Sunday, May 27, 2012

I've gone Blotto for Blotto!

5 out of 5 stars

I have found a new favorite author.  It's obvious Simon Brett has a deep and abiding love for P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie and their ilk, but that hasn't stopped him from taking the staples of the English-country-set cozy mystery and skewered them one by one with a red-hot cricket bat. From the amateur sleuth who's always on-scene and can find the answer to any conundrum just by licking the backside of a dust bunny, in this case Twinks, aka Lady Honoria Lyminster: [regarding two pieces of carpet fibre, one plucked from the victim's shoe, the other a sample from the victim's room] "Both pieces, as you can see, are from the same carpet. It's a Turkish fine-weave, probably manufactured in the workshop of the Hassan brothers in the village of Akgurglu just to the north of Izmir, and almost definitely originally bought from the emporium of their cousin Mustapha Khalid on the Golden Alley of the main Istanbul souk. Not that any of that's important. The important thing is that both samples came from the same carpet." to the bumbling, stumbling, plodding, thick-headed police force that's always being shown up by said amateur sleuth, in this case taking the form of Chief Inspector Trumbull and Sergeant Knatchbull: "Chief Inspector Trumbull had not been at the front of the queue when the intellect was handed out. Indeed, he appeared not to have been in the same county. But that did not prevent him from rising through the ranks of his chosen profession. Indeed, in those days for anyone in that profession to have shown intelligence or originality would have been a positive disqualification. The role of the police was to do a lot of boring legwork and paperwork, to trail up investigatory cul-de-sacs, to be constantly baffled, and dutifully amazed when an amateur sleuth revealed the solution to a murder mystery." In between are the battle-axe of a mother, the Dowager Duchess of Tawcester (pronounced "Taster," everyone knows that): "She was constructed on the lines of a transatlantic steamer and it was comparably difficult to make her change her course once she was under way." as well as various scions and breeders of the ruling class, ridiculous nicknames included, as with Twinks's brother, the Right Honourable Devereux Lyminster, who was known by one and all as Blotto: "His nickname certainly did not derive from his drinking habits. Amongst people of his class it was thought bad form for nicknames to have logical explanations; they were items to be scattered about with random largesse, like small donations to a charity."

The story here is pretty much incidental. The entertainment comes from the characters and Brett's assassination of the genre in which he's writing. By parodying the situations, the characters, the language and lingo, he's creating a pitch-perfect yet exaggerated English-country-set story along the lines of P.G. Wodehouse (most especially Wodehouse's classic Jeeves & Wooster tales), with a pinch of cozy mystery thrown in a la Agatha Christie (reminiscent of the interfering and prescient Miss Marple) though the mystery isn't nearly as mysterious as Christie's. But, again, that doesn't matter. What matters is the experiences you encounter as the story sweeps you up and gallops away, with you hanging on to the tail for dear life. Every time Blotto grows confused about a situation (which is nearly always as "Blotto's thoughts rarely ran deep enough to dampen the soles of his handmade brogues."); every time Twinks comes to his rescue (which is nearly always, with Blotto responding to her brilliance with a "Toad-in-the-hole, Twinks, you are absolutely the lark's larynx."); basically at every harebrained scheme come up by Twinks and gamely put into place by Blotto, you know Brett is skewering the genre and poking fun at the stereotypes, yet he does it so well, with such marvelous turns of phrases and side-splitting, original descriptions, that you don't care--you just keep reading... and laughing your ass off.

This is a book which doesn't require much brain power to enjoy and can be gotten through quickly. (I breezed through it in two days.) The only thing is does require is your willingness to suspend higher thinking for a while and enjoy the ride.

Read May 26-27, 2012
Reviewed May 27, 2012

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Michelle Moran, eat your heart out!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I was asked by the author, Lavender Ironside, to read and write a fair and honest review of this book. No monies or other favors were promised or exchanged by either party in return for this review and I had never had previous contact with said author.

I'll be honest. Normally I shy away from self-published and independently-published books for the mere fact that I have a very strident and strict editor in my head. When I read books, even mainstream, big house-published books, and find errors, that editor aches to pop out and start flaying the pages with a bold red pencil. Knowing that self-published works suffer even more as they lack the polish a professional editor can achieve, I just don't want to put myself through that kind of anguish, as I would no longer be reading the book for pleasure, but constantly seeking out and destroying all the errors. Not to mention many of the stories put out there are often amateurish, juvenile, and downright execrable. However, almost none of those things apply to The Sekhmet Bed, and my inner editor and I were able to enjoy the book with a minimum of red pencil usage.

In brief, The Sekhmet Bed, the first of a planned trilogy, details the early years of Hatshepsut's life.  It focuses on her mother, Ahmose, Great Royal Wife of Thutmose I, who was Pharaoh of Egypt from 1506 to 1493 B.C.E., and the dynamic between them and Ahmose's sister, Mutnofret, who was Thutmose's Second Wife.  Thutmose is a commoner, a dynamic military leader; Ahmose is the daughter of Pharaoh Amenhotep I.  Yet the family of Amenhotep chooses Thutmose as successor and Ahmose as his wife, in order to validate his position as Egypt's ultimate ruler.  Soon Ahmose begins to have prophetic dreams about the child she and Thutmose will create, a great Pharaoh who will bring an era of peace and prosperity to the land.  But when this child, created out of god-given dreams and hoped-for desires, turns out to be a girl, whom they name Hatshepsut, Ahmose's insistence that this girl-child be treated as the future Pharaoh creates a coldness in her relationship between her and Thutmose, a chill which is happily dissipated by Mutnofret, to Ahmose's dismay.

This is a very truncated synopsis of the novel and doesn't capture the sense of adventure, betrayal, drama, and romance contained in its pages. (Wow, that list is alphabetized, which was totally unconscious on my part  How weird!  But I digress....)  Ironside has managed to write a novel full of compelling characters as well as intense, atmospheric settings. Frankly, she leaves Michelle Moran in the dust; anyone who compares Lavender Ironside to Moran is insulting Ironside.  Editors should be beating down Ironside's door to represent her and publishers should be sitting up and taking notice. The interactions between characters feel real and authentic; the insertion of mystical elements doesn't compromise the integrity of the historical setting as they're not presented as thought they're really happening (except to the person experiencing them, which is only natural; people who have divine visions believe they're real, even if no one else does or understand what they're talking about). The "bad guy" character, Mutnofret, is sufficiently despicable, yet she occasionally shows flashes of humanity in the way she wavers from her actions and shows doubt--which is how "bad guy" characters ought to be written. Even the protagonist isn't perfect as she does things which are questionable and acts out, behaving quite badly at times. About the only character who isn't as fully developed is Thutmose and that's probably because for a lot of the novel he isn't present.

It's obvious Ironside did her research as she was able to deviate from some of the accepted theories concerning the characters in an authentic manner, unlike some authors who maybe skim some of the research and decide, to hell with it, they're going to write the story the way they want to, no matter how things really happened. One of the interesting deviations was the way Ironside presented the marriage of Ahmose, Mutnofret, and Thutmose. The prevailing theory is that Thutmose was originally married to Mutnofret--who may or may not have been related to Ahmose as well as Amenhotep I--they had three or four sons, and then Mutnofret died well before Amenhotep I died and Thutmose married Ahmose. However, by making Mutnofret not only a contemporary of Ahmose, but her sister and sister wife, Ironside neatly introduces a built-in package of tension and strife into the royal household, giving her a rich storyline to mine for drama. This alternate history is presented in such an authentic manner, it's easy to believe that it could've been true.

