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 Noble.com: 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
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz31340975, which recently added a cocktail bar and event space called the Lab. "Having food and drink helps."

Third Place Books http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz31340976 "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 http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz31340977, 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.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Americans Still Reading Real Books, Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke, The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, The Graces by Laure Eve and The Secret Language of Stones by MJ Rose

This is the first heartening news of the new year!

Gallup: 'Most Americans Are Still Reading Books'
"During the past year, about how many books did you read/listen to,
either all or part of the way through?"

According to a recent Gallup poll
Americans "are consuming books at nearly the same rate that they were
when Gallup last asked this question in 2002--before smartphones,
Facebook or Twitter became ubiquitous. More than one in three (35%)
appear to be heavy readers, reading 11 or more books in the past year,
while close to half (48%) read between one and 10 and just 16% read

Although the number of respondents who said they read no books in the
past year was double the first time Gallup asked this question in 1978
(from 8% then to 16% now), the figure has been fairly steady near the
current level since 1990.

The results are based "on an open-ended question that asked half of
Americans to recall the number of books they read all or part of the way
through in the past year--the trend wording--and the other half to
recall the number of books they read or listened to all or part of the
way through. Given that there was no meaningful difference in the
answers, the results to the two versions were combined," Gallup

In other notable findings, 91% of adults aged 18-29 read at least one
book in the past year, compared to 85% of adults aged 65 and older.
Nearly 40% in both age groups read more than 10 books. Baby boomers are
having an impact on the 65 and older category, where the percentage who
reported reading one or more books increased from 68% (in 2002) to 85%.
Among respondents who read at least one book last year, 73% said they
most often read printed books, 19% electronic books and 6% audiobooks.

Gallup concluded that "despite Americans' ability to access more
information, social networks, games and media than ever before, as well
as the lingering rumors of the book's demise, Americans still say they
are reading books.... This suggests that book reading is a classic
tradition that has remained a constant in a faster-paced world,
especially in comparison to the slump of other printed media such as
newspapers and magazines."

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke is the final book in the Immortal Empire series, and, as with the first two books, it's a blast of steampunk fun to read. This time, our heroine Xandra is caught up in the hunt for a being created from one of her stolen ova, a being that has been made as an assassin and is controlled by someone very high up in the government. Here's the blurb:
Xandra Vardan thought life would be simpler when she accepted the goblin crown and became their queen, but life has only become more complicated. Everyone -- vampires, werewolves and humans -- wants the goblins on their side, because whoever has the goblins -- wins.
Queen Victoria wants her head, Alpha wolf Vex wants her heart, and she still doesn't know the identity of the person who wanted her blood. What she does know is that a project from one of the 'secret' aristocrat labs has gotten free and she's the only one who can stop the perfect killing machine -- a sixteen year-old girl. With human zealots intent on ridding the world of anyone with plagued blood and supernatural politics taking Britain to the verge of civil war, Xandra's finding out that being queen isn't all it's cracked up to be, and if she doesn't do something fast, hers will be the shortest reign in history.
The fantastic conclusion to the series that started with the spectacular undead steampunk debut, God Save the Queen and The Queen is Dead.
 Though the mad and bloody chaos that is the hallmark of these books propels the plot along at breakneck speed, the author still takes time out to flesh out several key relationships and even outs one of the main characters as a member of the aristocracy. There's a wedding, a coronation, death and betrayal, which is all one could really ask for in a well-told tale, and throughout we have the plucky Xandra who grows up and manages to save the day, all at once. Locke's prose is witty and wonderful, and her storytelling abilities unparalleled. An A, with a hearty recommendation to anyone who loves urban fantasy and Steampunk with flare and a dash of romance.

