Archive for October, 2010

Out of the Dark – An Interesting Novel by David Weber

Aliens have invaded and destroyed most of Earth. The mightiest of nations, from the United States to China, have fallen under the barrage of the vastly superior alien weaponry. Across the world, guerilla warfare against the technologically superior aliens has begun. Humanity’s only hope lies in the form of its ultimate predator…

David Weber‘s Out of the Dark is an electric thriller set in the near future, when an alien race known as the Shongair suddenly and without any warning obliterates almost all of human society. Other aliens, sickened by the “repulsiveness” of human warfare, ordered the extermination of the humans as a species. The only problem is that the battle the aliens watched was the Battle of Agincourt and Henry V slaughtering the French (most people will agree, that was a good thing), and humanity has come a long way since that fateful day. Unprepared for the advancement of human society (we went from horses to super computers in less the 120 years, that’s freaky even by our standards), the alien Shongair stick their snouts into the hornet’s nest and discover that humans are far better at warfare than any other species anyone has ever encountered.

Unfortunately for humanity, the aliens control the skies, so whenever any attack on the Shongair occurs, inevitably the aliens drop kinetic weapons on the area and everything around it just to make certain the attackers didn’t escape. Call it… retribution, I suppose. An ineffective yet thorough way of taking out the guerillas, since the aliens have to take massive casualties in order for the response to happen. However, the aliens can’t take the losses of their equipment (they’re way out of their range from everybody else in the Hegemony, the alien “community”, and have absolutely no time to set up an industrial complex) and keep fighting the humans, so they begin to devise a terrifying option for dealing with humanity once and for all.

This, however, pisses off the apex predator from human history. Straight out of the darkness comes the most frightening creatures known to man to save the day: vampires. Led by the most ancient vampire of all (I’ll give you a hint… his name is not Edward. Sorry ladies…), the vampires join the fight for human independence. That threw me for a second but, eh, the story moves fast enough so I figured I’d just sit back and enjoy the ride.

This book is… different, to say the least. I mean, really, vampires and aliens? That’s like saying “Ohio State Wolverines” or something. But this is David Weber, and since he doesn’t hit you with fifteen pages of technological wizardry (yay!!!) this book really moves. It’s easy to forget that Weber is a terrific writer when you’re thumbing through the pages of a Honor Harrington novel trying to get past the technobabble. But in Out of the Dark Weber goes back to his action-packed narrative and a decent story, if not an original premise. Nothing against technobabble, it’s just that after five pages of explaining how the drives of an engine works (and doing it in every freakin’ novel in the series, btw) you start to yearn for the days of Star Trek, when it was just “Keep the containment field up, Cap’n” and everything goes smoothly.

Ah, I’m dithering again. Sorry.

The pacing, if you may not have figured out already, is excellent and the aliens fully believable. The effects on humanity are not really explored, though that doesn’t hinder this novel so much. The story that Weber delivers onto your lap lets you forget that there isn’t much to celebrate as more than 3 billion people are wiped out of existence, so embroiled with the current “now” of the character he happens to be focused on. The point of view is shifty, but nothing so bad as to throw you out of the book. But the kicker which might throw you is when the “creatures of the night” appear.

I absolutely loved this book, but that’s subjective due to the fact that I haven’t read a good vampire novel (at least one where the vampire isn’t banging every mortal chick while being a lonely emo whiny b****, or something like that). It does, in a way, remind me of the Anthony Ruggiero’s Immortal Servitude, but not entirely. The danger to humanity in this book is not from the vampires. The action is solid, and the story is there. Any fan of science fiction or urban fantasy should enjoy this novel.

I would get it from the library, all the same. It’s not a straight SF story, nor an urban fantasy one. If you read it expecting a classic alien vs humanity story, you will be disappointed. Me, I enjoyed it a lot. But not everyone will…

-Reviewed by Jason

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Do Unto Others… because we have a nuke.

There’s nothing like a little nuclear weapon to brighten an explosive ordnance officer’s day… especially when the EOD specialist is a hot Russian woman named Elke who really wants to blow something up!

Following up the exciting Better To Beg Forgiveness, Do Unto Others is a fast paced and explosive (no pun intended… wait, who are we kidding?) novel set in the early years of Michael Z. Williamson‘s “Freehold” universe. Following the team from Ripple Creek Security (think of the best hired security in existence… yeah, those guys) as they are tasked to protect the daughter of the wealthiest man in the universe, Do Unto Others starts off with a slow buildup of some back story and history.