Ironside also did what I've been ranting about for years: she used the true Egyptian names for divinities and titles rather than their Greco-Egyptian counterparts. That said, for some of the gods she kept their Greek names, i.e. Osiris and Hathor rather than Ausar/Asar and Het-Heru (which means 'House of Heru [Horus]', just as an aside), which seemed rather strange. However, I was just happy that she even bothered using the ancient Egyptian language in the first place. It has annoyed me for quite some time when I see historical fiction set in ancient Egypt and an author is using the Greek transliterations of Egyptian words. How difficult would it be to use Ausar, Auset, Heru, Tehuti, Nebt-Het and simply place a glossary in the front of the book? It doesn't take long to understand that Tehuti is Thoth or Nebt-Het is Nephthys and using their real names makes the novel that much more authentic.

Other than a few editing errors (punctuation errors, the occasional misspelling, missed capitalization) which are to be expected, the book was surprisingly well-written, taut and streamlined. Surprising for the mere fact that I didn't expect it to be so; I expected to find a lot more extraneous narration or choppy dialogue. There was none. Which means finally I've found a writer of ancient Egyptian historical fiction who can wipe the stench of Michelle Moran from my brain. Which also means I'm eagerly looking forward to the next installment in Ironside's series.

By the way, I'm simply an armchair Egyptologist. I've been fascinated by the subject for many, many years, but I've never undertaken a scholarly investigation of the subject. My (scanty) knowledge comes from years of absorbing books and other works on the subject. So if something I've pointed out as being wrong isn't, in fact, wrong, then I accept that I'm the one who's wrong. Is that enough wrongs to make a right?

Read December 18-24, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads January 30, 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

"The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it."

4 out of 5 stars

Apart from the storyline, I liked the book. I was compelled to keep reading it and was reluctant to put it down until I finally reached the end. Having said that, I'm still quite befuddled as to what all was going on. I understand bits of it, especially the part where Leto succumbs fully to the mythos/fate/whatever-you-call-it that his father tried to run from and his aunt, Alia, was too scared to face, a course which robs him completely of his humanity. But to what end? Who is the enemy and who is the victor? What exactly is going on? I'm sure Herbert explained these things in the book, somewhere amidst the heavy wordplay he uses to explain the workings of the Dune universe, but those explanations escape me. Perhaps my perplexed psyche will be up to another reading to search for those a few more years.

Read September, 2009
Originally reviewed on Goodreads September 8, 2009

Update:  May 25, 2012

I think this is one of the shortest reviews I've written, which reflects the perplexed state of mind I was in when I finished reading the novel.  This is also the last novel in the Dune series I've read; the dense language and concepts can only be taken for so long before they become overwhelming.  That said, I would like to pick it up again and continue with the series; I know not only the Dune series, but all of Herbert's works have become almost a religion for some people, which I wouldn't take so far, but it's obvious his words hold a great deal of importance to a great many people.  I'm also curious as to how well his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have done with the story since taking it over in 1999.

"You cannot back into the future."

5 out of 5 stars

I think most people don't particularly like this book, but I'm not sure why. Is it because Paul-Muad'Dib, Messiah, Emperor, God, is shown as a flawed human? Is it because we see that even with his awesome powers, he's still unable to map the future, to escape the future, the same as any ordinary human? We know Paul was never going to be perfect, was never going to be an angelic being or benevolent emperor; Frank Herbert told us that in "Dune." We know that Paul knew his destiny, knew the consequences of his actions, from the earliest moments; we can speculate that he might've even had the power to change the outcome, to escape the jihad fought in his name, to fling off the mantle of power that weighed upon him and turned his friends and companions into slavish minions, willing to do anything in the name of Muad'Dib. And yet he didn't. He continued on his course of actions, perhaps because, in his arrogance, he began to believe too much in his own mythology--Muad'Dib, the Kwisatz Haderch, the Lisan al-Gaib; perhaps he even grew to enjoy the trappings of power, underneath his disdain. And perhaps that is what truly destroyed him, in the end: recognition of his human-ness underneath the godhead. I found this book to be just as powerful as "Dune" as it explores what happens to the messiah once he is accepted and the changes he's wrought become routine and ritualized. It wasn't about the world-shaking changes he brought to everyone else; it was about the psyche-shaking changes his role brought to himself, the dark side of power that defines who and what we become.

Read August, 2009
Originally reviewed on Goodreads August 30, 2009      

"He shall know your ways as if born to them."

5 out of 5 stars

Like many others, it took me a while to finally read this book. I've picked it up several times over the years, but could never get past the first few pages. I couldn't tell you whether it was the language or the concepts involved, but I could never quite grasp the thread of the book. This may be a heretical statement, but I think watching the movie helped. (Not the '84 Lynch space-opera; I prefer the '00 and '03 miniseries.) Granted, most understand, as I do, that the source book contains more riches than the film it is based upon possibly could, but, if that book is complex, the simplicity offered in the film lets you grasp the fundamentals without getting lost in the details. Thus, by watching the films I was able to catch a glimpse of the world Herbert was creating, the language and peoples and cultures within, granting me an introduction, an easement, into the vivid, Byzantine, complex, exhausting, alien, intelligent environment known as Dune. Subsequently, reading the book deepened that acquaintance, allowing me to absorb those missed details and thereby develop a better understanding of the story. I won't even bother trying to summarize the book; others have done it before me and much more ably than I could. Suffice to say that I found reading this book was much like the movement of a landslide: It started slowly, a few chapters at a time, but as I continued to immerse myself, I found that it grew harder and harder to set the book down and my progress through its pages gained such speed that the end came abruptly, almost as a physical blow. Now it remains for me to find the sequels, and quickly!

Read August, 2009
Originally reviewed on Goodreads August 26, 2009

Update:  May 25, 2012

Suffice to say, I did find the sequels, the reviews of which I shall post here subsequently.  However, posting this review got me to thinking about Dune and my experience reading it.  In a post-9/11 world, it's easy to look upon the book as a parable of the Middle East.  After all, the similarities are startling:  A powerful desert planet which controls a commodity, in this case Spice, upon which all intergalactic travel depends.  Sound like Saudi Arabia and petroleum perhaps?  The Fremen, so alien, speaking their own, Arabic-sounding (and often blatantly Arabic-based, with words like 'jihad', 'Mahdi', and 'Shaitan') language, are tough, hardy creatures, a people not afraid to become "freedom fighters" in order to protect their homes, people, and, most importantly, the Spice.  Hmm, I wonder to whom we could compare the Fremen?  Then we have a rich, aristocratic young man, written about in Fremen folklore and destined to become their messiah, who will gather them together and give them military training in order to break free of the corrupt body now monopolizing the Spice trade.  Yeah, I won't touch that, except to add that that description could also relate in some ways to the historical T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia").  However, I like to think that Dune is less a political commentary and more a prescient warning from Herbert.  After all, this was the first novel to deal with ecological issues on a grand, planetary scale, presenting an entire ecosystem based on a desert environment and illustrating the various animal components of that ecosystem interacting and relying on one another.  I like to think Herbert was warning us not only of our reliance on foreign oil, but also our blatant disregard of our planet, not in an obvious, preachy way, yet with strong enough words and images so that the story sticks in the mind long after one has finished reading the novel, or the series.  Then again, perhaps I'm reading too much into it.  I don't know.  What I do know is Dune is a powerful, complex, dense, heady, exquisitely written novel, which everyone should read at least once in their lifetime.

Anne Shirley, you red-headed vixen!

Photos taken by me of my own, much-read, well-loved boxed set.  Don'tcha just love the professional look of the photos?  *sigh* I really need to get me one of those light tents.

Okay, there's no way I can be objective about this series. I first read these books as an impressionable child (I can't even remember how old I was, but using the publication date as a guide, as well as the ragged state of the paperboard slipcover encasing the books, I'm guessing I was around 10 years old). From the very first moment, I wanted to be Anne Shirley, to have that red hair of hers, to stand on the porch of Green Gables and look out over the rolling green fields, to wiggle my toes into the wind-swept dunes of Prince Edward Island. Over the years, I never relinquished my childish fantasy; in fact, I only reinforced it through repeated readings of the novels. And I still imagine that one day, I will travel to P.E.I. I will visit Green Gables and stand on that porch; I will see those dunes and feel the salty sea air in my now-red hair (thank you Clairol).

