Archive for March, 2012

Maya Rodale’s “A Groom of One’s Own” — Smart, Sensual Romantic Comedy

Maya Rodale’s A GROOM OF ONE’S OWN is the first in Rodale’s “Writing Girls” series.  Set in 1823, four women write for a London newspaper.  (Book two of this series, A TALE OF TWO LOVERS, was previously reviewed here.)  Sophie Harlow, the dark-eyed, dark-haired daughter of landed gentry, came to London after being jilted at the altar; she started writing about weddings because her good friend, Lady Juliana Somerset, had a job writing a gossip column at the London Weekly, and knew that her publisher, Derek Knightly, wanted more women writers as he believed they were a big draw for his paper (as it was considered quite scandalous at that time for women to write for a public newspaper, thus he’d sell more papers).

The hero of this tale is the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, commonly addressed as “Lord Brandon.”  (This is an error; Dukes should be called “Your Grace,” except among family members.  It would be unusual for anyone who wasn’t a long-time retainer of Brandon’s family to call him “Lord Brandon.”)  He’s a dutiful person with just a hint of a wicked side; unfortunately for Brandon, his more playful nature has been covered up for years due to becoming the Duke at age eighteen.  Now in his early thirties, he’s about to marry because he knows he wants his family name to continue, and he’s picked a completely unexceptionable girl, Lady Clarissa Richmond, to become his future Duchess.  Clarissa is a beautiful blonde, the daughter of a Duke, and would fit nicely on his arm — but as Brandon’s just met Sophie Harlow, he doesn’t know how he’s going to marry Clarissa, whom he doesn’t love, and live with himself afterward.

Of course Clarissa, for all her charms, would never do for Brandon; she was just too mealy-mouthed, mostly because her imposing mother (the Duchess of Richmond) did all the talking.  But how was Brandon going to get rid of her, much less keep Sophie around in the process, and still be an honorable man?

Well, remember Sophie’s job?  That comes to the rescue, as the Duchess of Richmond wants the London Weekly to publicize the “wedding of the year” as it’s very rare when a Duke marries a Duke’s heir (Clarissa is the Duke’s only child, so she is, indeed the heir).  And as you might expect, the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon all of a sudden wants to take part in every single aspect of the wedding planning — because that’s his honorable way of seeing Sophie without angering his fiancée’s family.

But this still didn’t solve the problem, so enter an unexpected character — Prince Frederick von Vennigan, of Bavaria — to the rescue.  Prince Frederick is impetuous, charming, and sweeps Clarissa off her feet.  So the road should be clear for Brandon and Sophie’s happiness, right?


Instead, Clarissa’s parents put up a great fuss, mostly because they’re English members of the peerage, and they aren’t interested in their daughter becoming a Princess because Bavaria, dagnabbit, is just too far away.   No, the wedding had to take part as planned; anything else would be unthinkable!

But this being a romantic comedy, you know that’s not going to be it.  And indeed, it isn’t . . . it wouldn’t be much of a romance, though, if the heroes and heroines didn’t have to slay a few (figurative) dragons along the way (the Duchess of Richmond comes to mind).  Because the road to romance is often filled with good intentions, kind words, and a whole lot of anticipation regarding the wedding night (including a few “freebies” along the way) — just as it tends to be in contemporary times.

A GROOM OF ONE’S OWN is a smart romantic comedy, one with a great deal of sensuality to it.  It’s obvious from the start that Sophie and the Duke have a strong physical connection; it’s equally obvious that Clarissa and the Prince have the same thing.   But what’s great about it is the witty banter and playfulness Ms. Rodale brings to the story; you can believe these two particular couples would fall in love, and quickly (this all happens inside a month), because for whatever reason, Sophie and the Duke can talk with one another.  And likewise with Clarissa and the Prince.  (Which might be why the love scenes between these pairings are scorching hot, but I digress.)

This was a fun read with some depth to it.  It was, for the most part, plausible; the plot conception, with the exception of the proper form of how to address a Duke, was quite good.  And best of all, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny.

I enjoyed A GROOM OF ONE’S OWN a great deal; were it not for the few errors (especially with regards with the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, who would never be simply “Lord Brandon” to Sophie or anyone else that he’d just met), this would be a solid A. 

But because of the errors — something a writer of the time period should’ve known about and fixed (and where was Ms. Rodale’s editor, hmm?  It’s inconceivable how that error got through editing.), the final grade for A GROOM OF ONE’S OWN is: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , ,


Hines’ “Princess” Series Wrap-up: Fun, Yet Incomplete

Jim C. Hines’s “Princess” series (books one and two were reviewed here) discusses stories most of us thought we knew — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White — and turns them on their heads.  In Hines’s vision, all three Princesses can kick some serious butt, which means that anything — or anyone — that dares to threaten them must either have a death wish, or believes that there’s no other choice but to confront these three formidable ladies.

 The third novel in Hines’s “Princess” series is RED HOOD’S REVENGE.  Here, we meet Roudette — the Lady of the Red Hood — who’s a high-class assassin.  Roudette is said to never miss her target; she’ll also deal with just about anyone, including fairies and Elves, despite her well-known hatred of them, providing she lives to get paid.  And so far, she’s always lived.

