Saturday, July 28, 2012

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

5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Fantastically rich and strange indeed....

4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Now this is what I call creative writing!

4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I'm sorry...

1 out of 5 stars

... I really wanted to like this, I did. After all, even though the premise isn't exactly unique (the spirit of a dead man comes back to enlist the help of someone who can see him in order to avenge his murder) the method in which this particular premise is told is. After all, the ghost is a petty thief and the man who helps him is a shy coroner who really only wants to do his job and be able to collect his antique city maps and be left alone. However, even five pages in I kept wondering why anyone was supposed to care who or why Pascha/Sascha Lerchenberg was murdered. At one hundred pages in, I was glad the annoying little oik had been bumped off. As a narrator/protagonist, Pascha is the most uncouth, disgusting, perverted, sexist pig of a man I've ever encountered. And we're supposed to care he's dead? Excuse me, but as a reader, we're supposed to be able to connect with the protagonist on some level, to have some sympathy for him. With Pascha I felt nothing but irritation that I had keep hearing his "voice." Martin, the coroner, is a much more sympathetic character and I kept wishing the book had been told from his P.O.V. I would much rather have seen the story unfold from his shy and hesitant perspective as he encountered all manner of thugs and ruffians and had only the patronizing promptings of a ghost, who was more interested in looking up nearby womens' skirts, to help him out of sticky situations. Martin's use of legal-ese and medical mumbo-jumbo to intimidate the men bullying him were the most funny and creative bits in the entire novel.

Then we come to the method of storytelling. I've already mentioned how annoying Pascha's voice is, but his many interjections interrupted the flow of the narrative rather than added to it. The overwhelming number of his snarky asides and inner monologues and puerile sniggerings were just downright distracting. There also seemed to be unnecessary pauses in the action. For instance, when Pascha's body is being autopsied and Pascha makes his ectoplasmic self known to Martin, instead of exclaiming over the fact that someone can hear him and badgering that living person to talk to him, Pascha instead shuts up and slips into the morgue drawer holding his physical remains, waiting until the next morning to begin conversing with Martin. Now, me personally, if I were a ghost and discovered that when I spoke, someone living heard me, I'd be all up in that person's face, immediately asking what's going on, hey can you help me, and other assorted questions to do with my current incorporeal state. It just didn't sit right with me.

I wanted to blame the translation. After all, sometimes things get lost when switching from one language to another. The original story is in German and the German people have words (like Schadenfreude, a gorgeous one) which just do not translate into English. However, the more I read, the more I could see that the translator actually did an excellent job and the problems I encountered with the story were in the actual source material. One hundred pages in, I just had to stop pretending; I no longer had the energy or desire to continue with the book. I flipped through the rest of it just to see how the mystery ended and gratefully put the book away, somewhere far out of my sight. I really hate giving up on novels, but I hate wasting my time and energy on losers even more. And believe me, I hate calling something a "loser"; after all, I'm a writer, I know how attached we writers become to our work and how difficult it is to hear criticism of said work. So my problems with this book may not be your problems. After all, Morgue Drawer Four was shortlisted for Germany's 2010 Friedrich Glauser Prize for best crime novel, so, hey, what the hell do I know?

Read November 3-10, 2011
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program November 12, 2011

Saturday, July 21, 2012

"It's an ordinary place much like any other.... That is, much like any other on the African continent."

4.5 out of 5 stars

*Disclaimer: I was contacted by the author and given a copy of the e-book in return for an honest review. I've never met or corresponded with the author previously, nor have I read any of his other books. No compensation for this review, monetary or otherwise, was received by me.*

I have to admit, what first drew me to this novel was not its subject matter, although I am a huge fan of the Regency period. No, it was the description of the hardbound book Goodreads had on offer as part of their First Reads program. From the brief given: “This is a limited edition hardback, very very high spec, and designed along the lines of the travel books of two centuries ago. It weighs 2 kilos (almost 4.5 lbs), has fabulous marbled endpapers, a silk bookmark, a pouch at the rear with inserts, and six huge fold-out maps. The paper is wood-free, and the cover embossed with raised gold type.” Who could resist that? Lust bloomed in my heart and I desperately wanted to win a copy... which I didn't. So I had to settle for being contacted by the author and given an e-copy (which isn't too bad a deal considering I was thrilled by the offer; yes, I am still geeky enough and silly enough to become giddy when an author contacts little ol' me, a reviewer and blogger of very minor importance). Yet even without the fancy wrappings of the special edition hardback, I fell in love with the book: It hooked me immediately.

