Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Not My Cup of Joe

Something More Than Night
by Ian Tregillis
Published by Tor
2 Out of 5 Stars

**I received a free copy of Something More Than Night from Tor in exchange for an honest review.**

A swell angel, Gabriel, takes a powder by way of the big sleep. But what kind of button man has the juice to take down a big player like an archangel? It's not long before heavenly forces put the screws to Bayliss, a two bit angel confined to the dive known as Earth, where he's spent centuries tipping a little rye, smoking pills, and eyeing dishy kittens who know how to fill out a skirt. Heaven wants Bayliss to case the joint and find a mortal palooka he can knock off to fill Gabriel's slot in the universe. Hoping for a mark who won't ing-bing, Bayliss instead ends up with a flametop twist who stirs up all kinds of heavenly trouble. Now Bayliss is behind the eight ball, the immortal bulls want answers, and Bayliss suspects he and this new dame may be the patsys in a universal game of whodunit. Savvy?

Of all the bookshelves, in all the towns, in all the world, this book makes it onto mine.

Something More Than Night is going to appeal to a niche group of readers: hardcore noir aficionados, of whom I am not one. I like my noir like I like my coffee--black. But with sugar and cream and flavoring so it barely resembles coffee anymore. In other words, I like my noir to be not-so-noirish.

Ian Tregillis presents a concept that sounds entertaining, but quickly becomes tedious. Beginning with the death of Gabriel as he flames across the night sky, questions are quickly asked by Bayliss, the only heavenly being who seems interested in getting to the bottom of the angel's murder. Through his investigation and the inclusion of Molly, the mortal Bayliss has bumped off to plug the hole in the universe left by Gabriel's untimely demise, we learn that, in the beginning, there was not light, but angels. Angels free to do and imagine the universe as they pleased until METATRON, the voice of a higher power, clipped the angels' wings by chaining them to the mortal realm. Denied the right to roam the universe as they once did, the angels chafed against their chains but their proximity to one another created the MOC (Mantle of Ontological Consistency) that ensured existence for mortals would continue through the angelic consensus of what reality is.

As Molly comes to terms with her divinity and Bayliss seeks the truth behind Gabriel's murder, Tregillis builds a heaven of quantum physics only tinged by religious philosophy. While I enjoyed his vivid descriptions of the angelic hierarchy and the individual Magisteriums each angel builds as a personal hideaway, his descriptions of the universe veer into physics-based purple prose. Initially, I found this inventive and enjoyed passages such as:

He'd been collecting little odds and ends since at least the double-digit redshifts. The interior reality of Gabriel's Magisterium burbled and shifted like convection currents in a star on the zaftig end of the main sequence. Because, I realized, that's what they were. Dull dim light, from IR to X-ray, oozed past me like the wax in a million-mile lava lamp while carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen nuclei did little do-si-dos about my toes. Every bubble, every sizzle, every new nucleus, every photodissociation tagged something of interest to Gabriel . . . Nuclear reactions unfolded with the calm susurration of solar wind upon Earth's atmosphere, seeding cloud formation and rain. Convective cells furled about me with the low, slow, sonorous peal of cathedral bells mourning a monarch's death. X-rays fizzed on my tongue . . . " (64).

Got physics? Because you'll need it to slog your way through endless passages like this, which, while serving to capture the complexity and immensity of creation, do nothing but slow down the narrative. The combination of unceasing physics jargon with the unending noir slang became too much for me. Add to that the fact that Tregillis's world-building on the Earthly plane is sketchy at best (we get the sense that it is set in a dystopian future, but the futuristic elements seem wedged in and serve no defined purpose) and the novel begins to buckle under too many clever ideas.

The ultimate twist is a letdown as it seems contrived to get the plot out of the corner it had painted itself into. As the reason for the narrative's reliance on the noir genre becomes obvious to the characters, one muses, "But why go to all this trouble? What did it achieve, turning himself into a hard-boiled detective pastiche in an archetypal story" (250).

Why, indeed.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Go Along for the Ride

Backseat Saints
by Joshilyn Jackson
Published by Grand Central Publishing
3 Out of 5 Stars

To the outside world, Ro Grandee seems to have a good life: she's a beautiful woman married to a good looking and attentive husband from a well-respected family in Amarillo, Texas. However, after an airport gypsy tells Ro that she must kill her husband, we learn that Ro's picture perfect life is a facade that hides a marriage full of fear, violence, and abuse. Now, armed with only her pawpy's old gun, Ro plans her husband's murder, but will she be able to pull the trigger?

Backseat Saints begins with a bang and, unfortunately, ends with a whimper.

There's a lot to like here and, for the most part, I enjoyed the book. Joshilyn Jackson writes with wit and honesty about the South and its people (her dialogue is some of the best I've read), and to balance the darkness of spousal abuse with the humor of daily life is quite a feat.

What I appreciate the most about the book is that Ro never becomes a blank cipher for spousal abuse; many books of this nature focus on the violence and the abused remains a flat character with no real dimensions beyond the relationship to the abuse. Told from the first person point of view, Ro reveals the two halves of her personality. There's Ro Grandee, the lovely, submissive housewife, and then there's Rose Mae Lolley, the small town girl from Alabama who came to believe that love should be tempered by pain when her mother leaves and her father begins physically taking his anger out on Rose. Ro maintains her own personality (although secreted away in interior monologue that is Rose Mae Lolley's voice) despite being dominated by her husband, Thom. Her fear and her attraction to Thom become palpable and we see her foolishly clinging to hope in the good periods when he resolves to control his temper, and we see her anguish when he falls into familiar patterns. Like a meteorologist, Ro can predict the storm of his anger building but lacks the power to take shelter. While it's easy for those of us who have never been in an abusive relationship to become frustrated with her for her seeming refusal to leave him, Jackson does a good job of demonstrating how running is a luxury afforded to those with power. And Ro has been stripped of all power--financial, social, personal--by Thom, who has created a life that cages Ro in dependence upon him.

The novel, however, is problematic in two ways. The first is Ro's Catholicism, which seems surface at best and only to exist so that the novel could be given the title of Backseat Saints. The "saints" of the title are seldom brought into the narrative and never serve to move the plot forward. Entire chapters will pass and then a definite sense of "oops, haven't mentioned a saint in a while" crops up, a saint's name is dropped, and the narrative moves on--conspicuously saint-less.

