Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Oh yeah, being a witch rocks sometimes."

4 out of 5 stars

*e-ARC graciously provided by the folks over at NetGalley*

There are many things to love about this book and only a couple which will cause the eyes to roll dramatically and several “Oh, please”'s to be shouted. The writing is decent, moving along at a steady clip and keeping the reader involved. The action, while not exactly heart-pounding, is still fairly vivid, the dialogue is zingy, and some of the situations are downright laugh-until-your-sides-hurt funny (starting with the first scenes in which a cat flies through a chimney; trust me, it's a lot less horrific and a lot more hilarious than what it seems). Overall, Poltergeeks is a fun, quick, engaging read, with a great deal of humor and very little angst, which is welcome in an angst-ridden genre.

The protagonist, Julie, is a completely believable teen. She has moments of attempted maturity, of resignation to her duty, not to mention a willingness to sacrifice herself to save those she loves. Then she slips into behaving like your typical teenage girl: She pouts, she gets distracted and does stupid things, often at the most inconvenient time possible, she doesn't know how she feels about her friend, Marcus, who's just blindsided her with his declaration that he thinks she's beautiful, but flies off the handle when her other best friend, Marla, expresses interest in Marcus, and she worries about being normal and accepted at school (though she eventually comes to a “screw that” realization about being normal and accepts her particular peculiarity). She's a well-rounded creation, with a lot more personality and spunk than many of today's YA heroines. The book is narrated in a 1st person P.O.V., so we get to experience the story through Julie's eyes; she's snarky as hell, so it's quite entertaining to hear her inner (and outer) monologues. (My favorite expression of hers is “Conspiracies suck monkey butt.” Call me juvenile, but that just tickled my funny bone.) The other characters, though not as well-developed, are still human enough to support their presence. Marcus is a presented as a weedy, rather unassuming science geek, who happens to be the school's biggest target for bullies; he's not macho, he's not dark and brooding, and (Yes! Yes!) he's not stalker-creepy. In fact, he's rather unapologetic about his brains and ability to use them, which, dear god, is absolutely wonderful in a male lead. Marla is the local Goth girl, complete with black eye makeup, white skin, piercings and variously textured (leather, latex, fishnet) black clothing. We're given a hint as to a deeper back story; she was once just as picked on as Marcus, but mysteriously managed to make herself an unappealing target sometime in the past. However, that's about as far as we get when it comes to knowing Marla, possibly to give further drama to later story developments.

Speaking of these three characters, you would imagine they would engender some sort of love triangle. Nope. Yippee! No angst-ridden love triangle in a YA novel! Just a sweet and simple romance which builds up between Julie and Marcus, more on Julie's side as she comes to terms with her emotions-—Marcus already knows how he feels about Julie. The only sickly part is her insistence on referencing his actions as “pure” and “virtuous,” which gets old fast. (Oh, and I've got to mention a guardian character introduced in the story when Julie's mother goes into hospital. This guardian is an immortal spirit who has to take over a body in order to manifest on this plane. Eventually, the spirit takes over the body of a Great Dane. Yup, there's a talking dog. Gotta love that.)

However, the character of the mother is where the author makes his first mistake and is the source of many of the eye rolling and “Oh please” moments mentioned above.

(Julie receives a phone call from her mother, who's just woken up from a magically-induced coma in which she was near death.)

Julie - "Mom, it's you! I'm so glad you're alive! While you were in the hospital, I managed to discover my destiny, trap and destroy the evil spirit which has been making our lives miserable, and save you from kidney failure by waking you from your coma!"
Mother - "You're grounded, young lady! You didn't listen to me in the first place, even though this was all a set-up by an outside influence and the actions that have taken place were inevitable, but you're still in big trouble for reacting to them and doing your best to take care of yourself, your friends, and me. Which means you're grounded for the foreseeable future, until you learn to behave yourself and remember to ask me before you do anything, even if it's only to go to the bathroom."

Sorry, nope, uh uh. We don't see a lot of her mother in the novel except at the beginning and the end, but when we do see her, she's inevitably chastising Julie for something or being judgmental or being one of those mothers who is feared will “lose it” when she hears about some inoffensive action. Basically behaving in a way which only makes a child take bigger risks and act out more, not to mention resentful. Julie speaks of how she's able to talk to her mother, how she's able to confide in her mother, but I never see any evidence of that in the interplay between the two. It's her mother yelling/lecturing and Julie complying (after putting up an inevitably futile argument). So much for equal discourse. The author gives thanks to his editor for convincing him that “teenage daughters fight with their mothers. A lot.” Well, I'm very sorry to tell you Sean Cummings, but your editor gave you some bad advice. Yes, some teenage daughters fight with their mothers. However, there are a majority of teenage girls that not only not fight with their mothers, they get along very well with them. They respect each other, they're close and loving. The daughters confide in their mothers and respect their advice and wisdom; the mothers listen to their daughters and respect their individuality and choices. I know this because I had such a relationship with my mother. I never was grounded; I never lost my phone or other privileges. My mother and I talked about everything and as a result, I never worried about being “misunderstood.” And I'm not the only girl to have had such a relationship. A good mother-daughter relationship is not unusual; what would've been unusual is if Cummings had actually been brave enough to portray a good mother-daughter relationship instead of the traditional adversarial one. It's obvious the way Cummings writes in his afterword about his editor and the advice she gave to him that he probably had initially written a more harmonious relationship between Julie and her mother and that he changed the characters around simply to follow his editor's instruction. All you have to do is look at the easy way Julie interacts with any of the other characters in the novel and contrast that to how jarring it is when Julie and her mother interact. It doesn't mesh with the rest of the relationships Cummings has created.

Other than the misstep with the mother, there was very little else about the book over which I can complain. Regarding the ultimate confrontation at the end, a malevolent 400-year-old spirit who is trying destroy Julie waits for the final confrontation so that Julie not only has time to prepare but to also pick an appropriate venue. What? That did not make sense at all and rather robbed the story of immediacy as well as some of the action. I could've more easily seen the characters hunkered down somewhere, trying to create a mish-mash of weapons as the enemy came closer and closer, until finally there's an attack and final battle. Speaking of the story, the plot points driving the action, making the characters go from point A to point B to point Z, feels slightly contrived and hollow. When even your own character points out the problem, as Julie did at the end of the book, you've got a big problem.

However, the biggest issue, one which made the book almost unreadable, was the formatting. Whoever was responsible for formatting the novel for the e-book version should be fired, in a public and humiliating way. Sentences and paragraphs were jumbled and pushed together, making it difficult for the story to flow in a natural, not to mention readable, fashion. It was absolutely and teeth-grindingly frustrating.

Overall, if you're looking for an fun, fast, funny, and original read, try Poltergeeks. Just, maybe go for the print edition instead.

Read June19-29, 2012
Originally reviewed for NetGalley June 30, 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sing a song of ice and fire... then sit down to a meal which brings Westeros out of fantasy and into reality.

3 out of 5 stars

*Disclaimer: I am not a fan of George R.R. Martin's series, A Song of Ice and Fire. That's not to say I couldn't become a fan, but I would have to read the books, something I haven't yet done. I've seen fragments of the first episode of the TV series, but nothing beyond that, so I'm not invested in this series in any way. But I loves me some tie-in cookbooks—-I think it's a sickness—-which is why I got this particular cookbook. Just thought you should know*

Once again Adams Media has jumped on the promotional bandwagon of the latest entertainment pop-culture darling. It all began with The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook: From Cauldron Cakes to Knickerbocker Glory--More Than 150 Magical Recipes for Wizards and Non-Wizards Alike, followed by The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook: From Lamb Stew to "Groosling" - More Than 150 Recipes Inspired by the Hunger Games Trilogy. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, books which incorporate sensory experiences, most especially of the gustatory kind, tend to imprint themselves more on a reader's memory, not to mention draw the reader into the world, the story, and the action which the author has created. So for any fan of a particular set of books, the ability to immerse yourself more fully into those books through a cookbook, authorized or not, is a wonderful thing. Which makes this particular entry into the unauthorized cookbook canon most welcome, despite the blatant commercial aspect of the enterprise.

