February 26, 2014

People of the Mist by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

This book definitely diverged from the usual format of the First North American series.  It was a murder mystery.  And I'm not quite sure that it worked with the rest of the series, although technically you could read it as a stand alone. 

Red Knot is set to marry Copper Thunder, the leader of another tribe, but she yearns for another.  So when she is found dead there are many suspects, among them her lover.  But a young girl, Sun Conch believes he is innocent and convinces the local "witch" to help her find out who the true murderer.  But he faces opposition around every corner and there are a few people who'd like to see him dead as well.

Sun Conch is very much an idealist.  She believes the best in people and Panther especially comments on this fact quite often.  But she's also strong and willing to do whatever it takes to have her wishes done.  She makes a good partner for Panther in that way as he isn't above using people for what he needs.  He seemed like an old man who wanted a puzzle, and despite his protests, one who didn't want to live the life of a hermit anymore.  All the other characters were kind of flighty and it was hard to tell their motivations well.  Sure, they were supposed to be mysterious as one of them was the murderer, but they had temperaments that changed with the wind. 

I wasn't into the murder mystery.  I don't go much for mysteries to begin with, so that might have been part of the problem.  But it just didn't follow the normal format of this series and honestly, aside from a few facts of how they lived, it probably could have been a plot set in modern time with everyone wondering who murdered the girl.  However, it was more clearly written and had better dialogue than some of the other books.  In fact, the style was so different I wondered if the Gears had written it at all.  Usually their books meander, but this one had a clear purpose.

I can only hope that this tone of writing is used going forward in the books, but maybe without the mystery element.  It's a decent enough series if one likes prehistoric fiction.

People of the Mist
Copyright 1997
553 pages

February 23, 2014

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman

Mystery, intrigue, this was a spooky sort of book.  Which is somewhat strange since it involves the Latin language and a girl's school.  But I guess a bunch of teenage girls could be considered scary.

Jane has been hiding a secret for a long time.  A secret that involved the death of two of her roommates in high school.  Now, returning as a teacher to the same school, the events of that year are starting to happen again.  Is it the curse of the lake?  Or something else that is going on?

Jane is not a strong character.  She waffles a lot and has indecision.  So she's definitely imperfect.  And that's fine.  It suits her.  Although I thought her change of heart at the end was a bit out of character, but you'll see what I mean when you read the book.  Her students were the typical lot of misbehaving girls.  They all had problems and of course authority figures couldn't help them with it.  Same thing with her friends when they were school aged.  So all of the characterization was pretty authentic and what girls of their ages would act like.

I solved the mystery about two thirds of the way into the book.  But that didn't lessen the enjoyment.  Instead I then got to sit in anticipation of what was going to happen and how the characters would find out what I knew.  I also had a lot of flashbacks of Latin class come to my mind while reading this, and at the very least everyone who reads the book will know how to say "girl" in Latin when done reading.  The writing was just descriptive enough to really get you involved in the story, but not enough that you got bored with reading it and the pace didn't move anywhere. 

This is a quiet mystery, one that has a lot of clues and won't leave you guessing, but is still a worthy read.

The Lake of Dead Languages
Copyright 2002
390 pages

February 21, 2014

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

So it's never a good sign for me when a book starts out with a lot of jargon I don't know.  Sure, it may get explained later, but it starts me off irritated that I don't know what's going on and feeling slightly dumb for not knowing all the lingo in this cool happening world.  So yeah, if you haven't guessed already, this is a book set in a futuristic world where quite a few things have changed.

There's no need to work anymore.  Or die.  And there's no money but there is "Whuffie" which is sort of a popularity contest that lets you pay for things through prestige.  So for all of us nerds we have no chance to ever be among the richest.  Alas, such is life.  In this world, Julius has been alive and kicking for nearly a century.  And he keeps going back and back to the Magic Kingdom as his girlfriend works (volunteers? ad hocs? something?) there and he takes a special interest in the Haunted Mansion ride.  Just go with it.  But someone wants to change the historic place and make it more technical and up to date, and they'll murder Julius (which makes him extremely upset) to make sure nothing can stand in their way.

I really didn't understand the motivations.  Why not just have two rides?  One for the tech lovers and one for the lovers of tradition?  It made no sense to me whatsoever.  Julius ran around like a crazed person most the time and was somewhat annoying.  He had passion, but it was misguided.  And while he seemed human because of his flaws, he wasn't a character I wanted to read about.  Lil, his girlfriend, was a pretty flat character.  I think she was actually supposed to be, but for being as nice as she was she sure did some not so nice things.  And Julius' friend Dan?  Well he didn't really add anything to the story for me at all.  He was just there to add twists to the plot.

