Monday, June 20, 2016

PEN Pinter Prize, Nine Rules to Sarah MacLean, The Cake Therapist by Judith Fertig, An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson and Edge of Dark by Brenda Cooper

I've been a fan of Margaret Atwood's works since the 1970s, so I am thrilled that she's added yet another prize to her collection.

Canadian poet, novelist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood won
the 2016 PEN Pinter Prize
is awarded annually by English PEN to "a writer of outstanding literary
merit who, in the words of Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize in Literature
speech, casts an 'unflinching, unswerving' gaze upon the world and shows
a 'fierce intellectual determination... to define the real truth of our
lives and our societies.' " This year, for the first time, the prize was
open to writers from the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth, as
well as from the U.K.

Atwood will receive her award October 13 at a public event at the
British Library and deliver an address. She will also announce her
co-winner, the 2016 International Writer of Courage, selected from a
shortlist of international cases supported by English PEN. The recipient
is an international writer who is active in defense of freedom of
expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty.

The judges praised Atwood as a "consistent supporter of political
causes," adding "her work championing environmental concerns comes well
within the scope of human rights... she is a very important figure in
terms of the principles of PEN and of Harold Pinter." Edge of Dark 

Edge of Dark by Brenda Cooper was recommended by a list of science fiction novels with strong female protagonists on Facebook. Since I'd not read a strictly science fiction novel for awhile (I tend to read hybrids, ie science fiction/fantasy, or paranormal romance, etc) I decided to give it a whirl.
I began reading science fiction as a preteen because I loved the optimism of it and the forward-thinking stories the authors provided that gave me hope for the future of humankind. There is a tendency, these days, to have science fiction take place in dystopias full of the horrors of a mankind decimated by plagues or aliens or environmental catastrophies. I wasn't surprised, then, that this novel takes place in a future where most of humankind live on vast space stations, while some few toil on planets to "reclaim" them from past abuse. Inevitably, humanity has shunned the AI robots they created, only to discover that the cyborgs/robots have now come back to demand their place among humanity, near the sun, because they want natural resources and power. Here's the blurb:
What if a society banished its worst nightmare to the far edge of the solar system, destined to sip only dregs of light and struggle for the barest living.  And yet, that life thrived?  It grew and learned and became far more than you ever expected, and it wanted to return to the sun.  What if it didn’t share your moral compass in any way?
The Glittering Edge duology describes the clash of forces when an advanced society that has filled a solar system with flesh and blood life meets the near-AI’s that it banished long ago.  This is a story of love for the wild and natural life on a colony planet, complex adventure set in powerful space stations, and the desire to live completely whether you are made of flesh and bone or silicon and carbon fiber.  
In Edge of Dark, meet ranger Charlie Windar and his adopted wild predator, and explore their home on a planet that has been raped and restored more than once.  Meet Nona Hall, child of power and privilege from the greatest station in the system, the Diamond Deep.  Meet Nona’s best friend, a young woman named Chrystal who awakens in a robotic body….
It is never made clear what the AIs plan on actually doing with all the natural resources that they blackmail from the humans, nor is it clear if the humans will survive, even though they literally open the gates to their space stations and planets and give the robot community exactly what they want, for fear of being wiped out in a war that they believe they cannot win. Charlie, meanwhile, falls for Nona, who seems almost childlike and stupid in her naive belief that no one will get hurt, and though she doesn't actually "lose" Chrystal, she doesn't seem to grasp that once a human is turned into an unfeeling robot, their priorities shift away from helping humanity. I was creeped out by this book, and saddened by the weakness of the humans and the strength of the robots who kill randomly and without remorse, and seem to have an agenda that is never fully addressed. I'd give this book a B, and only recommend it to those who aren't easily depressed.

An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire was the third book in the October Daye series, and this one brought Toby even closer to death, as the first new character we meet is her "Fetch" which, like a banshee, is a harbinger of one's death. Here's the blurb:
Changeling knight in the court of the Duke of Shadowed Hills, October "Toby" Daye has survived numerous challenges that would destroy fae and mortal alike. Now Toby must take on a nightmarish new assignment. Someone is stealing both fae and mortal children—and all signs point to Blind Michael. When the young son of Toby's closest friends is snatched from their Northern California home, Toby has no choice but to track the villains down, even when there are only three magical roads by which to reach Blind Michael's realm—home of the legendary Wild Hunt—and no road may be taken more than once. If she cannot escape with all the children before the candle that guides and protects her burns away, Toby herself will fall prey to Blind Michael's inescapable power.
And it doesn't bode well for the success of her mission that her own personal Fetch, May Daye—the harbinger of Toby's own death—has suddenly turned up on her doorstep...
An Artificial Night is the third installment of the highly praised Toby Daye series.
I felt so sorry for Toby in this installment, though after she throws herself back into danger for the third time, I figured that she was an idiot with a death wish at best. Of course she prevails, because she is the beloved heroine of these tales, so while that was heartening, it was sad that so many of the elder fae consider the ruination and death of children to be standard operating procedure, or even their due as beings who were there when the world was new. Still, these paranormal urban fantasy novels are an easy, fast read, and I plan on getting copies of the rest of them from the library or Powells. I'd give this one a B, and recommend it to anyone who has read the other October Daye novels.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson was another YA fantasy novel recommended on a list of novels with female protagonists who were not the stereotypical perfect blonde/blue eyed petite beauties who populate most fiction these days. Elisa is a dusky-skinned chubby girl who carries a "Godstone" in her navel as the chosen of her people. Unfortunately, she's been sheltered and told as little as possible about what it means to wield the Godstone, and she has also been treated as inferior, stupid and useless for most of her life. Here's the blurb:
Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness. Elisa is the chosen one. But she is also the younger of two princesses. The one who has never done anything remarkable, and can't see how she ever will. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs her to be the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.
And he's not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies, seething with dark magic, are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people's savior. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.
Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn't die young. Most of the chosen do. "A page-turner with broad appeal."
I was not surprised when Elisa was captured by desert nomads who are attempting to find a place for themselves in this world, while also trying to weaken and fend off the army of animagus and enemies to her husbands kingdom. I was also not surprised when Elisa proved adept at leading people in guerilla tactics to harass said invaders. What did surprise me was the author's need to have Elisa starve and lose weight in order to become the Queen and the heroine readers knew that she could be. She was effective, and had a revolutionary fall in love with her when she was fat, proving that she didn't need to change herself to blossom as a leader or a young woman. Despite the author's afterword, stating that Elisa has an "unhealthy relationship with food," I saw no evidence of that in the novel, and instead saw a young woman who enjoyed eating turned into a person who saw starving or only eating once in awhile as being "normal" which it is most definitely not. I was hoping that she'd learn to love her curves and her body, which sends a more positive message to teenage girls, who are so at risk for eating disorders. Still, the prose in this book was stellar, and the plot a real page-turner, so I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to fantasy lovers who like a bit of middle eastern-style mysticism and magic thrown into their books.

