Sunday, June 27

Earth to Hell - Kylie Chan

In the eight years since her love, John Chen - also known as Xuan Wu, God of the Northern Heavens - was exiled from earth, Australian Regent of the Northern Heavens (Probationary) and Acting Grand Master Emma Donahoe has consolidated her position as his manager pro tem and guardian of his heir, the now-sixteen-year-old Simone. Emma's powers and her ability to control them has developed in the intervening years, and she has a good relationship with most of the other members of the supernatural Parthenon, including the Jade Emperor. The only significant exception is the scheming son of the King of the Demons, One Two Two - Emma knows he's behind not only the continual attacks on her academy but also responsible for the disturbing hybrid demons that have been emerging over the past decade.
Of course, that's not her only concern - she has to balance Simone's human preferences (including going to ordinary school) with the need to have defend New Wudang Martial Arts Academy's structure, students and staff from demon attack. That's while juggling the competing needs and preferences and whims of dozens of people, Shen and renounced demons. All without revealing either her demon nature (the result of being deliberately sprayed with demon essence) or her giant black snake alter ego. And in the interim there's the wait for John's eventual return, and the hunt for their dear friend Leo, taken to Hell eight years earlier.
The much awaited Heaven to Hell is the first in a new three-part series that builds on the Dark Heavens trilogy.
The first series introduced the characters and the universe, which is set within the rich mythology of Chinese folklore and theology - I commented in my earlier reviews that I'm sure a deeper knowledge of this area would have enhanced my enjoyment of the series.
Heaven to Hell has moments to delight in, including the comment, when instantly transporting between places, that:

JK Rowling did something like this in Harry Potter," I said.
"Well, she can sue the Jade Emperor," Simone said, recited the words and disappeared.

I also really liked the appearance of "a visitor from home - an Australian who I vaguely recognised... obviously Aboriginal; she appeared to be in her mid-sixties, only about a metre and a half tall... [with] the extremely dark skin and strong features of a pre-blood Aborigine, a flat nose and wide mouth, and short dark curly hair shot with grey." She's Uluru, the Grandmother of All Rocks, who moonlights as a professor of comparative literature. It's unfortunate, however, that these moments were rare. Earth to Hell is thicker than its predecessors, both in physical dimension and in content. There are innumerable fights between the good guys and a variety of demons, that inevitably conclude with our heroes triumphing - and those that are fallen merely travel through hell and return, so there are few real consequences. In many of these scenes I felt as though I was watching a contemporary action film, with the camera held so close to the activity that it's difficult to distinguish between players, let alone tell what's going on.
And Emma seems to have become a Mary-Sue, adept at almost every challenge, increasingly strong and powerful yet keeping her irreverence. I really liked her character in the earlier books, but got no real sense of her here except as a cipher at best, and template at worst.
Most distressingly, I didn't really care - about Emma, Simone, Leo, or the fate of the universe. This, I think, was for three reasons. The characters I particularly liked last time around are less present or wholly absent in Earth to Hell, and those that are present are thinly drawn in favour of a stronger emphasis on action. Sub-plots that seem important - like Simone being expelled from school or truancy, and her dogged insistence that she won't go to school with 'freaks' - vanish into nothing significant. And more than half the time I felt as though I was missing important information, that I'd either forgotten from the first series (which I read only six months ago) or which was not well introduced. And that meant that I never became as immersed in the text as I hoped. I'll certainly read the next in the Journey to Wudang series, but with less anticipation. - Alex

The Dark Heavens Trilogy:
White Tiger
Red Phoenix
Blue Dragon
The Journey to Wudang trilogy:
Earth to Hell
2. Hell to Heaven
3. Heaven to Earth

Wednesday, June 23

Ann Herendeen: Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander

Seeking both escape from her overbearing mother and the freedom society only awards to a married woman, a young authoress accepts a proposal from a wealthy sodomite. She will not interfere with his chosen lifestyle while providing him with an heir, he will allow her to continue writing gothic novels and gift her with a small estate of her own on the birth of a son.
What neither of them anticipates is the development of genuine affection and the young woman’s erotic response to her husband’s homosexual behaviour. She welcomes his lover into their life and all seems set for a happy ever after-until a blackmailer threatens to expose their arrangement.
So begins a series of deceits, each hoping to protect the other with lies that are driving them apart. And it’s not just their relationship that’s at stake. The blackmailer is a suspected French spy sending coded intelligence back to Bonaparte, using his knowledge of their illegal sodomite behaviour to protect himself.
Eventually circumstances reach a head, everything comes out into the open, the blackmailing spy gets his comeuppance and the trio discovers the true depths of their feelings for each other.
This is, to say the least, a unique twist on regency romance and it works well-up to a point. The main characters are reasonably well developed and their motivation entirely believable but from there in I didn’t find things really up to par.
Though there was the obligatory mention of Almack’s I didn’t get any real sense of the period. The quality of the dialogue was uneven; in some places it was delightful, in others abysmal. The behaviour of the men often stepped over the line from unfounded stereotype to caricature and sex in all its glorious variations was often used in place of character or plot development.
This isn’t a bad book, the story is, in fact, quite good but with a decent strong edit it could have been much, much better.
Herendeen is to be congratulated on breaking the mould but competition in the field is tough and as a regency romance this was mediocre.-Lynn

For Alex's review of Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander click here.

Monday, June 21

The Gates of Zion - Bodie Thoene

American Ellie Warne is still finding Palestine overwhelming - she's hoping that her work for her archaeologist uncle will lead to a professional career in photography, and is enjoying a flirtation with her uncle's assistant Moshe, despite his disinterest in wider global issues. And they're hard to avoid, because it's 1947: the aftermath of the Second World War is still settling, Jews are being forbidden entry to Britain, and the British army - spearheaded by its politicians - is closing its eyes to egregious acts from the increasingly militant Muslim population in Palestine. Fomented by Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, the previous harmony between Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the ancient city is being torn apart. For those wise and astute, the coming Partition Resolution, dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arabic states, is not a cause for celebration of the creation of Zion but the trigger for what would become civil war.
Ellie is unaware of any of these tensions, and is instead focused on opportunities for career-making photographs. The first of these is a scroll, brought to her uncle's home by an elderly Bedouin tribesman and his grandson. Though she suspects the antikas are not particularly valuable, she is somehow drawn to the ancient writings and the story that the boy found them in clay pots in a cave while herding goats in the desert. She convinces the men to leave the scroll with her for a few days, and photographs them carefully - an act that contributes to her being embroiled in people smuggling, arms smuggling, and at the forefront of seething political unrest.
I hadn't previously heard of Thoene or her husband and researcher Brock. Though not at all New Agey, I did feel as though I was lead to reading something Judaic, as my eyes fell in quick succession on several Jewish-themed novels at the library, before landing on the Zion Chronicles, of which this is the first. And it includes several elements that I am drawn to, including the era, theology, comparative religion in general, Judaism in particular, the opportunity to learn more about Islamic beliefs and practices, and the impact of the Second World War of American feminism.
The Gates of Zion is necessarily complicated - the setting is convoluted to begin with, and Thoene has done a capable job of combining historical events with a fictional narrative that includes real people, places and events. The work is clearly well sited and researched. But I found reading The Gates of Zion a real slog, for two reasons. The first was that the writing tilted strongly to the hyperbolic, with overwrought portrayals of emotion - crumpling into silent sobs, uneasiness transforming into brutal awareness, fighting off feelings of horror, That, I realise as I write this, is indicative of a larger issue I had: the writing style is a little heavy on telling over showing, which I found undermined the emotional impact many of the scenes would have otherwise had.
The second problem for me was the heaviness of the religious themes. The Gates of Zion is clearly, in retrospect, a strongly Christian Message text, which I didn't realise when I began reading it. There is a very hefty dose of unsubtle theological preaching at alongside the larger plot, and a strong sprinkling of deus ex machina-like coincidences that I might have been prepared to suspend disbelief for in the absence of other glaring flaws.
With one exception, a high-profile rabbi who collaborates with the enemy, the Jewish characters come out well, including the rather large percentage of neo-Christian Jews who believe Jesus was the Messiah but his message has been co-opted by Christianity:
"I am Moshe Sachar, and I am a Jew who believes that the one we call Yeshua is the Messiah. In this I hope with a hope that knows the truth; He will come again to my people and they will know Him for who He is and find pardon and the joy of knowing Him as a loving and merciful Savior. And for you, dear Ellie, I hope that you will reach out to Him. For I know He cares so much for you." His face was full of emotion as he stepped toward Ellie and wrapped his arms around her.
"What do I do, Moshe? How can I know Him too and have hope?"
He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. "Just talk to Him, my love. Just ask Him to make you everything you can be. Give Him your heart."
"But it's broken, Moshe; my heart is broken." She buried her face against him.
"He knows all about broken hearts, Ellie. And our King David writes that your broken heart is just the kind of sacrifice He will accept."
Muslims, on the other hand, are uniformly treacherous, malevolent, unreasonable and sadistic. They are also portrayed without depth or other motivation, and I found this weakened their impact, making them cardboard villains.
It's not just religion that determines personality, though - race, too, plays a strong part. Brits (or Britishers, in the text) are biased, myopic and anti-Semitic, while Americans are either sympathetic and intelligent but often naive, or anti-Semitic and cruel. This simplification of a really complex issue does little to serve the book or engage the reader.
And that's a real shame, because the era and the story are fascinating. A glossary would also have been useful, rather than having to try to infer meaning from context alone, and a brief overview of actual events in which this was set would also have been useful for readers unfamiliar with the history and consequence of these events.As I wrote at the beginning, there are many elements in The Gates of Zion that appeal to me, not least of which is a mildly distorted version of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But, thought this is the first in a series of five (followed by the six-part Zion Legacy series), I doubt I'll be returning to the Thoene fold any time soon. - Alex

Saturday, June 19

Eric Garcia: Cassandra French’s Finishing School for Boys

From the cover-

Cassandra French is a twenty-nine-year-old business affairs lawyer for a movie studio in Los Angeles. She has a creepy, platitudinous boss; a mother who is under house arrest for telemarketing fraud; and two best friends: studio exec Claire, who’s sleeping with her shrink, and Lexi, a blond man-magnet of a yoga instructor. Oh, and she also has three handsome young men chained to cots in her basement. They’re enrolled in Cassandra French’s Finishing School for Boys.
Things start to get a little complicated when Jason Kelly, Hollywood’s
biggest heartthrob, tries to seduce Cassie into fudging a contract issue on one of his movies. That’s no way to treat a lady-and Cassie has just the cure.

This is probably a good book. I can’t say for sure one way or another because I gave up at page nine. Why? I simply can’t put my finger on it. Certainly the story line appeals to me or I would never have picked up the book in the first place. And though I really wanted to, I couldn’t connect with the main character at all. Something about the writing style irritated me to the point where I couldn’t continue and I’m so disappointed because I really, really wanted to read this book.
It’s possibly just me. Give it a go-you may like it.-Lynn

Thursday, June 17

Laura Anne Gilman: Burning Bridges

With vigilante attacks against magic users increasing exponentially the magical community has decided it’s time to start fighting back. But the Mage Council, the largest organized body of magic users, is being torn apart by internal politics and is of no help to anyone. The situation requires delicate handling, that handling falls into the lap of an independent witch who wants nothing to do with it.
She reluctantly accepts the challenge of holding the magical community together, even while her life is falling apart. The writing is on the wall for her relationship with her business partner and lover as they both face problems that the other can only exacerbate and find themselves being pulled increasingly in different directions.
Questions of loyalty and trust abound as the magical community is pushed into an unavoidable confrontation with those that would destroy them all.
This is the fourth in the retriever series and picks up where the third left off focussing on further developing the larger story arc with the actual retrieval little more than a footnote in the story. As such it could not be read as a stand alone novel and make very much sense.
As might be expected at this point in the series the pace is very fast as the story picks up momentum. The character development is excellent, the dynamics between the main pair particularly textured and believable.
I like that the witch is being forced to develop abilities that have not come naturally to her in the past and that she is bad at those things, however, I didn’t like the sudden new dependence on those talents.
Overall an excellent instalment that has left me as eager as ever to find out how the series ends.-Lynn

Saturday, June 12

Elizabeth E. Wein: The Winter Prince

King Artos’s son Medraut cannot stand being commanded and contradicted by his sickly younger half-brother. He may be a bastard born of incest but he is still the first born son and feels he deserves some respect-even from the legitimate heir. Spurred on by his mother, in a moment of bitter jealousy, he agrees to kidnap the king’s favourite son. He plans to hold the boy to ransom, forcing his father to bestow upon him the honours he feels he deserves.
But throughout the ordeal his brother shows more courage and moral strength than was ever thought possible, earning not only his respect but forcing him to realise that despite everything he does love the boy.
The two return to court a new understanding between them and hope for a bright future.
This was a unique spin on the old Arthurian legends. Rather than an outright villain the Medraut character is simply a boy on the verge of manhood desperately trying to carve a place for himself in a world that sees him not for who he is but for how he came to be.
The decaying Roman world in which the story is set feels realistic but it is the brilliant characterisation that really makes the story jump off the page.
As a young adult novel it is the junior characters that carry the action and they do so in a believable manner, the intense emotions and flawed logic of their youth wonderfully portrayed.
While knowledge of the legend enriches the tale told here it is not necessary-this book gives the reader all the details they need and so stands alone well. Though knowing how the legends traditionally end gives this tale’s ending poignancy it is otherwise without.
A great read for lovers of Arthurian legend both young and old.-Lynn

Thursday, June 3

Jim Butcher: Summer Knight

When the Winter Queen of the Faeries forces a wizard to clear her name by finding out who murdered the Summer Queen’s Knight, he thinks things can’t get much worse. He’s wrong. The future of the world depends on him solving the case before war breaks out between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, taking the rest of the planet with it.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, somebody has put out a contract on his life and he is being relentlessly pursued by paranormal hit men, his presumed dead ex-girlfriend has turned up not very dead at all and he still can’t find a way to break the curse that threatens to turn the love of his life into a vampire.
This is the fourth book in the Dresden Files series and it has much stronger fantasy elements than its predecessors. While it has, the now familiar, pile of problems upon problems, this time, at least, the hero isn’t constantly pulling power out of his tapped out supply (a habit that I found particularly annoying in an earlier story).
The pacing is excellent, the characters continue to develop and the world is now solidly built. This particular book could be read as a stand alone novel but familiarity with what has gone before certainly enriches the story.
I’ve found my interest in the series so far to be mild and this instalment hasn’t changed that. I will continue with it as I come across the books but I’m not motivated to deliberately seek them out. Still, having said that, they are a cut above a lot of the fantasy works out there at the moment and worth a look if you’re interested in the genre.-Lynn

Tuesday, June 1

Julie and Romeo - Jeanne Ray

For her entire life Julie Roseman has known that the only other florists in town are trouble - the Cacciamanis and the Rosemans have been feuding for three generations, and though nobody remembers what started it, the enmity is deep and bitter. When her daughter Sandy, then in high school, started seeing Tony Cacciamani, the fledgeling relationship was scandalous, forbidden and cut short by parental outrage on both sides.
Now sixty and divorced from the father of her children, Julie's finding running her her family-owned florist shop alone harder than she imagined when Mort took care of the bills. In desperation she attends a small business seminar, and runs into her hated nemesis, Romeo Cacciamani. And she discovers something she never expected - the hated business rival, embodiment of everything wrong with the world, who she's hated since she was five and first saw her father spit at the name Cacciamani, is actual funny, cute, interesting. And interested in her.
And so starts a relationship that in no way subtly reprises Romeo and Juliet for the contemporary older person. Told in first person, Juliet and Romeo traces Julie's past while she and Romeo work out their future. Enmity, distrust and, in the case of Sandy, uniquely personal outrage, are less strong than their connection to each other. And, as in the original, they must find ways to communicate and to see each other while keeping it secret from their increasingly hostile families - there's even a priest who acts as a conduit.
It's not until Romeo's pragmatic and adored only daughter Plummy, the only family member on either side in favour of the union, begins asking about the origins of the feud that anyone involved thinks about the situation with any dispassion. And, ironically, in the process discover that relations between the families have been passionate since the beginning.
Julie and Romeo is an above-average, very well written romance. The characters are vibrant and rounded, the dialogue is crisp and realistic, and the plot is engaging. It would have been easy for the Shakespearean homage to be slavish, or to lack originality, but Ray has combined a familiar framework with freshness. The book is driven by the characters, who act appropriately within their personalities, so there are no moments of incongruity. And the feud itself is portrayed in a believable way, from its origins (which are only revealed pages from the end) and contemporary enactment to its resolution. I also liked that the epilogue was, though not wholly unexpected, not predictable. Julie and Romeo would be an excellent holiday or mini-break read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I smiled when revisiting it for review, and that was after a gap of around six weeks between reading and writing about it - Alex