2001-2005


Wicked is Gregory Maguire’s marvelous interpretation of the Wizard of Oz story.   A few years ago,  I was entranced by his  rather cynical and realistic  “behind-the-scenes”  notion of this tale.   Who could have thought of the politics, the pathos, and the twisted perception of events that, in Maguire’s mind,  shaped the famous children’s story as we know it today?  After reading his ingeniously told Side B of the story, I can never look at the Wicked Witch of the West the same way again.

In case you’re curious about what I deem to be this author’s best,  see a review from Room Full Of Words.    Indeed you may be hard put to find a rendition of  the Wizard of Oz that is charming but also scathing, compelling and so multi-layered in scope as Wicked.

Naturally, I gravitated towards this sequel, Son Of A Witch, which tells the story after the Wicked Witch of the West’s, Elphaba Thropp’s demise.

Author :  Gregory Maguire

Date of First Publication :  September 27, 2005

Publisher: Regan Books; 1st ed edition (Hardcover)

Date of Publication for this Edition :   September 30, 2008

Publisher of this Edition :  Harper

ISBN-10: 0061714739

ISBN-13: 978-0061714733

No. of Pages :  464

The Story :

After the revolution that unseated the Wizard of Oz  and had Dorothy inadvertently melting the Wicked Witch of the West, the tale in Oz continues. The countryside of Oz is menaced  by inexplicable murders in which victims’ faces are scraped off, the crimes many believe to have been perpetrated by the Yunamata.   Liir, the little boy in Elphaba’s castle, is found broken and at death’s door.  He is delivered to a mauntery either for care or burial.  No one knows who he is or what had almost cost him his life, except for Old Mother Yackle, a silent, batty crone who believes he is Elphaba’s son.

The Superior Maunt assigns a young girl, Candle, who plays a domingon beautifully , to give whatever comfort her music may bring, either to aid in Liir’s death or help in his mending.    Liir responds to the healing music and wakes to slowly remember what brought him here.  His life is a journey of questions :  Who is he? Is he really the witch’s son? What of his missions:  to find his childhood friend, Nor and to grant the Yunamata leader’s dying wish?

With Elphaba’s broom and cape in hand, he faces his questions as best he can.  Meantime, he learns of the political machinations behind all the murders  by the powers-that-be in Oz.  So he takes up the cudgels of his questioned heritage and decidedly albeit resignedly takes up the fight for the people’s rights just as his eccentric mother of a witch had done before him.

The Review :

I have read Wicked and have been flying around on its broomstick, until I  crashed with a resounding” THUD” with Son Of A Witch.

As a sequel, Son Of A Witch is darker and much more serious than its predecessor.  The overall feel is like going through a wasteland of negative emotions.   Although Maguire incorporates love, forgiveness, perseverance, and honor,  they come at the expense of an overbearing sense of depression all throughout the book.  It is a dreary fantasy that comes across as too odd, too black,  too serious, too everything.  Maybe because it doesn’t have that light other side to it like Wicked had.   I mean Wicked, although cynical, came out fantastically done because it was more like the “inside scoop” on what really happened in the fairy tale, the Wizard of Oz.  That made it totally interesting, without mentioning Maguire’s superb writing and conceptualization yet.  Son Of A Witch, though, isn’t based on anything so perhaps immersing in this rather eccentric world becomes too tedious to bother.    A non sci-fi reader trying to read science fiction would perhaps know what I mean.

Actually, I am hard put on how to rate this particular book as I did like some aspects and but mostly hated a lot of others.   The pros going for this book  are Maguire’s prose and main character development.  He handles shifting from serious philosophical meanderings to crude down-to-earth remarks rather well. There is humor in this book;  Maguire is never without it.   His brand is not the subtle kind but straight-to-the point jocularity that is oftentimes laced with sarcasm or vulgarity or even childishness.   Character development is to be lauded as well.   Liir’s personality progression  is realistically paced and drawn.

Now on to the cons…Despite the prose I have always admired of Maguire and the  believable development of the main character,  the author just manages to strip this book of much appeal.   It is its universal dreariness, its oddity perhaps, and its tiresome characters that bring the book down as a crashing bore.  I just stayed with the book so I could make this review;  otherwise, I would have chucked it out as a waste of time.

To Read Or Not To Read :

I can’t help but compare Wicked and Son Of A Witch because I am sorely disappointed.  Invest your time in other reads unless you so love Maguire’s Oz or you just revel in Maguire’s phraseology and his style of festooning his fantasy world with realism.  Then, you may not mind the pervasive moodiness this book offers.