It is not too long after the events of Better To Beg Forgiveness and Alex Marlowe, team leader, is meeting with the principal (person they are assigned to protect) for the first time. His team (same people from BTBF) are nervous about the assignment; an unknown threat is pressuring the Prescott family and, for all Marlowe and the rest of the Ripple Creek team know, danger is surrounding them.

Small incidences build up the drama quite nicely though the novel, and the tension between the principal and the rest of Marlowe’s team make for a nice initial conflict. Eventually, though, you really want to smack the principal (richest guy in the universe’s daughter, remember?) because even after she is abducted she is still a royal pain. The author does a great job showing a young girl who is annoyed at the protection and her subtle and non-subtle ways of trying to get rid of them. He also does a tremendous job showing just how seriously security teams take guarding their principal as her boyfriend is “energetically” frisked by the team.

More events within the book (including a poisoning and an attempted car bomb) drives the Prescott family to their industrial mine off-world, where Marlowe and Co survive an assassination attack on their team. A massive bomb disrupts the protective dome over the mines, killing the principal’s father and (presumably) the principal herself, leaving the uncle in charge of things. Naturally, the heiress to the Prescott fortune, having survived, is not too thrilled about this.

There are a few plot twists in the book that I didn’t enjoy, and I was able to figure out who the antagonist was within 60 pages, but all in all Do Unto Others is a fun romp in the woods. The characters are mostly enjoyable, and the story moves along at a decent clip. Some points drag, but thankfully these are few and far between. The ending is highly climactic and the justice served is cold and real, something we all dream about when someone wrongs us.

A great novel, and I for one am glad to see that another book in the Ripple Creek saga is being penned.

-Reviewed by Jason

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“The Crucible of Empire” Passes Rigid Test; Another Outstanding Novel from Flint and Wentworth.

Eric Flint and K.D. Wentworth’s The Crucible of Empire is yet another fantastic novel, following up their rousing success in The Course of Empire with — what else? — more action, suspense, and drama, not to mention a new species in the Lleix, and more information about Jao politics coming from, of all places, an impoverished kochan named the Krant.

The Crucible of Empire takes place two years after the previous novel, The Course of Empire (reviewed here), left off.  Aille krinnu ava Terra (formerly Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak) is now firmly in command of Earth but rules with a light hand.  Aille has succeeded in forging a new, stronger fighting force to wield against the nasty Ekhat (who are so alien that the term “species” may not even apply).  This was essential, because the Ekhat aren’t exactly a “live and let live” sort of people — instead, their basic philosophy is to exterminate anyone who isn’t “of the Ekha,” but they also have a tendency to kill other Ekhat out of hand, too.   The Ekhat have several factions, which just goes to prove that even violent, xenophobic racists don’t have to agree with each other, and the only good thing about them being around is that they forced Aille, and all the Jao, to “think outside the box;” due to the success of the human-Jao fighting force in driving off the Ekhat, Earth became not only easier to manage, but far more essential to the Jao in the bargain — a “win-win” overall.

Aille not only has his hybridized fighting force (the jinau troops, formerly all-human, now have some Jao intermixed), but is the founder of the Terra taif — a kochan-in-training that has two separate parts, one for the sea lion-like Jao, the other for humans.  This is the first time the Jao have ever admitted any species aside from themselves into polite society; that the Terra taif is sponsored by the Bond of Ebezon, the strategists of the Jao, only helps strengthen the new Terra hybrid-taif’s position.

I mention all this because without understanding it, you can’t really understand what’s going on in The Crucible of Empire – a crucible, after all, is a severe, extreme test, one that pushes a race to realize everything they are.  And it is a problem out of the past that is the Jao’s crucible — when they were still a subject species under the Ekhat, the Jao were forced to hunt another sentient species, the Lleix.   The Jao are heartily ashamed of this, especially as it was one of the Lleix — a race of graceful, intelligent, artistic creatures who are bipedal like the Jao and humans, but are unlike either race physically — that gave the Jao the thought that maybe it was possible to throw off the Ekhat’s influence and win independence.  That it took the Jao many years — hundreds, if not thousands — to do this is irrelevant; what they’ve remembered is that when they had the opportunity to forge an alliance with the Lleix, they instead killed the Lleix’s messenger, then killed all the rest of the Lleix they could at the behest of their Ekhat masters.  The fact that they’d take back their actions now, if they could, is an essential plot point.