The second issue is Ro's insistence on finding her ex-boyfriend from high school in the hopes that she can convince him to kill Thom. This plot line exists so Backseat Saints can dovetail with Jackson's novel, gods in Alabama (my personal favorite), which opens with Ro as a minor character appearing on the doorstep of Arlene Fleet's apartment in Chicago, demanding to know where her high school boyfriend is. The rest of gods is about Arlene making peace with a past she left behind in Alabama and Ro pretty much disappears as a character. I get that it was that particular character that inspired Jackson to write Saints, but instead of this segue feeling organic, it's been shoehorned in and makes for a strange, disjointed narrative. It also seems implausible that Ro would take such a risk, knowing the reaction her husband will have upon finding out she's been to Chicago without him. To have made Ro a character independent of gods would have tightened the narrative and cut some of the wasted length other reviewers have noted.

Despite these flaws, Backseat Saints has some lovely writing and I enjoyed the time spent with such complicated, flawed characters.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Finds the Right Balance

Finding Lubchenko
by Michael Simmons
Published by Razorbill
3 Out of 5 Stars

Not too shabby. It definitely was a welcome diversion from all of the supernatural/romance/football books that currently glut the young adult genre. Evan MacAlister is rich, but not spoiled--at least from his point of view--and this is his main complaint. As a way of retaliating against his father's strict discipline and aversion to giving Evan everything he wants, Evan begins to swipe high tech gadgetry from his dad's office and sells it online to earn an income worthy of a respectable rich kid. However, when his dad is framed for murder and the laptop Evan recently stole contains evidence that may free him, the choice to Evan seems clear--crack the security codes, retrieve the information, and go after the murderer himself. After all, he doesn't want to risk getting caught, then there's the fact that his dad once made him spend the night in jail for a relatively minor offense.

Evan is a character much like Ferris Bueller: entitled, yet entertaining so we're willing to forgive him his faults. The book is amusing and despite the fact that Evan and his friends don't really exert much influence over the events in the story as they unfold, it's an entertaining enough way to kill an afternoon.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Weak Hand

The Hand You're Dealt
by Paul Volponi
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
2 Out of 5 Stars

Huck Porter is a poker prodigy, having been groomed by his father (much to the chagrin of his mother) from a young age . Every year the local church hosts an annual Texas Hold'em tournament and sends the winner to Las Vegas to play in a high stakes tournament. The standing agreement is that whatever money is won will be split between the winner and the struggling community. Huck's father has been the tournament champion for the last three years and it's only as his father is dying that a new tournament champion is named:  Mr. Abbott, the meanest math teacher to ever dust an eraser. When Mr. Abbott stiffs the town by refusing to split his earnings, Huck sees this as an insult against his father who once donated all of his winnings to the town. As a result, Huck decides it's time to humble Mr. Abbott both in the classroom and at the poker table.

While the opening chapter offers a lot of promise (Huck and the other poker players are being robbed at gun point in an elevator), it quickly loses momentum from there. The premise of a small time, small bets poker tournament being used as a means of sustaining an economically depressed community is far fetched and Mr. Abbott is almost cartoonishly evil in his tyranny over the classroom. In addition, Huck is dealing with some pretty heavy conflicts, but they're glossed over and resolved in simplistic ways.

For the target audience, which I assume to be 13-15 year old boys, this is probably a good read (especially for struggling readers) for all the reasons that I didn't like it. While the chapters are short and keep the action moving along, there's not a lot of description or character development, and there are several implausible situations/details that will probably sneak right on past a young reader. While I will certainly recommend the book to my students, it's not something that offers satisfaction to a more sophisticated reading audience.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

No Child Left Behind Taken to Task

The Death and Life of the Great American School System
by Diane Ravitch
Published by Basic Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

I have been a public school teacher for less than a decade and already I'm suffering severe whiplash from the various educational fads that come and go at the speed of light. When I left college, I was excited about the opportunity to share great literature with my students, to explore universal themes that have shaped and influenced humanity, to encourage them to be avid readers and competent writers, to help them think for themselves and to eloquently articulate their thoughts and beliefs while still respecting and listening to those who opposed them. Imagine my disappointment when I found that the main focus of my job was to teach my students how to speed read a passage, correctly answer the related multiple choice questions, and to provide one well-written open response to a given prompt--all in 25 minutes. I wanted to help my students become literate and thoughtful individuals who will become responsible and informed citizens; my government, however, wants me to churn out professional test takers. Welcome to the world of No Child Left Behind.

Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System takes No Child Left Behind to task and Ravitch willingly admits that she was once one of its fiercest champions. However, she now (just as candidly) admits that she was wrong and this book is her explanation of how she came to realize NCLB has been one of the most detrimental attempts at school reform. Others have lambasted Ravitch's mea culpa as "too little, too late" and have shamed her for being part of the government system that created this problem. However, I appreciate that, in this political climate, a public figure can actually have the integrity to say, "I was wrong" (as she quotes John Maynard Keynes, "When the facts change, I change my mind"). We have now lived with NCLB for nearly a decade and the facts are in.

NCLB is a grand aspiration; however, aspirations by their very nature often set their sights higher than what is attainable. I do not have a qualm with the hope that all children will receive a quality education and be able to attain certain standards of academic excellence. That is, after all, why I became a teacher. Yet this aspiration can only be reached in a perfect world where every child comes from the same economic background, has a support system at home that values and champions education, has the same intellectual capacity, and has the same intrinsic motivation to learn. To say that 100% of children in American schools will be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 is ridiculous; it is admirable as a hope, but not as a mandate. To borrow an analogy from Ravitch, that would be the equivalent of the government declaring that all crime in America will be eliminated by 2020 or that cancer will be cured by 2017--and, if not, then policemen and medical researchers will be fired, and ineffective police stations and hospitals will be shut down. That is essentially what is happening in American education. Schools that don't meet this deadline risk government takeover and teachers risk losing their jobs. They've given us an impossible task and will punish us if we fail to deliver the goods.

Some highlights from the book include:

*NCLB dictates testing in only two areas: literacy and mathematics. As a result, many schools actually narrow the focus of education as all the time and energy becomes focused on passing the test. Literature, social sciences, fine arts, the sciences, etc. do not receive as much emphasis--or they become utilized as hours of extra practice for these tests. The tradition of producing a well-rounded citizen through a liberal arts education is a thing of the past.