In case you still feel like reading Son Of A Witch, don’t attempt to do so if you haven’t read Wicked.  The author assumes you have read the first so he does not offer explanations about events or characters in this one.  Moreover, the conclusion is a hanging one as the story continues on to A Lion Among Men, the third and last book of The Wicked Years trilogy.

As with Wicked, this sequel is far from a YA novel.  Allusions to and spot mention of violence and sexuality categorize this book as adult fantasy.

In A Nutshell:

I don’t think Maguire should have made a sequel, much less a trilogy.  Wicked is brilliant in itself and doesn’t need to be propped by a rather unsatisfying addendum.

My Mark  :  Fair

A respite from the fantasy-like quality of reading imposed by my two challenges.  So on to science fiction in the realm of epidemiology for a little more reality hashed into the fiction.

Author :  Juris Jurjevics

First Publication Date :  August 18, 2005  (Hardcover)

Publisher :  Viking Adult

ISBN-10: 0670034371

ISBN-13: 978-0670034376

No. of Pages :  416

The Story :

Something has killed four prominent scientists at the Trudeau station, a marvel of a habitat built  for the harsh environs of the Arctic.   Top scientists around the world who had come to the station to study this inhospitable frontier, are at a loss to explain the gruesome deaths of their colleagues.   The unknown “bug”  leaves its victims with their pupils missing and their bodies horribly contorted from excruciating spasms.

As an answer to the station’s plea for help, top epidemiologist Dr. Jessica Hanley braves the perils of the Arctic in winter to discover the nature and cure for the new disease.  No mean feat this, but on top of it, Dr. Hanley discovers a plan to sabotage her mission.  She must protect her work to find the “bug” and its cure as quickly as possible.

The Review :

The Trudeau Vector is a  biothriller with loads of  fascinating trivia.  It’s the trivia that thrills primarily over the formulaic plot.   It seems the author didn’t think much of the story line and simply followed what worked in the past with others.  He also does that “evil Russian” subplot to add  to the thrill  of the chase.   Corny but then again your concentration isn’t riveted on this angle.  It’s all on what malignant vector this author had cooked up.

What I think Jurjevics wanted to do was pack the book chock-full of info about the Arctic and epidemiology.   It really isn’t tedious if you were interested in the premise of diseases and environments in the first place. 

Take these little factoids:

“…Remember, viruses can’t really die.  They are not alive; they can’t reproduce unless they have living cells to hijack and turn into virus factories.  But toss the pieces of a virus in a test tube with living cells and it recombines, self-assembles, resurrects.”  — p. 191

“Inuit can’t do milk. We don’t have the extra enzymes to process it…”  —- p. 282

“…So what else is unusual about Inuit physiology, besides no body hair?”…” An extra artery near the heart.  Supposed to keep us warm.  We’re mostly right-handed, rarely left.  And we have small hands…”  — p.283

Some of you may want to know about the characters.  Well, character building is mediocre at best but not bad; however, Jurjevics does not make it clear what his characters are thinking.  For instance, the reader will be surprised why Dr. Hanley would  suddenly feel  like going to bed with one of the Trudeau scientists without a hint nor clue as to why she would.  Perhaps, depth is not much of an issue where thrillers are concerned, as action pacing is of prime importance.  In this, Jurjevics succeeds as the action unfolds in very good strides so that you do get engrossed in the novel.

For a debut novel, The Trudeau Vector is quite good and comes across as very well researched.  On the premise that it is so, then I have learned new things.  And I do love my fiction interspersed with hard facts.

However, I must say that the conclusion, about 5 pages toward the end,  left me a bit unsatisfied as its resolution was somewhat anti-climactic.  I guess I preferred a great bang of an ending to this one.  But then, the conclusion was plausible.  So not much complaint from me.

My Mark :  Very Good







While it took me awhile to get through this book because of circumstances, Last of the Amazons was a book I couldn’t put down when I resumed reading it in the dead of night ’til the morning.

This is my second book as I make my way through my two challenges :  Once Upon A Time IV and Spring Reading Thing 2010.