At the start of The Crucible of Empire, the Jao believe they failed in their first acid test; they failed their crucible, in short.  Yet now, in a successful battle against the Ekhat, the impoverished Krants bring back recordings that prove a third, sentient race took part in killing the Ekhat — the readings are faint, but the Bond strongly believes that they belong to the Lleix; this means the crucible they failed might now be corrected, if only the Lleix will listen.  But because they know that if the Lleix have records, it won’t matter that everything happened over a thousand years ago — the Lleix will fear the Jao just as much as they fear the Ekhat.  And the Lleix won’t know the Jao have thrown the Ekhat off, nor that the Lleix messenger did a good thing in offering up his life to give the Jao that uplifting message of hope, nor even that the Jao want to help the Lleix stay alive to help fight the Ekhat.

This is where the humans from The Course of Empire come in — Caitlin Stockwell Kralik, now two years married and Aille’s top diplomat, along with Gabe Tully, who’s been promoted to major and a command of jinau troops on a new starship, the Lexington, that’s bigger than anything the Jao alone had ever before conceived — these two, along with Wrot krinnu ava Terra (a Terran elder, and an acknowledged agent of the Bond of Ebezon), are dispatched to check out the readings and find out whatever they can.   The humans aren’t initially told anything about the Lleix, but Caitlin, who is no fool, figures it out long before they ever get to the battle-site.

The Krant figure into this because they lost two ships (they only had three) to the Ekhat when they killed that Ekhat ship, which has given Ronz, the Preceptor (head strategist) of the Bond of Ebezon, an idea.  Ronz is tired of Jao politics; way too many good people are thrown to the side because they come from remote, rustic kochan like the Krants, and Ronz hates waste.  So the Krants — these Jao who are so rustic their gestural language postures are curt and to the point rather than studied, classical and mannered like dance moves — are sent off to bear witness to whatever happens.  This is partly because the Terra taif wishes to form new associations of its own, and partly so the Krants will be able to bear witness to their kochan that the new Terra taif will not treat them unfairly.  (Terra taif’s promise to share any spoils of war with the Ekhat is not minor to the Krants, either. )  Besides, there’s really no way to show the Krants anything about how humans and Jao interact except by letting them come along for the ride — a version of wrem-fa where experiences must be learned deep down before they can be processed and understood.  That Gabe Tully is given responsibility for the Krants only underscores the desperation of the Krants, because Tully used to be a member of the Terran Resistance and understands how desperate sapients behave.

During the voyage into deep space, Tully realizes that some Jao, including the hot-tempered Krant engineer Kaln, have talent in what the Jao call ollnat – imagination, in short.  Kaln is an innovator, and has been stifled on Jao ships to date because the Jao like the tried and true; even when she’d proven her innovations worked better than what the ship already had, she’d had to change her innovations back into standard, which galled and frustrated her.  Giving her encouragement is easy; understanding that not all Jao are created equal due to the way the Jao politically operate is only a side benefit.

Of course, there is another fight in space against the Ekhat; after the Lexington kills some and drives off the rest of the Ekhat ships, they make contact with the Lleix.  But a misunderstanding makes the Lleix believe the humans now control the Jao, rather than it being an equal association; because the Jao want to help the Lleix and make up for their previous error, the humans uncomfortably play along with the charade.

While doing so, they find out the Lleix have some severe social problems of their own; whole segments of their society have become disenfranchised in the dochaya, which is where all those who don’t have an elian (a working co-operative where those who’ve been accepted into it live; it’s similar to a fraternity or sorority that works as well as plays together) are forced to reside.  The dochaya, in short, is a slum, and the humans can’t stand it; that the Lleix are ripe for change is underscored by Jihan, a young Lleix who must form a new elian on the spur of the moment called Jaolore.  The humans realize that the Lleix learn languages easily, and are natural translators; they also see quickly that the Lleix society, despite being forcibly moribund for years, is ripe for change.

The Jao feel greatly responsible for what’s befallen the Lleix; the Lleix once had fourteen planets and a great civilization, but now only have 100,000 sapients left on their one remaining planet.  The Lleix once had many more elian; many houses that had been gracefully erected now stand vacant, yet no one in the dochaya claimed them because they’re so downtrodden they never thought to do so.