It's true that not all the books in the series are equal in quality. The first three, I'd say, are the strongest, when Anne is still discovering her world and her place in it. Subsequent books became more prone to flights of fancy and romance, yet, despite that, Anne never lost her power to enthrall and inspire, and although her temper certainly mellowed, she never lost her fire. Frankly, I can't imagine a better role model for a young girl. Anne stood by me on those days when I felt sick, depressed, just downright awful about myself and the world. My first stirrings of romance and how love should be formed around Anne and Gilbert's "courting," even down to their very first moments when she cracked her slate over his head because he called her "Carrots." (After reading that scene, I realized the boy knocking me down in the playground wasn't actually being mean to me, but was expressing that he liked me. Silly boys.) Most importantly, I learned from Anne the importance of being oneself, even if doing so makes you stand out from the rest of the crowd.

Read... oh, every time I need a pick-me-up
Reviewed May 24, 2012 (I know, took me long enough, right?)      

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ahh, Polyvore. You time-sucking playground of fun.

Created by me, on Polyvore, a couple of days ago.  It's my ideal library... at least one of them.  (I could have an entire house that's just library upon library:  a kitchen library room, a bedroom library room, an entertainment library room, and on and on.)

I joined Polyvore in 2009.  Like most others who frequent that site, I got caught up in the excitement of creating collages out of the millions of various images "clipped" by my fellow users.  For several months, I picked and plucked, arranged and flipped images, entranced by the process.  I'd done the same thing as a child, only with construction paper as my canvas and pictures cut out from fashion magazines as my tools; I still have those collages.  Yet on Polyvore, not only did I have access to so many more images, I was able to do so much more with them:  I could shrink or enlarge them, flip them from side to side or flop them from top to bottom.  Frankly, I went a little crazy.

Eventually, as with all my crazes, it died down.  I have a tendency to get involved with something and be completely passionate about it for several months (nine months seems to be the limit--rather telling, eh?) and then completely lose interest.  Some crazes are cyclical, with me dropping the activity and then after a break of a year, maybe more, maybe less, picking it back up again.  Apparently, that seems to be the case with Polyvore.  In the past couple of months, I've gotten emails notifying me of people who are now 'following' me, which is rather weird.  I've been absent from the site for two years, yet all of a sudden people are 'following' me?  How are they finding me?  So, naturally, it piqued my interest.  Then something about doing this blog and knowing I could not only post my reviews, but whatever the hell I wanted sparked a new sense of creativity.  So, I thought, why not play again?  And the image above is the result.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"For there is no way to avoid danger if you are beautiful."

2 out of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I was asked by the author, Ben Lokey, to read and write a fair and honest review of this book. No monies or other favors were promised or exchanged by either party in return for this review and I had never had previous contact with said author.

At first glance, Beauty Possessed seems to be your typical, self-published historical fiction novel. Enthusiastic, but rough, a good, solid story buried beneath multiple editing errors. However, upon completing the book, I realized Beauty Possessed has less merit and more errors than I imagined it would. Going in, I was all prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the book and had high hopes for it. After all, as a fellow writer, I understand the blood, sweat, and tears which go into producing a novel. That said, I think Lokey needs to bleed, sweat, and cry a bit more.

Lets talk about the editing. The book as it stands now is approximately one step up from a rough draft. It needed to go through at least two more rounds of editing to clean up the formatting issues and story inconsistencies, not to mention the biggest boo-boo of all: the flip-flopping P.O.V.s. The novel starts out in the 1st person from Evelyn's P.O.V., which worked, as it created a lovely, intimate feeling to the story, but then it switches to 3rd person omniscient. Not to mention, when the story is being told in the 1st person, it occasionally becomes an omniscient P.O.V., with Evelyn knowing what other people are doing after she's left the scene. For example, on pg. 72, Evelyn, in her 1st person P.O.V., relates “I found Stan's cab waiting for me. Edna and Nell came out just in time to see me get into the cab and pull away. They were not happy. Apart from the crowd, standing in the shadows, was the man with the handlebar mustache. As the crowds dispersed, he stayed, lit a pipe and waited. A moment later, the cab came around the corner and stopped in front of my apartment across the street. I hopped out and ran up the stairs and through the door, and the cab pulled away. The man wrote something down in a small notebook, then walked off.” Okay, how did Evelyn know what the man did with his notebook after she'd entered her apartment building? Did she have X-ray vision or ESP? This kind of awareness of hers occurs many times throughout the book. Even if Evelyn were writing in hindsight, she would still only be able to narrate those actions she witnessed, with the occasional "I was told later" type of addition. Pick a P.O.V. and stick with it. If you want to use the 1st person narrative yet have other views of the story, use the 1st person with Stanford and Thaw and switch viewpoints chapter by chapter. Alternately, stick with the 3rd person omniscient; that way you can show actions your character wouldn't know about if you were using the 1st person. Frankly, the first couple of chapters really set up the book well, before things got sloppy, and I really enjoyed the 1st person viewpoint using Evelyn's voice. It felt as though I were interviewing an older Evelyn, in some nursing home sitting room, a more settled and more wrinkled version of herself, and as she related her story chapter by chapter, gradually the old twinkle returned to her rheumy eyes and some of that sexually charged flirtatiousness returned to her movements.

The formatting is sloppy. Lines often run together and you can tell line at the rear was supposed to start a new paragraph, but for some reason it didn't, probably because space(s) were left at the end of the previous line. Also, when Lokey's trying to convey separate events happening at the same time, in a sort of mosaic scene, he runs the paragraphs describing those events together. Each paragraph, each viewpoint, should be separated by either a soft hiatus or set of lines or an asterisk. Not only would it make who's doing what clearer, it would also add drama and a sense of tension to the overall scene he's trying to create.

The story inconsistencies are truly troubling. Lokey writes about events out of order, which is strange as he has Evelyn's own autobiography to act as a timeline, not to mention several reputable non-fiction books out there detailing the lives of Evelyn, Stanford White, and Harry K. Thaw. For instance, when Evelyn loses her hair after her appendectomy, Lokey writes that this happened when they were in Europe and that Thaw took Evelyn to a wig shop where her head was shaved. However, Evelyn's hair loss took place immediately after the operation, while she was still recuperating in the private sanitarium. Evelyn's mother held her up in the bed while Harry's valet, Bedford, did the shearing. She was never bald, but instead was given a crew cut. Also, Lokey describes Evelyn as describing herself as being all of 4' 10” tall, yet all the sources I've read place Evelyn at 5' 3” tall. Those sources also say she was born in 1884, not 1885. (Yes, there are some questions about that due to Mrs. Nesbit lying so many times to fit Evelyn's age to whatever the situation required; however, it's usually safe to assume a starlet is older than what she'd like people to believe, not to mention we have Mrs. Nesbit's recollection that Evelyn was born in an even year.) Lokey mentions the infamous incident with the “girl in the pie” as taking place shortly after Stanford White met Evelyn, yet that event occurred before Evelyn was in NY, according to her own autobiography and other sources, taking place in 1895, and the girl popping out of the pie was not naked, as written by Lokey, but clad in transparent black chiffon. What was truly strange was when Evelyn makes her first trip to one of Stanford White's apartments (or love nests), the one on West 24th Street. Lokey has her describing it as an ordinary building with a toy store for a front. Um, that toy store happened to be FAO Schwartz, only the most famous toy store in the world. True, in her autobiography Evelyn herself describes it as only a “toy store,” yet we know it's FAO Schwartz, so why not describe it that way?

