Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lovely Libraries, Shakespeare's Champion and Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion and The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

Libraries were my sanctuary when I was a child, a place where I could go and travel with my mind to far distant lands via stories. It made the life of a very allergic asthmatic bearable. So I loved looking at these photos of unusual libraries across America. Havens filled with books and kind librarians. 

'Quiet Majesty of America's Public Libraries'
Over the past 18 years, photographer Robert Dawson has captured nearly
700 public libraries
across 48 states, and the Library of Congress recently purchased a full
collection of his library photographs as part of its permanent archive.
CityLab featured a selection of those images, many of which were
featured in Dawson's 2014 book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay
(Princeton Architectural Press).

Libraries are "not just a nice add-on," he said, noting that across the
U.S. they are "providing the basic things that have become essential to
functioning in our society.... I'm as cynical as anyone, but visiting
these libraries, I really found that most people have more in common
than not. They go to work, work hard, love their families, and love
their communities. There's a lot that we share, and the public library
is another one of those things."

Dawson is on a six-week trip across Europe to photograph libraries
there. He told CityLab he is currently in Germany, where newly arrived
refugees use libraries to immerse themselves in the local language and
culture: "It's a different kind of story here."

Shakespeare's Champion and Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris of the Sookie Stackhouse books (and abhorrent True Blood television series) are the second and third books in this series about a damaged woman who moves to a town called Shakespeare in Arkansas. I really wanted to like Lily Bard. But for some reason, Harris has written her to be someone to whom rapists flock, like killer bees to flowers. Add to that a propensity for death to also follow her around, and you have a rather odd protagonist who doesn't inspire readers but instead fills them with dread on her behalf. Lily is slowly recovering from a horrible gang rape and torture by learning martial arts and becoming a "gym rat" who lifts weights and works out several times a day in order to become strong and able to defend herself. It would be great if Harris would allow Lily to do just that, but instead Lily tends to get kidnapped, get her butt kicked and often has a man who comes to her rescue. Because she works as a maid, she is looked down upon by many of her clients and neighbors, with the exception of the men in town, who all drool over her, even the gay ones, as if she's irresistible. Though she keeps everyone at a distance,(except the gym owner and the town sheriff, whom she strings along) Lily eventually falls for a private detective who manages to overcome her fairly easily (during a fight) the first time they meet. Why she would find this sexy is beyond me, as being held captive is her flashback nightmare. Here's the blurbs:
Shakespeare, Arkansas, is a small Southern town with plenty of secrets, and Charlaine Harris’s Lily Bard, fresh from her acclaimed debut in Shakespeare’s Landlord, is just one more of its residents–albeit one harboring a few secrets of her own–with a desire to live quietly.
Lily keeps to herself, between her job as a cleaning woman for several townspeople and her visits to the gym, where she’s a devotee of karate and bodybuilding. These two pursuits seem a bit odd for the petite Southern woman, but as work and play, they keep her focused and balanced.
When a fellow gym member is found dead after a workout with a barbell across his throat, Lily wants to believe it’s an accident. But looking at the incident against the background of other recent events in Shakespeare, including a few incidents that appear to be racially motivated, she’s afraid it could be a part of something much, much bigger–and more sinister…in Shakespeare's Champion. In Shakespeare’s Christmas, Lily Bard's third appearance, she heads home to Bartley, Arkansas–always an uncomfortable scenario for the introverted Lily­–for her sister Varena’s Christmas wedding. But Lily’s got more to worry about than being a bridesmaid for a sister to whom she’s no longer close. Soon after she arrives in Bartley, Lily’s private-detective boyfriend shows up too, and not just for moral support: He’s investigating a four-year-old unsolved kidnapping. Try as she might, Lily can’t help but get involved when she discovers that the case hits dangerously close to home–for Varena’s new husband is the widowed father of a girl bearing a remarkable resemblance to the vanished child.

