There's a good book lurking somewhere in here; one just needs a machete, a weed-whacker and a couple of sturdy pruning shears in order to find it. Don...moreThere's a good book lurking somewhere in here; one just needs a machete, a weed-whacker and a couple of sturdy pruning shears in order to find it. Don't get me wrong, I like it when an author gets creative with certain stock genre archetypes and messes with the traditional mythology associated with said archetypes. I don't like it when authors then decide to cram every single item which pops into their head into one book. With Once Bitten we have shape-shifters, but not just of your lupine variety but also of feline, in the the shapes of lions, tigers, bobcats and, in the case of the lead character, a calico housecat. Okay, no probs with that, especially the housecat bit; that's rather amusing, once your brain stops trying to figure out the physics and logistics of squishing a human into a tiny cat form, complete with clothes, and just goes with the flow. Then you have vampires. Okay, sure, why not? After that, though, it starts to get a bit over the top, as you have a vampire "bringing over" a shifter (said calico housecat), a mage shows up with his demon hoarde, a fairy pops by (at least, I think she's as fairy; it's never clearly explained, another of the author's problems I'll get to in a moment), a vampire council is introduced, not to mention we have a rogue shifter who's the main thrust of the plot. It's exhausting! It's as though the author, in one of her brainstorming sessions, thought, "Hmm, what else can I add to make sure this book is as 'supernatural' as possible?"
Basically, the story runs like this: We have our calico shifter, Kita (whom everyone calls "Kitten" even though she hates that nickname and, trust me, by the end of the book, you'll hate it as well), who's run away from her clan. Now, according to her, this clan lives in Firth. We don't know where Firth is, whether it's another city or country or dimension; we can kind of guess it's the latter, as a 'gate' opens up between the human world and Firth every full moon or so and apparently that's the only method of travel between the two places. But we're never told explicitly. And here's where we run into the information problem. I've been very vocal about my hatred of info dumps: they are poor excuses for exposition and world-building. However, the opposite, info droughts, are just as despised. Ideally, an author should sprinkle pertinent information, including backstory, throughout his or her novel, like a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar through a coffee cake: Little nuggets of extra information which add bursts of yumminess and dimension to the experience. Withholding information doesn't make you seem mature as a writer; it makes you seem even more inexperienced as, the further you go on not explaining your world, the more a reader believes you haven't taken the time to fully build it and its mythology. We are left to fill in so many blanks in the story, after a while it's easy just to give up and skim through the remainder of the book. After all, if the author didn't put the effort into writing it, why should we put any effort into reading it?
To get back to Kita, she's apparently run away from her clan because she's the next in line to be clan leader or Torin; she doesn't think she's powerful enough to take over, even though everyone else is seemingly okay with it (and once again we have another author falling prey to the tired PNR cliche concerning their female lead: "Ooh, poor me, I have no self-esteem even though everyone I know tells me I'm great, but I just can't believe it, woe is me, I'm so pitiful"). So now she's been on the run for five years and has hunters from her clan and others on her tail, so she's constantly on the move, changing cities quicker than some people change their underwear. The latest town, Haven, isn't turning out to be one; hunters have found her already, including one of her childhood pals from Firth, Bobby. To escape them, she hides inside a local rave. She finds herself roofied, on her way to crying out "Goodbye, cruel world!" only to be rescued by a vampire who has to turn her in order to save her life (which he endangered in the first place, as he decided to feed from Kita but found her memories and life force so interesting, he took a wee drop of blood too much; finding he couldn't let such an "interesting" creature die, he turned her instead. Nice, huh?) Waking up naked and chained to a wall, naturally Kita's a bit perturbed. Even more so when the mad vampire woman who's guarding her offers her a cup of warm cat's blood to drink. The vampire who turned her, Nathanial, finally releases Kita (who was chained for her own good; yeah, we've all heard that one before), who, quite naturally, tries to get as far away as possible. Just then, however, is when this mage pops up, who's apparently some kind of uber-judge for supernatural creatures, and sentences Kita to death for creating a rogue shifter who's been piling up the bodies in the local environs. Are you saying "Huh?" yet? Because I know I was. Who is this judge? Why does he have the right to sentence Kita? How does he know she's responsible, because, as far as I can see, there's no obvious evidence leading to a glaring neon sign of 'Guilt' over Kita's head. Why does he have demons doing his bidding? What the hell is going on? So, to try and wrap this up, Kita has two nights to find the rogue and kill it. She's helped in her hunt by Nathanial and Bobby (who, despite the fact he has a mate who's expecting a litter of his whelps, still pines for Kita's affection), as well as the fairy Gil, who tags along, studying Kita for some sort of interdimensional college doctoral thesis (or something like that; once again we're never explicitly told, leading to yet another round of questions: Who is this Gil? Why does she have the authority to study Kita? Why the hell would she want to? How did she know about the judge and Kita's case?)