Author :  Steven Pressfield

Publication Date – First Edition :  June 1, 2002 (Hardcover)

Publisher – First Edition :  Doubleday

Publication Date – This Edition :  July 2003 (Trade Paperback)

Publisher – This Edition :  Bantam Dell

ISBN :  0-553-38204-7

The Story :

It is about 1250 B.C., way before Troy or the Battle of Thermopylae, a time where stories have been regarded as myth or legend. It has been told that a nation of Amazons, a warrior race of only women, existed as an independent, self-sufficient society that stood as a testament to the strength, intelligence and hardiness of the supposedly weaker gender.  Steven Pressfield picks up on this tale from accounts of Plutarch and legends and carves his own marvelous what-if of an all-female society with its own culture, mores, lifestyle and government.

The story opens with a Greek family’s nanny, an Amazon slave named Selene, who escapes and unwittingly induces her eldest charge to follow her. A search party of some of the noblest Greeks follow the trail of their comrade’s daughter and Selene. While at sea, the men who had  previously encountered the Amazons with King Theseus tell their tales of these extraordinary warrior women.

When King Theseus of Athens accidentally discovers these legendary women, he sets off an irrevocable chain of events that seal the Amazons’ fate. Antiope, the Amazonian queen falls in love with Theseus, and elopes with him. The new queen Eleuthera tells her nation that the elopement was actually a kidnapping.  In their fury, the entire Amazon nation rounds up its allies and marches on a warpath to Athens to rescue their queen. The story that follows centers on the politics, logistics, and brilliant war tactics these Amazons employ in their war with Athens and continues on to when Antiope returns to them as a foe and heralds the Amazonian civilization’s diminishment into the twilight of their age.

The Review :

I have come out impressed by yet another of novel by Steven Pressfield. Last year, I had been floored by Gates of Fire, his gripping must-read version of the Spartans’ desperate stand against the Persian empire at the Battle of Thermopylae. While Last of the Amazons falls a little short of this novel, it, nevertheless, still is a dazzling read.

There is nothing exciting in the first few pages of the book with the plodding pace and a rather abstract ramble on Amazonian beliefs. But if you just hang in there, you’ll notice that the pace picks up in a while. Soon, you find yourself drawn into a fascinating legendary nation of wholly warrior women equal to men in physical stamina and battle skills. Pressfield tells of a civilization of true feminists, sufficient unto themselves and needing no man except for the serious business of procreation.

Although Pressfield has his doubts of the existence of the Amazons, he writes of them as if he himself had gone back in time and been intimate with their society, lifestyle, and psyche. Indeed, Pressfield’s real forte here is his ability to get readers involved with the story and  through his vivid writing, immersed  in the culture and mindset of the Amazonian civilization.

Without the author’s note at the end about the historical reality of the Amazons being largely based on Plutarch’s accounts and unsupported by archeological evidence, I would have thought this story based on historical fact and not simply on the author’s remarkable imagination. I am sure however that his renderings of the battle scenes are well researched accounts of how lance, shield, horse, etc. had been employed or how different ancient warrior nations conducted themselves in battle.

To Read Or Not To Read:

Ancient battle enthusiasts will be delighted with Pressfield’s meticulous and fascinating detailing. It all comes to life with his vivid accounts of battle strategy, politics, weapons, psychology , emotions, tactics and gore in living detail. For instance, it is quite fascinating to read about how the discus was employed as a weapon.

For the more sociologically inclined readers, Pressfield will not disappoint with his wonderful depiction of Amazonian culture and lifestyle.  In addition,  he handles the dynamics of human decisions and emotions very well.  There even is a marvelous debate between King Theseus and Eleuthera on the advantages or disadvantages of civilized society, the Athenian King arguing for the settlement of a civilization for its advancement while the upcoming Amazonian Queen rebutting a wandering society’s grounding for its loss of freedom and oneness with the natural earth.

Just a small caveat:  Some may be confused with the format of the book. The story is told from about four or five character viewpoints so it would be most helpful to take note of the narrator’s name before every chapter. Also, as I have said, this book needs a little more reading attention with the slew of names and the author’s wordy and somewhat old-fashioned prose (perhaps made to match the “ancient-ness” of the story(?) ).

In A Nutshell:

Steven Pressfield is my go-to for ancient war books.  I have not yet read any author who can match his breathtaking battle scenes laid out in all its  glory, page after riveting page.   If you have, I would appreciate the info for my comparison.  Moreover, this book exemplifies Pressfield’s  exceptional talent in handling  intricate layers in a story.

On the whole, Last of the Amazons is a very well written novel, mesmerizing on all accounts.

My Mark :  Outstanding


Book 1

My, this summer is sizzling HOT! The grass on my lawn is tanned to a crisp and  ice cubes aren’t being formed fast enough to satisfy our lust for cold, cold drinks.  The heat has made me lethargic and so this blog has been  dozing on its virtual hammock as well.