Tahir Shah has taken the story of Robert Adams, an illiterate American sailor who spent years in the desert of Northern Africa and saw the fabled city of Timbuctoo, and fleshed it out with fictional elements, expertly marrying the two until it's difficult to tell what's fact and what's fiction. Which is perfect because the result is compelling and immensely readable. The tale of Robert Adams is a true one: He was an American sailor who was shipwrecked off the west coast of Africa. He, along with the rest of the crew, found themselves surrounded by Moors, who stripped the men naked and imprisoned them. Adams spent the next three years as a slave, passed from owner to owner until he was ransomed by Joseph Dupuis, the British Consul at Mogador. At one point, Adams and another white man, a Portuguese fellow, found themselves guests of the king of Timbuctoo, who treated them as oddities and allowed them to roam about the city. After his release, Adams became stranded in London, where he had to survive as a beggar before he was eventually found, half-naked and starving. His tale was dictated to the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, yet it was widely decried as being untrue due to the fact that Europe was in the midst of Timbuctoo mania. The city had become the center of many a tale concerning its riches, specifically gold. It was the new El Dorado, with streets and houses said to be constructed from the warm yellow metal, and many men had set out over the years in order to find it, men most of whom never returned home. Adams was the first to not only reach Timbuctoo but to also come back and recount what he'd seen, and his description of it as being a simple place, with no gold in sight, was not what those men pinning their hopes on the city's riches wished to hear. Adams, after finally returning to America, disappeared from historical record, allowing his detractors to continue in their quest to discredit Adams' achievement, even though his tale had been reviewed and corroborated by the British Consul in Morocco.

This, all on its own, makes for a harrowing and dramatic tale, yet Shah has managed to infuse it with additional, albeit fictional, details, thereby deepening the pathos the reader feels for Adams, who throughout the novel, simply wishes to return home, in Shah's narration because of the woman he left behind, Adams' wife and the love of his life. Timbuctoo also revolves around the characters with whom Adams interacts, from the secretary of the Company to whom Adams is dictating his tale, Simon Cochran, who first acts as Adams' guide and minder but who eventually becomes a friend and confidante to the American, to Sir Geoffrey Caldecott, director of the Company and a man with a very slippery character, even to the Prince Regent himself, portrayed in all his frippery and buffoonery and empty-headed excess. Not to mention a few luminaries of the period, such as Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb. As a result, the novel is multi-layered, introducing many characters, major and minor, along the way, each with their own tale to tell or angle to add to the main story line.

Make no mistake: Though this is a Regency novel, in the strictest of definitions, it's completely different from those commonly known as “Regencies.” There's romance here, yes, but so much more. There's a depth of detail and magnetic storytelling which truly sets this novel apart. As Adams narrates his tale, we are thrust into the sere and unforgiving heat of the Sahara; we can feel the sand burrowing into our skins, the sun raising blisters on our naked backs and unprotected heads, feels our mouths turning to dust as our saliva dries up. Yet, equally, when we navigate Regency London alongside Adams and the others, we are just as much enveloped in the sights and sounds and smells of that era. When reading those London scenes, what really struck me was Shah's ability to convey the casual, almost off-hand cruelty of that period, the dismissive attitude towards those who were poor or diseased or in any way “other” to those who were more fortunate, not to mention the appalling ignorance towards basic information, whether it be scientific or geographical or medical, which today we take for granted. For those of us who admire the era and become caught up in its fripperies, it's a stark reminder that there was a dark side to the Regency period, an underbelly easily ignored in the face of the wonderful fashions and literature and romance which typically take center stage.

It's a near-perfect novel, yet I had a couple of issues with it, minor, yes, but ones which still affected my reading. The first was how the novel was set up: The chapters were exceedingly short, sometimes only a page long. In a way those short chapters worked when it came to the multiple characters, as they helped keep them all straight and gave a sense of immediacy and animation to those scenes where two or more persons' actions took place at the same time. Yet, conversely, those short chapters often had an abortive effect on the action: Just as things were building up, getting me involved in what was being described, the chapter ended, bringing me out of the story with a jolt and making the reading of the book similar to being in stop-and-go traffic. For those scenes where such movement and action wasn't required, I would've preferred having longer chapters which would've allowed me to sink into the story and really savor it. My other nitpick is truly trivial: Shah interspersed letters written by two of the characters in between some of the narration, which I loved; however, the language used wasn't “flowery” enough, didn't seem “Regency” enough. I know, I know, it's such a tiny, insignificant point, not even worthy of being included. And yet I did. Let the excoriating begin.

In the end, I don't think I can recommend this book highly enough. It's a brilliant imagining of one of the most dramatic real-life adventures in history, creating a wonderfully layered, complex, action- and drama-packed novel. Thank you, Mr. Shah, for giving me the chance to read it.

Update as of 9/17/2012: I've since received the lavish hardcover copy of this novel. Actually, this update is a couple of month overdue--forgive me. Anyway, to the hardcover edition, it is just as beautiful and beautifully-designed as I'd imagined. The marble end papers are simply marble-ous *groan* (I had to do it!), the inserts and maps are fascinating, and the book has such a wonderful heft to it, enhancing the story being read. Just as I had imagined it would. 

Read June 29-July 18, 2012
Reviewed July 21, 2012

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Don't be fooled! This is only the first part of the tale!

