Thursday, February 16, 2017

Powell's City of Books CEO Miriam Sontz, Dangerous Curves Ahead by Sugar Jamison, The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan, Kitty Saves the World by Carrie Vaughn and The Book Jumper by Mechthild Glaser

Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon, is my Mecca. I go there at least once a year to take in all the books I've been hoarding for credit, and to get most of the books on my yearly wish list. I also go to mingle with my bookish tribe of bibliophiles, authors and booksellers, all of whom understand and encourage my love of reading and my lust for new books to savor at home and everywhere else. I would love to meet Ms Sontz, and tell her how much I look forward to visiting Powells every summer, and thank her for creating such a wonderful place for bibliophiles to wander among the stacks, collect their latest bookish object of desire and dreamily read in all the nooks and crannies of the store. Powells is my happy place!

At some conference, the final keynote was delivered by Powell's Books CEO Miriam Sontz, who was introduced by Chuck Robinson, who called her "the E.F. Hutton of bookselling," because, even though she is selective in sharing her viewson the trade, "when Miriam Sontz talks, people listen."

True to form, Sontz said she most wanted to get to the q&a to hear the
attendees' stories, but she shared a few of her own. In essence, she
said, the experience of those who come into Powell's--just two blocks
away from the PubWest conference hotel--comes down to the 30- to
45-second interaction they have most likely with a cashier, who are
usually the newest members of the bookstore team. Because of that, she
said, she makes sure to meet with every employee during their three-day
training so that she can share the store's mission as both book lovers
and a business. "We want to make books objects of desire," she said.
Powell's also is proud to have been the first indie bookseller to offer
its employees health benefits, and provides childcare subsidies and
other things that help establish bookselling as a viable career option
for its staff.

Sontz shared two recent stories from customers about why they love
Powell's. The first was from an Iraq War veteran who said that after
coming back from his second deployment, Powell's was the only place he
felt safe. The second was from a recently divorced woman who knew she
needed to "be in the world, but was not feeling of the world," who said
a copy of The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama fell at her feet while
in the store, so she sat down and read for two hours without anyone
bothering her. "I never asked if she bought the book," said Sontz, but
she said the woman told her she went to a Buddhist center the next day
and it transformed her life.

Sontz described Walter Powell as a curmudgeon and a schmoozer who
founded the store in his mid-60s, and would sit outside and cajole
passersby into coming in. "His second love was buying a book for a buck
and selling it for three," she said. Those two traits make up Powell's
Books' DNA, she said. "You can't fake passion," she added--passion being
another trait that indie booksellers and the indie publishers of PubWest
have had in common for its 40 years. --Bridget Kinsella 
Dangerous Curves Ahead by Sugar Jamison was recommended from a book website (I think it was Book Buzz) in a list of books with larger women protagonists. Though it's a straight romance novel, and I prefer my romance in hybrid form (ie Science fiction/Romance, or Fantasy/Romance), I though the plot sounded like fun, and the protagonist Ellis, who owns a Plus Sized Clothing boutique, sounded like someone I'd like to get to know. A bit over 350 pages, this was a chunky paperback that was surprisingly well written and plotted, though I became a bit frustrated with Ellis, because she seemed too insecure and immature at times to be a former lawyer running her own business. Here's the blurb:
Ellis Garrett is dumping her critical boyfriend, opening a plus-size clothing store, and starting a blog―all to spread the word that fashion shouldn't require a size-two body, and happiness should allow for the occasional cupcake. Or two. But is indulging fantasies about her sister's long-ago ex, the still-hunky Michael Edwards, biting off more than she can chew?
Mike must be losing his detective's touch. He doesn't recognize Ellis when he bumps into her at Size Me Up, and he certainly doesn't remember his ex-girlfriend's outspoken sister being so irresistible. Her curves are indeed dangerous―and so is her wit. Could it be that Ellis is his Perfect Fit? One thing's for sure: Mike will make it his sworn duty to find out… Publisher's Weekly: Big, bold, hilariously flawed personalities surround this contemporary debut's plus-sized heroine, who swings between her outer mean girl and inner insecurities in a playful, optimistic story that shows how loving yourself is the first step in letting someone love you back. Cookie-loving, weekday-dieting Ellis Garret has rewritten her life by dumping her critical boyfriend, starting a pro-fat blog, and opening a clothing store for women of size. A chance meeting with her difficult sister's ex, Det. Mike Edwards, sets Ellis's heart pounding, but it takes her socially awkward dad, radical feminist mom, shop employees, and Mike's best friend to convince her that this hunky player might be interested in a girl like her. Generic sex scenes show Jamison less skilled in writing hot passion than clever banter, but the emotions are real and will have readers rooting for Mike and Ellis to get the happiness they deserve.
 I actually preferred the "generic" sex scenes, because most romance novels these days go way too far in their sex scenes, making their romance novels into erotica at best and pornography at worst. I am not a real fan of pornography, though light erotica in a novel doesn't put me off as long as it's integrated into the story. Another annoying part of the book was Ellis "dieting" during the week and supposedly splurging on the weekends, when in reality she splurges more than once in the course of the week, and readers get the idea that this isn't the first time she's done so. Her self delusion made me cranky, because Ellis doesn't sound like a really large gal, only one who is slightly, and very prettily, plump. Someone who is truly larger would have a harder time accepting themselves, and yet Ellis seems to struggle constantly to believe she's beautiful and sexy as she is, when it is clear that Mike the cop is warm for her form. Meanwhile, Ellis has a father who is autistic and a mother who enables Ellis's horrible sister, who never gets any better in the book, and whom I was hoping would die a gruesome death by the end of the book, because she's such a nutjob, bent on hurting Ellis because Ellis's adoptive dad appears to love Ellis more. Still, the book had a great HEA, and things worked out, finally, so I'd give it an A, and recommend it to all those who feel like they've been overlooked by love because of being overweight.

The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan was another novel from the aforementioned list of plus sized protagonists, and as this is a historical romance, I was intrigued enough to grab a copy from the library. Due to the florid 19th century literary prose style, I had a hard time getting into this book, but once I got the hang of the prose, I was able to sail along on this swift little frigate of a plot. Jane Fairfield, the protagonist, has made it her mission to repel all suitors so that she can stay with her cousin Emily, who has a mild form of epilepsy, and is being "treated" and tortured by every quack "doctor" or "scientist" who comes along, due to the girls Uncle Titus being a complete scumbag who enjoys experimenting on young women. He wants to see Emily either "cured" so that she can marry a rich man, or institutionalized where he won't have to deal with her. Meanwhile, he keeps her locked away from everyone and everything, while Jane smuggles her novels and bribes as many of the quacks as possible to leave Emily alone, as she's only 18 and already covered in scars both mental and physical. Here's the blurb:
Miss Jane Fairfield has made a career of social disaster. She wears outrageous gowns and says even more outrageous things. The only reason she's invited anywhere is because of her immense dowry--which is all part of her plan to avoid marriage and keep the fortune-hunters at bay.
Mr. Oliver Marshall is the illegitimate son of a duke. His acceptance in society is tenuous as it is. If he wants any kind of career at all, he must do everything right. He doesn't need to come to the rescue of the wrong woman. He certainly doesn't need to fall in love with her. But there's something about the lovely, courageous Jane that he can't resist...even though it could mean the ruin of them both.
I loved Jane's wit and pluck and her hideous gowns, as well as Oliver's often hilarious descriptions of said gowns color. I thought Oliver, as a charming redhead with ambition and intelligence was sexy as heck, and he and Jane working together to thwart the evil aristocrats who want to humiliate Jane was like watching Emma Peel and John Steed from the Avengers working a case like a well oiled machine together. Delicious fun, and even the sex scenes were tasteful and woven into the plot deftly. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which was a surprise, and I'd give it an A with a recommendation to anyone who likes saucy heroines with wit and compassion and the heroes who fall in love with them.

