The Last Colony by John Scalzi

the-last-colony-by-john-scalzi

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Retired from his fighting days, John Perry is now village ombudsman for a human colony on distant Huckleberry. With his wife, former Special Forces warrior Jane Sagan, he farms several acres, adjudicates local disputes, and enjoys watching his adopted daughter grow up.

That is, until his and Jane’s past reaches out to bring them back into the game–as leaders of a new human colony, to be peopled by settlers from all the major human worlds, for a deep political purpose that will put Perry and Sagan back in the thick of interstellar politics, betrayal, and war.

If, after The Ghost Brigades, you were still unsure about the ethics of the Colonial Union, you’re going to be sure about them after this. The Colonial Union is pretty much exactly as ominous as the name initially suggested to me. But I’ll get into that shortly.

First off, I want to say that as with every John Scalzi novel, the characters are fantastic. We’re back with John Perry, only now he’s retired. Until the Colonial Union throws a wrench into his plans for being a small community leader on the farming world of Huckleberry. So he, Jane and Zoe are thrown straight into a colonization project on a new world. Since many of the other races in the universe have banded together to stop colonization and the frequent wars that errupt because of it, this is way more risky than it sounds as the discovery of their colony could lead to all of their deaths.

John is a wonderful character and seeing him in this morally ambiguous situation really brings out his better traits. He clearly knows that colonization on a large scale like humans do is wrong when it pushes alien races out of their home worlds but at the same time he can’t really change the entire basis of the Colonial Union. So he has to make sure his new colony of Roanoke stays undetected and therefore safe. But while John is stuck between a rock and a hard place, his ingenuity eventually allows him to succeed where it would have been so easy to fail.

The plot is fantastic. John Scalzi crams a lot into just over 300 pages. We go off and see our characters found a new colony, learn that they’re not where they’re supposed to be, struggle to try to make the colony functional and eventually fight for their lives when the Colonial Union and the rest of the universe face off. At the same time, this is also a wonderful personal story. The relationship between John and Jane is wonderful and loving but not without its struggles. And of course Zoe is now a teenager and life is never simple when you’re a teenager on a new colony with two alien bodyguards with their own agendas and struggles. In the end, The Last Colony is a both a very human story of love and survival and a political thriller that asks you to question the world around you, particularly the motivations of various governments.

This is the third book in the Old Man’s War series and although the ending is satisfying in itself, it leaves open so many possibilities in the next few books. I can’t really get into the details of the ending because that would be a massive spoiler but let’s just say I definitely did not see that coming. John Scalzi is one of the few novelists who consistently surprises me and I honestly can’t wait to read more of the Old Man’s War series.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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It by Stephen King

it-by-stephen-king

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Welcome to Derry, Maine. It’s a small city, a place as hauntingly familiar as your own hometown. Only in Derry the haunting is real.

They were seven teenagers when they first stumbled upon the horror. Now they are grown-up men and women who have gone out into the big world to gain success and happiness. But the promise they made twenty-eight years ago calls them reunite in the same place where, as teenagers, they battled an evil creature that preyed on the city’s children. Now, children are being murdered again and their repressed memories of that terrifying summer return as they prepare to once again battle the monster lurking in Derry’s sewers.

Readers of Stephen King know that Derry, Maine, is a place with a deep, dark hold on the author. It reappears in many of his books, including Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis, and 11/22/63. But it all starts with It.

Before reading It I had only read one Stephen King novel and felt it was kind of ‘meh’. But that was many years ago so when I got this one for my birthday from a huge Stephen King fan, I figured I’d give it a try. In the end, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the novel but the main word I can use to describe it is ‘weird’.

I was never scared of clowns as a kid (I didn’t love them but I wasn’t scared by them) so I don’t think It was as scary as it could have been, but it was still pretty scary. Stephen King is the master of the slow burn and I was honestly engrossed throughout the 1100 page novel. The book starts with a six year old child being dismembered by a freaky clown but there’s more to the tension than just the gore factor. There’s a sense of evil throughout the novel a sort of unnaturalness that hangs around the whole town of Derry. When you add in the fact that the town has more violent crime and an absolutely ridiculous number of child murders, it really sets up the atmosphere. So even though It is 1100 pages, I can be confident in saying this book will never truly bore you.

As for the plot, it was a bit confusing at first as there are several time skips. But as the book moves on and you get into the rhythm of the writing, they’re easier to follow and help build the tension I mentioned before. The two main storylines are the present day adults being contacted about coming back to Derry and finishing the job of killing It. The past storyline is, obviously, the adults when they were children and how they discovered the evil lurking beneath Derry and almost ended it. There are a couple of little subplots along the way, like the Interlude segments where the town librarian, Mike Hanlon, is piecing together Derry’s mysterious past and trying to figure out why such evil lurks in such a small town. And of course there’s the matter of Henry Bowers and Beverly’s awful husband throwing a wrench into things but I can’t really go into much detail about that without spoiling some nice plot twists. Needless to say, It isn’t just a book you can skim through; you really need to pay attention to appreciate just how wonderfully the different narrative threads come together in the harrowing climax.