Of course justice prevails in both short books, and while that makes for a satisfying ending, I can't seem to muster up any real interest in reading any more of the Lily Bard series, which is formulaic and has a lackluster protagonist. The main virtue of these novels is the clean prose and swift plots, so you can finish one in a few hours while on an airplane or in a waiting room at the doctors or dentists office. I'd give them both a B-, and recommend them to anyone looking for distraction.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is the next book for July for the Tuesday night book group at my local library. We've been trying to get this book on the roster for a couple of years, and now that we finally had enough copies for my group, I found myself excited to read a book that was surrounded by so much hype and acclaim. The book takes place in Australia, and the protagonist is a man who has Aspergers, a form of Autism, but doesn't recognize it in himself, though he easily finds it in others, especially children, whom he admires. Here's the blurb:
The art of love is never a science: Meet Don Tillman, a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers.
Rosie Jarman possesses all these qualities. Don easily disqualifies her as a candidate for The Wife Project (even if she is “quite intelligent for a barmaid”). But Don is intrigued by Rosie’s own quest to identify her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on The Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie―and the realization that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you.
What I loved about Dons unintentionally hilarious account of how he meets and rejects women, how he finds Rosie and ends up loving her, is that he is so quick to judge and find fault in others, and yet he sees himself as perfect (which readers will know is patently false). He also has a complete lack of understanding in how to behave, dress or react in social situations that, while funny, is rather pathetic. I kept wondering why his friends, a psychiatrist and a fellow professor, couldn't help him in more concrete ways by telling him that he's an "aspie" and that he needs help to learn to dress and act appropriately in public. Of course Rosie is his polar opposite, and it is inevitable that they'd fall in love. There is a character on the TV show Royal Pains who is an "aspie" research doctor, and though I'd imagine Don would have an Australian accent, I kept hearing his voice, while I was reading, as that of Dr Sackani from Royal Pains, who speaks in a monotone. Still, this was a fun read, full of laughter and pathos and quirky characters. I was not a fan of Don's best friend, who seemed like a sexual predator to me, especially in light of his neglect of his wife and children, but even he seems reformed by the end of the book, which deserves an A, and a recommendation to other book groups looking for some light hearted fiction.
The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson is the sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which is followed by The Bitter Kingdom, the final book in the trilogy, which I have on hold at the library. I loved Girl of Fire and Thorns, so I was surprised when I became totally engrossed in Crown of Embers, and read it all in a day. Elisa is an amazing character, who in the first book is actually a fat girl with plain dark hair and eyes and dusky skin. It is rare these days to read about any fantasy heroine who isn't slender, white, blonde and beautiful. Unfortunately, the author had Elisa captured and starved in the desert in the first book, so now, in the second, she's "normal" weight and considered decent to look at, if not as "beautiful" as her petite counterpart in another country (or her sister, who sounds like a real bitch). Here's the blurb:
The second book in Rae Carson's award-winning The Girl of Fire and Thorns fantasy trilogy, perfect for fans of Game of Thrones and Kristin Cashore. Tamora Pierce called the first book, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, "A unique and engrossing read!" A seventeen-year-old princess turned war queen faces sorcery, adventure, untold power, and romance as she fulfills her epic destiny.
In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Elisa won the war. She saved her kingdom. But no one prepared her for how hard it is to recover from a battle, or to rule a people who still don't trust her. She's still fighting—against assassination attempts and more—and her enemies lie both outside her court and within it. So Elisa will cross the ocean in search of the perilous, uncharted, and mythical source of the Godstone's power. With her go a one-eyed warrior, a loyal friend, an enemy defector, and the man she is falling in love with. A breathtaking, romantic, and dangerous second volume to Rae Carson's ambitious trilogy.
I loved that this is the book where Elisa discovers that the real power she wields isn't in the Godstone in her gut, it's in her mind and heart and soul, she only needs to realize it. I was surprised at the political machinations that were so rampant in the book, but they didn't get in the way of the smooth and well-wrought plot. Caron's prose is golden, weaving a colorful tapestry with the characters that readers will come to love. Elisa truly grows and changes in this book, and sees for the first time that those who have been making her decisions for her, and bullying her into accepting them weren't always doing the right thing for the right reasons, but had their own agenda. Unfortunately, the story ends on a cliffhanger, so now I am eager to get my hands on the third book to see what happens to Hector and Elisa and even young Rosario.  The Crown of Embers gets a well-deserved A, and a recommendation to anyone who loves fantasy fiction with unlikely heroines.