Kitty Saves the World by Carrie Vaughn is the final book in the Kitty Norville series, and as such, it's a real page-turner full of action and completion of loose ends and plot points that have been left dangling in the previous 13 books. Here's the blurb: It's all come down to this, following the discoveries made by Cormac in Low Midnight, Kitty and her allies are ready to strike. But, when their assassination attempt on the evil vampire Dux Bellorum fails, Kitty finds herself running out of time. The elusive vampire lord has begun his apocalyptic end game, and Kitty still doesn't know where he will strike.
Meanwhile, pressure mounts in Denver as Kitty and her pack begin to experience the true reach of Dux Bellorum's cult. Outnumbered and outgunned at every turn, the stakes have never been higher for Kitty. She will have to call on allies both old and new in order to save not just her family and friends, but the rest of the world as well. Publisher's Weekly:
In this climactic 14th and final entry (after Low Midnight) in the saga of Kitty Norville, a werewolf and radio talk show host, Vaughn brings her characters together for a showdown that’s solid but not spectacular. Kitty’s archenemy, the vampire Roman, is ready to trigger his apocalyptic plan, and only Kitty and her ragtag band of allies can hope to thwart him. But as the two sides move and countermove, it becomes clear that unexpected players are influencing the conflict, changing the rules in strange new ways. Vaughn pulls together a number of ongoing story threads to wrap things up in a fairly neat package; while it’s not the end of Kitty’s universe, there is a satisfying sense of finality. The stakes are high, the action is fierce, and the peculiar core concept of a werewolf with a talk show miraculously continues to work. Longtime readers will enjoy the sense of payoff—especially when certain characters meet much-deserved fates and others get their happy-for-nows—and they’ll be eager to see where Vaughn goes next. 
There was so much going on in this book that I literally sat down to read just one chapter and didn't look up until I was 3/4 of the way through the book. So much so that Kitty's final battle with Roman, in which he more or less offs himself when his plans have been foiled, was almost anti-climatic. I know that I was supposed to be surprised that angels showed up, but I wasn't, and I thought their gift of a year off of lycanthropy (werewolf changes) for Kitty to get pregnant bordered on cheesy, but, since it was necessary for the HEA, I shrugged it off. I was glad to see Rick the vampire come back for one last bout, and though I don't think I will ever "get" the character of Cormac, he at least did some good here in helping Kitty and the pack during the final battle. All in all, I'd give this book and the whole series an A, though some of the books were uneven, but I'd recommend it to anyone who likes movies like Underworld and Werewolves of London. 

The Book Jumper by Mechthild Glaser was translated from German and is, like Cornelia Funke's YA fantasy novels, beautifully bizarre. Here's the blurb:
Amy Lennox doesn't know quite what to expect when she and her mother pick up and leave Germany for Scotland, heading to her mother's childhood home of Lennox House on the island of Stormsay.
Amy's grandmother, Lady Mairead, insists that Amy must read while she resides at Lennox House—but not in the usual way. It turns out that Amy is a book jumper, able to leap into a story and interact with the world inside. As thrilling as Amy's new power is, it also brings danger: someone is stealing from the books she visits, and that person may be after her life. Teaming up with fellow book jumper Will, Amy vows to get to the bottom of the thefts—at whatever cost. Publishers Weekly: Fifteen-year-old Amy Lennox has grown up in Germany, but after a traumatic spring she talks her mother into taking them back to her birthplace, the island of Stormsay off the coast of Scotland. Amy’s family and another clan, the Macalisters, are keepers of a secret library of texts that date back centuries, and they can “jump” into stories, interacting with their characters, so long as they stay “in the margins, between the lines.” But a thief is also jumping into books and stealing the authors’ ideas, ruining the books. Amy and Will Macalister try to solve the mystery before more stories are destroyed. Amy also learns the identity of her father in a less-developed story line. The lore of the two families and German author Gläser’s descriptions of Stormsay and the library are meticulous and moody, creating a gothic atmosphere that serves this star-crossed love story well. Meetings with book characters, like Kipling’s Shere Khan and Dickens’s Oliver Twist, offer entertaining moments that balance the grimmer elements of the story as it builds to a bittersweet ending
An evil princess manipulates Will into stealing ideas and when Will realizes this, he takes steps to ensure it never happens again. I found the whole idea of book jumping fascinating, though I also found Amy's easy acceptance of her mother's love affair with a book character to be somewhat beyond belief. The fact that this book character is her father also beggars belief, because really, how would a fictional character inseminate a real live woman? This brings me to the realization that I didn't like Amy's mother, or her grandmother very much, they seemed like selfish, arrogant people who were only interested in using Amy. But none of the adults in this book come off looking good, they're all fairly nasty people, as is the other Macalister child, who is vituperative for no apparent reason.
Still, the prose was sterling and the plot didn't drag, though it had a number of twists and turns. I enjoyed the descriptions of meeting characters from so many different books, like the Jungle Book and Alice in Wonderland. I was also amused that poor old Werther, from the Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, was right by Amy's side in the book world, ready to set aside his sorrows in order to help her vanquish evil. My best friend RM Larson would have loved that aspect of the book, as she was a huge Goethe fan. I'd give this book a B+, and recommend it to those who like fantasies about books, and also Harry Potter fans who enjoy fantastical settings with 'regular' characters. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Dawn Study by Maria V Snyder, Kitty Norville series # 9 through 13 by Carrie Vaughn

I've got six books to review, so I'm going to get right to it, once again.

Dawn Study by Maria V Snyder is the final book in her "Study" series that began with the sublime "Poison Study" 20 years ago, the year that I married my best friend Jim, and won the best job I've ever had as a reporter for the Mercer Island Reporter newspaper on Mercer Island, Washington. A banner year, all around. I was thoroughly enchanted with Poison Study, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on every new book in this and all the other series that Snyder writes. She's become one of my handful of authors whose works I automatically buy, because they never let me down with their superior storytelling skills and beautiful prose. 
Because Dawn Study is the last book of Yelena and Valek's story, I expected it to be fraught with emotional landmines, and though it had moments of sheer breathless terror and delight, there weren't as many explosions of emotion as I'd expected, which is a good thing. Here's the blurb:
New York Times bestselling author Maria V. Snyder brings her Poison Study series to its exhilarating conclusion
Despite the odds, Yelena and Valek have forged an irrevocable bond—and a family—that transcends borders. Now, when their two homelands stand on the brink of war, they must fight with magic and cunning to thwart an Ixian plot to invade Sitia.
Yelena seeks to break the hold of the insidious Theobroma that destroys a person's resistance to magical persuasion. But the Cartel is determined to keep influential citizens and Sitian diplomats in thrall—and Yelena at bay. With every bounty hunter after her, Yelena is forced to make a dangerous deal.
With might and magic, Valek peels back the layers of betrayal surrounding the Commander. At its rotten core lies a powerful magician…and his latest discovery. The fate of all rests upon two unlikely weapons. One may turn the tide. The other could spell the end of everything.
Due to Yelena's pregnancy, I'd also expected her to be more of the mastermind of operations, instead of being right in the thick of things, fighting and getting captured. Knowing Yelena as most readers do, I don't know why I'd make that assumption. She's a kick-butt heroine, and she spends a great deal of time in this book making sure that her life with Valek and their child will be safe and happy. Valek realizes that he's getting too old to be a master assassin, so he appoints an heir apparent (a woman, of course) and still manages to get rid of the evil influences and magicians trying to overthrow the government. I was surprised that the Commander wasn't killed, as he still presents a threat to Sitia, because he loathes magic and its practitioners, but he did state that he'd leave the city alone as long as the government remained stable and the people with magic didn't migrate into Ixia. I was hoping that, after being saved by good magic, that he'd turn around and accept magicians and stop being such a jerk about magic. Anyway, that's a minor quibble about what was otherwise a splendid book. Snyder has a way with characters, drawing them so well that they seem real and available to the reader. Her prose is lovely and bright, and her plots swift and strong. A well deserved A for this book and the whole series, with a recommendation to anyone who enjoys well written fantasy replete with excellent world building and memorable characters. 