Amid the El Nino heat though,  Percy Jackson was good company for ice cream binges and beach trips.

Author :  Rick Riordan

Publication Dates :  2005-2009

Book 2

Publisher: Hyperion Book CH

The Review :

I’m opting for not writing a synopsis this time, as I have given one for the first book, The Lightning Thief, several weeks ago.  (My review here. ) I find that giving a summary of a book in a series (other than the first one)  sometimes gives away the ending of the plot before it.  So, it won’t do to spoil anyone’s reading pleasure with some guess of a previous book’s ending now, would it?

On this note,  I shall review the series as a whole, which is a set of five action-packed books for kids aged 9-12 years.  However, the story is so interesting that even li’l ole me was hooked from page one!

Book 3

Despite being written as a children’s series, the story actually appeals to a wide age range, from kids to their parents; hey, maybe even grandparents!   Why the appeal?

First of all, the books are hip, fast and made for light reading.  Riordan makes sure he tickles his young readers’ funny bones with humor specifically geared toward the target age bracket.  Although some of his jokes may seem too corny in some places for mature readers, these I’m sure sit quite well with those in their preteens and early teens.  But hey, he does have some well-placed wit that would make anyone chuckle from time to time.

Second, the interesting concept of Greek mythology modernized with 21st

Book 4

century culture is just too different to pass up.  Kids and adults alike have an enjoyable time escaping in a world where Olympus is the invisible 600th floor of the Empire State Building; Poseidon’s son is a regular kid at school with a ballpoint pen for a sword; Hermes has winged sneakers; Dionysus wholly drinks diet soda ; or one of The Furies may just be your strict, scary pre-Algebra teacher.

Third, there seems to be something for everyone.  Stuffed with scrapes and adventures , the story  revolves around characters who rely on their individual powers and magical stuff to make fights and getting-out-of-tight-spots interesting and fun.  Those inclined toward Greek mythology would have an amusing time with Riordan’s  modern take on them.  Those who don’t have a clue would actually find they have missed out on some really great ancient  legends and perhaps get themselves to surf on who these dudes were :  Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, etc.    Then, there’s a budding romance to delight young girl readers.  However, parents would be so relieved to note that this series is quite wholesome.  There isn’t a whiff of mature content, implied or stated, that sometimes sneakily plague a great many YA books.

Book 5 (The End)

Fourth, there are a lot of pretty cool characters to like and relate to.   Hey, even the monsters are great!

I feel Riordan’s strongest books were the first and last ones, where his writing style was most entertaining.    Moreover, he ended his series quite well.   Vastly entertaining for both young and old, this series is one of those you may not want to miss out on.

My Mark :  Outstanding

Snagged this book from the shelf for a light, easy read to tide me through a long car wash.   I was hooked from the first page and couldn’t let go.

Author :  Rick Riordan

Date of First Publication :  June 30, 2005  (Hardcover)

Published First By :  Miramax Books

My Edition’s Publication Date : 2006

My Edition”s Publisher :  Miramax Books-Hyperion

ISBN-10: 0786838655

ISBN-13: 978-0786838653

No. of Pages :  400

The Story :

Twelve-year old Percy Jackson thought he was a normal kid struggling in school with not so normal problems of dyslexia and ADHD.  With only a loving but harried mother to turn to from his smelly, nasty step-father, dismal report cards, and unpopularity, Percy has resigned himself to being a nobody with no future  until he is attacked by his pre-algebra teacher.    Suddenly his world turns upside-down and nothing seems as it once did.   Even his best friend isn’t normal!

Percy finds out that he is a demigod,  son of Poseidon.  But Percy’s problems aren’t over.  They have just begun.

Zeus is furious and accuses Poseidon of stealing his master bolt.   Since no god can directly steal from another, everyone in the immortal world suspects Percy of  having been put up to it by his father.  Unless the bolt is returned in ten days, Mount Olympus (address at the 600th floor, Empire State Building), will erupt in war and spell a terrible doom upon the Western world.

Percy, together with a satyr and Athena’s daughter, set out to find the bolt, discover the thief, and avert a catastrophe of mortal and immortal proportions.

The Review :

I made a good decision to watch the movie before I read the book.  I was quite happy with the cinematic version, which I found cute and different from other fantasy movie tie-ins out there for kids and young adults.    If I had read the book first, the movie would have been sort of a let-down because this book is brilliant!–simple, funny, and a totally absorbing read.    I spent a very blithe two hours at the car wash, immersed in Riordan’s  wonderful mix of Greek mythology and the 21st century.