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. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hillary Clinton reads Find A Way, Howard's End reboot, A Study in Sable by Mercedes Lackey, A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah Maas, and Lilith Saintcrow's The Ripper Affair

It's no secret that I am thrilled that Hillary Clinton could become our first female president. For those of us who are feminists (and grew up as the daughters of the feminists of the 60s and 70s) this is the best news we've had since they put an African American in the White House 8 years ago. Diversity ROCKS! Anyway, Hillary is a smart, funny and brilliant politician, and I am loving the fact that she's a reader, too.

Hillary Clinton Recommends:  Find a Way

"I'll finally have a break where I'll have some time. I love to wander
around bookstores and see what strikes my fancy.... When you're facing
big challenges in your life, you can think about Diana Nyad getting
attacked by the lethal sting of box jellyfishes. And nearly anything
else seems doable in comparison."

--Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad's memoir, Find a Way, in an interview
with the New York Times

I loved the 90s version of Howard's End, so I am sure I will love this new BBC reboot as well. I think I am probably one of the few people who actually binge-watched Fortitude for its whole run. 
 Hettie Macdonald (Fortitude) will direct the BBC's miniseries adaptation
based on the classic E.M. Forster novel that was also an Oscar-winning
Merchant Ivory film in 1992, Deadline reported. Kenneth Lonergan (You
Can Count on Me, Gangs of New York) is writing the series.

I'm a huge fan of Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series, which are wonderful fantasy/fairy tale revisions, and the latest book, A Study in Sable, was just as delightful as the previous 12 novels. In each book, Lackey takes some fairy tale or fabled creature/legendary figure and weaves them into the world of magic and mayhem with her elemental mage characters. In this instance, the legend was Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (and his wife Mary), plus a murderous siren and a spiritual elemental master whom we've not met before. Here's the blurb:
Psychic Nan Killian and Medium Sarah Lyon-White—along with their clever birds, the raven Neville and the parrot Grey—have been agents of Lord Alderscroft, the Elemental Fire Master known as the Wizard of London, since leaving school. Now, Lord Alderscroft assigns them another commission: to work with the famous man living at 221 Baker Street—but not the one in flat B. They are to assist the man living in flat C. Dr. John Watson and his wife Mary, themselves Elemental Masters of Water and Air, take the occult cases John’s more famous friend disdains, and they will need every skill the girls and their birds can muster!
Nan and Sarah’s first task: to confront and eliminate the mysterious and deadly entity that nearly killed them as children: the infamous Haunt of Number 10 Berkeley Square. But the next task divides the girls for the first time since they were children. A German opera star begs Sarah for help, seeking a Medium’s aid against not just a single spirit, but a multitude. As Sarah becomes more deeply entwined with the Prima Donna, Nan continues to assist John and Mary Watson alone, only to discover that Sarah’s case is far more sinister than it seems. It threatens to destroy not only a lifelong friendship, but much, much more.
I found Nan to be a bit whiny and pathetic, as her jealousy of her friends success seems to turn her into a raging Celtic warrior who wants to cut a swath through everyone with a sword. Instead of using her time wisely to enlist others to help get Sarah out of Magdalena's clutches, she spends an inordinate amount of time just seething on the inside. This seemed ridiculous to be, as Nan's a grown woman who should know better. At any rate, Sarah doesn't seem to realize she's being bamboozled, and she also reacts to her change in stature in a somewhat immature fashion. But their interactions with their ward Suki, who is hilarious and more mature than most of the adults, makes up for what those adults lack tenfold.  Suki, a former street urchin with a cockney accent, is the real star of the book, along with John and Mary Watson, who are also unflappable. Though I knew the answer to the mystery a third of the way through the book, the interactions with Holmes and the Watsons, made the journey interesting, even knowing the eventual destination. I'd give "Study" an A, and recommend it to those who are interested in the Victorian era, and those Steampunk fans who aren't too attached to the machinery of the genre, but do appreciate good characters and stories of that time period.