I've read the following Kitty Norville series, all by Carrie Vaughn, books 9, 10, 11, 12  and 13 in the past 6 days, and I'm reading the final book, Kitty Saves the World, right now (I expect to finish it this evening).

Kitty's Big Trouble (book #9) has a title based on the movie "Big Trouble in Little China," because it's about Kitty dealing with various magical beings and Chinese gods and goddesses in San Francisco's Chinatown. Here's the blurb:
Kitty Norville is back and in more trouble than ever. Her recent run-in with werewolves traumatized by the horrors of war has made her start wondering how long the US government might have been covertly using werewolves in combat. Have any famous names in our own history might have actually been supernatural? She's got suspicions about William Tecumseh Sherman. Then an interview with the right vampire puts her on the trail of Wyatt Earp, vampire hunter.
But her investigations lead her to a clue about enigmatic vampire Roman and the mysterious Long Game played by vampires through the millennia. That, plus a call for help from a powerful vampire ally in San Francisco, suddenly puts Kitty and her friends on the supernatural chessboard, pieces in dangerously active play. And Kitty Norville is never content to be a pawn. 
During the battle to keep a "dragons' pearl" out of the hands of the ultimate evil, the two thousand year old vampire Roman, Kitty meets up with the Chinese Monkey King god and a goddess who help them understand how high the stakes are in the game that the vampires are playing by using other supernatural beings. Having studied Chinese and Japanese history in college, I found this particular installment of Kitty's story fascinating, and I love the way that Kitty doggedly pursues her tenuous historical/mythical tidbits to find out whether or not major historical figures were, in fact, werewolves or vampires. I'd give this book an A.

Kitty Steals the Show (#10)takes place at a supernatural convention in London, England, which is a place I've been longing to visit since I was a child reading fantasy stories based in the UK. Here's the blurb:
Kitty has been tapped as the keynote speaker for the First International Conference on Paranatural Studies, taking place in London. The conference brings together scientists, activists, protestors, and supernatural beings from all over the world—and Kitty, Ben, and Cormac are right in the middle of it.
Master vampires from dozens of cities have also gathered in London for a conference of their own. With the help of the Master of London, Kitty gets more of a glimpse into the Long Game—a power struggle among vampires that has been going on for centuries—than she ever has before. In her search for answers, Kitty has the help of some old allies, and meets some new ones, such as Caleb, the alpha werewolf of the British Isles. The conference has also attracted some old enemies, who've set their sights on her and her friends.
All the world's a stage, and Kitty's just stepped into the spotlight.
As per usual, Kitty gets herself into trouble,and with the help of her friends, back out again. She "outs" Roman as the big bad in her keynote speech, knowing that her words are her best weapons, and that in bringing darkness into the light, there's a chance that she'll be seen as a crackpot conspiracy theorist, even with her adoring radio audience. Still, I enjoyed this installment in the story, and I'd give it an A.

Kitty Rocks the House (#11) has something of a misnomer in the title, as you'd expect it to be about a rock and roll band of supernaturals, when it has nothing of the sort in the text. This installment is about a vampire sending an arrogant creep of a werewolf into Kitty's territory to try and wrest her pack and her power from her. There's also a secondary storyline with Cormac and the spirit possessing him, the uptight magician Amelia Parker, trying to get past the shields of a vampire priest who claims to be part of a supernatural organization founded by the Pope, run out of the Vatican, that hunts down evil vampires and werewolves and kills them in the name of the holy Catholic church. This priest charms Denver's master vampire, Rick (who is a 500 year old Catholic from Spain), with the idea that he can still be a member of the church while being an immortal vampire who has killed and drinks blood to "live." Here's the blurb:
In Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Rocks the House, on the heels of Kitty's return from London, a new werewolf shows up in Denver, one who threatens to split the pack by challenging Kitty's authority at every turn. The timing could not be worse; Kitty needs all the allies she can muster to go against the ancient vampire, Roman, if she's to have any hope of defeating his Long Game. But there's more to this intruder than there seems, and Kitty must uncover the truth, fast. Meanwhile, Cormac pursues an unknown entity wreaking havoc across Denver; and a vampire from the Order of St. Lazaurus tempts Rick with the means to transform his life forever.
Cormac and Amelia seem to be more irritating than helpful in this book, as they seek to remove the shield that the priest has around an old church. What they end up doing is summoning the demon that the priest is trying to hide from, and once he's killed, Rick decides to leave Denver and become a member of the Order of Lazaurus in his stead. Unfortunately, after Kitty defeats the werewolf who challenges her for leadership of the pack, having an ally like Rick gone leaves her even more vulnerable to Roman's minions. I'd give this book a B, mainly because it feels like a bridge from one book to another, and not a stand alone in the series.

Low Midnight is something of a one-off, as it's a story from Cormac/Amelia's POV, and once again, I found that the title was somewhat misleading. Since there's no "high midnight" why "low midnight?" Though I'm not a fan of the tightly wound and terse Cormac, the former supernatural bounty hunter who comes from a militia background, I was hoping we'd at least get to see him in some more upbeat moments, or attempting to have some kind of relationship, any kind, with a living woman. Manly men like Cormac, who has spent his life around weapons, wildlife, woods and correctional facilities generally have a fairly high sex drive, and tend to either have a series of one night stands or use prostitutes to deal with their basic urges. For some bizarre reason, Vaughn has stripped Cormac of any sexual instinct or desire, only allowing him a flutter every now and then when he thinks of what "might have been" with Kitty, who is married to his brother and best friend, or when he renews his acquaintance with his high school sweetheart, whose brother is a wacko militia leader.The only woman he actually "talks" to is Amelia, a 100 year old spirit who was hanged for a crime she didn't commit, and who was a magician/spiritualist before she died. She inhabits Cormac's body, with his permission, so the two of them can fight evil with spells and magic that doesn't require guns or other weaponry that Cormac isn't allowed to have, as a felon who was recently released from prison. Here's the blurb:
Cormac, the Kitty Norville series' most popular supporting character, stars in his first solo adventure.
Carrie Vaughn's Low Midnight spins out of the series on the wave of popularity surrounding Kitty's most popular supporting character, Cormac Bennett, a two-minded assassin of the paranormal who specializes in killing lycanthropes. In his first solo adventure, Cormac, struggling with a foreign consciousness trapped inside him, investigates a century-old crime in a Colorado mining town which could be the key to translating a mysterious coded diary…a tome with secrets that could shatter Kitty's world and all who inhabit it. With a framing sequence that features Kitty Norville herself, Low Midnight not only pushes the Kitty saga forward, but also illuminates Cormac's past and lays the groundwork for Kitty's future.
Much as I tried to like this book, I just couldn't get past Cormac's lack of emotional connection and his tough guy exterior that houses this prim Victorian woman who is also virginal and uninterested in sexuality. It's like listening in on the adventures of a monk and a nun with magical powers, which is just as boring as it sounds. I don't have much time for people with soured outlooks who can't express themselves and don't have human desires, which are what makes life worth living. So I'd give this rather boring installment a B-, and it's the only one of the series that I wouldn't recommend to Kitty fans, as it doesn't really illuminate anything about Cormac that's worth knowing.