*NCLB is all about assessment, but provides no national curriculum. Each state is allowed to set its own standards and assessment strategies. Therefore, a child labeled as "proficient" on the Alabama state test might score "below basic" on the Massachusetts state test. With such a disparity in what a student is expected to know, it is impossible to say that the children in one state are outperforming students in another.

*States can manipulate test data by actually readjusting the cutoff for what is proficient; in addition, when a state's scores dramatically increase, the public should look to see if minority or low SES students are being systematically pushed out of the education system. For example, Ravitch reports that many scholars claimed that "the [2000] gains in Texas were a mirage; . . . the testing system actually caused rising numbers of dropouts, especially among African American and Hispanic students, many of whom were held back repeatedly and quit school in discouragement" (96). Many states who report dramatic gains in either literacy or mathematics do not see these gains reflected in data from NAEP, ACT, or SAT national tests that are beyond the state's control.

*A school with 56% student proficiency may not suffer any consequences if they have made their projected gains for the year; however, a school in a nearby district with 86% proficiency may be subjected to school improvement and labeled a poorly performing school if it failed to make its projected gains or failed to move one subgroup up to the appropriate rate of improvement. Never mind that the school has a higher proficiency than the other school; such confusion in standards leads to public confusion as to which is the better school. I'd want my kid in the school with 86% proficiency, projected AYP be damned.

There's so much more here that I could rattle on about, but I'll leave it at simply encouraging everyone to read this book. You may agree or disagree with Ravitch and her proposed solutions to education; that's fine. What's not fine, however, is that most of the American public doesn't understand what role government and private sector interests are playing in our educational system. We passively sit by and assume that the government is doing everything it can to make our nation's schools more competitive with other countries. We see newspaper articles about improved test scores, witness state politicians bragging about the significant gains made by the students in their constituency, and cheer as teachers are being fired and schools are being shut down when test scores are dismal. We think that there's a new sheriff in town and, by God, someone is doing something about those fat cat lazy teachers (a hilarious offering from The Daily Show regarding this perception http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon...)! What we don't see is how the data is flawed, the curriculum is narrowed, and educators have become the sacrificial lambs in a system that is broken. There needs to be a rigorous national curriculum, a standardized method of assessment that is used to improve and enhance curriculum (not as a data-driven witch hunt), and a renaissance of the liberal arts. None of that is happening under NCLB.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Failed to Cast a Spell

The Color of Magic
by Terry Pratchett
Published by Harper Perennial
2 Out of 5 Stars

Meh. It just didn't do it for me. Unfortunately, this book has been recommended to me so many times by well-meaning friends who know my love of absurd British humor that it couldn't possibly live up to the hype. It suffers from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy syndrome. For years, everyone I knew--friends, family, students, co-workers--would ask me if I had read Hitchhiker's and their mouths would drop when I admitted no, I hadn't . . . yet. Their response was always the same, "Oh, but you have to! It's like it was written for YOU!" By the time I got around to reading it, there's no way it could have lived up to the expectations that had been percolating for years. Ditto for The Color of Magic

I'll admit, Pratchett has a way with words and there was the occasional turn of phrase in response to which I made that air-escaping-from-the-nose sound that's not full bodied enough to be considered a snort of laughter. There was the infrequent half-smile. A few head nods in appreciation of a clever conceit. But, alas, there were no tear-inducing uncontrollable fits of laughter, which is what I expected. Will I read more Pratchett? Yes, because I have at least three more books by him lying about. I just hope they're better than this.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Now It's a Rat Writ, Writ for a Rat

True Grit
by Charles Portis
Published by Overlook TP
4 Out of 5 Stars

I recently reread this book for a book club meeting and was just as struck by Portis's prose as I was the first time I read it. The movie version (which I watched repeatedly as a teenager) is surprisingly faithful to the book's narrative. 

The story of the headstrong (sometimes obnoxiously so) Mattie's quest to kill the coward Tom Chaney is every bit as entertaining to me now as it was then. Of course, the real star of the book is the brutish and brash Rooster Cogburn, the U. S. Marshal Mattie hires to help her track down Chaney, who shot her father in cold blood. In the contrast between Mattie and Rooster is the contrast between the rapidly disappearing uncivilized frontier, as well as the strong, hard-bitten men and women it produced, and the introduction of societal mores and conveniences. Despite this contrast, there is a stubbornness in Mattie and Rooster that is recognized and respected by each. 

Portis's use of language is stripped of "fluff" and moves the story along brusquely, but not at the sacrifice of character or plot development. The dialogue is often unexpectedly hilarious and, as an Arkansan, it's also refreshing to read about an Arkansas that is not that of the stereotyped backwoods full of rednecks and outhouses. The historical details are accurate (including Fort Smith's famous "hanging judge" Judge Parker) and paint a vivid portrait of frontier life in Arkansas.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Villain or Unfairly Vilified?

Finding the Dragon Lady:  The Mystery of Madame Nhu
by Monique Brinson Demery
Published by PublicAffairs
4 Out of 5 Stars

"Another focus of the article was on Madame Nhu--a woman who seemed to be a fascinating character to the journalists of the time as I found several references to her in more than one Newsweek article, and as many pictures of her in fashionable dress. It's reported that Diem is little more than the puppet of Madame Nhu and her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu. She's portrayed as an almost comic book like villain--an Asian femme fatale known as 'the dragon lady' by journalists in Saigon. She is described as being 'imperious and iron-willed,' 'a devious, chain-smoking intellectual with a low, rasping voice,' and 'molded into her . . . dress like a dagger in its sheath.' While she's acknowledged to be a serious threat to the United States, much focus is placed on insignificant details about her life. I found it unbelievable that the author of this article made constant reference to how dangerous she was, yet never bolstered these statements with any concrete fact. More time was devoted to her romanticized childhood and her couture clothing than her politics. It made me curious--was the lack of information because she was simply a woman and her dress was more interesting than her politics, or was there a lack of specific information about her involvement in the crimes being committed by the government?"

