Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: David - Mary Hoffman

Synopsis: When Gabriele comes to Florence to make his fortune, he has no idea that his face and body will become the most famous in the world, stared at and admired by millions of people for hundreds of years. But when your brother is Michelangelo, things like that can happen . . .

At first, though, being asked to pose for the statue of David is the least exciting thing that happens to Gabriele as he begins his new life. There's romance - thrilling romance, with a forbidden woman who has an agenda if her own. And there's danger. The Florence of 1501 is a divided city, where rival factions fight for control, and no one can be trusted. Recruited to serve as a spy, Gabriele finds himself over his head in a web of deadly intrigue. And when the statue of David becomes the focal point for a violent dispute that threatens to tear the city apart, Gabriele must fight to protect one of the greatest masterpieces the world has ever known.

Review: This book is probably considered an edgy read, and it is certainly not without its content. Gabriele is an all-out womanizer and sleep-around. He's in Florence for one day and he's already found his way into a woman's bed, and she isn't the last. Thankfully, his interests stop at women, but there are plenty of men to make googly-eyes at him, as well, and the Author doesn't shy away from stating that fact. One patron specifically asks a painter to use Gabriele as his nude model because he (the patron) likes to look at Gabriele. And of course, there are lots of references to nudity - it's pretty unavoidable, honestly; David is about Michelangelo's famous statue, who wears not a stitch. But don't be alarmed, Readers - while the book is certainly abounding with sexual references, the Author handles it all with remarkable discretion, hinting and describing in the fewest words possible, therefore making it a book which is readable rather than just downright trashy. Mary Hoffman never gets explicit. There is an underlying wrongness, as with the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley, but it's fairly easy to ignore.

What's probably most remarkable is despite all of Gabriele's shortcomings, he still manages to be a somewhat likable character. This is probably because he actually expresses regret over his actions as a young man, and when one of the ladies becomes heavy with his child, Gabriele shows genuine care and concern for his son. In any case, this is a book you read not for the characters, but for the story itself. My above paragraph has probably led you to believe that this book is about nothing but various peoples finding Gabriele attractive, but David, in fact, has a very complicated political storyline, seeing as Florance was positively turbulent with warring family factions in that era, and while some of the Florentine politics are confusing at first, it makes the book well worth reading, as Gabriele becomes embroiled in the city's tensed state, and an artist's work becomes more than just something pretty to look at, but a political statement.

David is certainly not a book for everyone because if its sexual alludements, and if there hadn't been the political-upheaval storyline, the fact that Gabriele does in fact regret his actions, and the Author never becomes explicit, I probably would not have finished it. But for those people who can appreciate a book merely for its story, and be okay with not really having any likable characters, you'll enjoy David.

Overall Rating: 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: Five 4ths of July - Pat Raccio Hughes

Synopsis: July 4th, 1777. '78. '79. '80. '81. Five 4ths of July. Five pivotal days in the life of Jake Mallery, a teenager growing up on the Connecticut coastline.

The American Revolution is under way, and all Jake wants is freedom from tyranny - the tyranny of his strict father, that is. Jake has a reputation for being wild; his nickname, "Mal," is French for "bad." He doesn't care about fighting for liberty. To him, the pursuit of happiness is sailing the high seas on a privateer, seeking adventure. But his father insists that Jake remain at home to tend the family's ferry and join the local militia in case their town is attacked. Which, Jake knows, will never happen. He's destined to a life of boring chores, militia drills, and verbal sparring with Hannah, the insufferable indentured servant of his best friend Tim's family.

But on July 4, 1779, Jake's world is turned upside down: The British are coming, and they mean to suppress the Patriot rebellion by any means necessary. The brutal Battle of New Haven sets off a series of horrific events that will shatter Jake's life. And only when he has lost his own freedom does he begin to understand what's at stake in this war.

Review: This was not my favorite American Revolution story - far from it, in fact. First off, there is Jake, who is one of the least likable heroes I have ever encountered. While his father certainly treats him badly, Jake does nothing to help the Reader sympathize with him. He is lazy, surly, has a mouth almost as bad as a sailor's, and an absolute jerk to Hannah. As the story progresses, he shows little regret for his ways, making it really hard to feel happy for him when good things happen.