While there is some good writing in here, the book is clunky. I had a hard time identifying or even liking any of the characters. Kita is whiny and whimpy; most of the time I just wanted to punch her and turn her over to the judge. She's also a complete mess: she's feisty when she should be calm and showing some sense, and meekly docile when she should be kicking some ass. Bobby is underdeveloped, with little-to-personality; the most we know from him is that Kita and he used to be an item when they were kids, but, because he's a wolf and she's a cat, I suppose (although it's never specifically stated), he wasn't allowed to mate with Kita and instead was forced to mate with another, a female wolf from a different clan. So Bobby moons over Kita and bristles at any affection shown to her by Nathanial, but that's about it. Nathanial has the most potential for being a well-rounded character; although he's still slightly one-dimensional in the novel, things are hinted about him which could add depth to his story. I presume those hints are further explored in subsequent novels. And although you can sympathize with Kita's anger over being forcibly turned into a vampire and her reluctance to initially trust Nathanial, the way she treats him and her situation is more like a toddler throwing a temper-tantrum: "I don't like it, I don't wanna do it, you can make me, waaaaaaa!" Not to mention the many questions and inconsistencies throughout the book. For instance, in Firth, females cannot be hunters (why the hell not?), in fact females seem to be good for nothing other than breeding, yet there's no problem with Kita taking over as leader? That doesn't jive with such a seemingly misogynistic society. Why does Kita wear a necklace into which the finger bones of a human child and kitten (her own bones, taken when she was little) are woven? What does that signify? What about the number of bones, which is more than Bobby's, who, apparently, shouldn't even have the right to wear such a necklace, but petitioned the clan elders to do so and was allowed.
Frankly, there are too many questions, not enough answers and not enough sympathy or interest generated to make me care enough to read the next book.(less)
Raw, personal and eye-opening, Stories I Only Tell My Friends is not your typical celebrity tell-all, in which the star whines and blames those around...moreRaw, personal and eye-opening, Stories I Only Tell My Friends is not your typical celebrity tell-all, in which the star whines and blames those around him/her for his/her current problems. Instead, Rob Lowe simply states "That's the way things were and this was how I handled them. It wasn't smart, but, hey, I didn't know any better." Although, in Rob's case, he would've been perfectly justified in whining a bit, having suffered through a childhood torn apart by divorce, leaving him with a father who was absent from his life most of the time and a mother who, well, to put it nicely, was a flake. A hypochondriac flake who couldn't be bothered to interact with her sons and instead chased fad after fad and man after man. Rob is very generous in ascribing his mother's hands-off behavior to a desire to see him succeed on his own and not the neglect it truly was. Whatever the case, though, his independent childhood served him well (for the most part), powering his drive to succeed which fueled his early, stellar career, a career that looked at though it could only go up...until it imploded in the lat 80's, making him a walking punchline for a time. Yet even in the face of an event which would've totally devastated any other actor, Lowe maintained his ferocious work ethic and sense of humor, allowing him to rise above the tabloid tattle and rebuild his career.
Lowe entered Hollywood during the third Golden Age, when mavericks and innovators such as Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg were the new kids on the block, disrupting the old order and creating their own. As such, Stories I Only Tell My Friends is very much like a typical celeb autobiography in that many famous names are dropped throughout the book. However, and this is again where Lowe's books differs, the name-dropping is never gratuitous. Each person mentioned always played a key role in Lowe's career and it's clear Lowe not only admires his famous friends and acquaintances, even his rivals, he never has a bad word to say about any of them. Which makes Rob Lowe a rarity in Hollywood, an actual gentleman who would rather slog through the mud to reach his goal than sling it around to block anyone else's path.
Granted, you must always take a celebrity's word with a grain of salt. However, Lowe's book comes across as refreshingly honest and un-fake, making it highly readable and immensely enjoyable.(less)
What a fun, thrilling, adventure-filled ride of a book! For anyone who's ever felt different, apart from one's peers, even a bit "alien" to everyone e...moreWhat a fun, thrilling, adventure-filled ride of a book! For anyone who's ever felt different, apart from one's peers, even a bit "alien" to everyone else, this is the book for you, no matter your age. In fact, even as an adult, I still suffer from such distant feelings. As such, I felt an immediate connection to the protagonist, Beatrix "Trix" Ling, the most real, dimensional, interesting character I've yet seen in juvenile fiction. She's adventurous, headstrong, doubtful of herself yet willing to go out on a limb anyway in order to do what's right and best. What's truly wonderful is she's the least irritating, whiny, mealy-mouthed M.C.; while she has her moments of poor behavior (and don't we all), she's the freshest breath of fresh air I've encountered. Trix is so real, so refreshing, so well-rounded, warm and lovable, I'm absolutely impatient to see more of her.
Trix has always believed she was special. After all, her parents told her so and ever since they died in a tragic space shuttle accident, knowing that they thought she was special has kept Trix going. Especially now. Trix is a charity case at a snobby boarding school, where her smart mouth and headstrong actions tend to get her into trouble. A lot. This last go-round, with the snooty Della, has cost Trix her coveted position on the school's gymnastic team and a trip to the state finals. Beaten, but not yet broken, Trix soon encounters the sinister Nyl, a strange mechanical man who's broken into Trix's room in order to steal the one thing left to her by her parents, a meteorite, a strange chunk of space rock she's promised to keep safe. Thus begins an adventure of a lifetime when Trix chases after Nyl and ends up in the middle of a circus. But this is no ordinary circus and when the charismatic young ringmaster invites her to join, Trix discovers her place in the universe is not so small as she believed. As she unlocks the secrets of her past, she encounters space leeches, new friends, ancient alien artifacts, potential conspiracies, and an exploding chocolate dessert.
Think of this book as kind of a Hogwarts in space. Indeed, if Circus Galacticus doesn't get the acclaim and notice that J.K Rowling's series received, then the good people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt aren't doing their jobs properly. Breezy, exhilarating, fast-paced, well-imagined and excellently written, Circus Galacticus is a sure-fire winner.(less)
Like most anthologies, the stories within Steampunk! fall into three categories: Fantastic, Mediocre, and Bloody Awful. I will give the authors and ed...moreLike most anthologies, the stories within Steampunk! fall into three categories: Fantastic, Mediocre, and Bloody Awful. I will give the authors and editors credit, though, in that, for the most part, they're not your average steampunk. Not only are most of the stories not set in the traditional Victorian London milieu, the stories have settings ranging from Appalachia, Canada, New Zealand, Wales and beyond, from ancient Rome to futures both bleak and fantastical.
