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Book Review: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Keep by F. Paulu Wilson (Series, #1)Summary:
Captain Klaus Woermann isn’t a fan of the Nazis or the SS and doesn’t exactly keep this a secret.  But he’s also a hero from the First World War, so the Nazi regime deals with him by sending he and a small troop to Romania to guard a pass the Russians could possibly use.  They set up to guard the place in a building known as the keep.  It should be a quiet assignment, but when the German soldiers start being killed one a night by having their throats ripped out, the SS is sent to investigate.

SS Major Kaempffer wishes to solve this mystery as soon as possible so he may start his new promotion of running the extermination camp for Romania.  He is sure he can solve this mystery quickly.

Professor Cuza and his daughter Magda are Romanian Jews who have already been pushed out of their work in academia.  They also just so happen to be the only experts on the keep.  When the SS sends for them, they are sure it is the beginning of the end.  But what is more evil? The mysterious entity killing the Germans or the Nazis?

Review:
It’s hard not to pick up a book that basically advertises itself as a vampire killing Nazis and the only ones who can stop the vampires are a Jewish professor and his daughter.  I mean, really, what an idea!  Most of the book executes this idea with intrigue and finesse, although the end leaves a bit to be desired.

The characterization of the Germans is handled well.  They are a good mix of morally ethical people who are caught up in a regime following orders and see no way out (the army men) and evil men who enjoy inflicting pain upon others and are taking advantage of the regime to be governmentally sanctioned bullies, rapists, and murderers.  Having both present keeps the book from simply demonizing all Germans and yet recognizes the evil of Nazism and those who used it to their advantage.

Similarly, Magda and her father Professor Cuza are well-rounded.  Professor Cuza is a man of his time, using his daughter’s help academically but not giving her any credit for it.  He also is in chronic pain and acts like it, rather than acting like a saint.  Magda is torn between loyalty to her sickly father and desires to live out her own life as she so chooses.  They are people with fully developed lives prior to the rise of the Nazis, and they are presented as just people, not saints.

In contrast, the man who arrives to fight the evil entity, Glaeken, is a bit of a two-dimensional deus ex machina, although he is a sexy deus ex machina.  Very little is known of him or his motivations.  He comes across as doing what is needed for the plot in the moment rather than as a fully developed person.  The same could easily be said of the villagers who live near the keep.

The basic conflict of the plot is whether or not to side with the supernatural power that seems to be willing to work against the Nazis.  Thus, what is worse? The manmade evil of the Nazis or a supernatural evil?  Can you ever use a supernatural evil for good?  It’s an interesting conflict right up until the end where a reveal is made that makes everything about the question far too simple.  Up until that point it is quite thought-provoking, however.

The plot smoothly places all of these diverse people in the same space.  The supernatural entity is frightening, as are the Nazis.  These are all well-done.

One thing that was frustrating to me as a modern woman reader was the sheer number of times Magda is almost raped or threatened with rape, and how she only escapes from rape thanks to anything but herself.  In one instance, the Nazi simply runs out of time because the train is about to move out.  In another, she is saved by a man.  In a third, she is saved by supernatural devices.  While it is true that rape is a danger in war zones, it would be nice if this was not such a frequently used conflict/plot point for this character.  Once would have been sufficient to get the point across.  As it is, the situation starts to lose its power as a plot point.

The ending is a combination of a deus ex machina and a plot twist that is a bit unsatisfying.  There also isn’t enough resolution, and it appears that the next books in the series do not pick up again with these same characters, so it is doubtful there is more resolution down the road.  It is a disappointing ending that takes a turn that is nowhere near as powerful and interesting as the rest of the book.

Overall, this is an interesting fantastical take on a historic time period.  The ending could possibly be disappointing and not resolve enough for the reader and some readers will be frustrated with the depiction of the sole female character.  However, it is still a unique read that is recommended to historic fiction fans and WWII buffs that don’t mind having some supernatural aspects added to their history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Giveaway Winner: Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley (INTERNATIONAL)

December 13, 2014 2 comments

Close-up of an elephant's eyeThe giveaway winner of one ebook version of Bad Elephant Far Stream (review) by Samuel Hawley, courtesy of Samuel Hawley himself is……..