Five 4ths of July does something interesting, though - something I've not seen many others do. It provides both sides of the coin - the Tories and the Patriots, lining them up side-by-side. The Author makes a fairly good attempt at showing the good and bad of both, too; not all Patriots were necessarily law-abiding citizens, nor were all of them bad. Likewise, not all Tories saw themselves as rebelling against what the rest of their countrymen wanted, nor were all Tories innocent bystanders who just wanted to remain with England. The Author points out that on the prison hulks, the Tory guards were the cruelest.

However, among all of this, the Author also does some slight bashing of the Founding Fathers, claiming that they all wanted war, which is just plain not true - especially of John Adams. For a long time, they tried to avoid war; they only wanted representation in Parliament, but the King would not budge, and soon war became the only option. And while the Author seemingly offers a balanced view of Tories and Patriots, there is also a constant undercurrent which seems to point a finger at many of common Patriot sayings and making it seem like the Patriots just repeated these phrases (like "no taxation without representation") without knowing what they meant. In short, many of the times the Patriots were portrayed as hotheaded idiots who spouted ideas they could not defend.

On top of this is the language and sexual content. There is a "bedroom" scene (pg. 96), which is handled fairly delicately with no unnecessary details, but upon its conclusion, the Reader is left with even fewer characters to like, and throughout the book, there are several references to that particular incident. The only thing that makes this occurrence a little forgiving is the two characters do end up marrying each other. As for language, there is a count-up of 4 g--damns and 1 s-word - all of which, I believe (but I could be incorrect), are spouted from our oh-so-likable hero.

In short, Five 4ths of July was, overall, an unpleasant American Revolution story which seemed to do more bashing of our country's founding than anything else. If you want good American Revolution stories, read Ann Rinaldi - she offers true balanced views and very likable characters.

Overall Rating: 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review: The Seance - Iain Lawrence

Synopsis: Scooter King understands illusions. In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, he performs them behind the scenes at his mother's seances, giving the impression that Madam King communicates with the dead.

Scooter also admires Harry Houdini and can hardly wait to see the famed magician escape from his razzle-dazzle Burmese Torture Tank. But when Scooter stumbles upon a dead body in the visiting Houdini's tank, it's no illusion. Who could the murderer be? And did he - or she - kill the right person?

As Scooter sets out to unmask the killer, the mysterious worlds of mediums, seances, and magic are revealed. No one is above suspicion, and appearances are deceiving. If Scooter doesn't sort out the clues - and fast - he may end up as the next dead body.

Review: One of Iain Lawrence's best books - right after The Convicts. He does a masterful job bringing the world of the early 20th century to life with the period-appropriate slang and vividly-described imagery. The Author casts new light onto the world's most famous escape artist, filling him with new life, making him seem like more than just another figure from history. What was probably the most pleasant about The Seance is it lacked the usual weirdness with which Iain Lawrence's books are so often characterized. If any of you have read any of Mr. Lawrence's books, you will understand what I am talking about; he has a habit of throwing something purely bizarre into his stories. The entire time, I was expecting The Seance to take a supernatural turn, but it never does, and everything is explained in a realistic manner, making it a splendid mystery.

My main complaint (because I always have one): the final confrontation with the villain (who, by the way, is easy to figure out, but the Author has added other elements that will keep the Reader guessing enough to remain interested) is painfully cliche. The villain gets to say his overblown peace and then unconvincingly laments that he must now kill the hero, and is even kind enough to explain the method. If ever I am captured by a villain, I hope he - or she - is nice enough to explain everything to me, so I can then spend my time figuring out how to escape.

However, The Seance is a very good book, despite this shortcoming. Scooter is remarkably likable (I usually find Iain Lawrence's heroes more than a little annoying in some aspect), and in the world of illusionists, magicians, and mediums, a murder mystery is bound to be interesting - and this particular one definitely is. Give this book a chance, even if you are not a fan of Iain Lawrence's stories - it will surprise you.