Here's a breakdown of those stories which I feel fall into the first and third categories I described above. First, the Fantastic: --The best, most stand-out story of the entire collection was the very last one presented. Oracle Engine by M.T. Anderson concerns a steampunk-flavored ancient Rome (so creative!). The story could've easily come off as cheesy or hokey, but the storytelling, along with Anderson's incredible attention to even the smallest historical detail, makes for a riveting tale. In fact, I really wish Anderson could find a way to turn his short story into a novel or series of novels. His steampunk Rome is a city I would love to revisit. --The Last Ride of the Glory Girls by Libba Bray. Set in the wild, wild West (kinda; when you read it, you'll understand) and revolving around a gang of girl train robbers and the Pinkerton men (and girl) chasing them, this is a rip-roaring train ride of a story. A well-written and super fun tale. --Clockwork Fagin by Cory Doctorow. As its name implies, this is a riff on the whole Oliver/orphanage/mistreated waifs theme, with a deliciously inventive and satisfying comeuppance for the miserable orphan master. Richly detailed and immensely satisfying. --Hand in Glove by Ysabeau S. Wilce. As I was reading the anthology, this was initially my first choice for favorite story. This piece, above almost all others in the compilation, perfectly captures the wild inventiveness and creative storytelling necessary for a successful steampunk tale. Beautifully told, with vivid imagery, this is C.S.I meets steampunk and it's stupendous. --The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor by Delia Sherman. A ghost story in a steampunk setting. Now that's creative! Set in a manor house in the Welsh countryside, this is a charming little tale with perhaps not that much depth, but nevertheless entertaining for what it is. --Steam Girl by Dylan Horrocks. A wonderful story-within-a-story revolving around the familiar alienation/high school-is-hell theme, with superbly entertaining results. Steam Girl is a heroine for a new generation and I would love to see more of her adventures (not to mention Rocket Boy's), especially in a graphic novel, a medium big enough and colorful enough to contain Steam Girl's exuberance. --Everything Amiable & Obliging by Holly Black. One of the few stories set in London (in fact, I believe there was only one other story with a London-setting), this is a sugared violet, petit four treat of a confection. That's not to say it's lightweight, however. The story delves into the murky realms of what it is exactly which makes a person a person. A delightful tale with unexpected depths.
The Bloody Awful: --Seven Days Beset by Demons by Shawn Cheng. A short story told in graphic novel-fashion. Now, I understand the steampunk angle as the M.C. (a vendor) peddles little clockwork vignettes. But the story itself is poor. Yeah, yeah, I get the whole 'missed opportunities due to stupid self-indulgence'; that still doesn't mean the story was done well or entertaining, which it wasn't...at all. Plus, the ending was abrupt and not satisfying, not to mention the artwork was childish and not at all creative, in my opinion. --Gethsemane by Elizabeth Knox. First off, I don't see how this qualifies as steampunk. Other than a mention of some steam works and an airship (neither of which are all that uncommon in real life, needing the fantastical touches of clockworks, automatons and other creative additions in order to make them steampunk), the story has no connection with the genre. Secondly, as it concerns a witch and a zombie, the story belongs more to the straight fantasy genre, as there's no steampunk element to either of the two characters, explaining their condition or motivations. As to the plot, it's nonsensical and pointless, with no clear direction. On a technical level, the writing is fine, quite lyrical; it's just wasted on a poor story. --The Summer People by Kelly Link. Now, to be perfectly honest, this story isn't Bloody Awful; however, it is another story which really doesn't belong in this anthology as there's nothing steampunk about it, which is why I'm including it in this category. Apart from the mention of some clockwork mechanical toys, which aren't inherently steampunk unless placed in context, the tale revolves around fairies. Appalachian fairies, but fairies nonetheless. Unlike the story above, however, this one is actually quite good, with excellent writing and a creative plot. Had I encountered it in a fantasy- or fairy-themed anthology, I'd be singing its praises as a real winner. However, steampunk it ain't. It just doesn't belong. --Finishing School by Kathleen Jennings. Yes, this one is steampunk and has the elements of that genre in abundance. What it doesn't have is a storyline. What little story exists is confusing, disjointed, and just plain hard to follow. Even the fact that the tale contains elements of real-life incidents doesn't help clarify the action. Very poorly done. --The absolute weakest link of the anthology was the very first story, Some Fortunate Future Day, by Cassandra Clare. Now, I've never had the (pleasure?) of reading any of Clare's books, though I have heard the numerous critics who call her a hack. Judging from this (thankfully short) example, I'd have to say those critics are on to something. A piece of fluff, with apparently very little thought or creativity put into it, I wonder at the editors' decision to include it. For example, the M.C. is named Rose and another girl integral to the story is named Lily. Really? How clever, naming both girls after flowers; that's realistic and, boy howdy! what a stretch of the imagination. The best thing I can say about this piece is that it takes very little time or brain power to get through it. Shallow and insipid.