The most disturbing part of the novel is the psychology of the characters, especially Evelyn. Why she tolerates and eventually marries Thaw is never fully explored or explained, which, I assumed, was the whole point of this novel being written. Yes, Evelyn herself is immature and essentially still a child, which works well with Thaw's infantile mindset, but that doesn't explain why, after being exposed to Thaw's dark side, she would continue to associate with the man. Greed and the desire for lots of pretty things can only go so far. Basically, I'm not given a hint as to motivations for any of the characters. I had hoped to discover some reason, albeit fictional, for the personages involved in this spectacle to have behaved the way they did. That was lacking. It seems to me Lokey was simply perpetuating the image of Evelyn as a gold-digger, a whore, a woman who was only after what she could get and deserved every bit of horror perpetrated upon her, instead of illustrating Eveylyn as a girl of 16, 17, who was at the mercy of the world, having an incompetent mother to (vaguely) supervise her and no idea of how to cope with the situations in which she was placed. I mean, this was a girl who was trapped between the powerful and persuasive White and the deranged and persistent Thaw, with no one to rely on for support. No wonder she ended up the way she did. Lokey also perpetrates the rumor that when Evelyn had her attack of appendicitis, it was actually a cover for an illegal abortion, a story based on rumor and supposition by the yellow press and vehemently denied on the stand by both Evelyn and John Barrymore.

The actual writing, the technicality of it, was serviceable, but not brilliant. The dialogue was, on the whole, well done and the narration could occasionally be engaging and colorful. However, it moved too fast, rushing the reader through events and scenes without giving the reader a chance to absorb the atmosphere. This was especially noticeable in those scenes where Evelyn was meeting the big names of the day: Harry Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, among others. I will say one thing, this quick pace made the book a fast read; there certainly were no slow, boggy sections to drag the novel out. The other good point about the novel is Lokey didn't info dump; relevant information was given in just the right way to illuminate the scene without detracting from it.

There are some good bones to this novel. It just needs a lot of cosmetic work (and some structural work) before it should be presented to the public.

Read May 20-22, 2012
Reviewed May 23, 2012

Monday, May 21, 2012

"[W]hat is buried down there beneath the Sudd?"

3.5 out of 5 stars

This is not one of those adventures that plops you into a conspiracy or conundrum on the very first page, takes off at warp speed, and doesn't give you a moment's rest until the very last page. This is what is known as a 'slow-burner'. The plot gradually builds up, clues and hints are dropped at random points, and the picture develops chapter by chapter until we reach the final thrilling conclusion.

I've read a few of the Pendergast novels Lincoln Child has written with Douglas Preston and enjoyed them; however, this is the first of Child's solo novels I've read. As anyone who knows even the slightest bit about me could've guessed, the Egyptian setting of this novel was right up my alley due to the fact that I'm mad about Egypt and especially ancient Egypt. Not only do I love reading books set in ancient Egypt, I love reading about modern or near-modern individuals discovering that ancient country's hidden treasures, buried by time, sand, and memory. The Third Gate introduced me to a new aspect of that area's geography, being set in the Sudd, a vast swamp formed by the White Nile in southern Sudan and one of the largest wetlands in the world. Although the Sudd is quite treacherous, choked as it with grasses, reeds, papyrus, water hyacinth, and other aquatic plants, forming mats of vegetation which can shift position and block waterways and are in various stages of decomposition, not to mention the ever-changing water levels as well as the dangerous animals, mosquitoes, and parasites, it's an important resource to the rural populations for whom it provides valuable grazing land for their livestock. However, the Sudd as pasture isn't what's presented in The Third Gate. The novel's Sudd is an almost living thing, dark, ominous, fetid, choked with a foul miasma which is nearly solid in its potency and pervasiveness. Add in the discovery of the tomb of Narmer, the first king to have unified Upper and Lower Egypt, a string of inexplicable accidents which some believe to be powered by the powerful curse attached to Narmer's tomb, and the enigmatic leader of the entire expedition, Porter Stone, and you've got a situation ripe for danger, discovery, and death.

Yet, despite all these intriguing ingredients, as a whole the book felt slightly lacking. As I said in the first paragraph, this is a slow-burner of a novel, which is fine; I like stories which build to a climax. Yet this was almost too much of a slow-burner. Though the expedition suffers from traumatic and horrific accidents through the first half of the book, to make the tension build and to lead to the biggest event which makes up the climax of the novel, the persons involved are minor characters, so we're not really invested in either the person or the horrible event happening to them. It's only toward the end that things ramp up and the characters around whom the story is revolving get mixed up in the disasters. There just doesn't seem to be enough thrills or action. I think part of that comes from the narrator, one Jeremy Logan, a professor of medieval history and a self-proclaimed “enigmalogist” (an expert in deciphering enigmas). (Well, he's not really the narrator as the novel is told through the 3rd person P.O.V., but his eyes are the ones through which the reader views the action.) Because he's hired as an observer to Stone's expedition and thus witnesses all these events as an observer, it creates a distance which sets the reader apart and diminishes the drama. However, what really torqued me off about this novel is what always sets me off when authors reference ancient Egypt: the use of Greco-Egyptian terms rather than the true Egyptian words. ***Slight spoiler alert*** One of the characters is supposedly channeling an ancient Egyptian. Yet, when that Egyptian speaks, does s/he speak of being “The Mouthpiece of Heru”? No, s/he says they're “The Mouthpiece of Horus,” Horus being the Greek interpretation of the Egyptian divinity. Argghh! That sort of thing annoys me to no end; it's not only one of my pet peeves, it's my main pet peeve, the one I dress up in little sweaters, take out for walkies, and feed only the best organic pet peeve food.

For all that, though, the history, the supernatural aspects, the Egyptological discoveries (even if they are fake) are quite entertaining; in fact, they're the strengths of the novel and are what make it work when other aspects fail. Not to mention the writing itself, the technical makeup of it, is strong: vivid descriptions, realistic dialogue, well-paced scenes. What does that add up to? A book that, though slowly-paced, compelled me to keep reading to discover how it all turned out.

Read May 15-21, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program May 21, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A private life made very public

4 out of 5 stars

I haven't read Kate Summerscale's other books so I can't comment on how this one compares to them. I can say, though, Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is a haunting narration. But beyond a story of a Victorian woman's explosive diary and the divorce trial which resulted from its discovery, the book also illuminates other aspects of that oppressive era which conspired to create such a woman as Mrs. Robinson as well as the evolution of a society which condemned and ostracized her for her behavior.

Mrs. Isabella Robinson herself is rather a pitiful figure. Intelligent, ahead of her time in both her philosophical and moral attitudes, sensual, and undeniably aware of her sexual needs, she was too much of a woman for the anti-female Victorian lifestyle. She was certainly too much for her staid, greedy, middle-class husband, Henry Robinson. Not only was Henry incompatible with Isabella interest-wise, he was so wrapped up in creating his many businesses and keeping a tight fist on Isabella's marriage settlement that he spent most of his time away from the Robinson household as well as the marriage bed. Naturally, Isabella's restless spirit drove her to seek the attention she desired from inappropriate sources, such as younger men, and to behave with those men with reckless abandon. More seriously, she wrote her indiscretions down in her diary.

In a way, the society in which Isabella matured was responsible for her behavior, as it was for the restlessness felt by many a middle- to upper-class Victorian woman. After all, though Victoria herself was against the idea of a woman holding any kind of position of power, her being on the throne in combination with the many advancements of the era contributed to female empowerment. Women were allowed to travel more, hold jobs outside of the traditional governess role, and although higher education was still barred to them, their education was more extensive, beyond the needlework skills and music lessons all young ladies of breeding were expected to absorb. Technological improvements meant greater and faster land and water travel, increased agricultural output with less labor input, safer manufacturing, not to mention medical improvements such as the use of anesthetic during labor (which is literally thanks to Queen Victoria, who was the first to have ether administered and made the procedure popular), the new field of gynecology and use of the speculum (only by a few, intrepid doctors at first, as was still quite a controversial instrument), the astonishing scientific developments brought about by the likes of Darwin, John Snow and his work with cholera, Florence Nightingale and her pioneering work in nursing, just to name a few, and those who worked in the fields of geology, archeology, and anthropology, which became more structured and methodical. The mid-19th century also experienced the birth pangs of the science of psychology through the field of phrenology, several years ahead of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Though now discredited, phrenology introduced the idea of the human psyche and, more specifically, the human brain as being responsible for influencing human behavior. Radical movements sprang up like weeds, many of them advocating not only equal rights for women, but also the right for men and women to have equal sexual freedom and a call for the banishment of marriage, which advocates claimed created slaves of women, forcing them into lives of bondage, and creating a generation of children born into loveless unions, existing solely because their parents were compelled to procreate by societal demands.