But now, the humans have come, along with the Jao; what will happen next?  Will the humans and Jao drive off the Ekhat?  (Hint: if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be much of a book.)  What new associations will be forged by the Lleix, the humans and the Jao?   And how many of the nasty Ekhat can be killed in one book?

There’s so much to appreciate in The Crucible of Empire.  This is a rich, detailed, and varied read, with political shading from the Lleix, from the Jao via the resource-poor Krants, and from the humans who are still getting used to being allied with the Jao rather than opposed to them.   All of this once again shows the strengths of Flint and Wentworth as novelists to a high degree; they are stronger together than they are alone.  (And they’re pretty formidable alone.)

In summation: if you enjoy a read that makes you think as well as cheer the rousing space-battle action, you will love The Crucible of Empire.

Reviewed by Barb.

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Called To Coach – A Journey With Coach Bowden

One of the things that I like about people when they write their autobiography is when they admit that they were wrong. Too few famous people admit to being wrong in any time throughout their careers, being far too ready to place the blame of their own errors on their friends, family, agents, movie producers, drugs, their neighbor’s old cat, etc. Which is what makes Bobby Bowden’s Called to Coach such a refreshing autobiography.

A quick note to those who don’t know who Bobby Bowden is: he coached football at various colleges and became the owner (briefly) of the all-time wins record in college football. Along the way he shaped the lives of thousands of men with his honesty, his accountability and his virtues.

Bowden starts off his book the same way most do: a quick look into their childhoods, with defining moments standing out amongst the many. But the difference between Bowden and a Lindsey Lohan autobiography is that Bowden is fairly religious and takes responsibility for all of his actions, which as I mentioned before, is very refreshing. While not an in-you-face religious type of idealism, Bowden’s faith plays a huge part in his coaching and his words, which is something I really appreciate in today’s society. Too often people want to make certain that you know just how strong their faith is, so they push it onto everyone and everything, which makes the whole faith and spirituality argument counterproductive.

Football fans will definitely love this peek into the mind of one of college football’s greatest coaches, and even non-football fans can enjoy this book. Filled with poignant thoughts, touching memories and the heart-wrenching recollection of the fatal car crash which took his grandson and son-in-law in 2004, Bowden’s message speaks volumes to any reader. The best part? The realization as you’re halfway through the book, and you realize that Coach Bowden is a family man first, a football coach second, which you don’t see too much of anymore these days.

A definite solid read. Highly enjoyable.

Reviewed by Jason

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Debbie Macomber’s “Hannah’s List:” Contrived, Predictable, and Infuriating.

Debbie Macomber’s Hannah’s List (Mira, 2010) is a book that, unlike most of her other romances, is based on a plot contrivance that made my teeth grind. In Hannah’s List, Doctor Michael Everett receives one, final letter from his deceased wife on the first anniversary of her death from his brother-in-law. His wife Hannah, for reasons known only to herself, decided while she lay dying, she’d make up a list of people she wanted her husband to date — more than that, she wanted her husband Michael to pick one of these women to start a new family with.  She finishes her letter by saying that she feels terrible that she wasn’t able to give Michael any children during their twelve-year marriage, so she really hopes he’ll pick one of these gals soon and get on with the job. This letter was not played for laughs; instead, it’s played straight, and although Michael puts up some rather formulaic grumblings, he decides that he should do what his wife wants, and ends up meeting all three of the women.

The three women on Hannah’s little list are about as dissimilar as could possibly be.  First off, there’s Winter, who was Hannah’s second cousin. She’s a cook and caterer who runs her own little coffee shop, and she’s very good at what she does. She and Michael already know each other slightly, but there are no real sparks there and both know it — basically, she’s there to ease Michael back into dating and not feel as if it’s such a chore. Also, Winter has a boyfriend already, Pierre, a fellow cook who runs a restaurant, but they’re ever-so-conveniently “taking a break from each other” so Winter and Michael can have their little “meet-cute” before realizing she’s better off being Hannah’s second cousin than Michael’s new main squeeze.

Next, there’s Leanne, who is an oncology nurse. Hannah met Leanne while she lay dying in the bed, and liked Leanne because Leanne has a good sense of humor even when things are going to Hell in a handbasket around her due to the nature of her job (cancer equals dying people is the equation Ms. Macomber was going for). Michael likes Leanne when he meets her because they have their work in common — he’s a pediatrician, she’s an oncology nurse, and they can talk shop together. But because she’s coming off a painful divorce, and he’s still grieving (it’s been a year, which apparently Ms. Macomber thinks is “too long” for a grief cycle), they are unable to connect as anything more than good friends despite several dates. Which, once again, is just as well as the ex-husband comes back into the picture because Ms. Macomber must not have wanted to leave any dangling plotlines.