Kitty in the Underground is again somewhat misleading of a title. This book shows what happens when fanatical cultists kidnap Kitty and hold her hostage in an old silver mine in Colorado. She's held captive by a were-lioness who is partnered with a werewolf, a weird female magician who is enraptured with a three thousand year old vampire named Kumarbis who is the guy who "made" Roman into a vampire two thousand years ago. Kumarbis and Amy/Zora both seem delusional at best, and the were-creatures are cowardly bullies. Here's the blurb:  
As Denver adjusts to a new master vampire, Kitty gets word of an intruder in the Denver werewolf pack's territory, and she investigates the challenge to her authority. She follows the scent of the lycanthrope through the mountains where she is lured into a trap, tranquilized, and captured. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a defunct silver mine: the perfect cage for a werewolf. Her captors are a mysterious cult seeking to induct Kitty into their ranks in a ritual they hope will put an end to Dux Bellorum. Though skeptical of their power, even Kitty finds herself struggling to resist joining their cause. Whatever she decides, they expect Kitty to join them in their plot . . . willingly or otherwise. 
I wasn't too happy with the way things worked in this book, mainly because anyone with half a brain could see that their ritual to bring down Dux Bellorum/Roman was going to fail, big time. It was only a question of which of the five people involved would die in the process. I couldn't understand why Kitty didn't leave when she had the chance. She knew that the ritual wouldn't work, and that whatever they summoned wouldn't be the big bad himself, but rather one of his horrible murderous minions. So when the oldest vampire basically commits suicide, as does the magician, I wasn't surprised as much as disgusted that they'd wasted so much of Kitty's time. So I'd give this book a B, and now that the stage is set, I'm hoping that everything turns out okay for the gang in the final book.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Happy 12th Birthday Butterfly Books! Plus, Books 6-9 of Kitty Norville by Carrie Vaughn

Twelve years ago today, during the Super Bowl, which I had no interest in watching (and I still don't have much interest in it, unless the Seattle Seahawks are involved), I sat down to my iMac computer and my husband Jim helped me set up this blog, Butterfly Books, so I could review some of the many books that I read over the course of a year.
At the time, It was just an entertaining distraction for the afternoon. It has become my only creative outlet in the last few years, as journalism is in its death throes, and old school print journalists, like myself, move on to other jobs, retire, or spontaneously combust from reading all the typos in online newspapers and other media. Seriously, though, as I age and have more difficulty controlling my Crohn's Disease and asthma, my life has become smaller, and I've come to rely on this blog as a place of self expression and discussion about my passion, books (and the beloved authors who write them.)
By the end of this year, I will have over 600 posts tallied up, and, oddly enough, I've gained followers from America, Canada and Russia, of all places. I'm still a bit thrown by that last one, as I have no idea what Russians would find illuminating about my particular brand of book reviews. But, as the teenagers say, WHATEVER. Welcome, Russian bibliophiles!

I've been reading the Kitty Norville series by Carrie Vaughn for the past couple of weeks, and I've made my way through the following:

Kitty Raises Hell (book #6), which involves Kitty having to deal with the fire spirit sent to kill her by the goddess Tiamat (who is really a vampire). Here's the blurb: Sometimes what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.
Kitty and Ben flee The City That Never Sleeps, thinking they were finished with the dangers there, but the sadistic cult of lycanthropes and their vampire priestess have laid a curse on Kitty in revenge for her disrupting their rituals. Starting at the next full moon, danger and destruction the form of fire strikes Kitty and the pack of werewolves she's sworn to protect.
She enlists the help of a group of TV paranormal investigators - one of whom has real psychic abilities - to help her get to the bottom of the curse that's been laid on her. Rick, the Master vampire of Denver, believes a deeper plot lies behind the curse, and he and Kitty argue about whether or not to accept the help of a professional demon hunter - and vampire - named Roman, who arrives a little too conveniently in the nick of time.
Unable to rely on Rick, and unwilling to accept Roman's offer of help for a price, Kitty and her band of allies, including Vegas magician Odysseus Grant and Kitty's own radio audience, mount a trap for the supernatural being behind the curse, a destructive force summoned by the vengeful cult, a supernatural being that none of them ever thought to face.

Though my husband is a huge fan of "Ghost Hunters" and other paranormal "reality" shows, I am not, and I think, after watching them, that they're excruciatingly dull and full of people who startle at the drop of a hat. The fact that it's been proven that most "reality" shows are not real, and are scripted well ahead of time, makes them even more fake and ridiculous to watch. Of course our talk show host (and werewolf) Kitty can't pass up the opportunity to get involved with the people on this show, one of whom, it turns out, has a small talent for conjuring the spirits of the dead. All hell breaks loose, and the restaurant Kitty owns nearly burns down, but everyone is saved in the end, and Kitty learns about a kind old female vampire named Alette, who takes in stray vampires and tries to help them adjust. I thought this particular book was interesting, and as much fun as most of the previous books, so I'd give it a B+ and recommend it to anyone who has read the other 5 books in the series.

Kitty's House of Horrors puts Kitty right into a reality show herself, with a bunch of other supernaturals, including two vampires and another were-creature (a selkie) and a skeptic who turns out to be a coward and an idiot. Here's the blurb:
Talk radio host and werewolf Kitty Norville has agreed to appear on TV's first all-supernatural reality show. She's expecting cheesy competitions and manufactured drama starring shapeshifters, vampires, and psychics. But what begins as a publicity stunt will turn into a fight for her life.
The cast members, including Kitty, arrive at the remote mountain lodge where the show is set. As soon as filming starts, violence erupts and Kitty suspects that the show is a cover for a nefarious plot. Then the cameras stop rolling, cast members start dying, and Kitty realizes she and her monster housemates are ironically the ultimate prize in a very different game. Stranded with no power, no phones, and no way to know who can be trusted, she must find a way to defeat the evil closing in . . . before it kills them all.
I knew the plot device in this 7th book after about 10 pages, mainly because it made sense that the fanatics who hunt supernaturals would want to get them all in one place and kill them off and record it for everyone to see, so they can "prove" that regular humans are still the superior species and predator. What happens in most of this book is a bloodbath, and, as usual, no one is there to help Kitty from her own pack, including her husband, so she has to go it alone against a well armed group with a ton of weaponry and cunning on their side. Of course she triumphs, but it's at a high cost to others, with a high body count. I found the skeptic guy to be a real waste of ink, and a pain in the rump, but I assume that Vaughn put him there as a stand-in for "everyman," or regular people who just can't accept supernatural beings as real. Due to my allergy to reality shows, as in the previous review for book 6, I hated it even more having Kitty in such a fake environment with all the hyped up drama between those living in the house in the woods. So I'd give this book a C+, mainly because it felt too contrived.

Kitty Goes to War is the 8th book in the series, and this one was for the troops, as it involved werewolves that had been used as super soldiers in Afghanistan and then treated like criminals when they returned home. Here's the blurb:
Kitty Norville, Alpha werewolf and host of The Midnight Hour, a radio call-in show, is contacted by a friend at the NIH's Center for the Study of Paranatural Biology. Three Army soldiers recently returned from the war in Afghanistan are being held at Ft. Carson in Colorado Springs. They're killer werewolves—and post traumatic stress has left them unable to control their shape-shifting and unable to interact with people. Kitty agrees to see them, hoping to help by bringing them into her pack.
Meanwhile, Kitty gets sued for libel by CEO Harold Franklin after featuring Speedy Mart--his nationwide chain of 24-hour convenience stores with a reputation for attracting supernatural unpleasantness--on her show.
Very bad weather is on the horizon.
It turns out that the evil ancient vampire who appeared several books ago is back, and this time he's using the Speedy Mart CEO to create a super snowstorm in Denver to try and kill off Kitty and her friends. Unfortunately, while this weather wizardry is going on, Kitty is also trying to save the werewolf soldiers from being warehoused and experimented on for the rest of their lives. While it was obvious that she was pretty naive in thinking she could save men who had been used to violence and killing and dominance for years, it was heartening to note that she was able to help one young soldier learn to control his "wolf" enough to lead a normal life. My only problem with the book is that, after 8 novels, I was hoping that Kitty would be a bit smarter, less naive and immature than she's been previously. She's had a lot of things happen to her to toughen her up, but she still acts like an idealistic teenager sometimes, and it's embarrassing for an adult to act that way after they're out of their teen years. So I'd give this book a B-, and, as always, recommend it to anyone who has read the other books in the series.

