Ariel by Grace Tiffany. Fiction. Copyright 2005. ISBN 9780060753276


In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel is a magical spirit that lives on Prospero’s island, serving the magician and desiring only freedom. In Grace Tiffany’s Ariel, Ariel is a conniving liar who cares only for tricks and conquest, a manipulator of everyone and everything she comes across. What this means for the unfortunate souls who wash up on the shores of her island is uncertain at best.

Style and Plot:
To say Ariel is an adaptation of The Tempest isn’t quite accurate. Author Grace Tiffany uses the same characters and setting as the famous play, but many things are changed—Ariel is now female, motivations are switched around, origins are developed or expounded on— making the final product something very different from Shakespeare’s work.
Tiffany adds much to The Tempest, developing the geographical context and giving the events a timeline (Ariel was created in the 58th year), which gives the story some striking implications as it progresses. She also gives several characters more dimension, fleshing out their personalities and making what they do much more understandable and accessible than Shakespeare’s original text might allow.
However, the book reads as though the events are being described by a distant observer—apart from the occasional instance where the reader might be drawn in by a powerful emotion, it all feels a bit detached and is mildly interesting at best. Tiffany mixes historical events with Shakespeare’s fiction, which adds relevance to the plot, but it often comes off as clunky. Most of all, while the writing is technically good, it lacks energy. It’s hard to be pulled into the story when it feels like it’s just being passively told, with no real investment.

The titular character is the embodiment of flight and fancy, having been born of the imagination of a dying sailor. She doesn’t understand anything on a human level, is selfish, conniving, and power-hungry (what need has a spirit for conquest?). Nothing that she does can be expected to follow any semblance of logic, rationale, or sympathy. While this effectively gives her a two-dimensional personality, with no care for anything but herself, she’s still a curious character. As humans with a natural sense of empathy, we still find something intriguing about a person that just doesn’t care. Tiffany did a good job of pulling Ariel’s mindset off and letting it affect every little thing she does over the course of the novel.
Tiffany took as many liberties with the rest of the characters as she did with the storyline itself. Though we run into every named character that appears in The Tempest, most of them are changed, some to drastic proportions. Sycorax is Nordic, Prospero isn’t nearly as mystical, Miranda and Caliban have their own thing going on, and the party from Milan is not all it seems to be.
Because of these changes in who the characters fundamentally are, the results of the story are not what the reader might expect. If the ending is held to the standard of Shakespeare (a reasonable standard, considering that Ariel was written by a scholar of Shakespeare), it is far too neat and unsatisfying— but if the book is judged on its own merit, with the understanding that it should be seen as a work separate from The Tempest, then the ending can be read in a better light. It’s hardly dazzling either way, but most Shakespeare enthusiasts will be, at the least, interested in hearing Tiffany’s ideas.

Ariel expounds on the characters and setting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but needs more vitality to make it worth remembering. 3 out of 5 stars.


Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey. Copyright 2012. Young Adult Fantasy. ISBN 9780803735040



The peace between the Fey and humans on Wilde Island is cracking. When the witch hunter comes to Tess’s village, she and her two friends must leave their families and flee for their lives, or be drowned for possessing corrupted power. Tess finds aid in the hands of a young huntsman who watches over part of the mystical and mysterious Dragonswood, but can she trust him with her life—or her heart?

Style and Plot:

Dragonswood is written in the first-person, following a young lady named Tess, who is the daughter of an abusive blacksmith and possesses the gift of fire-sight—seeing visions in the fire. Now, normally writing from the first-person perspective gives the author the chance to show the reader the world through the eyes of a specific character, but in this case, author Janet Lee Carey breaks one of the most important rules of writing: show, don’t tell. Tess neither experiences nor sees the world; she explains it. This leads to very little description of surroundings or events, scant worldbuilding, and an overwhelming sense of everything happening in a void. It’s obvious that the story is supposed to be borrowing from Arthurian legend, but the how and why is much less obvious. Where, exactly, is Wilde Island? Is it part of Britain, or separate? How is it ruled? What does it look like? What’s the significance of mentioning King Arthur and Merlin when they don’t add anything to the story? The author has so many opportunities to go into vivid detail of, well, pretty much everything, but she passes them all up in favor of semi-suspenseful plot developments, or Tess’s long-winded and whiny rehashes of everything that’s already happened in the novel.

Because of reasons related to this, the novel reads very flat. There is little realistic emotion—even in the first few chapters, which contain arrests and a torture scene—and in a book where a large part of the plot focuses on a romance, this is a terrible thing. Tess doesn’t treat her friends any differently than she treats Garth, which is to say, she hardly treats anyone like anything at all. There are also several plot lines to follow throughout the novel, but they all seemed to be dropped without answer after a few chapters to make room for the next one, and then they’re all haphazardly “solved” during the climax of the book (the term “climax” is used loosely, the ending is no more dramatic than any of the rest of it). There is so little impact, the whole thing might never have happened at all. This leaves the book with a sense of being non-committal and unsatisfying, and leaves readers with a sense of having wasted their time.