I have to say, out of the 14 stories contained in Steampunk!, there was a greater-than-average ratio of dreck to gems, for which I'm extremely grateful. Kudos to the editors, for while they could've done better, they also could've done a helluva lot worse.(less)
First of all, I have to give kudos to the authors: It's obvious they did their research and did it well. They managed to layer a wealth of information...moreFirst of all, I have to give kudos to the authors: It's obvious they did their research and did it well. They managed to layer a wealth of information into the novel, immersing the reader in Byzantine Constantinople without impeding the flow of narration or cutting it off altogether with large info dumps. All other considerations aside, the novel does a wonderful job of bringing that chaotic and rich city to life. That said, the story itself is thin. According to the biography, the authors, a husband and wife team, have previously written short stories concerning the main character of the novel, John the Eunuch. I think they should stick to that format, as the book felt to me as though they'd taken a short story and padded it out in order to create a full-length novel, with little success. The mystery, such as it was, was not very mysterious and the search for its conclusion was constantly interrupted by side tales of tertiary and other even more minor characters. While those short interludes gave us glimpses into assorted lifestyles, from the lowest of the poor to high-end courtesans, they didn't do anything to advance the story. In fact, they did the opposite, by delaying the action and any suspense, of which there wasn't much, which might've built up. While I agree that a short description is a good thing--after all, these minor characters are witnesses and victims, so it's always good to know where they're coming from--it was completely unnecessary to go into such lengthy descriptions of their day-to-day lives. In fact, such detail was given that I came to know more about them than I did about the first victim, the one who drove the whole story. If a mystery has any chance of being compelling, we, the reader, have to care about the victim, or at least care about why s/he was murdered. The victim of One For Sorrow, Leukos, is a virtual cipher as there was almost no information given about him or his history; even when I finally reached the end of the book, I still didn't have a clue as to why I should care that he was murdered. We're also supposed to care about the protagonist, John the Eunuch, and while we did discover some of his backstory and history, it didn't seem enough. In the end, after the first few chapters, I ended up skimming the book as I just couldn't connect to any of the characters; none of them seemed like flesh-and-blood people and I didn't care what happened to them.(less)
Eva Stachniak is an excellent writer. She immerses the reader fully into the story, allowing one to hear the susurration of silken petticoats...more3.5 stars
Eva Stachniak is an excellent writer. She immerses the reader fully into the story, allowing one to hear the susurration of silken petticoats, feel the chill bite of the howling Russian winter wind, smell the perfume and mildew which permeated the grand yet dilapidated Winter Palace. She does so with complex sentences, unlike some historical fiction writers *cough* Philippa Gregory *cough* who can't seem to string together sentences more involved than the "See Jane, See Spot, See Jane and Spot" variety, weaving together a intricate and compelling story. Eva also managed to introduce numerous characters without overwhelming the reader or constantly repeating how each character related to another and the importance of said relationship as some writers *cough* Philippa Gregory *cough* do, relying on the reader's intelligence to keep names straight (as well as a handy list at the back of the book, identifying the major players in the Russian Court).
However, I did encounter a few problems. The first was the story really wasn't about Catherine the Great, at least, not in the way I had imagined the novel might be. The book is told from the first-person perspective of Barbara, or as she's known in Russia, Varvara, the daughter of a lowly bookbinder who comes to the court of Empress Elizabeth and eventually becomes her "tongue" or spy. Varvara's job is to ingratiate herself with the young Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, the future Catherine and bride of Empress Elizabeth's nephew, Ivan, in order to spy on her activities and report back to the Empress. Along the way, Varvara becomes conflicted over her duties as she finds herself truly liking the naive Grand Duchess and instead of helping the Empress, she begins to help Catherine become a power player in the Russian court, actions which inevitably lead to a clashing of forces and a palace coup. While the story told is powerful and entrancing, I found it was more about Varvara and her fortunes and follies than anyone else; Catherine, while present, seemed to be a side note. Yes, we see Catherine change from a frightened, lonely young woman to a confident manipulator of her surroundings. However, all the thoughts we see are Varvara's. All the emotions and upheavals we experience are Varvara's. Everything of Catherine's is second-hand and, thus, less poignant. Also, the first-person narration didn't always serve the story well and this is something I'd like to dwell upon for a moment. It seems to be the "in" thing lately to have historical fiction novels told from a first-person perspective, often from a secondary source. Why? If you want to have first-person narration, why can't the principal character do the narration? Why does it have to be first-person? Why can't we go back to the tried-and-true third person omniscient narration? Or be truly daring and try an epistolary narration? Because, and here's the problem with first-person narration from a secondary character, you lose some of the immediacy and flow of the tale, especially if, as in the case with The Winter Palace, your character leaves the main action. For seven years, after she displeases the Empress and is forcefully married off, Varvara is banished from court and the novel focuses on her time spent with her husband and child. As such, we hear about the actions of Catherine, who is supposedly meant to be the main thrust of the novel, from tertiary sources--letters, reports, rumors--passed on to Varvara. If this is a book about Catherine, why is Varvara the one we sympathize with, suffer with, ride along with? Shouldn't it be Catherine?