Kitty's Greatest Hits isn't actually book 9, it's sort of out of the timeline because it's a compilation of all the Kitty Norville (and other characters in the novels) stories that Vaughn had sold to anthologies and were printed elsewhere. Here's the blurb:
The first-ever story collection from the New York Times bestselling author, including two all-new works!
Kitty Norville, star of a New York Times bestselling series, is everybody's favorite werewolf DJ and out-of-the-closet supernatural creature. Over the course of eight books she's fought evil vampires, were-creatures, and some serious black magic. She's done it all with a sharp wit and the help of a memorable cast of werewolf hunters, psychics, and if-not-good- then-neutral vampires by her side. Kitty's Greatest Hits not only gives readers some of Kitty's further adventures, it offers longtime fans a window into the origins of some of their favorite characters.
In "Conquistador de la Noche," we learn the origin story of Denver's Master vampire, Rick; with "Wild Ride," we find out how Kitty's friend T.J. became a werewolf; and in "Life is the Teacher," we revisit Emma, the human-turned-unwilling-vampire who serves the aloof vampire Master of Washington, D.C.
This entertaining collection includes two brand-new works: "You're On the Air," about one of Kitty's callers after he hangs up the phone; and the eagerly awaited "Long Time Waiting," the novella that finally reveals just what happened to Cormac in prison, something every Kitty fan wants to know.
I was delighted that the final story of this collection detailed how Cormac came to have a sorceress/witch spirit inhabit his body, so that he can help Kitty vanquish bad spirits once he's out of prison for "good behavior." I enjoyed learning that background on Cormac and Ben's relationship, and I loved learning more about Rick and Kitty's early years at the radio station. All in all, it was an engrossing and fun collection. I look forward to reading books 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13. I'd give this short story collection an A, and recommend it to anyone else who is addicted to Kitty Norville's world.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and Fire, Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson

It's forthright February! So today I'm not going to take up space talking about book news or authors or any other tidbits from Shelf Awareness, I'm going to get right to the reviews.

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott is a novel that mixes fact and fiction, with a fictional protagonist named Julie (who stands in for everyman/woman), a budding screenwriter in Hollywood during 1938-39, when the studios were filming the epic Gone With the Wind. Julie becomes friends with the glamorous Carole Lombard and her paramour, Clark Gable, who is waiting on a divorce so that he can marry Lombard, who is, he claims, the love of his life. Oddly enough, last year I read a book by Adriana Trigiani called "All the Stars in the Heavens" that also mixes fact and fiction in the life of movie star Lana Turner, who had an illegitimate child with Gable, and who also claimed to be the love of his life. So I had a bit of a cynical viewpoint of the main relationship in this book right from the start. Gable, rather than being this great dreamboat that these authors seem to think he was, sounds like a real cad to me, a womanizing creep who wasn't faithful to any of the women in his life. Anyway, here's the blurb: When Julie Crawford leaves Fort Wayne, Indiana, for Hollywood, she never imagines she’ll cross paths with Carole Lombard, the dazzling actress fromJulie’s provincial Midwestern hometown. The young woman has dreams of becoming a screenwriter, but the only job Julie’s able to find is one in the studio publicity office of the notoriously demanding producer David O. Selznick, who is busy burning through directors, writers, and money as he films Gone with the Wind.
     Although tensions run high on the set, Julie finds she can step onto the back lot, take in the smell of smoky gunpowder and the soft rustle of hoop skirts, and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. Julie’s access to real-life magic comes when Carole Lombard hires her as an assistant and invites her into the glamorous world Carole shares with Clark Gable, who is about to move into movie history as the dashing Rhett Butler.
     Carole Lombard, happily profane and uninhibited, makes no secret of her relationship with Gable, which poses something of a problem for the studio because Gable is technically still married—and the last thing the film needs is more negative publicity. Julie is there to fend off the overly curious reporters, hoping to prevent details about the affair from slipping out. But she can barely keep up with her blond employer, let alone control what comes out of Carole’s mouth, and—as their friendship grows—Julie soon finds she doesn’t want to. Carole, both wise and funny, becomes Julie’s model for breaking free of the past.
     In the ever-widening scope of this story, Julie is given a front-row seat to not one but two of the greatest love affairs of all time: the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett, and offscreen, the deepening love between Carole and Clark. Yet beneath the shiny façade, things in Hollywood are never quite what they seem, and Julie must learn to balance her career aspirations and her own budding romance with the outsized personalities and overheated drama on set. Vivid, romantic, and filled with Old Hollywood details, A Touch of Stardust will entrance, surprise, and delight.  
I have to give credit to Alcott for her elegant and bright prose, which moves the plot along at a nice, steady pace. Julie's romance with a young Jewish producer came off as just a bit too stereotypical, however, and though I realize this book takes place before America got involved in World War 2, I find it hard to believe that her parents were so stiff and uncompromising about her boyfriend's religion. Julie also seemed to be rather skittish and immature, but it was wonderful to watch her grow a spine under the auspices of the profane Lombard, who sounds like she was a feminist and a delightfully brassy broad before that was a "thing" in Hollywood. Alcott leaves us without an HEA, but she does intimate that her fictional characters survive the war and are able to build a life together in California. I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the filming of Gone With the Wind, in women in the movie business prior to the war, and in Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert is really just one long TED Talk on paper. It is by turns amusing and frustrating and quotable, of course, but it also provides a strong dose of pragmatism and/or common sense for creative people who often aren't too conversant with either. Unlike the title suggests, Gilbert posits that there isn't a whole lot of "magic" to making a career as a creative, there's really only being awake and ready for inspiration and ideas to come to you so you can manifest them into being with your particular art form, whether it's painting, woodworking or wordsmithing/writing. The main thing to remember, she writes, is that ideas are like dandelion seeds floating on the wind, waiting to land on someone and become a song, a book, or a play. They can land on you, but they can also land on someone else at the same time, allowing two people to have the same idea, but of course different ways of expressing it. And while that's fine and dandy, we must NEVER try to force creative ideas to do the hard work of making a living for us as creative people. They're too fragile for that, and really, Gilbert notes, how many people actually make a living with their creative art form? The odds are not in your favor as a creative artist, and therefore you must do whatever mundane jobs that you can to support yourself and do your art, express your creativity, whenever you can, either in the wee hours or the late nights, when you're not working at a "real" job. Here's the blurb: Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work,  embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.
I loved that Gilbert busted the myth of the suffering artist wide open, noting that you don't need to be an alcoholic or a drug addict or dying of some dread disease in order to create real art. This is something I've been saying since I was a teenager, long before Gilbert was born, that it's possible to take joy in creating paintings or poems or any other kind of art, and that if you don't enjoy doing something, don't do it! Life is too short to shred your soul in an effort to be "authentic," when it is just as possible to construct beautiful art from joy as it is from sorrow or pain. I can't imagine spending my waking hours doing something I despise. First of all, I don't create well when I'm filled with negative emotions, in pain or unhappy, and second, I've never been so "inhibited" as a person that I needed illegal drugs to "open the gates" to creative imagination and ideas. In fact, I discovered when I was in college that I'm pretty much worthless when I'm drunk, and I don't think I am alone in thinking that people who claim to only be able to write while under the influence of drugs or alcohol are actually being creative despite being an addict. Gilbert's prose, as it was in Eat, Pray, Love, is whimsical and fun, and each short chapter is filled with witty and wise anecdotes and quotes, so you feel like you're in a classroom of a beloved professor who is teaching you vital information, but doing it in a way that is enjoyable and easily assimilated. I really think that the title of this book is a misnomer, it should be "How to Be a Smart Creative With a Dose of Common Sense," but that probably wouldn't sell as well as a book with "magic" in the title. I'd give this non fiction book an A, and recommend it to anyone who wants to live the life of a creative artist.

Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson is a book of 5 novellas about fire spirits who take various forms and transform the lives of the people around them. I picked up this book mainly because I've read everything Robin McKinley has written, and I adore her prose and her storytelling ability. I have no idea who Peter Dickinson is, but his stories are just as interesting as McKinley's, though his prose is not as refined or elegant as hers. Here's the blurb:  After Water comes Fire - five stories from Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson about the necessary yet dangerous element. In these tales, a boy and his dog are unexpected guests on a dragonrider's first flight. A slave saves his village with a fiery magic spell. A girl's new friend, the guardian of a mystical bird, is much older than he appears. A young man walks the spirit world to defeat a fireworm. A mysterious dog is a key player in an eerie graveyard showdown. These five short stories are full of magic, mystery, and wonder. Kirkus Reviews: Five tales of fiery beasts shimmer in an uneven fantasy collection by the noted husband-and-wife team. The three Dickinson stories-especially "Phoenix," in which a girl who loves forests discovers an ancient gamekeeper's secret, and "Salamander Man," in which a slave is chosen from birth to fulfill a magical duty-seem less self-sustained narratives than world-building sketches or conceptual explorations. Only "Fireworm," a dreamlike, elegiac legend about an Ice Age tribe threatened by an igneous monster, contains any character development or plot arc. In contrast, the two McKinley tales charm with intriguing, likable characters and hopeful themes. In "Hellhound," a young woman who dreams of unicorns adopts a fiery-eyed dog, with mysterious, terrifying and oddly touching results. The irresistible novella "First Flight," by far the standout contribution, introduces a shy, clumsy youth with a knack for healing who finds himself saddled with the impossible challenge of helping a crippled dragon to fly. McKinley's fans can only hope that she will return to this world in a future novel.
I was not aware that Dickinson and McKinley were a husband and wife team, but I agree with the Kirkus reviewer that McKinley's talents as a storyteller are much stronger than Dickinson's.So it's not surprising that I enjoyed Robin McKinley's stories more than I liked her husbands. Still, the book was worth the used bookstore price just for her tales of fire-creatures come to life. I'd give the book as whole a B+, and recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Mages series, or anyone who is a fire sign, like myself, and finds stories of fire spirits fascinating.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom Animated Film, Plus Books 2-5 of the Kitty Norville Urban Fantasy Series by Carrie Vaughn

Talk About An All Star Cast!
Mark Hamill (Star Wars) is joining a voice cast that includes Jeffrey
Combs (Transformers Prime), Christopher Plummer and Doug Bradley
(Hellraiser) for the animated film Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea

adapted from Bruce Brown's and Dwight L. MacPherson's graphic novel,
Deadline reported. From Shout! Factory and Arcana Studios, the project
is written, directed and produced by Sean Patrick O'Reilly and is the
second installment of the Howard Lovecraft animated film series, after
Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom. It is set to be released later
this year.

I've been immersed, this past week, in reading Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series. They're all in mass market paperback, which makes them easily accessible, and they're all old enough that the library doesn't have many holds on them, so I was able to get books 2-5 quickly, and I've got books 6 and 7 waiting for me at the Maple Valley Library. I'm going to try and review books 2-5 here, but the format might be a bit wobbly, so bear with me.
Kitty Goes to Washington by Carrie Vaughn is the second book in this urban fantasy series. Here's the blurb, from Barnes and Talk radio meets supernatural fantasy in Carrie Vaughn's second adventure to feature Kitty Norville, a popular late-night radio host who happens to be a werewolf. In Kitty Goes to Washington, the lovable lycanthrope is subpoenaed to attend upcoming Senate hearings regarding paranormal beings. After Kitty consults with her lawyer, she reluctantly agrees to go to Washington. As a rogue wolf without a pack and no territorial home (see Kitty and the Midnight Hour), her brief stay in D.C. may even be a kind of vacation. Upon her arrival, she is accosted by Alette, the vampiric Mistress of the City, who insists that Kitty stay with her. The matriarchal bloodsucker says that she fears for Kitty's safety and even assigns her bodyguards; but as the renowned radio host sees more of the city and meets a group of peaceable lycanthropes that include a hunky were-jaguar, she begins to realize that the Senate hearings are only the tip of the iceberg of the complex and highly volatile subject of supernatural beings. Are they human? Do they have the same rights as everyone else? Or are they a disease that should be eradicated? While pondering these issues, Kitty becomes a prime target in a dangerous political game that includes a witch-hunting senator, an unethical doctor, and a reporter who will do anything to get an exclusive interview with Kitty. Comparable to Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels (minus the X-rated sexual acrobatics), this lighthearted fantasy should appeal to fans of authors like Charlaine Harris, Julie Kenner, Kim Harrison, and Kelley Armstrong. While the Kitty books don't add anything new to the lycanthropic mythos, they are fast-paced, witty, and consistently entertaining.
Once again, I found myself being irritated by Kitty's stupidity, cowardice and passive "feminine" nature. She doesn't stand up for herself enough, and she ends up transforming into a werewolf on live TV and in front of a rabid racist politician, who in kidnapping her is trying to "prove" to America that all were-creatures are abominations who live only to kill "real" people and who should therefore be hunted down and eradicated. Of course Kitty proves to be a cowering little werewolf who won't harm anyone, and this drives the politician around the bend. I did like the fact that Kitty took a lover in this novel, and I also enjoyed reading about her radio show and the odd callers that she gets. I was also intrigued by Alette the master vampire of Washington DC, and the bar for werewolves and vampires that is a haven/sanctuary where these supernatural beings can co-exist in peace, not unlike the bar frequented by Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher's urban fantasy series. I'd give this book a B, and recommend it to anyone who has read the first book, Kitty in the Midnight Hour.  
Kitty Takes a Holiday is the third book in Vaughn's series, and this novel has Kitty in retreat to the cliche'd cabin in the woods to write her memoirs. Here's the Barnes and Noble blurb: The third installment of Carrie Vaughn's supernatural fantasy series starring lycanthropic late-night radio host Kitty Norville (Kitty and the Midnight Hour and Kitty Goes to Washington) takes an emphatically romantic turn when Norville, on hiatus from her popular radio show, is compelled to care for her lawyer friend Ben O'Farrell, who has been bitten and infected by a werewolf.
While hidden away in a cabin in the wilds of southern Colorado, Norville is finding it difficult to write her memoirs -- especially when someone keeps painting bloody crosses on her door and leaving mutilated animal sacrifices hanging in the surrounding trees. But her autobiography takes a backseat when werewolf bounty hunter Cormac Bennett shows up on Norville's doorstep with a bloodied O'Farrell in tow. While assisting Bennett on a case in New Mexico involving a rogue werewolf, O'Farrell was brutally attacked and, in less than four days, will experience his first Change. As O'Farrell struggles to come to grips with his new affliction, Norville and Bennett talk to locals in an attempt to uncover who is using arcane blood magic to intimidate Norville into leaving. But when the full moon inevitably rises and Norville and Bennett Change, the radio personality finds the unexpected: companionship, love, acceptance -- and the beginnings of her own pack. Featuring a strong and sexy heroine, this fast-paced and engaging saga will thoroughly engage fans of authors like Kim Harrison and Julie Kenner. It's a far-from-normal paranormal fantasy
In helping Ben, Kitty's lawyer and former werewolf/vampire hunter, Kitty discovers some hidden strengths within herself, and starts to develop more backbone, which is a relief and a surprise, after reading the first two books. She also discovers, in listening to a woman who has developed a radio program that is a blatant rip off of Kitty's program, that she is an inspiration, a comfort and a help to many were-creatures across the nation who are alone and afraid, and need someone to listen to them and give advice. Vaughn's prose is, as always, beautifully clean and clear, and her plots move on swift paws. I'd give this one a B+, and recommend it to anyone who has read the previous books.
Kitty and the Silver Bullet is the fourth book in the series, and in this one, Kitty's mother has cancer, and must undergo surgery, so Kitty has to return to Denver and face the abusive pack leaders she left behind. Fortunately, now Kitty has a mate in Ben, and she's developed strength and a bit of savvy about the world of the supernaturals in the past three books, so she's got allies to help take on this challenge. Here's the blurb: Kitty's radio show is as popular as ever and she has a boyfriend who actually seems to understand her. Can she finally settle down to a normal life? Not if this is just the calm before the storm. When her mother falls ill, Kitty rushes back to Denver—and right back to the abusive pack of werewolves she escaped a year ago. To make matters worse, a war is brewing between the city's two oldest vampires, threatening the whole supernatural community. Though she wants to stay neutral, Kitty is again drawn into a world of politics and violence. To protect her family, her lover, and herself, she'll have to choose sides. And maybe become what she hates—a killer.
Once again Kitty is put in an untenable situation by others, in this case Rick the second in command Denver vampire who wants to oust the Master vampire and the abusive werewolf pack leaders and take over the Denver area for himself (he wants Kitty and Ben to be take over as alphas from the evil Carl and Meg). Rick makes it clear that she has no choice in the matter, especially once the master vampire begins to threaten Kitty's mother in the hospital and her mate, Ben. Now that Kitty has allies, however, she utilizes Cormac the vampire/werewolf hunter and Ben's cousin to help her bring everyone together to stage a coup. Though its messy and lives are lost, Kitty manages to prevail, only to realize that Cormac must pay the price and spend time in jail for killing a skinwalker who was trying to take Kitty and Ben down. Still, the action never flags in this book, and the pace was breakneck. I enjoyed the growth of the characters, and watching Kitty become stronger and kicking arse was truly a delight. This book gets an A, and the inevitable recommendation to read it if you've read all the other books.
Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand is the fifth book in Carrie Vaughn's urban fantasy series, and in this book, Kitty and Ben are getting married in Las Vegas, and hoping for some rest and relaxation and time for gambling, of course. It seems that werewolves are superior poker players because they can smell the "tells" on the other players, and therefore they have an advantage. But of course, things don't go as smoothly, and Kitty ends up nearly becoming a sacrifice to an ancient were-goddess in her quest to help Ben escape some Vegas mobsters. Here's the blurb: Already the alpha pair of Denver's werewolf pack, Kitty and Ben now plan to tie the knot human-style by eloping to Vegas. Kitty is looking forward to sipping fru-fru drinks by the pool and doing her popular radio show on live TV, but her hotel is stocked with werewolf-hating bounty hunters. Elsewhere on the Strip an old-school magician might be wielding the real thing; the vampire community is harboring a dark secret; and the irresistible star of a suspicious animal act is determined to seduce Kitty. Sin City has never been so wild, and this werewolf has never had to fight harder to save not only her wedding, but her very life.
I didn't actually like the whole "radio show on TV" thing, and Kitty seems to revel in egotism about looking so good on camera and bringing her popular question and answer radio show to the glitzy Vegas neon lights. She worries that the were-creatures who are doing a show that involves some BDSM erotica aren't there of their own free will, and when she goes to investigate, she almost gets raped by a pack of skeevy weres ruled by an even skeevier pack leader. Of course they're described as being handsome and hot, but I found their cruelty and predatory behavior anything but attractive, and I was surprised that Kitty was so shallow that she fell for their blandishments in the first place. She should have known better. Still, the sleazy people get what they deserve, and Kitty and Ben finally tie the knot. I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who has read the other books in the series. I'm looking forward to the 6th book, Kitty Raises Hell, and the one following that, which are waiting for me at the library. This is a fun, frothy series that provides an easy, escapist read for troubled times, which is exactly what I need right now, as I'm constantly horrified by the ugliness and political machinations of all the old racist, sexist white men who have taken over Washington DC, our nation's capital. So special thanks to Carrie Vaughn for the lovely distraction.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Books and the POTUS, Bookstore Pubs in Seattle, Kitty in the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn, Boss Fight: The Twenty-Sided Sorceress Vol 2 by Annie Bellet, and The Yonhahlosse Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani and Lockwood and Co by Jonathan Stroud