2.5 out of 5 stars

You're telling me I went through all that and at the end, Wallis and Edward have only just met? Excuse me? I thought this was "A Novel of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor," not "The First Novel of How Wallis Simpson Grew Up, Married and Divorced, and Then, Two or Three Books Down the Road, Became the Duchess of Windsor." Grrr. Yes, I am disappointed. I figured the book would focus a little bit on Wally's childhood, devote a bit more to her first two marriages, but spend the bulk of the book on the courtship and romance between her and Edward. Instead I find myself slogging through pages and pages of Wallis's life without really getting to know her as a character, beyond the fact she was proud of her lineage and struggled throughout her life with poverty (stuff I knew from already from biographies). And when I reached the end of the novel, I find that Wallis has only just met the prince and, thanks to reports by other reviewers, that their story will continue in a sequel. Talk about bait and switch!

Don't get me wrong, the writing is well done: it keeps you involved in the story, the characters are well-drawn, and the dialogue is realistic. What annoyed me was how the characters were drawn, in particular Wallis. I get it: This is an historical fiction novel written by a romance novelist, but this was not the Wallis I expected. I was looking for a warmer side to the “cold fish” represented in history; I was not expecting a perpetual victim, a woman who resignedly accepts the abuse heaped upon her as being her due because she wasn't a “real” woman (according to the set up provided by Dean, which I'll get into later). I was not expecting, nor did it seem realistic, a Wallis who was simply looking for her Prince Charming and sighed with unhappiness every time someone else found their perfect man. Ick.

There are other issues with the novel. The first is Dean's habit of repetition, which can take a few different forms. The first is in her descriptions of Wallis: “her greyhound sleek body,” “her trim, athletic frame,” “her lithe body,” “her boyish, small breasted figure.” Alright, enough already, we get that she looks like a boy! Although it does go a long way towards explaining why the gay Prince Edward was attracted to her. Not only does he get a woman who looks very little like a woman, because of her sexual deformities (at least according to Dean), he doesn't have to deal with her nasty female nether regions, the thought or sight of which terrifies gay men. For that matter, vaginae terrify many straight men as well. What's up with that? Ooh, I think I'm digressing.... Back on point: Dean's repetition. She also has a tendency to use the “As you know, Bob” method (see the wonderful blog entry by Susan Higginbotham for an explanation: Or, should I say, overuse; it seemed like every time I turned around, I was being introduced to information I was already well aware of. It's not as if the novel is that long or that convoluted, and while I admit readily that my memory is horrible, I think I can keep up with the fact that Corinne is married to a man named Henry Mustin or Pamela's friend Lily sculpted a bronze bust of Edward and was allowed to call him David. And I'm pretty sure other readers can do the same.

Lastly, and once again I realize this is an historical fiction novel, which means liberties can be taken with the historical record (as long those changes are pointed out/explained by the author at some point), but it just seems that what's left out or changed is... silly. Especially when it comes to the later parts of the book, where meetings or interactions have been left out. Why? Wouldn't they add to the story? I mean, Wallis and Thelma Furness became friends in 1930, before the dinner party Thelma and Prince Edward attended where Wallis met the prince for the first time, yet Dean has Wallis angling to become Thelma's friend after said party. Again I have to ask why; wouldn't them knowing each other beforehand deepen the connection Dean's trying to set up? And Dean left out completely Wallis's court presentation. Once again, why? After all, Wallis struggled and stressed over that as she tried to get the paperwork from her divorce in order in time and only managing to do so in the nick of time (and that only because she played fast and loose with the law). Wouldn't that whole scene have added to the Wallis character Dean has created, showing just how eager she was to meet the prince and possibly dance with him? Then again, I can see why other bits have been left out, those about Wallis and her many lovers, because they don't mesh with the vision Dean has created of Wallis, that of a frustrated virginal woman, who's simply looking for true love; a victim of poor choices and poor lovers/husbands. Not to mention a Wallis who, instead of being frigid as she was called by her contemporaries, had a legitimate reason for not engaging in typical sexual intercourse. According to Dean, Wallis suffered from a medical condition called a DSD (disorder of sex development) which would explain her rather masculine features and the hints she supposedly gave about her sexual activities, or lack thereof, with Win Spencer and Ernest Simpson. Now, Dean herself said that this was only a theory of hers, based on her research, but that, if it were true, it would explain a lot about Wallis. I don't have a problem with this; it's theoretically possible, though it doesn't jive with what I've read about Wallis. But it's certainly a unique diagnosis.

Bottom line? Like the blurb on the back cover states, the novel mixes fact with fiction (with more emphasis on fiction, I believe) to create an engaging novel, and although the book is technically well-written, even with its faults, I just can't rate it any higher, for the mere fact that I was sold a bill of goods upon which the book didn't deliver. Nowhere did the novel state that this was only the first book in the tale of Wallis and I feel rather ripped-off that, if I wish to continue with the tale Dean has created, I have to wait until the sequel comes out. That's not what I signed up for when I got this book.

