Archive for May, 2012

Celine Kiernan’s “The Poison Throne:” Disappointment, Medieval-Style

Celine Kiernan’s THE POISON THRONE is a novel about fifteen-year-old Wynter Moorehawke, an apprentice carpenter during a time equivalent to Europe’s medieval period in a land that’s never named.  Her father, Lorcan, is a master carpenter and a “Protector Lord,” meaning he’s a good friend of King Jonathan but does not have lands of his own.  Due to Lorcan’s relationship with the King, Wynter is friends with the King’s two sons, the illegitimate elder son, Razi, and the legitimate son and heir, Alberon. 

However, all is not well in the land.  King Jon has apparently gone crazy, and has started torturing people for no apparent reason.  The King has also decreed that ghosts don’t exist (yet they do, in this reality), that cats can’t talk (yet they do, in this reality), and anyone who says otherwise gets killed horribly, for no apparent reason except that the King has decreed it.  And worst of all, the Heir, Alberon, has escaped the King entirely and has absconded to points unknown.

Due to Alberon leaving the area, King Jon has decided that Razi, not Alberon, should be the Heir despite Razi being illegitimate and a Muslim, yet the kingdom is Christian.  Razi, being no fool, does not wish to do this, as he loves his half-brother Alberon and believes Alberon should be the next King.  Besides, Razi is a gifted doctor, yet won’t be able to practice if he becomes the Heir, much less eventually becomes the King.  And finally, Razi knows the populace will not support him.  Yet because the King has decreed it, Razi must become the Heir whether he likes it or not, and whether the unnamed kingdom likes it — or not.

Wynter comes into play because she knows Razi and Alberon very well, and she wants to support them both even though she doesn’t have any idea why any of this is happening.  Razi views Wynter as a sister, which is why a love relationship between them is out.  But never fear, as Razi introduces Wynter to his constant companion, the fun-loving Christopher, who’s had both of his middle fingers torn out, reason unknown (but one of the few things that cannot be laid at the feet of Bad King Jon).  This introduction leads to a rather tame romance between Christopher and Wynter despite the fact that before they’re introduced, Christopher beds numerous women and couldn’t be more promiscuous if he tried, while Wynter is as virginal as they come.

The best part of THE POISON THRONE is the strong and loving relationship Wynter has with her father, Lorcan.  But court changes Lorcan, mostly for the worse, and Lorcan’s ill health doesn’t help matters, either.  Along the way, Wynter must help Lorcan deface some of Lorcan’s best work as the King has insisted it be done.  Only after this crime against art will the King give Wynter the papers she needs to set up shop as an independent carpenter of her own.  That this doesn’t really make much sense is besides the point; the King has decreed it, thus it will be done.  (Which means this is a deus ex machina plot device of the first water, something Ms. Kiernan really didn’t need to resort to — but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

The pluses of THE POISON THRONE are as follows: there’s much intrigue, with a strong sense of atmosphere and place (even though the kingdom is never named).  Wynter is well-drawn as a young, independent woman who wants to be optimistic even though her world is falling apart, while Razi, Christopher, and Lorcan mostly are sympathetic characters who are beset by circumstances beyond their control. 

But the minuses — the plot construction being all over the place as evidenced by this whole “the King has decreed” deus ex machina nonsense, the kingdom never being named, Alberon never appearing in this novel at all, much less the King being horrible with no real reason as to why — far outweigh the pluses here.

That being said, Ms. Kiernan writes well.  Parts of this novel, despite having no underlying organization, are quite readable.  But ultimately, there’s no there there — it’s a book about how Wynter, despite her gifts and talents, can do nothing to affect the outcome.  And as such, it’s an incredibly dystopian young adult vision that’s extremely disappointing.

My advice is to borrow THE POISON THRONE from the library if you must read it at all.  Then, when it disappoints you — as it invariably will — please remember not to throw it across the room.  (The librarians will thank you.)

Grade: D-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , ,


“A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes” — Fun, but . . . .

Suzanne Enoch’s A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RAKES is a Regency romance about Diane Benchley, the Dowager Countess of Cameron (who’s in her late twenties), and the Marquis of Haybury, Oliver Warren, a gambler and rake who’s about the same age.  Two years prior to the story’s opening, when Diane was newly widowed, Oliver and Diane had a torrid affair overseas, which ended only when Oliver ran off.   This is important to know, as otherwise, the later romance between the two will not make much sense.

The reason these two are brought back together is quite unusual for the Regency genre; it seems that Diane wants to open a legal gambling house.  (This is something that wasn’t likely to happen in Regency-era England.  Gambling was known, but it was strictly illegal.)  She’s decided to open it in Adam House, the residence she inherited from her late husband, Frederick, and needs Oliver to help her set it up.  Diane intends to open up her casino with as many female employees as she possibly can, but few if any women at that time would admit to knowing how to gamble, much less have enough knowledge to become a dealer.  This is why Diane needs Oliver (and his gambling expertise) to help her train as many women as possible in the time allotted (five weeks) before her in-home casino opens. 