Yet, despite all these advantages, women were still seen as lesser beings, perpetual victims of hysteria, their abominable uteri responsible for bouts of madness, depression, mania, violence, and every other manner of mental disease the physicians of the time could imagine. As a result, Isabella's indiscretions, as noted in her diary, when used as a charge of adultery by her husband and the basis of a divorce case, were seen as the ravings of a defective mind, a female in thrall to the whims of her overexcited uterus and not the desires of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, to a man who steals her money, abandons her for months at a time, a man who even has a mistress and two illegitimate daughters by that mistress, a fact never even brought to light during the divorce proceedings. Not only that, but those men who had supported Isabella in years previous, who had had deep, enlightening conversations with her, in person and through correspondence, who praised her analytical, almost masculine mind and facile thought processes; those men who valued Isabella as a confidant, friend, and companion, now turned against her, labeling her as insane, hysterical, a raving lunatic at the mercy of her weak mind, and distance themselves from her corrupting influence. Mrs. Robinson's diary was exposed at a time when there was an explosion of novels, many of which were written by women, which used the diary format to tell stories of desperate, sensual women trapped in loveless marriages who expose themselves in indiscretions with unsuitable men. So even though we never really know how much truth is contained in Isabella Robinson's diaries, they are an illuminating view of the sadness, desperation, and intelligence which drove her to write such entries and give us an idea of such similar troubles which fueled the unhappy marriages of other Victorian women who were perhaps more circumspect yet suffering just as much as Isabella.

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is an intimate glimpse inside the Victorian marriage, legal system, and an edifying look at the Victorian mind and thinking processes which not only created Isabella and Henry, but trapped them as well. I recommend it not only for students of history, but of feminism as well as the Romantic movement.

Read May 4-15, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program May 15, 2012

History as light reading? Who knew!

3 out of 5 stars

Like other popular history books, the tone of Royal Pains is lively and flippant, with a 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' kind of intimacy, as though the profiles it contains are bits of juicy gossip heard at the latest coffee klatsch. Though I understand why this kind of convivial narration is used--coupled with the fairly sensationalist subject matter, it helps draw in a wider audience and keep them reading, most likely with the idea that they'll stay unaware of the fact they're taking in and enjoying history--the casual tone occasionally becomes a bit too much so, taking away from the drama and impact of a particular tale. And while most of the personages profiled by the book fit into one of the categories given by the subtitle of A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds, there's one that has had the description "royal pain" thrust upon him without actually having done anything to warrant that label. Pauline Bonaparte and Princess Margaret? Definitely brats. Vlad the Impaler and Ivan IV? Most certainly brutes, of the highest order. King John and Elizabeth Bathory? Yup, bad seeds. Very bad seeds. However, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale wasn't particularly brutish, bratty, and while he was somewhat intellectually diffident and free with his sexual favors (what male member of the royal family wasn't?), I certainly wouldn't characterize him as a bad seed. He's included for the mere fact that, decades after his birth, someone decided that he was Jack the Ripper and, despite the fact that royal diaries and itineraries clearly place "Eddy" away from Whitechapel when each crime was committed, stuck to that story, creating a distorted mythos which spread and took on new dimensions of horror and depravity each time a new "researcher" got their hands on it. Carroll states at the end of Prince Albert's entry that it's the mere fact of this continued infamy which classifies him as a royal pain. It seems to me, with the wealth of other historical royal pains out there, that Carroll could have featured one who was an actual brat, brute, or bad seed rather than someone as hapless as Prince Albert.

That said, I still enjoyed reading Royal Pains. Not because I'm particularly enriched; usually I don't discover anything about these people I don't already know. (I think the only new information I got came in the entries for Pauline Bonaparte and Archduke Rudolf of Austria.) However, when written well (and despite my comments about the casual tone of the book, Royal Pains is well-written), popular history books can be quite entertaining, as this one was, and a pleasant way to while away the hours.

Read April 26-May 4, 2012
Originally reviewed on Goodreads May 5, 2012

A fun way to sate your "Hunger"

4 out of 5 stars

I adore cookbooks, don't ask me why. The entire bookcase nook off my kitchen is stuffed with them and there are several more individual books sprinkled around the place. I also love novels which feature food, and not just food but descriptive food. Entire meals, banquets, feasts, ales and punches and liqueurs. Food which draws me into the story and gives me an idea of the people involved, who's suffering through hardships, who's living the high life, why they're celebrating. So, quite naturally, I love tie-in cookbooks, official or not, which take those fictional foods and beverages and bring them to life.

Admittedly, some tie-in cookbooks merely go through the motions: collecting a bunch of recipes from one of those huge online databases, without even bothering to check whether or not those recipes actually create something edible, changing the names to fit dishes found in the novel, slapping them together and calling it a cookbook. I've run into those and, man, are they disappointing. However, from the detail of many of the recipes found in The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook, especially in regards to the desserts and breads, it's obvious Baines put quite a bit of time, effort, and thought into producing this work. The recipes, even the more outlandish ones, are easy to work with, with clear, direct instructions for the most part; in fact, most recipes only take up a single page and hints for substitutions and time-savers are given on many of them, along with other helpful cooking tips. Some of the recipes are quite simple, almost to the point of "Why was this included?" simple, such as Clover-Mint Tea or Propos Grilled Cheese Sandwich. Yet even the simplest recipe has meaning in the world of The Hunger Games and, while simple, those recipes possess just enough of a twist, a sense of being somewhat alien to our lives, that you realize, "Oh, that's why that was included."

As I pointed out, some of the recipes are rather bizarre, illustrating the lengths Baines went to to maintain a sense of authenticity. Such recipes as Fightin' Fried Squirrel, Wild Raccoon Sauteed in Bacon Drippings, and Hazelle's Beaver Stew with Rosemary Potatoes will probably only be made by the most fervent of fan; however they and their accompanying tips on how to work with wild game further demonstrate Baines's sincerity and her adherence to The Hunger Games universe. My only comment about the recipes is that, for some of them, Baines has taken what was eaten in a scene of the original novel and condensed it into a recipe. For example, in Chapter 4, when Katniss comes into the train car for breakfast, Peeta is dunking one of the sweet rolls into his hot chocolate; Baines turns this scene into a recipe for Attack of the Chocolate Chunk Muffins, which is a perfect blending of the two tastes. Authentic? Not really, but certainly delicious and definitely a lot easier to recreate for a cookbook. So I'm not really complaining about this kind of translating, just making a note of it.

Some have complained about the lack of photographs in the cookbook. While I'm sure it would've been impossible to photograph each individual dish, I admit, it would've been nice to have had at least an insert of a dozen or so glossy photos of finished dishes. However, I don't find the lack of photos quite as annoying as others, mainly because I'm sure that, for one, the book was probably put out as quickly as possible in order to take advantage of the groundswell in popularity of the series, and, for another, this particular publisher, which seems to specialize in tie-in cookbooks, puts out a certain style of book which doesn't seem to allow for photos. We can always hope that perhaps a later edition will be published and will include those much-lamented photos. I will say this: Because it's obvious the publisher wanted to get this out as quickly as possible, there are some goofs. A step may be left out, portions may be off. I think, if you really want to work with this book, it might take some experimenting on some recipes to get them right and perhaps some adjustments, especially in regards to altitude.