Read July 9-14, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program July 15, 2012

This is not just laugh-out-loud funny. This is a read-out-loud, "You have got to hear this!" book.

4 out of 5 stars

*e-ARC provided by the gracious folks over at*

Disclaimer: I really shouldn't have read this book. After all, not only have I not read the original, Fifty Shades of Grey, I have no intention of ever doing so. Ever. Not even if I were paid a million dollars to do so. Not only does the blatant “I can't believe how much money I'm making off the herds of people buying my books and I barely had to put any thought into writing them!” attitude of the author disgust me, the whole phenomenon of “mommy porn” is vaguely disturbing. I mean, if you want to read erotica, read erotica; don't dress it up as some sort of pseudo romance crap to make yourself feel better about what you're reading.

Anyway, to the review. This parody of Fifty Shades stars Anna Steal and Earl Grey as the stand-ins for Bella/Ana and Edward/Christian. Anna is the clumsy ingenue who catches the eye of the dashing Earl Grey, googolplexionaire* and all 'round enigma (when he's not being emo boy). As you might guess, everything from the original novel is here, just turned on its head: Earl Grey is into BDSM--that's Bards, Dragons, Sorcery, and Magick, similar to straight BDSM only with fairy wings and prosthetic elf ears; instead of biting her lip, Anna picks her nose, a habit which Earl Grey finds endearing and sexually stimulating; she lives in a duplex with Kathleen, a 38 year-old permanent adolescent who's addicted to alcohol and terrible reality TV, and her best friend is Jin, a “brony” who writes My Little Pony fan fiction and has just gotten promoted to forum moderator at a My Little Pony website. Anna also has an “Inner Guidette” (probably due to her love of Jersey Shore) to provide commentary for her adventures.  Although I'm pretty sure the original didn't have Brent Spiner or Dr. Drew Pinsky in it. (Earl Grey rescues Brent from the Saturn dealership where he'd been working as a salesman and gets Brent to work for him as his 'android butler', which was the closest thing Earl Grey could get to a real android. And Dr. Drew is a pervert, at least according to Fanny Merkin.)  However, the biggest flip-flop from the original is that Anna is no longer the wide-eyed virgin, but experienced in the ways of coitus, and Earl Grey, far from being the depraved sex maniac, is actually pretty tame when it comes to sex play.

When I initially began reading Fifty Shames, I was laughing my ass off at nearly every page. The blatant “get a load of this” swipes at Twilight and its ilk, the ridiculous “shames” Earl Grey reveals to Anna (his bro-crush on Tom Cruise, his love of shopping at Walmart on Saturdays, Nickelback, Bud Light, just to name a few), not to mention the way Earl lovingly tells Anna to remove her finger from her nose... it was all just too funny. And the way the book tore into- hell, eviscerated all the story elements of Fifty Shades? As George Takei would say - "Oh my!!" Yet, after a while, I began to laugh less and frown more. Not necessarily at the book, which, when looked at objectively, was still just as humorous and sly. No, what made the funny go out of the book was the reality behind the parody: firstly, the blatant plagiarism of Twilight by E.L. James even as she protested that she did nothing of the sort, then changed her mind, claiming that her novels were original works and, in her humble opinion, literary genius (“It's only fan fiction! Oh, wait, you want to pay me so much money to publish it that I can make a money pool and swim around in it like Scrooge McDuck? In that case, it's an original story of mine, nothing to do with Twilight, no siree Bob, so let's do it!”), and secondly, the “romance” being promulgated by Fifty Shades which began in the original original, Twilight. That “romance” being the idea that abuse isn't abuse, it's merely the man being manly and protecting his woman (and the woman knowing her place and obeying her man); that stalking is actually romantic and sweet and just shows the great love on the man's part in that he can't stand to be away from his woman for even a moment; that jealousy is normal, even to the point of not allowing the woman to have male friends or talk to other men or even have power over her own body. Yeah, yuck. So, thinking about all that kinda took the fun out of the book; my stupid brain can be such a buzz-kill at times.

However, those are all my problems. Once I was able to divorce those thoughts from what I was reading, I was back to hooting and chortling. Seriously, this is not a book to read out in public, unless you have the confidence to laugh like a loon and not give a damn about the people staring at you. And people will stare. Fifty Shames of Earl Grey is fast, fun, and utterly hilarious; not only that but, from what I can tell based on the reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shames perfectly captures the essence of that novel and completely rips it apart, with spot-on caricatures and sly, snarky, and very pointed language. Highly recommended (though probably not to fans of Fifty Shades; I don't think they'll appreciate the humor).

* A googolplex is a really big number. A googolplexionaire is a guy with so much money, it's obscene. Fits Earl Grey to a tee.        

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sorry Quirk Books, but you really quirked up this time.