It has always impressed me that our outgoing POTUS loves books almost as much as I do. But this gem of a conversation, which took place in my home state of Iowa, was yet another reminder of how much I will miss our 44th president, who worked diligently for the American people in a thankless job for 8 years. I will miss Michelle Obama and her kindness and grace as well. I am not looking forward to the next 4 years with a crude and evil president who doubtless hasn't read a book in decades.

The Importance of Books for President Obama

President Obama and author Marilynne Robinson in conversation
at the Iowa State Library, Des Moines, September 2015 (photo: Pete
Souza/White House)

"Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of
what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the
voices, the multitudes of this country.... And so I think that I found
myself better able to imagine what's going on in the lives of people
throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the
act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has
been helpful.

"And then there's been the occasion where I just want to get out of my
own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to
be someplace else...."

"At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is
transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with
the ability to get in somebody else's shoes--those two things have been
invaluable to me. Whether they've made me a better president, I can't
say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain
my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place
that comes at you hard and fast and doesn't let up."

--President Barack Obama, in a front-page New York Times story yesterday
entitled "Obama's Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

So far, 2017 has been chilly and wet here in Western Washingon, and these great bookstore/pubs have provided Seattle denizens with a respite and a good read, which is a brilliant business strategy, in my opinion.

Bookstores Are 'Seattle's New Favorite Place to Drink'
Noting that new bars "spring up in Seattle like weeds in sidewalk
cracks," the Stranger reported "there's a new trend where people can
find their favorite beverage in a place that speaks directly to the need
for coziness, companionship, and intellectual fodder through the dark
and damp Seattle winter: bars in bookstores

"The whole point is to build community," said Danielle Hulton, co-owner
of Ada's Technical Books and Cafe, which recently added a cocktail bar and event space called the Lab. "Having food and drink helps."

Third Place Books "has devoted the basement and part of the main floor of its new Seward Park location,
which opened in May 2016, to Raconteur, an all-day bar and restaurant by
the folks from Flying Squirrel Pizza Co.," the Stranger noted, adding
that the bookseller "was already a player in the bookstore bar game with
the Pub at Third Place, a cozy, wood-paneled craft-beer spot below their
Ravenna shop."

Although patrons can now sip rose; at Little Oddfellows in Elliott
Bay Book Company, grab a beer at Ada's and drink cocktails at Raconteur, Third Place managing partner Robert
Sindelar said the concept wasn't so accepted when the Ravenna pub first
opened more than a decade ago: "It was slow to start. Initially, people
wanted out of it what other bars in the neighborhood offered: Where's
the pool table? Where's the dartboard? How cheap is your beer?" By the
time Third Place prepared to launch its Seward Park space, a pub was
part of the plan and the owners "brought in a different restaurant
operator and different food offerings, and made the bar a more integral
part of the store," the Stranger wrote.

Hulton noted that her customers at Ada's liked the Lab's concept
immediately: "They wanted more space for community, to find different
ways to interact with Ada's that plug in for them."

Caleb Thompson, who has managed the Pub at Third Place for more than a
decade, agreed: "That's the whole ideal of the third place--you need
somewhere to go to talk to people and relate.... You come in and it's
like, there are so many of the things I love in one place! Why isn't
this everywhere?"