As with most tie-in cookbooks, at the top of each recipe is a reference to which book and scene it came from, as well as what the recipe or the foods it contains means to a certain character. At the back of the book is a small section entitled "Katniss's Family Book of Herbs" describing some of the herbs Katniss surely gathered during her foraging trips outside the fence. Along with a brief description of the plant's appearance, each entry lists in what environment the plant can be found and how the plant is used. While you shouldn't go out looking to gather these wild plants based on this small guide alone (the lack of pictures to positively identify a wild plant would probably garner you a slow and painful death from poisoning), the guide is informative, providing yet another link to the novels and to Katniss's world. With a detailed table of contents and extensive index, The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook is a thoroughly entertaining companion to the novels. And I think that's the most important thing to remember, that this is a companion book. Yes, it's a way to ride the coattails of the series' success and a quite obvious marketing ploy. However, for fans of the series, it's also a fun bit of memorabilia and while the book will probably be more entertaining to read than to actually use, it's still worth a look-see, even if you only check it out from the library. Just remember, have fun with it and let the Games begin!

Read April 10, 2012
Originally reviewed for Amazon Vine April 18, 2012

A hodgepodge of hotness

4 out of 5 stars

I met Sara King about four (or was it five?) years ago while I was participating on I started reading the story she'd posted there entitled "Outer Bounds," or should I say part of a novel because it simply consisted of the first few chapters she'd been working on. I was immediately hooked, so much so that I almost cried when I reached the end of what she'd posted. When I discovered more about her, I was absolutely astonished that she hadn't been picked up by a big-time publisher, even with the help of a go-getter agent. After all, it only takes a brief glance at any of her works to see that this lady has an untamed imagination and an unstoppable talent.

That said, this book is one hot mess. Don't get me wrong, it was fun to read. (And rather spooky from my end: The heroine is 6'4" tall [if I'm remembering correctly] and complains about how men her height seem to have a genetic disposition to prefer women about a foot shorter than they, leaving her out in the cold and having to deal with the freaks who only like her because they can dress her up in leather and be their 'Amazon woman'. I'm 6'1" and have often complained about the same issue. Not to mention I've literally had people cling to the other side of a hallway I'm walking down, in fear, I guess, of me squishing them to death. I seriously thought about growling out "Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum" at them. But I digress...) Blaze's inner dialogue concerning her dating issues and other problems can be quite hilarious; the description of Jack facing the humiliation of his paralyzed legs is heart-wrenching; and the parts where the bad guys are being bad made my butt pucker with the utter 'badness' of the villains. However, the story, taken as a whole, is all over the place. You can tell King and company really tried with the editing (since she doesn't have access to a professional editor, she relied on the help of several friends and first readers), but the book desperately needs that professional polish and tightness. The so-called banter between Jack and Blaze often became infantile and drawn-out. Their continual arguments and insults, with the occasional "Um, I like you" inserted just to let the reader know that the two of them were engaged in some sexy banter designed to build up tension, failed as such because they just went on for too long. Even the sex scene, once the two finally worked their issues out and got together, went on way too long. They'd start getting hot and heavy, then they'd stop to talk right in the middle of the action, then get back to it. Frankly, it took all the heat out of it. The action jumps around, going from a near-fatal encounter in which either Blaze or Jack is unconscious and ready to die, to the description of Blaze or Jack or both going about their duties on the lodge grounds as if nothing had happened. Stuff gets built up and then we pause, then it starts up again and then we pause again, like going up a hill and down a hill and up a hill and down a hill, instead of a nice steady climb to the final scene: There's no real coherency. And once the climax is reached, the book continues on for another good while, describing how things get back to normal at the Sleeping Lady lodge, with Blaze and Jack turning it into a scare-fest for geeks and thrill-seekers. While that's all well and good (and personally, I like a bit of a wrap-up once the villain(s) has been taken care of and all personal issues between lovers have been cleared up), it just seems like a rather flat way to end the book. Coming down from the high of the climax is fine, but with this, we've come down and started to fall asleep once the book finally ends.

Basically what we've got here is a good set of bones that desperately needs the flesh rearranged to make it more appealing. After all, King has managed to combine the Alaskan Bush, wereverines, werewolves, a phoenix in human form, and other assorted supernatural and mythical beasties into one novel and, aside from a few bumps, makes it work. That's no small feat. Which is why, at the end of the day, I gave this book 4 stars. It may need some serious reworking to make it flow better, but I was still enthralled and entertained by what I read, enough to make me eager to start book two. And for anyone who's read enough of my reviews, you'll know that I am rarely eager (in fact, before now I'd say never eager) to read a second book in a series if the first book has as many editing errors as Alaskan Fire. There's a good story here if you're willing and have the patience to dig it out.

Read April 18-May 6, 2012
Originally reviewed on Goodreads May 8, 2012

The post-apocalyptic future of reality TV

5 out of 5 stars

Okay, I finally get it now. What can I say, I'm slow. After all, it took me a couple of years of hearing Harry Potter this and Harry Potter that before I finally sat down with a (good, non-translated from English to American) copy of the first book and discovered the wonders of the Harry Potter universe, discovering my own inner Harry Potter fanatic at the same time. So it's only right that it took me a few years of hearing about the marvels of The Hunger Games and its sequels before breaking down and reading it. Now that I have, I can quite cheerfully join in with the rest of the crowd (something I so rarely do) with my own "OMG, this book is freakin' awesome!" war cry. Because it truly is.

Before I get to how beautiful and heartbreaking the story is, I have to say it is told in what might be the most perfect example of fiction writing. Collins's writing should be held up as an example to students in creative writing classes aimed towards aspiring YA fiction writers, heck, for any fiction writers, period. Those authors who have managed to get their stuff published by some miracle and not by any show of actual talent (I'm looking at you, Stephenie Meyer) should study Collins's books front to back and back again to get an idea of how a compelling story should truly look and behave. In The Hunger Games, the story flows along at exactly the right pace, neither rushing us through scenes nor holding us back with needless information. Back story is filled in only where it's needed, at just the right places, with enough information to gently round out the story as it keeps up its brisk pace, without becoming overstuffed or bogged-down. There is no purple prose here. In fact, the prose is succinct, almost terse, yet filled with such vivid and vivacious detail; words, much like the food in certain Districts, are rationed, producing a concentrated story with no waste, no unnecessary flourishes, and an almost electric page-turning readability.

As far as the story, it's...wondrous. Violent, yet filled with tear-jerking scenes of compassion and mercy. There's action a-plenty, but woven between those scenes of heart-pounding peril and nail-biting panic are scenes of desperate soul-searching, tender moments showcasing the uncertainty of burgeoning love, human moments of doubt and fear and calm acceptance. And, of course, I have to say something about Katniss. She comes from a long line of strong, positive female YA role models, following in the footsteps of Jo from Little Women, Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie from Julie of the Wolves, even Hermione from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. But what I love most about Katniss is, she's the complete antithesis to Bella Swan and, hopefully, an antidote to the portrait of womanhood portrayed by Swan. (And here I apologise to both Suzanne Collins and Stephenie Meyer. I truly dislike pitting authors against each other, but with two such enormously popular series, featuring two such disparate characters, each of whom are idolized, it's hard not to compare them and see the faults.) Where Katniss is strong and resolute, Bella is whiny and limp; where Katniss works to provide for her family, gaining her identity from her role as provider and, at times, de facto mother, Bella has no identity, no goals, in fact, strives to be nothing more than Edward's arm candy. Katniss constantly thinks about her life, where she's going, what she's becoming, worrying over the fate of her family, the consequences of her actions, layer upon layer of well-rounded, slightly (yet healthily) neurotic complications which combine to create an actual human being, which, in side-by-side comparison, only shows up that much more clearly how much of a cardboard cutout Bella Swan is...and how, after fifty, perhaps a 100 years, the world will still remember Katniss. Girls will still read about her and imagine themselves in her image. And Bella Swan? Forgotten, a curious fad relegated to a footnote in history.