So, yes, I've quoted myself here. This is from a paper I wrote in response to a Newsweek article entitled Getting to Know the Nhus from September 9, 1963. One of my favorite assignments in my Literature of the Vietnam War class was the personal reaction papers that sent us scurrying to the library and pulling the old bound periodicals from the shelves and reading articles from magazines like Time and Newsweek. Others would simply grab a book, photocopy the first Vietnam article they came to, and trot off to write their paper. Me? I spent hours flipping through the yellowed pages and photographs before I settled on one for my article. And that was how I first encountered the petite dynamo that was Madame Nhu.

While she certainly piqued my curiosity, it quickly became obvious that learning about the real Madame Nhu was virtually impossible due to the obvious negative bias of the press, as well as Madame Nhu's own role in crafting her own image. So when Monique Brinson Demery's book about her personal relationship with Madame Nhu was released, I was excited by the prospect of finally meeting the "real" Madame Nhu.

And did I? Well, yes and no.

This is not a criticism of the book, but rather a reflection of the fact that Madame Nhu was the product of endless contradictions. Born in another time, another culture, another economic class, she certainly could have been a shrewd and intelligent politician. However, her arrival as an unwanted and unloved middle daughter (her mother always suspected she had been "switched" with a common child while she was left in the care of her paternal grandmother) created a keen sense of inferiority that she railed against her entire life (a defiant streak nurtured by a fortune-teller's prediction that "Her star is unsurpassable" and that the young girl was destined for greatness). Her upper-class family had both royal and colonial ties, leaving her oblivious to her Marie Antoinette-like disconnect from the common people (even commenting that she would she would clap her hands as Buddhist monks "barbecued" themselves). Raised in a Buddhist and Confucian household, her later conversion to Catholicism was embraced with a zealot's fervor--and a hurried convert's misapplication of principles (her morality laws banning contraception, polygamy, dancing, gambling, and, of course, the evils of the underwire bra quickly turned her people against her, despite her belief that she was protecting women in particular with many of these edicts).

It's no wonder that the girl who should have been a boy, the Vietnamese woman who couldn't understand the Vietnamese people, the Buddhist who became the dogmatic Catholic, the very embodiment of the collision of East and West, would become such a polarizing and often confusing historical figure.

Demery embraces these contradictions and presents Madame Nhu as a flawed woman with extraordinary potential--a woman desperate to blaze her own trail, yet restricted by her time, her gender, and her own misconceptions about the world. Demery's portrait does not shy away from the vain, arrogant, and manipulative aspects of Madame Nhu's personality. Indeed, we see Madame Nhu baiting Demery with promises that she will release her memoirs to her, as well as controlling and dictating the terms of their relationship. Demery becomes exasperated with Madame Nhu's machinations, but holds out in the hope that their continued exchanges will reveal something genuine about the woman history has both fairly and unfairly maligned. And she succeeds in this. While Madame Nhu is never exonerated by Demery's story, Demery does succeed in creating some sympathy for a woman who, behind closed doors, was pained by the failure of her marriage, desperate for love and approval, and denied the ability to help her husband and her brother-in-law, President Diem, sidestep some of their more foolhardy missteps.

Compelling and readable, Finding the Dragon Lady does not attempt to put Madame Nhu on a pedestal, but rather to dust away some of the misconceptions that have settled over the years on the legacy of the dragon lady.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Pyramid Built of Problems

The Age of Ra
by James Lovegrove
Published by Solaris
1 Out of 5 Stars

See that cover? That is a kick ass cover. So the next time you're in a bookstore, stop and gaze upon its beauty--then return the book to the shelf and slowly back away because that moment, the moment where you gaze upon that glorious golden image of Ra and then wonder at the contradictory image of a modern day soldier in front of a battlefield and think WTF--that's as good as it's going to get, baby.

I have put off reviewing this for days because reviewing it seems cruel, like kicking a three legged puppy for not being able to run fast enough. I knew that I was in deep suck by page 20, so it's my fault that I kept reading. And I know, I know--there will be those who say, why did you keep reading if you hated the book so much? A) I bought it, so I felt a misguided need to get my money's worth, B) this is my busy time of year, so reading a crappy book almost ensured I would more readily turn my attention to grading semester finals, and C) I can't count the number of times I have despised a book right up until the very end and something clicked, the other shoe dropped, all was revealed and, hallelujah, it's a literary miracle--the book was amazing! There were no miracles this time. I clapped my hands and really believed, but Tinkerbell never came back to life. This sucker was DOA and should have come with a DNR. Damn, I kicked the three legged dog, didn't I?

Age of Ra has an interesting premise. The gods of old are real, they go to battle for dominion over man, the Pantheon of Egypt wins by destroying all other gods. This idea isn't entirely new, but usually these types of books focus on Greek and Roman mythology. The Egyptian slant seemed promising. But this type of book has been done better by Gaiman's American Gods or even Max Gladstone's created mythology in the Craft Sequence books Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. There are several issues:

1. All nations now worship Egyptian deities, but align themselves with different gods (some Asian countries worship Anubis, England worships Osiris, South America worships Horus--you get the idea). These countries now choose their allies and their enemies based upon which gods their chosen deity considers friends and enemies. The god also blesses his or her people with his divine power, or ba, as a power source to charge weapons and vehicles (but, don't worry, if your god forgets to send you some of his mojo, there's still gasoline). This sums up all the interaction the gods have with their people; much of the book consists of military battles that simply throw the gods' names around but really don't rely upon the gods at all. So all that amazing gods-among-men anticipation I had built up was a serious letdown.

2. The Egyptian gods defeated all other gods 100 years ago, yet the novel is set in what seems to be roughly the present day. Within a century and in the face of the knowledge that the gods are real, one would think the Egyptian culture and mindset would have radically changed society and redrawn the map. Nope. Apparently not. We still have Russia, Japan, China, and all the other countries and societies speaking and acting as they always have. 

3. The integration of Egyptian culture into present day is unimaginative and lazy at best. We still have the United States, but its president is now known as the Pastor President. We still have Britain, but its head of state is now His Pharaonic Majesty. We still have Mercedes Benz, but it's now known as the Mercedes Lotus. We still have tanks, but they're known as Scarabs. The world-building is weak.

4. It's also laughable that, in a world that still has high tech weaponry and alternate fuel sources, our hero enters combat with a crook and flail. Or that mummies so clueless they make zombies look like the life of the party are sent into battle against tanks and artillery. Or that high priests use wooden birds to carry their consciousness for reconnaissance missions, but, if that fails, they send out the planes we would normally use for reconnaissance. Because a high priest in a trance forever is always preferable to the intel a plane could send back in a fraction of the time. The inclusion of modern technology in the book renders the Ancient Egyptian inspired tech moot and useless by comparison.

