I’ve not been a very active blogger this month.  With a myriad things that came my way plus being in the midst of preparing for a life presentation for my grandmother who turned 100 years old  yesterday,  my hands were just too full for posting reviews.

But here’s one for a book I just couldn’t resist plucking off the store’s shelf.  I’m a fan of Michael Crichton for his story-telling versatility.   As an author who never seemed to have written about the same thing in his entire career,  his fiction would careen from  corporate politics to dinosaurs, from global warming to aircraft investigations.  After his death, I sadly thought I had read the last of his stories.

But surprise, surprise!  Someone discovered a full manuscript in his hard drive ; hence this new book.  Of course, I just had to have it….

Author :  Michael Crichton

Publication Date :  January 1, 2009  (Hardcover)

Publisher :  Harper Harper Collins Publishers

ISBN-10: 0061929379

ISBN-13: 978-0061929373



The Story :

It’s the mid-seventeenth century, a time of profitable privateering in which a man could make his fortune if he were daring enough to do so.   At the English colony of Port Royal in Jamaica, Captain Jack Hunter sets his sights on the impregnable Spanish dominated  island of Matanceros where a galleon sits at anchor, heavily laden with treasure.

Never mind if the island is infamous  for its unconquerable reputation with a fearsome protector, Callas,  its terrifying canons and 300 men at arms.  Assembling a crew with special skills, Hunter attempts to take the island and its treasure by the very route which has remained impassable to all.  Up unassailable walls, through fetid jungles, and in terror-filled waters, these pirates fight to steal treasure and glory, enough to satisfy all who love excitement in tall tales.

The Review :

This latest written creation,  discovered  among the late author’s  memoirs, is a jolly romp in the high seas for those who get a kick out of shallow entertainment.  The plot is complete with everything a  tall tale of a  pirate story should have :  treasure, kraken, damsel in distress, and risks Indiana Jones would have envied.    If you’re looking for realism, this wouldn’t be up your alley.  Plus, don’t expect any depth or multi-facets in any of the characters either.  There aren’t any.

The story reads like it were Crichton’s first attempt at novel-writing — amateurish, bumbling.   I guess there must have been a good reason why this book remained in the author’s  hard drive.  I don’t think he meant to publish it yet or it wasn’t ready for publishing.  Perhaps, this book is still in its drafting stage because although it has a compete enough outline for a story, it just didn’t feel finished.   It  definitely isn’t up  to the standards of a Crichton novel,  given that his plots are always so much better  thought out than this.

In other words, this book is a big COULD HAVE BEEN , and it’s sad that this is all it can remain to be — a potential.

But a thought just occurred — the book may not be too bad as a YA novel.  Its very shallowness and swashbuckling appeal  would just be grade-A with action-inclined youngsters.  In hindsight, it’s quite good if I had approached it with that genre in mind.  But, I was expecting the same style for the usual Crichton target readers.

Despite what I’ve said though, I admit Pirate Latitudes was still rather mildly entertaining and a breezy read.  I just wish the author were still around to refine  it to  a  marvelous adventure-thriller.

In A Nutshell :

This may be great with teeners.    Read if you must;  you might enjoy it for the moment.   Just don’t purchase a hardbound.

My Mark :  Mediocre — Ok

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Author :  Naomi Novik

Date of Publication :  May 19, 2009

Publisher :  Del Rey

ISBN-10: 0345512251

ISBN-13: 978-0345512253

No. of pages :  384

The Review :

I have dispensed with the summary for this book to avoid spilling the beans on Empire of Ivory (Book 4).

This is a darker piece,  with Laurence and Temeraire forced to make difficult decisions on their own. Both go through a character building process, while trying to defend England from France’s invasion.

Temeraire is forced to deal  with  the  complexity and irrationality that often plague human psychology as he learns human politics and negotiation.  With  straightforward and simplified draconic ways of thought, Temeraire is often frustrated at how difficult humans can make life be when things seem to be plain as day.

