some, but it works and what results is a richly layered and deeply nuanced tale. And even though this is a tale of fantasy, there is an element of reality to it as well: With the use of varied and sometimes conflicting viewpoints, one can see how real actions can be transformed into folklore and fairy tales. Multiple viewpoints allow for a well-rounded perspective on the action; there's always more than one side to any story and there will always be those who put their own spin or interpretation on events. Lines get blurred, fantastical stories get rationalized into dull yet more "realistic" occurrences, and people start to believe that what really happened couldn't have happened. Mix in entries from a Encyclopedia (a gimmick which appealed greatly to my inner geek) and voila! you've got an instant winner on your hands.

Despite all that, the multiple P.O.V.'s could've been just that, a gimmick, a ploy to take the reader's attention off a lame or underdeveloped plot. Thankfully that's not the case here, as Murdock's story is just as inventive as her method of telling it. The characters are all unique and while not all of them are likable, they're believable. I will say this, though: Tips is a fool. While I understand and applaud Murdock's intention to avoid the cliche of a girl finding her true love at age 16, the way Tips and Trudy's story turned out seemed wrong. (view spoiler) However, taken as a whole, the novel is quite satisfying and the ending, while not the one I would've picked for the main characters, manages to tie things up nicely and in an entertaining fashion. One thing's for sure, Murdock had quite the fun time coming up with names of towns, countries, even some battles; as you read and come across these names, they make for an extra giggle or two.

Some have said that Wisdom's Kiss is a retelling of certain fairy tales, but I disagree. I see it more of an homage or a re-imagining at the very most, seeing as there's more than one fairy tale involved in the book. We have the sleeping princess as in Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but, presented in a very unique voice, we also have the appearance of Puss 'n Boots (who, coincidentally enough, sounded very much like Antonio Banderas in my head), as well as some influence from German and Arabian folklore. In entwining these various characters, Murdock has created an entirely new and thoroughly entertaining fairy tale.

Read October 6-8, 2011
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program October 12, 2011

A must-read book for anyone interested in the world around us.

5 out of 5 stars

Sharks are not the best ambassadors for their own survival. The original sea monsters of yore, they are not cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy. And while they may be photogenic, it's not in an “Aww” kind of way. It's more akin to an “Aaah!" So while other animals imperiled by man's actions, such as the playful otter and friendly dolphin, the majestic whale and the placid turtle, endear themselves to humans and thus find themselves saved from utter destruction, it wasn't until recently that anyone started giving a damn about the horrible, deadly, sinister, man-eating shark and the fact that we've been killing them off indiscriminately since we discovered their existence a few hundred years ago. Many cultures, both today and in the past, might say the only good shark is a dead shark. Well, as some individuals and countries are coming to find out, that statement is the biggest piece of dumb-ass logic anyone has ever thought up.

We've so impacted the shark's environment, with our industries, our pollution, our fishing, that not only have several species of shark declined in population by anywhere from 90 to 99%, those sharks being caught today are smaller than their counterparts of even just a hundred years ago. Sharks do not rebound quickly; though some species give birth to large litters, many species take years to mature and only reproduce a limited number of times in their life--most of the time the litters they produce are small, with only one or two pups per birth. While we've begun to--finally--set aside protected waters, those areas cover only a fraction of the shark's territory and even then, some of the protections contain loopholes which still allow sharks to be fished. The truth is, we still know very little about these creatures, who've managed to stick around this planet for nearly 425 million years. That's 425 million years . These creatures, who've evolved into some of the most perfectly, if occasionally oddly, designed animals on the planet, have been around since before the dinosaurs and have even contributed to our own evolution (the bones of our inner ear, the way we swallow and talk due to muscles and cranial nerves which are the same as those which move a shark's gills), are still decried as man-eating monsters who deserve no pity. Yet these monsters are being systematically wiped out by us, humans, a predator more devastating, more mercenary, more cruel than any shark on this planet.

