Power Forward: My Presidential Education by Reggie Love

Power Forward: My Presidential EducationReggie Love’s memoir, Power Forward: My Presidential Education, served as our book club’s May pick. A summer slacker, I opted for lazing in the backyard with another book rather than go to the discussion of this one, and apparently didn’t miss much by doing so.

Formerly a well-known Duke basketball and football player, Love became President Obama’s bodyman/personal assistant when he was still a Senator and acted in that capacity until his second term in the presidency. Love’s memoir fluctuates between sporting analogies, humorous (and not-so-humorous) campaign trail-to-Oval Office anecdotes, and character development affirmations. Unfortunately, this makes for a disjointed story, with each chapter ending on a “moral of the story” note that fails to coalesce to a larger point.

This book is not a deep analysis, but Love does offer some insightful commentary on politics. More so than Love himself, Obama is the star of this book. Unless you’re an avid Duke fan, most readers are probably picking this up for a its new, more personal perspective on the President. It’s an easy read, if not particularly entertaining or poignant.

3 Stars

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The Necromancer by Jonathan Howard

The Necromancer (Johannes Cabal, #1)Several months ago, I read The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4), and really enjoyed its tantalizing blend of humor and horror. So of course I had to go back to the beginning with Jonathan Howard’s The Necromancer, the first book in his series (of which The Brothers Cabal is most recent) about the dread, slightly dreary necromancer Johannes Cabal.

Brilliant scientist Johannes Cabal was so devoted to his work that he sold his soul to the devil years ago in order to gain greater knowledge of necromancy. Satisfied at his master of the subject, he now decides he’d like to get it back. Journeying deep in hell, he finds the Devil, who is fiendishly amused by the idea and proposes a wager: Johannes has one calendar year to harvest 100 souls for Satan or his own is damned forever. With the help of one of Satan’s traveling carnivals, a crew of zombies and his charmingly persuasive vampire brother, Johannes sets off on his macabre road show, and hopefully his redemption.

I was hopeful after reading this description of an adventure that was alluded to in the fourth book, but the carnival is less fun and more tragic than expected. Among the souls that Johannes tries to collect are distraught mothers, abused women, elderly fathers, and young children. I found Johannes cruel at time and (worse!) dreadfully dull, plus there isn’t nearly enough of my favorite adorable brotherly vampire, Horst. Admittedly, the various odd denizens of Hell are delightful as are the hapless zombie minions, but the human soul of the book is close to nonexistent, except ironically in the undead.

Normally I would never advocate to read a series out of order, as I think you lose a sense of the universe it’s in besides spoiling yourself silly, but for this one I will. The Brothers Cabal was way superior a book to The Necromancer in both plot and entertainment, so skip right on ahead past this sagging story to its quirkier sibling.

3 Stars

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Almost Famous Women: StoriesMegan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women has been highly lauded since it came out earlier this year. I thought to myself, well I like historical fiction, I’m a proud feminist woman, this may be an ideal book for me to get over my dislike of short stories! Plus, I adored the cover art and expected a fun, uplifting read because of it.

Only, it didn’t quite work out that way. See, as I’ve referenced before with Queen’s Gambit and Six WivesI also have serious problems reading historical fiction based on real people because I then feel the need to creep on their lives i.e. read a biography or memoir as a follow-up. In this case, since the women were “almost famous,” I resorted to Wikipedia after every story to gain a better understanding of who I was reading about. I probably recognized a third of the names, and knew barely more than that about only one individual. Which was frustrating  – the stories would’ve been more enjoyable if each started or ended with a brief bio of the woman/women involved.

The stories themselves weren’t bad, they just didn’t stay with me, with the exception of the first, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children,” about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton past their prime performing time. It had a tragic American Horror Story vibe, though less bloodshed and no clowns. Also moving was “The Internees,” a brief look at the women interned at Bergen-Belsen in 1945 as their retrieve their feminine identity through liberation and lipstick, while the most imaginative was a dystopian homage to Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery, Redux.”

A few stories are interestingly interconnected, with characters like Dolly, wild neice of Oscar Wilde, and lesbian heiress Joe Carstairs referencing each other. Others, such as “Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death” and “Hell-Diving Women,” seem abrupt and a little misplaced. Overall, I was less inspired and intrigued than I’d hoped by many of these characters – though real, they came across as caricatures at points.