On the other hand,  Laurence must temper his ideals and his inherent insistence on righteousness, sometimes misplaced, which earns him more harm than good.  He is faced with the need to reassess his values when they  prove to be impractical nor right  anymore.  For instance, Laurence is challenged with  situations where authority isn’t always right and can be in serious conflict with his personal sense of right and wrong.

The action does not let up in this one as well.   Novik perhaps intends to let her duo travel the world as the next destination for them is Australia.  Books two to four see them through China, the Middle East, Germany, Russia, and Africa.

I can’t wait for the sixth book, Tongues of Serpents due in the middle of this year.   One caveat though:  if you plan to read the Temeraire series, you must start with  Her Majesty’s Dragon (Book One).  You would not appreciate this series should your first book be other than the first.  Novik hardly takes the meticulous pain of backtracking and if she does, it is rather cursory as this is the type of series that must be read chronologically.

My Mark  :  Outstanding!


I’ve missed out a lot on YA books last year so I decided to start on a genre that had been my reading preference in highschool — elves, dwarves, genies, dragons, magi— anything that smacks of high fantasy.

This is a series of which I only have four books. As to why I started on a series novel again (I had developed a wariness to unfinished series books), the pull was just there as the books have been staring at me from their shelves for two years now. The author promises nine books, five of which are published. The fifth book, Victory of Eagles has just been released in 2008.

The novels are all set in an alternate history during the Napoleonic wars,  concentrating on the French invasion of England.  In this alternate world, dragons are very much a part of life, indispensable in the military for they are the century’s air force along with their  human “pilots” or aviators.

What is central to this series is Novik’s world of dragons which she goes into detail, expounding on the different breeds, their weight, class, physical and mental abilities, preferences, etc.  Novik’s dragons are, like humans, varied in breed, intelligence, and ability.  The more intelligent ones have highly developed linguistic and analytical capacities.    She also imbues them with very human emotions so that we get to know them and identify with her dragon characters on a  personal level.   Her dragons are what caught my interest and made me stick to her series.

So, I’m settling down to review the series which Peter Jackson (best known as director of Lord of the Rings) is planning to do a miniseries on.

His Majesty’s Dragon (Book 1)

Author :  Naomi Novik

Date of Publication :  2006

Publisher :  Del Rey Books

No. of Pages : 384

ISBN-10: 0345481283

ISBN-13 : 978-0-345-48128-3

The Story :

The English make an immense discovery of a Chinese dragon egg aboard a French ship they had taken in battle. As the shell is hardening and land far away, English Captain James Laurence, has no choice but to await the hatching and be ready for the loss of any crew member the hatchling would take to.  As soon as the little dragon allows a harness to be donned by someone,  it is an inviolable law that the chosen person be duty-bound to leave his naval career, ambitions, and plans of future wife and family for a life of an aviator, a career demanding a lifelong bond with his dragon.

The egg hatches and the first person the baby dragon takes to is Captain Laurence.   With a deeply imbued sense of duty to country, Laurence bravely accepts the choice, names the dragon Temeraire and divests himself of naval rank and accoutrements to prepare himself  for aviator life.

As Captain Laurence begins his association with Temeraire, both start a deep love that would strengthen through their training and battles as each discovers himself and the other.

The Review :

Novik charmingly evokes the feel of the Napoleonic era with her characters’ genteel prudish language, cultural notions, dress and code of conduct of that bygone era.

Book One displays how interesting and endearing Novik’s dragons are so that readers get excited about reading Book Two  : The Throne of Jade.  While intimidating, her dragons are lovable, intelligent and excellent companions.  You’d wish they really existed.  As an added bonus, her dragons and their aviators form filial-like bonds that add to the escapist’s pleasure of identifying with the aviator.

His Majesty’s Dragon is a good first book that entices one to immerse in the series.  Novik’s world is so elegantly well-detailed that I really don’t mind spending my time immersed in it.

My Mark :  Very Good

This should be the last book in my list for the Fall Into Reading Challenge 2009.  I’ve finished the challenge but it’s a whole month earlier than the deadline, December 20.  So, I’ve decided to stretch my list.  See my additions here.