I really liked the concepts in this book.  The way the future played out and all the gadgetry they had was interesting.  I just wish it had explained more in the beginning of the book so I could have understood it right away and not had to have struggled through piecing it together in the story.  And when it came to the story itself, I just wasn't that interested.  It was over a ride.  If that's the biggest thing they have to worry about (because obviously murder isn't) then things are going pretty good.  I think a different story in this high tech world would have been fascinating.

Maybe I'm just a whiner but this book wasn't for me.  I liked the technology but wasn't as fond of what was done with it.  Oh well, I'm sure true lovers of Disney will probably adore it.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Copyright 2003
208 pages

Degrees of Courage by Shari Vester

Degrees of Courage is a book that encompasses many things.  It is fiction, non-fiction, history and drama and it tells the story of three generations of women.  The book is loosely based on the author's family and growing up in Hungary during the 1900's. 

Angela is a young woman who falls in love with the local priest.  Promising to leave the clergy, he ends up leaving her pregnant instead and changes his mind about their relationship.  As a single mother in the early 1900's she has to struggle to raise her daughter by herself and that daughter grows up quickly.  Lensie, or Ilonka as she is called later, falls in love with a man much her senior and ends up pregnant as well, but they marry and soon more children follow, including Sari, a headstrong girl who wants more out of life than to just be a mother.  These women live through wars and Communist occupation in Hungary and face many struggles in just trying to live a decent life.

I'd say my favorite character was probably Angela.  She had a lot of struggles in her life but her ability to overcome them was amazing.  I was also impressed at the business she built for herself in a time where women didn't work as much, let alone ran their own business and was successful at it.  Ilonka I couldn't relate to as much as she wanted nothing more than to be a mother, which is an admirable pursuit but not one that I share.  But she was definitely dedicated to her kids and would do anything for them.  Shari definitely was headstrong and got herself into a lot of things, but she got to experience a lot of life that way and I thought it was definitely courageous for her to move as much as she did and take risks.  We see a little bit about Shari's siblings and they too had to overcome a lot of struggles because of the politics of the day.  It would seem everyone in this book had a hard life.

There is a lot of history in this book.  In fact, that would be my only complaint.  While I found it very informative, there were times when the book was talking about this leader or that, that it stretched on a little too long and I found myself losing interest.  The details on the war itself was interesting and the lives of the characters(people) I enjoyed hearing about very much though and that was the bulk of the book.  The plot progressed smoothly and most of the time was dedicated to Ilonka and Shari, although Angela had a solid section in the beginning of the book, just not as long.  It really is amazing the struggles that happened during the war.  I don't think Hungary is thought of much when it comes to World War I and World War II but they were in it along with everyone else and being a smaller country, they had a lot different outcome than some of the bigger powers.

A large book but filled with detail about three women who took risks and struggled to get what they wanted out of life.  It's a good book for anyone interested in memoirs or history and don't mind reading something that is partially fiction but with a good deal of non-fiction thrown in.

**This book was received as a Free Advanced Reviewer's Copy**

Degrees of Courage
Copyright 2012
566 pages

February 17, 2014

The Railroads of King of Prussia, PA by Michael Shaw

Choo!  Choo!  And other such train noises.  While I am by no means a railroad enthusiast (I just think the trains look pretty) I have to say that this was an informative book.  Focusing on the railroads in the King of Prussia area of Pennsylvania, it meandered through local lore and the railroad industry.

This is non-fiction and it tells the history of the Upper Merion Township and King of Prussia railroads.  It starts with the history of the area and how the towns were first settled.  Then it moves into the trade and industry and why the railroads were brought in.  The next few chapters show the evolution of transportation in the area and separates the different lines (Chester Valley Railroad, North Abrams Industrial Track, etc.) into their own chapters telling their own histories.  Chapter 10 has Railroad Testimonials from locals and Chapter 11 gives the history of some of the accidents on the railroads.  Finally, the last few chapters show the future of the railroad and the abandoned railways that are left in the area.

This book is probably going to have a very narrow scope of readers.  Those who will read it in full will be history buffs, railroad enthusiasts and people local to the area.  The next circle of readers will be the hobbyists, or those who enjoy going to museums and reading the captions under every picture.  And finally the last circle will be those people who just like flipping through the pictures and care nothing about the text at all.  Because the text is text-book format.  It gives the facts and really the only personable tone to the writing was the testimonials (which was actually my favorite section).  The text also focused more on the area than trains in general, so be prepared to read a book about King of Prussia's tracks, not the industry as a whole or the mechanical workings of trains (but really the title tells you that is what this book will be about).  Really though, I'm probably located in that last circle who likes to gush over the pictures.  I enjoyed seeing the tracks through time, the diagrams, the people at the railway stations, and the old advertisements.  I flipped through the book a couple of times just to go through the pictures.