The Ripper Affair by Lilith Saintcrow is the third and final book in the Bannon and Clare Steampunk trilogy. Of the three, it was by far the darkest and most painful for the characters we've come to know and love, mainly Emma Bannon and Archibald Clare. Here's the blurb: 
A shattering accident places Archibald Clare, mentath in the service of Britannia, in the care of Emma Bannon, sorceress Prime. Clare needs a measure of calm to repair his faculties of Logic and Reason. Without them, he is not his best. At all.
Unfortunately, calm and rest will not be found. There is a killer hiding in the sorcerous steam-hells of Londinium, murdering poor women of a certain reputation. A handful of frails murdered on cold autumn nights would make no difference...but the killings echo in the highest circles, and threaten to bring the Empire down in smoking ruins.
Once more Emma Bannon is pressed into service; once more Archibald Clare is determined to aid her. The secrets between these two old friends may give an ambitious sorcerer the means to bring down the Crown. And there is still no way to reliably find a hansom when one needs it most.
The game is afoot... 
Publisher's Weekly:
Sorceress Emma Bannon and mentath Archibald Clare face a truly dastardly foe in their intricate third pseudo-Victorian adventure (after The Red Plague Affair). When the Queen herself comes to ask Bannon to investigate a series of murders in the Whitchapel area, the sorceress reluctantly agrees to come out of her self-imposed retirement. With the ever-faithful Clare aiding her, though he's still recovering from a near-fatal explosion, she delves into the bloody heart of the matter. Together and separately, they learn that a renegade Prime sorcerer has raised a spirit that could undermine the fabric of all Britannia. Part history, part steampunk, laced with magic and a healthy dose of Manners, this fantasy may evoke a certain bloody Jack, but Saintcrow takes as many liberties with that story as she does with the rest of her uniquely fascinating setting. The layers of subtext run deep as the heroes say everything but what's truly on their minds, but at times the complicated dance of emotions and restraint feels too leisurely and indirect.

I was hoping for more of a resolution between Emma Bannon and Clare, but instead they spend most of the novel at odds, because Clare can't accept that Emma gave him the Philosopher's stone (wedged it into his heart) and made him a self-healing immortal. His logical mind can't accept the magic of this stone, and so he goes on a self destructive bender, all the while hating on Emma for restoring him when he would otherwise have died of the plague. Meanwhile, Emma's in a snit because the Queen insulted her, and she doesn't want to aid the crown anymore. Unfortunately, the Queen forces her to reconsider, and Emma goes forth one more time to vanquish the foe who wants to kill the Queen and take over the country. It was no surprise that it was the same foe who had been at the heart of the crisis in both of the previous novels, and that Emma insisted on using herself as bait to catch this insane sorcerer who seems to be impossible to kill. I was glad that Clare finally realized what an ass he was being to Emma, and yet I also grew tired of "petite, feisty" Emma never caring for herself and being so willing a sacrifice. Though there is a "Happy for Now" ending, I was surprised that Saintcrow never did explain exactly what Mikal is, and why he's got the power to save people that he loves from destruction, and why his eyes are yellow and glow, like a serpent or a dragon. The Victorian prose style takes a bit of getting used to, but in the end lends some authenticity to the tale, and the plot, as in the previous books, steams right along at a clip. I'd give this final novel a B+, and recommend it to anyone who has read the first two novels in the series.