The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen is also the final book in a trilogy, and what surprised me about this hefty volume was the amount of history and background on all the characters and the world that we were exposed to herein. It was somewhat like reading a prequel interspersed with the last story in the series, so you get two different time periods, and having to switch from one very intense POV to another can be dizzying. Here's the blurb:
The thrilling conclusion to the New York Times bestselling Tearling trilogy.
In less than a year, Kelsea Glynn has transformed from a gawky teenager into a powerful monarch. As she has come into her own as the Queen of the Tearling, the headstrong, visionary leader has also transformed her realm. In her quest to end corruption and restore justice, she has made many enemies—including the evil Red Queen, her fiercest rival, who has set her armies against the Tear.
To protect her people from a devastating invasion, Kelsea did the unthinkable—she gave herself and her magical sapphires to her enemy—and named the Mace, the trusted head of her personal guards, regent in her place. But the Mace will not rest until he and his men rescue their sovereign, imprisoned in Mortmesne.
Now, as the suspenseful endgame begins, the fate of Queen Kelsea—and the Tearling itself—will finally be revealed. Publisher's Weekly:In this centuries-spanning epic adventure, Johansen concludes the Tearling trilogy (after The Invasion of the Tearling) with Queen Kelsea Glynn risking everything to save her beloved, beleaguered homeland from troubles both internal and external. Beset by visions of the time after the Tear’s founding some 300 years ago, she struggles to understand how the past defines the present and what part the malevolent Orphan, the enigmatic Fetch, and the ruthless Red Queen of Mortmesne have yet to play in the destiny of their world. Numerous stories play out against a wide backdrop, with the death of a dream creating hope for the future. Johansen’s vision—a society tearing itself apart amid the effort to redefine itself—is ambitious, and the conflict is fleshed out through myriad character arcs, some more compelling than others. However, the bittersweet resolution, which wraps up the story quite nicely, undermines much of what transpires here. The historical scenes carry more weight and significance than the chaos of the present, though Johansen adeptly describes the destruction and despair. This is a solid, if not entirely satisfying, end to the series.
I have to say that I agree with the Publisher's Weekly review, in that I would just be getting into the groove of Katie's view of the Tearling 300 years ago, when I was roughly pulled back to the mess that Kelsea had gotten herself into with the Red Queen, who was completely insane by the end. SPOILER ALERT. I felt that the ending was something of a cop-out, where due to Kelsea's choice during a weird moment in the "timestream" with William Tear, she manages to transform the town into the socialist utopia that Tear had dreamed of, before human greed and Row's jealousy and insane lust for power, as well as religion, began to undermine the Tearling colony and rot it from the inside out. Her choice wipes out all the horrible past problems and even turns Kelsea's ridiculously vain mother into a decent human being, as if by magic. It made little sense to me that just because she chose one way, somehow there were no weapons and no strife and everything was nearly perfect. Those who have read the entire series will probably also scratch their heads at this abrupt 360 degree change. Still, it was a very engrossing story, told in excellent prose with a very twisty plot. The book deserves an A, with a recommendation to those who read the first two books and a warning that they won't be able to put it down once you've opened it.

The Graces by Laure Eve was recommended to me as a magical YA book, rife with witches and secrets, when in reality it is about a very disturbed teenage girl named River who lives in poverty with her pathetic mother and has a crush on the "Graces." The Grace teenagers include twins Fenrin and Thalia (who sound like they were named from a book on Norse mythology) who are older, and Summer, who is River's age. Of course, the Graces are elegant, beautiful and wealthy, and they seem to have the entire town wound around their fingers. Apparently, few can resist their charms, though the Grace parents seemed like real asshats to me, cruel and capricious and snobbish. Yet River longs, yearns and seems desperate to be taken in by the Graces, because she somehow feels that they can help her "find" her father and make her feel loved and cared for. She pathetically debases herself in nearly every way possible to be with these people, and inevitably develops a passionate crush on Fenrin, though it is apparent to the reader from the outset that he's gay. This is yet another book that I am chagrined that I paid full price for. It wasn't worth it. Here's the blurb: When a glamorous family of teenage witches brings a mysterious new girl into their fold, they unwittingly nurture a powerful black magic that could destroy them all. This paranormal YA fantasy features intrigue, spells, and a devastating twist. In The Graces, the first rule of witchcraft states that if you want something badly enough, you can get it . . . no matter who has to pay.
Everyone loves the Graces. Fenrin, Thalia, and Summer Grace are captivating, wealthy, and glamorous. They’ve managed to cast a spell over not just their high school but also their entire town—and they’re rumored to have powerful connections all over the world. If you’re not in love with one of them, you want to be them. Especially River: the loner, new girl at school. She’s different from her peers, who both revere and fear the Grace family. She wants to be a Grace more than anything. But what the Graces don’t know is that River’s presence in town is no accident.
This fabulously addictive fantasy combines sophisticated and haunting prose with a gut-punching twist that readers will be dying to discuss. Perfect for fans of We Were Liars as well as nostalgic classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 1996 movie The Craft, The Graces marks the beginning of a new wave of teen witches.
I didn't feel the prose was sophisticated or haunting, I felt that it was obscure and murky, and the plot labyrinthine when it should have been a clearer path. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would find very little to like in the wishy-washy, lying and none-too-bright hanger-on River, who, though she actually has power that everyone else lacks, doesn't use it for good until she's forced to, and even then, she doesn't want to face the fact that her actions and use of magic has consequences that no one else can fix for her. I also disliked the Graces, because, other than their physical beauty and charm (and money) I didn't find them very interesting, or worthy of such adulation by everyone in the school and town. They seemed very immature and petty, mean and cruel and their parents were horrible. But of course, shallow as everyone appears to be in this book, we are supposed to forgive them everything because of their gorgeous faces and bodies. Ugh. I couldn't find any characters in this novel whom I didn't loathe as soulless liars and frauds. I felt this novel only earned a C, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA fiction because there's no joy anywhere to be found in this waste of a tree.