Read April 13-16, 2012
Originally reviewed on Goodreads April 18, 2012

A divorce most royal

2.5 out of 5 stars

I tell you something, after reading this book, I think I could write a dissertation on the machinations and intricacies in the papal court of the 16th century with enough detail and scholarship to merit a Ph.D. Okay, so perhaps I'm exaggerating, but not by much. This is not an easy book. This is not a book for the general public, for someone who's read a Tudor novel or two and wants to find out a bit more about the subject. For those persons I'd recommend an accessible history as written by Alison Weir or David Starkey. The Divorce of Henry VIII is a book for someone who's a Tudor scholar. Someone who's made a study of the period and, specifically, the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Someone who could fully appreciate the amount of detail and research which went into the making of this book. Sadly, that person is not me.

From the very beginning I was overwhelmed. Names, places, dates piled on top of each other in ever increasing amounts until they all blended together into one incomprehensible mass. As a historian, it's evident Fletcher is exhaustive; she's lived with these materials for years, delving into the backstories of the players involved, understanding the shorthand, appreciating the wit and humor peculiar to the situations. It's understandable that she would want to share this depth of information. However, for a historian to become a good author, she needs to be able to translate years of scholarly study into a compelling narrative, to weed out the thicket of information and prune it into an appealing shape, taking knowledge which makes for an excellent dissertation and shaping it into a good story. This is where Fletcher fails as, basically, she's given us an expanded version of what, I'm sure, was her Ph.D. thesis. And while a thesis is great for proving one's scholarly aptitude, it's not necessarily the best entertainment.

Ostensibly revolving around the actions of one Gregorio Casali, an Italian diplomat and Henry VIII's agent at the Vatican, representing Hal's interests in his “Great Matter” (his divorce from Catherine of Aragon), the book branches out to include the entire Casali family, most of whom were also involved in some manner with the king's divorce, not to mention the stories of the many other diplomats, agents, spies, regents, rulers, pontiffs, and churchmen who moved across the giant chessboard of European politics. While we're presented with tales of skulduggery, of bribes and threats, even of kidnapping, as Henry's cause is fought for, set against a backdrop of a Rome recently invaded and ravaged by the Spanish army and a Europe divided by war, the book never really captures the imagination or the attention. To be truthful, after trying (valiantly) to fully immerse myself in the first 8 chapters (out of 17, so don't think too badly of me), I ended up skimming through the rest of the book. I just couldn't take the information overload anymore.

I would recommend this book only to someone who has devoured all available books on King Henry VIII and wishes to now delve into the minutiae of Henry's divorce--basically a colleague of Catherine Fletcher, another historian or scholar. For anyone else, I'd say to give this one a skip. Even if you enjoy Tudor history, unless you really want to impress someone with a bit of intimate trivia about the divorce, I think this book is just too much to wade through.

Read April 9-25, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program April 26, 2012

The gossip girls of King Charles II

2.5 out of 5 stars

I honestly don't know what to make of this book. On the one hand, it's well-written (in some ways) and well-researched. On the other hand, it's structurally unsound, with an abrupt, "Where the heck did the rest of the book go?" finish.

The story revolves around three young ladies, all named Elizabeth and identified by nicknames--Eliza, Beth, and Zabby--as they make their way to the newly restored court of Britain's King Charles II. Eliza, identified as big-boned (which only seems to mean she's rather tall and sturdy and not obese as the term is used today), raised by a Puritanical father, secretly wants to be a playwright instead of the propitiously married-off wife her father wants and so under the excuse that being at court will increase her chances of finding an ideal suitor becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine (or as in this book, Catherine) of Braganza. Beth is horribly poor and thoroughly cowed by her harridan of a mother, but she's a beauty and it's that asset her pox- and pustule-covered mother uses to advance their family with an advantageous marriage. Beth catches the eye of the queen, who sees beyond Beth's shabby clothing and whore-like makeup, and gives her a place at her side. However, Beth's other asset is her virtue, something her insane mother protects fiercely with constant vigilance, threats and, when necessary, beatings which leave Beth bloody...but only in places where the scars won't matter. None of that matters to Beth as she's fallen in love, with a most inappropriate man, and will do anything to escape her insane mother and fulfill her romantic fantasy, even if that includes treason. Zabby has recently returned to England from a very provincial and free life in Barbados. Fascinated by her scientific studies, she happens to be in the right place and have the right knowledge to save the king's life. In return, he brings her to court, where everyone assumes she's the latest of his long line of mistresses, for if they knew the truth, that the king is mortal and barely escaped death, Charles, with the echoes of the mob who howled for his father's head still haunting his dreams, fears a lessening of his power and stature. Because of this and their shared love of science, Zabby and Charles spend many hours closeted together in his elaboratory and as Zabby comes to know the man behind the crown, she also comes to discover her own feelings about him.

First of all, I'm not sure why this is marketed as a YA novel. Just because the protagonists are young girls and the cover art makes the novel look like a 17th century version of Gossip Girl doesn't mean that a YA categorization is appropriate. After all, until the mid-twentieth century, there was no such thing as a teenager or the term young adult; you were a child and then, once you reached a certain age--if you were a boy--or you began menstruating, you were considered an adult, capable of being married, having children, keeping your own house. So these girls in the novel are technically adults. As such, most of the issues dealt with in the novel are more adult-oriented; that's not to say young people don't know about sex, prostitution, and whatnot--this is the age of sexting, after all--but wrapped up in the larger context of a royal court, with its intricate politicking, it just doesn't seem like an ideal YA novel. Never mind that the language used, while historically accurate and wonderfully colorful, would confuse many an adult, let alone younger people. Words like 'troth', 'cozening', 'swive' and 'daggle-tailed slut', among others, are completely unfamiliar to a modern audience; perhaps I'm underestimating today's young people, but I can only see their eyes glazing over when they start running into these words and phrases. Don't get me wrong, I'm not being a prude; in fact, I loved seeing all the flamboyant euphemisms flying about in the midst of scathing remarks and flippant wit. Once again, though, except for those rare few teenagers who love such detailed historical fiction, this just doesn't seem the right kind of book to compete for attention against The Vampire Diaries or Twilight (although, personally, I'd rather see more intelligent and adult books such as Ladies in Waiting being directed towards young adults than dreck such as Twilight and its ilk).

In regards to the actual writing, the characters were well-portrayed. Beth, the sappiest of them all, still had enough spirit to her that I never felt unduly annoyed by her behavior. Eliza was wonderfully spunky and outlandish and I loved how she spoke, her dialogue liberally dusted with historical colloquialisms and blazing wit. Charles was appropriately magnetic, giving the reader a plausible idea of how women of all stations could so easily fall in love with him, and yet equally repellent with his callow attitude towards Catherine and his imperious personality. Zabby was the only one with whom I didn't really connect. Her supposedly scientific mind wasn't always on display and oftentimes she behaved more like the typical love-sick teenager, meaning she could be moody, irrational, and petty. The novel's greatest strength was the language I mentioned above. Beyond its vividness and lively tone, there was never a moment when a modern phrase sneaked in and jolted me out of the 17th century (that I can remember). As far as pacing, while the novel had a flow to it, it wasn't always a steady flow. At times the story felt rather wobbly; the action wouldn't exactly stop, it would sort of plateau out and just kind of...sit there while another scene was built.