Of course, Oliver wants nothing to do with this plan, but Diane has a way around Oliver’s objections: blackmail.  The more she gets Oliver to help her, the more enmeshed she becomes in his life, and he in hers.  Ultimately, both find out they’d rather be with each other, as obnoxious as they can often be, than with anyone else. 

This plotline is “played straight” for the most part, which is a real problem because it has way too many elements that are out of character for the Regency era.  Here’s just a few of my objections regarding the lack of historical accuracy in Ms. Enoch’s novel:

First, while I can believe in Diane as a woman wronged who wants revenge (whether on her late, unlamented gamester husband, Frederick, or on Oliver for running off), I can’t really understand why she thinks she’d be able to run a legal gambling establishment out of her house.  That no one — not Oliver, not anyone else — tries to point out that a casino wasn’t legal at that time and place and thus couldn’t be set up the way Diane wishes is a major plot hole.

Second, while there are many strong women in history — and while at least a few of them liked having more strong women around them as trustworthy servants and employees — it stretches credulity way too much to have so many female employees at this gambling den.  Ms. Enoch sets it up that the only men who have regular employment at the Adam House casino are bouncers, but that just doesn’t work for the time and place under discussion.  At most, there were a few women who worked as illegal casino employees as dealers and the like.  But there certainly weren’t very many of them.

Third, Diane’s behavior is much too modern for the era.  She wants to rescue all of the women who work in her casino, and has a female confidante who is well-versed in knives and guns — a woman who is, more or less, Diane’s bodyguard.  None of this makes sense for the Regency period.  Not one bit of it.

Fourth, the naming conventions are wrong with regards to Diane’s name.  She should be referred to as the Dowager Countess of Cameron rather than “Lady Diane Benchley.”  (Benchley is her late husband’s family name.)  This is never rectified, and considering this is something Ms. Enoch should know in her sleep due to her many previous Regency romances, it makes no sense.

These major inconsistencies and anachronisms can’t help but mar the plot for anyone who has any historical knowledge of the Regency era whatsoever.  That’s why no matter how much fun the romance between Oliver and Diane is — and it really is fun — A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RAKES can’t help but be a frustrating reading experience.

That said, I enjoyed the book immensely (as a type of alternate history, mind you) because the romance between Oliver and Diane was good, believable, sensual, and well-told.  But everything else about it — literally, every other single thing — doesn’t make sense in an English historical romance set in the early 19th century, much less in the Regency period.  (While the story doesn’t explicitly mention the Regency of King George III, Napoleon’s recent defeat at Waterloo is referenced, which means it’s a Regency.)

That’s why I’ve split the grades.  One is for pure enjoyment; the other is for historical accuracy (or the lack thereof), as follows:

Historical Accuracy: F.
Enjoyment: A.

The overall grade, therefore, is a C. 

— reviewed by Barb

, ,


Lars Walker’s “Troll Valley” — Interesting and Different

 Lars Walker’s TROLL VALLEY is a very different sort of fantasy.  Featuring Norwegian folklore, Christian theology and apologetica, and a young man who believes his deformed hand and arm will define him until the day he dies, TROLL VALLEY is as much about a vanished place and time — early 1900s America (specifically, Minnesota) — as it is about its titular hero, Christian Anderson.

This, of course, was no accident, because early 1900s Minnesota was known for having tight-knit farming communities that often relied heavily upon churches and religion to help hold the communities together.  The strongest communities were like those Walker depicts in TROLL VALLEY: one religion (specifically, the Hauge version of Lutheranism, specific to 19th century Norway), one ethnicity (Norwegian), and one general purpose (farming).  These common threads were what held people together, but they also could prove to be confining.

TROLL VALLEY opens with a frame story, that being about Shane Anderson — Christian’s great-great-grandson.  Shane is a drug addict who has tried everything to kick his addiction to drugs.  Now an Ojibway Indian has been hired by Shane’s mother to get Shane straight by any means necessary.  (Walker’s character says he hates being called a “Native American” and would rather be called by his tribe if he must be characterized at all.)  Shane’s only companion besides the Ojibway are two books — the Bible, and his great-great-grandfather’s memoir, this being the main story of TROLL VALLEY.

Getting back to the main story, it opens with Christian being eight years old.  He knows he’s a cripple, or a freak — labels he thinks and quickly thrusts away — because of his left hand and arm being shrunken and difficult to use, and he knows he’s a burden on his family.  Nevertheless, he’s fortunate because he has a Norwegian “fairy” Godmother, Margit (one of the huldre folk); Margit, while not human, believes strongly in Christianity and in human goodness, and loves Christian because in general, he’s a lovable child.  But Christian doesn’t know this because his mother is extremely difficult, his father works very hard and doesn’t speak to him much, and his twin brother, Fred, who was born without any obvious physical flaws, bullies him.  And his Bestefar (grandfather), who also loves Christian very much, isn’t the sort to go on and on about his feelings (not that many men raised in the 19th century were in any culture), which is why Margit place in Christian’s life is so very important.