2 out of 5 stars

Kafka is not an author I'd immediately associate with literary mash-ups, seeing as he's neither a fun nor, quite honestly, entertaining read. In fact, he's quite depressing and it's hard to imagine how his works could be spiced up enough to be made palatable to a more general audience. Enter Quirk Books with The Meowmorphosis. Okay, I thought, if anyone could make Kafka likeable, it's Quirk; add a cute, fluffy kitty into the mix and you've probably got a hit on your hands. Um, no.

Basically substituting the word "kitten" for "cockroach", Coleridge's writing still leaves us with the body of Kafka's story, which, despite the kitten influence, remains depressing and obfuscating. I'll be quite honest: I haven't the foggiest idea what the moral behind the tale (tail? Ha ha) is. Something to do with Socialism vs. Capitalism I'm guessing? Plus, by using the kitten/cockroach substitution, it actually made the story even more bewildering. We're talking about a cute, fuzzy kitty, right? So why are people running away in disgust? Why are they trying to step on it and kill it just like a cockroach? Then again, it's supposedly a man-sized kitty, but, if it is, when he wanders the streets, why does no one respond to his size? If there's a tiger-sized tabby cat wandering around my neighborhood, I'm certainly going to sit up and take notice. Yet no one does. And while I agree a tight collar on a cat is devastating, an affliction borne by Gregor thanks to his schizophrenic sister (read the book, if you dare, you'll see what I mean), why does it weaken his back legs? Did the collar cause a stroke? And why is Gregor occasionally weak, so weak he has to drag himself around, and then healthy enough to spring up onto the furniture? Quite frankly, by the time I finished this book, I was shaking my head in despair and mind-numbing confusion.

Maybe I'm just not smart enough to appreciate this story. If that's the case, fine. I'll stick with my Terry Pratchett and Ann Aguirre, and leave this to the intelligentsia. So why two stars and not one? Because at the end of the book, Coleridge has provided us with a short, humorous "biography" of Kafka. Let's just say it features more kitties. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it's enough to provide a chuckle or two, which I felt deserved a star.

Read April 10-12, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads April 17, 2011

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

So... now what?

Okay, so I've been writing reviews of books (and other stuff, but since this is a book review blog, we'll stick with that format) for a while now, about 3 years if I'm remembering correctly (which is always an iffy proposition at the best of times), but I've only been doing this blog for a little over two months.  So what do I do now?  I look at other reviewing blogs, blogs which are more popular, flashier, better written, and I have to ask, why exactly am I doing this?  I thought it was just to get my voice out there, but with so many other voices to compete with how do I distinguish myself?  I could do ARC giveaways, but with only one follower, that seems pointless.  I kept hoping I'd have some feedback by now on at least one of my reviews, but it's all crickets out there.  What can I do to make myself heard?  Do I want to be heard?  Being popular is a lot of work; even being slightly above mediocre takes effort.  I know I should be making more of an effort to link myself with social media and perhaps if I did I'd be more popular, but, frankly, I hate social media.  I ignore my Facebook account, I don't even have a Twitter account, and I just signed up on Pinterest, but I still have no idea what the hell Pinterest is about.  I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not very social.  So, in the end, perhaps it's good that my blog is ignored.  I'll just keep on posting my thoughts and opinions here and if people discover what I'm saying, that's fine.  If not, then I guess I can live with that, too.

That said, if anyone reading this has anything to say or any advice to offer, you're welcome to do so.  Feedback is always great. :)

Monday, July 9, 2012

I'm basking in the "Moonglow" and loving every minute of it.

5 out of 5 stars

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

I cannot believe how much I adore Kristen Callihan's Darkest London series and its latest entry, Moonglow. No, really, I can't. Because, you see, I don't particularly care for the PNR sub-genre, not because of the paranormal elements--actually those are what draw me. It's because, for the most part, I loathe, detest, and despise romance novels. Those romances which I do happen to read, written by authors I know and trust not to become too ridiculous, are picked out because the other story elements are stronger, as in a thriller which has some romance (such as those by Iris Johansen or Tess Gerritsen); otherwise, I avoid the genre like the plague. The only time I've ever really read "straight" romance was when I was younger, when I was a bit more idealistic and ready to believe in "twue wuv": In my mid-teens, I read a couple of titles by Jude Devereaux (A Knight in Shining Armor is the one I really remember), as well as Jewels by Danielle Steel, the one and only Steele title I've read. Currently the only romance novels I actively seek out and enjoy are contained in the Eve Dallas series written by Nora Roberts (as J.D. Robb). And even with those novels, as much as I like them, it's the futuristic setting and mystery/thriller nature of the stories which drives me to read them, not the romance between Eve and Roarke. Nowadays, when I do read a romance novel, whatever the title or author, when things get hot, I skip over the panting, writhing, and moaning so I can get back to the story all the panting, writhing, and moaning has interrupted.