5. Cardboard, stereotyped characters so one-dimensional that they make the Kardashians seem human; an obligatory will-they-won't-they romance with less passion than a Liza Minnelli marriage; plot twists so obvious they practically nudge you ("You'll be so surprised! You'll never guess what's going to happen! Here it comes, here it comes! Did it get ya?").

6. The best part of the book? The gods. One can tell that Lovegrove really did his research here and he's smart enough to realize that the gods have to adapt and change somewhat to move the plot forward. Holding them to their archetypal roles would have added little interest whatsoever. As Ra begins to develop a consciousness outside of his divine role and manipulate the Pantheon to avert disaster, it's easy to think something might be salvaged. However, the god chapters are too few and far between (and ultimately anticlimactic) to add much to the narrative. 

There was an idea here, somewhere beneath all the problems, but it never delivers on the promise presented by that beautiful cover.

Check, Please!

Waiter Rant:  Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter
by The Waiter (Steve Dublanica)
Published by Ecco
2 Out of 5 Stars

How did I come to possess this book? Well, the combination of a Books-A-Million going out of business sale, my mistaken assumption that it would be a collection of essays written by various people who had once waited tables, and a cover blurb from Anthony Bourdain calling it "painfully funny" was apparently a heady combination that led to this bit of buyer's remorse. 

To be fair, this is not a bad book, nor is it a terribly interesting one. Alas, Waiter Rant is by one waiter who depends upon his anonymity as he blogs about his job while still in the trenches (he has since been revealed to be Steve Dublanica). Dublanica finds himself middle-aged and without steady employment, so takes a wait job as a stopgap between careers--and then never really leaves. The rest of the book follows his adventures and misadventures with the surly kitchen staff, incompetent wait staff, and the snooty, entitled patrons who can make a waiter's life a living hell. 

I assumed (based on the description and various blurbs) that all of this would be funny. Except it's not. By one-third of the way through, it failed to elicit a chuckle, a twitter, a smirk, or even one of those weird laughs that consist of basically blowing air out of your nose really hard when something catches you kind of off-guard and you're not sure if it's appropriate to laugh. And I like to think that I'm not humor impaired. I laugh and laugh often. The problem here is that being cynical is not the same as being funny. Now when funny and cynical come together with a dash of acerbic wit, it can be a beautiful and miraculous thing (I'm looking at you, Anthony Bourdain), but there's no magic here and I'm reading it because--once again, I'm looking at you Anthony Bourdain. 

The other reason it failed to entertain me is because its main message seems to be that people suck. And they do, I'll not argue against that. But waiters don't have the market cornered on I-don't-get-paid-enough-to-put-up-with-ungrateful-and-crazy-all-day-long. Anyone who has any job that requires contact with the public knows this spiel. I've been a waiter, a cashier, a secretary, a teacher and the dynamic is always the same--as long as there's a customer, someone's going to be an asshole because you're there to serve them and, by God, that means doing precisely what they want when they want it and if not then they will be talking to your supervisor. Having lived this, reading about it is not how I want to spend my hours away from work.

Throughout, Dublanica comes across as some kind of super-waiter and, while I have no reason to doubt that he was good at his job and took it seriously, his stories fail to come to life as he seems incapable of portraying himself as flawed. He always seems to have the upper-hand and becomes the sage keeper of knowledge for the younger employees. It also makes the dining experience seem all about the waiter: what's best for the waiter, how to keep your waiter happy, tips that help make the waiter's job easier, etc. as though it's the customer's job to cater to the waiter. Now, as previously mentioned, I've been a waitress (briefly; as part of my training, I was seriously told to "kiss the babies and flirt with the old men"--homey don't play that game so apparently my "perkitude" wasn't up to their standards and I was unceremoniously fired). And, yes, people can treat waiters terribly and there are things one can and should do to make a dining experience pleasant for all involved. Most of those things involve simple human decency. But Dublanica makes it sound like such a one-sided affair that waiters should be leaving tips to customers who jump through all the hoops outlined in the book to make it a pleasure to serve them.

While some of the information about the dynamic that exists among the employees in a restaurant is mildly interesting, there's nothing really surprising here. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Dark World for the Outcast

The Cove
by Ron Rash
Published by Ecco
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

The small, isolated community of Mars Hill, North Carolina, continues to cling to the prejudices and Appalachian superstitions of another century in the wake of World War I. Its men have been to fight in foreign lands, encountered the awesome terror of modernized warfare, and yet still harbor a profound fear of a young woman who lives sadly and quietly in a place simply known as "The Cove." Laurel Shelton's life, thanks to the people of Mars Hill, has not been an easy one. Marked by the port-wine stain on her shoulder and by the misfortune of living on land that is believed to be the home of some nebulous evil, Laurel is labeled a witch and ostracized from the community--banned from the school, humiliated by the young men, and shunned by the proprietors of local businesses. It doesn't help that The Cove seems to consume everything with which it comes into contact; Laurel's parents both die under unfortunate and unexpected circumstances, the blighted chestnut trees wither and stop producing, and there are fewer Carolina parakeets with every passing year. 

When her brother and protector, Hank, leaves for war, Laurel is left alone to fend for herself on the farm and it seems as though happiness will forever remain out of her reach. But Hank returns, having lost a hand to the war, and it seems as though things might finally get better. Hank is getting married, the farm responds to his hard work, and a stranger in the woods may offer Laurel an escape from The Cove's clutches.

Ultimately, The Cove is about the danger of instinctively hating that which we don't understand. Ignorance and intolerance make Laurel an outcast and The Cove itself becomes the physical manifestation of the community's rejection of her for the crime of being "different." Just as the darkness of The Cove absorbs and destroys the beauty of its inhabitants, the human capacity for hatred destroys the most fragile and beautiful among us. To watch as Laurel slowly becomes hopeful that life will hold something better than she's been allowed to expect--to come to believe that she deserves to be allowed this hope--is painfully heart-wrenching. However, there are no happily ever afters here. Just as the cliff looms ominously over The Cove, the foreboding that something will crush this nascent hope pervades the narrative. 

