[Book Review] More history in my tsar and dragon novel, please.

Tsar DragonsBook Review: The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple

Canaries, you know those times when all you need to see is the cover, and you know (you know) the book is meant for you. Well, this was one of those. I was absolutely charmed by this cover.

Then I read the premise: Russian Revolution + Dragons? Yes, please. Sign me up.

And damn, for how good its premise and cover were, this novella came up so oddly short.

If you’re a fan of Russian history like me, you’ll be disappointed by the odd misses and factual inaccuracies. If you’re here for the dragons, you might be satisfied, but they’re not quite a driving force of the story. And if you’re there for the story and characters as reimagined by Jane Yolen and her son and co-author Adam Stemple, you might get distracted and bogged down in anti-semitic, sexist,  racist (take your pick of –isms) bits of the narration. It’s used to color the stories and perspectives of the characters, fine, but it sure didn’t make for a pleasant read.

In fact, when I started reading, my first impression from the heavy antisemitism was that this was going to be a sort of political satire on the time period—truth through dark humor and exaggeration, and there was definitely that in the first person narrator. But it never stayed over the top enough for that to work, and never felt tasteful enough to be cutting. And by the final third of the book, we were looking at a full on tragedy with the style and tone to match.

Now, I’m probably not the average reader for this – I know my Russian history and culture, and the big miss for me was just that. Yolen brought her masterful style, and the last few scenes were brutally powerful (though they had nothing on the actual account of the end of the Romanovs; Yolen and Stemple admitted to gentling that ending. Check out Michael Farquhar’s Secret Life of Tsars for a great historical look.).

But did the story work overall? I don’t know, canaries. I couldn’t see past the things that didn’t.

My Rating: One star.

I’m looking forward to seeing more reviews to see how other folks who aren’t as into Russian history take to the story. In the meantime, mileage may vary!

Canaries, what’s your favorite non-western historical novel? Would it be improved with dragons?

Review copy generously provided by the publisher.


[Book Review] Conceptually intriguing, casually terrible

Eyre Affair.jpgBook Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

So many things to dislike, so little time to talk about them all.

(Spoilers ahead. All the spoilers, because idgaf.)

I rarely try books more than once, so I should have trusted my gut when I got stuck a couple chapter in – not once but twice. But this week, I got the audiobook, because I really wanted to get through this book about a murder mystery in an alternative history fantasy world of time travel and literature. Lesson learned, because this book was terrible.

I grit my teeth through the prose style and weird perspective shifts. I was willing to suffer through the self-indulgent literary babble and fangirling, because, okay, literature is as religion in this world, and as a book lover, I totally get it. I even powered through the weird inconsistencies: Okay, this universe has casual time travel, and yet the biggest mystery in Fforde’s world is the identity of the true author of Shakespeare’s plays? And Thursday is the first person ever to ask a time traveler to check? Fine, whatever. Continue reading

The Cover Made Me Read It: The Dream Protocol: Descent by Adara Quick

The soft, vintage tones. The flowy dress. The dramatic clockwork moth. The lovely font on the cover. I had to read this.

The premise: Diedre is a teen in a futuristic underground city where the caste system is all, sleep and dreams are manufactured by the elites, and anyone who turns 35 is eliminated from the system. In a dystopian world frantically obsessed with youth, Diedre’s best friend, Flynn, was born with a genetic condition that ages him prematurely. If anyone finds out, he’s as good as dead.

Impressions: I was looking for some Lana Del Rey summertime sadness with this – a touch of hipster, a bit of romantic subplot, a dash of dystopia.

Instead, and despite the incredibly clever world concept, the novel reads like a kind of morality tale, in which teen characters speak out against the system in eloquent, full sentences and rhetorical questions. Continue reading

[Book Review] The only living werewolf girl in town

Full Blooded by Amanda Carlson

In the world of shapeshifter stories (and urban fantasy, in general), it’s pretty common for the female protagonist to be a rarity among her kind. This trope pretty much guarantees that the main character will have endless material for romantic subplots (and romantic angst) and a deep well of built-in turmoil.

They're endangered, and in danger!

They’re endangered, and in danger!

Full Blooded (Jessica McClain, #1)

So when I saw Full Blooded by Amanda Carlson had gone all the way to the extreme of the spectrum, I was curious. Werewolf Jessica McClain isn’t just rare – she’s the only female werewolf ever. This odd fact comes with a lot of baggage.