Overall Rating: 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: The 100-Year-Old Secret - Tracy Barrett

Synopsis: "Go to The Dancing Men and ask for a saucer of milk for your snake. Then all will be revealed."

That's all the note says - before the ink disappears! Xena and Xander Holmes think living in London will be boring. But when they discover they're related to Sherlock Holmes and inherited his unsolved casebook, life becomes much more exciting.

The siblings set out to solve the cases their famous ancestor couldn't, starting with the mystery of a prized painting that vanished a hundred years ago. Can two smart twenty-first-century kids succeed where the celebrated Sherlock Holmes could not?

Review: For kids who have just discovered the wonders of Sherlock Holmes and are now amateur Sherlockians, this is a terrific series to encourage that obsession. Well-written and containing enough little alludements to satisfy any fan, The 100-Year-Old Secret starts this series off with a swift kick. It wastes no time in the beginning, but launches straight into . . . . well, everything. For the most part, Xena and Xander are not horrible, but I wish they showed more interest in history-type things. Why do kids who don't care about that sort of thing always the ones who end up being related to some famous historical or fictional person?! It drives me crazy, and it always has.

The main problem I saw with this book is the resounding lack of villains. For a first installment in a series, that can be looked over, but if it persists in the other installments, then already I see a major problem with this series. The bottom line is you can't have mysteries - especially if they are unsolved Holmes cases - without villains! It just doesn't work.

However, I have hopes for this series and look forward to reading the next one. Until then, I will give it the benefit of the doubt.

Star Rating:  

Others in The Sherlock Files:
1)The 100-Year-Old Secret
2)The Beast of Blackslope
3)The Case That Time Forgot
4)The Missing Heir

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: The Lost Stories - John Flanagan

Synopsis: They were mysterious. Some claim they were merely the stuff of legend - the Rangers with their mottled green-and-gray cloaks and their reputation as defenders of the Kingdom. Reports of their brave battles vary, but we know of at least ten accounts, most of which feature a boy - turned man - named Will and his mentor, Halt. There are reports, as well, of others who fought alongside the Rangers, such as the young warrior Horace, a courageous princess named Evanlyn, and a cunning diplomat named Alyss.
Yet this crew left very little behind and their existence has never been able to be proved. Until now, that is . . . Behold the Lost Stories.

Review: At last, here it is - the official last Ranger's Apprentice book, though technically it is not an "11th book," because it is a collection of short stories. But some things would not make sense if the Reader had not read the previous ten.

To put my opinion of this book bluntly: it was what I expected, and many of the stories were so clearly fan-questions-based. The last two in the collection I didn't think needed to even be included. It is a logical assumption that Will and Alyss marry, and as for the ingenious breeding program the Rangers have for their horses . . . Well, honestly, that story just left me feeling hollow and even cheated (when you read it, you'll understand why). The other stories gave interesting background insight into the time when Morgarath was still a threat, which I enjoyed thoroughly - especially the one entitled The Hibernian. It was nice to see how Halt first joined the Rangers, and I thought that particular story was executed with great precision. Some stories, like Dinner for Five, Purple Prose, and The Roamers were a little silly. Perhaps 'silly' isn't the correct word for The Roamers, but I wish the Author had thought of a better storyline than Ebony being kidnapped. When animal characters start being the main focus of a dangerous mission, it begins to feel like the Author is stretching a bit.

Probably the most aggravating aspect of these stories was the continuous mention of coffee. I had noticed how incessantly coffee is mentioned in the other books - especially Erak's Ransom, - but for some reason it really hit me just how much the Author talks about coffee when I started reading The Lost Stories. We get it! The Rangers LOVE coffee! I an not exaggerating when I say that there was only two stories that did not mention coffee; all the rest mentioned it at least three to four times. Then, of course, there are some of the Author's name choices. I have always found his collection of names rather entertaining. He'll have names like Morgarath, and then throw in something like Norman, Dilbert, or - my personal favorite - using the name "Jerome" for a Gypsy. Hmmm.