The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook follows the same format set up by the previous cookbooks: The recipes are separated into categories such as Heroic Mornings: Breakfasts for Warriors, Feasts for Friends—and Enemies: Main Courses, and Deceitful Delights: Desserts, Drinks, and Poisonous Cocktails; whether a recipe ranges from the simple and ordinary to the outlandish and potentially complicated, the title always references a corresponding dish in one of the novels; each recipe has a short blurb at the top detailing in which scene the particular dish appeared and its significance to a particular character or characters, as well as a shorter blurb at the end detailing substitutions for ingredients, serving suggestions, the meaning of an ingredient, additional preparation instructions, and various other “Words of Wisdom,” as these notes are titled. In addition, there's an extensive index as well as two appendices, one listing the recipes by region, the other containing standard brewing processes to aid in creating the ale, stout, and mead recipes listed in the drinks chapter.

As to the recipes themselves, many of them have varied and interesting ingredients, giving the anticipation of an exciting culinary adventure. However, there are a couple which are so unbelievably easy, their inclusion is almost ridiculous; it was if Kistler needed just a couple more recipes to reach a quota and so came up with the easiest ones he could find. You may or may not remember the mention I made in my review of The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook concerning the simplicity of a few of the recipes it contained. However, unlike the recipes in the Hunger Games Cookbook, whose simplicity belied their emotional impact, the recipes in the Game of Thrones Cookbook didn't seem to carry the same kind of weight, despite their apparent connection to the novels. For instance, one recipe is called Arya's Sweetcorn Eaten on the Cob: Basically, you brush some butter over ears of corn and grill them. Really? Wow, that's amazing! Come on. I've seen plenty of grilled corn recipes which use herbs, spices, cheeses, all sorts of additional ingredients to make grilled corn on the cob a bit different; if the recipe had been along those lines, I could see why it was included. However, if Kistler wanted to keep the recipe as-is because it meant something to the character, it would've made more sense to have placed it as an adjunct to a main course recipe rather than have it as a stand-alone. The other recipes are in the breakfast section, which has a tendency to attract the most basic of dishes anyway, but these are ridiculous--I'm talking about eggs and toast, and eggs and bacon. Oy. Also, the occasional recipe would skip over steps or pertinent information, steps which an experienced chef would take automatically, but, since this book is aimed at all ages and cooking experience, are needed in order to prevent mishaps. In the recipe for The Cheesemonger's Candied Onions, for example, an alternate step calls for placing the entire pan in a preheated oven to finish the dish and there's nothing wrong with that. However, in the first step, there's no mention of using an oven-safe pan. Well, that's just a given, I'm sure you're saying. True, but there are people out there who will put an inappropriate pan in the oven, watch it catch fire, and become irate over the fact that that particular pan had no business being in the oven, blaming the cookbook and not themselves for their ignorance. It's how we've gotten “Caution: Contents May Be Hot” notices on the side of fast food coffee cups and “Do Not Use in the Shower” tags on hair dryers and irons. People can be stupid and, to prevent that, need every single step of a process clearly outlined.

I have a couple other niggly issues with the book. For one, a few of the recipes are mislabeled. For instance, the recipe for Winterfell Cold Fruit Soup is not a soup. Consisting of seven different fruits and berries, chopped, halved, and sliced, gently tossed together and served with a sauce lightly drizzled to coat, it's clearly a salad. Fruit soups exist, but to be a soup, the fruit must be pureed. Also, some of the cooking directions are questionable: Butter is a common ingredient in many of the frying/sauteing recipes, which is fine except for those where the directions say to let the butter brown and then have long cooking times for the ingredients. Butter will burn very quickly once it has browned; keep the butter, but reduce it and replace that amount with a bit of olive oil (good ol' EVOO), safflower oil, or sunflower oil.

I think part of the problem is the author. There's no mention of his involvement in or experience with the culinary arts in his author bio, nor is there a mention of recipe tasters or advisers in the acknowledgments. However, we are told that Alan Kistler is an actor, a columnist focusing on the evolution of superheroes and villains, the creator and co-host of a weekly podcast which discusses popular geek culture and gives out dating advice, a comic book historian who's been recognized for having a deep knowledge of many sci-fi and fantasy sagas through his articles, convention appearances, comic book documentaries, and lectures, not to mention has inspired a fictional counterpart in Star Trek novels written by David A. Mack. His resume doesn't particularly inspire my confidence in his ability to write a cookbook. Though some doubts have been raised regarding the extent of their respective culinary expertise, the authors of the other two unauthorized cookbooks, Dinah Bucholz (Harry Potter) and Emily Ansara Baines (Hunger Games), at least have had some experience with cooking, baking, and working with recipes. It makes me wonder, where did Kistler get his recipes? Did he simply find recipes from other sources which happened to fit a dish in one of Martin's books, steal them and rename them, as has been rumored? I can't say.

Despite my misgivings about Kistler, as with the previous cookbooks, I look at this one as a fun and entertaining novelty item, good for some interesting reading; anything more is simply a bonus.

Read June 26-28, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program June 28, 2012

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"Dear You, I'm not bipolar, I've just had a bipolar life foisted upon me."

4 out of 5 stars

I liked this book, I really did. After all, the story is completely unique and one of the most ingenious I've read (and this is coming from someone who's stuffed herself with the likes of Christopher Moore, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett). In fact, I'm sure Daniel O'Malley has probably stuffed himself with a couple of these authors as well judging by some of the humor and situations I encountered within the novel.

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London garden in the pouring rain surrounded by a ring of unconscious bodies, all wearing latex gloves. Oh, and she has no memory. In her pocket is a letter from the body's previous occupant which begins with the words “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” Guided by further letters written by the previous Myfanwy, Myfanwy #2 discovers she's an operative, a Rook, in a secret government agency dedicated to protecting the country from supernatural threats of all shapes and sizes, and that someone in that agency is trying to kill her (or, rather, Myfanwy #1). Seeing as every high-level operative possess a supernatural power and they along with all other members of the agency, known as the Checquey, are highly trained in methods of subterfuge and defensive arts, Myfanwy has her work cut out for her. Relying on the information provided by the first Myfanwy, Myfanwy #2 explores her new job and life, not to mention her own, very powerful supernatural power, and discovers there's more afoot than either Myfanwy could've imagined.