Finally, Carey should invest some time in going back and relearning the elements of writing, as her writing is as choppy and flat as the plot, with strange dialogue and chapters ending in the middle of conversations.


Our main character has had a hard life. She’s the daughter of a blacksmith who beats her and her mother, which eventually leaves one of Tess’s ears permanently disfigured and deaf. This would be a realistic touch to her character, except that only the disfigurement is ever noticed by Tess: although she mentions her deafness, she never seems to have a problem hearing anything.

The abuse aspect is one of the big problems with the novel: Because of the blacksmith, Tess has learned not to trust men. That’s fine, it’s logical and realistic. Of course, this sets up her character to go on into an anti-husband spiel at the very beginning of the novel because, as Tess observes, almost every married woman in her village is beaten by her husband. This thus establishes Tess as a Strong, Capable Female Protagonist (with far too progressive ideals for the time).

Now, the somewhat questionable situation of almost every woman being beaten by her husband aside, a big deal is made of Tess not being “like other girls,” as if being like other girls (that is, wanting to care for a husband and children and keep house) is a bad thing. While the promotion of a strong attitude for women is commendable, is it really accomplishing anything if it tears down other, perfectly legitimate attitudes?

Furthermore, the abuse only seems to exist for two purposes: one, to make Tess’s life worse, and two, to make the reader truly understand how great of a man Garth is because he doesn’t strike Tess when she thinks he will. Tess is always cringing from Garth—which is a realistic reaction, that’s not the problem here—but just not hitting someone does not a good man make, and it’s insulting to people who’ve been through abuse themselves.

Tess’s friends, Meg and Poppy, are hardly better than Tess herself, but at least they each have a (singular) distinguishable personality trait—but nothing too original, of course, why stray from clichés if they work so well? Similarly, all of the antagonists feel like stock, so it’s hard to work up any actual feeling for the supposed atrocities they’re committing (another thing Carey neglected to expound on). Overall, a lot more time could have been spent on developing the characters, and it might have made up somewhat for the lacking plot—but there wasn’t, so it doesn’t.

Dragonswood promises so much, but fails to deliver on almost everything. 1 out of 5 stars.


Buy it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Half-Price Books

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Copyright 2012. Fiction. ISBN 9780316204262



Bernadette Fox—genius, architect, agoraphobe—has gone missing, and no one seems to know how or why. Then her fifteen-year-old daughter decides she’s had enough of the ambiguity and begins to do a little detective work, following a digital and paper trail to piece together where her mother went, and exactly who she is.

Style and Plot:

Where’d You Go, Bernadette circles around an upper-class family in modern Seattle: Bee (short for Balakrishna) is the exceptionally smart teen daughter, Elgin Branch is an important Microsoft employee who is married to Bernadette Fox, a woman introverted to the max and the scourge of her daughter’s school. The story is told in an epistolary format through emails, notes, report cards, and hospital bills, with a few interjections and explanations from Bee as she tries to find her mother.

It’s obvious from the first few paragraphs that author Maria Semple has an excellent sense of humor and satire. Every one of her characters is distinct and has their own way of doing things, and the way they bounce off each other is half the fun. Everyone is so human: uptight, irrational, happy, crazy, flawed, real. Semple has a grasp of the way humans react and behave that few other authors are able to portray in quite the same fashion.

However, for something known as a satire, WYGB tends to go for the low-hanging fruit in its social commentary. Galer Street School, where Bee attends, is trying to become a first-pick private Montessori school, so of course its patrons are too-earnest denizens of the middle class. Of course there are granola-munching, mass-transit-taking hippies. Of course there are comments about the liberal, or sometimes lack thereof, attitudes that permeate Seattle’s atmosphere. Of course. Of course.

Several of the events over the course of the novel seem ridiculous, but for a good number of chapters they avoid falling into “unbelievable” territory by virtue of human nature— it’s easy to picture everyday people acting in the way they do within this book, and it’s all delivered very tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately, as the book reaches its climax, it crosses the fateful line, becoming less humorous and making a reader liable to win the world record for eyebrow height.

Still, Semple has a way with words that is obvious and undeniable, and her story is engaging (because everyone loves hearing about other people’s drama). WYGB’s ending finishes strong despite the incredulity of the chapters immediately previous to it, and overall the book is fast paced, energetic, and fun—things that seem to be lacking in a lot of modern literature.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette begins with what is apparently an outstanding report card from the school that Bee Branch attends. The next sections are narrated by Bee, and it’s then that you realize exactly how much Bee has earned the glowing reviews her teachers heap upon her. She uses words and phrases that few young teens would know or care about, and yet Semple has managed to capture the distinct manner of speaking particular to that age group. This isn’t as much of a turn-off as it could be— instead, it adds realism to the somewhat ungrounded novel.

Bernadette herself is an enigma and a contradiction, which makes her interesting. She’s extremely introverted in person, but can and will talk the ear off of anyone when emailing or writing letters—complete with misspellings and grammar mistakes. She loves her husband and daughter dearly, but often behaves in a selfish manner. She’s both sweet and vengeful. She has opinions, she has flaws, and she is not a character to be ignored.

All of Semple’s characters seem to get the same careful treatment: each of them has something to make them stand out—even the walk-on characters have personality. Granted, there are a great many side and secondary characters to keep track of, some recurring, some not, so the book may suffer from a little overpopulation, but it doesn’t detract from the whole story. Relatable characters that act like people make a book vivacious, and that’s a trait that WYGB doesn’t lack in the least.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a light and bright read, full of life, charm, and witticisms. 4 out of 5 stars.


Buy it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Half-Price Books

His Majesty’s Dragon

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. Copyrigt 2005. Fantasy. ISBN 9780345481283



In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, the HMS Reliant captures a French ship carrying precious cargo: an unhatched dragon. Since dragons bond with the first person they speak to, Captain William Laurence quickly finds himself having to reluctantly change military careers from the Royal Navy to the Aerial Corps, a stigmatized yet necessary branch specializing in training, flying, and fighting with dragons.

Style and Plot:

His Majesty’s Dragon is the first of the Temeraire series, and has a very promising start: a bracing sea battle against the French frigate Amitie. The reader is immediately drawn into the events of the novel: The Amitie is captured, the dragon egg hatches, bonds with Captain Laurence, and is named after a second-rate, the HMS Temeraire, which itself was named after a French ship that had been brought into British service. The first twenty pages go by fast.

However, the action drastically slows over the course of the next few chapters. The story remains interesting (Captain Laurence’s relationship with Temeraire and his mental and social adjustment to life as an aviator being the main focus), but not nearly as gripping as the first chapter. Author Naomi Novik does a good job in describing the military functions, giving us just enough detail to get an idea of the structure, but otherwise keeping it open and leaving room for expounding as she develops her alternate history. Unfortunately, she does the same thing with the book’s surrounding events. The setting is the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, just before the Battle of Trafalgar, but it’s very easy to forget this. Despite the fact that dragons, including Temeraire, are being trained and sent off to fight in this war, it’s not mentioned very often and readers will be liable to forget about it in between mentions.

Laurence’s progression through training in the Aerial Corps is fun to read, but lacks depth. He meets some stereotypical characters: A gruff captain with a heart of gold, the imperious and ignorant noble, a few people who are disrespectful just because. Learning about how things are done in the Corps is engaging (rules and regulations in the Corps seem to be fairly lenient despite it being the military, but how can you not be impressed by a dragon giving orders to other dragons and their handlers), but since it is just training, there isn’t any real tension, and nothing too important propels the story until about halfway through the book.


Our main character is Captain Laurence, a rather nondescript military man. He seems to be your typical British gentleman: he’s painfully polite (read: stilted, but so is a lot of dialogue from other characters), has a distant courtship with a young woman that’s soon cut off due to his demanding reassignment, the works. He’s likable enough, but it’s the surrounding events of the novel that force him to be remarkable, and even then he sometimes feels like just a vehicle.

Temeraire, on the other hand (claw?), has all the quirks and habits that Laurence lacks. He can speak both French and English straight from the shell (not without reason). He can hover in midair, something that almost no other dragons can do, regardless of age or experience. He’s one of the rarest breeds of dragons. He even has a special name (most dragons are given Latin names, such as Maximus, only one other British dragon in the Corps has a non-traditional name). Let’s face it: Temeraire is a little bit of a Gary Stu (Scaly Stu, in this case). However, his character as a revolutionary-minded dragon does cast some fascinating implications over the rest of the series, as he questions the way things are done and is often looking for better ways to do things.

The dragon Temeraire and Captain Laurence have an interesting relationship. Due to the sheer amount of attention dragons need during their training, members of the Aerial Corps are well-known for having no time outside of the Corps for anything like having a family—aviators are, for all intents and purposes, married to their dragons. Temeraire and Laurence quickly bond, to the point where Laurence starts calling him “my dear,” which can be a little disconcerting, coming from the reserved captain. Novik doesn’t skimp on underlining the importance of the dragon-handler relationship, though: Dragons are bonded to their handler from birth (and one particular breed of dragons makes a point of bonding only with women, making women an important part of the military and of the novel). They are supposed to depend on each other for many things—and bad things happen if a dragon is neglected by its handler.

The changes in world history that Novik makes to accommodate her ideas are well fleshed out and engaging, but this series is coming up on its ninth book, and will need a lot more depth to carry it all the way through. His Majesty’s Dragon gets 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

Buy it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Half-Price Books

The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Copyright 2011. Fiction. ISBN 9780307744432.

The Night Circus UK


Le Cirque des Rêves is not like other circuses. It opens only when night falls and closes at dawn, disappears without a trace and reappears elsewhere without warning. Its dozens of tents contain mysteries like you’ve never imagined, sights you’ve only seen in your dreams.

Be happily oblivious of its true intent as you traverse its exhibitions: at its heart, the circus is the playing field of a competition designed to test the bounds of reality, bounds of imagination, and bounds of stamina of a pair of reluctant magicians.

Style and Plot:

Marco Alisdair and Celia Bowen have been trained in magical arts since they were very young. Their teachers are a pair of sociopathic men who have orchestrated several similar competitions over the centuries, for apparently no other reason except that they disagree on the minor nuances of how magic should be taught. That is the basis for dozens of competitions that inevitably end in the death of one participant. Overkill.

The book does have an interesting twist on what it considers a rivalry, however. Instead of a fierce, combat-based competition, Celia and Marco use the circus as essentially a blank canvas, each creating new tents around new themes that are held together by their respective magics. These include a growing garden made of ice, a vertical maze of clouds, and a tree drooping under the weight of a thousand lit candles that never go out. This evens leads to some collaboration on their part, and the tents they create are fanciful and imaginative, made better by author Erin Morgenstern’s excellent descriptive ability.

Morgenstern makes an interesting stylistic choice by writing The Night Circus in the third person, present tense, which ideally would keep the reader in the present flow of the story as an observer of the action—much like one would observe a circus in real life. However, for the reader to be an observer of the action, there actually has to be action to keep it from feeling like a litany of descriptive mundane events. Morgenstern’s strengths are in description and foreshadowing: she spins details like sugar and creates what would be a vibrant atmosphere if it didn’t take up a good-sized portion of the book and was done better justice through a different choice of tense. Matters aren’t helped any by Morgenstern’s clunky grasp of dialogue, which leads to several stilted conversations and one-liners that fall rather flat. Instead of a wild and breathless story about star-crossed magicians trying to outdo one another, the book takes up what is too often a slow and sometimes plodding pace.


The Night Circus is home to the wide variety of characters one might find at a circus: Contortionists, fortunetellers, acrobats, beast masters, and illusionists, as well as those on the fringes of the circus but still caught up in its mysteries. Most of them have important parts to play, and play them well, especially in the cases of the secondary characters. We have Tsukiko, an enigmatic contortionist; Tante Padva, an ex-ballerina with a detailed eye for fashion; Chandresh Cristophe Lefèvre, the circus’s proprietor and visionary; and the sociopathic Mr. A. H—. and Hector Bowen, among several others. They add color to a circus that’s painted in black, white, and shades of gray.

Our main characters are Marco Alisdair and Celia Bowen, the competing magicians who are hopelessly in love with each other. Their romance can be hard to believe on some points, however, because it seems to happen very fast and without much more reasoning behind it except that it’s what the author wants. This is because of two major things: The first is that it’s easy to miss how many years have gone past as the book goes on (usually, the only thing that tells you how much time has gone by is a small date under the chapter names, without any other indication); and the second is that Celia was unaware of who Marco was for the first half of the book, making it a very one-sided relationship for a while. When she finds out who he is, she almost immediately falls right into a romance with him, an odd move for an otherwise careful woman. The romantic plotline becomes more believable when you realize that they’ve been competing for fifteen or twenty years, but may still raise a few eyebrows.

There are a few inconsistencies in the characters. Marco, for example, was taken from an orphanage and taught by a man who kept him alone for most of his young life, his only company being arcane books and a daily hour-long lecture. This doesn’t appear to have any effect on how Marco behaves around other people later in the novel, beyond a slight discomfort in crowds. Marco did seem to pick up a few of his teacher’s psychopathic tendencies, as he commits some terrible actions over the course of the story (these actions are excused, or at least happen without much further acknowledgment, likely because Marco is one half of the main romance and the reader must remain sympathetic to him). On the other hand, Celia acts more as a product of her training: Her father was her brutal and demanding teacher, causing Celia to grow up as a bit of a recluse, but with an immense amount of magical stamina.

One disappointing character choice is apparent in Isobel, the fortuneteller. She meets Marco near the beginning of the book, and they have a very brief and meaningless romantic relationship. There is very little reason for her to be there: one supposedly important action that Isobel takes over the course of the book is only addressed in a few scattered paragraphs, and when it comes to fruition, the impact falls flat and seems of little consequence. In short, her character does and is nothing that another character couldn’t have done or been.

The Night Circus is full of vibrant imagery and a good story, but could have used much more focus on the “why” of several aspects. 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

The Time Keeper

The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom. Copyright 2012. Fiction. ISBN 9781401322786

the time keeper


Thousands of years ago, a man named Dor begins to measure time, beginning what will become an obsessive fixation for the rest of mankind. As punishment for his actions, he is cursed to live alone in a cave, listening to every voice crying out for more or less time, and never aging a day. In the present day, two people must learn how to deal with the time they have left, and Dor must teach them, or remain cursed forever.

Style and Plot:

Before one reads The Time Keeper, one needs to know that Mitch Albom has a specific style that he’s well-known for: As a playwright and a sports writer, he’s developed a writing voice that is sparse and short. Some people may excuse this as a punchy stylistic choice, and some may call it a poor grasp of grammar and punctuation. As it stands, it can be hard to get used to, as Albom is constantly putting periods or starting new paragraphs in the middle of sentences.

The Time Keeper is not a book you read for the story; it’s a book you read for the message. Unfortunately, it’s a message we’ve all heard dozens of times before, and it doesn’t help that Albom hammers it in every other page or so. Albom uses constant repetition and paragraphs headed up by a bolded statements to make his points very, very clear to the reader. There is no subtlety. The book often reads as though it’s trying to play coy, but it’s about as coy as a used-car salesman. The message is glaringly obvious from the first chapter, and doesn’t let up. It’s almost as though Albom is unsure whether or not his audience is quite intelligent enough to grasp the tired ideas he puts forth.

The story follows Dor as he tries to teach a dying businessman and a suicidal teen how they should view the time that’s left to them. It’s delivered without any emotion or engagement. The things that happen just seem to happen, without very much sympathetic reaction from the reader, even though the character may be emoting. Some of the events in the book are objectively quite sad, but subjectively they mean very little to anyone on the outside—and sometimes the characters themselves barely react to it on a human level.

Finally, two of the main conflicts within the story—Victor’s failing relationship with his wife and Sarah’s rocky relationship with her mother—are almost completely ignored in the falling action of the novel. Even though these relationships play key roles in Victor and Sarah’s motivations, they are given barely half a nod in the closing chapters, leaving the reader feeling unsatisfied and wondering why they bothered.


Where The Time Keeper could have been truly great is where it falls the flattest. We have three main characters to pay attention to: Dor, the man who’s lived for 6,000+ years; Victor, a dying business man desperate to prolong his life; and Sarah, a suicidal seventeen-year-old.

Dor is the most interesting of the three, being who he is: The first person to measure time, and therefore the one who started humanity’s obsession with keeping track of it. He caused the Tower of Babel to fall and listened to the cry of every single person trying to measure the time they have left. His character seems to begin and end with this, however. He’s not particularly smart, or funny, or anything, really. He simply serves as the plot needs him to, seasons the pages with a few bits of “sage advice,” and then fades away without having developed any truly defining characteristics. Quite the demeaning fate for Father Time.

Sarah Lemon and Victor Delamonte are both painfully cliché: Sarah is a moody teen, hates her mother (for no real reason that’s ever explained, just because), is estranged from her father, and worried about her weight and the opinion of a boy. Victor is a wealthy and successful businessman unwilling to leave the life he’s set up for himself.

Why should we care about these two characters? What about them engages the reader’s sympathy? Not much. Victor has had a good life, and while his diminishing relationship with his wife is sad and his fear of death is understandable, his problems are not particularly evocative. Sarah is unrelatable, and her character so flat she can come across as quite insulting. She only cares about one thing: impressing Ethan, her uninterested crush.

What would have made the book immeasurably more powerful is if Albom had chosen characters with deeper problems: perhaps someone dealing with a rooted depression instead of a shallow bout of teenage angst, or someone who has built a strong legacy and wants to see it continue? Instead, he’s chosen two mundane characters in mundane circumstances. If Albom had even put just a little more time and effort into depth of character, maybe the reader wouldn’t feel like he had just wasted the time that Albom insists is so precious.

Albom wrote The Time Keeper without wasting any time, and it shows. 2 ½ out of 5 stars.


Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Copyright 2009. Steampunk. ISBN 9780765318411.



The discovery of gold in the Pacific Northwest acted as the catalyst for several events: The California Gold Rush, a complication of the American Civil War, and the invention of Dr. Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone Shaking Drill Engine. The machine was supposed to bring fast wealth to the Russian prospectors who had commissioned it from Dr. Blue, but on its first test run, everything went wrong. The machine ran rampant throughout the underground of downtown Seattle, causing earthquakes and collapse and releasing a blighting gas that turned those who breathed it for too long into the living dead.

Sixteen years later, Seattle has been walled off from the rest of the world. Everything from the rotters to airship pirates to Chinese engineers and others who have refused to leave roam the poisoned streets. Outside the walls of the city, things are hardly better. Blue’s widow finds herself working to make ends meet in the Outskirts and trying to ignore a reputation as blighted as the mindless hordes inside the Seattle wall.

Then her son, chasing the ghosts of his father and grandfather, enters the devastated city.

Style and Plot:

As will quickly become apparent, author Cherie Priest has rearranged historic events into a new timeline, effectively making Boneshaker what’s called an “alternate history” novel, in addition to being steampunk. This most heavily effects the construction of Seattle, which is quite advanced, making it a much larger city than it historically was in 1879, but surrounding events (such as the Civil War) are kept on the peripheral. Although the main characters don’t have much reason to be worried about the war, as they are preoccupied with more pressing matters, it would have been interesting to have a little more discussion of it and other current events to build up the world that Boneshaker is set in—especially since the novel is one of several within the same universe. There is opportunity for this, since both Briar and Zeke meet a few airship captains who have certainly been out in the world and would be able to share news of the rest of the North American continent.

The main story of Boneshaker is focused on Briar’s search for Ezekiel, and Ezekiel’s search for what’s left of his father’s and grandfather’s legacies. It’s an action-oriented novel that would lend itself well to the big screen, and Priest is good at maintaining tension throughout the quieter sections, but the novel could use a little more exploration of motives and surrounding circumstances. Why have stragglers stayed in the city? Where did the antagonist acquire his resources? There are also several questions that the book leaves unanswered, some of them concerning the fates of two important side characters. Although these could be answered in subsequent books, the reader has become invested enough in the story to find that the loose ends make the ending rather unsatisfying.

Although Priest weaves an engaging story, she skimps on setting description. Priest has a wealth of information available to her, since the setting is Seattle, and also has a lot of freedom to do as she wishes with the setting, since she’s written an alternative history where almost anything goes. Unfortunately, she hasn’t used this to its full potential. Description varies from too focused on things that don’t matter (for example, clothing), confusing (much of Seattle), or very sparse (the train station compound).


Briar Wilkes is the bone-weary mother of Ezekiel, and a woman who does what she needs to in order to get what she wants—which, in the beginning of the novel, is simply to provide for herself and her son, and to hell with what anyone might say about her husband. When Zeke dashes off into the city with no one else to care about what happens to him, she simply grits her teeth and applies her determination to chasing after him and bringing him out alive. She’s street-smart and resourceful, but doesn’t seem to have a lot of time to waste on character depth. She certainly has motivations and flaws, but they all seem to fall a little flat so that the book can spend more time on the action.

The same goes for Zeke. He mostly acts as a petulant teen boy, but seems to be just a little too stupid and naive to have survived for as long as he has in the unforgiving Outskirts of Seattle. Inside the city, he’s constantly blundering into one mess or another without much thought or planning given to his actions. He rarely does anything for himself, and must rely on other people to get him out of his many perilous situations.

Priest does a good job setting up her next few novels by including secondary characters that obviously have more elaborate backstories than are talked about in Boneshaker. A quick perusal of the descriptions of future books promises more stories about them to look forward to, but again, a few more details on this front would hardly have gone amiss.

Some words on Priest’s female characters: Although there is a loud buzz these days about women needing stronger representation in entertainment, an author shouldn’t resort to having all her women act in the same manner because that is what’s seen as strength. There are three major female characters in Boneshaker, and they are all very similar to each other: They get done what needs to get done, don’t fuss, can fight as well or better as the next person, and they each seem to have a level of disregard for men in the story. Except for minor differences in mannerisms and histories (and again, a little more elaboration here would have gone a long way), they don’t do very much to stand out from one another. A quote from Lori sums it up nicely: “Screw writing ‘strong’ women. Write well-rounded women. Write a woman who kicks ass. Write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man [etc].”


What hope can a mother have for the survival of her son in a poisoned city? Technology, destruction, and hubris come clashing together to answer this question in Boneshaker. 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

Buy it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Half-Price Books

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder. Copyright 2010. Steampunk Fantasy. ISBN 9781616142407

At least the cover's interesting.


Four factions are shaping the landscape of 1861 London: The Technologists, responsible for every new contraption that pollutes the city air; the Rakes, anarchists all; the Eugenicists, who breed animals to fill certain niches and provide unpaid labor; and the Libertines, who oppose repression and advocate creativity and vision. But there is far more going on here than meets the eye. Werewolves, or loup-garous, are terrorizing the slums and kidnapping young chimney-sweeps, and an outlandish apparition nick-named Spring-Heeled Jack is wandering London and assaulting young women, then disappearing. Sir Richard Francis Burton, a famous explorer, stands amidst the chaos and has been commissioned by Lord Palmerston to find out exactly what’s been going on, and go to any lengths to set things to rights.

Style and Technique:

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack is written in the third-person, following Captain Burton and occasionally his young friend, an eccentric poet named Algernon Swinburne. While the events surrounding these two have the potential to make a daring adventure of a story, author Mark Hodder seems intent on dragging his premise through the mud by relying on convenience and insipidity. The foreshadowing is clunky and unconvincing. The explanations given for the new technologies and the work of the Eugenicists are completely unbelievable and have only the very slightest grounding in anything real, which fails to give them credibility. Hodder stretches our suspension of disbelief to the absolute limits, and then shatters it with the appearances of dozens of famous names: Oscar Wilde, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Richard Mockton Milnes among them. Some of these familiar names are mentioned once and never again, and serve no overall purpose except to add just a dash of “What the hell is going on and why won’t it stop” to this smorgasbord of incredulity.