Rash's writing is lyrical and simple in the best possible sense; there's no poetic posturing or pretentiousness. To capture such bruised lives in straightforward, lovely language imbues his characters with a genuine and honest dignity. 

Two factors prevented me from giving it a 4 star. The first is that I kept measuring this book against Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. While Rash does a fine job of capturing the atmosphere of the place, he lacks the lush detail of Frazier's work that truly brought the land alive for me as a reader. Frazier's portrayal of two damaged characters, Ada and Inman, is also more nuanced and three dimensional. While Rash's portrayal of Laurel and Chauncey Feith (the villain of the tale, which is made clear from the introduction of this selfish, pompous bastard) is inspired, many of his other characters are little more than well-written stereotypes. The second is that the denouement seems too abrupt in its execution and, while brutal and violent, the emotional punch is lessened by how swiftly events are brought to a close.

Despite these factors, The Cove is a much finer piece of writing than much of what is out there and I look forward to reading Rash's Serena.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cheap Trick

Now You See Him
by Eli Gottlieb
Published by Harper Perennial
2 Out of 5 Stars

Nick Framingham is coping, albeit poorly, with the loss of his best friend, Rob Castor, a writer of some repute whose devil-may-care attitude the more introverted Nick envied throughout their childhood. We know from the beginning that Rob killed his girlfriend and then himself, leading to a media firestorm that elevates his fame following his final hours and makes his small hometown the center of national attention. What we don't know is why Nick, months later, is refusing to move on and instead is willingly swallowed by the black hole of grief. And we're not the only ones: his wife doesn't understand, his colleagues don't understand, his friends don't understand. But Nick is at risk of losing much more, including his career, his wife, and his children if he doesn't make peace with the past and a friend who seemed self-centered and charmless at his best. 


Now You See Him is not what I expected. I thought I was getting a taut literary thriller full of suspense (because that's what the blurb blatantly led me to believe) and instead I got a species of character I find increasingly frustrating and tedious: the navel gazing middle-aged male whining his way through a midlife crisis. Do I empathize with Nick's grief? Sure, but he doesn't make it easy for me to do so. He's not a likable guy (no one in this novel is likable) and seems intent on his own self-destruction. His obsession with Rob's death seems creepy to the nth power and the reader is constantly aware of the fact that Nick is withholding something, but hoards the truth with a Gollum-like "my precious" tenacity. When we are finally given explanation for why his friend's death continues to reverberate throughout his own existence, it's too little much too late and has all the subtlety of a Greek tragedy. It provides perspective, but by that point my disgust with Nick had reached such monumental proportions that I simply couldn't forgive much of what he had already done.

So why a 2 star? Gottlieb can write beautifully and offers some profound and genuine moments that capture the contemplation of grief, but there's also cringe-worthy, soap opera dialogue and the final reveal is a bit of "ta-da!" literary trickery that, provided up front, could have redeemed Nick in the reader's eyes.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Family Ties That Bind

by Jean Racine
Published by Penguin Classics
4 Out of 5 Stars

Let's see: thwarted love, betrayal, implied incest, heinous lies, father-son love triangle with wife/stepmother, and a whole lot of death at the end. Um, yeah, that's the recipe for a pretty awesome story. Phedre, married to Theseus, has always nurtured a secret love for his son, Hippolytus. When she receives news that Theseus is dead, she finally confesses her love to Hippolytus, who is in love with Aricia and is disgusted by his step-mother's advances. But, hey, guess what? Theseus isn't dead and returns just in time for all Hades to break loose . . .

Soap operas have nothing on ancient Greek drama. Plus, on All My Children, you never get a half bull/half dragon sea beastie sent by Neptune to torch our hero into a crispy critter before his horses go mad, crash the chariot, and then drag him to death. And I have to believe that's worth something.

Caught in the Middle

Between, Georgia
by Joshilyn Jackson
Published by Warner Books
3 Out of 5 Stars

An enjoyable, but overall predictable, quick read. I always enjoy Joshilyn Jackson's books, especially this one's take on the rivalries that crop up between Southern families that are only exacerbated by life in a small town. There are some humorous moments, a few twists, and likable characters. Particularly inventive is Jackson's use of a main character, Nonny, who literally finds herself "between" the Fretts and the Crabtrees (the ersatz Hatfields and McCoys of the story), as well as the character of Stacia, who raises Nonny as her own. Stacia, who suffers from Usher's Syndrome, was born deaf and progressively loses her eyesight, but that doesn't stop her from being outspoken and independent, as well as an artist and a caring mother. Liked it, but did not love it.

Maybe . . . But the Book Doesn't

You Suck:  A Love Story
by Christopher Moore
Published by William Morrow
3 Out of 5 Stars

Funny, with some definitely quotable moments.  However, for me, Moore's vampire series is the weakest of his work.  That's not an insult--I still enjoy them and definitely snicker out loud in ways that make those around me pick up their things and stealthily move away from the crazy person, but they're a little too "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" sometimes in their humor.  What impresses me with Moore is that, often among all of the wacky chaos, he can sneak up on you with a beautiful turn of phrase or moment that catches you off-guard.  The scene where Jody feeds off of a man with terminal cancer is beautiful and touching without being maudlin.  Don't worry that there are too many moments like this, though, as there's plenty of Moore's trademark "heinous fuckery most foul."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Growing Up is Hard to Do

Looking for Alaska
by John Green
Published by Speak
3 Out of 5 Stars

Divided into two parts (before and after), I was all set to give this book a 4 until the last half of the book. The book is structured around a tragic event that changes the lives of a close knit group of friends. 

The first half of the book focuses on the main character, Pudge, a high school nobody with a penchant for collecting the last words of the dead and famous. Pudge, seeking a "Great Perhaps" that will change his life and provide him with direction, opts to attend Culver Creek, a private boarding school in Alabama. There he meets the Alaska of the book, a mercurial and mysterious girl with whom he falls in love. In addition, he becomes part of a motley group of misfits and finally feels as though he belongs. The novel's strength comes from this part of the book. There are those who will criticize these teens as being too jaded and world weary, but that's really the point. These are essentially good kids with keen intellects that have developed much sooner than their emotional maturity; they still see themselves as invincible. They smoke, they cuss, they drink, they experiment with sex. What they're really doing is trying to create an individualistic identity by trying on adult habits and modes of behavior, not realizing that their rebellious behavior has made them into stereotypes. Despite their flaws, they're likable--funny, sharp witted, and loyal to one another. 