Yet with the many story elements in the novel and the undeniably creative plot, there's something which made the whole thing miss out on being a genius-level piece of work by a hair's breadth. Mostly because of Myfanwy #2. This may sound weird coming from an American, but Myfanwy did not strike me as being particularly British. She came off like an American ex-pat who was now working in London.  Yes, Myfanwy the second's personality is different from Myfanwy the first's:  Myfanway #1 was pathologically shy, a wallflower, deferential and demure in her uniform of black, white, and grey clothing which allowed her to disappear in a crowd.  The new Myfanwy, though retaining many of her predecessors quirks, was a bit more brash and outspoken, a bit more assertive and willing to try new things.  I get that.  But she can still be those things within the framework of a British character, yet not once did I get a sense of "Stiff upper lip, mind the gap, keep calm and carry on" British-ness.  Not to mention her behavior, her speech patterns, and occasionally her humor made her seem incredibly juvenile and underdeveloped at times.  Not that there aren't Brits who behave in a juvenile manner (there are and I've met them), but for the character O'Malley was trying to create, those mannerisms were inconsistent.  Honestly, the effect was rather jarring at times. Secondly, Myfanwy the first provided a purple binder filled with information about her life, the Checquey, the operatives, basically every single aspect of her universe to assist Myfanwy the second in adapting to her new life. Every time Myfanwy #2 runs into something, she pulls out that purple binder so she (and, by extension, the reader) can figure out exactly what she's dealing with. That's all well and good, and certainly prevents any missteps on Myfanwy's part, allowing her to pick up her predecessor's life with nary a stumble; not to mention the gimmick gives O'Malley an easy way to introduce back story. However, she often pulled out this binder in the company of others, which seemed extremely blatant; I kept waiting for someone to ask her why she had the binder, what was in it, why it engrossed her so much in the middle of a crisis. I can see close associates of Myfanwy's, who knew she was little more than a glorified accountant, ignoring the binder, likely assuming it to be part of whatever project she might've been working on at the time, but outsiders would be ignorant of her position and most likely, I'm sure, be curious as to why she kept pulling out that binder. The biggest peeve I had, though, is the humor. I don't know what it is, but British writers, even ordinary Brits, seem to have such an easy wit; they just open their mouths and gems fall out. Even the most unimpressive of Brits come up with brilliant one-liners (Noel Gallagher about his brother, Liam: "He's like a guy with a fork in a world full of soup." Come on, that is freaking hilarious while being disparaging at the same time!) Yet the wit in The Rook never seemed easy; at times it felt a bit forced, as though O'Malley really wanted to be like Terry Pratchett, but struggled with it and so fell just short of the mark. That's not to say there aren't moments of outright humor in the novel, there are, just not as many as you would like. The one thing he does do well is explain exactly why using a chess analogy to run a super-secret government agency doesn't work, especially in a country with a monarchy. In fact, his little dissertation on the subject, in the voice of Myfanwy Thomas #1, is his most inspired piece in the novel.

It's funny. This book shouldn't work; it shouldn't be readable, it shouldn't be entertaining, and it certainly shouldn't be so successful. After all, the book suffers from info dumps galore (in the form of that purple binder, as well as the frequent letters from Myfanwy #1), which often delay and even derail the action. It features a main character who's often immature, obnoxious, and completely unprepared to deal with pretty much anything popping up in the story line. And the ending is, well, flat and awkward, not to mention misleading, appearing to set things up for a sequel only to tie up the story line a few pages later. Yet, I think the reason the book does work, despite these flaws, is because it doesn't take itself seriously. It's tongue-in-cheek, but it's self-aware: it winks at you to let you know it's tongue-in-cheek, but do try to take it seriously anyway, alright luv? It sounds too precious to work and logically it shouldn't work, but it does. Besides, who couldn't find a little love for a novel in which the main character owns a pet rabbit named Wolfgang?

Read June 16-25, 2012
Reviewed June 26, 2012 

Goblins and dragons and Odin, oh my!

2.5 out of 5 stars

Oy. I have had the hardest time trying to review this book. It was such a mixed-bag: Parts of it were good, parts were merely okay, yet none of it elicited any strong emotions in me. So I'm going to make this a bare-bones, flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants review (and for those of you clapping and cheering at being spared reading another one of my long-winded reviews, well, that's just rude).

The Good:
-This was only the second book/series I've read featuring a female blacksmith (the first being the Meg Langslow series by Donna Andrews). Not only was the lead in Black Blade Blues a blacksmith, she was also a lesbian, which is rare for a mainstream-published fantasy novel, at least as far as I'm aware. The only other gay characters I've encountered, in a series also published by TOR, are those in Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar: The Last Herald Mage trilogy (Magic's Pawn, Magic's Price, Magic's Promise). For some reason, mainstream publishers assume the general public can't handle leading characters who are gay and thus such characters are typically relegated to specialty publishing houses.
-I love the mix of stuff in this book; it makes for a unique and interesting setting. There's Norse mythology (not to mention actual creatures which pop up, including giants, dwarfs, witches, Valkyries—complete with Pegasus. Oh, and Odin masquerading as a homeless guy [that's not a spoiler; as soon as you meet that particular character, even if you merely have a passing knowledge of Norse mythology, you'll recognize who he truly is]); the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) and its associated kingdoms, shires, and mercenaries; Renaissance Faires; B-grade independent movies about goblins, aliens, and Elvis; and dragons camouflaged as people.
-While it personally annoyed me, Sarah's backstory of growing up in an ultra-religious, narrow-minded and bigoted environment, and her resulting discomfort with her sexuality and attraction to women, gives a depth to the character which isn't normally found in fantasy novels. (What annoyed me about this particular point is discussed below.)

The Bad:
-Yeah, Sarah has a complex about her sexuality and a helluva lot of baggage to deal with because of her upbringing, but her recurring whinging and moaning and disinclination to actually deal with her issues, not to mention her complete willingness to let those issues derail her life on a regular basis, is grating to the extreme. You know what the problem is--bring it out into the light, talk about it, work with it, and learn to live your life in spite of it. Damn!
-I really can't say there was anything bad bad, but... the whole novel felt disjointed and bumpy. There wasn't a steady build of story, leading the way to a dramatic denouement and thrilling climax. We're introduced to a supernatural plot point early on, but we have to deal with the complete breakdown of Sarah's personal life before we can get back to that supernatural plot point and build it up to a working story line. And when we finally do get to that story line, I have to use the word “bumpy” again, along with “slow.” Plus, I never encountered any true heart-pounding moments in the action scenes.

-For a blacksmith who's ultra-protective of her work, especially her swords, the fact that Sarah would just casually let an actor, a very clumsy and irresponsible actor at that, use her prized sword as a prop in a movie is just completely uncharacteristic.  It's a stupid move on the part of Pitts.
-Once again, Pitts relied on that tried-and-untrue literary cliche, overused by so many in order to create drama:  Having the characters not reveal to each other relevant information.  Sarah's lover, Katie, and Katie's brother, Jimmy (who happens to be the seneschal [leader] of Black Briar, the mercenary band which belongs to the local SCA kingdom) both know more about what's going on as far as Sarah's sword and how it pertains to the dragons, yet neither one of them let Sarah in on the information.  True, she wouldn't believe them, not initially, but still...  I hate it when authors do that; it's such a lazy way to create tension.

The Ugly:
-When it came to the protagonist, it was abundantly obvious this book was written by a man. Listen up, guys: Lesbians are not males dressed up as females. They do not have a man's brain in a woman's body. They do not get a metaphorical hard-on every time they see an attractive woman pass by. Every time Sarah had to deal with her interpersonal relationships, the resulting dialogue or prose was like a neon sign proclaiming “A Man Wrote This!” The protagonist, Sarah, was like some sort of avatar for male voyeurism: As Sarah ogled, lusted, and reminisced over her sexual adventures, male readers could ogle, sigh, and titter along as their hormone-fueled imaginations conjured up all sort sorts of accompanying mental pictures. Though Sarah's complex about her sexuality felt authentic, her actual behavior didn't.

Overall, I'd have to rank Black Blade Blues as “disappointing.” 

Read June 4-19, 2012
Reviewed June 26, 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

Oh, so much potential, wasted for want of a good editor.

