Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fires of the Faithful and My Heart Stood Still

Though I am not a 'regular' romance reader, I've found that Lynn Kurland's excellent storytelling draws me in to her romance novels time and again, mainly for the sheer escapist joy of reading a well-told tale.
So when I found a copy of "My Heart Stood Still" which is part of a series of romantic novels about modern-day women and men who time-travel back to the Scotland of previous centuries, I grabbed it with all due fervor.
After reading lots of modern literature, mysteries, biographies and more than a few pieces of fiction about the horrors of World War 2, I was ready for fiction without a whisper of cynicism, crass, evil characters or boorish, ignorant twits---or worse, the "Mary Sue" character who is all too perfect, in a poorly written novel full of redundancies.
What a relief to read Kurland's smooth prose, light and lovely, filled with her dynamic characters who learn, grow, fall in love and generally seem like the kind of people you'd like to sit and have a cuppa tea and a chat with. Some group blurbed her cover saying "I dare you to read a Kurland book and not enjoy it!" and I second that daring recommendation.
This book followed Thomas McKinnon as he purchases a run down castle that is alive with Scottish ghosts, and the spirit of a Highland woman, Iolanthe, who was murdered because she refused to tell the man she was sold to the secret of her ancestral home. In a nice little twist on the Ghost and Mrs Muir, Thomas falls in love with Iolanthe, and after renovating the castle, tries to go back in time to save her before she's murdered. Characters from the previous novels all make an appearance, and there's just enough lovely Scottish history woven into the plot to be interesting and not stall the characters.
I've read "This is All I Ask," "The Very Thought of You," "The More I See You," "From This Moment On," "My Heart Stood Still" and I think I read "If I Had You" but I still need to find "A Garden in the Rain," "Dreams of Stardust," "Another Chance to Dream," and "A Dance Through Time," though there is a good chance I've read that last one.
At any rate, I highly recommend this series to those who like their paranormal romance married to truly fine storytelling, delightful characters and zippy plots that never drag. As an added bonus, Kurlands books are safe for teenagers, as there is usually nothing more than a chaste kiss or hand-holding in her books, no erotica or porn slipped in every other chapter, like many modern romance authors.

Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer seemed like a fascinating fantasy novel at first blush, and while I am not the kind of person who likes religion peppering the pages of her fiction, I can stand it if there is reason for it in the story, and if the author doesn't succumb to preaching to her readers.
Fortunately, Kritzer doesn't fall into that trap, instead taking off in a completely different direction with her characters than I'd anticipated.
The protagonist Eliana is something of a prodigy at the music conservatory where she's learning to play songs on her violin that are both forbidden and still call to her soul. Songs of the "old ways" are forbidden by the Fedeli, a kind of roving inquisition, who are supposedly carrying out the wishes of the Circle, a group of powerful mages under orders from the King. When Eliana's new room mate starts to teach her and her friends more about the forbidden songs and magic, Eliana discovers first, that she is a budding lesbian and second, what has caused the war and famine that has ravaged her entire country. Eliana also finds her inner leader, and a cause once she sets out to find her family and ends up in a refugee camp run by a greedy tyrant.
I found this novel surprising and engrossing, but when I discovered a second book follows "Fires of the Faithful," I assumed I could conjure a copy at the library, since the sequel has been out since 2003. Unfortunately, the KCL system has no copies of the book, so I have put in a request for an inter-library loan or that KCLS buy a copy of the book, as I assume it is only a mass market paperback, and therefore cheap.
So I am going to have to wait for the fate of Eliana and her group, but in the meantime, I would recommend this fantasy novel to those who like Mercedes Lackeys "Bardic Voices" series. Teenagers who are uncertain of their sexual orientation might find it interesting and comforting as well.
I am currently trying to decide whether to take back the broken-spine copy of "The Gods of Amyrantha" by Jennifer Fallon to the library. Though the first book in this series was a delight, the sequel has become mired in politics and boring scenarios that have me nodding off while reading it. I am just not sure it is worth the struggle to finish it. I am told the library will toss the book in the dumpster, instead of repairing it, when I am done with it anyway, which makes me sad.
I'm also reading "The Poe Shadow" by Matthew Pearl, which, though it has somewhat historical British prose style, still seems interesting enough to continue on with it. I am looking forward to starting on my recently acquired copy of Barbara Kingslover's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," which I hope and pray won't resemble "The Poisonwood Bible" at all.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

More Photos of the NEW Couth Buzzrd Bookstore

The Couth Buzzard is back!