Ultimately, that is the reason behind my rating. While the writing is beautiful and the story excellently told, it's mislabeled. It should be subtitled A Novel Set in the Court of Catherine the Great. Because, in the end, it's Varvara who takes center stage, about whom all the other characters dance.(less)
How is it possible that most of the world has forgotten such a dynamic, complex, amazing woman? A woman who, at seventh months pregnant, took control...moreHow is it possible that most of the world has forgotten such a dynamic, complex, amazing woman? A woman who, at seventh months pregnant, took control of the papal fort of Castel Sant'Angelo and held it, with some skillfully smuggled-in soldiers, for eleven days in order to defend her family's rights. A woman who went toe to toe, figuratively speaking, with one of the most brilliant wits of the Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli, and not only won but made Machiavelli look like an incompetent fool. A woman who, when the walls of her beloved castle Ravaldino were finally breached by the artillery of Cesare Borgia's army, took up a sword and waded into that breach and for two hours was the equal of any man, wielding her sword against the enemy as she fought side by side with her men. And when one of those men betrayed her and sold her out to the enemy; when she's captured by Cesare, held prisoner by him for months as he brutally rapes, torments, and terrorizes her; when she's taken back to Rome and thrown into a deep, dank cell in the same Castel Sant'Angelo she'd so bravely commandeered sixteen years earlier, her spirit could not be broken and she still managed to be defiant, even down to planning a daring escape from the inescapable papal fort. The story of Caterina Riario Sforza Medici, larger-than-life, full of colorful characters and daring exploits, should be as well known to any schoolchild as that of Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Catherine the Great of Russia and fully belongs in the pantheon of fabulous warrior women.
Elizabeth Lev does a wonderful job of taking some of the tarnish off Caterina's reputation, who during her lifetime and beyond has been vilified, judged as a witch, a whore, a virago (which, initially, was a good thing, meaning a woman of masculine spirit, from the Latin vir, man; eventually virago began to take on shadings of a negative nature, until it's become the word we know now, for an abusive and hostile woman, a woman with no shame). So much of the contemporary writings were lost, so it's hard to know exactly what took place when, but it's also easy to read between the lines of contemporary history-takers (all of them men and all of them at one time either infatuated with Caterina or repelled by her, thus coloring every word they wrote about her) and find a happy medium of truth to the most harsh of rumors and tales spread about concerning Caterina's actions. Like many other powerful, fierce and willful women in an era when women, even those in positions of power (especially those in positions of power) were supposed to be meek, mild and led by the nose by the nearest and most powerful male, Caterina's actions inspired a sort of horrified fascination in the populace and, when her actions finally exceeded the bounds of propriety, they inspired condemnation and fear. There's no way of clearing up every rumor concerning Caterina's actions, especially the more heinous ones ascribed to her (although Lev does a great job of presenting fair arguments as to why or why not Caterina couldn't/wouldn't have taken such an action), but Elizabeth Lev manages to open the curtain and shed quite a bit of light onto this extraordinary life.
As for the book itself, this is no dry dissertation concerning only names and dates, but neither is it history-lite. It strikes the right balance between information and information-overload. The narration moves along at a brisk clip and the situations are well-drawn, fully placing you, the reader, into the midst of the action on the page. There is a map provided at the beginning of the book, which helps you navigate the many Italian city-states, provinces and shifting allegiances which populate the book. Seeing as my copy is an ARC, I don't know what the publisher has in store for final publication, but I'd guess, or at least I'm hoping, they'll place some photo inserts of some of the places mentioned in the book, as well as perhaps a facsimile of some of the artwork the author describes. Such an insert would be a welcome visual aid; however, even without such an aid, the reader still gets a sense of time and place from the descriptions provided by the author. Photos would only be a bonus.
Caterina Sforza managed to straddle the quicksands which are Italian politics and not only survive but thrive, navigating political morasses with a sharp wit and a savvy mind. She endured a tedious first marriage to a corrupt and inept buffoon who only brought shame to the family name; entered into a secret, second marriage for love, which shocked the Renaissance world, and once again chose her own husband for her third, brief and sadly tragic, marriage. During her short, but ultimately brilliant life, Caterina showed herself to be a fearless ruler, a woman with an iron will and a fierce devotion to her children, an ingenious tactician and an inspiration to an entire continent. She truly was the Tigress of Forli.(less)
A dynamic action-adventure yarn featuring a precocious heroine and introducing a beguiling new animal companion. I came into this novel unaware and un...moreA dynamic action-adventure yarn featuring a precocious heroine and introducing a beguiling new animal companion. I came into this novel unaware and unfamiliar with David Weber's "Honorverse." Happily, I realized that wouldn't be a problem, as A Beautiful Friendship is whole unto itself, a novel one can read without needing an extensive grounding in the author's previous works.
Concerning the exploits of young Stephanie Harrington, precociously intelligent and occasionally irritatingly irrepressible (to her parents, that is, who constantly try to keep her out of trouble, a usually futile experiment), and her bond with a member of the extraordinary species which shares her planet, a treecat by the name of Climbs Quickly, the book has a slow but steady build, leading to a satisfying climax and a not-too-dangling opening for future books. While occasionally the language could seem a bit...clunky, it was understandable considering it was coming from a perspective of a culture trying to describe human items using non-human terms. At other times, the narrative seemed a bit wordy, but for the most part the story moved along at a brisk clip, introducing characters and concepts in a steady pace. The villain was suitably villainous without being overtly so (no cackling, no mustache-twirling) and he had a satisfying comeuppance at the end of the tale. The best part of the story was, while Stephanie was clearly described as a young adult, a preteen at the beginning of the story, she is represented in a positive way, intelligent, determined, with a clear moral compass and sense of duty. Yes, she occasionally whines and pouts and she occasionally rebelled against her parents' restrictions--if she didn't, she wouldn't be realistic. However, that wasn't her whole character. The relationship between her and Climbs Quickly, though, is at the heart of the book and in it is where Stephanie truly blossoms into a fully-fleshed human being, not just a character who happens to interact with a cute and quirky new animal. From Climbs Quickly is where Stephanie, never a waffling sort of person, gets her sense of purpose: To protect the newly discovered species from the conflicting and potentially deadly interests of the many powerful political and private groups both on planet and off. Which gives us our second plotline of the book and a continuing thread of a story for any sequels.