However, while I enjoyed the novel (even though some of the plot points were rather ridiculous), while it is descriptively written and compelling to read, I have one big problem with it: there was absolutely no ending. Nothing. Nada. Just a bunch of loose threads left dangling without even the slightest attempt to bring them together. The story just stops without giving us any idea of how these three girls ended up. The one achieves an ending, of sorts, as she accomplishes what she set out to do and we're told, in a couple of brief sentences, what happens next, but it's not the full closure her story deserves. The other girl suffers a horrible fate and while, on the one hand, the ending is realistic--after all, there is no happily ever after in life, so why shouldn't a fictional character also have a crappy ending?--and so I applaud the author for avoiding a saccharine cliche, I was equally annoyed by the author's lack of closure. We see the girl being driven away in her new husband's coach and we've got some idea of the horrible life she's going to have, but an actual description of what does happen to her would be nice. And the third character just goes back to doing what she was doing all along--really, that's it? Where's her character's growth? What has changed in her personality? I went through 328 pages of story for what? I just felt greatly unsatisfied when I turned the last page, by the lack of a proper ending, by the lack of character growth. No, unsatisfied isn't the right word, I felt cheated. I quite literally yelled out, when I reached the end and discovered this lack of closure, "What the hell kind of story is this? Where's a proper ending?" I'm all for the kind of "leave it to your imagination," "The Lady and the Tiger" type of tale, but not in this context. Really, I can't properly express the indignation and frustration I felt when I finished the last page; it was like I'd run into a brick wall.

Unless this is the beginning of a new trilogy, which I doubt because, had it been, the book's cover would've been plastered with all sorts of exclamatory remarks advertising that fact, this is a rather disappointing stand-alone novel. Honestly, I can't understand how it's getting published in such an unfinished state.

Read April 5-9, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program April 11, 2012

A Victorian-era paranormal romance fairytale

4.5 out of 5 stars

I know, this is a paranormal romance and I liked it. What is the world coming to? Well, first off, this is a retelling (albeit a loose one) of the classic Beauty and the Beast fairytale and I love a good retelling when I get my hands on one. Secondly, I'm a sucker for any kind of alternate Victorian novel. I can't tell you why, just that I am.

One thing to know, the blurb on the back of Firelight is slightly misleading. Miranda, the beautiful (natch) leading lady, is forced to wed the mysterious and infamous Lord Archer in order to redeem her family's name and fortune. Well, Miranda, her temperament matching her fiery red hair, is feisty and fully capable of defending herself and certainly not one to be "forced" to do anything she doesn't want. For once, I didn't find myself screeching in annoyance over a empty-headed ninny of a female protagonist. Miranda's got spirit and intelligence; she's a protagonist whom I can actually admire. Now we come to Archer. Tall, dark, and brooding, in the best possible way. And masked. And sensual as hell. Yummy!

Of course, there's some intrigue and both Miranda and Archer have deep, dark secrets, which neither of them is willing to divulge to the other, creating the sexual-tension-fueled misunderstanding between them which drives most of the action for the first half or so of the novel. And while that kind of cliched misunderstanding gets rather irritating (you just want to knock their heads together and make them talk), once it gets cleared up and they start working together, they work so well as a pair, it's worth any amount of annoyance. Their sparring, and the sparks that often (literally) fly, reminds me of another fun literary couple, Amelia Peabody and her husband Emerson. There's something about a large, bellowing man, who is really a soft, squishy marshmallow inside, which is just unbelievably sexy. Add in a woman who's not afraid to stand up to his thunderings, who'll stand nose to nose (even if she has to pull over a step-stool to do so) and poke the bear, as it were, and you've got one immensely readable, entertaining, compelling story.

There was only one big quibble I had with the story and that was the fact that Miranda's "talent," her ability to create fire, is never fully explained, as far as where the ability came from. Was she cursed as a child? Were her parents cursed? Was there some sort of magical object causing the ability? I would've liked to have had a deeper backstory on Miranda.

That said, I could barely put this book down, reading it in only two days which, considering how my powers of concentration have been lately, is an amazing feat. I'm eagerly looking forward to the sequel and because I got this book from the library, I'm seriously contemplating buying it and adding it to my permanent "keeper" shelf.  My favorite Beauty and the Beast retelling was written by Robin McKinley (her first retelling, that is, the novel Beauty), but I must say, Kristen Callihan might just have written my second favorite retelling.

Read April 30-May 4, 2012
Originally reviewed on Goodreads May 2, 2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Horus Road (Lords of the Two Lands #3)

 5 out of 5 stars

In The Horus Road, the final installment to Gedge’s Lords of the Two Lands trilogy, the story of the Tao’s family attempt to reclaim Egypt from the Setiu invaders reaches a thrilling and riveting climax. I can’t say it’s the best book of the trilogy (deciding that would be something of a Sophie’s Choice), but I can say it’s a wonderfully written, compulsively readable finale.

Ahmose Tao, Prince of Weset and self-proclaimed pharaoh now that both his father, Seqenenra, and brother, Kamose, have both died at the hands of those who claimed to be loyal yet ultimately betrayed them, has successfully reclaimed the entire land of Egypt. The last bastion of Setiu rule is their capital city, Het-Uart, a thickly walled repository of Setiu troops and scared citizens. Those impassable walls also held Ahmose’s sister, Tani, Apepa’s hostage these many years, as well as the physical symbols of Egypt’s divinity, the Horus throne, the double crown, the Crook of Mercy and the Flail of Justice. During the long months away from Weset, while Ahmose continues to lay siege to Het-Uart and finish the reclamation of his beloved country, a new center of Egyptian administration is taking shape under the capable hands of Ahmose’s wife Aahmes-nefertari and his mother Aahotep in Weset, both of whom effectively keep Egypt running by organizing and supervising the many small details required to keep a country working. Yet there’s a distance between Ahmose and Aahmes-nefertari which has nothing to do with their physical separation and as Het-Uart finally falls and a final betrayal to Ahmose’s reign comes to light, engineered by Apepa and orchestrated by Tani, Ahmose must decide if seeking reparation for such a awesome treachery is worth the price: the loss of his marriage and love of Aahmes-nefertari

As with the other books, the battle scenes are the poorest part of the novel, suffering from a lack of dynamism as the writing itself remains adroit. The only exception were the scenes describing the sieging of Het-Uart and, later, the Rethennu fortress of Sharuhen, which, perhaps because they were so much more intimate than the other large battle scenes, seemed to have a greater sense of urgency and were infused with a more authentic sense of the chaos which would surround such close-quarters fighting. Where Gedge really shines is in the complex interplay of her characters and their very human reactions and emotions. We see the fragility of Aahmes-nefertari as she tries bring together a nation in her husband’s absence while dealing with the trauma of childbirth and infant mortality; the desperation of Ramose as he attempts to rescue Tani, his idealized love; the cutting-to-the-quick of both Ramose and Ahmose as Tani reveals how she’s changed from the free-spirited girl they both knew years ago. Towards the end of the novel, these full-developed relationships intertwine to create a heartbreaking resolution of the story. That's said, Tani’s story is the most engrossing and the one which is the most vexatious.  ***Spoiler alert!***  When we finally meet her after being closeted away by Apepa’s side for so many years, we see that she’s no longer Egyptian, but has adopted Setiu manners, to the point of even changing her name to Tautha.  Her excuse?  She was so long with Apepa, frightened and alone, missing her family, sure that Apepa would execute her for her family’s actions, but instead Apepa treated her with kindness and consideration.  Soon she fell in love with him and consented to marry him.  So that when Het-Uart finally falls and Egypt is free, she refuses to go home with Ahmose, instead holding fast to her marriage vows and claiming that her duty lies with her husband, Apepa and choosing the people of her husband over her own family.  This sort of betrayal and cowardly behavior is so upsetting and abhorrent, it made me agree with Ahmose when he tells her “My only regret is that Ramose did no strangle you when he saw what you had become.”  I mean, she even demanded an Egyptian burial for Apepa, using her status as a princess of royal blood to blackmail Ahmose into complying.  My horror at Tani’s behavior equaled that of Ahmose’s.

In the end, The Horus Road is a rousing, nail-biting, undeniably satisfactory ending to a trilogy of books which comprise just about some of the best ancient Egyptian historical fiction out there.

Read March 24-April 1, 2012
Reviewed May 16, 2012