My problem with the book is the second half, and I won't give away any spoilers. However, I was disappointed with the Scooby Doo ease with which the answer to the final mystery fell into place (my inner voice was groaning, "Rut ro, Raggy," as I realized how dissatisfying the ending was going to be). Also, adults just become complete idiots by the end of the book, shaking their heads with "You crazy kids"-like admiration at some of their more ridiculous exploits. However, it's a worthwhile read that is smartly written and would probably appeal more to teenagers. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Snake Charmer

Two Serpents Rise
by Max Gladstone
Published by Tor
4 Out of 5 Stars

**This review is of an Advance Uncorrected Proof provided by Tor in exchange for an honest and fair review**

A burgeoning desert city, Dresediel Lex depends upon Craft and the power of fallen gods to quench its ever growing thirst. When demons are planted in the city's water supply, Red King Consolidated, the utility that provides water to the city, suspects religious fanatics eager for the return of the gods or good old-fashioned corporate competition. Caleb Altemoc, a risk manager for the omnipresent Red King Consolidated and son of Temoc, a wanted religious terrorist, is sent to investigate. He soon finds himself falling for a potentially dangerous woman, questioning his loyalties to his employer and to his father, and learning that the deified twin serpents of Dresediel Lex survived the God Wars and slumber as they await an eclipse that will awaken a hunger that can only be sated with blood sacrifice.

Two Serpents Rise returns us to the world--if not the characters and city of Alt Coulumb--presented in Three Parts Dead, and this is a brilliant move on the part of author Max Gladstone. Neatly side-stepping the tendency of many authors to get locked into one character and a formulaic plot structure for a never-ending series, Gladstone continues to create this unnamed world of magic and technology that is at once primitive and futuristic, where humans and gods coexist. This world provides Gladstone with a broad canvas for his impressive, imaginative world-building, and he is at his best when writing of the terrible majesty of the gods, as fantastically varied as the cultures that spawn them. However, these gods, brought into existence by man's faith, have been destroyed or harnessed after the God Wars, when mankind realized they could kill what they had created or restructure the power of the gods to serve the needs of modern man. 

The mythologies created by Gladstone capture the primal need for the divine and the rational, "civilized" mind's rejection of religious fanaticism--a dichotomy represented in the character of Caleb. The son of a once powerful Eagle Knight priest desperate to cling to the old ways of blood sacrifice, Caleb rejects the brutal and barbaric religion of his father, but is uncomfortable with the manner in which defeated gods have been utilized by concerns like Red King Consolidated to meet the needs of the people. As Caleb seeks the source of the water contamination, he must come to moral terms with Dresediel Lex's problematic history and the cultural divide created in the wake of the God Wars. Caleb's contentious relationship with his father provides the novel with more depth than one might expect of a standard fantasy novel, and I found myself wishing that Gladstone had jettisoned Caleb's strained, awkward, and perplexing romantic relationship with Mal in favor of more interaction between father and son. 

The mystery at the core of Two Serpents Rise, when stripped of its magical accouterments, is fairly standard, but serviceable to moving the plot forward. There are few surprises and maybe a few too many red herrings and segues into nonessential plot elements, but these quibbles are fairly minor when stacked against the entertainment to be found in exploring Gladstone's complex, layered world. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

History That Doesn't Come to Life

The Devil in the White City:  Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
by Erik Larson
Published by Crown
3 Out of 5 Stars

A brief list of things that generally don't strike my fancy: architecture, the Gilded Age, landscape design, metropolitan cities, politics (of the historical kind), and serial killers. So, for a novel that exclusively focuses on all of these things, the very fact that I made it through and maintained mild interest is quite extraordinary. However, my interest never really piqued above "mild" and, hence, the three star rating.

The Devil in the White City is really two stories: the planning and building of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the simultaneous planning and building of a serial killer's lair. Larson uses the convergence of these two storylines to juxtapose man's capacity for the divine against an equal capacity for evil. Two men become the embodiment of this dichotomy: Daniel Burnham, chief architect of the Exposition, who brought the dream of the "White City" to life, and H. H. Holmes, the psychopath who used the bustle of the World's Fair to lure victims to his real-life house of horrors. This intention seems to be summed up in a quote from the physician John L. Capen, who, reflecting upon Holmes's appearance, says of his eyes, "They are blue. Great murderers, like great men in other walks of activity, have blue eyes." Attention is drawn time and again to the startling blue eyes of both Burnham and Holmes, illustrating that each man would become "great" in his way.

However, Larson thankfully doesn't browbeat his reader with lengthy explorations of the nature of good and evil. Instead, he presents the extraordinary lives of each man during that fateful time and allows the reader to draw these comparisons. As the White City is built, America is presented with the dream of what it could be. A civilized country could emerge from the twilight of the frontier and our pioneer spirit could live on in a future where men like Tesla, Edison, and Ferris looked toward building the impossible. 

Despite the hopes and possibilities represented by the Columbian Exposition, there is also an undercurrent of darkness in the form of union strikes, economic collapses, and cities large enough to swallow ambitious men and women whole without leaving a trace--cities that serve as the perfect hunting grounds for a man like Holmes. 

These are compelling stories and, yet, they never quite came to life for me. Larson's research is obvious, but the pacing of the story is often slowed down by dry passages--especially those detailing the power struggles that occur during the planning of the Exposition. Larson is at his best while writing about Chicago itself, capturing the sights, smells, and sounds of a bustling and ambitious city eager to prove its worth as a cultural mecca to its more sophisticated counterpart, New York City. He's also adept at bringing historical characters to life (I particularly enjoyed it when Susan B. Anthony and Buffalo Bill cross paths). All in all, this is a worthwhile, if not riveting, read.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Entertaining Look at Writing

Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Wrting and Life
by Anne Lamott
Published by Anchor
4 Out of 5 Stars

A surprisingly hysterical book about writing and, as the title implies, life. The hype surrounding Lamott's book is definitely well-earned and I can't wait to read more of her work. Much of her advice on writing is practical and no-nonsense as she addresses the difficulties of writing and getting published. 