In the end, although I'm not the demographic towards which this book is aimed, I still enjoyed it and found it to be a delightful introduction to Weber's Honorverse.(less)
Occasionally funny, occasionally insightful, I found The Anglo Files less "A field guide to the British" (as the book is erroneously subtitle...more2.5 stars
Occasionally funny, occasionally insightful, I found The Anglo Files less "A field guide to the British" (as the book is erroneously subtitled, in my opinion) and more a window into Sarah Lyall's quirks and hang-ups. Yes, the clash of cultures aspect could be amusing at times and it's true, the Brits have their share of oddball ticks. Then again, so does a transplanted New York-er. It's all a matter of perspective. Not to mention the fact the book focuses on a specific upper-class stratum of British life, something honestly acknowledged by Lyall in her introduction. And while it's true, some of the behaviors witnessed are unbelievably far-fetched (the House of Lords debating the existence of UFOs during the Winter of Discontent, when the country was basically falling apart, but all the Lords were concerned with was whether little green men had visited our planet, among other such vignettes), other tales I found less outlandish. Perhaps it's my Anglo brain, but the tales of picnicking in inclement weather didn't seem so outrageous, seeing as how, on my visit to the UK, I sat on a Scottish beach, in March, during a drizzle, to eat my fish 'n chips. Or Lyall's report of how the Brits she knew would put up with almost any climatic discomfort with only the mildest of a "My, the weather seems rather grumpy today" comment didn't seem so note-worthy. After all, I sat on the top of a double-decker bus to tour Bath, again in March, chill wind blowing in my hair, a light spray of snow dusting my cheeks, with my nose an icicle and fingers numb, with nary a complaint. While the others huddled below-deck, in the stuffy warmth, I and a couple of other daring individuals braved the unpleasant weather to fully experience the sights of the city and underneath the veneer of misery, I enjoyed every minute of it.
So perhaps I'm not "American" enough to fully laugh at the "strange" behaviors and quirks of the British. Because, in the end, I just didn't find the book all that funny.(less)
During the years of Nazi occupation of Paris, Marcel Petiot, a seemingly respectable doctor, murdered an unknown number of people. Was he a German sym...moreDuring the years of Nazi occupation of Paris, Marcel Petiot, a seemingly respectable doctor, murdered an unknown number of people. Was he a German sympathizer, using his own form of a "final solution" on innocent Jews who merely wanted to escape the city? Was he a member of the French resistance, acting as judge and executioner towards those he saw as friendly towards the Nazi occupiers? Or was he merely a cunning sociopath who took advantage of the chaos of the times to inflict as much horror and sadistic torture on those victims he managed to convince to walk through his door? What follows is a complicated, often convoluted trek through the oppressed streets and shadowy corners of Paris as the author attempts to answer those questions.
While the book does lay out, quite vividly, the incompetence of the French police force and the near-absolute ineffectiveness of the court system during those crazy, confused times, what the book doesn't do is create a compelling, coherent story. It's obvious the author did an exhaustive amount of research; what's not obvious is some sort of thread binding the story together. King attempts to illustrate the desperate gaiety exhibited by the glitterati who stayed in Paris despite the tramping of Nazi boots down her vaunted (some would say hallowed) streets by interspersing chapters detailing the plays put on by Sartre and Picasso in intimate salons for the edification and entertainment of a select few of Paris society; he also inserts chapters illustrating the desperate last stand of the French government and its leaders as they tried to keep German forces away. However, instead of creating a well-rounded view of this particular era in history, these chapters seem...awkward and jarring. They don't fit into the narrative, at least not fluidly, and they certainly don't enhance it.
Speaking of the narrative, I'm very sorry, but it's a snooze-fest. I started the book with every intention of becoming absorbed in the tale of a search for a mass-murderer who cleverly used the chaos of the times to get away with murder, literally. A third of the way through, I found myself supremely bored and from then on, I skimmed. The points King presented, illustrating the "progress" of the case, seemed scattershot and more like a courtroom presentation of witnesses and suspects rather than a breathless tale of a chase through the city. While we do, eventually, get to know Petiot and see him for the delusional maniac that he was (although the true scope of his crimes was never fully examined by the court at the time, leaving us, the reader, questioning whether he was truly as diabolical as he was painted or if he got away with more than was discovered), it comes about in a rambling, uneven (and excessively name-dropping) manner.
In the end, while I agree this is a grim and grisly portrait of a disturbed individual, one who perpetrated numerous crimes upon an innocent and unsuspecting populace, it is neither a gripping nor mesmerizing account, as proclaimed by the advertising campaign. Having read only the ARC, I don't know what the publisher's final plan or layout for the book may be, but I will say I believe the story would be helped by a few photos of the main players, perhaps a map of the city or a plan of the house in which the crimes took place. As a visual person, I feel such aids would greatly help illuminate the book and perhaps give the story more life.(less)
As much as I enjoyed the first of the Nikki Heat books, I think I enjoyed this one a bit more for the mere fact it had more meat on its bones. So inst...moreAs much as I enjoyed the first of the Nikki Heat books, I think I enjoyed this one a bit more for the mere fact it had more meat on its bones. So instead of just a novelized TV episode, as the first book seemed to be, this was a proper crime novel. I could still see Nathan Fillion as Rick Castle as Jameson Rook and Stana Katic as Kate Beckett as Nikki Heat, along with all the other supporting characters, acting out their roles, as it were, in the novel; this time, though, they had more to do, juicier roles to play. The story was a bit more compelling, the mystery more involved and complex, and as such, it made more a more enjoyable read.