Author :  Anya Seton

Date of First Publication  :  1965

First Publisher :  Hodder and Stoughton

This Edition’s Publication Date :  May 1, 2006

This Edition’s Publisher :  Chicago Review Press

ISBN-10: 1556526008

ISBN-13: 978-1556526008

No. of pages :  448

The Story :

A young noble, Rumon, makes his way to England in his quest for Avalon when he is thrown into Merewyn’s way and through a deathbed promise  is forced to take responsibility for her.   Merewyn has been brought up to believe she is a descendant of the legendary King Arthur; but Rumon knows the truth of her barbaric and pagan bloodline.

In the course of their lives in England, Merewyn falls in love with him; but Rumon is oblivious as he gives his heart and soul to the beautiful Queen Alfrida.  After  his ill-fated affair with her, he slowly comes to love Merewyn as well.  But his love, just as hers before,  is thwarted by events.  And thus spins the saga of their love through their lives.

The Review :

There is something about old books and the way they are written that imbues them with  a charm all their own.  Avalon is such a book, first published in 1965.  I picked this up because the author, Anya Seton, was one I had admired after reading Katherine.

Both books showcase Seton’s style of romance which pits love against circumstance.  Her romance is more realistic and mature,  less involved with the fluff that makes for fairy tale finishes.  Love has to navigate through uncontrollable events life throws in the way.  Endings are poignant but not the totally happily-ever-after kind that rarely happens, if ever, in real life.   The feeling is satifsying, though,  in the sense that we get a better grip on how versatile and enduring true love can be.   In this particular novel, love for more than one person is possible although it exists in  different shades and gradations, dependent on character and chance.

Many readers  will enjoy the vivid backdrop of this story.  The 10th century comes alive with Seton’s characterization of real historical figures like Queen Alfrida, King Ethelred the Unready, Saint Dunstan, and with her accounts of how life was in a European era that saw Viking invasions and explorations.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Although not as good as “Katherine“, which was an outstanding read, “Avalon” is also a beautiful story in itself; but, it isn’t for every romance reader.  A mature reader would appreciate the emotions and the way the story unfolds rather than judge the characters’ likability quotient, as a younger reader would.  This is not a syrupy, shivery love story; but one that carries more depth as it plays out in the harsh circumstances of medieval life.

My Mark :  Very Good

Merrick” wasn’t too heavy on the gothic atmosphere so it was not difficult to decide to pick up another gothic-themed novel for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. “The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters”, was initially quite far down my TBR list before this challenge; but, being one mentioned in the pool of books the challenge host, Stainless Steel Droppings, had lined for himself, I decided to plunge into this heavy, page-laden book for my next read.

Author : Gordon Dahlquist

Date of Publication : 2006  (Hardcover edition)

Publisher : Bantam Books

ISBN-10: 0385340354

ISBN-13: 978-0385340359

No. of pages :  768

The Story :

In Victorian England, a rich plantation heiress receives an abrupt “dear john” letter from her beau.  In her pride, the stricken Miss Temple decides to follow her fiance to find out the reason for his rejection.  She tails him on a long train ride and arrives at Lord Vandaariff’s huge labyrinthine Harschmort Manor where a  masked ball is in full swing presumably for the engagement of Vandaariff’s daughter to the German Prince of Macklenberg.  She is mistaken as a woman sent to undergo a mysterious “Process” but is soon discovered to be a gate-crasher, deemed to have seen too much.  Suddenly Miss Temple finds her little adventure taking a dangerous turn when she is forced to save her own life.

At that same time, a half blind assassin, Cardinal Chang, is at the ball with a mission to terminate a Colonel Trapping.  He creeps about for his quarry only to find him already murdered.  But who, why, and how are questions that leave him baffled.  A few days later, he is approached by a wealthy sophisticate  who asks him to find a woman, Isobel Hastings (Miss Temple who gave an assumed name) who is believed to be the killer of the Colonel.

Meanwhile,  Doctor Abelard Svenson of the Macklenburg Prince’s entourage loses his charge in Harschmort Manor.  His search leads him to conclude that  something sinister is brewing in the Vandaariff home.  His independent investigation suddenly imperils his life but his duty-bound nature forces him to continue to try to protect his Prince.