But in attempting to kill Princess Danielle Whiteshore of Lorindar (the former Cinderella), Roudette has met her match.  This is because Danielle has two other Princesses on her side — Princess Talia of Arathea (the former Sleeping Beauty), possibly the foremost weaponsmaster in the known world due to being gifted with Elfin grace at birth, and Princess Ermillina Curtana of Allesandria (Snow White; she continues to go by Snow), one of the strongest mages ever known — while Roudette has only herself and one other person to initially help her — Danielle’s only surviving step-sister, Charlotte.  Roudette uses Danielle’s family feeling for Charlotte and attempts to entrap Danielle; when this fails (and Charlotte dies), Talia takes Roudette prisoner, while Snow binds Roudette with a powerful fairy curse that should keep Roudette from killing them.

But the personage who hired Roudette — a powerful Elf named “the Duchess,” a fugitive from Fairytown who’s nevertheless managed to grow a large, criminal enterprise underground — is not put off; the Duchess attempts again and again to take Danielle, reasons unknown.  One of the attempts finally succeeds, but Snow manages to divert it long enough so they don’t go directly to the Duchess; instead, they end up in Arathea, Talia’s birthplace.  Talia was badly betrayed by the prince who woke her up (not with a kiss, but with a rape; she woke only when she delivered twins), and had fled Arathea in order to keep it from plunging into civil war as she was the very last of the previous royal family left alive.

When Talia shows up in Arathea, various factions pledge themselves to her defense, including the monastic order who helped her to heal, then to escape.  But Talia doesn’t want to rule; all she wants is to be left alone.  Yet Queen Lakhim doesn’t believe her, and keeps making attempts on Talia’s life — what’s a princess to do?

Along the way, we find out that Talia’s unrequited love for Snow has now been recognized, but can’t be returned as Snow is heterosexual; Danielle’s talents with small animals remains intact (without her being able to talk with mice, rats, and birds, and get them to actively help them, this would’ve been a quicker and far bloodier book indeed); Roudette has an odd sense of honor and justice, and really wants to see the fairies deposed, especially as they’ve taken hold of much of Arathea due to “Sleeping Beauty’s” long-entrapment inside the thorny hedge; and Snow just wants to be out of the way-too-hot climate, which is one reason why she taxes her magic talents to the limit to try to get them out.

Once that mystery is solved (and no, I won’t reveal it, thank you; read RED HOOD’S REVENGE for yourself!), we’re on to the fourth, and supposedly final, volume of the “Princess” series, which is THE SNOW QUEEN’S SHADOW.  Here, Queen Beatrice (“Bea”) of Lorindar is dying (this is Danielle’s mother-in-law), and Snow White in particular feels devastated.  Bea, you see, took Snow in when no one else would, and kept Snow from being killed outright by her cousin, Laurence, who became King of Allesandria mostly because Snow didn’t feel like fighting him — and partly because Snow hated what her mother, Queen Rose Curtana, had done to the country.  As Snow looks a great deal like her mother, she probably made the best possible move by quietly leaving the country to Laurence.

However, because Snow loves Bea, Snow tries to do something she’s not really capable of doing: holding Bea’s soul beyond the expiration of Bea’s body.  There are reasons for this that go beyond Snow’s love; Snow feels responsible because of things that happened in previous books (especially book two, THE MERMAID’S MADNESS), and hopes that Bea will choose to stay around for love of her husband, her son, her grandson — and of course, Bea’s love for Snow, as Bea has always thought of Snow as a very close friend or possibly like a surrogate daughter.  But things go terribly wrong . . . .

Everything else that happens in this novel relates to Snow trying to do something she really shouldn’t have; this is how the demon who’d been entrapped in Rose Curtana’s mirror (that Snow’s been using, all unthinking, for the past three books, to help her in her magical endeavors) ends up enslaving Snow and taking control of Prince Jakob — Danielle’s son by Lorindar’s Prince Armand — before Talia or Danielle can even think to put a stop to it.  The demon goes on the run with Jakob, and causes major havoc; worse yet, because the demon answers to Snow’s name, and seems to think it really is Snow, for much of the book it seems that Snow has somehow gone bad due to the destruction of her mirror.

But that’s not the case at all; instead, Snow tries to save her friends by creating, literally in her last few unenslaved seconds, a copy of her — the sister she’d always wished she’d have, but never did.  This artificially-created person has a soul of her own — something I didn’t completely understand — and memories, too; she goes by Princess Rose Gertrude Curtana (“Gerta,” for short).  She’s red-haired, taller than Snow, not quite as good-looking as Snow, and — lucky for Talia — is a lesbian, and deeply attracted to Talia from the start.  And she’s a strong magic-user from the start, though she’s not nearly as strong as Snow . . . in short, she’s a great deal like Snow, but she’s more herself than anyone, just like a real sister would’ve been, had Rose Curtana borne Gerta from her body (rather than Snow ripping Gerta live from Snow’s memories).

So there’s action-adventure going on here: how are they going to stop this demon in Snow’s body?  There’s some fitful romance because Gerta can’t help it; she’s attracted to Talia, and isn’t going to keep it to herself.  (That Talia feels really strange about all this makes no nevermind, not compared to the urgency of Gerta’s need.)  There’s the power of sisterhood, which comes through strongly in all four books — especially the nostrum “Sisters Keep Doing it For Themselves” (apologies to the hiphop song) — and there’s the sense of great loss, which permeates the entirety of the book.