The only item I can pick on is the writing itself. I don't know if they got a different ghost writer than before, but occasionally the writing was a bit awkward and...bumpy, is the only way I can describe it. Sometimes a sentence or two wouldn't flow properly and would require a second or third read for it to finally sink in as to what that sentence was trying to convey. However, the bumps were fairly few and far between and didn't impact the general ease of reading.(less)
Lia Habel had one of those lightning-strike, lucky-star author success stories, much like J.K Rowling, which makes me Kermit the Frog-green with envy:...moreLia Habel had one of those lightning-strike, lucky-star author success stories, much like J.K Rowling, which makes me Kermit the Frog-green with envy: Down on her luck, on the edge of desperation, a story she told to entertain herself and her friends is the basis for multiple cries of "You should so write that down and turn it into a book," cries which Habel answered; finding an agent, her book gets caught up in a heated auction and Lia Habel finds herself "The Next Big Thing" in the paranormal genre. Damn her. Then again, if I would just sit my ass down and write, perhaps I would stop envying such fortunate authors and find a bit of luck myself. But I digress. To return to the subject at hand, Dearly, Departed is--surprise, surprise--the first of a new series (every book which comes out these days, it seems, is the first of a new series; what ever happened to stand-alone books? But, again, I digress) set in the year 2195. Though it may be the future, a cataclysm of epic proportions in the past has created an apocalyptic situation, from which new civilizations have arisen. One of these new "tribes" based its culture on the demure and proper Victorian era, which is where the steampunk element of the novel comes in. Though bustles and long skirts and corsets may be worn by the women, and muttonchop whiskers and cravats may be worn by the men, cellphones and computers exist; steam-powered "carriages" rumble through the city and holographic decorations flicker over the buildings and houses. The New Victorian society has its troubles, mainly with another tribe known as 'Punks', throwbacks to an earlier age where men relied on themselves and not machinery and computers to do their thinking, and border skirmishes have been rumbling for many years between the two tribes. Then one day, a new trouble pops up: "The Laz," or the Lazarus syndrome, a strange disease in which people go mad, hungry for human flesh; thought it's been hushed up, the Laz even causes the dead to come back to life, hence its name. We're talking about zombies, folks. Nora, a typical New Victorian teenager, gets caught up in the middle of all this--zombies, a conspiracy, lies and half-truths which turn her world upside down. Even as she fights to understand all that is going on, she finds herself falling in love with Bram, a zombie who just happens to be a member of an elite corps of undead troops, one of the few Lazarus suffers who managed to hold on to his humanity, but, sadly, due to his condition, is in a position to be nothing more than cannon fodder in the fight against other zombies, those that went mad with the disease and have become marauding beasts.
The story is told from a first-person perspective, but not just from one character. The chapters alternate between the main characters (five in all), although Nora and Bram do most of the narration; you might think this method would be confusing, but it's not. Each narrator has his/her own distinct voice and motivation, adding dimension to the story. And it's a great story. Nora is an interesting protagonist; she's feisty, but has her moments of doubt; she reacts in a realistic manner to the multiple shocks she encounters, and while she can occasionally be annoying, it's understandable. For all that Nora and Bram are the main feature of the story, the secondary characters don't get shortchanged; they're fully-fleshed, even the zombies (pardon the pun), with their own personalities and motivations. Most importantly, there's growth of character, most especially in Nora and her best friend, Pamela; it was fun to watch the two girls, completely different in personality, as they encountered these abrupt changes to their reality and adapt to them, each girl coming into her own as the plot progressed. Speaking of the plot, it's a humdinger, with plenty of action, betrayal, hope, humor and adventure, as well as a sprinkling of romance. Best of all, it never lagged or got bogged down; though there were breaks in the action, little breathers to allow for nuances of the story to be introduced, it never got boring and I never once skimmed to get ahead. And the world-building is quite competent, with reasonable explanations behind the history of New Victoria, its technology and inhabitants.
Altogether, Dearly, Departed is an excellent debut novel, with very few, if any, of the slip-ups, goofs or inanities which usually plague beginner novelists. (My four-star rating only indicates that, while I really enjoyed the book, it didn't change my life or leave me foaming at the mouth in anticipation of the sequel; the rating has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, which is excellent, or quality of the story, which is also top-notch.) For good steampunk/zombie fun, I highly recommend it.(less)
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I can appreciate the concept behind it, as it reminds me of Supernatural only with a bit less...moreI have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I can appreciate the concept behind it, as it reminds me of Supernatural only with a bit less family angst and a bit more hocus-pocus. On the other hand, though, some of her concepts seem poorly researched and her characterizations a bit shoddy and two-dimensional, giving the book an overall feel of...close, but no cigar.
So we have Theseus Cassio Lowood, called Cas, a seventeen-year-old ghost slayer who travels around the country with his white-witch mother and their cat, Tybalt, who sniffs out ghosts in between hissing and scratching Cas. After his last job, slaying the ghost of a hitchiker (who, oddly enough, died in 1970 yet looked and acted like James Dean, the first of Ms. Blake's missteps), Cas moves on to Thunder Bay, Ontario, home of Anna Dressed in Blood. Anna Korlov, murdered in 1958 at age sixteen, who became the ghost known as Anna Dressed in Blood, who's killed 27 teenagers in the last half-century. And Cas can't get her out of his head.