However, many have been quick to point  this out as a Harry Potter-ish novel, drawing similarities with the threesome questing group; Camp (school) for half-bloods where they train their powers (the term “half-bloods is also used in this book); like Harry,  the main character Percy is unwanted by a step-parent/s;  as Harry, Percy is also charged with a mission to stop dark forces;  etc.

Now that it the similarities have been drawn, I admit they do exist.  However,  The Lightning Thief feels and reads so differently that I bet not many readers were aware of them (I, included)  until the fact was specifically pointed out.  So no, you will not be reading a Harry Potter-like novel with this.    Instead,  you get  a wonderful treat of getting lost in the world of  gods, goddesses, demigods, and immortals.

Now those who weren’t so particularly interested in Greek mythology would perhaps be drawn to know more about the deities after  seeing how Riordan breathes his own kind of life into them.  He incorporates the legends into our time so that they come out  fresh yet true to their own original stories…and a lot of fun!    Loads of wit  and  adventure plus charming characters simply compel you to want more of the escapism.   I wouldn’t be surprised if there has been a resurgence of interest in classic Greek myths.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Written simply, this is a book a nine-year old would undoubtedly take to.  However, so will his parents.  Riordan adeptly writes in that fine line that makes his stories so appealing to both young and old.    This should be a wonderful book for a parent to read and bond with young kids or a good thing to momentarily bridge the age-induced interest gap between parents and their teeners.    The appeal to a wide age range explains Riordan’s tremendous success with his series.

As of this date, Riordan has published a total of five books for the series.  Once you’ve had a taste of  The Lightning Thief, you’d surely want the savor the sequels.

In A Nutshell :

Hip, young, snappy, and funny, Riordan’s writing simply grabbed my attention from page one with the chapter title, “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher”.     Who wouldn’t break into a smile on reading something like this :

Glancing back, I got my first clear look at the monster.  He was seven feet tall, easy, his arms and legs like something from the cover of Muscle Men magazine — bulging biceps and triceps and a bunch of other ‘ceps , all stuffed like baseballs under vein-webbed skin.  He wore no clothes except underwear — I mean bright white Fruit of the Looms–which would’ve looked funny, except that the top half of his body was so scary.    —- p.50

The Lightning Thief should be one of the best children’s books written this decade.  Easily a bookshelf gem!

My Mark :  Excellent!


This year’s Christmas was a merry one for me.  The bulk of my presents were bread making books from friends and family who are quite enthusiastic about my newfound hobby, bread making.  Of course, they are all thinking of the warm home-baked dinner rolls which I gifted them before the Holidays officially began.

To  my delight, I was able to bake really soft clover bread.  For experienced bakers, this isn’t probably anything to crow about; but for someone who has next to nil baking background and has learned about yeast and kneading this past month only from the internet, this counts as a small achievement.  🙂

My latest treasures :

Peter Reinhart’s books (those two at the top) appear to be marvelous condensed courses on advanced bread making made simpler for the home baker.  From quick browsing, I think the book touches a bit on the science behind making bread.

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice in particular, had been awarded Cookbook of the Year by James Beard Foundation Book Awards and Book of the Year by The IACP Cookbook Awards.

The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum is filled with wonderfully drawn bread making procedures and techniques, fantastic for novice bread bakers like me.

Classic Breads by Manuela Caldirola , Nicoletta Negri, and Nathalie Aru boasts large mouth-watering photos of many bread types including decorative breads.  Most recipes call for fresh yeast, not readily available perhaps to the home baker but it is just probably learning how to substitute this for the more available instant variety.

Baking by James Peterson is chock full of photos of techniques and recipes with sections on bread, cookies, pies, tarts, etc.

2010 will certainly be a year of baking for me; but I hope this won’t be a year where, heaven forbid, I acquire the average baker’s waistline.  Unfortunately I love to eat what I bake.  😦

Nevertheless, I am so excited to delve well into these books.  I love my Christmas!

Sometimes, I just can’t decide what to read next.  How to make that choice?  With a time-honored answer to indecision:  Eeny, meeny, miny, moe!