Yet as emphatic an ending as THE SNOW QUEEN’S SHADOW contains, it somehow, strangely, doesn’t seem completed.  Maybe this is because of how Bea dies to start the book off; Snow watches Bea die while trying to capture Bea’s spirit (for a benevolent reason, mind, but still: Snow was trying to capture Bea’s spirit, and Bea wasn’t having any.  I muttered, “Good for Bea.”), which isn’t an active thing at all.  This is a scene of Snow actively waiting for Bea to pass over.

Then, the demon takes Snow in a way that’s essentially off-screen; Snow says, “Mother, what have you done?” and then, the Snow we know is gone.  In her place, we have the demon, who does and says terrible things and won’t stop until she gets what she wants.

Essentially, this is a book where Snow is more like a voyeur than a participant, which is why THE SNOW QUEEN’S SHADOW doesn’t seem as well-balanced as the previous three novels.  (How can it be?  One of the three essential characters isn’t even present for most of it!)  But that doesn’t make THE SNOW QUEEN’S SHADOW a bad book; it’s just an unsettled one, with less humor than the rest for obvious reasons.

At any rate, there definitely is room for more stories and novels in this universe, just as there is with regards to Hines’s other well-known SF series about Jig the Goblin; nothing wrong with that, but I would’ve liked to see a bit more finality.


RED HOOD’S REVENGE: A-minus.  Solid, smart, and fills in the gaps of Talia’s backstory nicely.

THE SNOW QUEEN’S SHADOW: B.  Enjoyable despite its distress, this is one “Queen” that deserves a sequel or two.

Grade for Princess Series overall: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , ,

1 Comment

Sabrina Jeffries’ “A Lady Never Surrenders” — Fun, Realistic Historical Romance

 Sabrina Jeffries’s newest romance novel is  A LADY NEVER SURRENDERS, the fifth and final volume in the “Hellions of Halstead Hall” series.  (The fourth story in the “Hellions” series, HOW TO WOO A RELUCTANT LADY, was reviewed here.)  These novels, while not technically “Regencies,” have many of the same elements — including house parties and high fashion — but a great deal more heart than most.

The plot for all five “Hellions” stories is roughly the same: Grandmother Hetty wants all five of the Sharpe children to marry, otherwise she’ll cut them out of her will.  As she’s quite wealthy due to the dint of her own efforts (she and her husband successfully ran a brewery; she’s kept it going since her husband’s passing), this is not an idle threat.  But Hetty made this threat for a good reason — she hates seeing all five Sharpe children believe they’re not worth anything merely because their parents died young, and in scandalous circumstances — which means her heart is in the right place.  All the Sharpe children know this, but they also deeply resent being forced to marry at Hetty’s whim.

It’s because of the Sharpe’s parents deaths being due to “scandalous circumstances” that Jackson Pinter, a Bow Street Runner, has come to know the Sharpes.  Oliver, the eldest Sharpe, has asked him to investigate the circumstances of the death of his parents; it was said at the time that it was a murder-suicide, but Oliver doesn’t believe it and neither do any of his siblings.  The youngest of the lot, Celia, especially doesn’t believe it, and has grown close enough to Jackson to ask his help in evaluating her three most-promising suitors (as she does have the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over her head due to her grandmother’s ultimatum).

But Jackson covets Celia for himself, something Hetty really doesn’t like; she’s afraid that Jackson is a fortune hunter, and almost immediately becomes a strong impediment to Celia and Jackson’s happiness.  Hetty doesn’t seem to realize that there is a very strong, very physical connection between Jackson and Celia, mostly because Celia is a chaste, all-but-untouched maiden of twenty-four at the start of this novel, and partly because Celia and Jackson try to conceal it due to Hetty’s past interference with the other four Sharpe siblings.

As Jackson gets closer and closer to solving the murder mystery (something I won’t reveal), he also gets closer to Celia.  The two have so much passion that it’s surprising that Hetty doesn’t see it; sparks seem to fly off them whenever they’re present in the same room, which other characters (including Hetty’s love interest, an elderly retired General) keep pointing out to Hetty’s annoyance.

Here’s a snippet from page 128 to give you an idea just how hot things are, even at the beginning of Jackson and Celia’s physical relationship:

“Now see here,” (Jackson) said, grabbing (Celia’s) shoulders.  “I didn’t kiss you ‘properly’ today because I was afraid if I did I might not stop.”

That seemed to draw her up short.  “Wh-what?”

Sweet God, he shouldn’t have said that, but he couldn’t let her go on thinking that she was some sort of pariah around men.  “I knew that if I got this close and put my mouth on yours . . . . ”

But now he was this close.  And she was staring up at him with that mix of bewilderment and hurt pride, and he couldn’t help himself.  Not anymore.

That, my friends, is really good writing.  It sets the scene; it explains what’s going on, and it shows more than it tells, which is a really neat trick when it comes to romance writing.  (Or any writing at all.)

But good writing wouldn’t be enough, not without good characters to go along with them.  And in Jackson Pinter, Bow Street Runner and possible future magistrate (think: policeman and future judge) and Celia Sharpe, we have two winning characters who love each other first in spite of their cultural differences, then learn to delight in their differences — which echoes the way a real relationship tends to go if you’re truly in love.  (Not to mention the minor characters, including Jackson’s tart-tongued Aunt Ada — excellently drawn, all.)