See, the problem I have with the Romance genre is the unreasonable expectations the novels engender. The women in these novels, all of them wish fulfillment avatars for the author, are always perfect: Short or tall, willowy or curvaceous, every single romantic female lead has a perfect face, perfect breasts, a perfectly formed body, giving the impression that only the beautiful find true love, deserve true love, are worthy of true love. The plain, the fat, the imperfectly endowed, they don't exist, so therefore they aren't aren't worthy of being loved. And it's just as bad for the men. All the men are walking Adonises: Perfectly sculpted abs, wide shoulders and narrow hips, with Goldilocks muscles (not too big, not too small, but just right), these guys are always endowed with the ideal combination of savagery and sensitivity, not to mention enormous cocks. They may have their faults, but nothing so disagreeable or disturbing as to derail the romantic buildup; just something small enough for the woman to “fix” with the power of her love (which is just another myth perpetuated by the genre: Women, you cannot “fix” men, no matter how hard you try or how much you love them or how loudly you nag. That's the man you fell in love with, warts and all; if you can't accept that, walk away). It's enough to give a man, should he dare to be seen reading a romance novel, a complex. Frankly, the whole genre feeds into the obsession for beauty and perfection, just as guilty for female self-image dysfunction as beauty magazines and ad campaigns. Not to mention the perpetuation of the whole “Happily Ever After” myth, the idea that love is perfect and once you fall in love, all your troubles are over and marriage will only enhance this rosy state of being. There's never any mention of petty disagreements, marital spats, the sensation of coming to hate all those little quirks and habits which once you found cute but now gnaw at you until you snap at your partner for every little thing he or she does. Yup, you guessed it, I'm a cynic. So the idea of perfection--perfect people, perfect love, perfect sex--presented in the Romance genre makes me ill. That's why I skip over the sex scenes, not because I'm a prude, but because if I want to experience so much unrealistic sex, I might as well go watch some porn.

Not so with Kristen Callihan's sex scenes. True, they still feature perfect people in perfect bodies, yet the scenes are hotter because there's a sense of connection, of the occasional awkwardness, of two people exploring each other, with words, with touch, with every sense in their bodies. Not to mention a real sense of affection, even of humor and, in the case of carriage scene with Daisy and Ian in 
Moonglow, palpable frustration. It's a depth of reality which seems to be missing from other romance novels and which makes for some pulse-poundingly, seat-squirmingly hot scenes. Then again, maybe it's just that the sex, as it's written, is so bloody hot, it was easy for me to overlook such things as “...her pillowed bottom lip and the taste of her, like sweet strawberries and dark chocolate” and “...she traced a path of kisses along his jaw... He was better than caramels, richer and saltier.” Do people really taste like candy?

Okay, so now that the important stuff is out of the way, let's get down to the story. This is the second book in Callihan's series and features Daisy, sister to Miranda, the heroine of book number one, Firelight. Daisy, widowed just over a year ago, is just coming out of her mourning period, though there was no love lost between her and her loathsome husband, Sir Craigmore, and his death came as an immense relief. Daisy is, well, let's just say she's a lusty lass and knows the pleasures which can be found in a little flesh-on-flesh romping. But just as she's spreading the wings of her new-found freedom, in the form of a social outing and a bit of 'hide the sausage' in the back garden, Daisy finds herself face to face with a hideous beast who attacks her. She gets tossed aside in the mayhem and the creature begins to munch on the bodies of her erstwhile lover and the hostess of the soiree Daisy ducked out on, Alexis, another recently widowed young lady and Daisy's friend. Oddly, at the time of her death, Alexis is wearing the exact same perfume as Daisy; in fact, it's Daisy's signature scent, meant to be worn by no one else. As she follows this clue, helped, hindered, and distracted by the infuriating Lord Ian Ranulf, Marquis of Northrup, she discovers not only is her life in danger, so is her heart as she defends it from the persistent attentions of Ian.

Now, we all remember Ian from Firelight, right? He was the shit who kept coming between Miranda and Archer, so much so that many readers assumed he was the villain of the story. Here, though, we see that he's much more complicated than what we saw of him in the first book, and as his story unspools and the reasons for his previous behavior come to light in 
Moonglow, we discover the vulnerability beneath his swaggering facade. The heat and the chemistry between Daisy and Ian, as the two discover each other in both physical and psychological ways, is immediate, especially of the physical kind. (Hoo boy, is it hot!) However, as the story progresses, the two find each other connecting on a deeper level as their long-held secrets come out to one another. The requisite third act forced-separation* comes a bit later than normal in romance novels, setting the reader up to believe that it might not occur, that for once the two romantic leads will solve the greater exterior problem affecting them without an interior problem causing a rift between them. Yet when the two do separate, once I understood the solution Callihan was setting up which would bring them back together, I was actually happy as the whole thing solved a larger issue plaguing Daisy and Ian's relationship, paving the way for their 'riding off into the sunset as they lived happily ever after' moment. 