An interesting book and worth reading just to glance through all the pictures.  If you are obsessed with railroads and time tables or the King of Prussia area, I'm sure this is something that you would definitely want to read.  If you're not so obsessed with those things, well, it may be a hit or miss with you.

**This book was received as a Free Advanced Reader's Copy**

The Railroads of King of Prussia, PA
Copyright 2013
185 pages

February 16, 2014

People of the Silence by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

I'd have to say that this is probably one of my least favorite books in the series so far.  Way too much going on and way too many jumbled storylines.  The eighth book in The First North Americans series, it's not important to read the books in order, you can read it as a stand alone.

There's a lot of intrigue afoot in Talon Town.  The Blessed Sun is dying, and his son, his successor, is just about as crazy as he is.  In the course of dying a few secrets are let out though, and the lives of some children in a different town are now at stake.  Add in a couple of odd spiritual men, a few warriors, and a witch and you've got the makings for a party.

There are a lot of characters in this book.  And it's hard to keep track of them all and how they are related.  And because the parentage is a mystery and speculated much on in this book it becomes even harder to figure out who's who.  Sure there are little clues here and there, but there are some clues not given out that would help with the characterization as well. Cornsilk is ok, she remained about as confused as I was through the entire book so I could relate to her.  Same thing with Poor Singer, he too was just struggling along.  All the adults however were a bit crazy and selfish in my opinion. 

As I said before there was too much going on.  Things jumped around, people were supposedly spawned by other people and then that changed and they were spawned by other people.  And there was a witch in there somewhere doing terrible things to yet other people.  It got a little wearisome and I felt like I was on a merry-go-round because these things kept reoccurring.  Nothing ever really felt like it was totally resolved.  I think the book could have been about half the size and told a more straight forward story. 

I'd give it two and a half stars.  If you're a big fan of the series you'll want to read it but just as a book on its own, I really don't think it's worth it.

People of the Silence
Copyright 1996
643 pages

February 12, 2014

The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall

The Russian Concubine is wacky.  No, that word isn't serious enough to describe it, but I really can't come up with a good descriptor to fit this book.  It is just so many things, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

Lydia is a teenager who lives with her mother in a European settlement in China.  Her mother is a tragic figure, but she loves her dearly, and Lydia tries to keep food on the table by thieving.  Rescued one night by a dashing Chinese man, she can't help a growing attraction to him, even though he means nothing but bad news for her.  And she gets into plenty of trouble on her own, but she has a wild heart and can't help but want more from her life than what it is giving her.

Lydia is a good character.  She's a flighty teenager in some ways but a very strong person in others.  And she stands up to pain well.  I think she makes believable mistakes too and acts like someone her age, who has had to take care of her mother, would act.  That being said, I didn't really care for her mother or the plot twists involving her.  Those didn't ring as believable to me and her mother's personality going from selfish to saint and back again was confusing.  Lydia's romantic interest confused me too.  The narratives from his perspective were disjointed and didn't really give a lot of depth to his character aside from making him a Communist.

There was a lot that happened in this book.  And not all of it made sense.  It started off slow, and had a plot building up, then you got to the last hundred pages and things started shooting off all over the place like firecrackers.  While they all tied in together I felt like it was overkill and too much was happening.  Furnivall is good at description though.  When there's a scene you know what's going on.  And she isn't afraid to write about violence, sex, and other matters in full detail.  It's not glossed over in the least.

I know this book is part of a series in some way (I think it may be the 2nd book, not sure) and I'll probably get around to reading more of it at some point.  But I'm not in any rush.

The Russian Concubine
Copyright 2007
517 pages

February 09, 2014

Your Vibrant Heart by Cynthia Thaik

You can't really live without your heart.  I'm sure you know that.  So it's a good thing to take care of it.  However, reality is that most people do not take care of themselves the way they should. 

We get an overview of the heart in this book through a variety of perspectives.  Thaik is a cardiologist, but also a practicing Buddhist, so while there is a Western perspective in this book in regards to medicine, there is also an Eastern perspective. 

Chapter 1 covers the physical heart itself and how it develops and works, it also covers the emotional aspects that work on the heart as well.  Chapter 2 talks about what happens to hearts in terms of illnesses and how different diseases weaken the heart.  Chapter 3 is all about food and what is healthy and what is not.  Chapter 4 is the fitness section and all about exercise.  Chapter 5 talks about how to rejuvenate the heart through cleansing, massage, and other activities.  Chapter 6 talks about reviving your emotional heart through activities and positivity.  Chapter 7 is to reinvigorate the mind and has sections on crystal healing, acupuncture, meditation, and other therapies.  Chapter 8 is to restore the soul and it has a section on death, a section on dreams, and creating the life you want.  Chapter 9 gives the ABC's of a Vibrant Heart; Affirmations, Behavior and Commitment.  Chapter 10 goes Beyond the Vibrant Heart and is a conclusion to the book. 