But there are two other important people in Christian’s life.  The first is Sophie, who is a ward of Christian’s parents; she’s raised with Christian, and he does his best to think of her as a sister.  The second is Auggie, who is Christian’s best friend.  Neither Sophie nor Auggie see Christian’s deformity as all that important; their opinions, roughly stated, would amount to this: “He’s deformed.  So what?”  But they’re unable to get through to Christian, who sees himself as a marked man who is permanently unlovable and will never be able to find anyone to care about him, all because of his withered arm.

Of course, Christian is wrong.  Margit tries to tell him; even Fred tries to tell Christian, though Fred’s way of doing it (as Fred is an unrepentant sinner) leaves much to be desired.  But Christian will have none of it, which is how Christian starts to become tempted by sin — in this case, the sin of self-absorption.  And this radically transforms his life for the worse.

So, does Christian ever throw off his self-imposed chains?  Does he figure out a way to enjoy his unusual family?  Does he find his place in the world?  And does he ever figure out what Margit is trying to tell him?  (And for that matter, will his great-great-grandson Shane get free of the drugs?)  All of these questions are answered, but they often lead to more and deeper questions.

Now, as for the weaknesses here?  Christian himself doesn’t have a great deal of internal monologue, and I would’ve liked to see more.  (Christian does have some, especially as a child, but as he gets older, he grows more closed.)  I believe this was an author’s decision rather than something unwittingly left out, as it helps the narrative to see that even a good child who believes in God and Christ can be turned astray.  But it hurt the overarching story a little bit when some of Christian’s feelings were implied rather than thought, stated, or shown, especially when it comes to how Christian deals with his two good friends, Sophie and Auggie.

In other words, while this was an absorbing story due to its historicity, the details about the Hauge version of Lutheranism, and all the Norwegian folklore, at times I felt Christian himself was a cipher — someone standing in as Everyman — rather than a fully developed character with wants and needs of his own.  (Most of the time I could see Christian as himself, but sometimes this veneer of individuality slipped.)  I’m aware that it’s very likely Walker wanted both — an individual character and someone who could stand in as Everyman — but this balance doesn’t often work quite right.  This is why in some ways the story works better as Christian apologetica (something like an updated, more serious version of C.S. Lewis) than as a Christian-inspired fantasy, though it does succeed at both.

TROLL VALLEY is interesting and quite different as it relies upon Norwegian folklore and early American history for its sense of place.  It’s imaginative and often moving, but don’t expect a quick read as the issues Christian is wrestling with are weighty and difficult.  Still, if you enjoy fantasy, history with a bit of folklore, or Christian apologetica that’s as long on imagination as it is on its knowledge of scripture, you will enjoy TROLL VALLEY.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , , , , , ,


Catching Fire — Making A Dollar > Gripping Story

Warning: this review is rated NSFW. Why? Because Jason has a foul mouth and was extremely pissed off at the end of this book.

loved — absolutely loved — The Hunger Games. Let me get that out of the way now. In no way, shape or form could I have predicted that the marvelous story that was the entire Hunger Games experience would become the complete and utter train wreck that was Catching Fire.
I feel ashamed even mentioning that the two books are in the same series (I should, by the way, throw in a quick review of Mockingjay
in this so that the horrible trifecta can be complete… naw, maybe some other time) and, perhaps, throw up a disclaimer:

Dear The Hunger Games fans: don’t kill me, but I hated Catching Fire. With a fiery (pun totally intended) passion. Seriously. Light me on fire (you see where I went there?) and scorch my brain to remove the blackened, wasteful filth that the author calls the second book of this trilogy which is currently destroying the darkest crevices of where I once had a soul, for the love of all that is unholy and black in this wretched, horrid world. Sincerely, Me.

The story starts off soon after the end of The Hunger Games. The books makes it seem like it was both forever ago and yesterday (an interesting – and confusing – trick) as Katniss struggles to adjust to her new role as victor. Of course, she now lives in Victor’s Village, which had never been used before (other than Haymitch) and feels absolutely horrified to be there. She is preparing for the Victory Tour, which is when the Capitol sends the Victor (or in this case, victors) on a tour of the 12 districts to “celebrate” her win over their tributes. Barbaric, but sets just the right tone for the novel. Katniss just wants to forget the Hunger Games ever happened, but you know that can never happen. It was too horrific, too… well, the testosterone-laced male part of me wants to scream “AWESOME!” here but I know that it’s inappropriate.