2 out of 5 stars

Research - 5 stars (at least as far as blacksmithing goes)
Execution - 1 star
Writing ability - 2 stars

Originally published in Germany in 2006, The Copper Sign was picked up and translated by's AmazonCrossing publishing imprint. Now, I don't know if it's the fault of the translator or if it's the fault of the original prose, but despite the book's history, it still reads as a self-published work. There's a good book in here and a competent editor would've brought it out. As it stands, though, one has to wade through a lot of chaff to get to the few kernels of a good story.

First off, there's the length: over 600 pages. And this is just the first novel of a trilogy. This book could've been cut down into a trilogy all by itself. That said, most of those 600 pages are devoted to a whole lotta nothing. I give credit to the author: It's obvious she loves the art of blacksmithing and it's just as obvious she's studied it in a great deal of depth. However, like many authors, it's just as obvious she had a hard time deciding what research to cut from her story and so decided just to put all of it in. As a result, we get many passages detailing (and I do mean detailing) the work put into creating a medieval sword and other ironworking skills. After a while, the book begins to read as a treatise on medieval metallurgy, which, in context, would be fascinating, I'm sure. But not in the middle of a fiction novel. A few brief passages here and there, highlighting specific points of the process would've given the reader plenty of insight into how medieval craftspeople worked without bogging the narrative down.

Speaking of the narrative, to be honest, there really wasn't one. There was no over-arching plot, just a series of vignettes in which the main character, Ellen, moves from one location to another. Ellen would change location, there would be a small conflict, she'd move and the cycle would begin again. There was no great growth of character and no building of the story towards a great conflict to be resolved in the final act. Speaking of those multiple small conflicts, after a while they became tiresome and quite ridiculous. Though news didn't travel as far or as quickly in that time period, stories of criminals and people wanted for crimes would've been grist for the gossip mill and would've nearly flown through the network of merchants, tinkers/peddlers, jongleurs/minstrels and others who traveled between towns and villages. Ellen, who during the tale is accused of murder and a few other crimes, simply moves to the next town when, pardon my language, the shit hit the fan, and manages to set up shop as a blacksmith, a female blacksmith, mind you, which was no ordinary thing. Every time she moves, she manages to avoid ever being recognized or charged for the crimes--for which she's innocent, but that's beside the point--with nary a bailiff or magistrate sniffing around her shop to harass or arrest her. I'm sorry, but that stretches the limits of reality. No one is that lucky, especially when Ellen is equally unlucky in having all these tragedies occur in her life, tragedies which spur her nomadic movements and fuel each vignette. The whole novel just didn't flow properly, never mind the fact that it was just so one-dimensional. However, what really struck me about the plot was just how little the characters interacted with the times in which they lived. As the reader, you never got a sense of the history, of what was going on with the politics of the time. Sure, kings were mentioned and war campaigns were talked about, but it was in a secondary, off-hand way. Even though Ellen met with Henry, the Young King (son and crowned heir of Henry II), the whole scene felt as though she was simply meeting with another character and not an actual historical personage. There was no sense of place to the entire novel. It could've been set in any time, in any country. About the only details of life in that particular time period which permeated the story were details concerning the middle/lower classes and even those details were limited to narrow section of the population, that of the craftspeople which populated the towns and countryside.

Then we come to the characters, none of which I ever identified with or sympathized with or even particularly liked. Ellen herself was bipolar: One moment she would be stubborn and proud and so very, very prickly; the next she would be meek and pious. Most of the time, though, she's either mean or disparaging to those around her, which means she spends the rest of the time wondering why they're angry with her or sad because of something she said. And, of course, every man who met her fell in love with her in some way, even when she was disguised as a boy. Puh-lease! That particular angle drove one of the characters, Thibault, the villain of the piece. Thibault first meets Ellen when she's disguised as Alan and apprenticed to the local blacksmith. Thibault finds himself attracted to this "boy" and flagellates himself for his dirty desires. When he eventually finds out Alan is Ellen, he loathes her with a dark rage even as he still desires her, which drives his actions throughout the book. His rage/passion drives him to perpetrate dark deeds, including murder, all to clear the way for him to make Ellen his woman.  ***SPOILER ALERT***  And this, despite the fact that Ellen is his half-sister, which she tells him a couple of times and which he refuses to believe. ***END SPOILER*** Basically, Thibault is a one-dimensional pig; a cad, a rapist, a bully, a loathsome man. He's a standard, black hat wearing villain with no depth. You hate him because he's hate-able and that's it. The remaining characters were either your standard archetypes or ciphers, placed in the story for Ellen to find or interact with, but that's about it. About the only one with potential was Isaac, another blacksmith we meet towards the end of the novel and, naturally, another love interest for Ellen. His personality actually progresses and develops some depth, making him quite unique.

Fox's writing is passable, though obviously in need of editing, as with the rest of the book. There was a sense of awkwardness to the whole thing, especially as concerns the dialogue, and this occasional inelegance would be enough to jar me out of a scene and make me wish the passage had been written in a more pleasing fashion. To be honest, until I read the author bio at the back of the book, I would've sworn Katia Fox was a young adult. Her use, or should I say, over-use of exclamation points reminded me of a teenager's journal. Characters, in their speech, would enthuse! About the smallest things! Things which weren't exciting at all! After a while, 'Find the Exclamation Point' became a game, though not a drinking one; I would've been hammered after a page or two.

I doubt I will read the other two books in the series. Firstly, because I didn't find The Copper Sign all that enthralling or leaving me breathless for book two, as the back of book claims one will be upon finishing the novel. And secondly, I honestly can't see any of the characters having much left to say or do; they didn't do that much in this book. The concept behind this novel is intriguing and with a competent editor, The Copper Sign (and subsequent novels) could've probably been something spectacular. As it stand now, though, I would be hard pressed to recommend it to anyone. Sorry.

Read November 8-25, 2011
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program January 30, 2012      

When we know a mash-up phenomenon has been milked dry.

2 out of 5 stars

I enjoyed the original Pride and Prejudice and Zombies mash-up novel, so when I heard of the graphic novel adaptation, I was quite excited. However, I was also leery, which is why it took me so long to get my hands on it and when I did, it was as library copy. I was leery for the main fact that I knew the interpretation of the graphic novel could be potentially iffy. And I was right. The illustrations are technically skilled, but lacking distinction. The only way I could tell Lizzie and Jane apart was by Jane's dark hair. The other female characters, the young ones at least, were interchangeable and it was very easy to confuse one for another. Plus, the characters were bland and overly romanticized. It was like looking at a bunch of Barbie and Ken dolls dressed in regency-style clothing. The women all had full lips, petite noses and large, doe-like eyes. And of course the men had perfectly styled hair and dashing, Prince Charming features. Frankly, it got rather boring after a while, watching all the perfect people parade across the page.

Then we come to the actual story. Naturally, due to the manner of graphic novel storytelling, the original tale was abridged. But not well, which resulted in a choppy and abrupt storyline; while the original novel, due to the inherent nature of a literary mash-up, had the occasional disconcerting moment when new material was introduced into the old, there were exponentially more of those jarring moments in the graphic novel. And the numerous double entendres referring to "balls" and their enjoyment by the girls got truly tiresome and were completely out of place. Including the snort of laughter given by Lizzie after one of those references (concerning musket balls, as opposed to the dancing balls which were the main victims of the juvenile jokes).

In the end, I'm glad I read the book: It satisfied my curiosity. However, I'm also glad I didn't buy it as I had initially planned and instead got it as a loan from the library. Because it was truly a letdown and could've been so much better.

Read November 30, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads November 30, 2011        

Talk about being sold a bill of goods!

2 out of 5 stars

I had a hard time slogging through this, as evinced by the length of time it took me from start to finish. The concept is good, in fact the plot is a tried-and-true escapist fantasy, it was just...dull.