The book develops the mythology introduced in Firelight, not only by adding to the roster of supernatural creatures (the 'Ghost in the Machine' creature is brilliant--creative and ooky. Yes, that's a legitimate descriptor), but by making us aware of a sort-of supernatural police force: the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals. The S.O.S., as it's known, is responsible for keeping the general public unaware of the activities and the presence of creatures which have crept, climbed, and clawed their way out of myth and folklore. As to the story, it's a worthy successor to Firelight and certainly doesn't suffer from the "second book slump": it's thrilling, mysterious, comedic, heartfelt, passionate, and very, very entertaining. The prose moves along at a steady clip, never dragging or becoming dull. From the very first book, Callihan has managed to avoid the dreaded info dump syndrome, giving her readers all the information necessary to keep them interested and engaged in the story without dumping great gouts of exposition on them. Her dialogue is lively and sparkling, her descriptions vivid, and while I'm sure there are a few minor faults in the novel, they're undetectable in the greater excellence of her work. (At least to me they were.)

As an added bonus, the novel lays the groundwork for the third (and, I would presume, last, even though the thought saddens me) book of the series, starring the eldest sister, Poppy. Now, after I finished reading Firelight and heard about Moonglow, I figured there would be a third book; makes sense after all--three sisters, three books. But what stumped me was how that could be. After all, romance novels are all about two unattached persons finding and wooing each other. Yet Poppy's been happily married to the man of her dreams since the very beginning of the series--how could she star in her own romance novel? Well, Callihan settles the issue with events which occur in the last half of Moonglow and I can't wait to see how she pulls things together for Poppy and her Detective Inspector Winston Lane.

All in all, I thoroughly recommend this series and personally I can't wait for Winterblaze.

*As outlined in the following script: Boy meets girl, boy saves girl from some difficult yet minor trouble, boy and girl fall in love and vow to be with each other forever, girl suddenly finds some reason not to be with boy through some fault or doubt of the boy's character, girl leaves boy in heartbreaking manner, boy mourns then gets angry over girl's leaving, girl finds herself in trouble, boy stiffens backbone and discards pride to rescue girl, girl realizes depth of her feelings for boy and boy's depth of feelings for girl, boy and girl head off into the sunset to live happily ever after.

Read July 2-6, 2012
Reviewed July 8, 2012 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Ooh, look at the pretty pictures!

4 out of 5 stars

A lovely coffee table book full of dreamy and fantastical fairy art. The book profiles the artists and influences of the fairy art heyday, otherwise known as the Romantic era which sprang up in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, but reached its zenith during the mid 19th century. The Romantic era bloomed out of a growing interest in all things mystical and natural, even the horrific and grotesque, partly in revolt against the Industrial Revolution and partly in revolt against the scientific principles introduced during the Age of Enlightenment which removed man from nature. Romanticism harkened back to the medieval and pagan spirit, using themes from both to inspire art, music, and philosophy. The connection to nature, in its purest form, was the ideal.

The first half of the book is devoted to profiling six of the more prominent artists of the era: Richard Dadd, Sir Joseph Noel Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, John Atkinson Grimshaw, Richard Doyle, and Arthur Rackham. Each man has several pages devoted to him, containing a brief biography as well as half a dozen or so of his paintings, each with a detailed description of when the work was created and its context within the artist's canon. The last half of the book contains brief biographies and one or two paintings for the many other artists working during the era such as George Cruikshank, Sir John Everett Millais, and John William Waterhouse, as well as modern artists who are continuing the movement such as Edmund Dulac and Brian Froud. These artists are divided into sections corresponding to the influences of the art featured within this tome, such as the works of Shakespeare, Folklore & Legends, and Angels & Religion.

It's a beautiful book, one which can be read easily from cover to cover, in bits and pieces, or simply skimmed for the pretty pictures. One thing's for sure: This is a book to put out for people to see, to flip through, and to admire.

Initially read sometime in 2010.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

What I want to know is, why hasn't the BBC turned any of Brett's novels into a TV series?

4 out of 5 stars

This is one of those charming cozy mysteries, in the vein of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, portraying a quaint, quirky English village, of the type which probably only exists in fiction as it's so quaint and so quirky as to be unreal, and its quaint, quirky inhabitants. (And, yes, I'm going to use those two 'q' words throughout this review because I like them and they work so well.) It's the kind of book you read not so much for the mystery, which can be quite satisfying in its own way, as for the spectacle of watching the slightly less quaint and quirky sleuth or sleuths bumble, stumble, and fumble their way to a solution.