As much as I enjoyed the plot, I was a little less enthusiastic about the characters. Not because they’re poorly made or anything like that. It’s just that some of them are rather stereotypical and are therefore kind of boring. Eddie is the hypochondriac kid whose hypochondriac mother fusses over him incessantly and Ben is the fat kid who loves the beautiful girl (who loves someone else) and is bullied terribly at school. All of the characters in the Losers (the name they call their group) are easy to relate to but I think they are a bit predictable. It would have been nice for Stephen King to put some twists on these sort of child archetypes. Despite this, at least the characters are interesting, if a little predictable.

One of the most bizarre things about the novel was the origin of Pennywise. I won’t go into too many details because of spoilers but it’s just weird. The theological/existential questions it creates are terrifying in and of themselves but when I got to the climax and discovered the origins of Pennywise the clown it kind of threw me. It makes sense and Stephen King does a good job explaining things while maintaining the suspense he’s built up, but it’s still weird as heck. There’s no other way to describe it.

All in all, I’d have to say I enjoyed It. Stephen King is a good writer and anyone who can keep suspense up for 1100 pages deserves the title ‘master of suspense’. The only real criticism I can levy is that it would have been nice for him to play around with the child’s characters a little more so they weren’t quite so predictable and didn’t conform to the usual stereotypes. But if you’re looking for a suspenseful read, I’d say go no further and try this one. Especially if you’re already scared of clowns.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

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So It’s Been a Little While…

Well, hello everyone!

It’s been a while. It’s been pretty chaotic in my personal life between moving to a new city and essentially starting over from scratch. But I think I’m finally in a place where I can resume my regular posting again. I’m going to try to get back to my usual one post per day (4 or 5 reviews in a week and miscellaneous stuff on weekends) but we’ll see how things go. I may have to cut my posting down to 2 or 3 reviews per week but keep my weekend posting. Either way, I want to get back to regular posting and so you can expect to see me around here a lot more.

Basically, I’m back and I hope you’ll stick around for this new era in The Mad Reviewer after such a long hiatus. First step: clearing my reviewing backlog as much as I can.

Spotlight: The Secret Language of Stones by M. J. Rose

The Secret Language of Stones by M. J. Rose

The Secret Language of Stones by M.J. Rose

Publication Date: July 19, 2016
Atria Books
Hardcover & eBook; 320 Pages
Series: The Daughters of La Lune, Book Two
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
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As World War I rages and the Romanov dynasty reaches its sudden, brutal end, a young jewelry maker discovers love, passion, and her own healing powers in this rich and romantic ghost story, the perfect follow-up to M.J. Rose’s “brilliantly crafted” (Providence Journal) novel The Witch of Painted Sorrows.

Nestled within Paris’s historic Palais Royal is a jewelry store unlike any other. La Fantasie Russie is owned by Pavel Orloff, protégé to the famous Faberge, and is known by the city’s fashion elite as the place to find the rarest of gemstones and the most unique designs. But war has transformed Paris from a city of style and romance to a place of fear and mourning. In the summer of 1918, places where lovers used to walk, widows now wander alone.

So it is from La Fantasie Russie’s workshop that young, ambitious Opaline Duplessi now spends her time making trench watches for soldiers at the front, as well as mourning jewelry for the mothers, wives, and lovers of those who have fallen. People say that Opaline’s creations are magical. But magic is a word Opaline would rather not use. The concept is too closely associated with her mother Sandrine, who practices the dark arts passed down from their ancestor La Lune, one of sixteenth century Paris’s most famous courtesans.

But Opaline does have a rare gift even she can’t deny, a form of lithomancy that allows her to translate the energy emanating from stones. Certain gemstones, combined with a personal item, such as a lock of hair, enable her to receive messages from beyond the grave. In her mind, she is no mystic, but merely a messenger, giving voice to soldiers who died before they were able to properly express themselves to loved ones. Until one day, one of these fallen soldiers communicates a message—directly to her.

So begins a dangerous journey that will take Opaline into the darkest corners of wartime Paris and across the English Channel, where the exiled Romanov dowager empress is waiting to discover the fate of her family. Full of romance, seduction, and a love so powerful it reaches beyond the grave, The Secret Language of Stones is yet another “spellbindingly haunting” (Suspense magazine), “entrancing read that will long be savored” (Library Journal, starred review).

