Sunday, August 26, 2012

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

5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creepy guru not included.

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

Monday, August 13, 2012

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Turns out, you already know how to sign!

4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Those naughty, naughty gods!

4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 2, 2012

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

1 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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