Then President Snow arrives in District 12 to speak with Katniss and basically threatens her with her life (and her loved ones) if he isn’t convinced by the end of the tour that her love for Peeta is real. He drops a bomb on her as he walks out – he knows the truth about Gale, her “cousin”, as they’ve claimed to the world. She kissed him, but she “loves” Peeta, Snow knows, yada yada, read Twilight if you want to see this love triangle really sparkle.

Anyways, Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch all leave on the Victory Tour and Katniss’s nightmares continue (because, you know, totally mentioned earlier- uh, nevermind) and Peeta, feeling sorry for her (Peeta, by the way, becomes the saint to Katniss’s sinner – which totally makes sense. It’s about the only thing that made sense) lies with her when she sleeps, which takes the nightmares away. Peeta is portrayed as the strong one here, with Katniss being the weak female – which was completely absurd, because I’d read The Hunger Games (as have millions of others… am I the only one who actually “read” it or what?) and Katniss was anything but a weak female needing a strong boy to protect her…. dammit.

Really? You’re going to turn the strong, reliable and independent Katniss Everdeen into Bella fucking Swan? Really?

As I said before, this review is most definitely Not Safe For Work.

So our new lead character, Not-Katniss Everdeen, traverses quickly through the districts, where nothing of note happens – except in District 11, where she witnesses a man get shot in the head for whistling the theme from Final Fantasy X the first book, when Rue is calling out to her (the whistle). Okay, that was unfair of me. The movie whistle is definitely not the whistle from the book (oh God oh God please tell me it’s different?). She freaks, and once more it’s up to Peeta and Haymitch to calm our hysterical young woman down. Not-Katniss is helped back to the train, and the rest of the trip goes quickly – until they reach the Capitol, where President Snow shakes his head at her. This means that she has not convinced Snow of her “love” for Peeta. Not-Katniss is suddenly relieved, and for a minute we are tricked into believing that the real Katniss is back because she decides “screw it all, I’m having a good time”, which I read as a direct challenge to President Snow. This was the Katniss I loved from the first book. This strong female lead- oops, cut back to the Not-Katniss. She’s about to go all weepy eyed again.

Right here is where you can virtually see the point in the book where the author throws her hands up into the air and screams in anger, rage and just a little bit of helplessness. I can relate. I can also just imagine the conversation between her and her agent at this point:

Collins: I hate this book. I don’t know what to do with it, I’ve dragged it out as long as I can. There’s nothing more but to start the-

Agent: (cutting her off) What about what worked before? What made your book so amazing the first time around?

Collins: …the horror and heroism Katniss shows during the Hunger Games?

Agent: (nodding) Yes, now…

Collins: You… want me to rewrite the Hunger Games? Won’t that be an obvious sign that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing – or care about the characters anymore?

Agent: Sue, it’ll be brilliant! People will buy whatever you write! Seriously! You can smash your face into the keyboard ala Stephanie Meyers and they’ll buy it!

Collins: You think so?

Agent: Trust me…

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. Not-Katniss is going back to the Hunger Games for the Quarter Quell (a sort of 25th anniversary celebration of murder, mayhem and convenient plot device that has never been mentioned before).

Yes, that noise you’re hearing is my teeth grinding. I’m still ticked off and shedding my mild-mannered Bruce Banner soul right now.

Catching Fire is just that, a very slow, agonizing setup for the third book of the trilogy, Mockingjay. Yes, you read that right. This book does nothing but set up the final book of the series. It just takes forever to get to that damned point.

There is no plot. There is a semblance of a story (which, as I may have mentioned before, sets up the third book (buy the third book! is the theme for book 2 apparently) though the pacing is atrocious. My anger here burns brighter than a thousand suns because damn it, I didn’t want to be pitched a third book but to read a second one! I didn’t want to read about Bella Katniss Swan Everdeen but Katniss Everdeen, kickass heroine and all-around badass. I wanted to be entertained and I was most definitely not entertained.

I don’t know if the author deliberately copied Meyers’ playbook here, but I can say for certain that some amount of influence has taken place.

Okay, repeating myself multiple times, but… I hated this book. Still hate, too. I’ve reread it twice since my initial, brain-numbing horrifying experience and still cannot shake the feeling that I’m reading about two different people across the romantic lines of a Rocky and Boris slash fic. Now, if this is the author’s unstated goal (bridging two personas in one soul; having the reader scream out in agony as Boris ignored Rocky’s pleas of “No, Boris! Nooo!!!”) then congratulations, you succeeded. If not, then what the flying squirrel raging against the windy tree bark of doom is your message? What is your story? Where is your story? Please, please tell me that this was not written just to make a buck. Convince me that this is all just a horrible dream, and when I take the blue pill and ignore that damnable rabbit hole I’ll wake up and Not-Katniss will be long gone and Mockingjay will be the second book of the trilogy?