First off, the main character, Ben Holiday, is, well, frankly, he's a woman in many ways. His behaviors and emotions reminded me quite often of the heroines in modern PNR fiction: "Oh, woe is me, I'm so miserable. I have a horrid sense of self-worth and everyone keeps telling me how important I am, how special I am, and I just can't, I won't believe it, at least, not until the last act when my obstinacy and sullen attitude has put everyone else in a position of danger and I wake up, stop being such a whiny bitch and take my rightful place as the true leader I was supposed to be all along." Yeah, that gets really annoying after the first few chapters and even more so when it's a man doing the whining. Conversely, Ben Holiday would also act like a complete Neanderthal when it came to female characters. This was most obvious in his actions toward Willow the sylph (half sprite, half wood nymph). He constantly rejects her, even when she tells him that his rejection will be detrimental to her and/or to him. For instance, she tells him to ask her father, the River Master (the sprite), for his permission for Willow to leave with Ben, as she's important to his quest. Instead, he sneaks off the next day at dawn without talking to the River Master about Willow and when she shows up later on (to rescue him, naturally), she tells him that because she left without permission, permission Ben failed to acquire, she's now exiled from her father's land. And he's surprised about that! What a dumbass. Then again, Willow isn't much better as a character. When she first meets Ben, she tells him she belongs to him, a concept which he doesn't accept (of course), but which she repeats on every subsequent meeting with him. If that isn't bad enough, most of the time she's around, she simply floats passively through the scene, as though she's there merely to do Ben's bidding or to get trampled on by his insensitivity. Which she pretty much is. Even during the rescue, when she gets to be proactive for once, you don't feel any sense of heroics from her, just a sense that she couldn't let anything bad happen to the man "she belongs to." The whole thing is irksome. (And, by the way, when did hairy women become sexy? Willow has long hair on her head, which is fine, but also lines of long silky hair, growing along the backs of her forearms and along the backs of her calves. I'm sorry, but yuck!)

As far as auxiliary characters, once again they were simply there to support Ben. I didn't feel any particular connection to them and while the wizard, Questar, had a backstory, none of the others really did. And it didn't feel as though that much effort was put into them. I mean, one of his retainers is a former man who's now a dog, having got that way through a magical mishap perpetrated by Questar. Really? That's it? A dog. Granted, a dog who wears glasses and a waistcoat, but, and this is where the creativity seems less creative and more lazy, a dog whose hands have conveniently not fully turned into paws, having stubby fingers at the end of them so that he may still do his job. Right off the top of my head, I can come up with five other creatures/objects the retainer could've been turned into, each of them presenting a more creative and intriguing angle to the plot than this one.

The plot was a quasi-quest as Ben, the new king of this magic kingdom called Landover, roams the land in order to get support for his rule. However, even though there's a big duel at the end and a few confrontations throughout the novel, for my part, I never felt any real tension as far as "I need to get the support of my people before the demon who's challenged me comes to spit me on the end of his lance." It all felt very meandering and casual, with no real drama or danger. And the thing which bugged me the most about Brooks' writing is that he's very repeat-y. In one paragraph, in which he's describing the appearance and situation of a particular valley, he uses the word 'valley' four a three sentence paragraph! And he loved the word 'trailers' when it came to describing the actions of the mist which surrounded said valley; I can't count the number of times he used it. And why, when there are plenty of other, really great words to describe the ethereal, mercurial, fleeting nature of that particular meteorological phenomenon. I realize repeating a word isn't a national crime, nor is using a different word to describe the same object any better; however, a little variety can be a good thing.

I think the most disappointing thing about this book, though, is that it was sold to me as more a comedy than a straight fantasy, at least according to the blurbs on the book jacket. I adore a good comedic fantasy and I was expecting this to be along those lines. Sadly, it wasn't. I've never read any of Terry Brooks' other works; I've heard he's supposedly a well-respected author. If that's the case, this book isn't an ideal introduction to his talent. Overall, it was a very dissatisfying read.

Read November 27-December 4, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads December 5, 2011      

Friday, June 22, 2012

Mommy, where do trolls come from?

I'm departing from my reviews for a moment to ponder the notion of reviewing.  Why do we do it?  I'm not trying to speak for the entire book reviewing community, but I think I can state with some certainty that we review books to enlighten others of a book's state of awesomeness or crappitude or, even worse, mediocrity; to spread the word about a brand new, fabulous author or an author who's been around the block and is only increasing in talent; to highlight images, sentences, characters, plot points, anything about a book which made it stand out, which piqued our imaginations and caught us up in the story line.  Whatever our reviews contain, though, the most important thing to remember is a review is an opinion.  It's not a forensic examination; it's not a textbook lecture to instruct the masses on how to view the book.  And it's certainly not a manifesto commanding the literate public that they must react in the exact same way to the book as the reviewer did.  A review is simply a collection of thoughts, musings, recollections, and drawn parallels which are idiosyncratic to the person who read the book and wrote the subsequent review.  Those reading said review may agree with it totally ("It's like you read my mind!"); they may agree with parts, but take exception to certain points ("It's a good review, but I think you misread/misunderstood what the author was doing with this character/in this scene."); or they may vehemently disagree with every single sentence written by the reviewer, to the point that they feel the need to excoriate the reviewer using the most vile, and often misspelled and/or grammatically incorrect, language possible ("Your so stupid!  How could you hav not liked the book?  Maybe you should shut your f*cking mouth and stop insluting the author.").

And thus we come to the point of my rant post:  Trolls.

What bait lures them from their dark, dank holes?  Why do they feel the need to attack?  Why can't they disagree with a reviewer in a civilized manner?  Present their arguments in a clear manner and, when the debate between them and the reviewer obviously reaches a stalemate, accept that their opinions and the reviewer's opinions differ and bow out gracefully?  I suppose this kind of behavior is too much to ask, and I don't mean to sound preachy, but it disgusts me how easily people become nasty and vindictive simply for the sake of doing so.  Take, for instance, the reviewing system on  Now, if you're a reviewer like me, scrolling through your past posted reviews is not an exercise to undertake if you want to maintain your mental health.  It becomes quite discouraging to look through your reviews only to see, time after time, that so many people have found it "unhelpful."  (What does that term, "unhelpful," even mean anyway?  I think the system needs to be changed; if you want to mark a review as "unhelpful," for whatever reason, you should have to leave a comment as to why you're choosing to mark a review as such.  And not a comment consisting of "It sucked."  The comment would have to be at least 20 characters long, thus requiring a modicum of brain power.  This would benefit the reviewer in more ways than simply eliminating random "unhelpful" votes; factoring out those comments which would undoubtedly run along more wordy lines of "It sucked," other comments might actually contain helpful, constructive criticism, intended or not, which would aid the reviewer in writing future reviews.)

Recently, I made the mistake of scrolling through my Amazon reviews.  I noticed that two of my more recent ones both had "0 out of 1 people found this review helpful." at the top and, I admit, I felt rather disgruntled.  After all, these two reviews were positive ones, 4 stars at least; in each I clearly outlined why I thought the books rocked and praised the authors' talent.  I could somewhat understand getting "unhelpful" votes on 1- or 2-star reviews; after all, trolls love going after negative reviews as it gives them a forum in which to "correct" the reviewer in very strident and pompous tones.  But going all "unhelpful" on positive reviews?  It just doesn't make sense.  So I start to get paranoid.  After all, I've run into my fair share of vocal opponents--do I now have a troll stalker?  Someone who follows my reviews just to shoot them down?  Does that even happen?  Or am I simply suffering from delusions of grandeur?  Maybe.  I don't know.  Frankly the whole situation is bizarre.