Carole Seddon has just moved to the seaside town of Fethering, a village which prides itself on its smug respectability and its residents ability to know exactly where they belong and how to behave properly within the confines of this “retirement” village. Riff-raff is confined to the undesirable council estates and even then, only within limits. Staid, reserved, uptight Carole fits in perfectly. She even has the requisite dog, a Labrador named Gulliver, whom she takes on regularly scheduled walks along the beach. Its on one of these walks that she discovers a body. Rather than becoming hysterical about the situation, she returns home and gives Gulliver a bath (as he's managed to roll in something rather nasty and pungent in a pile of seaweed, after having thoroughly soaked himself while trying to command the waves). After mopping up his dog prints from the kitchen floor, it seems only sensible to Carole that she clean the rest of the room, resulting in nearly two hours passing between her discovering the body and placing a phone call to the police notifying them of said body. Which explains why, when a Detective Inspector and WPC (Woman police constable) show up at her cottage, she's treated with condescension and pity. Because there's no body to be found.

Despite her better instincts, Carole involves her new neighbor, Jude, in the mystery. Jude, who's free-spirited ways stand in stark contrast to Carole's rigidity (and who constantly frustrates Carole with her aversion to giving out personal information, even down to her surname; seriously, Carole spends the entire book trying to find a way to get Jude to say her last name, but it never happens), seems an odd choice for a partner, but soon the two find themselves friends and, more importantly, equally determined to solve the mystery of the disappearing body. As neither of them have even been detectives, it takes them a while to figure out how to begin, but eventually the two find themselves sifting through the dark recesses of Fethering life and finding out that even nice, quite retirement villages hide dangerous secrets.

It takes a while to warm up to the book. Carole is so tightly wound, to put it vulgarly, if you shoved a piece of coal up her bum, she'd pass a diamond. However, once Jude is introduced, Carole finds that not only is loosening up not a crime, it can be actually quite pleasurable, and as the story progresses, Carole becomes more human thanks to Jude's influence. The character I feel the most for, though, is Gulliver; since Carole got him as a sort of check-list purchase (Cottage? Check. Raincoat and gumboots? Check. Dog to complete one's retired life? Check.) she doesn't particularly interact with him. In fact, the way Brett describes the absolute joy in Gulliver as Jude splashes around in the waves with him is almost heart breaking. The remaining characters are quaint and quirky enough to add color without becoming caricatures; it's easy to picture the proud yet obviously sad Vice-Commodore, the snobbish to the point of fascism mother-daughter duo of Winnie Norton and Barbara Turnbull, or hear the tired, retreaded jokes from the washed-up comic-turned-barkeep Ted.

As I mentioned above, the mystery is almost incidental. It's entertaining in and of itself, even if I did manage to figure out the set-up a third of the way in and saw what was coming from a mile away. (The only shock came when the identity of the culprit's partner was revealed—now that I was not expecting!) But what really makes the mystery intriguing and brings it life is watching how the characters deal with events and go about solving the crime, especially in this story/series. With two sleuths on the case, invariably they each discover important pieces of the puzzle along the way, but can't discuss their findings with one another properly until it's too late. Or nearly too late—after all, we want Jude and Carole to live another day, so they may solve yet another mystery in a way which will disrupt the rigid sensibilities of the residents of Fethering. Not to mention allow Carole to perchance discover what the hell Jude's last name is!

Read June 28-July 2, 2012
Reviewed July 5, 2012

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Hope is a merciless tormentor... It laughs at mankind's embrace of it after millennia of disappointment."

4 out of 5 stars

Wow. I mean, wow. This has been described as a rollercoaster ride and that is so true. However, this is a rollercoaster which comes out of the loading dock straight into a free-fall drop and never slows down until the very end. Take The Da Vinci Code, add few more octanes of amphetamine-fueled energy and you get Comes a Horseman. And that's the problem. As much as I love exciting, grand conspiracy-fueled action-thriller novels, I also like a bit of breathing room to take everything in, to allow my heartbeat to slow and my adrenaline to drop back to its baseline level. I don't mind the action getting a running start from the get-go, but, like any good rollercoaster, you need some flat sections, some gentle curves before your brain gets scrambled and your insides get rearranged by the next loop-de-loop. Right up until the very end, Liparulo keeps the action at a break-neck pace and by the time the finale rolls around, you as the reader are just so damned tired you're more numbed than relieved when the bad guy gets it and the battered yet satisfied main characters return home. However, the story itself is so well-told, so well-researched, with enough gruesome killings, conspiracies, and misdirections, when that ending does come, you don't care that you have the energy level of a beached jellyfish. You're just glad that it's fiction (or, at least, one hopes it's fiction) and can set the book aside for something a little more upbeat at the end of the day. And I have to say that even though the plot does concern the advent of Antichrist (that's right, just 'Antichrist', no 'the' involved) and the Christian mythology which revolves around such a person, there's a level of realism involved which makes the concept not only plausible, but downright scary, as there're no metaphysical elements involved. No appearance of the Devil, no singing of angels, just men who believe so much in a particular destiny that they will do anything, kill anyone in order to bring it about. And let me tell you, that's the scariest thought of all because you know there are people out in the world today psychotic enough to do just that a million times over. Hell, history is full of such megalomaniacs and the advent of bigger and more destructive weapons has made their quest for glory that much more bloody and deadly.

Read November 3-7, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads November 11, 2011