The Book of Joe is what moe came up with:

Author :  Jonathan Tropper

First Edition’s Publication Date :  2004

First Edition’s Publisher :  Bantam Dell

This Edition’s Publication Date : January 25, 2005

This Edition’s Publisher :  Delta

ISBN-10: 0385338104

ISBN-13: 978-0385338103

No. of pages :  368

The Story :

How else to purge one’s self of the painful past but to write about it?  This is exactly what Joe Goffman did when he left Bush Falls seventeen years ago with the thought of never going back.  He wrote a highly successful semi-biography which trashed everyone he knew.  Although names were changed and the book was  released as fiction,  Bush Falls residents  recognized themselves and didn’t take too well to this immortalized insult. Enmity toward Joe soared along with the success of his book and peaked when it was adapted to a movie with Leonardo di Caprio as its lead.

Now a best-selling author whose success rides on his former community’s humiliation,  Joe has no choice but to return to Bush Falls  when he was told of  his  comatose and dying father.   The town gives him a “welcome home” with a public milkshake pouring incident by an angry resident, a yard littered with his books thrown out by the local book club,  and a bar brawl with an irate psychotic former athlete who didn’t take too kindly to Joe’s inferences about his dubious sexuality.  Just to name a few “welcoming” incidents  for Joe.

Amid all that, Joe discovers his family and former friends again, and realizes that he does need home and home is Bush Falls.  So after years of  denying a past of  perceived betrayal, bitterness, and emotional battering, Joe must face all these and resolve issues with others and within himself if he is to survive his homecoming.

The Review :

My eeny meeny choice proved to be a nice surprise.  I enjoyed every minute of this wonderful novel.  I laughed,  I cried  and laughed again.  With such humor and well placed cynical wit,  it’s easy to smile even while shedding a tear or two on some sentiment.

It’s funny, sad, cynical, very “now”, and quite optimistic.  It’s about family and relationships, love in tethers, and just plain life.   The Book of Joe is about looking beyond people’s faults and seeing why they are so and at the same time, looking into one’s self and discovering how your own flaws affect reactions in others.

The book, with its boyish colloquial writing, has a contemporary feel to it that renders the characters real and easy to relate to.  Although there is nothing profound nor anything really original about the novel, there is a heart-warming glow about this book  that somehow touches you at some point and and makes you glad you’ve come across this story.

As my first book by Jonathan Tropper,  The Book of Joe makes me eager to try the author’s other novels.  He  has an easy going style loaded with great one-liners and witticisms that keeps you entertained until the end.

This is the type of book, though, that just cries out for a cinematic adaptation.  My hunch proved right when my surfing came up with one in the works with Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, and Brad Grey as producers.  As to when this movie will be released, I have no clue.  But I hope I will fall in love with it as I have with the book.

Mark  :  Outstanding


A most appropriate read for my R.I.P. IV  Challenge and a great one for my and Fall Into Reading 2009 challenge.

Author :  Elizabeth Kostova

Date of First Publication :  June, 2005 (Hardcover)

Publisher of 1st Edition :  Little, Brown and Company

This Edition’s Publication Date :  January 2006 (Paperback)

This Edition’s Publisher : Back Bay Books

ISBN:  0-316-05788-6

No. of pages : 820  (Paperback)

The Story :

A young American girl stumbles upon an unusual book in her father’s library.  Its pages are empty except for a woodcut of a menacing dragon with the title, Drakulya, on it.  Along with it is a stash of old letters written by a her father’s favorite professor, Bartholomew Rossi, who mysteriously disappeared at the time when her father was still his student.

Her discovery reveals her family’s dark and dangerous quest for the continued existence of Vlad Tepes, the Impaler, otherwise known as Dracula.  Slowly , drawn by her father’s accounts, she joins her family’s adventure of pursuing the undead through old letters and ancient texts, from libraries , aged monasteries and closed countries of Eastern Europe.

The Review :

You’ve got to be “in love at first read” with Elizabeth Kostova’s lush, vivid, elegant prose.  Her attention to detail is a constant that keeps the ambience of the book flowing, cloaking the reader with gothic creepiness that blends surprisingly well with romantic elements,  all throughout its eight hundred and so pages.  (By romantic elements I mean the sumptuous descriptions which enamor a reader to places, culture, people, etc. )  To read Kostova’s work is  to experience a story so intimately — you “see” the colorful pageantry of Byzantine culture, “taste”  delectable Turkish food, “smell” the smell of the undead, “feel” the anguish of the tortured.

If she fails to capture your interest in her first one or two hundred pages, chances are you simply cannot love this.  It’s one of those books that will either mesmerize you with its sensual vividness and alluring writing or because of these very qualities, tire you with its ponderous pace and lengthy minutiae.