The Cake Therapist by Judith Gertig was, I thought, just going to be a "chick lit" novel full of fun and froth, and I was hoping that it wasn't a retread of Sarah Addison Allen's works. Fortunately, I was wrong on all counts, and The Cake Therapist turns out to be a delightful novel of familial discovery. The prose was clean and well lit, like a room at an Inn in the 1950s, and the plot trotted along with a couple of twists that I did not see coming. Plus, the cake descriptions (and the emotions they elicit) left my mouth watering! Here's the blurb:
Claire “Neely” O’Neil is a pastry chef of extraordinary talent. Every great chef can taste shimmering, elusive flavors that most of us miss, but Neely can “taste” feelings—cinnamon makes you remember; plum is pleased with itself; orange is a wake-up call. When flavor and feeling give Neely a glimpse of someone’s inner self, she can customize her creations to help that person celebrate love, overcome fear, even mourn a devastating loss.
Maybe that’s why she feels the need to go home to Millcreek Valley at a time when her life seems about to fall apart. The bakery she opens in her hometown is perfect, intimate, just what she’s always dreamed of—and yet, as she meets her new customers, Neely has a sense of secrets, some dark, some perhaps with tempting possibilities. A recurring flavor of alarming intensity signals to her perfect palate a long-ago story that must be told.
Neely has always been able to help everyone else. Getting to the end of this story may be just what she needs to help herself.
The characters in this novel are all fascinating, but when I got to the end and still didn't know who raped "Pickle," I was severely disappointed. I wanted to know that he was brought to justice and shamed for raping an innocent child who apparently gave birth, though we are also uncertain of what happened to her baby. I was also sad that there was no mention of why Olive was such a mean and cruel person her whole life, and why everyone lets her get away with it, even poisoning her daughter Diane to the point where she becomes a beligerant alcoholic. Still Neely is able to move on with her life and make a success out of her cake business, and bring together a transgender person and her beloved. I'd give this book a B, more for the things that are missing than anything else. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes slightly psychic bakers and small town tragic figures.

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing A Rake by Sarah MacLean is that rare creation, a romance novel with a heroine who isn't blonde, petite and gorgeous. Lady Calpurnia, or Callie, is a brown eyed, chubby brunette who dreams of adventure and of the handsome Gabriel St John Ralston, who is a rake, a man who gambles and frolics with mistresses and prostitutes. Here's the blurb:
A lady does not smoke cheroot. She does not ride astride. She does not fence or attend duels. She does not fire a pistol, and she never gambles at a gentlemen's club.
Lady Calpurnia Hartwell has always followed the rules, rules that have left her unmarried—and more than a little unsatisfied. And so she's vowed to break the rules and live the life of pleasure she's been missing.
But to dance every dance, to steal a midnight kiss—to do those things, Callie will need a willing partner. Someone who knows everything about rule-breaking. Someone like Gabriel St. John, the Marquess of Ralston—charming and devastatingly handsome, his wicked reputation matched only by his sinful smile.
If she's not careful, she'll break the most important rule of all—the one that says that pleasure-seekers should never fall hopelessly, desperately in love . . .
I generally do not read historical romances, but this book caught me from the first page, and didn't let me go until the final kiss and clutch. I loved Callie for her willingness to try new adventures that were not proper for 19th century ladies, and damn the propriety of it all. I loved that Gabriel was awash in lust for her curves and passion, and that Callie refuses to marry him until he admits that he loves her. I wasn't as fond of his whole "mother abandoned me" issues. The prose was zingy and the plot swift and sure.I only wish that the publishers would have drawn a plus sized woman on the cover or the inset, instead of the skinny, pretty model that they used. I'd also give this book a B+, and recommend it to those who are tired of the same petite and feisty romantic protagonists. 

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