In between his hunt for Anna and the source of her murderous power, an evil force from Cas's past returns to literally haunt him and engage him in a battle which could end in Cas's death. For the first time in his life, Cas must rely on help from his friends, outsiders, those whom he'd always protected from harm and whom he now must place in harm's way.
For the most part, the story is interesting; the beginning is rather bumpy, but the story really picks up towards the middle and moves along quite nicely towards a satisfying ending. The book is quite obviously left open for a sequel. However, it just had enough glitches, questions and odd choices that it felt like a jigsaw puzzle which had been put together with some pieces missing or in the wrong positions. For example, Cas, even as an outsider, knows that he has some cache among the students at his new high school and is aware that he causes some of the girls to swoon. I'm sorry, but is any teenage boy, even a badass ghost hunting teenage boy, that confident of his appeal and his looks? I don't think so. Even the high school jocks I knew way back when I was in school had an aura of uncertainty about them, even as they postured and preened. Also, some of the ghost and witch lore Ms. Blake uses is a bit cockeyed, going against traditional wisdom and folklore. When Cas and his mom move to the new house in Thunder Bay, he's assured that there is no ghost activity because the place smells like new paint: “Things that are new are good. No chance that some sentimental dead thing has attached itself.” Well, yeah, if you're talking about a brand-new house, sure, there's no chance of anyone running into dead things (unless it's built on a burial ground where the headstones have been moved but the bodies haven't, as Poltergeist has taught us). However, it's obvious this house has been around for awhile and has been renovated and, as any Ghost Hunters show has taught us, ghosts don't like it when you renovate; it stirs them up and gets them all agitated. So that doesn't make any sense. Then we get to the witchy bits. For a ritual, Cas has them creating a protective circle by lighting candles in a counterclockwise circle. Again, no. To create a protective circle, you have to move clockwise, or sunwise. When you move counterclockwise, or widdershins, you're banishing the circle. Either that or you're creating a Satanic circle, which doesn't fit with the storyline Ms. Blake has created. So it makes me wonder exactly where she got her research or how much she researched at all.
So while I can't say I'm terribly impressed with Anna Dressed in Blood, I do think the story, as a series, has potential.(less)
Now this is what I call creative writing! Some people take issue with Murdock's use of multiple P.O.V.'s (eight in all!). However, as detailed in the...moreNow this is what I call creative writing! Some people take issue with Murdock's use of multiple P.O.V.'s (eight in all!). However, as detailed in the author Q&A at the back of the book, Murdock did what a writer's supposed to: Tell the story. If the P.O.V. being used isn't serving the story, then change the P.O.V. or do as Murdock did and add new P.O.V.'s. Perhaps eight points of view seems excessive to some, but it works and what results is a richly layered and deeply nuanced tale. And even though this is a tale of fantasy, there is an element of reality to it as well: With the use of varied and sometimes conflicting viewpoints, one can see how real actions can be transformed into folklore and fairy tales. Multiple viewpoints allow for a well-rounded perspective on the action; there's always more than one side to any story and there will always be those who put their own spin or interpretation on events. Lines get blurred, fantastical stories get rationalized into dull yet more "realistic" occurrences, and people start to believe that what really happened couldn't have happened. Mix in entries from a Encyclopedia (a gimmick which appealed greatly to my inner geek) and voila! you've got an instant winner on your hands.
Despite all that, the multiple P.O.V.'s could've been just that, a gimmick, a ploy to take the reader's attention off a lame or underdeveloped plot. Thankfully that's not the case here, as Murdock's story is just as inventive as her method of telling it. The characters are all unique and while not all of them are likable, they're believable. I will say this, though: Tips is a fool. While I understand and applaud Murdock's intention to avoid the cliche of a girl finding her true love at age 16, the way Tips and Trudy's story turned out seemed wrong. (view spoiler)[To seemingly lead Trudy on and then, when they meet again, to effectively tell her "Sorry, I did love you, but now I love this other girl" is just plain mean. Then again, Tips is a man and like all men can't see the treasure in front of them, instead becoming dazzled by the new and exciting thing flashing in front of their face, thereby hurting the one who loves him best. (hide spoiler)] However, taken as a whole, the novel is quite satisfying and the ending, while not the one I would've picked for the main characters, manages to tie things up nicely and in an entertaining fashion. One thing's for sure, Murdock had quite the fun time coming up with names of towns, countries, even some battles; as you read and come across these names, they make for an extra giggle or two.
Some have said that Wisdom's Kiss is a retelling of certain fairy tales, but I disagree. I see it more of an homage or a re-imagining at the very most, seeing as there's more than one fairy tale involved in the book. We have the sleeping princess as in Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but, presented in a very unique voice, we also have the appearance of Puss 'n Boots (who, coincidentally enough, sounded very much like Antonio Banderas in my head), as well as some influence from German and Arabian folklore. In entwining these various characters, Murdock has created an entirely new and thoroughly entertaining fairy tale.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I actually stopped "reading" this about a third of the way in and skimmed through the rest of the book. The story just lost my interest. Not to mentio...moreI actually stopped "reading" this about a third of the way in and skimmed through the rest of the book. The story just lost my interest. Not to mention it was overly convoluted, with names and places and people flying this way and that. I get that the author was trying to develop some sort of conspiracy, but it felt awkward and forced. There was just too much stuff. Perhaps I just wasn't in the proper frame of mind. When I started the book, I was reminded strongly of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and Simon R. Green's Nightside books. That said, I enjoyed the Dresden Files and Nightside books a hell of a lot more than I did Sweet Silver Blues. They weren't as complicated and, being an uncomplicated kind of person, that appealed to me greatly.(less)