While I admire the idea and the writing style, I think the execution of the content was flawed. There wasn’t enough time to connect with these women. Like the snapshots at the beginning of each chapter, we only see fragments of them in time, and I would’ve appreciated learning more about the complexities of their lives and why the author chose to tell their tales.

3 Stars

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Bellweather RhapsodyA few reviewers have called Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody a cross between Glee and The Shining – so how could I resist?!

Twins, shy Rabbit and diva Alice, arrive at the crumbling Bellweather Hotel for a high school music festival that could make or break their dreams. Escorting them is slightly alcoholic failed musician turned high school teacher Natalie, who is wrestling with her own demons, including sociopathic Viola, the scheming new head of the festival. But can the music go on when a young music prodigy disappears from her hotel room, one that is haunted by a murder/suicide of a newly married couple years prior?

This Clue-like plot rivets the reader, but unfortunately there’s too many side plots and sprawling characters that take up valuable written real estate. Minnie, who witnessed the tragedy as a young child and is returning to the scene of the crime as a dysfunctional adult to help herself recover from the trauma, and Alice seem to be the only ones who care about Jill, the flute phenom who disappeared after Alice reports seeing her hanging. Jill’s mother Viola simply seems intent on striking terror into the hearts of the attendees, including Natalie, while the other ostensible chaperone is seven-fingered conductor Fisher, who is his own brand of crazy. Rabbit is distracted by his struggles to come out to his sister and his impending basoon solo, while the hoteliers seem to be largely ignoring the chaos. It takes a few hundred pages and more death for the police to arrive.

By the climax, most of these threads come together, yet I found them to be a distraction from the mystery I really cared about. Agatha Christie it isn’t. The ending was twisted, in an entirely good way, except for the fact that the why of the murder/suicide was unexplained. For some reason, this really bugged me even though it really didn’t matter that much to the story.

It’s a quick, most likeable read, but the jumble kept me from loving it. Good for those who enjoy dark humor and with a macabre spirit, but not nearly as great as it aspires to be.

3 Stars

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

The Midnight Queen (Noctis Magicae, #1)Gangly and geeky Gray Marshall studies magic at Oxford’s Merlin College, where a mysterious errand with four fellow students ends with a friend’s death, difficulties using his considerable powers, and a summer of confinement at the country estate of his domineering professor Appius Callender. There he meets the professor’s daughter Sophie, whose supposed lack of skill in magic doesn’t deter her from secretly devouring magical lore from her father’s library. Sophie and Gray’s instant camaraderie is tested when they uncover the professor’s sinister conspiracy with the king’s closest advisor, dragging them into an adventure that will uncover the hidden secrets of both their pasts.

(Spoilers ahead)

The Midnight Queen is the first book in Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s Noctis Magicae series, which takes place in a magical England in a Regency-like era. Naturally that includes a patriarchal disdain for women studying magic, but thankfully Sophie defies those rules and proves to be a likeable heroine, intelligent and quick-witted without being irritably rebellious for the sake of rebellion. Meanwhile, Gray is not the typical macho man, instead lovably dorky and supportive of Sophie to the extent that he’s relagated a bit to the sidekick position once he arrives in the country as her character and magical ability are developed strongly. In fact, it’s mostly the women, including the mysterious housekeeper Mrs. Wallis and Sophie’s spunky younger sister Joanna, who drive the plot thereafter while Gray bumbles about.

The plot itself is engaging at the beginning as Gray and Sophie uncover the truth about the events that have led them to that point in their lives, but dithers after Sophie and Gray escape the Callender household to London in order to save the day. Mostly nothing happens for 100 or so pages as they lounge around Gray’s sister’s house, except their slow-burning romance that mirrors a Shakespearean comedy in their ineptitude to recognize each other’s obvious feelings. Although I enjoyed the action-packed conclusion, I felt like many of my questions about the conspiracy remained unanswered. As well-sketched as Sophie and Gray were, the villains came across as caricatures because of the lack of information about their motives.

Hunter’s writing style truly is gorgeous, and weaves an appropriately magical atmosphere; however, her written content can become clunky, such as the heavily hinted prophecy of “The One” and the tale of the hidden princess. I also felt like she failed to provide adequate backstory to parts of the world that weren’t Sophie&Gray, including Merlin College, the history and politics of their society, and the truth-seeing priests of Apollo who briefly appeared as deus ex machina saviors. Since it’s the first in a series despite its definitive conclusion, perhaps we’ll learn more but that’s no excuse for poor exposition in such a lengthy book.