For me, however, it is exactly Kostova’s way with language and her meticulous manner that are the charms of this novel.  It makes me wish I could absorb Kostova’s prose into my very pores in the hopes I would be able to write as eloquently and as gorgeously as she can.  Aside from being able to string words  so marvelously, she can switch the narrative perspective between a number of characters so effortlessly that the reader is hardly left wondering who is telling the story at certain points.

As a gothic novel, The Historian is superb.  It’s got all those dark elements, creepy atmosphere, but tempered so that it just falls short of being a horror novel.  The story moves like a slow crescendo,  building up bit by bit to a startling peak that gently tapers out toward the end. With all that, the reader is treated also to a well-researched history of Dracula, which makes reading all the more interesting.

In A Nutshell :

A horror novel, The Historian is not.  It may raise a few hairs, make your spine tingle, give you little shivers but it stops short of being truly terrifying.  It wasn’t written to be really such.  Yes, a chiller; but one laden with a lot more history and mystery than visceral terror.

This is a thick, page-laden novel .  But length becomes no object when you have totally immersed yourself in it.

Those who take to the novel quite early are more likely to appreciate this gem.  On the whole, it is worth the time.  To echo  a fellow blogger, KyusiReader, The Historian is indeed a very, very satisfying read.

My Mark :  Excellent

I wanted a respite from the dark-themed books I had been reading for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. Something opposite these, I thought.  My eye settled on this religious fiction by Rebecca Kohn which had been  forever in my TBR pile.

Author :  Rebecca Kohn

Date of Publication : 2005

Publisher : Penguin Books (mass paperback)

ISBN-10: 0143035339

No. of pages :  384

The Story :

This is a story of how a young Jewish orphan, Esther, became Queen to one of the most powerful rulers of the ancient world, King Xerxes. But her story is unique because she goes down in Biblical history as one of those really rare heroines in the Old Testament who succeeded in saving her people from annihilation.

Hadassah, for her own survival, embraces the name Esther and becomes a closet Jew when she is abducted to serve in Xerxes’ harem as part of a crop of young virgins from which he would choose his new bride. (Xerxes had banished his beautiful but cruel wife, Queen Vashti, in a drunken pique for her refusal to appear before his party guests on his command.)

Esther comes to live in the harem, doing the best she can to get along with everyone.   She learns that in such an autocratic and hierarchical-sensitive environment,  the virtues of obedience, submissiveness,  generosity, respect of and deference to authority make life tolerable and endows her with the ability to influence others.

Upon her first presentation to the King,  Esther captivates him and in one night, makes a meteoric rise to Queen.

But her new life is threatened when Xerxes’ issues an edict calling all Jews to be annihilated, as per Haman’s, his corrupt chief advisor’s, whim. Haman is incensed that the Jew, Mordechai, the treasury official and in secret, Esther’s cousin, refuses obeisance to him, and so extends his wrath to all Jews.

Queen Esther is faced with a dangerous dilemma :   save her people by exposing her true lineage and forcing an uninvited audience with the King (an unsummoned presence before the King can earn one the death penalty) to plead for her people’s lives or keep mum about her Jewish parentage to save her own life and her position as Queen.

And so goes one of the most romantic stories in the Old Testament.

My Review :

The tale of Esther is a very powerful and moving story of courage and selflessness.  It is a tale of  a woman’s style of patriotism that necessitated giving up her life for one’s country/people.  It also has very significant religious points that reinforces the belief in (1) God’s existence;  (2) His constant vigil over His Chosen People and (3) His divine will and purpose for each person’s existence.

Rebecca Kohn  tries to capture this with by sticking quite closely to Esther’s story,  narrating it in her florid, romantic style  that makes her descriptions so rich and vibrant:

” The eunuch stopped before the door to the harem court.  On the doorjambs before me, a molded relief of the king fought a rearing lion monster with no more than a dagger in his bare hands….the eunuch rasped,…’You will live here in great comfort until your breasts sag and your sweet honeycomb shrivels…’….I looked at the eunuch , my eyes wide with terror…The lion monster on the doorjamb lunged for me.  I fled from the creature’s wide mouth and sharp claws into the harem court.”   — p.43

Her character, Esther, is a refreshingly different take on the ideal of a strong woman. Here, we see a girl who was strong without having the usual feminist aggressive, adventurous, stubborn, iron-willed character that a lot of writers favor to make their heroine so interesting.  Instead, Esther’s subservience and obedience coupled with her grace and feminine charms realistically favors her successful adaptation  to a masculinely dominated world where women’s subjugation are part of  its culture.   She succeeds without having to be obvertly defiant or wilful;  she simply does what she morally thinks is right in her own firm, quiet, patient way.