Comment #1 Jeane!

Jeane, I’ll be providing the email you left with your entry to the author, who will send along the ebook to you himself.

Thanks for entering!

Giveaway: Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley (INTERNATIONAL)

December 6, 2014 1 comment

Close-up of an elephant's eyeIt’s the penultimate giveaway of 2014 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  I was so happy to be able to offer so many giveaways this year! Thanks to the indie authors and indie publishing houses that made it possible.

There are TWO ebook versions of Bad Elephant Far Stream (review) available courtesy of the author, Samuel Hawley!

What You’ll Win:  One ebook copy of Bad Elephant Far Stream (review) by Samuel Hawley.

How to Enter:  Leave a comment on this post stating the coolest fact you know about elephants.

Who Can Enter: INTERNATIONAL

Contest Ends: December 13th.  One week from today!

Disclaimer: The winners will have their ebook sent to them by the author.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.  Void where prohibited by law.

Book Review: Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley

December 6, 2014 2 comments

Close-up of an elephant's eyeSummary:
When Far Stream is still a young elephant in the late 1800s, not yet full grown and learning from her mother, aunties, and grandmother, humans trap and capture her and other members of her herd.  She is shipped to America and sold to a traveling circus.  Over the years, she slowly comes to be known as a bad elephant who must be put down.  But is she really bad?

Review:
I was quite excited when this book was submitted to me for review.  A piece of historic fiction from the perspective of an animal, focusing on animal rights problems in the circus? Such a perfect fit!  This is a well-researched and written piece of historic fiction that eloquently depicts the minds of elephants as similar to and yet different from those of humans.

The book opens with a scene of a so-called bad elephant about to be executed.  The humans state they are doing so humanely and nothing can be done because the elephant has gone rogue and killed too many  humans.  The book then flashes back to see the elephant’s life from the elephant’s perspective, leaving it up to the reader to determine if the elephant is actually bad.  The humans calls her Topsy, but her elephant name is actually Far Stream.  What follows in the flashback is a delicately handled and clearly exquisitely researched tale of the life of a circus elephant in the late 1800s in the US.

From the beginning, the author makes it clear that elephants are intelligent, with lives, families, and emotions of their own.  Quite a bit of this is backed up by science, such as elephants crying and also mourning dead members of the herd.  There are also those who think that elephants might communicate via sign language and/or telepathically, and the book fully embraces both ideas.  What results in telling this tale from the elephant’s perspective is a scene of one intelligent species enslaved by another that is heartbreaking to read.  What really makes the story work, though, is that the author strikes the perfect balance between showing the horror of being a circus elephant and also not fully demonizing humans.  There are good humans (trainers and non-trainers) who love the elephants and treat them well but simply do not understand that elephants are more intelligent and have a richer emotional life than they give them credit for and by simply keeping them away from the roaming herd life they were made for they are hurting them.

Everything about the circus in the late 1800s in the US was clearly thoroughly researched by the author.  The historic setting and ways of life flow smoothly and fit perfectly within the plot.  They are presented simply as reality without any unfortunate modern commentary or forcing of unnaturally modern ideas into the plot.  Reading this book truly transported me back in time, and it was fascinating and enjoyable, as well as heartbreaking.

Although the reader knows from the beginning that Far Stream will be executed, how she gets there is still a mystery and is handled delicately enough that the plot has momentum.

The one bit that didn’t really work for me is how the book presents what appears to be elephant spirituality.  There is one scene where Far Stream and another elephant appear to hallucinate, and it is never entirely clear what actually happened.  Similarly the ending goes to an odd spiritual place that just left me confused, rather than in the strong emotional state I was in the moments immediately prior to this.  I found the elephant spirituality bits to be a touch confusing that lessened the emotional strength of the rest of the book, which came across much more matter-of-fact.  Some readers may enjoy and relate to the spiritual aspect more than I did, however.