In pursuit of their own agenda, these three people stumble on a secret cabal whose sinister plans involve strange alchemical scientific processes and malign blue glass books which serve as a dire yet addicting repository of memories while relinquishing a person of the same.  Anyone who stares into its thin, crystal pages is stripped of their personal memories and turned into pleasure-addicted, compliant zombies, easily controlled and subverted to the group’s aims.

Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang, and Doctor Svenson propitiously meet and form an unlikely triumvirate bent on stopping this unholy cabal.

What follows is a merry chase with mystery, suspense, science fiction, and even a little romance.  Lest this be construed as simply a long, quaint narrative, Dahlquist has thrown in a good deal of  sex and a bit of gore in the mix which contrast quite nicely with its Victorian prudery and formality.

The Review :

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters” is a brilliantly creative debut from author, Gordon Dahlquist.  It is a unique albeit outlandish novel that will, as you read, play out old-fashioned comic book scenes in your head.  Indeed, the narrative would lend itself very well to comic strip illustrations of its events, complete with “Boom!”, “Pow!”, “Whack!” sounds written on it.   And like an old-fashioned comic book, the heroes often extricate themselves from sticky situations after long dialogues with the villains, instead of each realistically  going straight into action to resolve the conflict.  Although an annoyance to some, it does have its charms, especially when executed with Dahlquist’s wonderful prose.  Besides, such an outdated style is quite at home with the book’s outré antiquated atmosphere as well.

Although the book has this unreal yet special flavor, its characters are surprisingly well developed, each discovering himself/herself as the adventure unfolds.

Division of the book’s chapters deal with the narrative accordingly from one character’s perspective.  So for instance, one chapter deals with adventures of Miss Temple, the next, those of Cardinal Chang, etc.  Being long chapters, the reader may find himself going back through a previous few pages to refresh his memory of the others’ experiences.  Still, it wasn’t much of an annoyance as, on the whole, the book had cast its charms on me enough to discount little bothers like this.

What is most captivating about the book is not its unusual plot nor its dark  steampunk  theme but its author’s ornate prose that gives so much allure to the novel.  His style is romantic yet explicitly descriptive, laced with intelligent humor and irony:

“His hair was pale but streaked with grey, long and greasy, combed back behind his ears.  His coat was fine enough but unkempt— in fact the man’s whole appearance gave the impression of a once-cherished article — a sofa, for example — that had been left in the rain and partially ruined.” — p. 155

“Moral perspective is what we carry around with us — it exists nowhere else, I can promise you.   Do you see?  There is liberation and responsibility — for what is natural depends on where you are, Bascombe.  Moreover, vices are like genitals — most are ugly to behold, and yet we find our own dear to us.” — p. 164

To Read Or Not To Read :

To enjoy this book,  be prepared to suspend disbelief and just go with the flow.  After all, it is fantasy.

Mind you, this is a lengthy novel, of which its chief fault (according to some reviews), is its wordiness and long-windedness.  For me, however, this is exactly the novel’s charm as it rests on Dahlquist’s excellent descriptive prose, without which a  book like this can become rather tedious and boring when rendered with a flat, indelicate hand.   Slash the verbiage and this may end up an unremarkable read — not bad, but not great either.

You must have the time to indulge in this book;  otherwise,  you’ll be better off with something else.

As An Aside :

For all my praises for this novel and despite its glowing reception by critics, Bantam Books, its publisher,  has written this off as a massive failure. The book failed to pull in the sales and lost Bantam over U$850,000, after having advanced two million U. S. dollars to the author for a two-book deal.

Most of those, however, who have put in the time to read the book, review this novel with praises.  Perhaps, in time, more readers will get to know this atypical literary work and appreciate it for its originality.

The sequel, “The Dark Volume“, must have already been released this year.   This definitely goes into my list of “must-haves” for 2009. 🙂

In A Nutshell :

This is one of the best books I’ve enjoyed this year.  Its strangeness and inventiveness coupled with Dahlquist’s superb writing skills really had me riveted.  A definite keeper!