But enough with that. I really did like The Lost Stories. I thought it was entertaining and a justifiable excuse to write an 11th book. In some ways, it was nice to see little bits of the story being wrapped up. Anyone who owns Ranger's Apprentice shouldn't leave The Lost Stories out of their collection.

Overall Rating: 

Others in the Ranger's Apprentice Series:

1)The Ruins of Gorlan
2)The Burning Bridge
3)The Icebound Land
4)The Battle for Skandia
5)The Sorcerer of the North
6)The Siege of Macindaw
7)Erak's Ransom
8)The Kings of Clonmel
9)Halt's Peril
10)The Emperor of Nihon-Ja
11)The Lost Stories

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: The Search for Delicious - Natalie Babbitt

Synopsis: What is the definition of Delicious? The King's all for apples, the Queen favors Christmas pudding, and soon the entry in Prime Minister DeCree's dictionary is a bone of contention throughout the court. Alarmed, the King dispatches young Gaylen, DeCree's foster son and Special Assistant, to take a poll of the whole kingdom. In short order, the country is on the brink of civil war.

Review: The Search for Delicious seems a simple tale, and it is. But it is a simple tale which is really enjoyable and humorous. The very idea of a kingdom going to war with itself over the definition of a word brings to mind the war between the Lilliputians and Bigenders in Gulliver's Travels, who went to battle over which end to break one's egg. There is, however, an underlying message that humans just take. While this is certainly true about governments and people as a mass, it isn't of the individual, and the anti-person-message can, at times, grate on a Reader's nerves.

Setting that aside, however, this book is fun. Readers will appreciate Gaylen for a main character and laugh over his encounters with townsfolk and other such people. The Author masterfully weaves a more complicated plot into the other, making the story not just about finding the definition of a word, but something much more, for lack of a better word, epic. A swift read, The Search for Delicious was thoroughly enjoyable for an afternoon stroll.

Overall Rating: 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: Mable Riley - Marthe Jocelyn

Synopsis: Mable Riley dreams of having adventures and of becoming a writer. When she travels far from home to act as assistant to her sister, a schoolmistress, Mable hopes her new world will be full of peril and romance. Her new life, however, is as humdrum as the one she'd left behind.

Then Mable encounters the eccentric Mrs. Rattle - a real writer who wears daring fashions and takes delight in scaring off the townfolk by stating her opinions. Mable eagerly accepts Mrs. Rattle's invitation to a meeting of the Ladies Reading Society. But the ladies are not discussing books at all, and Mable soon has more peril and romance than she'd bargained for.

Review: Criticisms first: the book begins very abruptly, it takes place in Canada, and there is no solid storyline. Not until you get a little further in, that is. And that is when the pros begin. Yes, it takes place in Canada, but so does Anne of Green Gables, and like that classic, I was able to ignore the general "dullness" Canada-based stories immediately have, because like Anne, Mable Riley is an engaging character, full of wit and innocent, though unrealistic, romantic thoughts of the world and adventure. She makes Canada not seem so dull.

While the majority of this book is a "lifetime story," - one which has no solid storyline, but merely follows the occurrences in someone's life - a plotline begins to develop when Mable meets Mrs. Rattle (who, by the way, is an equally wonderful and eccentric character). The book does not end with a resounding THE END, but rather takes the approach of a real-life journal: not everything is resolved, because in people's lives, things rarely are.

Mable Riley is an entertaining, "homey" tale that should be housed right by Anne of Green Gables - and read by one's children right along with the latter.

Overall Rating: 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review: The Runaway Dragon - Kate Coombs

Synopsis: When Meg's dragon, Laddy, runs - or flies - away from home, she knows she must go on a quest to find him. But she hasn't counted on her parents, the king and queen of Greeve, sending ten guardsmen along. Fortunately, she is also accompanied by her best friends: Dilly, lady-in-waiting and a cool head in any crisis not involving heights; Cam, a gardener's assistant who knows the exact value of a brick shed filled with sausages; Nort, a skinny guardsman who has never given much thought to crows; and Lex, a young wizard with bad taste in horses, magic carpets, and sorceresses. Of course, Meg's quest goes topsy-turvy once she enters the enchanted forest - and her adventure is just beginning. It isn't long 'til she and her companions learn a thing or two about grouchy giants. What's more, meeting up with the dashing bandit Bain again isn't at all what she expected.