This is not an in-depth book.  It may be three hundred pages but it covers such a multitude of topics that it is more of an overview.  I think my favorite section was the first and the diagrams really helped with making me understand how the heart is developed and the illnesses that can damage it.  I enjoyed the other sections, but they weren't as thorough as the first part. 

There are some controversial aspects to this book.  Nothing that screams in your face, but the section on smoking was certainly a take I had never heard before.  It made sense to me, but I can see it making a lot of smokers upset.  The Eastern medicine may throw some people off too if they're looking for something more surgery based or medicinal based.  There are studies and research that back it up though so it's well worth taking a look at though. 

An interesting book about the heart.  If you have heart problems (or not) this is a good way to get some information on the heart and how to take care of it.

**This book was received as a Free Advanced Reviewer's Copy**

Your Vibrant Heart
Copyright 2014
298 pages

February 04, 2014

People of the Lightning by Kathleen O'Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear

This is probably the oddest book of the series so far.  The 7th book, it isn't necessary to read any of the others before reading this one, it doesn't even really reference too much from any of the other books.  But it certainly has a weird plotline and characters.

Pondwader was born special.  He is a lightning boy, which is what his people call albinos.  To satisfy a debt, he is married to a warrior woman of a neighboring village.  But she has some problems of her own and doesn't really want to drag around a new husband, although she does care for him.  Her village has been attacked and her first husband taken, and she has to go save him.  Pondwader's destiny is tied up with hers and he needs to go with her, despite the consequences.

Pondwader has no filter.  He loves almost everyone he comes in contact with, and it would seem that he loves them almost instantly.  His mother is a strange character to and while she provides an antagonist at times, she's almost unbelievable in her actions.  His wife, Musselwhite, is cold most of the time but at least she seems to care about her family.  And his sister is probably the most well-rounded character of all.  At least she's the one that acts halfways normal and seems to really care for her brother but have other interests outside of him. 

I must admit, I didn't really care for the story in this book.  I thought it was rushed, somewhat contrived and a lot of things never explained.  You have what Pondwader's destiny is spelled out very early on, but then the ending branches off in a way you wouldn't expect and it's done a bit jumbled.  There's a spiritual element to this book, and more talk of not necessarily Dreamers, but spirit destiny, but for once that was the understandable part of the book.  It was the characters actions and delusions that were the inconceivable part this time.  There's the usual amount of violence and sex in this book, and it is described, not just eluded to.  Another flaw in the writing was the continual use of the phrase "yes, my wife" in response to his new wife.  I get that he was excited to be married but it was repetitive and I think he would have called her by name a few times at least.

It sounds like I'm complaining a lot about this book and maybe it's because the previous two I had actually enjoyed.  This one wasn't terrible but it did have enough flaws to sink it quite a bit lower than the previous ones.

People of the Lightning
Copyright 1995
584 pages

February 01, 2014

People of the Lakes by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

The First North Americans is a series that is written by the husband and wife team of the Gears.  I have to say that this sixth book is probably my favorite out of all the books that I've read so far.  You don't really have to read them in order though, they take place in various places of history and bounce all around. 

There are two different parties off on an adventure in this book.  The first is a Trader, Otter, who is heartbroken and ready to be away from home, Black Skull, a great warrior who thinks of not much other than killing, Green Spider, a man who has been possessed by spirits, and Pearl, a woman who  has been sold into slavery by her tribe.  Next is the party of Tall Man, a dwarf who is also a magician and Star Shell and her daughter, who are on the run because of her husband's antics.  The one focus of both these groups is a special mask that causes people to do either very bad things or very good.  And everyone who is pursuing them wants it.

To be honest, I didn't really care about Star Shell and her group.  I just couldn't connect with any of them.  Tall Man, well his motivations were convoluted and not entirely genuine.  And it seems the authors changed what they wanted to do with him midway through the book.  Otter's party is much more interesting.  Black Skull grows through the book.  Pearl is a strong courageous woman who balances the men out.  And Otter, well he's a good guy and adventurous.  But he wants the best for everyone around him. 

Like I said, I didn't really care for Star Shell's part of the story.  Their adventure wasn't as engaging and I found myself wishing they'd get back to the other half of the story when it was going on.  By contrast I greatly enjoyed the other half of the story and looked forward to finding out what was going to happen to Otter and the crew next.  They had more vicious enemies too.  This book was massively detailed.  It's the biggest in the series thus far.  Despite that though, it read at a good pace.  There's a lot of violence, rape, and other hard topics though.

I'm eager to see what the next book brings.  Maybe from here on out they're going to keep getting better and better.

People of the Lakes
Copyright 1994
798 pages