From top to bottom, Ms. Jeffries wrote another very good romance; it’s a fun, fast read that’s also realistic and humane.  There’s great romance, a good story, a long-unsolved murder mystery to resolve, and excellent characterization.  Add charm, wit, and sensuality — really, how can anyone who likes English historical romances dislike A LADY NEVER SURRENDERS?  Because this novel has it all, and in spades.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

, , ,

1 Comment

Jasper Fforde’s “Shades of Grey” — Scary, Plausible, Near-Future Satire

 Jasper Fforde is a well-known satirist whose THURSDAY NEXT series (first book: THE EYRE AFFAIR) features parallel worlds, multiple identities, and cross-cultural icons run amuck; what he wasn’t known for, prior to his novel SHADES OF GREY, was pointed satire of the scarier, Orwellian 1984 variety — but he should be now, as the society Fforde postulates in SHADES OF GREY is definitely one of the more dystopian ones I’ve ever read, despite its mundanity.

See, in SHADES OF GRAY, we have something called a Colortocracy.  The elites of the Colortocracy rule society through, of all things, what color (or colors) a person is most able to see.  Purples (a mix of Red and Blue perception) are highest on the totem pole, while Greys are at the bottom; our hero, Eddie Russet, comes from a Red family and believes his perception of that color will be strong enough to move upward, at least within the Red community.

But his plans for a somewhat benign social climb (marrying into the Oxblood family, who have more red than the Russets) get skewered when his father, who is a type of physician and heals by means of colors, gets sent to the remote village of East Carmine.  There, he meets Jane Grey, an intriguing young woman who keeps swearing at him and won’t give him the time of day; he also meets an Apocryphal Man — a historian — who tells him things the rest of the world doesn’t want to hear.

You see, the Colortocracy, like all castes, believes mostly in perpetuating itself.  This can be hard to do, as genetically, you’re as likely to be a Blue as a Red unless genetic engineering of some sort takes place, and this is difficult to do in a world where many facts have been deliberately forgotten (Fforde calls this “deFacting”).  Because of things like “the Great Leap(s) Backward” and the periodic “deFacting” that goes on, those who actually do know what’s going on tend to get discredited, then lost.  And because Eddie has an inquiring mind, this means he’s the most likely one to get scheduled to take the next “Night Train” to High Saffron for what is euphemistically called “ReBoot,” but is actually a way for the highest Colortocrats to commit genocide without getting their own hands dirty.

We find out these ominous facts about Chromatacia all because Eddie falls in love with Jane.  Eddie starts out SHADES OF GREY tremendously naïve, but Jane knows the score from the beginning as the Greys are the ones who do just about all the “useful work” in this society as they’re the lowest on the Colortocracy totem pole.  The Colortocrats figure it doesn’t matter what the Greys know, because no one of a “higher color” is likely to listen; that Eddie does listen to Jane is something the Colortocrats definitely wouldn’t like, if they weren’t so tuned out and clueless.  

Now, as to why the Greys, who know so many useful things, haven’t revolted against the Colortocracy before now?  They work an average of 68 hours per week; this means they’re too tired to foment rebellion.  (Just because the Colortocracy is often stupid doesn’t mean they always are.)  

This is why the Greys mostly seem to pin their yearnings to breathe free (or at least work less often) on the few Greys who test into a higher color on the day of their 20th birthday, when every prospective citizen takes the Ishihara.  Depending on how the Ishihara goes, a citizen of Chromatacia may be able to marry the woman of his dreams — or not.  Because if your intended ends up testing to be a complimentary color, it doesn’t matter how well you two get on: you will not be allowed to marry.

SHADES OF GREY is a devastating send-up of contemporary society which features some laughs and a great deal of satire and intrigue.  Most reviewers have commented on the fluffier overall style and haven’t really seen the darker underpinnings of this novel, which, quite frankly, I don’t understand; to me, the parallels to Orwell’s 1984 are obvious — there’s the deFacting, the “Great Leap(s) Backward,” that the libraries in SHADES OF GREY contain almost no books excepting erotic romances (as they’ve been deemed “safe” by the Powers that Be), and that the Apocryphal Man, the world’s foremost historian, isn’t even allowed to be listened to directly — his comments must be filtered through someone else before ultimately being dismissed.

Yes, there are laughs here.  Yes, the writing carries you along, as you’d expect of any Fforde novel.  And yes, I couldn’t help but root for Eddie, who learns terrible things on his own, personal quest for enlightenment in an age where enlightenment, per se, is no longer viewed as necessary.

On the whole, I’d recommend the extremely disquieting, often-scary SHADES OF GREY, but be warned: the strongest, sneakiest and scariest satires are often the quiet ones, and that’s definitely the case here.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , ,

1 Comment

The Wars of the Roses

English history is a convoluted, twisted thing. As evidenced in past reviews (The Lost King and The Tudors) nothing in English history is cut and dried. Such is the case presented to us by Alison Weir, author of The Wars of the Roses

Henry VI’s reign started off well enough, with England coming off financially well after the Hundred Years’ War with France. Many landed families (wealthy land owners and lords) held the majority of power, near “King Maker’s” as it were. England was poised to break through the feudalism which plagued the countryside and start a renaissance age until the disastrous reign of Henry VI, at whose feet the majority of the blame for the Wars of the Roses is laid.