My Mark  :  Excellent

The small print and the number of pages in this novel promises ample time in your reading chair.  So be sure to have lots of time to kill to thoroughly enjoy this one.

Author :  Susanna Clarke

Published Date : August 1, 2006

Publisher: Tor Books

ISBN-10: 0765356155

ISBN-13: 978-0765356154

Pages :   1,024

Synopsis :

Susanna Clarke writes of an alternate England, a place rich in history of magic and folklore.

It is the beginning of the 19th century in England, a time when magic has been relegated to pages of esoteric books,  studied by only certain gentlemen with a passion for magical theory.  It has been centuries since magicians had wielded any real power or communed with fairy folk so that magic in England has been presumed lost forever or simply non-existent.

At the height of the Napoleonic war,  Mr. Norrell, a reclusive pedantic magician, one of the only practical or practicing magicians in England, suddenly comes out of his solitary society with the goal of restoring magic in England, in his own terms.  So he applies to help the government combat Napoleon Buonaparte.  His magical talents immediately catapult him to celebrity status.  Soon however, a younger and more adventurous magician,  sort of a more freewheeling one in the person of Jonathan Strange, emerges to aid Mr. Norrell in the war.  Owing to the Mr. Norrell’s age and scholarship (he owns almost all the books of magic that can be had), Strange becomes his pupil.  Together, they become England’s most celebrated and only recognized magicians.

Their contradictory personalities and philosophies, however, guarantee a building scenario toward a clash which inevitably brings about Strange’s estrangement from his former mentor.  This division between England’s two foremost magicians lead to a cataclysmic strife in fulfillment of a prophecy for both England and the world of the fairy.

The Review:

This book, a gift from my aunt, had been sitting in my shelf for more than a year now.  Its simple cover and ordinary title just didn’t cry out to be read so that the book was often bypassed in favor of those with more interesting colors and come-ons.

Little did I know…these nondescript book covers hold pages of a marvelous literary gem that outshines many in my library.  This book is a rare delight, a captivating original for which I can find no equal.

The New York Post says of this work :  “…think Harry Potter sprinkled with the dust of Tolkien and Alasdair Gray…”    I disagree.  It is a far cry from J.K. Rowling’s and Tolkien’s work.  This book stands on its own merits and can perhaps have that exceptional position of having no other work in its genre that can be compared to it.

The book is a blend of history and fantasy, the most part being that of fantasy.  However, the reader is never sure where fiction ends and fact begins (are there even any facts?) when the author starts footnoting a word, a title, or a group of  sentences.  The footnotes, fictitious or otherwise, often refer to dated publications.  There are way over a hundred of these footnotes which pepper the entire book.  The footnotes themselves are interesting pieces of asides, ranging as short as as a one-liner to as long as a little story in itself, spanning two pages.  Susanna Clarke  used meticulous footnoting as a brilliant strategy to lend her book a conviction of credibility.

The language of writing is reminiscent of those of the nineteenth century.  Take a peek into a Jane Austen novel and you’ll know what I mean.  The style is formal and elegant yet wonderfully precise so that it showcases the author’s sharp dry wit and her command of vivid description.

“The door opened to reveal a tall, broad fellow of thirty or forty.  His face was round, white, pockmarked and bedabbled with sweat like a Chesire cheese.  All in all he bore a striking resemblance to the man in the moon who is reputed to be made of cheese.  He had shaved himself with no very high degree of skill and here and there on his white face two or three coarse black hairs appeared–rather as if a family of flies had drowned in the milk before the cheese was made and their legs were poking out of it…”

One can be enraptured by this old-fashioned intelligent writing style.  As one so enamored, I felt like I were in a feather cloud of words with all these pretty phrases falling delicately about me.   Susanna Clarke writes very consistently in this manner and even uses archaic spelling in keeping with her language.   For example, she uses “chuse” for choose, “shew” for show, “scissars” for scissors.

This is Susanna Clarke’s debut novel and it speaks for the author’s superb writing talent.  Her deadpan humor can fairly surprise a chuckle from you while her orchestrated sudden mood turns can illicit that gasp of incredulity.  At times, the narrative may sound indifferent and haughty and then dark and sinister in an instant.  How Clarke plays with her words is a marvel to witness;  and with this, she draws her characters and events so well as to leave one wanting more despite the book’s thousand pages.