Of course, you must buy this book because it completely sets up the third and final installment. As I said, gotta make a dollar?

Reviewed by Jason


Lynsay Sands “The Countess” — Funny, Irreverent Historical Romance

Lynsay Sands’ THE COUNTESS is an English historical romance starring Christiana, Countess of Radnor, and two men who both go by the name of Richard Fairgrove, Earl of Radnor.  This screwball comedy is set up by the man Christiana married, “Dicky,” dropping dead one morning despite seeming to be in the peak of health.  As Christiana’s marriage to Dicky was awful, she doesn’t exactly lament his death; instead, she does what she can to cover it up as her sisters, Suzette and Lisa, both need to make their debuts quickly due to her father’s gambling debts.

However, “Dicky” was actually George, the younger of two identical twins.  George took his brother Richard’s place after doing his best to kill Richard in a fire, but Richard didn’t die; instead, the criminals who set the fire sent him off to America.  (This romance is set in what seems to be the early 18th century, which was the American colonial period, but it’s never explicitly stated.)  The mistaken-identity plot is aided by the fact that George put it about that it was George who died instead, which is why Christiana never suspects a substitution has taken place, especially considering she never met the real Richard; she only met George (“Dicky”).

The evening after Dicky — er, George — has died, Christiana goes to a ball in order to get her sisters launched properly in society.  But to her complete surprise, “Dicky” shows up in the guise of the true Earl, Richard, who is back from America and extremely surprised that “he” is married.  Richard, of course, knows nothing about Christiana except that she’s beautiful and after one dance, he’s smitten with her, while Christiana believes that Richard is Dicky, who’s risen from the dead.

Obviously, plot alone is not why anyone would read THE COUNTESS.  Instead, it’s the humor behind it, the clarity of place and setting, and how well the true Richard and Christiana get along in and out of the bedroom.  That humor is often excellent, based as it is by the initial mistaken identity of Richard as “Dicky” and the fact that Christiana hates Dicky with a passion, but falls head over heels for Richard.

There’s also a nifty secondary plot between Suzette, the elder of the remaining sisters, and Daniel, Earl of Woodrow.  Suzette believes Daniel is penniless, and proposes to him on that basis; she, of course, is flat wrong, which adds to the comedic aspects.  (Suzette’s story is more properly told in book two of this trilogy, THE HEIRESS.)  Christiana and the real Richard obviously know this, but as both see the sparks between the couple — and because Daniel is Richard’s best friend — neither of them tell Suzette the truth.

So, how does Richard manage to convince Christiana to trust him, especially as she wasn’t sexually experienced prior to marriage and “Dicky” never truly bedded her despite a year of marriage?  How does Richard learn to trust his instincts, which tell him that Christiana truly is the Countess of his dreams?  And how will these two sanctify a proper marriage, especially considering the world believes they’re already married, while getting George decently buried when the world already thinks George has been laid to rest?  (And for that matter, who really killed George, and why?)  All of these questions will be answered in the way screwball comedies typically do things — in short, by a cursory wave of the hand followed by a detailed explanation at the end — but the explanations were enough to help satisfactorily end this novel.

Overall, THE COUNTESS, while not high art, is extremely funny in spots, especially when it’s being irreverent.  That’s why despite the flimsy nature of the mistaken-identity and substitution plots, I enjoyed this novel thoroughly.  And if you love English historical romance, the funnier, the better, you will, too.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , ,


“Dead Reckoning:” A Zombie Steampunk Western Thrill-ride

Dead ReckoningMercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill’s new cross-genre novel is DEAD RECKONING.  It’s a zombie steampunk Western set in 1867 that features a trio of intriguing characters, Jett Gallatin (a seventeen-year-old “male” gunslinger), Honoria Gibbons (called “Gibbons” — she’s an inventor, a genius, and is slightly older than Jett), and White Fox (male, about the same age as the other two, raised from birth with the Sac and Fox tribe but most likely 100% Anglo by blood; he’s a scout).  All three are intelligent and spirited misfits, which gives them a quick way to bond while keeping the plotline from getting complacent.

DEAD RECKONING opens with Jett stopping off at a saloon in what seems like the middle of nowhere (but is actually west Texas).  She’s looking for information about her brother, Phillip, who enlisted in the Confederate Army years ago and hasn’t been seen since.  But instead of finding anything out about her brother, she ends up running for her life after zombies — yes, zombies! — attack.

Jett’s a skeptic, so this attack deeply unsettles her worldview.  But more unsettling things are on the way once she meets up with Gibbons and Fox, as these two know from the start that Jett is female (a closely-guarded secret) due to Jett needing immediate medical attention.  More to the point, due to Gibbons’ skill as an inventor (she has a steam coach she calls an “Auto-Tachypode” that usually cruises at a steady 10 mph), Jett realizes she’s not the only non-traditional female out there.