Finally, there’s Macy. She’s the youngest of the lot at just over thirty; she’s impetuous, scatterbrained, air-headed, wears silly outfits, paints her house in multiple colors, and has the requisite three cats that apparently any such person must have (all with unusual names). As for what she does for a living, it’s pretty much anything she can find — she’s an artist, she does radio voiceovers, she does some acting — she’s the comic relief of the book, such as it is, and it’s obvious from the start that Michael, who is in his late-thirties, is intended to pair off with her.

Listen. I have a real problem with the main idea of Hannah’s List because most dying women would never, ever do this — and not just because they’re worried about their own imminent death. The way Ms. Macomber writes it, Hannah is being unselfish by putting this list together, and indeed, unselfishness would probably be part of the equation if a real woman were ever to do something like this. However, what was infuriating about all of it is that Hannah’s darker motivations were never brought into play at all — Hannah was seen as a spiritual force for good, or in simpler terms, an angel. And thus we don’t see any of Hannah’s less admirable qualities even in retrospect except for the nature of this letter.  The fact that Ms. Macomber does not discuss the other reasons why a woman might write this letter makes me extremely troubled.

First off, writing a letter as Hannah did in this book, then giving it to her brother to give to Michael, her husband, as he grieved the one-year anniversary of her death, is an extremely manipulative act. First, from pages 24-5:

The greatest of (my) regrets is my inability to have children. This is harder for me than even the discovery that my cancer is terminal. I so badly wanted your baby, Michael. A child for my sake, yes, but yours, too. You should be a father. You will be a wonderful father. Oh, Michael, I so wanted a child.

And as if this wasn’t enough, on page 29 Hannah says:

I’ve given you three names, Michael. Each is someone I know and trust. Any of them would make you a good wife and companion; with any one you could have the children you were meant to father.

I’ll be watching and waiting from heaven’s gate, looking down at you. Choose well.

Then she has the nerve to sign it, “Your loving wife, Hannah.”

I don’t even know where to start to say how wrong I believe all of this is. It’s incredibly manipulative; it plays on this poor man’s grief and pain and rage that his wife is dead, and says, more or less, “If you love me, you will remarry and have children by one of these three women I’ve picked out for you. And if you don’t meet these women and pick one of them, you don’t love me anymore.  Then I’ll look down from Heaven and be bitterly disappointed. Nyah. So there.”

Ms. Macomber, in her preface to Hannah’s List, says that one of her readers gave her the idea for this — that apparently something like this has actually happened. And after that, she said (paraphrasing) that the idea for Hannah’s List just popped into her head.

May I be the first to say that I wish this idea hadn’t occurred to her? Or that perhaps if she had explored the darker aspects of what Hannah did here, rather than making Hannah into this saintly presence that Michael should be glad to have had in his life for twelve years, this would’ve been a better book?  Because without question, Hannah’s final action shows her to be far, far less than saintly, perhaps even Machiavellian, yet this is never, ever thought of — no, Hannah is a veritable saint, Michael is an idiot who must be led by the hand through what’s left of his grief cycle or he’ll never father children, and because of Hannah’s “brave and selfless” act, Michael will be all right because he’ll have married the ditzy Macy and the children will start popping out all over the place in due course.

What a disappointment!

Mind you, the rest of Debbie Macomber’s career shows that while contemporary American romance does have a formula, it usually can be gotten ’round using humor and a keen knowledge of what makes people tick — that is what Debbie Macomber’s name on a romance has come to mean.  But all of this was wholly absent in Hannah’s List except for some moralizing about how important communication is to a marriage, which seems mighty hypocritical considering Hannah’s final action.

I have read just about everything Debbie Macomber has ever put out. Her “Heart of Texas” series is outstanding. Her “Midnight Sons” series is good. Her “Cedar Cove” series, the first four in particular, are interesting and well thought out. And her best books are probably those she’s written about Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, three rather scatterbrained angels — one of those books is called Angels Everywhere and I highly recommend it as a good, honest, heartwarming read.