To Read Or Not To Read?:

All this is not to say, however, that this book is for everyone.  The writing language may not appeal to many, the thousand or so pages may prove to be daunting,  and the footnoting may leave a tedious aftertaste with some readers.    To enjoy it, one must not mind reading a very long fantastical story written in old-fashioned English.  Rather, the reader must savor its literary style  and allow himself to be transported into its world to really appreciate this book.   For those who don’t mind these caveats,  the joy of immersing in a work of quality and originality will be reward enough.

In A Nutshell:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell deserves the heaps of glowing reviews,  and its Hugo and World Fantasy awards.  It is a phenomenal masterpiece  which seamlessly embodies social comedy, fantasy, history, Gothic horror, and a teeny tiny sprinkling of poignant romance.  A wonderful, wonderful book best enjoyed when savored, this  novel of high fantasy has surely earned an honored place in my shelf.

My Mark :  Excellent; Superior

At long last,  I’ve managed to finish the book I’ve been toting around during my vacation.  As a wonderful sequel to The Other Boleyn Girl, it centers on three particular women in King Henry VIII’s life after Anne Boleyn.

Author : Philippa Gregory

Copyright : 2006

Publisher : Touchstone

Publishing Date : December 2007

No. of Pages : 570

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-5919-1

ISBN-10: 1-4165-5919-1


The Story :

The Boleyn Inheritance is narrated alternately from the perspectives  of three women of importance in King Henry VIII’s life, namely :

Anne of Cleves.   As the fourth wife of King Henry, she is credited with being very close to his children.  As a young girl, Anne yearns to be free of a tyrannical brother and a cold-hearted mother.  She views the proposed marriage arrangement to Henry of  England as an opportune offer of escape from home.  However, an unfortunate incident where Anne angrily rejects a kiss from a disguised King Henry, before all her entourage and his retinue, earns her a growing grudge from Henry which ultimately leads to false accusations of a precontracted marriage and to a consequent annulment and dethronement.

Katherine Howard. As a very young lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne,  Katherine catches the eye of King Henry .  Very soon, she is Henry’s 5th wife and England’s next queen, a teen-aged girl married to an old man.  As fate would have it,  she falls in love with a courtier, Thomas Culpepper.  This affair and her childish dalliances with Francis Dereham prior to court life become her undoing.

Jane Rochford Boleyn. She was wife to George Boleyn and sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn.  A liar and betrayer, it was her testimony which sent her husband and his sister to their deaths in exchange for lands and a title.  She comes back to court life upon the order of her uncle-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk, to serve and advise both queens, Anne of Cleves and Katherine, and to serve as his eyes and ears.  She is party to his schemes and encourages Katherine Howard’s affair with Culpepper to get her pregnant.   The hoped-for child would then be passed off as Henry’s progeny and therefore, secure the Howard family’s power and favor with the King.  Her involvement in Norfolk’s political schemes would prove to be her downfall.

After Anne Boleyn’s execution, King Henry grows increasingly manic and dangerously suspicious of everyone.  All three women enter a court life under a miasma of suspicion, fear, and uncertainty.  This is the Boleyn inheritance – a court and a country ruled by a despot whose every whim becomes law.

Author’s Style:

Gregory’s technique of the first person narrative allows readers to get inside the heads of these three factual women, creating a very intimate understanding of who they probably were.  Her strength in character writing humanizes these otherwise one-dimensional historical personages so that we get to know what made them tick.

I cannot  say that the author stuck to all the historical facts.  However, the important ones are true to form.   As with most creative historical novels,  some details have perhaps been modified to suit the fiction.

For those who haven’t read her, expect a light writing style that makes her novels highly readable.  It is precisely this forte that takes  away the tedium of history and renders it very interesting and quite engaging .   This is an author you must try.

The Bottom Line :

Another marvelous read from the queen of Tudor fiction, Philippa Gregory.

My Mark : Outstanding