So I've resolved to stop caring.  I possess a unique combination of neurons and neural networks--my brain.  It's like no one else's brain.  Therefore my opinions, while they may be shared, will not be duplicated.  And no amount of virtual yelling, berating, cursing, or vitriol will alter those opinions.  Like water off a duck's back:  you throw shit at me, I'm just going to move aside and not throw shit back.  I don't know where trolls come from, why they feel the need to behave the way they do, or why they have troubling accepting that every person on this planet is a unique individual, with a unique way of thinking, and in possession of the right to express those unique thoughts without interference from any other person.  What I do know is trolls are not trolls; they are whiny little babies who will never get their way, no matter how hard they scream.  They're really rather pathetic when you think about it.

Sorry for the interruption.  We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Our technology is what makes us strong. And it's what makes us dangerous."

4 out of 5 stars

I'm having a hard time writing a review for Amped. On the one hand, it's an engrossing look at the human condition. What makes us human? What happens when that definition changes? Will humans ever evolve past their fear of that which is different? While the book may not provide answers to those questions, it does provide a glimpse into a near future when those questions come into play in the most visceral and dramatic of fashions.

The story revolves around an issue which is coming into play even today: Implants. With mechanical parts in our bodies, taking the place of our hearts, our limbs, can we still consider ourselves human beings? How far can we go in replacing our parts with machines before we stop being human? In this near-future scenario, Daniel H. Wilson tells the story of amplified humans, persons with a brain implant known as a Neural Autofocus, placed there to help control any number of issues from seizures and degenerative neurological diseases, to learning disabilities and psychological disorders. This implant, though, is more than just a computer chip plunked into the brain; it burrows into the brain, into the body, into every system, continually learning how to interact with the human into which it was placed, continually improving that human. Simply turning it off or removing isn't an option, because the network the implant has created remains. These amplified humans, or “amps,” are identified by the maintenance ports on their temples and find themselves easy targets of prejudice due to the fear their amplified state engenders, and eventually come under fire from conservative groups, looked upon as something beyond human and therefore beyond human law. Bit by bit, rights are taken away until amps find themselves without identity, without protection. In scenes reminiscent of the degradation of Jews in the lead-up to WWII, Wilson depicts amps losing their homes, their families, their rights, even their lives, as their ability to exist is eroded, unalienable right by unalienable right. Soon, lines are drawn between “reggies,” non-implanted humans, and “amps” in a war which will define the next stage of human evolution. Wilson paints a compelling picture of the fear, the mistrust, the anger and hostility generated by non-implanted humans towards amps. After all, amps are smarter, faster, basically an improved version of humanity. Implanted children outperform regular children in school--talk about skewing the Bell curve!--implanted adults can perform jobs the non-implanted can't--which is just an amplified (hardy har har) version of the current argument towards immigrants. In fact, the whole novel is just a slightly altered portrayal of what we're arguing about today concerning technology and humanity. And it's a very convincing imagining of how quickly this argument can degenerate into hate and how ugly the results would be, especially once crooked politics are introduced into the matter.

On the other hand, while the book contains many satisfying action scenes, and moments of tension and drama, it's a lightweight when it comes to character depth and motivation. The leading man, Owen is so nondescript, when other characters say his name, I'm startled because I've forgotten that that's what he's called. Owen is a sympathetic leading man, trying to do his best while navigating the world which Wilson has created, but all the same he's rather blah. There's a romance thrown in involving Owen which has a slapdash, last minute feel to it, and other than the fact that Lucy Crosby, the woman Owen falls in love with, has the classic “She struck me dumb with her beauty” appearance, there's no real explanation for why we should believe these two belong together. It doesn't help that Lucy is little more than a cardboard cutout, a place holder, a stock female character from fiction plot Template A. There's some story that Lyle Crosby, Lucy's brother and the ringleader of amp rebellion, ***SPOILER ALERT*** not to mention a psychopath and the catalyst behind the antagonism between amps and reggies,***END SPOILER*** throws Lucy into Owen's path simply to get a feel for how malleable Owen will be and how useful to Lyle's plans. Yet, as with the relationship between Owen and Lucy, this subterfuge is just kind of passed over. In fact, aside from the very vocal “bad guy,” Senator Joseph Vaughn, and the actual, behind-the-scenes bad guy (who becomes apparent early on in the novel), we don't really get a sense of who any of the characters are, what drives them, why we should care about what they do and what they think. And even with the "bad guys," their motivations are rather shallow. The only two characters who were well-drawn, having a bit of depth and likability to them, were Jim, a rather taciturn old man who is rather like the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Eden, Oklahoma, a refuge for Owen as well as other displaced amps, and Nick, an amped child who follows Owen around like a slightly off-kilter puppy, clicking away at his Rubik's Cube in unconscious movements.

Yet, I will say this, Owen's very "everyman" nature helps drive the point of this book home. Because, while Amped is certainly about what makes us human, the overwhelming issue is what we do with our humanity, with or without amplification. Lyle, the yang to Owen's yin, the two men opposite sides of the same coin, gives in to his implant, reveling in the change it brings to his humanity and looks upon it as the next step in human evolution. Yet by letting the machinery control him, Lyle loses something elementarily human: freedom of choice. Owen continually fights his implant, recognizing it as a tool which can and should be controlled, to be used at his discretion. Ultimately making Owen the greater evolved human of the two.  Which means, at the end of the day, despite the book's faults, it's still an entertaining, thought-provoking, and enthralling read.

Read June 5-15, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program June 19, 2012          

Monday, June 18, 2012

“So I came to the realization: Nothing in life is unfair. It's just life.”

4 out of 5 stars

Raw, personal and eye-opening, Stories I Only Tell My Friends is not your typical celebrity tell-all, in which the star whines and blames those around him/her for his/her current problems. Instead, Rob Lowe simply states "That's the way things were and this was how I handled them. It wasn't smart, but, hey, I didn't know any better." Although, in Rob's case, he would've been perfectly justified in whining a bit, having suffered through a childhood torn apart by divorce, leaving him with a father who was absent from his life most of the time and a mother who, well, to put it nicely, was a flake. A hypochondriac flake who couldn't be bothered to interact with her sons and instead chased fad after fad and man after man. Rob is very generous in ascribing his mother's hands-off behavior to a desire to see him succeed on his own and not the neglect it truly was. Whatever the case, though, his independent childhood served him well (for the most part), powering his drive to succeed which fueled his early, stellar career, a career that looked at though it could only go up...until it imploded in the lat 80's, making him a walking punchline for a time. Yet even in the face of an event which would've totally devastated any other actor, Lowe maintained his ferocious work ethic and sense of humor, allowing him to rise above the tabloid tattle and rebuild his career.

Rob Lowe entered Hollywood during the third Golden Age, when mavericks and innovators such as Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg were the new kids on the block, disrupting the old order and creating their own. As such, Stories I Only Tell My Friends is very much like a typical celeb autobiography in that many famous names are dropped throughout the book. However, and this is again where Lowe's books differs, the name-dropping is never gratuitous. Each person mentioned always played a key role in Lowe's career and it's clear Lowe not only admires his famous friends and acquaintances, even his rivals, he never has a bad word to say about any of them. Which makes Rob Lowe a rarity in Hollywood, an actual gentleman who would rather slog through the mud to reach his goal than sling it around to block anyone else's path.

Granted, you must always take a celebrity's word with a grain of salt. However, Lowe's book comes across as refreshingly honest and un-fake, making it highly readable and immensely enjoyable.

Read October 3-5, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads October 12, 2011

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Balls, balls, balls! I am sick to death of balls!" *snicker* Okay, am I the only one with a dirty mind here?