The Couth Buzzard Used Bookstore was a fixture in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle at 71st and Greenwood Avenue for nearly 20 years.
Then, last year, they closed because the people who own Ken's Market got greedy and wanted to expand their small grocery store to include the entire block of stores that resided alongside them for years, such as the glass blowing shop "Oh My Glass" and the marvelous Greenwood Bakery, where Jim and I bought our wedding cake in 1997 for $50.
The Buzzard was owned and operated by Gerry Lovchik and Marilyn Stauter, two wonderfully fun people who were always up for a lively literary conversation, a game of chess or what have you. Marilyn introduced me to John Steinbecks "To A God Unknown" and I found myself re-reading all of Steinbeck because that book was such a revelation of perfection.
Gerry was always trying to expand my reading horizons with books from the 60s and 70s, and biographies that I would not otherwise have picked up. Because I was working for a pittance at the Phinney Neighborhood Center at the time, he allowed me to help shelve and process books in exchange for a pile of books that I wanted to read. It was like being involved in a treasure hunt every time I walked into the store. I loved the fact that there were dusty shelves and misplaced books lurking around every corner, and that Bill, one of the clerks who called himself a "recovering CPA" was always ready with a bookish joke or quip for every patron. "It's in the C-section, which is actually a very complicated operation," he once said in response to a query about the placement of true crime novels. There was a piano in the corner that usually had someone pounding out a tune over the weekend, and the kids corner had lots of well-loved and ratty stuffed animals for kids to hold while their mothers searched the stacks for bed time stories.
When I heard the store was closing a couple of years ago, I ran into the store and asked what had happened, but Gerry was unflustered by it all, and tried to get me to buy the stores stock and reopen somewhere nearby. I had to decline, because I didn't have enough money to do so, but Gerry swore that someone would purchase the Buzzard and bring it back one day.
Now that day has arrived, and the Buzzard has risen from the ashes at 83rd and Greenwood, complete with a Espresso Buono Coffee shop (and lunch counter, serving Italian sodas, bakery goods and panini sandwiches) and fresh shelves full of used books, plus a stage area for musical bands. It's a lovely, warm and fun space, and yesterday when I went there with my family to check it out, we were regaled with glorious Irish music from a small band that played for hours on end without a break.
People rummaging through the stacks were tapping their toes and wiggling their hips to the jigs and reels, and everyone had a smile on their face and a cup of coffee or soda in their hands.
Gerry has kept all of the old records, so if you had store credit, you can still use it, and I was able to get four great books for under $15. What a deal!
But Theo (the new owner) and Gerry need everyones help in rebuilding their stock of used books, so if you happen to be culling your shelves, please consider meandering down to Greenwood Ave and drop them off at the Couth Buzzard for store credit. You will be glad that you did.
Here's to another 20 years of providing a good deal on books to the populace of Phinney Ridge and Ballard.
Couth Buzzard Books and Espresso Buono, 8310 Greenwood Ave N., Seattle. Phone 206-436-2960

Monday, January 04, 2010

Two Australian Authors and One AMAZING book

Over the past week, I've read three books, two of them by Australian authors and one by an author I've never heard of who actually lives up to her cover blurb.

I picked up "Sweeping Up Glass" by Carolyn Wall after reading about it in the email newsletter for booksellers and librarians, Shelf Awareness.
The blurb on the back cover said "This is a perfect little book, like a head-on collision between Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee with a bit of Faulkner..." Joe R Landsdale
I actually laughed when I read that, and figured Mr Landsdale must somehow be related to Ms Wall.

Much to my astonishment, once I cracked open "Sweeping up Glass" I couldn't put it does, indeed, read like a cross between "To Kill a Mockingbird" and a Flannery O'Connor short story with a dash of Faulkners insane Southern characters. It's a perfect blend of innocence, ignorance, pride, prejudice, mystery and transformation. I was riveted right to the last word, which I read at 12:30 am this morning.

This is the story of Olivia Harker Cross, a woman who lives in poverty in a little Kentucky town at the base of Big Foley Mountain. She's taking care of her evil mother, Ida, and raising her beloved grandson Willem, while trying to eke out a living by tending the tiny grocery at the front of her home. Having lost her father, who was the town veterinarian and moonshiner, Olivia has been at odds with her insane, vituperative mother and the town thugs for years, mainly because her best friends are the local colored community, who treat her like family and helped raise her when her mother was in the state mental hospital. Oliva's father brought silver-faced wolves to the area, and now they are being hunted and killed off in her back yard, and Olivia must solve the mystery of who is behind the killings, why her father was buried near the outhouse, and why the love of her life married someone else.

Once Olivia starts to unravel the mystery, the power of love to transform a life, even one that is halfway over, is revealed. The prose in this novel is deceptively simple on the surface, yet it has the power to create people who seem as real and possible as the neighbors. The plot is swift and full of twists you won't see coming, and the characters voices are spot-on for the South of the 1950s. I highly recommend this novel and I hope that my book group at the library will consider reading it this year.