Kitty in the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn was a series I've been hearing about for awhile now, but I'd ignored it because I've been going through so many other urban fantasy series that I put this one on the back burner for later examination of worthiness. I'd read Discord's Apple years ago, and I was unsure that I wanted to read more of Vaughn's work. But the idea of a werewolf doing an overnight talk show on the radio intrigued me, if for no other reason than my husband was involved in radio journalism for 20 years. So when a deal came my way to get the MM paperback of the first of this series, I jumped at it. I wasn't expecting a lot, but I was pleasantly surprised by how fast a read this was, and the shimmering quality of the prose that moved a slick plot along with rapid pace. Here's the blurb: Publisher's Weekly: Vaughn's entertaining fantasy debut introduces Kitty Norville, a closeted werewolf who hosts a popular Denver radio program called The Midnight Hour. During her show, Kitty takes phone calls from listeners (not all of whom are human) while trying to maintain her secret identity. Unfortunately, the local vampire crime family wants her show canceled and has hired someone to kill her. In fact, it's during the course of Kitty's dramatic on-air conversation with her would-be assassin that she reveals to listeners that she is, indeed, a werewolf. Eventually, local police enlist her to help track down a serial killer who exhibits werewolflike tendencies. While Kitty's occasional neediness, snide tone and attempts at werewolf wit can grate, this remains a surprisingly human tale. Blurbs from Charlaine Harris and L.A. Banks will cue their readers.
I agree with PW that Kitty's neediness and snide tone, not to mention her shallow judgemental attitude and her cowardice in the face of her pack's alpha, Carl, who is an abusive asshat, grates the nerves and made me want to slap her, more than a few times. She just couldn't stop herself from "melting" every time Carl came after her as a human or a wolf, and forced himself on her. She seems to find this rape sexy or romantic, which is revolting at best. Still, she does take self defense classes and tries, toward the end of the book, to defend herself. She even manages to leave her horrible pack leaders, though I have a feeling that they're not done with her, and they will be trying to kill her in further iterations of the series. I have 5 more of these books on hold at the library, so we'll see if Kitty manages to "wolf up" as the story progresses. I'd give this first book a B, and recommend it to those who are into paranormal fantasy and radio broadcasting.
Boss Fight: The Twenty-Sided Sorceress Volume 2 by Annie Bellet is books 5-7 in an omnibus of this paranormal urban fantasy series. I read volume 1 of this series last month, and I LOVED it, so I was thrilled when I read that the second omnibus had come out this month. I am a big fan of Jade Crow and her friends, and the last book of the first omnibus left us with something of a cliffhanger. Here's the blurb:
This is the second volume of the USA TODAY bestselling fantasy series combining the next three books—Heartache, Thicker Than Blood, and Magic to the Bone. Separated from her friends, their fates unknown, and without her magic, Jade must stop fighting on Samir’s terms or else her next battle will be her last.Level up. Or die.
Jade Crow and her friends faced their worst enemy, her ex-boyfriend Samir, the most powerful sorcerer in the world, and they now lie defeated, and flung across the wilderness.
Samir had trained Jade to be a sorceress, to mold her in his image, until she rejected him and escaped here to Wylde. Jade must stop fighting on Samir’s terms or else her next battle will be her last.
Leveled up and wiser, Jade stands a chance this time, if she follows the true calling of her power, and changes the playing field. Everything has been leading up to this…Roll for initiative!
This is the omnibus of the next three volumes in the USA TODAY bestselling fantasy series, Heartache; Thicker Than Blood; Magic to the Bone, collected together for the first time in print.
Other than the fact that I have to ask my teenage son the meaning of some of the gaming terms in these books, I really enjoy reading them and watching the protagonist fight evil, in the person of Samir the evil sorcerer, Jades ex boyfriend. SPOILER, Jade discovers in these three books that she isn't just a sorceress, she's a dragon, who apparently have all kinds of magic and sorcery at their fingertips. She's able to use all of the might and magic at her disposal to kill the evil sorcerer, but when it comes to obliterating him, she's told that she can't do this, because it will tear a hole in the fabric that is keeping magic from flowing back into the world and allowing the supernaturals to take over. So she contains Samir's heart in her talisman, and I would bet that decision is going to come back to haunt her in upcoming books. I'd give the second omnibus an A, and recommend it to anyone who has read the first book, because, like potato chips, these books are addictive and you can't devour just one. 
The Yonhahlosse Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani (who is a woman) was a dollar store purchase, made all the better by the fact that it was large print, and contained it's own ribbon book mark. Not being a fan of formal horseback riding/dressage, I put off reading this book for months, but finally decided to take the plunge last weekend. Though the prose was sporadic and the plot thin in spots, the story itself could have been saved by having characters who were relatable. Unless you are, or were, a wealthy snobbish young woman who is a twin, horse crazy and who is from a cruel and distant Florida family during the Great Depression, this novel will remain somewhat impenitrable and frustrating. Here's the blurb, via Publisher's Weekly: The setup for this debut novel is delectable: it’s 1930, the country is tumbling into depression, and 15-year-old Thea has done something bad enough to get her sent from Florida to an elite year-round “camp” in North Carolina where, at least at first, the effects of the economy are kept at bay while affluent Southern girls become “ladies.” DiScalfani, who grew up around horses, is at her best when recreating the intuition and strength of girls in the saddle. Otherwise Thea’s narration feels flattened by history and the characters she encounters never achieve dimensionality. The build toward the revelation of Thea’s crime is drawn out, sapping the reveal of drama, but the account of Thea’s emerging sexuality provides meaningful reflections on the potency of teenage desire. Here too, however, DiScalfani seems distanced from her characters, relying on declarations such as “I was not weak,” “I was angry,” and “I was glum” when exploring the tension of conflicting feelings. Though there are many twists and turns, the prose numbs the pleasure of reading about even the most forbidden of Thea’s trysts
I didn't find the set up of spoiled and nasty depression-era teenage girls (and boys) all that delectable, I found it sad and horrifying, by turns. SPOILERS AHEAD. What really chapped my hide was that readers were supposed to be thrilled or at least titillated by Thea's sexual escapades with her first cousin, a thug named Georgie who gets bludgeoned by Thea's bizarre twin brother Sam, who finds her nearly inflagrante with their cousin and tries to kill him out of jealousy (ewww...disgusting and vile). Once she's exiled to the riding camp, she proves that she still has no consideration for the consequences of her actions when she starts an affair with the married headmaster of the school. It is intimated that she gets pregnant and loses the baby later on, but she lies about whom she's been having sex with in order to be booted out of the camp and sent home, so she can see her brother. She discovers that he no longer cares about her, and her horrible mother, who told her (in front of her brother and father) that boys matter and girls do not, continues to be the worst parent in existence by letting her know that they had to sell their huge mansion on acres of land with orange groves because Georgie, when he awoke from the head trauma, was never "right in the head" again, and dies not long after, and Thea's father sends them money every month as a penance for Thea's actions (they don't know that Sam was the one who hit him with the butt of a rifle, but even if they did know, they'd blame it on Thea because she's expendable Oh, and it also doesn't matter that Georgie was the one who deflowered her, because boys are never at fault for having sex, but girls must refrain from all desire.) There really was no one to like in this too-long book, other than Sassy, a rich girl who actually stands by Thea and isn't as much of a jerk as all the other girls. Everyone at the camp is judged according to their looks and their wealth/status. When the depression hits and more than a few girls have to leave because their families have lost everything, there's little sympathy for them, and they are seen as somehow "less" than those girls whose families still have money. The ugliness continues when one of the girls kisses Thea, and Thea tells her, later in the book that she must hide her lesbianism, because being "odd" is not good, and she and her family will be punished if she's found out. I can't give this novel anything higher than a C, and I would only recommend it to those who are in dire need of historical YA fiction about horseback riding camps. 
Lockwood and Co. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud was, in contrast to the above, a pleasure to read. A YA supernatural "Scooby gang" mystery, I was enthralled by Stroud's fine prose and fun, fast plot.  Here's the blurb:
A sinister Problem has occurred in London: all nature of ghosts, haunts, spirits, and specters are appearing throughout the city, and they aren't exactly friendly. Only young people have the psychic abilities required to see-and eradicate-these supernatural foes. Many different Psychic Detection Agencies have cropped up to handle the dangerous work, and they are in fierce competition for business.
In The Screaming Staircase, the plucky and talented Lucy Carlyle teams up with Anthony Lockwood, the charismatic leader of Lockwood & Co, a small agency that runs independent of any adult supervision. After an assignment leads to both a grisly discovery and a disastrous end, Lucy, Anthony, and their sarcastic colleague, George, are forced to take part in the perilous investigation of Combe Carey Hall, one of the most haunted houses in England. Will Lockwood & Co. survive the Hall's legendary Screaming Staircase and Red Room to see another day?
Readers who enjoyed the action, suspense, and humor in Jonathan Stroud's internationally best-selling Bartimaeus books will be delighted to find the same ingredients, combined with deliciously creepy scares, in his thrilling and chilling Lockwood & Co. series.
I loved plucky Lucy and how she did her best to use her talents to help solve the case, and she used her wits to keep up with the nasty bully George, (who, because he's mean is of course fat) and the distracted genius of Lockwood.  There are lots of paranormal goodies in the book to keep even the most jaded teenager reading and engaged, and I found the premise that only children can see and eradicate ghosts and ghouls to be fascinating. I liked it, too, that children and teens are the only ones who have strong psychic powers, for the most part, and that inevitably the adults who are supposed to be supporting and training them often let them down or see them as expendable. This nifty little novel deserves an A, and a recommendation to anyone who likes historical YA supernatural fantasy/mystery.