I was hoping that the huge (over 600 pages) sequel to A Court of Thorn and Roses, A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas would be the end of this over-spun romance/ fairy tale. Alas, it was not. It was, instead, an over-written, over emotional mess of a rebooted fairy tale that has an "erotic" couple of chapters late in the book, and ends with a very unsatisfying cliffhanger. Our heroine, Feyre, who was a bulimic, insecure yet brave human being in the first book becomes a bulimic, ultra insecure fae in the second, who cowers for the first third of the book and allows herself to become a pet for the "beast" Tamlin, who uses a priestess to further cow her into marrying Tamlin and becoming his brood mare. The final straw comes when Tamlin and his cronies lock Feyre up "for her own good" to "keep her safe" and make her flash back to being a prisoner of Amarantha, the evil, insane fae queen who tortured and murdered Feyre, and was herself killed moments later by Feyre breaking the curse she'd placed on the Spring Court. Of course Rhys, the dark fae who turned to all the other lords of the fairy world to piece Feyre back together (and make her an immoirtal fairy), places his own bond on Feyre through a tattoo on her arm which allows him to know where she is and what she's feeling, in addition to forcing Feyre to spend one week a month with Rhys in his midnight world. Here's the blurb:
Feyre survived Amarantha's clutches to return to the Spring Court--but at a steep cost. Though she now has the powers of the High Fae, her heart remains human, and it can't forget the terrible deeds she performed to save Tamlin’s people.
Nor has Feyre forgotten her bargain with Rhysand, High Lord of the feared Night Court. As Feyre navigates its dark web of politics, passion, and dazzling power, a greater evil looms--and she might be key to stopping it. But only if she can harness her harrowing gifts, heal her fractured soul, and decide how she wishes to shape her future--and the future of a world cleaved in two.
Publisher's Weekly:Maas broadens the world she created in her bestselling A Court of Thorns and Roses with a new enemy that threatens both the seven Fae Courts and the mortal world her heroine left behind. After having escaped the sadistic Amarantha, Feyre’s return to the Spring Court isn’t the happily-ever-after she imagined. Feyre no longer knows who she is or where she belongs, and she is grappling with her body’s strange new powers after the seven High Lords resurrected her as a Fae. She and her lover, Tamlin, are wracked with nightmares from their time “Under the Mountain,” and Tamlin’s concern for Feyre’s safety has become stifling. Worse, she’s still beholden to the Night Court, and Rhysand, its High Lord, calls in their bargain at the most inconvenient time. Fans may be frustrated by Feyre’s shifting romantic allegiances, but Maas lets the relationship dynamics change organically, and her talent for creating chemistry between her characters (including some fiery sexual encounters) is as strong as ever. Maas gives Feyre the space to regain her agency and prove herself the equal of any High Lord, resulting in an immersive, satisfying read.
I found this book to be more frustrating than satisfying, as every little emotion that Feyre feels is gone over and over again, as well as the same insecurities and doubts recounted. I felt strongly that 250 pages could have been edited from this tome, and it would have helped the story's plot move along much more "organically" as the PW critic says. I also didn't understand why Feyre's sisters are still so stupid, weak and cruel. It seems that no matter what happens in their world, what happens to their sister (who kept them alive when their father wouldn't lift a finger to help feed them), their responses remain the same cliches, with one sweet and doe-like sister cowering and only being concerned with marriage, while the other sister is a nasty, prejudiced bitch who loathes the Fae and her sister Feyre in equal measure. Why are we still having to read about these despicable family members who seemingly have not the wit that God gave an ant, so they can't do anything but simper and be insulting? They can't protect themselves, or help themselves when they're captured and thrown into the cauldron, nor can they help Feyre. Why she cares about these two miserable sisters at all is a mystery. The romance between Rhys and Feyre finally culminates in some soft porn 2/3 of the way through the book, which happens, inevitably, just before their recapture and torture at the hands of another mad ruler, this time a king who wants to turn all of his sycophants into immortal fae and then use them to tear down the wall and murder all the humans.  So we are left wondering about the next book, and how Feyre's sacrifice in returning to Tamlin will work out. I can't imagine it will be easy, now that she is in love with Rhys, but presumably she will find a way to save everyone by killing herself once again. I would give this book a B-, and only recommend it to the most hard-core fan of the first book. You have to have a lot of patience to slog through all the emotional upheaval and stomach upheaval in this book.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Steampunk Novels Abound! The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman and The Iron Wyrm Affair and the Red Plague Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