Overall, this is a piece of thoroughly researched historic fiction with a smooth moving plot and an empathetic, well-rounded main character.  It clearly demonstrates how animals humans once thought were less intelligent and less emotional than we now know them to be came to be mistreated, setting up a precedent for that mistreatment that to some extent continues to this day.  Highly recommended to readers who enjoy historic fiction and animal main characters.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Fudoki by Kij Johnson (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 10, 2014 5 comments

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture. Summary:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.

Review:
I’m not usually big into fantasy, particularly not ones involving court life, but I am a real sucker for any story involving cats, especially if that cat is a tortoiseshell, since I’m the proud kitty mommy of a talkative tortie.  This book didn’t just not disappoint me, it blew me away with two side-by-side, related by different, thoughtful tales.

I had no idea when I picked up the book that the empress would figure into the story quite so much.  At first I was a bit irritated that she was a) getting 40% to 50% of the storytime and b) rambling off from one thought to another like elderly people tend to do.  But I stayed patient, and I learned that there was more to the empress than met the eye and also that the two stories were actually informing each other.  Kagaya-hime’s story shows everything the empress had secretly wished for her whole life, and the empress’s life translated into how Kagaya-hime felt trapped in her human body.  It’s artfully done in a subtle way, which is part of what makes it so beautiful.

Kagaya-hime goes from a sad lost kitty with burned paws to a warrior woman, allowed along on a quest for revenge by a moderately elite rural family.  She is able to earn respect from the men as a warrior because as a cat she sees no reason not to hunt or defend herself.  She is a woman but no one ever took her claws away (though they may be arrows and knives now, instead of claws).  Thinking of her is empowering to the empress, who always had an interest in war and politics but was forced to remain literally behind screens in gorgeous gowns that are hard to move in.  It’s interesting to note that while the empress may be jealous of Kagaya-hime’s ability to do what she wants and defend herself, Kagaya-hime herself is unhappy because she simply wishes to be a cat again.  It is the conclusion to Kagaya-hime’s story that allows the empress to see a conclusion to her own story (her life) that will ultimately make her feel fulfilled.

The details of ancient Japan were clearly meticulously researched.  Johnson smoothly writes about the outfits, land, and battles as if she was there for them herself.  The information never comes through as an info dump but instead is something that simply is, that the reader learns about naturally just by venturing into Kagaya-hime and the empress’ world.  This is what knowing your history inside and out before starting writing does for historic fiction.  It makes history come to life.

Overall, this is a stunning piece of historic fiction the reading of which feels like slowly sipping a well-made matcha latte.  Fans of historic fiction of all sorts will be engaged, those that love cats will be enthralled, and those with an interest in women’s history will be enamored and touched by how much things change and yet still stay the same for women.  Recommended to all who think they might even possibly be interested in a piece of historic fiction set in Japan featuring an aging empress and a shape-changing cat.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Book Review: Raptor Red by Robert T. Bakker

August 28, 2014 2 comments

Silhouette of two dinosaurs against a sunset. The book's title "Raptor Red" is in gold letters.Summary:
Raptor Red is one of the utahraptors who’ve newly arrived in what will one day be the western United States.  Follow a year of her life as faces being both a predator and, as one of the smaller predator dinosaurs, prey.

Review:
I love dinosaurs. Who doesn’t?  When I saw that this book was written by a paleontologist, I immediately was intrigued.  Who better to tell a story about dinosaurs than someone who studies them extensively?  The book certainly presents a realistic view of dinosaurs based on science, but sometimes the story suffers as a result of the intense attention paid to science.

First I just want to say my absolute favorite part of the book is the beginning of each chapter.  Each chapter beginning has a small note in the corner about what month it is, but more importantly, it has a hilarious drawing of a dinosaur (or a few) along with a tongue-in-cheek chapter title.

A dinosaur who looks like he's dancing is above the words "raptor family values"

Look at that adorable dinosaur! Just look at him!

I wish that this ability to both present scientifically realistic dinosaurs and be humorous/cartoonish about them simultaneously had carried through to the writing.  The overarching story that the book tells is sound.  Raptor Red’s mate dies, and she reunites with her similarly widowed sister while simultaneously looking for a new mate.  (This is not a spoiler, it is well-established in the first chapter).  But the story on the sentence level is belabored by the author’s apparent need to couch everything in speculations.  For instance, instead of just saying Raptor Red stamped her foot angrily, he’ll say something like Raptor Red was probably angry because she stamped her foot, and we know that dinosaurs stamping their foot indicated impatience, and if we believe that higher-thinking animals can feel emotions, then it was probably anger she was feeling.  Passages like that really gum up the storytelling.  The story would have worked better if he had some disclaimer at the beginning regarding emotions in animals, literary license, etc…, and then just ran with putting emotions on the extremely well-researched animal behavior.

The book teaches the reader a lot about dinosaurs in the context of the story, but the storytelling manner makes the reader get bogged down and realize they’re learning, instead of enjoying a story and happening to get some knowledge about dinosaurs in the process.  The former makes for a tough read, in spite of enjoyable illustrations.

Overall, dinosaur enthusiasts will enjoy both the illustrations and the high level of science present in the story.  Some may be frustrated by the author’s insistence on not personifying the dinosaurs, in spite of telling a very emotional story of being widowed and finding a new mate.  Recommended primarily to those with a vested interest in reading everything dinosaur who won’t mind that the story sometimes suffers at the hands of science.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Series Review: The Georgina Kincaid Series by Richelle Mead

January 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Red-headed woman in front of Seattle skylineSummary:
Georgina Kincaid loves her job managing a bookstore in Seattle.  She’s not so sure about her job as Seattle’s only succubus, but she doesn’t have much choice about that one since she sold her soul to Hell back when she was mortal in ancient Greece.  After hundreds of years of being a succubus, Georgina has started to feel guilty about stealing the life energy of good-souled men.  So she’s switched to stealing the less high-quality life energy of bad-souled men.  Her demon boss, Jerome, is none too happy about this.  Things take an even more interesting turn when famous author, Seth Mortensen, moves to Seattle and chooses Georgina’s bookstore as his base of operations.  Georgina quickly finds herself falling for him.  Her first time falling for a man since WWII.  Nobody seems to like the idea of Georgina dating Seth, except for Seth, but Georgina doesn’t have much time to wonder why as supernatural life carries on.  Everything from an incubus plot to attempts at overthrowing her demonic boss (by another demon of course) to an escaped ancient supernatural power who feeds on dreams come Georgina’s way.  Georgina starts to notice that Seattle seems to be facing more than the normal level of supernatural upheaval, and she starts to wonder why.

Woman in push-up vest against red background.Review:
A tightly told, sexy, humorous series featuring an overarching plot that ties into all of the smaller plots and lends the series as a whole a greater meaning makes this urban fantasy stand out above the rest.

The series ostensibly focuses on the bad guys of the supernatural world, not something that is seen very often in urban fantasy.  Yes, Georgina is a succubus with a guilt complex, but she is still a succubus, and she still goes out and does her succubus thing.  She is not out trying to save the world.  She’s just trying to get by day by day in the role she has chosen for herself–fighting on the bad guy side of the battle.  But Mead does not let the series fall easily into clear good versus evil.  It soon becomes evident that good guys can be on the bad guy side and bad guys on the good guy side.  In most cases, one decision or the fault of birth decides where they land.  Just because someone is a vampire doesn’t mean he can’t desire to help out his friends.  Just because someone is an angel doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes.  And the rules aren’t always fair and sometimes incomprehensible.  This gray complexity lends a lot of interesting notes to the series that otherwise wouldn’t be there, not least of Woman standing in front of electrical storm.which is the fact that the characters are able to be three-dimensional in this world Mead has created.

The characters, even the minor ones, are indeed three-dimensional.  They sometimes make stupid choices, big mistakes, and are annoying.  But they also make tough good choices, ones that aren’t easy but still happen.  They fall in genuine love.  They accidentally hurt each other but also sacrifice themselves for each other.  They worry about having a bad hair day.  They cry.  They have great sex and bad sex.  And they come to life in the reader’s mind.

The sex scenes, a key element of an urban fantasy series about a succubus, are never repetitive.  They are tantalizing and sexy, except for a few which are aiming to show that sex can be bad.  They range from the intense love making of a couple madly in love to a fun night out having sex in public at a public sex bar.  And many positions and types of sex are covered as well.  The sex scenes walk the line between barely mentioned and extremely explicit quite well.  They are fully fleshed-out sex scenes without being extremely explicit.

Read-headed pale woman standing seductively against a purplish-red backdrop. The book title and author name are over her.The overarching plot, though, is what really made me fall in love with the series.  Georgina became a succubus in exchange for her husband and all those who knew her forgetting all about her.  She cheated on her husband, and she felt so much guilt at both the act and the pain it caused that she felt this was the best solution.  At first, she goes into being a succubus with enthusiasm but over time her feelings change.  Her hurt starts to heal, and she begins to see the good side of both humanity and life.  She is in the throes of this complex situation of wanting to be good but having already signed a contract for the bad side of the fight when Seth shows up and everything starts going haywire in the supernatural world in Seattle.  Eventually, she finds out that Seth is the reincarnation of her original husband, Kiriakos.  He lived his life thinking he must have a soul mate but never meeting her, so when he died he struck a bargain to get more chances at meeting her.  He has a limited number of reincarnations (10, I believe), that will occur in the same vicinity as his soul mate.  His soul mate is Georgina, and she has met him multiple times throughout her life as as a succubus.  This reincarnation as Seth is his last chance.  From here, the story takes a hard look at what makes people soul mates, that being soul mates doesn’t mean no mistakes will be made, that love Redheaded woman in a sexy leather top standing in front of fog.and a relationship aren’t an easy cakewalk and sacrifices and compromises must be made.  It delves into the idea of redemption, and that being a good person and having a good life aren’t just something innate in you.  It’s a beautiful love story, spanning many centuries, that takes a hard look at what makes relationships work.  It also ties in nicely with the questions established earlier about good versus evil and if being good or evil is a one-time choice or something that happens over time.  I never would have guessed that I could end up feeling so positively about a love story that begins with betrayal but that’s where Mead uses the supernatural with great skill.  The story works because the betrayal is treated so seriously.  Georgina’s betrayal of her husband (and soul mate) leads them both to centuries of pain.  It is not something that can be just brushed off.  It’s a mistake she made, yes, but just because it was a mistake doesn’t mean she can just say sorry and make it all right.  On that note, Kiriakos/Seth also made mistakes when they were first together that he also has to work through.  They both learn through time that you can’t just sit back and let the marriage happen.  You have to pay attention, invest, and work at growing together.

Woman in white and wearing a cross standing in front of a foggy sky.The fun setting, tantalizing sex scenes, three-dimensional characters, and unexpected yet beautiful overarching plot about the nature of good and evil and love and redemption makes this series a stunner in urban fantasy.  Highly recommended to urban fantasy and romance fans alike, although those who are irritated at the concept of soul mates might not enjoy it as much.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap, library, gift, Audible

Books in Series:
Succubus Blues, review, 4 stars
Succubus On Top, review, 4 stars
Succubus Dreams, review, 5 stars
Succubus Heat, review, 4 stars
Succubus Shadows, review, 5 stars
Succubus Revealed, review, 5 stars

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