Review: I did not consider this installment as good as The Runaway Princess from the beginning. Meg seemed way younger than her age, and there were far too many characters tagging along on the quest. But the extras are dumped in short order, bringing the character count down to a more reasonable number, and just when I decided that there were still too many tag-alongs, the Author splits them up, creating two separate, and equally enjoyable, adventures. The journey(s) pick up from that point, and I could kick back and enjoy the humor I had grown accustomed to in The Runaway Princess.

As in the former, the Author pokes fun at a boatload of fairy-tales, but in this one she pokes at a few lesser-known tales that only a fairy-tale-connoisseur might recognize (she throws in Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk for familiarity, so other Readers don't feel left out).

The Runaway Dragon still isn't as good as The Runaway Princess, but it picks up a lot towards the end, and ultimately does not disappoint.

Overall Rating: 

Others in This Series:
1)The Runaway Princess
2)The Runaway Dragon

Friday, October 7, 2011

Review: Brides of Eden - Linda Crew

Synopsis: When, in 1903, the fiery preacher Joshua arrives in sleepy Corvallis, Oregon, Eva Mae - and the whole town - is never the same again. Joshua is wonderful. He's charismatic. Insisting on simplicity, he commands his converts to burn their possessions. Demanding devotion to Christ, he tells them to abandon their personal ties.

But there's a surge of violence rising, and before it's over, families will be ripped apart and lives will be destroyed. Eva Mae's gripping true story is a stranger-than-fiction tale of a turn-of-the-century apocalyptic cult.

Review: A thoroughly fascinating story, made only more so by the fact that it is true. It also struck my particular fancy because I have actually visited many of the towns mentioned within, and I had no idea that such an incredible, thoroughly creepy incident happened in Corvallis and around Yahats and other neighboring towns. And Linda Crew is an author whose research can generally be trusted.

What was probably most disturbing about Brides of Eden was that there are still people - Christians included - who allow crazy individuals like Joshua move their emotions into a frenzy, making all logical thought almost impossible. Such events are not just confined to the spiritualism of the 1800s.

There is very little content to be addressed. There is one bedroom scene, when Joshua informs the women that one of them will give birth to the Second Christ, and he requests to see each woman alone in his private shelter. It is necessary to events, and the Author handles the scene with kind delicacy. Also, there are 2 g--damns, and other references to Joshua having affairs with married women. But nothing explicit.

Brides of Eden is a book which will disturb Readers because it is a true story, but it is really interesting and is a highly recommended historical-fiction read.

Overall Rating: 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Review: Kat, Incorrigible - Stephanie Burgis

Synopsis: In the prim and proper world of nineteenth-century England, twelve-year-old Katherine Ann Stephenson is at a loss: Her sisters, Elissa and Angeline, have recently entered Society and now gossip incessantly in whispers; her foolish brother, Charles, has gambled the family deep into debt; and Stepmama wants nothing to do with them at all. What can Kat do but take matters into her own hands?

Luckily Kat has inherited her mother's magical talents and has the courage to use them - if she can only learn how. But with her sister Elissa's intended fiance, the sinister Sir Neville, showing a dangerous interest in Kat's magical potential, her sister Angeline creating romantic havoc with her own witchcraft, and a highwayman lurking in the forest, even Kat's reckless heroism will be tested to the utmost.
Review: From the very start of Kat, Incorrigible, I was absolutely taken with the witty writing style, the characters, and the situation. Kat is a wonderful heroine, whose age makes her attitude not seem like The Attitude, but rather the whims of a very young girl. She's full of spunk, intelligence, and a desire to protect her sisters - even if they are far too prim and proper at times, and always scolding her. Normally I do not like fantasy meddling with historical fiction, but Stephanie Burgis made it work, all the while retaining a Jane Austen-ish flavor to the entire setup.