Gibbons, being if anything even more skeptical than Jett, is leery of the zombie explanation, which is why all three youngsters end up going back to the little hole-in-the-wall town Jett started in to look for clues.  Once there, Gibbons attempts several experiments, which lead her to believe that Jett was, indeed, telling the truth.  (Which is lucky for us, or there’d be no story.)

Worse yet, Gibbons and the others quickly realize there’s a corrupt “Man of God” involved, a man known as “Brother Shepherd.”  Shepherd has a way to “bring the dead back to life,” but it’s not a resurrection — instead, he’s actually bringing these people back as undead zombies.  Due to this seemingly miraculous power, a cult of rather gullible people have formed around Shepherd (many of them women); the few men “in the know” are with Shepherd because Shepherd pays very, very well.  (Which admittedly isn’t hard to do if you’re able to loot towns with impunity due to a semi-controlled horde of zombies.)

When Jett is captured while attempting to gain information from the enemy, Gibbons and Fox quickly decide to rescue her.  But will the zombies manage to get to Jett first, especially as Shepherd does seem to have some sort of weird control over them?  And even if the zombies don’t get to Jett right off, will Gibbons figure out how to undo whatever it is Shepherd’s done, as that’s the only long-term way to save Jett or anyone else?

All of this action-adventure is stimulating, interesting, and very fun to read.  But perhaps the best reason to read DEAD RECKONING is how faithful Lackey and Edghill are to the Western milieu, yet how easily they manage to fit both steampunk and zombies into the story without missing a beat.

Bottom line?  DEAD RECKONING is an excellent stand-alone, action-adventure novel.  So if you like Westerns, zombies, steampunk, or better yet, all three, go grab a copy of DEAD RECKONING once it becomes available on June 5, 2012.  You’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

, , , , , ,


Court of Dreams — Not Another Fantasy Book

I’m sure that, by now, readers who are familiar with this site know just how much I enjoy to rip apart any and all fantasy novels (mostly because I’m not the biggest fantasy novel fan). I will admit now that I really didn’t have any expectations with the next book, Court of Dreams by Stuart Sharp. I mean, I’d never heard of the author, never heard of the publisher and (quite frankly) wasn’t very taken with the cover (a mistake that I sometimes make). I will further admit that I thought it was going to just be another fantasy book. I will go on the record to say that not only is this book not  just another fantasy novel, it is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.

This witty and sly story starts off with the Master of the Hunt, Grave, about to dispatch his next “target”. Internal monologue aside, Graves kills the woman but smells something strange about the man who almost witnessed the murder. Graves, a hulking giant of a man-beast, heads back to the princess of dreams with half of his hit list fulfilled. The man, Grave decided, was definitely not the other target.

In the Court of Dreams, Erithnae, the queen, rules supreme. However, her mischievous daughter Siobhan (aforementioned princess of dreams and potential psycho in the making) has plots and plans afoot, and the Master of the Hunt (Grave) is key to these plans. However, Grave doesn’t quite know that he is being played (he suspects but has no proof), and conitnues to do the bidding of the vicious little princess. Grave goes back to the college with his newly assigned mission — kill the man known as Thomas Greene, who was the almost-witness of his last victim.

For Thomas, life was looking up. He had a great new job offer, was graduating university and was about to break up with his vegetarian girlfriend. Well, this last little bit would have gone off without a hitch had he not accidentally hypnotized the soon-to-be ex and she not catch on. As Grave closes in on his target, Thomas clumsily avoids the Master of the Hunt and, with Nicola (soon-to-be ex) in tow, stumbles into the Court of Dreams, a magical world that is far more different than anything that Thomas has ever seen before.

Thomas and Nicola are separated upon arrival (a good thing for Thomas, because I was quite certain that Nicola was about to neuter him) and Thomas meets a strange man named Simon Stranded, who is a figment of a dream (being stranded on a deserted island with a handsome man, which created Simon… it’s funny, brilliant and quite difficult to explain without giving away the entire plot of the book). Simon helps Thomas escape for awhile until the most atrociously hilarious search party in the history of literature tracks him down and the princess, who is quite perturbed with the human male, locks him away in her private, secret dungeon.

Seriously, this book had me rolling at this point. After about six or seven books straight of nothing but morose, dark fiction, it was a vast relief to read something so whimsical and fresh. Sharp hits the ground running here and this book, like all great books, is slightly different every time one reads it. That old saying of “No book is the same when read twice” definitely should be applied to this book. The pacing is quick, the wit is extremely sharp, and the dialogue feels very natural and fresh. The scene changes are done well, and the POV shifts are done well enough that I had little problems tracking who was where at any given time (something of a pet peeve of mine).

The ending is a little predictable, until the twist at the end (both a punishment and a reward for Thomas) which brought on a serious case of the giggles. Definitely a must-read book. I’ve read it twice already, and plan on loaning this one out to friends. Assuming, of course, they promise to give it back.