However, as a whole, the novel just didn’t quite make it to my standards for an outstanding rating.  Somehow, it just fell a little flat for reasons I cannot really define.  Perhaps, it was the ending which I felt wasn’t quite satisfactorily resolved and  rather anticlimactic at that.

In A Nutshell :

As a debut novel though, “The Gilded Chamber” is a good first effort.  I’ve taken to her writing style so that I’m not put off  from reading other novels Kohn may have churned out by now.    Moreover, for those looking for a fast read, this novel is it.   Aside from being a light read,  it’s got much more intellectual “meat” than say, a vampire or chick-lit novel;  so a good choice for that next beach read.

My Mark :  Very Good

Author :  John Dunning

Publication Date :  January 25, 2005

Publisher :  Pocket Star Books

ISBN-10: 0743476298

ISBN-13: 978-0743476294

No. of pages : 496 (Mass Market  Paperback)

The Story:

Homicide cop turned book collector and seller, Cliff  Janeway acquires a valuable book written by a famous Victorian era explorer, Richard Burton.  The book is in pristine condition and worth thousands of dollars; but,  Janeway’s pleasure is short-lived.  A ninety-year old woman shows up at his door, claiming ownership of the treasured book through her grandfather, Charles Warren, whom she  insisted to have been Burton’s companion during one of his travels.

Furthermore, she  tells  a surprised Janeway that the book  is only part of an incredible library of Burton material, all of  which had been sold unscrupulously to shady book dealers.    A few days after,  the old woman is on her deathbed and extracts a promise from  Janeway :   find the rare collection, in particular,  a priceless journal which purportedly Burton gave to her grandfather for safekeeping.

What starts out as a skeptical investigation soon becomes a serious and deadly tag with other treasure hunters.  When a friend is murdered, Janeway realizes there is something more than just treasure hunting.  A past secret is being covered up and Janeway  is now in the way.

The Review :

With “The Bookman’s Promise“, John Dunning presents us with some refreshing elements for a crime/mystery thriller. Now a book collector is a macho hero and the hullabaloo is about books — old, invaluable books written by a real live explorer, Richard Francis Burton.  Plus, the author incorporates the world of a book trader which makes for an interesting facet in this novel.

As much as Burton becomes, through Dunning’s engaging portrayal of the man,  an intriguing personality for a number of his readers, this novel still very much targets a small niche in the reading  audience.  Not many, this reviewer included, have heard of this famously irreverent explorer and so may have some difficulty in appreciating the novel in the way it deserves.  One simply cannot appreciate Burton’s idiosyncrasies or whatever the author wishes to please us with if one does not know him. Familiarity of Burton is indeed essential for the full enjoyment of this book as the core plot is rather mundane, despite the aforementioned new elements.

However, if you are familiar with Burton, you may take a different tack.  You would perhaps revel in the fictitious or factual (I wouldn’t know which) details generously written in the book and pronounce Dunning’s novel a capital one.  This is simply this reviewer’s conjecture on something she is not very sure about.

Like its hero, the prose is quite masculine.  One could immediately discern that the story was written by a man, which is nice as long as the testosterone is not overly used to include most of its characters.  However, it does, as the majority of the characters, whether male or female, exhibit a strong will and drive.

Dunning’s characters show too many strong traits as to render them sometimes irksome and distant.    For instance, Erin is a sassy lawyer who constantly takes offense at anything she deems chauvinistic.  This is okay in some situations but downright pesky in some, where, in reality,  she clearly will be in the way.  She is not a character one can empathize much with, unless one believes that someone can be constantly strong and fearless.   There seems a lot of sass in the dialogues, too, between characters which tend to be tiresome halfway through.

In A Nutshell :

The Bookman’s Promise” is neither a great novel nor a very bad one.   One major weakness is that a reader’s  unfamiliarity with Burton  may be a significant block for him seeking to enjoy this novel.  This, and possible character non-empathy could be two very detrimental factors in capturing reader interest.  Otherwise,  it could be an enjoyable read.

Having said these, I recognize that there are probably two stark opposing camps to this novel :  those who loved it (readers who understood the nuances of Burton and the book trade) and those who just couldn’t get into it (readers who don’t know a fig about them).   Sadly, I belong to the latter for the reasons stated above:  I don’t know Burton and I just couldn’t like the characters so much.

My Mark :  Mediocre

But you must read the book to know for sure.

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