At first, I expected Elissa and Angeline to be quite aggravating, but I soon found myself as dearly attached to them as I was to Kat, and their respective beaus equally amusing and endearing with their distinctive personalities. The villains are properly alarming, but they are not so scary that they detract from the overall humor of the story. When one has a story like this, which is light-hearted in the way that Jane Austen's works are light-hearted, one cannot have villains which give the Reader nightmares for weeks on end.
I cannot wait for the sequel to Kat, Incorrigible to come out; I am quite anxious to see what occurs when they go on a "relaxing" trip to Bath.

Overall Rating: 

Others in The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson Series:
1)Kat, Incorrigible
2)Renegade Magic
3)Stolen Magic

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: Cleopatra's Moon - Vicky Alvear Shecter

Synopsis: Cleopatra Selene is the only daughter of the brilliant Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and General Marcus Antonius of Rome. She's grown up with jewels on her arms, servants at her feet, and all the pleasures of a palace at her command, and she wants only to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a great and powerful queen. Then the Roman ruler Octavianus, who has always wanted Egypt's wealth, launches a war that destroys all Selene has ever known. Taken to live in Octavianus's palace in Rome, she vows to defeat him and reclaim her kingdom at all costs. Yet even as she gathers support for her return, Selene finds herself torn between two young men and two different paths to power.

Review: A beautifully-written tale, Cleopatra's Moon seemed to promise a stirring historical adventure of intrigue, power struggles, and murders in the night. And it had all of that - and more. It is the "more" part which bothered me. Looking on the surface, this book was good. Cleopatra Selene, though inept at practically all that she attempted, was not the worst heroine to have, and her brother Ptolemy absolutely adorable. The descriptions of Alexandria were rich and vivid - so much so that the Reader could almost feel the warm, spiced wind and the blessed cool of palm trees.

But then you look deeper - or, rather, you read further into the book. While the Author did a splendid job with research, there is a rather unnecessary scene that seems to only serve the purpose of painting the Jews as, well, idiots who cannot even explain the depth of their beliefs (which is just ridiculous). They do not think like the Jews of the Ancient world, but like modern-day Evangelicals. It's painfully obvious that the Author spent more time looking up the Egyptian religion than Jewish beliefs, and I have to wonder why she even bothered putting the scene in at all.

Finally, there is the fact that the Author actually portrays the Romans too accurately. Yes, I am really voicing this as a complaint, and here is why: as I said, she portrays the Romans for what they were - a disgusting, perverted culture, whose economy was based solely on conquest. She also does a fairly good job of portraying the Egyptians the same way, but still manages to glorify them by picturing Cleopatra, Marc Antony, and Julius Caesar as being "not that bad of people." Where she got that Julius Caesar was kind and merciful to his enemies, I will never know, because any small reading of historical accounts written by Ancient historians will reveal that Julius Caesar was one of the most disgusting individuals that ever lived.

Putting that "minor" flaw aside, let us return to her portrayal of the Romans. This is where the sexual content comes into play. I will say this: the Author never becomes explicit, but she doesn't soften it either. Twice Cleopatra Selene is almost raped, there are numerous references to whores, men liking young boys (or other men), too-close-to-explicit-for-comfort groping and kissing scenes (again, no one wants to read descriptions of French kissing), and then finally, we do have a bedroom scene which I did not fully read, but it looked close enough to explicit to be absolutely inappropriate (ch. 44, pg. 315-316). But surely this is nothing to be irritated over, because it's an "interrupted bedroom scene," so that makes it okay (I am being sarcastic, by the way).

I realize that it is very hard to write a historical story containing Romans without mentioning their pervertedness, but it can be done tastefully, and even ignored to an extent. Rosemary Sutcliff managed to write tons of Roman-based books and never once found it necessary to delve as deeply into their disgusting habits as Vicky Shecter did.

In the end, we are left with a story that could have been excellent - well worth spending $18.00 on, in fact. But it's so populated with sexuality and immoral behavior (which, by the way, isn't necessarily painted as a bad thing; when Cleopatra Selene thinks her twin brother has a male lover, she thinks it's cute) that it makes it uncomfortable and practically impossible to read. I wish I had better things to say, but that is how it is.
Overall Rating: