Farewell!

This has been a great thing for me the past couple of years, but it’s time for it to come to an end. As I’m currently in the process of pursuing publication for my own series, my agent’s decided that I ought to stop posting reviews of other folks’ work. And I totally get it. Bad tonyou know. ;)

I may or may not have to delete the blog in the future. Whether it just goes into archive status or gets purged depends on what I end up hearing on that front for my agent.

Thanks for reading!

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My Name is Will, by Jess Winfield

Title: My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and ShakespeareMyNameisWill
Author: Jess Winfield
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 304 pages
Genre: historical fiction / modern fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2 stars. Maybe.

I have conflicted feelings about this book. I wanted to like it, somewhat enjoyed half of it, and could’ve entirely done without the other half.

My Name is Will tells two stories in parallel. The William section, set in 1582, follows William Shakespeare through a tumultuous few months of his life, where he woos women, gets entangled in a Catholic conspiracy, becomes a man, and winds up accidentally married to Anne Hathaway. The Willie section of the book, set in the 1980s, follows a lackluster graduate student through a weekend where he tries to defend an indefensible thesis topic, bangs a lot of women, gets stoned a lot, and winds up accidentally smuggling drugs to a Renaissance faire.

The William section of the book is pretty fun — though a total fantasy hinging on a highly inventive narrative. But whatever, I can deal with that. The writing here occasionally soars, because Winfield has a good grip on rhetoric. For someone who knows what syllepsis looks like and can spot anthimeria at fifty paces, these chapters can be a real treat. Unfortunately, it can never sustain that high quality for very long. There are plenty of bits that drag. Winfield occasionally belabors his history to cram in the backstory that not everyone will have when it comes to Shakespeare’s life, conditions in mid-16th century Warwickshire, or the politics of Elizabeth’s reign. And then it sort of unravels at the end. Events collide into each other with bizarre pacing, and there are a few tangents that most definitely come out of nowhere.

The Willie section of the book… if that were all the book was, it would’ve been a DNF for me. I found Willie to be 3000% unsympathetic. I mean, really, I’m supposed to feel bad for this entitled, lazy-ass grad student, who can’t be bothered to finish the thesis and get the degree his father has paid his way for, because he’s too busy trying to figure out how to nail PhD candidates and spends all his father’s money on weed and mushrooms? Seriously? That is not a protagonist to me. That is someone I want to kick in the shins. I am thoroughly unimpressed by druggie culture, and even more unimpressed by crappy students who give academia a bad name. This made it impossible for me to connect with the character or to care about his story. I didn’t care if he managed to make his drug deal to get the money he so desperately needed because his father (sort of) (finally) cut him off, except insofar as I wanted the arrogant little snot to get arrested.

There were also times in both sections when it felt like Winfield was trying to be gritty for grittiness’s sake. I’m not someone who enjoys crudeness. I know some people appreciate that in their fiction, but I’m not one of them. I don’t need to be reminded every other page that people piss, shit, fart, and are full of pus. I just don’t. Maybe that makes me squeamish or something, but it just puts me off.

And then there were the female characters. Between both storylines, there was exactly one female character who had a purpose beyond being a receptacle for sperm — Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. And we don’t even see that much from her until the last quarter of the book. Every other women in the book, no matter her station, her purported intellect, whatever, just seems to fall flat on her back with her legs spread for William or Willie. It’s beyond ridiculous. Willie’s section in particular is just the pornographic fantasy of an emotionally stunted twenty-something male. Lord knows I don’t mind sex in a book — as I’m sure y’all can tell from the number of romance novels I review — but in My Name is Will, it’s just pathetic and tawdry. I have exactly no interest in the erectile state of some spoiled, entitled loser, but by God will you hear about it in this book. Over and over and over again.

Overall, I think this book is a really big case of YMMV. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would find appeal in the very things that repelled me. The 1582 chapters kept me reading, but this book was very nearly something I could not even get through. There were a few worthwhile moments, and those, I imagine, will stick with me. But this is not one I’ll ever feel the compulsion to re-read.

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The Conquest of Lady Cassandra, by Madeline Hunter

Title: The Conquest of Lady Cassandra (Fairbourne Quartet#2)ConquestLadyCassandra
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 336 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.75 stars

Someday I’m going to read one of Madeline Hunter’s series in the right order. I somehow managed to pick up #2 without having read #1, which I intend to rectify.

Cassandra Vernham is notorious but not quite ruined, thanks to a complicated bit of personal history. Six years ago, she was technically though not properly compromised by a man, and then refused to marry him. That man later got himself stupidly killed in a duel which everyone assumed was over her, further scandalizing her reputation. Estranged from her family thanks to all of this, she spends a few years in Europe with her aunt, then returns home to London and tries to get on with life as best she can. She’s not totally ostracized and still has some friends, but she’s not thoroughly accepted, either, and she tends to end up in vaguely-written items in the gossip columns. Years later, one of her rejected beau’s friends, Viscount Ambury (whose proper name is, tragically, Yates) has taken up private investigation as a bit of a hobby, and is looking into the possibility that some jewels Cassandra sold at auction were stolen — from his own family. Entanglements ensue. Cassandra needs the money because her brother is trying

This one rates just below average for me for a lot of reasons — and it isn’t even that it’s a bad book. It’s just that it left me unfulfilled. I initially gave it a solid 3 stars, but I keep thinking of more things I disliked about it, so I had to knock a bit more off.

The biggest problem is that I just don’t believe in this as a love story. It’s an interesting story, but not a believable romance. I believe that Yates and Cassandra feel attraction and friendship for each other. Once they get over a variety of trust issues, they seem to know how to communicate with each other. But I don’t believe that they feel abiding passion or deep love. The story just plain never gets us there. The heat is sexual but not emotional. Theirs will be a really good marriage of convenience — but it still feels like just that. Hunter never manages to elevate them beyond that point. The title is also misleading. There’s no conquest. Neither Cassandra’s physical nor emotional self is at any point overthrown. She makes a logical decision to preserve her aunt’s future, and she chooses Ambury as the lesser of two evils. It’s all very cerebral, very detached.

I also had issues with some unanswered questions, and while I freely admit some of that might be due to missing the first book in the series, I really doubt all of it is. Ambury’s motives throughout are somewhat vague and mutable. We never really get a good idea of what he does in his moonlighting as an investigator — how long he’s been doing it, how it makes him money, what other cases he’s taken — it’s just sort of a slapped-on detail, not a fully realized character point. The information about Cassandra’s past is sort of annoyingly withheld until very late in the book, and the last-minute turn just seems odd and out of place.

None of that is to say the book is without its advantages. I actually enjoyed the process of reading it, and got through it quickly. The story is compelling — it just isn’t what’s on the tin, you know? Watching Yates and Cassandra negotiate around each other, around their friends, around her brother, is all interesting. I like the slightly different setting (though the publishers need to know not to refer to something set in 1798 as Regency) and the sociopolitical spin that puts on things. And I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the series, because I generally like Hunter’s writing, and I especially like how she interrogates what romance does to friendship. Not a lot of romance authors do that, even if they’re using the conceit to string together a series. Hunter’s romances, on the whole, seem more grounded in reality than others in the genre — which sometimes works for me and sometimes doesn’t. After all, this genre is generally a fantasy as much as anything involving dragons or magic.

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Caesar’s Legion, by Stephen Dando-Collins

CaesarsLegionTitle: Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome
Author: Stephen Dando-Collins
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 336 pages
Genre: nonfiction – Roman history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

I was looking for a comprehensive yet readable military history featuring the Roman legions, and Dando-Collins delivered. This book (more or less) follows the history of the famous Tenth Legion, raised by Caesar and present for most of the battles of his Spanish and Gallic campaigns as well as during the Pompeian War. Following Caesar’s death, they fought first for Antony, then for Octavian, and then fell into disuse in Syria. General Domitius Corbulo whipped them back into shape a few decades later, and they were instrumental in subduing the Jewish Revolts of the 60s and in taking the fortress of Masada in 73.

Dando-Collins walks the reader through these events with vivid attention both to military strategy and to the daily life of the legionaries. Both are valuable to me — you get the big picture from Caesar’s viewpoint. He focuses on some lesser-known battles of the Conquest of Gaul as well as the most famous, and does a particularly nice job detailing the end of the Pompeian Civil War, after Pharsalus. Most accounts just sort of take the attitude of, “and then Caesar left Egypt and mopped everybody else up.” This does a better job showing just how fierce the resistance continued to be, even with Pompey’s death and the capitulation of several other key Optimates. He seems to want to excuse the Tenth Legion from its mutinies where I’ve seen other writers come down pretty hard on them for turning on Caesar, attributing it to bad influence and a few corrupt centurions (rather than to a not-unreasonable expectation of getting paid). They manage to redeem themselves, though, and restore their reputations to one of honor and glory — just to sink back down again a few decades later.

That in of itself is an interesting view of the Roman legions that we don’t often see. Mostly you hear about how they were the finest military machine the world had ever seen (I know some Parthian cataphracts who might wish to argue the particulars, but, whatever). We hear about the ones that get obliterated (Carrhae and Teutoburg Forest, for example). We don’t often hear about those that sink into idleness and ignominy. He also gives you both sides of Caesar — the truly genius military mind, but also the one slightly in over his head after the Rubicon, prone to errors that would’ve been uncharacteristic in earlier years.

This book had two major drawbacks for me. One was Dando-Collins’s decision to replace Roman military rank with modern American military rank. Maybe it helps some readers, but for me, it just made it more confusing. I know what tribunes, legates, and proconsuls are, but I can no more decline the strata of modern major generals than I can perform integral and differential calculus The other was that this wasn’t really a history of the Tenth Legion. It was, in many places, a speculation on where the Tenth might’ve been and what they might’ve been doing, and in others, nothing to do with the Tenth at all. We spend a fair bit of time with the Sixth and the Thirteenth, for example, and a fair bit of time just unraveling political matters and personal vendettas. I understand that history leaves gaps, and that it would’ve been strange and jerky to leap from one event to another without explaining intervening matter, but then, why set that as your premise in the first place? Why not just write a comprehensive history of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey? Or of the evolution of the legions from late Republic into early Imperial Rome? It seemed strange to me to promote such a conceit when the actual narrative digressed so very often (even when those digressions were rather nice and things I appreciated, such as the chapter spent on the story of Germanicus and Agrippina). At least he admits when he speculates, though — it makes the reading a bit tiresome, with so many “if”s and “perhaps”es and “maybe”s littering the pages, but it bespeaks academic honesty.

Dando-Collins has written another book, which does purport to look at the history of every legion. That one’s on my to-read shelf, so I’ll be interested to see how it compares. He’s also written a number of other Roman histories, and I like his writing style well enough to look into them someday. It’s accessible but not childish, managing to be comprehensive without drowning a reader in dense details the way many military histories do. I appreciate how often Dando-Collins refers to primary sources, which further enhances this book as good reading material for someone with an interest in not just the mechanics but the culture of the Roman legions.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Title: The Ocean at the End of the LaneOceanLane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 181 pages
Genre: magical realism
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

This is a strange little book, but thoroughly compelling.

The narrator (who, as usual, resembles Neil Gaiman more than he doesn’t, though he confesses in the afterword that the familial circumstances are nothing like his own) is a middle-aged man returning to the village he lived in as a child, for a funeral. Wandering in avoidance of other people, he finds himself at the Hempstock house at the end of the lane, and remembers that, forty years earlier, a strange man committed suicide in a car there. The narrative then drops us back through the decades, where the narrator is a seven-year-old boy in a family facing financial difficulties and emotional tension.

The stranger’s death sets off a strange chain of events, unleashing an eldritch creature who wants to destroy the narrator’s family and, perhaps, the world as we know. Standing between him and danger is Lettie Hempstock, who takes responsibility for him because, it seems, responsibility is a bit of a family trait. Lettie is eleven, and may have been eleven for a very long time. She has deep knowledge, considerable power of her own, and an utterly normal way of talking. She promises to protect the narrator, no matter what, and he thinks he’d die for her.

Gaiman’s prose is, as ever, entrancing — elegant and brutal at the same time. He can paint you the mysticism of the Fae and a chillingly mundane reality in one smooth stroke. There’s a lot of power in juxtaposition.

This book is, at its heart, a childhood fantasy — in the very least twee and charming way I could possibly mean those words. Horrors are everywhere when you’re a kid, and the world is so much bigger than you can possibly comprehend. So of course you wander off the path — if you didn’t, you’d never find out anything. The woods behind your house go on forever, and there really could be an ocean at the end of the lane, for all you know. And adults are mysterious, inexplicable creatures. Creatures who can be quite thoroughly menacing, because, as this book points out — and as too many abuse victims have discovered through the ages — they are large, and powerful, and who would ever believe a child with an incredible story? Even a child just a few years older than you are seems impossibly more skilled, an initiate into mysteries you know nothing about yet — but will, someday. It’s a terrifying way to exist. It’s a wonder any of us get past it, that we don’t just freeze up in anxiety and indecision and refuse to step either forward or back.

And yet, for all of that, don’t you miss it?

Not all the time, of course, but I think most of us have a little piece of our hearts that still yearns for the days when anything seemed possible, even if the anythings were horrible. A part of us that could still believe in the incredible, in such a primal way that’s hope and fear mixed together. We remember when the world seemed bigger, when more things seemed possible, when we hadn’t learned just how many limitations and constrictions the world will place on us, and we regret what age and experience have done to us, what they’ve taken away. Cynicism builds walls, makes your feet tread familiar paths. It’s this bittersweet nostalgia that Gaiman captures so beautifully, and that is the real genius behind The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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Curtsies & Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger

Title: Curtsies & ConspiraciesCurtsiesConspiracies (Finishing School #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk paranormal
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

The second installment in Carriger’s Finishing School Series is every bit as good as the first. Which is to say, not flawless, but thoroughly entertaining.

Returning to the floating school for female spies, we find Sophronia and her peers receiving their first evaluations. Each young lady is tested individually, but the results are given en masse. Sophronia’s ludicrously high marks make her a target for ostracization, even from her nearest and dearest — Dimity, Sidhaeg, and Agatha. Even stranger, the school is planning a trip to London — and stops on the way to pick up boys from their rival university. Suspecting that this trip is much more than meets the eye, Sophronia puts all her skills to use to get to the bottom of a scheme with major implications for the scientific and the supernatural communities alike, and to keep her friend Dimity safe from what she’s sure is an imminent kidnapping attempt.

As ever, Carriger writes with considerable felicity. The tone of the book is conscious, but not cloyingly so, as was occasionally the case in the Parasol Protectorate books. They’re over-the-top, utterly ridiculous at points, but there’s also a lot about them that feels quite real, particularly when it comes to her depiction of teenage girl social dynamics. Sophronia and her peers act like reasonable approximations of teenage girls — but not like idiots. Everything is life or death — but at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, that’s occasionally literally true as well. Your friends don’t always behave in the ways you wish they would. Signals get mixed, sometimes someone thinks she’s telegraphing one emotion but you’re interpreting another and everyone’s confused. Some people hurt each other intentionally, and some do it by accident. Despite the strange setting of a floating school, the vampires, the mechanimal pet, the intrigues, the kidnappings, and of course the fact that fourteen year old girls are being trained on how to recognize arsenic-laced tea cookies at the same time they’re learning to flirt, there’s also a lot here that’s just very… normal.

And I really appreciate the way this book handles potential romance. They’re curious about boys, but still a little hesitant about them, too. There’s a wonderful frisson of “Not yet… but soon” about it all. Sophronia discovers that she likes the attention of flirting and wants to enjoy that, but she sometimes feels discomfited by the tangle of emotions and hormones that come along with it, too. I hope that Carriger’s taking us someplace more than a standard love triangle, though, because if she’s headed in that direction, I will have to shake my head. Right now, it’s just sort of fun to watch a heroine be allowed to feel things without the pressure of making a lifelong decision based on them.

Carriger also does a lovely job weaving together her two timelines. It isn’t a strict progression, but enough of the characters interweave (and yes, there are a few more lovely cameos here) to make it a real treat. Even better, though, is the way the world itself interweaves, particularly with regard to scientific and political developments. It makes the Parasol Protectorate world more complete unto itself. It’s also unfolding further, both for the reader and for Sophronia. Alliances and sympathies aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem at first glance.

There are, as I said, a few flaws. Though the sense of character is improved from the first book, the POV bobbles a bit in some places, wandering from third-limited into third-omniscient with no real justification. And the moral lesson of the book is a bit obvious — that, as in the first book, Sophronia’s greatest strength is in her friends and allies (friendship is magic, y’all). This despite the fact that the school still seems to encourage competition, resulting in something of a mixed message for Sophronia. I’m hoping to see that play out further, especially since Sophronia does such a good job of yoking together disparate talents from very different individuals. Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment and I look forward to the next.

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Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day, by Philip Matyszak

Title: Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a DayAncientRome5DenariiDay
Author: Philip Matyszak
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 144 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

This book is a great resource, though it isn’t quite what I’d expected or hoped for. Matyszak writes with his usual felicity and accessibility, but this book is not, as the title and cover might led you to believe, quite so similar to his Legionary or Gladiator. The premise does not really drop you into the role of ancient tourist. Rather, the book provides a snapshot view of Rome-at-a-glance, somewhere around the year 200.

And it just that — a glance view, with plenty of anecdotes and trivia, but not a particularly deep exploration. I do like the book’s organization, which takes you through things to do, places to go, and social customs to observe. Matyszak pays special attention to the geography of the city of the Caesars: what’s on which hill (temples, temples, and, oh yeah, some more temples), what you’ll find in the Subura (crime and prostitutes, mostly), what’s across the river (nothing you want to be a part of), which forums to hit for what activities and shopping excursions. He stresses a lot of the activities most important to Roman social life at all strata — bathing, eating, gossiping, going to the races. Roman entertainment can be beautifully poetic or utterly depraved, though Matyszak does unpack the goings-on at the Colosseum — not always lethal combat between gladiators (who were, after all, expensive investments), not necessarily to everyone’s taste (Romans throughout the centuries voiced their distaste for the more gruesome activities — though enough still approved, clearly, that they kept it up), and Christians pretty much never got thrown to the lions (they got crucified instead, because that’s the Roman sense of humor there in a nutshell). He notes the architectural genius of the colosseum, able to fill in 20 minutes and disperse as quickly, using techniques that stadium-builders still employ today.

Matyszak also does a great job of discussing the integration of religion with Roman life — all-important and yet not terribly pious, at least to a modern point of view. The gods are everywhere. Literally, everywhere. Every hill, every valley, every home, every crossroads. Celebrations in their honor dictate the movement of the calendar. Auspices and astrology inform political life. And yet the gods don’t actually care if you believe in them. So long as the rituals are observed, they’ll hold up their end of the bargain, and you can go on to merrily worship anyone you choose. “Confessing a deep love for a particular god,” however, as Matyszak notes, “is superstitio and the person concerned is probably emotionally disturbed.”

Though the humor in Ancient Rome in 5 Denarii a Day is not as laugh-out-loud funny as I found Legionary to be, or even the Classical Compendium, Matyszak’s sly humor still shines through periodically. Some of the best bits of the book, though, actually showcase the humor of the ancients, every bit as dry and ironic as the best of the BBC. Matyszak liberally sprinkles the book with quotes from Plautus, Cicero, Tacitus, Plutarch, and others — and even when those are from “serious” sources, they often highlight the absurdity of social or political life. They also provide insight into those great geological details about what sort of people you’d find in what places.

Overall, this is a nice resource to have — not particularly comprehensive, but an excellent overview, and certainly inspirational for me. There are all sorts of fun tidbits to mine and to research further. This would be a great addition to any Rome-enthusiast’s bookshelf.

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