A spellbinding ghost story that communicates the power of love and redemption through Rose’s extraordinary, magical lens.” (Alyson Richman, internationally bestselling author of The Lost Wife)

 

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About the Author

M.J. Rose grew up in New York City mostly in the labyrinthine galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, the dark tunnels and lush gardens of Central Park and reading her mother’s favorite books before she was allowed.

She is the author of more than a dozen novels, the co-president and founding board member of International Thriller Writers and the founder of the first marketing company for authors: AuthorBuzz.com. She lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. Visit her online at MJRose.com.

Connect with M.J. Rose on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Goodreads.

Sign up for M.J. Rose’s newsletter and get information about new releases, free book downloads, contests, excerpts and more.

Blog Tour Schedule

Tuesday, July 12
Review at The Lit Bitch
Spotlight at The Mad Reviewer
Review at Peeking Between the Pages

Wednesday, July 13
Spotlight at Passages to the Past

Thursday, July 14
Spotlight at Teddy Rose Book Reviews

Friday, July 15
Review at A Dream within a Dream

Monday, July 18
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!

Tuesday, July 19
Review at First Impressions Reviews

Wednesday, July 20
Review at Laura’s Interests

Thursday, July 21
Review at Read Love Blog

Friday, July 22
Review at Nerd in New York
Spotlight at I Heart Reading

Monday, July 25
Review at Broken Teepee
Spotlight at Let Them Read Books

Tuesday, July 26
Review at Historical Fiction Obsession

Wednesday, July 27
Interview at First Impressions Reviews

Thursday, July 28
Review at Creating Herstory

Friday, July 29
Review at Beth’s Book Nook Blog

Monday, August 1
Review at The Book Junkie Reads

Tuesday, August 2
Interview at The Book Junkie Reads

Wednesday, August 3
Review at Diana’s Book Reviews

Thursday, August 4
Interview at Diana’s Book Reviews

Friday, August 5
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Spotlight at What Is That Book About

Monday, August 8
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time

Tuesday, August 9
Review at Worth Getting in Bed For

Wednesday, August 10
Review at Jorie Loves a Story
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews

Thursday, August 11
Review at Girls Just Reading

Friday, August 12
Review at Dianne Ascroft’s Blog

Monday, August 15
Review at Fangirls Ahead!

Tuesday, August 16
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Review at The True Book Addict

Spotlight: Bela’s Letters by Jeff Ingber

02_Béla’s Letters

Publication Date: February 18, 2016
Paperback; 596 Pages
ISBN: 978-0985410025

Genre: Historical Fiction

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Béla’s Letters” is a historical fiction novel spanning eight decades. It revolves around the remarkable life story of Béla Ingber, who was born before the onset of WWI in Munkács, a small city nestled in the Carpathian Mountains. The book tells of the struggles of Béla and his extended family to comprehend and prepare for the Holocaust, the implausible circumstances that the survivors endure before reuniting in the New World, and the crushing impact on them of their wartime experiences together with the feelings of guilt, hatred, fear, and abandonment that haunt them. At the core of the novel are the poignant letters and postcards that family members wrote to Béla, undeterred by the feasibility of delivery, which were his lifeline, even decades after the war ended.

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About the Author

Jeff is a financial industry consultant, who previously held senior positions at Citibank, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation. His latest book is “Bela’s Letters,” a family memoir based on his parents, who were survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust. Jeff also has written a screenplay entitled “The Bank Examiners.” He lives with his wife in Jersey City, NJ.

For more information visit Jeff Ingber’s website. You can also connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh

The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

The little known, riveting story of the most famous courtesan of her time: muse and mistress of Alexandre Dumas fils and Franz Liszt, the inspiration for Dumas’s The Lady of the Camellias and Verdi’s La Traviata, one of the most sought after, adored women of 1840s Paris.

Born in 1824 in Normandy, Marie Duplessis fled her brutal peasant father (who forced her to live with a man many years her senior). Julie Kavanagh traces Marie’s reinvention in Paris at sixteen: as shop girl, kept woman, and finally, as grand courtesan with the clothes, apartment, coach and horses that an aristocratic woman of the time would have had. Tall, willowy, with dramatic dark hair, Marie acquired an aristocratic mien, but coupled with a singular modesty and grace, she was an irresistible figure to men and women alike. Kanavagh brings her to life on the page against a brilliantly evoked background of 1840s Paris: the theater and opera, the best tables at the cafés frequented by society figures, theater directors, writers, artists–and Marie, only nineteen, at the center of it all. Four years later, at twenty-three, she would be dead of tuberculosis.