Normally, I don't start my blog review posts with an image, but I am going to make an exception for the amazing Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman. I should note, first, that I was given a copy of The Invisible Library by the publisher/authors rep, and I had previously downloaded an E-ARC onto my computer that I just couldn't read, because my eyes tire of screen glare after about an hour, and I prefer turning the pages if I can, when reading something so engaging that everything else in my life disappears.
At any rate, the publishers contacted me about reviewing the book, and I asked for a trade paperback copy, which they kindly sent to me in exchange for a review.
As I noted to them, this book is right up my alley. I am a huge fan of libraries, and have been since I got my first library card when I was 5 years old. Because my asthma/allergies were so bad, I couldn't go outside much as a child growing up in Iowa, so instead, I learned to read and traveled everywhere books could take me in my mind. Librarians were always kind to me, and allowed me into the regular stacks long before I was even a preteen, because I'd already read my way through the children's section by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. So I started reading science fiction and fantasy novels meant for adults in 1967, and I never looked back. Libraries were havens for me, because I was a chubby, smart nerd at a time when those were the kids who got bullied and harassed constantly.
I have also been a fan of the "Librarian" TV movies, starring Noah Wylie, because they put librarians into hero mode, where they went off to find books and magical objects that were best warehoused (like Warehouse 13) away from those who would misuse them. The TV show of the same name has also become a favorite.
Hence this novel, of an adventuring librarian going to other time periods in other universes to save books and bring them back to the main library, was familiar, sacred ground.
Oddly enough, it did not start or finish as I thought it would. I assumed that Irene would be more like Flynn from the Librarians, but she was much less swashbuckling than Flynn, much more practical and sensible than he was, and much more concerned with the life of her apprentice/sidekick, Kai the baby dragon.
Here's the blurb:One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction...Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it's already been stolen.

London's underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.

Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself... 

Steampunk monsters abound, evil "skinwalkers" are out to get our heroes and a Sherlock Holmes by another name is on board to make this an adventure to remember. Cogman's prose is stellar, full of witty asides that make the bullet-train plot move at super sonic speed. My only nitpick, and it's a tiny one, is that I didn't feel that Irene should have placed her trust in Holmes/Vale so quickly and completely. She is bound by rules of secrecy about the library, and she seemed very quick to violate those rules because of her attraction to "the great detective," whom she has longed to work with. Vale was something of a condescending jerk, I felt, who neglected to realize and appreciate Irene's mind and role in dealing with the evil Alberich and Bradamant. She is an experienced agent, and did finally get the book back to the main library, so I thought that she should have gotten more credit from everyone than she did. Fortunately, she's going to be in a place where she can work on that in future novels, if the ending assignment is to be believed. I was so impressed with this exciting page-turner that I can hardly wait for the second book, The Masked City, to come out in September of this year. It will be followed by the third book, The Burning Page in December, just in time for my birthday! Obviously, this zesty bibliophilic adventure deserves an A, and I'd recommend it to anyone who loves Steampunk, paranormal mysteries, books, librarians and the Librarians movies and TV series.