2.5 out of 5 stars

What is it with heroines in today's fiction? Actually, that's the wrong word; no wonder we refer to them as Main Characters rather than heroines--there's no heroism anymore, especially in YA fiction, it seems. Instead--and my rant here refers to female YA MCs--we're continually presented with leads who declare, repeatedly and petulantly, they want to be independent; that they're strong women who have no use for the conventions of the times in which they live and instead want to live lives of their own design, under their own control. Yet always, always, instead of behaving in such a strong, confident manner--putting their money where their mouths are, so to speak--they're whiny, whimpy little girls who rarely, if ever, actually stand up for themselves, who meekly go along with whatever they're told and only finally become brave when they have the support of "the man they love/the man who loves them." Thank goodness I don't have a daughter as this is nowhere near the message I would want her to take to heart.

In The Gathering Storm, the latest example of this trend, we have Katerina "Katiya" Alexandrovna, Duchess of Oldenburg and one of the many nobles in the confusing thicket which is Russian aristocracy in the last decade of the 19th century. She's a necromancer, but, of course, she's ashamed of it, calling her talent a 'curse', and wants nothing to do with it. (Just once I'd like a magically-enabled female protagonist to be enthused about her powers/talent; I know it's supposed to show some sort of goodness of spirit and purity of soul that Katerina has this awesome and rather taboo ability yet refuses to succumb to its allure, but it just makes her look like a wuss.) Dangers start brewing and when she has questions about her ability and how it might fit into these troubles or be used to stop them, she ignores all offers of help and information given to her. I mean, why not? It makes much more sense to just muddle through in ignorance and create even more problems for yourself and others than to, say, use the helpful reference book given to you to understand how to control your talent and empower yourself. Give. Me. A. Break. And that's just one annoying aspect of Katerina's personality. She also wants to be a doctor and chafes against the restrictive, narrow-minded attitudes which keep women out of the medical profession. Good deal and very "rah, rah, grrrl power!" But then, and this is where it gets stupid again, she faints in a situation where things got a bit hectic and bloody. Really? You want to be a doctor, but in a stressful situation, you faint? Yeah, that's a doctor I want by my side. So she basically affirms everything everyone's been saying about her--that she's a weak woman with no business being in medicine. Also, in a plot device which basically fueled the novel, this "strong" woman has no problem being manipulated and used against her will by various supernatural factions in St. Petersburg. Instead of growing a pair and finding a way to stand up for herself and her family, she blindly believes every threat used against her to keep her collared and leashed like a good little bitch. Every time you think she's going to be bold and do something, she backs down or is rescued by a handsome man. Gak!

What really pissed me off, though, is the plot device used to provide dramatic tension: Instead of opening her damned mouth when things got tough (basically at the beginning of the book) and telling someone she trusted about her power, about the threats against her, about anything, Katerina keeps it all to herself, because "she's all alone." Yet, as any perceptive reader will be able to guess, oh, right around page 50, Katerina finds out at the end of the book that the people around her either knew some of her story or, upon discovering her secret, accepted her quite readily her for it. Wow! You mean she created most of the problems simply because she kept her mouth shut and tried to fix the situation herself, even though she's ignorant to the point of stupidity, and had she just shared even the tiniest bit of the burden with her friends or family, things would've been a lot easier and some of the dramas which had cropped up wouldn't have even occurred? No way! Who could've guessed that? That is just the weakest, laziest way to create dramatic tension and any good author should know that. Sure, you can have a situation where your character doesn't talk to anyone because they don't know who to trust and create dramatic tension that way. However, your character has to absolutely be alone and surrounded by enemies. Though Katerina claims that is her position and though, yes, she does have enemies conspiring against her, she also had a coterie of close friends and family she knows absolutely she could confide in, if she just got her head out of her bustle-covered rear. And that's why this type of plot device, in this particular storyline, is inexcusable.

Which is a shame. The supernatural storyline is both creative and unique, with its mixture of faerie rivalries, vampires, necromancy and sorcery, and the Baroque atmosphere of the 19th century Russian court just enhances the sense of danger and intrigue this storyline created. However, while Bridges can occasionally create scenes of intense drama and atmosphere, there seemed to be a disconnect between the supernatural scenes and the rest of the novel. At times you wondered if, when faeries and vampires were brought up, the person was delusional or joking. The fact of their existence didn't seem to be general knowledge, but how would that work? Could you really keep the existence of werewolves, faeries, vampire and zombies a secret? There should've been a better mesh between the two worlds; as it is, we read about balls and soires and yikes! zombie attack! Then we have another ball and a fancy dinner... It's all a bit disconnected, with things picking up only in the second half of the novel (less balls, more action). Though she can write compelling action scenes and atmospheric descriptions with her narration (dialogue is her weakest point, with occasional awkward character interactions and turns of phrases), her character development, beyond what I've already pointed out, is a bit flat and two-dimensional; a lot of the bad guys stray close to caricatures. If Bridges had put a bit more effort into the plot, especially as it pertains to tension, and stayed away from cliched character traits, The Gathering Storm could've been an epic masterpiece. As it is, it's just a middling start to yet another series (seriously, why are all new books "the beginning of an exciting new series!"? Why are there no more stand-alone novels?) which has nothing really to recommend it and nothing to make it stand out from the crowd of similarly-themed series.

Read December 10-14, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads December 18, 2011

Friday, June 15, 2012

Ignore the fashionable "Where the hell did my forehead go?" cover photo and pick up this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Poor Queen Juana. Like many others who have had even the slightest interest in European history, I'd bought completely the story of her madness. How she kept her husband's moldering corpse with her at all times, how she periodically opened the casket to kiss it and embrace it. How her jealousy knew no bounds and even in death she kept every other woman away from 'Philip the Fair'. How she roamed around, mad as a hatter, and was confined most of her life to protect her and the Spanish countryside from her fits of mania. However, after reading Julia Fox's incisive and compelling account of Juana's and her sister Katherine's lives, I was astonished at how bamboozled I'd been. I'd should've known, though. After all, by whom has history been written? The victors, i.e. men, and the three men who wrote Juana's history--her father, Ferdinand, her husband, Philip, and her son, Charles--were three of the most manipulative and politically underhanded men to have ever roamed the chessboard of European politics in the 15th and 16th centuries. Though Juana may never have been entirely mentally stable, according to the story presented by Fox, it's quite probable she was never as unhinged as she's been so famously portrayed. Most definitely, her relationship with her husband, stormy enough when he was alive (and he was truly a complete shit, thoroughly deserving all her erratic behavior), wasn't at all as disturbed as the legends would have it when he died. Certainly she grieved and certainly her behavior wasn't understood by the masses. However, all she wanted was to bury Philip at Granada, his right as king, and her cross-country pilgrimage to that city was hindered and eventually halted by those wishing to keep her under their thumb, "those" being her father and her son. Fox presents new and enlightening accounts of visitors who, upon meeting Juana and expecting to confront a madwoman, are astonished at her ability to converse sensibly, to show rational thinking and reasoning, and her mild mannered behavior. In fact, if it hadn't been for Juana's meekness and total brainwashing by her parents and husband, she might've actually been able to throw off her oppressors and rule for herself. However, to her dying day, she would hear nothing negative or derogatory spoken about any of the men in her life, men she always believed--even when presented with evidence to the contrary, even when she was abused and tortured by the jailers hand-picked by her father and son--that those men always had her best interest in mind. She had neither the will nor backbone, as her sister Katherine did, to strike back; her only form of protest were childish temper tantrums and hunger strikes, making her madness all the more believable and her husband's/father's/son's job all that much easier.