I also read Australians Jennifer Fallon and Denise Rossetti's latest works.
Jennifer Fallon wrote the Hythrun Chronicles series, about the Harshini, which I loved, and the Wolfblade trilogy, which I was somewhat less enthusiastic about, mainly because there were a lot more political machinations in that series, and politics bore me, whether real or imagined.

"The Immortal Prince" is the first book in a new series by Fallon, and it is terrific, full of strong, self realized female characters and both good and evil male characters.
The story takes place on a world where magic and Tide Gods are the stuff of legend, even a deck of tarot cards, but Arkady Desean has become an expert on those legends and on the history of the Crasii, a race of slave creatures created by the Tide Lords from animal and human DNA. Akrady learns that the Crasii believe that the Tide Lords exist and are just waiting for the tide to come in to regain their powers and take over the world.

Meanwhile, Arkady, who grew up in the slums, marries a gay Duke, enabling her to continue her studies and help keep him in the Kings good graces. Once a man is tried for murder and hanged, unsuccessfully, the kings spymaster, Declan, asks Arkady to interrogate the man, who claims to be the Tide Lord Cayal, an immortal.In the cell next to Cayal is a dog/man hybrid named Warlock, who engenders Arkady's sympathy as well as her trust when he claims that Cayal is telling the truth. Over time Arkady gets the real story of the immortals and learns of the despair Cayal feels over not being able to die, after centuries of guilt over heinous crimes committed by himself and his fellow immortals, and eventually, she realizes he actually is a Tide Lord.
The trouble is, some of the other immortals, particularly her husbands lover, are manuvering into position for the tides return, so they can take over Amyrantha and enslave not just the Crasii, but the mortals as well.

Fallon's prose is rich with imagery and her plots never plod. She did, however, leave me with a cliffhanger at the end of the book, so I've now got to wait, impatiently, for the second book, the Gods of Amyrantha, to arrive at the library so I can find out what happened! I'd recommend this book to those who enjoy Mercedes Lackey's fantasy novels, or the works of Barbara Hambly.

I will admit that I picked up a copy of Denise Rossetti's "The Flame and the Shadow" because her name is similar to my own, and because I am a fire sign, and any fantasy/SF novel about fire witches is bound to appeal to me.

I was a bit taken aback, initially, when the book started out with the anguish of a mother over losing her baby daughter, and then moved rapidly into a sexual scene with a musician that the main character, Cenda, barely knows.
But I was willing to give this Australian author the benefit of the doubt, mainly because Shana Abe, author of the wonderful Drakon series of paranormal romances, blurbed the book as inventive.

Unfortunately, the story, which had great promise and was interesting, was consistently stalled by detailed sexual scenarios in nearly every chapter of the book.
So much so that I realized the author was writing erotica/soft pornography with a story lightly wrapping around it, like a transluscent robe over a naked body.
The story runs thus: Grayson, the Duke of Ombria, has a living shadow that he wishes to rid himself of, mainly because he doesn't want to face his own homosexual feelings toward the shadow, named "Shad."

He is told that there is a rare fire witch that the technomages want to experiment on, to use as a weapon. There are others who also want the fire witch and her powers, and Grayson makes a double deal to ensure that someone will give him the way to remove Shad in exchange for the fire witch, Cenda.

Meanwhile, Cenda is working with the Enclave, a group of magicians who do things organically, not using technology, to hone her powers when she meets Gray and the two are so immediately enamored of one another that they spend many pages in sexual encounters, each more explosive than the last (and yes, Shad gets involved, too, as he is able to keep Cenda from burning Gray during sex).

What follows are thugs chasing the two, who end up adopting a street child, and escaping from the evil technomages. Cenda learns of Gray's treachery, and Gray realizes that he is in love with Cenda, as is Shad, so all is forgiven and they have more sex. The end.

Other than feeling like this book shouldn't be shelved in the Science Fiction/Fantasy area of the bookstore (it should be under erotica or adult literature/pornography), I was alarmed at the frequent use of the F word along with that despicable host of euphemisms for body parts that were rife in this book. Why can't erotica writers use the word penis? Why use slang words that make everything sound ugly?

A writer with this much talent, whose prose was otherwise fairly decent, killed her credibility by using swear words, ugly oaths and slang wherever possible.
So, while I liked the story, the world-building and some of the characters, I can't recommend this book to anyone, knowing that the pornographic scenes would offend most of my friends who read genre fiction such as SF and Fantasy. I felt angry that I didn't get what I paid for. I wanted an SF/Fantasy novel, not a book of erotica or porn.
Perhaps Ms Rossetti, the Australian version, will clean up her prose and create a book more worthy of her talent as a writer.