-Reviewed by Jason

, ,

1 Comment

Sociologist Hochschild Asks, “How Much Should You Outsource Yourself?”

Arlie Russell Hochschild, emerita professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is known for her trenchant commentary regarding all facets of life.  But in Hochschild’s newest non-fiction work, THE OUTSOURCED SELF, Hochschild has come up with an entirely new premise, which is this: how much is too much when it comes to outsourcing?

Now, this may seem odd, because outsourcing is a word that’s been used predominantly by various companies when they’ve moved jobs from large countries like the United States to countries that pay lower wages and have fewer environmental regulations, or by the newly unemployed workers of these companies when they complain about the practice of outsourcing.  Yet Hochschild makes a compelling case that in our modern life, far too much of what used to be considered our private lives are now instead in the public domain because we’ve outsourced these jobs to others as it’s become more socially acceptable to do so.

Consider, please, the plethora of “love coaches,” the phenomenon of, and wedding planners.  All of these things have moved into the mainstream, and no one thinks anything of it if you wish to hire these services.  Yet thirty years ago, while wedding planners surely existed, there weren’t anywhere near so many of them, while there was no such thing as a paid “love coach,” and the closest anyone got to online dating was putting a personal ad in the newspaper.

Now, consider the newer professions Hochschild came up with in the research of her book — “nameologists,” who will come up with just the right name, but for a hefty price; “wantologists,” which seems to be a subset of psychology — these people will tell you what you really want rather than what you say you want; and last, but not least, the baby surrogacy movement from both sides (people seeking a surrogate to carry their child, and surrogates seeking parents in turn in order to stay financially afloat).  None of these industries were extant thirty years ago, and while many people scoff at the first two professions, most people believe that if you really want a child, you should do whatever it takes to have one, which is why the whole surrogacy movement has become quasi-legal in the United States and outright legal in other countries (such as India).

See, the problem with surrogacy isn’t that mothers want to rent their wombs out, or desperate parents want to try whatever they possibly can in order to bring a baby to term when all else has failed.  It’s that it’s become a profitable business that Hochschild finds so appalling; in its profiteering, many women surrogates who live in disadvantaged places end up getting taken advantage of — usually not by the desperate parents, but by the doctors who are attempting to make a child to order.  In this case, the doctor becomes the surrogate’s employer, and has complete and total control over the woman in question until she delivers.  The emotional, psychological, and sociological consequences of such actions is appalling, which Hochschild quite rightly points out.

Now, there are some jobs that do need to be outsourced, which Hochschild points out with great skill and flair.  For example, very few people have the right skills to take care of an elderly relative, so finding someone who can help there is socially acceptable for very good reasons.  Another job that needs to be outsourced relates to nursing homes; there are way too many patients in there who have no visitors, and yet, these are human beings.

It’s the latter version of positive outsourcing that motivated Hochschild to write her poignant chapter 13 about elder-care consultant Barbara Strand and her dachshund, Itty-Bitty.  Strand often visits nursing homes at the behest of relatives who live far away, and evaluates the patient and the nursing home in order to give the absent, yet caring, relatives the best possible idea of what Strand believes should be done with regards to the patient’s care.  Yet Strand, if she had her “druthers,” would work full-time in a nursing home, perhaps as an activity director, perhaps as something else — the reason she doesn’t is because the money is just not there to pay her.  But her gifts to work with the elderly are quite strong, so she found another way.

Overall, Hochschild’s premise is this: society is changing.  Many things we used to do for ourselves are now outsourced to others.  But we need to do our best to hang on to whatever private life we possibly can, otherwise, what’s the point of living?

The one drawback to THE OUTSOURCED SELF is that Hochschild puts most of her attention on the upper middle class, either those who work for people in that class (such as au pairs and personal assistants) or those in that class who believe they must “keep up with the Joneses.”  While this narrow focus is interesting, I would’ve preferred to see Hochschild deal more broadly with the real economic burdens many people in the United States deal with; if she had found a few people who’d saved for years to afford an expensive wedding planner (yes, some people do this), that would’ve helped a great deal to give this book a bit more depth and breadth.

That said, this is a strong effort that anyone concerned about society and how it adapts (or doesn’t) to changing circumstances should read.    Best of all, this is a book that reads well and almost too easily, so the ideas Hochschild deals with creep up slowly, then explode with great power.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , , ,


Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding” — Strong Baseball Writing

Chad Harbach’s THE ART OF FIELDING is a very good debut novel about baseball, baseball teams, the friends baseball players make along the way, and life in general.  The primary character of THE ART OF FIELDING is Henry Skrimshander, a superb defensive shortstop who has never made an error.  (This last is quite a reach, as everyone makes errors in baseball.  But I digress.)  Henry is bright, capable, virginal, and a baseball prodigy, but because he’s from South Dakota, no one knows anything about him.  (If you’re thinking about movies like The Natural or Field of Dreams, you’re on the right track.)