If I had one complaint it would be that I wasn't as inspired to write by the end of the book as I was to be Anne's (see? I'm already calling her by her first name as if I know her) friend. I definitely appreciated her twisted and unusual sense of humor. I often laughed out loud, not something I was expecting during chapters about libel, editing, publishing, and the other mundane parts of the writer's world. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

So Close to Perfect

American Vampire
Written by Scott Snyder
Illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque and Jordi Bernet
Published by Vertigo
3 1/2 Stars

I've been very vocal about my love for Scott Snyder and want to be clear that love remains unabated. Snyder's American Vampire series has returned vampires to their horror roots and is one of the best comics out there; Snyder's writing is smart and strictly adults only. 

In this volume, we have three distinct periods in American history and, as usual, we have three distinct American vampires. The vampires in Snyder's world are not stagnant; they continue to change and evolve, creating intriguing subspecies that have strengths and weaknesses unlike those who came before or will come after them. This certainly makes life tough on the average vampire hunter, who must memorize the various vampiric types and their particular Achilles's heel.

In the first story, we have Skinner Sweet and Jim Book as best friends and Indian fighters in 1871. We learn that Skinner and Jim grew up as brothers when Jim's family took in the impetuous, orphaned Skinner. Knowing there is nothing they can do to stem the influx of white settlers, one Indian chief, Hole in the Sky, plans to wake a powerful goddess of death, Mimiteh, in the hope that she will ally herself with the Native Americans and give them the advantage. Naturally, things do not go according to plan and we learn that Skinner was not the first American Vampire.

The second story is my favorite and is set in the 1950's. Travis Kidd is a reckless youth who seems modeled after Marlon Brando's character in The Wild One: nothing but leather jacket, attitude, and a taste for speed. Travis, however, is definitely a rebel with a cause--hunting for the vampire that killed his family (the panel showing a young Travis hiding in a cupboard during the violence is particularly heart-wrenching), he's the best self-taught vampire slayer out there. And it's not long before the Vassals of the Morning Star start trying to recruit him. 

The final story is set in 1950's Alabama and follows our first African-American vampire, Calvin Poole, into the heart of a segregated South. It turns out that racism is the least of Calvin's problems when he encounters a new breed of vampire that gives a unique twist on the intersection of werewolf and vampire mythology. Pearl and Henry from the previous volumes also make an unexpected appearance.

All of these stories are engrossing and continue the complex character building from the first two volumes. So why only 3 1/2 star? The first story, The Beast in the Cave, features art by Jordi Bernet, and his colorful, cartoonish style put me in mind of something akin to the old Li'l Abner comic strip. It's hard to take a death goddess seriously when she struts around with gravity defying T & A and nipples that look like index fingers. Bernet's art fails to set the right tone for the story. It certainly would have been better served by Albuquerque's uniquely dark, violent and often primitive style. Unfortunately, a story that should be anything but laughable comes dangerously close to being so.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Haunted by Missed Opportunities

Five Ghosts:  The Haunting of Fabian Gray, Vol. 1
Written by Frank J. Barbiere
Illustrated by Chris Mooneyham
Published by Image
2 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

2 1/2 Stars.

Part Indiana Jones, part Gambit, part James Bond and all pulp, Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray starts off as a fun throwback to the classic adventure narrative of the 30's and 40's. And then it does a cannonball into an empty pool, which is to say the creators really should have paid more attention as to where this thing was going.

Fabian Gray is a charming and handsome master thief who has spent his life acquiring some of the world's finest antiquities, with the help of his twin sister. However, when he and his sister attempt to steal The Dreamstone, things go cockeyed. Now his sister is in a coma and Fabian has five shards of The Dreamstone lodged in his chest--and within each stone is the essence of an archetypal figure: the detective, the samurai, the wizard, the archer and the vampire. Trapped within Gray's body, Gray can draw upon the powers of these "ghosts" to aid him in his newest quest--to find the artifact that will cure his sister. 

Set in the 1930's, Mooneyham evokes the look and feel of the pulp comics from that time period, adding to the overall narrative.  Things won't be easy for Fabian--supernatural forces are working against him, exotic locales need visiting, beautiful women need ravishing, and the "ghosts" are becoming increasingly unhappy over their imprisonment within Gray. And this is where the narrative lost me. Fabian must pass a test created by each of his ghosts, from which he will gain profound insight. These "tests" are anticlimactic, confusing, and miss the opportunity for some creative integration of the literary world inhabited by each of these ghosts. Each test could have been an issue in and of itself. 

While Barbiere squanders this opportunity, I'm hoping it's simply because Five Ghosts started as a limited 5 issue story arc. Since it has been granted ongoing series status, I will cautiously read the next few issues and remain optimistic that Five Ghosts will deliver on the initial promise I saw in the first two issues.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Neither Great Nor Terrible

A Great and Terrible Beauty
by Libba Bray
Published by Simon and Schuster
3 Out of 5 Stars

I swiped this out of the classroom one day because I had lunch duty and my choices were A) stare at the perpetual hacky sack game for 30 minutes or B) read something. As you can see, I didn't have much of a choice at all (it was one of those Eddie Izzard "Cake or death?" scenarios). When I began the book, I was immediately hooked--exotic locale, spirited protagonist, hint of the supernatural. However, it was a case of infatuation-at-first-sight that burned out rather quickly. After finishing the book, I was left with an overwhelming sensation of "meh."

Why did the book lose my interest so quickly? Here's a quickly compiled list of possible reasons:

A) Began in India, but then switched to an isolated boarding school for girls in Victorian England. Come on! They lost me as soon as they left an amazing setting with all kinds of possibility for a mediocre one.

B) It's a young adult book and those don't always sit well with me. I just couldn't connect to the four girls that form the clique in the book. Case in point: they begin dabbling in witchcraft and one uses her power to create the perfect Prince Charming and one uses hers to--shock!--be beautiful. Puh-leaze.

C) Speaking of the four girls, stereotypes in the extreme: the mysterious one with a dark secret; the beautiful, but tragic one; the rebellious spirit; and the plain girl who doesn't belong in this world of prestige and riches.

So why did I give it a 3? It's fairly well written, it has an interesting premise (though the execution falls flat), there are a few genuinely funny moments,and it will probably appeal to the intended audience. I may read the sequels, but it will be a bit before I muster up the interest in doing so.