Fox also presents a new angle to Katherine of Aragon. Through the years, when we're told the story of King Henry VIII's perfidy towards her, we're also presented with a picture of a saintly woman, a meek and mild woman who, though she tried to fight the divorce proceedings brought against her, was helpless to do anything to reverse the tide pulling her away from Henry's side. However, Fox shows that, as the daughter of the indomitable Queen Isabella of Castile, Katherine had more spirit and fire than what most people knew. In the early years of her marriage, she relished being the elder partner, the adviser to a young and inexperienced King Henry. This was a woman who could marshal forces and direct supplies in order to win at the Battle of Flodden, a massive win for England when Henry was away fighting in France. She was a capable regent and canny political manipulator, taught to dissemble by the best, her father. She was also stubborn and willful, and at times extremely naive, trusting those who weren't worthy and berating those who only had her best interests at heart. However, like Juana, she trusted implicitly her father and her nephew, Juana's son Charles. So when she was told that Juana had gone mad, she did not doubt them, as she hadn't spoken to or seen her sister in many years; when Juana was imprisoned, Katherine believed the lies. In this, she was ever being ever the dutiful daughter and servant of Spanish interests, believing and doing what was asked of her in order to promote Spain above all else, even when it put her in a precarious position and occasionally damaged her reputation and credibility.

In this, Fox has exposed the heart of what drove these two women and what eventually became their downfall: family loyalty. Juana and Katherine, though raised by a dynamic duo of rulers and educated to the first degree, lived in a world were women were little more than walking wombs. And though Isabella was equal to Ferdinand (in fact, his superior, her realm being much larger and richer than his) and their ruling partnership exactly that--a partnership--they were a rarity in that male-dominated world. In fact, after Isabella's death, Ferdinand showed his true colors by keeping his daughter, the true ruler of the Spanish territories, sequestered and powerless. As such, though Juana and Katherine had the ability and, in Juana's case, the right to rule as equals, those rights were stripped away by the men in their lives. Yet, as always, family loyalty kept whatever ambition either sister held in check as neither one demurred against these restraints.

I haven't read Fox's previous book, Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford; however, after reading Sister Queens I will be seeking it out. Julia Fox has a captivating and engaging writing style. She's able to present a depth of information in an immensely readable manner; this is certainly no ponderous academic tome, with dry-as-dust narration of facts and figures. The writing flows; it's lively and descriptive, reading almost like a novel. Yet don't be fooled; Fox is a true historian, not some jumped-up novelist pretending to be an expert, a la Philippa Gregory. And while you can tell she's definitely on Katherine's side when it comes to Anne Boleyn, she doesn't stoop to the popular trend of treating Anne as the embodiment of pure evil. (In fact, she clearly shows that some of the actions ascribed to Anne during that time were actually those of Henry.) In the end, Sister Queens is an in-depth examination of two women who tried to do their best as daughters, wives, consorts--or, as I like to call them, political pawns--always while being pulled in opposite directions.

Read December 23-31, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads January 5, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Man, I feel like such a failure for not liking this book!

1 out of 5 stars

What the hell was this? It started off fine, if a little bit bumpy. I kept waiting for the 'tragic romance' of the premise to begin--frankly, I was waiting for any kind of action to take place--yet nothing of the kind ever developed. There was an interesting, if bizarre, set up involving owls and plates and mysteries, but *fzzzt* it completely fizzled out. Nothing was ever explained and that ending... What kind of an ending was that? There was no resolution, no explanation, nothing that rewarded the reader for investing their time and interest in the book. Frankly, I can't understand how this won any awards. While the narrative did have a sort of poetic flow to it, the dialogue was occasionally disjointed and the character interactions were The whole book was off. Where was the great and tragic love story that was supposed to plague this particular Welsh valley and play itself out generation after generation? No love story ever came onto the scene, except for an old one involving one of the character's mother and another character's uncle, but even then we don't get much of the story. The entire book didn't make one whit of sense. As I started it, when I was still fairly excited about it and the characters were searching for clues, I thought to myself, "Huh, this kind of compares to Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone." As I continued reading, though, that comparison flew right out the window...just like those damned paper owls from The Owl Service.

Read December 31-January 1, 2012
Originally reviewed on Goodreads January 2, 2012

Something that could've been so unique and cool instead did a walking dead face-plant.

2 out of 5 stars

While I can appreciate the uniqueness of telling a zombie story from the zombie's P.O.V., there were a few things about the story that just rubbed me the wrong way. First off, in Joan Frances Turner's tale, the undead don't like being called zombies. Now, she's set her zombie tale in the culture of gangs, which, from that perspective, I can understand the distinction of names, as within some cultural subsets, past and present, certain peoples resent the names they're referred to by outsiders, preferring instead to be known by a more individual or pride-bearing title. So in that way, I can see the angle Turner's coming from. However, as a reader, reading a zombie novel from a zombie's P.O.V. and set in a zombie world, the whole "don't call us zombies!" thing got annoying swiftly. Secondly, speaking of the gang culture used in this novel, there was an aspect of it which seemed rather stupid in context. Turner used the same sort of beat down used by today's gangs to initiate members, which is moronically stupid for humans beings but an utterly brainless concept for zombies. We're talking about walking corpses, already beginning the slow decline into rot and decay. Left alone, that process will create missing limbs, flayed flesh, and all manner of bodily decrepitude naturally. Add in the concept of one zombie beating the dying crap out of another zombie, thereby hastening both of their deterioration, and you've got a concept that doesn't make one iota of sense. Thirdly, the characters weren't captivating. The only two I liked and empathized with were Florian, the wise sage, and Linc, the steadfast friend. The main character, Jessie, didn't catch my interest at all; most of the time, her anger--at the humans (or "hoos"), her family, pretty much the entire world--just made me angry, as I never really understood why she felt the way she did. So, eventually, her behavior just made her look like a brat. The rest of the characters were unlikable or simply forgettable. Most importantly, though, the plot barely existed. I couldn't tell you exactly what the whole point of the novel was. We're introduced to the zombie culture and meet all the players in the first third of the novel. Then this new plague which affects both humans and zombies is introduced, but the "investigation" of it is rather lackadaisical and meandering. There's no real tension to the entire piece. Not to mention some of the concepts within are never explained properly. How is it that the zombies can talk to each other? Why does Jessie hear musical instruments playing (a guitar for one character, a piano for another) when other zombies talk? Is that common to all zombies or is it unique to Jessie? Never mind some of the plot holes, such as the idea that it takes burning to kill a zombie. Fine. Why, then, isn't cremation a mandatory action upon death? And Turner's zombies are quite intelligent; they can reason and plan and motivate themselves. So why the hell haven't they taken over the world? Zombies that smart and that motivated surely must be a helluva threat, much greater than the one their presented to be in the novel. Finally, we have the ending, ***SPOILER*** in which some sort of new race is created, although nothing is really explained. Are they new zombies? New humans? Some sort of hybrid? What does this mean for the world at large? There's some mention of a meteor being responsible for the zombie plague (I think; I'm not quite sure on that point), but, once again, nothing is ever explained thoroughly.***END SPOILER***  It was just the weakest, most unsatisfying conclusion imaginable.

While Turner has managed to create lyrical prose concerning the most horrific of images (vile smells, carnage, crushed bones and blood spatter among others), I can't say I felt satisfied or impressed when I put the book down. In fact, when I finished the last page, my exact words were, "What the hell? What was the freaking point?" Meandering and limp, I can't say Dust has much to recommend it.

Read January 1-5, 2012
Originally reviewed on Goodreads January 17, 2012