There are rivalries between powerful families. There always has been and always will be. Even in America, such powerful families have had feuds (see Hatfield v McCoy, Astor v Vanderbilt, etc), though with far less bloody results. But the feud between the houses of Lancaster and York shaped England forever and altered the course of history and, if one could go out on a limb, precipitated the rise of Protestantism and the birth of the Church of England.

Henry VI (of House Lancaster) was a usurper to the throne, make no mistake about it. However, though there were others with stronger claim to the throne of England, nobody spoke up to counter Henry’s claim, therefor giving a small sniff of legitimacy to his claim. He took advantage of this brief lull to solidify his claim, since nobody thought to bring up the small fact that the Earl of march, a seven year old stripling of a boy, had a stronger claim to the throne than he.

When the House of York finally made argument that Henry VI had no claim to the proper throne, war kicked off as competing families (each with a massive stake in who was king, since their monies came from them) each threw their hat into the ring. From there, it was only a matter of time before civil war kicked off and the Houses of York and Lancaster were at each other’s throat.

This book was an eye-opening look into a time of English history that I had never before been that interested in. Weir’s meticulous depiction of the honorable (and not so honorable) men and women of the time is refreshing, and you easily get a sense of who you want to see come out on top (even though it happened six hundred years ago, give or take). In the end, though, it all mattered no, since another usurper took then throne by assassinating the king and installing himself as  Richard III (who would then be later deposed by Henry Tudor, or Henry VII, which would then lead directly into the Tudor Dynasty).

The author does have a few annoying habits of leading the reader into a scene (“as we’ll see later” is one of them), which often jar the reader out of the trance they are in. While it is difficult to have an all-encompassing view of the Wars of the Roses, switching between one time and jumping to another in order to build the proper bridge between that person and the incident that she had been previously talking about is both helpful and harmful, since by the time she gets to the point, you had forgotten what the original point was. Nonetheless, this is a minor quirk of her writing style and in no way takes too much away from the book as a whole.

A well-crafted tome and definite must-read for the lover of history.

–Reviewed by Jason


Michaele Jordan’s “Mirror Maze” Packs Quite a Punch

Mirror MazeMichaele Jordan’s debut novel, MIRROR MAZE, is a Victorian-era fantasy romance featuring three main characters: Livia Aram, Jacob Aldridge, and Jacob’s sister, Cecily Beckford.  At the start of MIRROR MAZE, Jacob is grieving hard over the loss of his fiancée, Rhoda Carothers; she was American, beautiful, and understood Jacob in a way he had never before known.  In fact, Jacob’s grief is so intense that he’s nearly lost himself.

Cecily, of course, is very worried about her brother, but not entirely for the reasons you’d expect.  You see, their father was a well-known magician who had many enemies; she believes that a succubus has entranced Jacob for just that reason.  And she goes to another magician, Dr. Chang, to figure out just how to get rid of whatever is bothering her brother.

But then, the plot thickens a bit more; Dr. Chang’s ward is the aforementioned third main character, Livia Aram.  And Livia looks just like the deceased Rhoda; this causes Jacob to become more than a little unhinged.  This is why Chang tries initially to keep Livia away from Jacob, but of course it doesn’t work.

With Chang’s help, the succubus-like demon loses the initial battle against Jacob.  But that’s certainly not the only trick in this particular demon’s arsenal, which is why Cecily becomes the demon’s next victim.  Only the appearance of her long-lost, presumed dead husband Colonel Oliver Beckford ends up saving her, because during Beckford’s travels, he’s learned a type of magic the demon who’s entrapped Cecily cannot match.

The plot thickens further when, to save Cecily, Col. Beckford ends up using Chang as bait because he believes Chang was negligent in allowing the demon freedom because Chang actually had a mirror that he could’ve used to stop the whole thing.  So Chang ends up where Jacob and Cecily were before: a type of mirrored maze, which is a reflection of the magical space in which he’s been entrapped more so than just the fact that a mirror will allow a personality like the demon — or, as we find out, Rhoda Carothers (whose body is gone but spirit is still brightly alive) — to “come out” and interact with the living, breathing, physical world.

Of course, Rhoda loves Jacob and would never hurt him, but will Col. Beckford, who’s definitely down on the whole “mirror maze” concept, allow this?  And why is Chang’s mother, yet another famous magician, involved in this story at all?  These are just some of the questions the incredibly convoluted, yet extremely readable MIRROR MAZE asks — and answers.

MIRROR MAZE is told in the form of four interlocked stories of unequal length.  This unusual form works to its advantage, however, in that we get to know the motivations, and some internal monologue, from just about every important minor or major character.

The pluses of MIRROR MAZE are legion: the writing is excellent, the historicity is excellent (Ms. Jordan evokes the Victorian era as if she’s lived there all her life), the different magical systems being shown are unusual, powerful, and pack a mighty wallop.  And the characters, odd as they can be (Col. Beckwith in particular was someone I really didn’t like nor identify with, in that his only seemingly redeeming quality is his enduring love for Cecily despite his long absence), make sense in the context of this novel.  And there were no real weaknesses to be seen; everything works, the plot is concluded in a satisfactory fashion, and despite the grimness of the tone at times, happy endings abound.