I was charmed and hooked while reading/devouring this story, but (since I suck) I’ve delayed this review a few weeks and whatever alluring magic I felt then has mostly faded now. Recommended for fans of Sorcery & Cecilia or the Glamourist Histories series, both of which also remind me of fantasy Jane Austen novels, but I would say its not as good as the former if slightly better than the latter.

3.5 Stars

Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey

Six Wives by David StarkeyFirst, an apology because I’ve seriously been slacking with the reviews. Sorry folks! But I should have a number of good posts up in the next few weeks.

Now, I picked up David Starkey’s Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII because I had just read Elizabeth Freemantle’s Queen’s Gambit, and it always frustrates me when I read historical fiction about real important figures because I can’t separate the history from the fiction. I was debating between Starkey and Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, both of which had equally good reviews on Goodreads, but ultimately made my decision based on availability at the library.

And Starkey, noted British historian and Tudor expert, was a good choice though obviously I can’t compare the two (but I did not appreciate his open disdain for Weir’s work in the foreword). He divided his book up into sections, with the larger first half concentrating on Henry’s first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and a slightly smaller chunk thereafter on Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately, that left the remaining book to four queens, who got short-shrifted a bit, but I guess that’s inevitable given the strong political-cultural impact of the cold war between Catherine’s and Anne’s factions. Additionally, all six queens had to share room with countless other, predominantly male courtiers, which I thought detracted from the supposed focus.

I’m not going to lie, these parts of it were quite dry and Starkey’s consistent shifting between usage of titles and given names made the narrative at times confusing. However, I think he was particularly good at delving into the international political intrigue of the period and extremely thorough in his examination of various individual’s motives for their actions. While this made the reader quite sympathetic to the queens, Henry’s longing for a son didn’t excuse his foul treatment of women in my eyes nor did Starkey’s free pass make me like the author any more than the subject.

At a hefty 800 pages, it’s not a light read nor a great one. Nevertheless, for fans of the Tudor period, including fictional works like the series The Tudors, Starkey’s biography provides rich context to fill in any gaps in knowledge.

3 Stars

Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Queen's GambitElizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit, the first in her Tudor Trilogy, tells the tale of Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s wives and the one that outlived him (albeit barely). I hadn’t known as much about her compared to the more famous Catherine of Aragon or the more infamous Anne Boleyn, so I was intrigued.

Newly widowed for the second time in her life, Katherine Parr falls deeply in love with dashing courtier Thomas Seymour. But her return to court has sparked the affections of a more dangerous suitor, King Henry VIII, whose marriage proposal she has no choice but to accept. Determined not to fall victim to the same fates as his previous wives, Katherine struggles to keep her feelings for Thomas and her sympathies towards the Protestant Reformation hidden in a treacherous environment where rivals watch her every move, as the king’s health ails and the Catholic faction regains their power over crown and country. 

Fremantle’s language evokes the atmosphere of the Tudor court beautifully. The dialogue seems apt for the time and the characters are mostly well-drawn. The exception to that is strangely Katherine herself, who comes across as aloof even from the reader. Fremantle portrays Katherine’s struggle over her emotions realistically. I sympathized with Katherine’s basically forced marriage to Henry and feared for her as it seemed to go sour, though I was frustrated as a reader by my inability to understand Thomas’ appeal for her and her blindness to his faults.

I didn’t discover this until digging afterwards but Fremantle’s novel is fairly historically accurate. Katherine was indeed dazzled by Thomas, whom she eventually wed hastily soon after Henry’s death. The most salacious detail of their romance was that he apparently seduced her stepdaughter and ward, the future Queen Elizabeth, under Katherine’s own roof as she was pregnant with their child. His indiscretions likely led to her failing health, culminating in her death in childbirth. Tragically, the fate of her infant remains lost to history, so her only legacy is her survival in the Tudor court.

However, she was a fascinating figure, extremely well-educated and the first Queen of England to be a published author. Despite never experiencing motherhood with her own child, she served as a guardian and adored parental figure for all three Tudor royal children, bringing them together in a way that briefly transcended their quarrels. As queen-centric historical fictions go, I preferred The Queen’s Vow about Isabella of Castile, but Katherine bore admirable similarities to the parts of Isabella’s character that impressed me. Overall, this was still a solid read that would be enjoyed by fans of Philippa Gregory.

3 Stars