But this book — Hannah’s List – I cannot recommend.  It made me incredibly angry because it is not honest at its heart.  And due to its emotional dishonesty, the rest of the book boils down to a bunch of plot contrivances: for example, I knew from the beginning Michael would end up with Macy, but that Macy would “inexplicably” run off two chapters from the end for no good reason except that the plot demanded it, just so they could have a typical “fall into his arms” ending where the reader is supposed to bask in the warm glow of yet another book successfully completed.

I’m sorry. I don’t buy it. And I’m very unhappy that I read this book.

My advice, if you like Debbie Macomber, is to skip this book and read anything else by her — I don’t care what it is, it has to be better than this.

Reviewed by Barb

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Michael Schaffer’s “One Nation Under Dog:” Satire with Bite.

Michael Schaffer’s One Nation Under Dog (Holt, 2009) is a satirical book that is sure to please dog lovers and people who enjoy absurdity of all sorts. Schaffer’s subtitle – America’s Love Affair with our Dogs — pretty much gives away that this book is a gentle send-up of the extremes pet-lovers often go to in order to give their pets the best of everything. Schaffer’s vision is that of a rueful pet owner who knows he’s been suckered, but can’t stop the madness.   There’s just enough in Schaffer that responds to all the consumerism, that makes him want to give  his dog Murphy the best things in life, and this is why he can be moved by the various PR firms selling this or that dog-accessory to keep buying things Murphy neither needs nor wants even though he knows better.

Now, with a title like One Nation Under Dog, you probably already realize that Schaffer’s point is obvious — dogs really don’t need to have expensive designer outfits (though there’s a dog fashion show every year in New York that attracts many people interested in buying whatever the hot new “look” may be), they don’t need to have the most expensive hot, new toy, and they really don’t need to have the newest, best-designed food, either — all of that is for us, the pet owners, not for the dogs themselves.

Schaffer’s argument is that we, as a society, seem to have adopted our pets more as our children — the term “fur-baby” has been in use for at least fifteen years (along with the similar “fur-kin”), and perhaps the reason for this is because people are having fewer human children. Schaffer mostly talks about pet ownership from the affluent American “middle class on up” perspective, which is why there are chapters about pet hotels, the aforementioned pet designer clothing industry, pet toiletries (some of which are incredibly expensive), the race for the most difficult and challenging pet toy (to keep active pets amused and exercised during the day when they’re forced to be inside waiting for their owners to show up), etc. And he gently mocks much of the contemporary “pet movement” in America today while admitting he’s no better than anyone else as his pet, Murphy, takes anti-depressants, turns up his nose at the various high-end foods Schaffer checked out (preferring homier fare, I guess), and goes to the vet probably more often than Murphy really needs in order to reassure Schaffer and his wife that they truly are doing everything they can to give Murphy the best-possible quality of life.

The way Schaffer structured his book with anecdotes about his pet, Murphy, between visits to the local pet hotel (don’t call ‘em “kennels” any more, folks, not unless you want a thrashing from the PC-police), the visits to PetSmart and PetCo and other pet stores, talking about the horror that is the “puppy mill” industry and of course the ridiculousness that is the dog fashionista movement, helped to humanize Schaffer’s book and reflect better the American experience with pet ownership and its uneasy alliance with American consumerism.

I enjoyed this book; it’s funny, it’s skillful, and it made me think about many of my previously-unchallenged assumptions about dog ownership. I think if you enjoy pets, or at least appreciates a writer who pokes fun at American consumerism, you will also appreciate this book.

Reviewed by Barb

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Alison Weir’s historical “Queen Isabella” is Engrossing, Honest.

Alison Weir’s Queen Isabella (Ballantine Books, 2007) is an engrossing work of history that reads like a novel. This is to its credit, as many readers never really knew anything about Queen Isabella of England (1292-1358) except for some rather outdated legends. Isabella was originally from France, and had been sent to England to cement the peace when she was only twelve years old; over time, she became a wife and queen in more than name only, and if her husband, Edward II, had only been a better king and husband, none of the slanderous words which came down through history about her would’ve been written.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Queen Isabella was known for her wisdom and was called a “peacemaker” in her time for her intelligence, strength of vision, and because she was able to mitigate the worst of the damage caused by her husband, Edward II. Edward, you see, was either homosexual or possibly bisexual, and he had male favorite after male favorite, which caused great problems in England due to favoritism and worse. Yet Isabella was far too canny, even in her youth (remember, she went there when she was only twelve), to show how upsetting this was — we only know she was upset because of the correspondence between Isabella and her father, Philip IV of France — and she went out of her way to be kind to Edward’s favorites while moderating the worst of Edward’s favoritism toward them. Because of the morality of the day, women in general — even queens — were viewed as lesser people, weaker due to being born female, and Isabella had to work within this framework in order to get anything done. It is to her credit that England was stable and prosperous during much of this time despite some of Edward’s ill-conceived notions.