I truly enjoyed Jordan’s novel, even though it’s a bit darker than I’d initially expected; I’d definitely call it “dark fantasy.”  The romances being depicted (between Jacob and Livia, Cecily and Col. Beckwith, and others) are realistic and adult (the promotional material enclosed with this novel by Pyr Books called this an “erotic fantasy romance” and they’re not kidding).  And the complexity of the over-arching form just adds to the richness and depth of this highly readable, hugely enjoyable novel.

So what are you waiting for?  MIRROR MAZE is available now, in trade paperback; go grab a copy and get to reading already!

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , , , ,

1 Comment

The Ring of Solomon — I know there’s a story here, somewhere…

Sometimes, nostalgia can only carry a book for so long before you start to wonder “Is this book ever going to get to the point and begin?” and realize that the book is almost finished. The question changes: do you now throw said book against the wall, or go ahead and finish reading it?

I went ahead and finished Jonathan Stroud’s latest Bartimaeus novel, The Ring of Solomon, and have to admit that I really don’t know why it was written. Admittedly, prequel books can be fun when done right, but this novel seems to be treading more on the Bartimaeus name than anything else, hoping that kids (and adults!) who see the name Bartimaeus will be suckered into buying the book.

The story takes place during the reign of Solomon (which, I’ll also add, Stroud carefully removed any mention of the fact the the kingdom Solomon ruled was the Kingdom of Israel, which seemed… odd). King Solomon has surrounded himself with the most powerful magicians in the world, who all obey him due to the magical ring he wears. This ring is said to give the bearer of it immense power and control of a demon more powerful than any in existence.

Enter… Bartimaeus.

Seriously, at this point I was already wondering if he was going to be tasked with stealing it. After all, that’s how the author started The Amulet of Samarkand, which was the first (and arguably, most popular) book of the original Bartimaeus trilogy.

Bartimaeus is tasked by his summoner to fetch mighty prizes for Solomon, who loves to collect magical items. Bartimaeus must go and recover a magical statue, which he feels is beneath his stature. Rightly so, since he is a pretty high level djinn, but he goes anyway and fetches his master’s desire. When he returns, he “accidently” knocks his master out of his protective circle and devours him. Case closed, and now Bartimaeus can return to his plane of existence and get away from all of the humans.


Except that he is resummoned almost immediately is punished for killing his former master by another rival of previously mentioned sorcerer. Bartimaeus is then assigned to a work group of fellow djinn who must build a temple without using magic. That is, as they say, a monumental task for the easily bored (and ever easily distracted) demons.

See, this is about halfway through the book, and at this point I’m still wondering when anything is going to begin. Oh sure, there are plots asunder to kill Solomon and steal his ring, but nobody seems to be doing anything to further their own ambitions. It’s very similar to this other book I read last week where the antagonist keeps waiting and waiting until… it was too late and he gets busted, arrested and executed. Seriously, bad guys, get with the program. Get your sh*t together  and be a villain.

Unfortunately, Stroud tends to keep this story very constrained and throws out everything that made the original trilogy magical. There is a very limited sense of wonder in this story, and is more mundane (despite more djinn than ever) than one would expect from a Bartimaeus novel.

This book just felt… forced. I don’t know how else to explain it. I wasn’t very pleased with the novel, and could not get the book to let me immerse myself into it. I rarely have this problem, so when it does rear its head, I find it very distracting and obvious.

Overall, a C-. I felt almost betrayed by the memory of the original books, and I don’t think I would have bought this book if I knew what I know now.

–Reviewed by Jason

Leave a comment

“Why Nations Fail:” Excellent in Every Way

WHY NATIONS FAIL by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson combines history, economics, and political science to come to grips with one, central question: why do nations fail?  And if there is a root cause, what, if anything, can be done to keep more nations from failing?

In the process of examining that central question, Acemoglu and Robinson discuss known history and come up with some rather startling conclusions.  

To start with, nations generally have two different types of economic structures, “extractive” and “inclusive.”  The extractive type of economy (contemporary China, the Mayans, the Soviet Union, Great Britain prior to the 18th Century) is one where there is a cadre of elites that “extracts” all the wealth from the country, but doesn’t set up a good infrastructure so everyone can benefit from it.  Note that in extractive economies, a middle class may still arise, but the country’s ruling elites typically will not care about them; they are solely in it for themselves.

The inclusive economies (contemporary Botswana, the United Kingdom historically and today, and the United States among them) want everyone to succeed; further, an inclusive economy fosters innovation and what’s called “creative destruction” — that is, new ways of doing things cheaper or better are encouraged, even if it will temporarily cause distress in a formerly solid manufacturing sector.  A middle class is not only typical in inclusive economies, but is actively encouraged by progressive policies of taxation and legislation.

And the reason for the difference in extractive and inclusive economies, while it seems basic, comes down to one thing: politics.  This is illustrated very early on, when Acemoglu and Robinson discuss the differences between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.  They’re just over the border from each other and really would be one city if circumstances were different, but because Mexico has historically had extractive economies and the United States historically has had an inclusive one, the difference between Nogales (U.S.) and Nogales (Mexico) is stark.

You see, in Mexico, no one really cares if businesses prosper; there isn’t a good way to collect taxation (which is one of the main “motivators” for a society to want to encourage a business-friendly environment); mostly, businessmen have to take chances they wouldn’t in the United States and, more importantly, pay bribes frequently in order to keep their businesses open.  Doing these things is not conducive to running a healthy business, to put it mildly.