Juliet Eilperin's book is a well-researched investigation of the different ways in which we've poached, killed, decimated and otherwise pillaged the world's oceans of this apex predator, and the repercussions various governments and peoples have reaped as a result, in the form of depleted fish stocks, depressed economies, not to mention lost tribal traditions and vanishing cultural heritages. From the travails of Mark “the Shark” Quaratiano, who runs a fishing charter in Miami and complains that instead of sticking his hand in the water and pulling out a shark from the infested waters, he now has to work for several hours before he's able to catch a single shark for his macho-men, testosterone-boosting weenie clients (aww, poor baby), to the shark callers of Papua New Guinea, who are losing their faith-based tradition, which has sustained their native culture through colonization and Christian missionary proselytizing, due to the simple fact that the sharks of their islands have disappeared due to overfishing. Not the overfishing of prey fish, although that's played a part; no, overfishing of the sharks themselves. Which brings us to the most horrendous activity responsible for the decline of the shark: Finning. The practice of hauling a shark on board, slicing the pectoral and dorsal fins off the animal and tossing it, often while still alive, back in the water, to drown as it sinks to the ocean floor. Millions of sharks each year are killed in this manner, to supply one industry, shark's fin soup. And yet, as an ingredient, shark's fin adds nothing to the soup; it's a thin, noodle-like ribbon of cartilage which adds no flavor, only prestige to a dish which was once served only to a select few but now, with the rise of the Chinese middle class, is consumed at any and every occasion where such prestige is desired. Eilperin follows the trail of this world-wide trade, from the poor fishermen who are simply following the money even as they realize how the sharks have disappeared from their fishing grounds, to the secretive auction houses, where fins are sorted and sold with a minimum of words and a maximum of dollars and yen exchanged. The author details her travels around the world, to the different hotspots of shark fishing as well as shark protection and education, in a vivid, yet rational voice; her book is a clear-eyed dissection of our legacy towards the elasmobranch family (that's the shark, skate and ray family for those who are not selachophiles [shark lovers, a word I just made up]), backed up by sound scientific data and in-depth research. Part travelogue, part scientific journal, this book is a lively and fascinating look at how various cultures relate to this ocean predator, often in a surprising and (despite how I might've made it sound) sometimes positive way.

I've been a shark lover for as long as I can remember. It's been a love tempered by an equal measure of fear; because I know some sharks like shallow, murky water, growing up in Florida, I never went past my ankles (if I could help it) whenever we spent a day at the beach. I'd love to go cage diving in South Africa and see a great white up close; even though I know it creates a Pavlovian response, I'd still like to visit a shark feeding operation in Bimini, wear a mesh suit and sit in the middle of a feeding frenzy. Yet, when I was younger, I was scared of even swimming in the pool by myself, because of the fear of what might come up from the bottom of the deep end. (Yes, I realize I was swimming in a chlorinated pool and that there was no creature, of any sort, waiting in the deep end; psychological fears are hard to overcome, no matter what kind of logic you throw at them.) I still enjoy Jaws, even though I scream at the TV screen in frustration for the erroneous stereotype it puts forth; I've watched The Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week festival since it's inception, even though, as the years went on, I got bored with many of the programs as they didn't teach me anything I didn't already know. So, as you might've guessed, this book appealed to me at a basic level. However, if you've never given sharks a second thought; if you've seen Jaws and shuddered but never really desired to know any more about those creatures than what was portrayed in the movie; even if you think sharks are evil incarnate and deserve to be killed, I urge each and every one of you to pick up this book and read it. Sharks may not be endearing to the masses, but upon completing Demon Fish I dare you not to feel some sympathy and distress over how we've treated a creature who, quite frankly, is just trying to live on this planet, the same as us. The story of sharks is a story about us, in the long run, and how we choose to interact with the creatures who share our space.

Read May 29-June 6, 2011
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program June 8, 2011