On the one hand, the werewolves think she’s the lupine version of the Antichrist. On the other hand, hiding the fact that she’s a werewolf from her kind and from regular humans is getting harder and harder. A disgruntled cop is stalking Jessica, trying to catch her doing something illegal so he can put her away for a couple dozen years, and Jessica’s wolf instincts keep waking up and telling her to eat people she doesn’t like. Oh, and she’s also a private detective to pay the bills. Continue reading

[Book Review] Magic and intrigue in Victorian Londinium.

I have been wanting to read more by Lilith Saintcrow ever since I blazed through her Urban Fantasy series about necromancer Dante Valentine – quick, fun reads full of over-the-top romantic angst and creative world-building of the best sort. So when I saw Saintcrow had a historical fantasy, I was intrigued.

The Red Plague Affair (Bannon & Clare, #2)Sorceress Emma Bannon has a mission to defend Queen and country and to stop an evil doctor with a gaseous weapon of war that has to be contained before it can cause all sorts of deadly mischief. It’s up to Bannon and her friend Archibald Clare to save Londinium before it’s too late.

My first problem with the book is at least 70% my fault – the book I grabbed is second in the Bannon & Clare series. But I’ve started plenty of stories mid-series and loved them, so I decided to march on, power through a crazy action opening and all the names, and then see what happens. And that’s when I realized it wasn’t going to be that easy.

Written as alternative history where magic, Victorian sensibilities, and clockwork-technology exists side by side, it has all the ingredients for success. There are gryphons and clockwork horses, and an exciting system of magic. And then there’s the writing:

“And Clare was congenitally unable to cease pursuing trouble of the most exotic sort. He was not engaged in a life that would permit much rest, and the wear and tear on his physicality was marked.” (page 12)

“A rolling sonorous roil, the entire house suddenly alive with rushing crackles, its population of indentured servants so used to the feel of tremendous sorcery running through its halls they hardly paused in their appointed duties.” Page 13)

“She had the dubious honour of addressing a Spaniard, moustachioed and of small stature to inspire a touch of ridicule of pity, his right arm twisted behind him in an exceedingly brutal fashion by a silent and immaculate Mikal, who twisted his lean face and spat at her.” (page 15)

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[ Book Review ] There’s a Dead Canary in the Coal Mine

Meg’s Review: Variant by Robison Wells

Audiobook read by Michael Goldstrom 

When we made the tagline for The Canary Review, I had thought it was just sort of a fun phrase. After all, we were still selecting books that had a lot of promise, ones that we would most likely love and be excited to pass on to all of you.

But let me tell you, Canaries: I took a bullet for you on this one.

When I was about halfway through Variant, I shambled out to the web to see what others were saying about it. One review on BN.com opens as thus: “No matter what anyone tells you, it is unique and original and fresh and omg and thrilling, but it is not dystopian.”

That quote is approximately 1/6th correct. I’ll let you guess which part that is at the end of the review.

Variant opens with Benson Fisher  happily on his way to a new boarding school. He is an orphan who has long been caught up in the foster care system and is excited to find a place that was geared towards helping out those in similar situations. But when he reaches Maxfield Academy, he finds out the truth: something is terribly, terribly wrong with the school. Besides the subtle tension between cliques and the lack of any adult supervision (besides the security cameras everywhere), there is the constant threat of Detention for rule breaking. And it’s implied early on that it’s not the fluffy, go-write-some-lines sort of Detention. Continue reading

[ Book Review ] Thinner: The Skin and Bones of Horror

Thinner by Steven King

Since I was little, something about the October air and Halloween displays sends me venturing into scarier shelves.  I’m not much of a horror lover for the rest of the year, but reading a scary novel around Halloween time is a tradition of mine.

Last year, Stephen King’s The Shining scared me so badly I was jumping at shadows for a month. This year, I decided to return to his work, this time going for Thinner. I knew when I read the back blurb that this book wasn’t going to be half as chilling as The Shining was; what I didn’t know was that I shouldn’t even bother reading it in the first place.

Thinner follows Billy Halleck, a hefty, fat-cat-type businessman, who has the misfortune to hit an old Gypsy lady with his car. She’s killed, but her even-more-ancient father, the Gypsy with the rotting nose we hear about over and over, curses him with a word: “thinner.”

From that point, he can’t stop losing weight, and must embark on a quest to find the Gypsy and convince him to reverse the curse before it’s too late.

The main issue I have with the book is that it just isn’t scary. The rotting nose is a little gross, and I can see that if I were losing weight as rapidly as Billy does, I’d be worried, but for a reader, an overweight character dropping some extra weight doesn’t exactly send chills up and down the spine. Maybe it’s just me, but when Billy was gibbering in terror over being 40 pounds heavier than my (admittedly quite skinny, but still healthy) fiancé, I wasn’t moved. King tries to up the ante by cursing a few more people, like the cop at the scene of the accident and the judge who dismissed the case without so much as a tap on the wrist. This backfires, too, as the curses are more laughable than creepy (one gets lizard scales; the other, giant pimples, I kid you not).

King’s gift is in finding real, natural fears, and Billy’s growing resentment of his wife is the scariest part of the book, but it lacks the urgency and crescendo of Jack’s resentment and anger toward his family in The Shining. In The Shining, Jack’s got a compelling need to redeem himself–he loses his job and the trust of his family due to a violent streak and hopes to prove himself. Billy’s got a soft life, a vanilla family, and a vanishing belly pooch. He wants to reverse the curse, but I am left wondering what will change in his life when he gained the weight back. Be a more careful driver, maybe? Not exactly gripping.

Besides the lack of scare factor, there were a few minor annoyances in the book that irked me just enough to snap me out of that nice reading hypnosis you fall into under good storytelling. For one, the doctors diagnose Billy with the extremely rare disorder: “psychological anorexia nervosa.” This, despite the fact that Billy doesn’t exhibit any of the symptom of anorexia nervosa beyond weight loss, and in blatant disregard of the fact that anorexia nervosa is already a psychological disease, not a physical one. I’ll believe in a Gypsy curse, but I refuse to believe in a team of doctors that doesn’t have a clue about how eating disorders work.

The other annoyance is very brief, but equally egregious. Stephen King name-dropped himself. As in, he had a character call another character out for “acting like someone in a Stephen King novel.” Ouch. I’m sure he meant it to be clever or amusing, but I don’t think there is any way to pull that off without sounding awkward at best, and madly egotistic otherwise.

I’m afraid I’m forced to dip down into the lower Canary registers and rate this as One Canary–more fun to make fun of after than to read. If you like horror, there are times when Stephen King will certainly fit the bill, but give Thinner a pass.

What’s your opinion on Stephen King? Any hits I should try or clunkers to avoid? And now that we’re in the crunch time before Halloween, what should I read to get my horror fix?

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[Book Review] If they cast Nina Dobrev as Number Seven, I’m in.

Meg’s Review: The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore

I am someone who forms immediate attachments to characters. I bawl at the point of catharsis in every sports movie; I’d lived through all of their strife and am now irreversibly connected to the football player or the upcoming tennis star . Halfway through the first few chapters of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, I was so concerned for Mikael Blomkvist’s fate that I could hardly turn the page.

So it says something that, at the end of The Power of Six, I really couldn’t give a shit about a single character in the book.

(Well, no character other than Bernie Kosar, the shape shifting companion to John (aka Number Four). Although BK can take the form of any monster imaginable, he chooses to hang out in the form of a beagle. I can’t help but love him.)

The story basically picks up where I Am Number Four leaves off: John, his best friend Sam, and Number Six are on the run from the evil Mogadorians and the US government (which thinks they’re terrorists). As the story opens, the trio spends a great deal of time trying to figure out what to do, which makes for some pretty dull reading. But, as though Pittacus Lore (the pen name of James Frey and Jobie Hughes) realized the presence of the ever-increasing boredom factor, John’s first-person narrative is left off every two chapters or so to visit Marina, aka Number Seven, who lives in a convent in Spain. Still, as the word ‘convent’ might imply, the split narrative doesn’t actually help the boring part.

And the book had to really work at being dull. As both Marina and John scramble to figure out how to save themselves (and Earth, and Lorien, their home planet), there are almost as many explosions as there are chapters. But the long passages of battles felt more like action for action’s sake than an actual part of the plot. Because all of the Lorien aliens have ‘legacies’ like telekinesis and fire-pulse hands, there’s all kinds of cool special effects going on, but at some point they just get silly because they’re so overused.  When the battle is over, there’s just a whole bunch of dead bad guys rather than a whole bunch of dead bad guys plus a new direction in plot.

The book clocked in at a slim 251 pages. On the one hand, that means the torture is fairly short-lived. On the other, is also means there’s almost nothing between the covers in the way of character development. But really, the characters are so one-dimensional that there isn’t much room for growth beyond, perhaps, Sarah’s character, who turns out to be a bit of a bitch. That fact does not bode well for the possible sequel film; besides Alex Pettyfer’s chest, Dianna Agron was the only redeeming factor in the first I am Number Four movie. The only other hint of development was the establishment of a rather strange love triangle between Sam, Six, and John–

It would only be fair to the guys to cast Nina Dobrev. I mean, if their girlfriends are going to drag them to see Alex Pettyfer, they should at least have something for themselves.

–that is so unstable that there’s no real tension there, either.

The issues with the first novel are present here too. Pacing is pretty miserable; I didn’t actually get interested in the plot until around page 200 (oi, it’s a 251-page book), but even then I was skimming over never-ending battle scenes. I think that if the first and second books were condensed and combined, we’d have about 100 pages of a fairly fun narrative.

New problems arise as well. The split first-person narrative was particularly distracting. Because the characters are so flat and indistinct, it some times took me a while to realize who was talking. It was particularly bad in the last chapters when the narrative switched every few pages. I’m all for telling a story from different points of view, but you’ve gotta give the characters their voices, so I don’t have to leaf along, wondering who’s talking.

Normally, two bad books in a series would mean that I would swear the rest of the franchise off forever. But I’m hooked on the badness and the strangely straightforward nature of the narration (such as when, during a battle, John hops on the back of Bernie Kosar, who had turned into a tiger-ram monster, like it was no big thing at all.) that I’m probably in for the long-haul.

Plus, I can’t abandon Bernie Kosar now. I gotta know if the beagle makes it.

[ Book Review ] A pretty cover does not a good book make. Sadly.

Meg’s Review: The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel

by Michael Scott

Audiobook read by Denis O’Hare

I am a sucker for three things: ancient-mythology-in-modern-times, perfectly-paced prose, and pink-colored alcoholic drinks.  The first weakness saw me buy The Alchemyst by Michael Scott. The lack of the second drove me to the third.

In The Alchemyst, 700-year-old Nicholas Flamel is alive and well after discovering the secret to immortality in a book called “The Codex”. He and his wife, Perenelle, are camped out in San Francisco running a bookstore (because I guess what else would you do if you were immortal and could turn anything into gold?).  Enter the villain, John Dee, who is after the secrets contained in “The Codex” — which, incidentally, are key to returning the Dark Elders (think evil gods) back to power. And in the middle of it are twin teenagers Sophie and Josh, who, by the way, turn out to be the subject of a prophecy that may or may not end the world.

I realized early on that my main problem was that I simply wasn’t connecting with the protagonists. Did that mean that I had finally hit an age where I could no longer truly commit to a young adult novel? Are fifteen-year-old minds just too different for my decrepit-self?  How to check the theory? I thought about how I felt about the plight of other YA protagonists: Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Katniss Everdeen. Then I decided that Sofie and Josh were just kinda dumb and annoying, and that’s why I didn’t like the book.

Time for some of the good and bad:

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[Book Review] Such a hot, hot mess

Meg’s Review: I Am Number Four

Pittacus Lore — I Am Number Four


Apparently, Number Four is in a Burning Ring of Fire. Going down down downThe only reason I picked up I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore was because the guy in the trailer for the movie was really hot. But as saying, “I’m going to see a  movie because the star is hot” seemed like a shallow approach, I grabbed the book to build a stronger defense. Terrible plan, as it turned out.

I Am Number Four is a young adult scifi thriller with an interesting premise. Number Four is one of the last surviving members of an alien species whose home planet was destroyed by invaders. He and his fellow refugees (1-9) are hiding out on Earth, biding their time until they can take back their planet. However, the invaders followed them to Earth and are systematically hunting the survivors down in numerical order. As the book opens, Number Four realizes that Number Three has died, meaning his number is literally up (har).

Sounds interesting. And it would be if the authors, James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and Jobie Hughes working under the pen name Pittacus Lore, actually stuck to that plot summary. Instead, they somehow managed to Continue reading