And, of course, in the United States, business owners do not have to worry about most of that; the state of Arizona and the country of the U.S. wants businesses to have the chance to succeed, which is why business owners don’t have to pay bribes on a regular basis.  Business owners, for the most part, do not have to risk life and limb in order to run their businesses, as they often must in Mexico.  And because the United States has a system of taxation in place, a business owner knows exactly how much he’s going to have to pay the government, which is another plus compared to Mexico.

Another excellent example was the difference between South Korea and North Korea; the South Koreans have an inclusive economy, one other countries want to participate in.  They highly educate their people; they have a system of taxation that works for them; they are a lawful place where it’s free to associate, free to innovate, and of course it’s a place that allows — maybe even encourages — the “creative destruction” necessary in order to encourage new businesses and new ways of thinking, which is one reason why South Korea is at the forefront of the world’s (inclusive) economies.

But the North Koreans — ah, what a mess they are!  The people there are downtrodden; the country is run by elites for elites, and it is clearly an extractive economy.  Most people are at subsistence level.  Few people get decent, or even adequate, education unless they’re a member of the elite group that’s running the country.  And the country’s infrastructure is so bad that if Korea ever again becomes one country (as West and East Germany did), the South Koreans know they will have to massively upgrade the North in just about every possible respect in order to help the poor souls who live there.

There are many examples in WHY NATIONS FAIL that are drawn from history, economics, and political science that will more greatly illustrate this central premise: it’s not so much where you live that counts, but what sort of political system you live under as to whether or not your life is going to be bearable — or awful.  And while the United States is currently an inclusive economy, there is one example of a formerly inclusive economy — South Africa prior to 1935 or so, when the black farmers were encouraged rather than vilified and obstructed — going backward and becoming extractive (South African under their “apartheid” regime), so I’d definitely not want the U.S. to “rest on its laurels” after reading this book.  There is a constant need for vigilance on the part of any country’s populace in an inclusive economy in order to keep elections fair and free, or the potential exists for elites to arise in the United States in the same way they arose in North Korea, the Mayan Empire, or during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

WHY NATIONS FAIL is an excellent book that explains economics, politics, and history in a highly readable way without sacrificing intellectual vigor.  It is outstanding in every possible way, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.  When it’s released on March 20, 2012, go grab a copy right away — you’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , , , ,


“Waiting for Teddy Williams:” A Baseball Fable with Heart

 Howard Frank Mosher’s WAITING FOR TEDDY WILLIAMS is a baseball novel written by a baseball fan and coach (who also happens to be an outstanding writer).  Here, Ethan Allen (otherwise known as “E.A.”) comes of age in a small, sleepy Vermont town where everyone lives and dies with the Boston Red Sox; as he has a great love for baseball, E.A. grows up to idolize the Sox and does his best to maximize his playing ability from the get-go.

As this is a fable, you might expect that E.A. eventually does reach the Sox — and you’d be right.  But most of the fun in WAITING FOR TEDDY WILLIAMS is getting there; the descriptions of baseball, life (E.A.’s relationship with his charismatic and somewhat kooky mother, Gypsy Lee, who homeschools him, is a standout), and his unusual relationship with his baseball-playing father, E.W. “Teddy” Williams, all highlight the fact that life is a gift that should be appreciated even in its dullest moments — and that baseball is a gift that for the true fan will always keep on giving, even if your team is losing 14-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Now, as to the particulars of this novel: E.A. lives in a small hamlet in rural Vermont called Kingdom Common.  Most of the people who live in Kingdom Common, including the local judge, are extremely quirky; some are good, upstanding people, but the sinners are far more fun — and the sinners are led by E.A.’s free-spirited mother Gypsy Lee.  Gypsy Lee got pregnant when she was away at college, which is the only reason why her singing career and/or life in general has never quite taken flight; despite being the salutatorian of her high school class, the only way Gypsy Lee has to make enough of a living to support her aged, wheelchair-bound mother (who took to the chair after Bucky Dent’s homer in 1986 ended the Red Sox’ playoff hopes) and E.A. is to become an “escort.”  Gypsy Lee sees this as purely a business decision; she is a clear-eyed rationalist who teaches her son about plants and the Constitution by day and allows men to play out their wildest fantasies by night.

E.A.’s escape from financial poverty — and from his mother’s unusual way of making a living — is to play baseball.  He practices fielding, hitting, and later on, pitching; along the way, he meets up with a drifter who gives him baseball tips.  This drifter, of course, is his father, E.W. “Teddy” Williams, and is the best baseball player Kingdom Commons ever saw — but Teddy never got his shot at the majors or minors due to a quirk of fate (which I will not reveal).  Over time, E.A.’s love affair with baseball blossoms, and eventually he does get his shot with the Red Sox (note this was written before the 2004 Red Sox actually won the World Series, when the most ardent Red Sox fan could only hope somehow that one day their team might actually go to the World Series again and win); these later scenes, complete with a Red Sox owner who’s a young idiot and a manager with a talking Macaw called “the Legendary Spence,” while fun to read, are more like “baseball as creation myth” rather than feeling like something that could happen (and probably did somewhere along the way).  But that’s not a bad thing in this context, because this book is all about life, baseball, and everything — and in life, or in baseball, just about anything can happen, and probably will if given time.