One day, at an American Legion tournament, a catcher from the opposing team spots Henry during fielding practice.  This catcher, Mike Schwartz, immediately recruits Henry to Westish University, a small, Division III liberal arts college in Wisconsin, and of course Henry goes (otherwise there would be no story).

Once Henry arrives at Westish, he settles in, starts to gain weight and bulk up a bit, and plays ball.  He meets his roommate, Owen Dunne, who blandly introduces himself as “your gay mulatto roommate,” which reminds Henry — and the reader — that Henry’s no longer in South Dakota any more.    Owen is also a baseball player who’s read “The Art of Fielding” (a defensive manual akin to THE INNER GAME OF TENNIS, intended for shortstops or those trying to get inside the game), and can relate to Henry even though they couldn’t be more different aside from their mutual love of the game.

So far, so good; we’ve got a “bromance,” an excellent baseball story with a lot of insights that ring true, and a mythical figure in Henry, the shortstop who’s never made an error.  But then, the plot thickens; Owen takes a lover — a most unexpected one, at that — and the consequences of this may prove to be his undoing.  Then we meet Pella Affenlight, daughter of the University President Guert Affenlight; she’s a twenty-four year old woman getting a divorce from a much older husband, and starts a relationship with Henry’s teammate, Schwartz.

So, we have Owen and his lover; we have the University President and his daughter; we have Henry and his baseball.  Which will fall apart first?

THE ART OF FIELDING is a literary novel, so in some senses, despite how great the baseball scenes are, they are still a MacGuffin.  The story is really about what happens to Henry after he finally, inevitably, makes an error (he falls apart, as you might expect); it’s also about the consequences of Owen’s affair, about Pella attempting to grow up and going through many tribulations along the way, and about how Henry’s teammates, including Mike Schwartz, have to deal with the end of Henry’s brilliance while hoping for a return of Henry’s workmanlike competence.

Many reviewers have waxed nostalgic about THE ART OF FIELDING, and have pointed out the ways that this book compares with other literary novels, including the one most emulated by English-speaking writers, Herman Melville’s MOBY-DICK (which Harbach directly references by making his University President a Melville scholar).  Much of that is true with regards to the “bromance,” baseball, and even the love affair between Owen and his older paramour, but it fails when it comes to the relationship between Pella and Schwartz.  Pella is an immature woman, yes, and needs to find her place in the world.  But THE ART OF FIELDING tries to make a case for Pella staying with Mike despite her cheating on him (even though in baseball, it’s usually the other way around); this role reversal does not work.

Further, Pella is not drawn well.  She’s supposed to be in love with Mike Schwartz, but Harbach takes this at face value.  The relationship is never delved into, Schwartz never confronts Pella for anything she does, they have terrible communication, and yet somehow, they stay together anyway.  I did not buy this at all.

My best guess as to what Harbach intended with this romance was that Mike, a catcher without the talent for the minor leagues who’s nearing the end of the road because his body is worn down, is supposed to be astonished that this beautiful, glamorous woman would be interested in him.  So he puts up with anything she does, and says nothing about it.

However, this makes no sense.  Schwartz is a self-assured, self-willed motivator, and the reader knows that from the first page of the book.  Schwartz mixes it up on the field, being a prototypical pugnacious catcher of the old school.  He wants to go to law school.  He has dreams, ambitions, and goals — he is not a loser, is not a low-life, is not lacking in self-esteem, yet he puts up with terrible behavior for no reason at all except that Pella is “hot.”

Once again: I don’t buy it, especially in the context of a literary novel.

As a book, THE ART OF FIELDING is at its best when it focuses on Henry and his trials and tribulations, or Schwartz by himself, or Owen and Owen’s lover, or in a broader sense, when it deals with the twin games of baseball and life.  Because of Harbach’s excellent grasp of these subjects, his debut effort is strong, and well worth reading.

That said, I really wish Harbach had written a more believable female character in Pella; if he had, this book would’ve been one for the ages in every possible respect.  As it is, it’s merely a very good debut novel that shows Harbach has a whole lot of work to do when it comes to understanding women, romance, or what keeps couples together despite adversity.  Simply put: being “hot” is not enough, and Harbach really should’ve known better than to think that it was.

Grade: B.

–reviewed by Barb 


Note: In literary novels, there often are characters with “tragic flaws.”  Henry has one in that he believes without his extraordinary fielding gifts, he’s not worth much.  Pella has one in that she can’t seem to be faithful even when she says she’s in love.  But Schwartz’s “fatal flaw” being that he’ll stay with a woman who’s “hot” no matter what she does to him is not one that passes the “smell test.”  Sorry.

, , , , , ,

1 Comment