I first heard of Marie Duplessis because of my love of opera.  She was the inspiration for Dumas’s The Lady of the Camellias, which was the inspiration for my favourite opera of all time, La Traviata.  After watching an amazing version of La Traviata with Anna Moffo in the lead role, I wondered how close her interpretation was to the real Marie Duplessis.  Then I began to wonder who Marie Duplessis the person was, not just the character writers, painters and musicians have made her into over the decades.

Although Duplessis only lived to the age of 23, Julie Kavanagh was able to give us a very in-depth, detailed look at her life.  Not only that, she provided context for Marie’s rise from simple but pretty farm girl to one of the most sought-after courtesans in Paris’ demimonde.  She was a complex woman who could be both unbelievably selfish and petty but at the same time, caring and genuinely kind to the people around her.  Money ran through her hands like water to feed her wardrobe and her general lifestyle but at the same time was known to give generously to charities and was very religious in her later years.  If she were a mere character in a novel she’d probably be called unbelievable and contradictory, but Kavanagh’s highlighting of her contradictions really humanized Marie for me.  She became a living, breathing person instead of this distant legend.

As it says in the blurb, from a very young age Marie was likely sexually abused and when she fled from the countryside she had no illusions about what a wonderful place 1840s Paris was for lower class women.  She clawed her way up the unofficial courtesan hierarchy, first being a grisette (a lover to somewhat poor university students) and then a lorette when she found an older, wealthier patron.  And then, finally when the simple Alphonsine Plessis caught the eye of a young duke, she was transformed into Marie Duplessis, the irresistible courtesan.  It was not an easy path and Kavanagh talks about her struggles in fairly stark language that brings home the idea that while being a courtesan could be glamorous at times, there were many times it was not.

What I especially liked about The Girl Who Loved Camellias was the postscript that detailed the sale of Marie’s estate to pay off her debts and the introduction where Marie’s cultural impact is discussed.  Of course, most famously there’s the book The Lady of the Camellias and Verdi’s opera La Traviata but there have also been films and even ballets about her life.  Even though few people today actually know her name, Marie Duplessis lives on in the beautiful works of art she inspired.

My favourite thing about this biography is that while Julie Kavanagh goes into detail, she does not get encumbered by it as so many biographers do.  While she includes the text from some letters pertaining to Marie’s life, she does not get bogged down in detailing Marie’s correspondence.  Instead, she includes short quotes where it’s relevant (which seems like common sense but sadly all too few biographers do this, preferring to include every single scrap of correspondence they can find pertaining to their subject).  She gives historical context to Marie’s life but again she doesn’t get too bogged down in irrelevant details.  Basically, she tells a detailed but interesting story about a woman who packed quite a lot of living into just twenty three years.

If you’re looking for an interesting biography that’s a fairly fast read, I highly recommend The Girl Who Loved Camellias.  It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Lazy Sundays: The Benefits of City Life

So I’ve lived in the city for almost eight months now and I’m really just starting to get used to it.  Obviously it has its drawbacks but so does living in a rural area.  What are some of the benefits I’m appreciating right now?

  1. If I want to go to a concert, I can just hop on the bus and go that night.  I don’t have to plan two days so I can travel to the city (what used to be a four hour drive), watch the concert in the evening, stay in a hotel and drive home the next day.  It’s actually amazing.  So far this year I’ve seen both Handel’s Messiah and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony live.  For a classical music lover like myself, seeing pieces I’ve listened to over and over on CDs being performed live has been exhilarating.
  2. You can get food pretty much any time you feel like it.  Feel like eating Subway at 11:00pm?  Well, there’s one down the street from my apartment.  Want to watch a movie at 1:00am because of your insomnia and you don’t have any snack foods?  There are 24/7 convenience stores located close by.  In my hometown everything closes down at 6:00pm but in the city, you can pretty much guarantee something is going to be open at all hours of the night.
  3. Not having to travel for everything.  If I wanted to go clothes shopping back home, I’d have to drive an hour to the nearest large town.  In the city, I just ride the bus for 10 minutes and stop at one of the four main malls.  Of course this has been a big temptation when it comes to book shopping since there’s an enormous Indigo store right next to one of the malls.  As if I didn’t have enough books already.
  4. Racism, misogyny and homophobia are far less commmon.  Of course, wherever there are human beings there will always be discrimination but I find that it’s a little less common here in the city because of the more diverse population.  And it helps that the city is large enough that when you do find a horribly prejudiced person you can easily avoid them (unless you work with them).  In a small town, you’d encounter that person constantly.  It’s a really nice change.

As I said, city life isn’t perfect (the air quality leaves something to be desired) but I’m so much happier than I ever was in my hometown.  Getting away from rural life has been the best decision I’ve ever made.