Mosher’s writing style is somehow both spare and momentous (a neat trick), and he imbues his characters with a charm most novels lack.  This is why you can’t help but care about E.A. from the start; he might not know who his father is at first, but he always knows who he is.  E.A. loves baseball, you see — he loves it unconditionally, and he wants nothing but to be the best baseball player he can possibly become.  This might be seen as naïveté by some, but I saw it as a fresh take on the joys of baseball and enjoyed it immensely. 

This is a wonderful story about a boy and his love of baseball; it’s well-written both as a coming of age story for E.A. and as a baseball “romance” of sorts.  Mosher is one of the best American “mainstream” novelists working today, and it shows.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab this book today!

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb


Note: I’m well aware that the novel’s title is a pun; the Boston Red Sox, in all the years they waited to win another World Series, were definitely waiting for a second Teddy Williams.  That this novel’s Teddy Williams fathers a son who gets a chance with the Red Sox just adds to the enjoyment of this novel.

, ,

1 Comment

E.C. Myers’ “Fair Coin:” Better than Fair, but not Exceptional

E.C. Myers’ FAIR COIN is a suspenseful book set on present-day Earth that contains elements of fantasy and science fiction.  In FAIR COIN, we meet Ephraim Scott, a normal sixteen-year-old-boy who’s worried about girls, school, and his alcoholic mother; however, his life changes the day someone who looks exactly like him dies.  His mother gets called down to identify the body; horrified that her only son appears to be dead, she ends up drinking herself into an alcoholic stupor.  When she ends up in ICU, Ephraim investigates what happened and searches “his” belongings; only then does he find an unusual coin, a commemorative quarter that has Puerto Rico on it and a date of 2008, which clearly isn’t right as Puerto Rico is only a Commonwealth, not a state.

Then, when Ephraim goes to school, he finds a note that tells him that all he has to do is flip the odd coin to make all his dreams come true; it appears to be in his best friend Nathan’s handwriting.  Figuring he has nothing to lose, Ephraim first wishes for his mother to get better and ends up, somehow, in a parallel universe where his mother never identified a body that looked exactly like his — in this universe, Ephraim’s mother, while still an alcoholic, isn’t in the hospital at all.

Confused, Ephraim flips the coin again and asks for two things: for his mother to be well (no longer an alcoholic) and for Jena, the girl he’s been interested in since the second grade, to like him.  This actually happens, and Ephraim grows even more confused; when other strange things happen, like a set of identical twins becoming only one person instead of two, and when his best friend Nathan no longer knows him, Ephraim knows something is deeply wrong.

Fortunately for Ephraim, his love-interest, Jena, is a budding young physicist and recognizes the “parallel worlds” theory from her studies.  She does her best to explain things to Ephraim, but then the unthinkable happens — a version of Nathan shows up who’s violent and irredeemable.  Nathan causes problems for Ephraim, for Jena, and for Jena’s analogue, Zoe, because of one thing: Nathan wants the coin, and he will kill in order to get it.

So, will Ephraim figure out what’s going on before it’s too late?  Or will Nathan  gain the coin, and its unusual powers, for himself?

FAIR COIN is a nice action-adventure story with parallel worlds and some romance.  It relies on the plot carrying the characters rather than the reverse, but isn’t necessarily bad; the plot demands that Ephraim be a teenage “Everyman,” and it’s plausible that bookworm Jena would understand enough about parallel worlds and string theory to explain it to lovesick Ephraim.

The problem I had with FAIR COIN was this: Ephraim, rather than having the idiosyncracies that would’ve made him more lifelike, was instead an archetype — “teenage Everyman.”  While this is OK, it would’ve been better if Ephraim had more internal monologue and some reactions other than, “Wow!  How’d that happen?” or “Why is Nathan behaving so badly, anyway?  What’s up with that?” as it would’ve deepened his character and made him seem far more believable.  (And speaking of Nathan,  he also is an archetype from beginning to end no matter what universe he’s in, which really didn’t help anything, either.) 

In addition, I never really understood why Ephraim’s mother felt so terrible about life that she’d ended up as an alcoholic.  And considering that the whole plot depends on us believing Ephraim’s mother is in bad shape, this is a bit strange.  Once again, the only reason Myers gets away with this is because Ephraim’s mother is an archetype, so the reader immediately categorizes her and then doesn’t worry any more about it. 

Bottom line: there was no reason to use so many archetypes.  One per book is usually all most readers are likely to tolerate; here, we have three.  Worse yet, Ephraim, his mother, and Nathan may as well have been cardboard characters, as for the most part they lacked personality.  More to the point, they lacked soul, which is why I did not believe in any of them.

Fortunately for Myers, he has two very strong characters in Jena and Zoe to help pick up the slack; they have real motivations and idiosyncracies, and I believed they could be real people existing somewhere (or somewhen).  Without them, I’d not have wanted to finish this novel.  

That being said, the action-adventure works.  The romance, for the most part, worked, though I kept thinking Jena deserved better.  The plot was fast-paced and well-written, which I appreciated, and helped distract me from how much I hated the use of all those archetypes. 

FAIR COIN is a good novel for young adults, but falls short of the exceptional read I’d hoped for, mostly because Myers needs to stop using so many archetypes.  While he tells a nice story, he must learn to draw up characters with a bit more weight and heft to them, as plot will only carry you so far. 

Grade: B

— reviewed by Barb

, , , , ,