Over time, though, Isabella grew increasingly frustrated. After her father’s death, Edward often withheld the money and provisions Isabella needed in order to live because he was weak and easily led by his male “favorites,” who, to a man, seemed extremely jealous of Isabella. And even those who weren’t “favorites” could cause trouble for Isabella merely for political gain, which seems to have been why the Despenser family was so vindictive and cruel toward Isabella.

It was because of this reason, the narrowing-out of her life, that Isabella fled to France with her son (and Edward’s heir), Edward, to the court of her brother Charles IV, who’d succeeded their father Philip. Charles IV was horrified at how Isabella had been treated, and backed her at least as far as helping her maintain the lifestyle expected of a queen in exile. But it was obvious to all that Edward II was a failed king, someone who did not deserve to rule; something had to be done.

And it wasn’t just the nobility that were frustrated over Edward II’s lack of kingship.  The people in England were very upset at excessive taxation, not to mention the obvious favoritism shown to the entire Despenser family regarding taxation and everything else. Many of the nobles were outraged because of the excesses of the Despensers, several of whom were known to be ruthless and cold. Yet Edward couldn’t rein them in; he didn’t even seem to believe it was a problem, which showed he was completely out of touch with his own people — and showed his lack  of kingship in full measure.

This is why Isabella, in 1325, was in France gathering support to overthrow her husband in favor of her son, while her husband was powerless to stop her and for the most part didn’t seem to even realize what she was doing. It took her over a year of planning, but she eventually returned to England and made Edward abdicate.

At this point, you might be wondering, “OK, Barb, where is the scandal here? There’s been incompetent rulers before, even homosexual ones who granted his favorites excessive liberties. Where’s the story?”

Well, Isabella, for all her good qualities — and it appears she had many — was a woman like any other, and she was now in her thirties. She was one of the most beautiful, sought-after women of her day, and yet her husband was not attracted to her (or possibly any other woman); she was ripe for a love affair, and unfortunately, one found her. I say “unfortunately” because the man she ended up having the affair with was Roger Mortimer, who was a good man to have around if you needed to go fight a war, but someone who was as disastrous in his own way to Isabella’s well-being as her husband Edward had been.

The epithets thrown at Isabella long after she went to dust — the “she-wolf of France,” “Isabella the Mad,” or “one of the most beautiful, and depraved, women of her time” — are shown by Ms. Weir to be inaccurate. It is clear from reading this book that Isabella was a very good queen and ruler; her only crime, if there was one, was that she fell in love with the wrong man at the wrong time — it’s possible that had Mortimer never laid eyes on Isabella in 1325 (and into 1326) that history would’ve been written differently.

The truth of the matter was, Isabella herself was a good ruler, and was apparently hampered by the two men who were supposed to love her — her husband, Edward II, and Roger Mortimer, the man she had an adulterous affair with because of what seems to be helpless physical passion from this far remove. We in the modern, Western world know that a woman who is not well-matched to her husband, especially physically, is likely to have an affair, and that does not make her a bad woman — or a bad queen in this case — but in that day and age, Edward III was able only to keep the worst of it from his mother’s shoulders, and Mortimer, of course, was doomed.

The end of Isabella’s life was quiet; she was respected by her son, the King, and by other rulers of the day for her quick mind and her excellent grasp of what we’d now call realpolitik. She did her best to make peace with her inner demons — having that affair was probably as big of a shock to her as it was to anyone else — and died quietly, in her favorite castle, with her favorite possessions willed to others (something highly unusual in that time, as women usually were not allowed to exert their will and testament after death — but no one was going to stop Isabella).

Queen Isabella is fast-paced, like a novel, and reads easily and well.   This is an unflinching look at history, and it is both engrossing and honest — Ms. Weir did a superlative job here in bringing the large cast of characters to life and shining a spotlight onto a long-dimmed area of English history.

I leave you with only two sentences: read this book! You’ll be glad you did.

Reviewed by Barb

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