The Iron Wrym Affair and the Red Plague Affair by Lilith Saintcrow are another two Steampunk paranormal mystery novels that I picked up at my local library sale last month. Emma Bannon, dark sorceress teams up with the inestimable mentath (human logic machine) Archibald Clare to solve mysteries of a supernatural nature in Victorian London. Here's the blurbs:
The Iron Wyrm Affair: Emma Bannon, forensic sorceress in the service of the Empire, has a mission: to protect Archibald Clare, a failed, unregistered mentath. His skills of deduction are legendary, and her own sorcery is not inconsiderable. It doesn't help much that they barely tolerate each other, or that Bannon's Shield, Mikal, might just be a traitor himself. Or that the conspiracy killing registered mentaths and sorcerers alike will just as likely kill them as seduce them into treachery toward their Queen.
In an alternate London where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs. Publisher's Weekly: Multigenre talent Saintcrow (Angel Town) launches a delicious steampunk alternate London that pays more than a little stylistic homage to Sherlock Holmes, adding additional excitement in the form of magical duels, backstreet chases, battles with giant mecha, and confrontations with ancient wyrms and gryphons. Emma Bannon, a sorceress working for the spirit of Britannia and her current physical vessel, Queen Victrix, is given two tasks: collect and protect Dr. Archibald Clare, an unregistered but skilled mentath (logic genius), and find out who’s behind the recent deaths of several mentaths and sorcerers. Bannon slowly begins to trust Clare, and as he uses his significant mental powers to work through the nonmagical pieces of the investigation, they become a strong team based on mutual respect. The absence of romance means a tighter focus on both action and deduction, and keeps the story appropriate for Saintcrow’s younger fans. Sensual writing, intricate plotting, and sympathetically quirky, satisfyingly competent characters make this series one to watch.
The Red Plague Affair: Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime in service to Queen Victrix, has a mission; to find the doctor who has created a powerful new weapon. Her friend, the mentath Archibald Clare, is only too happy to help. It will distract him from pursuing his nemesis, and besides, Clare is not as young as he used to be. A spot of Miss Bannon's excellent hospitality and her diverting company may be just what he needs.
Unfortunately, their quarry is a fanatic, and his poisonous discovery is just as dangerous to Britannia as to Her enemies. Now a single man has set Londinium ablaze, and Clare finds himself in the middle of distressing excitement, racing against time and theory to find a cure. Miss Bannon, of course, has troubles of her own, for the Queen's Consort Alberich is ill, and Her Majesty unhappy with Bannon's loyal service. And there is still no reliable way to find a hansom when one needs it most...

I enjoyed the supremacy of Emma when it came to getting things done, and I appreciated the fact that, though her mentath and her Shield Mikal both try to protect her, in the end, it is Emma who must put paid to all accounts and put her life on the line to save the day. Still, I despise the trope that is a throwback to bad romance novels, of a woman only being attractive to men if she's "feisty and petite." Why must protagonist females always be short and bird-boned to be considered beautiful and feminine? Why must they been seen as "child-like" in form to be valuable and sexy? Is it for the contrast to the men, who are always dangerous and huge, tall and craggy and manly? Why can't larger women be, as they are in real life, just as beautiful, desirable and competent as tiny, doll-like women? Why must women be "beautiful" at all? Why not be ordinary, normal, average-looking? What you look like on the outside has little to do with the brilliance of your mind or the strength of your heart and spirit.
This seems to be a truism that surpasses the understanding of most authors out there, and while I understand it more from a mainstream fiction point of view, I would think that fantasy and science fiction and Steampunk authors, with their license to create worlds where the strange and unusual and unique are commonplace, would be champing at the bit to make fat heroines, or tall and average-looking female sleuths, or even disabled/differently-abled women who use their brilliant minds to get out of a sticky situation. If you are a creative writer, how hard can it be? Yet, other than Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold's fantastic science fiction series, I don't see it happening.

They say to "write what you know" to fledgling authors, and while I don't agree that you should limit your creativity to your experience all the time, I know of several larger women authors, like Cassandra Clare, Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth Scarborough and the late, great Anne McCaffrey who all wrote their female protagonists as petite or "normal" sized women who were beautiful and sexy and successful, but they were all young, petite and didn't eat much. Unfortunately, the same goes for Emma, who is a strong and vital sorceress, but she can't seem to take care of herself by eating and sleeping regularly, which is somehow considered charming and normal in these novels. In reality, it only weakens the character and real people, of course, and makes them less effective and more likely to need a man to rescue them. Still, I did enjoy these novels, though the British Victorian prose style took about 75 pages to get used to. The plots were as intricate as the prose, but they both had HEA endings. I'd give them both a B+, and recommend them to Steampunk fans and those who enjoy the Dune novels (for the mentaths) and the Sherlock Holmes series for the logical detective protagonist.