Things don’t get better as the novel proceeds. Every character speaks in a highly twee fashion, overly jovial and inane. Finally, despite the large amount of female characters involved in the story, every single one of them is one dimensional, flighty, stupid, or only there to be sexually assaulted. This is especially unfortunate because many of the female characters have great potential to become something actually interesting, but the potential is half-heartedly used, off-screen, or abandoned altogether.

While some exceptions must be made for these issues because the setting is steampunk Victorian England and the reader must take into account the times, Hodder maintains his trend of running away with what is acceptable, making the story rather like a painting done in only primary colors, with no subtlety or shading.

The saving grace of this novel—or rather, the part that everyone should skip to and not bother with the rest—is Part Two: Being the True History of Spring-Heeled Jack. This part is like a novella on its own, where Hodder’s talent, thought by now to be a myth, really shines. It’s fast-paced, fascinating, and obviously deals with the origin of Spring-Heeled Jack and how he’s affected Victorian London. Spring-Heeled Jack by himself is a very interesting character with strange and twisted motivations, making this section a bit grotesque but far more engaging than the rest of the novel.


To the writing world, the term “Mary Sue” is a curse, and to have one in your novel is anathema. A Mary Sue is a female character that is perfect in every facet, from personality and looks (invariably every man falls in love with her, and sometimes the women, too) to sometimes supernatural ability. (For a more detailed explanation of the Mary Sue, look here.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton is the male version of this: a Gary Stu. He is incapable of being wrong, and so skilled with disguise that he was able to fool a group of pilgrims he traveled to Mecca with into believing he was an Arab. It’s also stated several times, at least once by almost every character, that his facial structure is savage and often makes men hostile to him, but it doesn’t in the least prevent him from being able to talk to anyone across social classes, or every eligible young woman from falling in love with him. Even his enemies seem affected by him, and when given the opportunity to kill him and be done with it, they choose instead to only wound him, or better yet, give a speech. Burton himself is headstrongly oblivious, makes some terrible decisions (which the book either excuses or uses as fodder for his dark and occasionally tortured demeanor), and a bit of a gender chauvinist.

Burton’s counterpart is Algernon Swinburne, a drunk and a follower of Marquis de Sade (which you will be reminded of at every turn). The novel tells us that he is a failed poet, making it difficult to discern how he pays for the brandy he drowns himself in. This is a man who doesn’t seem quite human, as he dances about, speaks in an exuberantly high-pitched voice that’s annoying even to read, and doesn’t react to fear. He is relatable only in the sense that everyone knows how irritating it is to have a mosquito buzzing in your ear.

Everyone else is used mainly as a vehicle for exposition or a sudden, fumbling flashback. Swinburne, who’s supposed to be Burton’s partner and the second main character, falls victim to this. The interests of the main antagonists seem to be less world domination and more monologues, and they likely would have succeeded (by this point, you’re nearly rooting for them to win out of sheer frustration) if they simply followed the plan instead of talking about it. The Strange Affair is not populated with characters; it’s populated with a variety of miniature Wikipedias.

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack is less steampunk mystery and more tragedy, due to the unfortunate pay-off of an otherwise incredible premise. 1 ½ out of 5 stars.

Buy it, if you must, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Half-Price Books

The Summer of the Bear

The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen. Copyright 2010. Fiction. ISBN 9780230748705

The Summer of the Bear


A diplomat in the Cold War is dead: suspected suicide, suspected traitor. His family—a wife, two daughters, and a son—attempt to adjust to a new life out in the Hebrides. The wife, Letty, struggles to reconcile herself to the fact that her husband’s country thinks he’s a traitor. Each child—Georgiana, 17; Alba, 14; and Jamie, 8—have their own difficulties understanding why their father is dead. And somehow, among it all, a wrestling bear has escaped from its handler and is roaming the Scottish countryside, looking for something.
Style and Technique:
The Summer of the Bear is written in the third person, alternating between the current story and flashbacks. Writing for two timelines can often add an extra level of intrigue to a story as the past and the present attempt to reconcile themselves, but Pollen handles this technique very clumsily, and it comes off as disorganized. The story will spend a chapter or two in the Hebrides before switching to Bonn for a chapter spent in flashback, which is a solid method of comparing two timelines. However, there are several points during the chapter set in the present where the narrative will, with little or no warning, switch to flashback, jolting the reader out of the story’s flow and necessitating a recalibration.
The story itself is often quite unnecessary: a hundred pages could have easily been cut from the final draft without much of an impact having been made. It seems that the reader is often reading a rehashing of something that the story has already been over once or twice, and the narrative is weighted down to a near-death crawl towards the middle of the novel. The pace picks up again two-thirds of the way through the book, only to slow down again at the beginning of the climax all the way through the denouement. It does answer the questions posed by the narrative (was it suicide or murder? What happened in East Germany? Why the bear?), but does so slowly and sometimes in an unsatisfying manner. Although plenty of time passes during the book, the characters all seem to be stuck focused on one thing, and never able to move beyond it or think of anything else.
Pollen’s strength lies in her descriptive abilities. You can see the windswept moors of Ballanish, the area of the Hebrides in which the present part of the story is set, smell the cold tang of the sea, and hear the symphony of crashing waves and calling seabirds. Bonn, a city in Germany where much of the flashback timeline takes place, is sharply contrasted. It seems to be illustrated in shades of grey, which give off the strong sense of physical and societal restrictions that were placed on Letty while she and her children lived there as the family of a diplomat, no easy position to be in.
Pollen has several characters to keep track of, and she establishes each of them with their own specific trait, but just one. Letty is the grieving mother, cold and distanced from her children. Georgiana is the sexually frustrated seventeen-year-old, sole witness to the clandestine mission her father undertook on the other side of the Iron Curtain that’s caused so much suspicion to be posthumously piled on him. Alba is the poisonous adolescent with murder in every thought, and irrational in every action. Jamie is the innocent boy with a painful naïveté towards every situation he finds himself in, to the point where the reader must question whether they were that oblivious at age eight.
These characters have evolved, to some extent, by the end of the novel, but it’s done in a jerky or unbelievable manner (for example, Georgiana’s character development happens entirely at the hands of a character who is never mentioned again after they’ve fulfilled their purpose as her catalyst). Letty, although (understandably) the one most fixated on her husband’s death, is the most dynamic and three-dimensional character, although within the context of this book, these terms must be used loosely. Furthermore, although the characterization could be described as sparse, the author does provide the reader with very sudden, very intimate details in a manner that comes across as a person you just met describing their colonoscopy.
It’s really the secondary characters who add a bit more shine to the story, from Alick, the perpetually drunk yet still responsible groundskeeper in Ballanish, to the Ambassadress, a constant antagonist to Letty. These characters aren’t any more fleshed out than the main characters, but are more interesting by far and bring a little life and change of pace to an otherwise dreary story.

Although the premise of The Summer of the Bear promises a story of political intrigue and a touch of whimsy, the real thing is gray, dull, and far too long. 2 out of 5 stars.

Buy it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Half-Price Books

Fifth Business

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Copyright 1970. Fiction. ISBN 0141186151.

Fifth Business


Dunstan Ramsay, retiring from his long-held position as a history professor of Colborne College, writes a letter to the headmaster, wishing to set a few matters straight. The entire book is told in the form of this letter. What follows is a strange account of a life that encompasses war, saints, illusions, and unintended consequences that leads up to the ultimate question of, “Who killed Boy Staunton?”

Style and Plot:

Although it is called a mystery, if you consider the book as a standalone, then the term can only be applied in the loosest sense. This book is about the life of Dunstan Ramsay and the people he encounters in it, which is part of a set-up to the aforementioned question that the entire trilogy encompasses. If you go into the book expecting a crime thriller, you will be sorely disappointed.

The style Fifth Business is written in is unlike most books. The reader is being told a story, rather than being part of it, but Robertson Davies’ command of the written word does not leave the reader feeling disjointed and separate from the story. Imagine listening to your grandfather recounting tales, and you will come close to the feel of Fifth Business. The book cannot accurately be described as suspenseful, but it is absolutely engaging and compelling. Davies has created in Ramsay a straight-forward and wry professor with a tale so fascinating it hardly needs embellishment.

Perhaps the best criticism that can be applied to Fifth Business is that Davies tends to pay much attention to detail, which means long descriptions of things that don’t seem to have any relevance to the plot. Even here, though, Davies turns this into a success, as the details are often interesting in and of themselves. Davies also has a talent for making things that seem innocuous or unworthy of notice take on an entire new meaning in the light of a later passage, making this a book to read through several times.


Fifth Business: (n) Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business. (Definition found in the first pages of Fifth Business.)

This term and its definition must be kept in mind as you read Davies’ novel, as it relates to nearly every aspect and issue brought up, but especially to the character of Dunstan (once Dunstable) Ramsay. Shrewd yet compassionate, and strangely down-to-earth considering his life-long calling of chasing myths, legends, saints, and folklore, Ramsay is our unassuming protagonist. He speaks with a directness born of his Scottish heritage and upbringing and, as far as we know, tells no lies to save face for himself or anyone else.  There is nothing obviously notable about Ramsay, but that is what makes him the perfect vehicle for the concept of fifth business. Although his achievements are typically understated and perhaps not particularly glamorous, the effects that he has on the people and events that surround him are immense and innumerable. What is truly incredible about this character, however, are the layers upon layers that Davies heaps on him. Where most well-rounded protagonists are three-dimensional, Ramsay could claim six or seven well within reason.

Reserve a special spot on your bookcase for the demure, yet enveloping, Fifth Business. 5 out of 5 stars.

Buy it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Half- Price Books