The Secret Language of Stones by MJ Rose is in complete contrast to the above book, because it was well worth the full price that I paid for the hardback edition of this sumptuous novel. This is the 9th book of Rose's that I've read, devoured, actually, and I always love the fact that her publisher creates such a beautiful physical book to surround her stories. This novel is no exception, with lovely end papers and a gorgeous cover painting in the purples and blues of twilight, I imagine that many readers will want to judge the book by it's cover and buy it just to be able to see it glamorizing their shelves. Those who don't pick it up and actually read it will be missing out, however, on a banquet of a book, full of luscious descriptions of Paris and beautiful jewelry created during World War 1. Here's the blurb:
As World War I rages and the Romanov dynasty reaches its sudden, brutal end, a young jewelry maker discovers love, passion, and her own healing powers in this rich and romantic ghost story, the perfect follow-up to M.J. Rose’s “brilliantly crafted” (Providence Journal) novel The Witch of Painted Sorrows.
Nestled within Paris’s historic Palais Royal is a jewelry store unlike any other. La Fantasie Russie is owned by Pavel Orloff, protégé to the famous Faberge, and is known by the city’s fashion elite as the place to find the rarest of gemstones and the most unique designs. But war has transformed Paris from a city of style and romance to a place of fear and mourning. In the summer of 1918, places where lovers used to walk, widows now wander alone.
So it is from La Fantasie Russie’s workshop that young, ambitious Opaline Duplessi now spends her time making trench watches for soldiers at the front, as well as mourning jewelry for the mothers, wives, and lovers of those who have fallen. People say that Opaline’s creations are magical. But magic is a word Opaline would rather not use. The concept is too closely associated with her mother Sandrine, who practices the dark arts passed down from their ancestor La Lune, one of sixteenth century Paris’s most famous courtesans.
But Opaline does have a rare gift even she can’t deny, a form of lithomancy that allows her to translate the energy emanating from stones. Certain gemstones, combined with a personal item, such as a lock of hair, enable her to receive messages from beyond the grave. In her mind, she is no mystic, but merely a messenger, giving voice to soldiers who died before they were able to properly express themselves to loved ones. Until one day, one of these fallen soldiers communicates a message—directly to her.
So begins a dangerous journey that will take Opaline into the darkest corners of wartime Paris and across the English Channel, where the exiled Romanov dowager empress is waiting to discover the fate of her family. Full of romance, seduction, and a love so powerful it reaches beyond the grave.
MJ Rose's prose is, as mentioned above, gorgeous and lush, and her plots never lag, but always move at a dignified pace to their beautiful ends. I fell in love with Opaline and her quest to help mourning families with her magical ability to read a final message from a loved one in a piece of jewelry wrapped around the hair of the deceased. Then when she falls in love with one of the soldiers who speaks to her before the pendant jewel is even completed,  I was reminded of a favorite movie that I'd seen when I was in my late teens called "The Ghost and Mrs Muir" that was about a woman falling in love with the ghost of a sea captain. It seemed the ultimate in romance to me at the time, because it proved that love lived on after death. Here, however, I knew that the young man (SPOILER) couldn't really be dead, not if he was interacting with Opaline enough to have spectral sex with her. Still, their love affair was mesmerizing, and yet the air of sadness that was woven throughout the book because of WWI and the horrifying end of the Romanov family made it bittersweet. A well-deserved A, and a recommendation to anyone who enjoys historical romance or historical fiction with a magical twist. Anyone who has ever loved and lost, or who is still in love, will adore this incredible story, written by master wordsmith MJ Rose. 

Friday, January 06, 2017

RIP Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Richard Adams, I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson, Last Song Before Night by Ilana C Myer and The Queen is Dead by Kate Locke

At the end of 2016, Carrie Fisher (of Star Wars) died of a heart attack, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds (of Singing in the Rain) died the next day. Both women were extraordinary performers, and both wrote memoirs with varying degrees of success. Either way, mother and daughter will be missed. Rest in Peace.

Carrie Fisher
the actress, author and screenwriter "who brought a rare combination of
nerve, grit and hopefulness to her most indelible role, as Princess Leia
in the Star Wars movie franchise," and "went on to use her perch among
Hollywood royalty to offer wry commentary in her books on the paradoxes
and absurdities of the entertainment industry," died December 27, the
New York Times reported. She was 60. Fisher's books include The Princess
Diarist, Shockaholic, Wishful Drinking, The Best Awful, Delusions of
Grandma, Surrender the Pink and Postcards from the Edge.

In the Los Angeles Times, author John Scalzi wrote
"Fisher's four novels were based to some extent on her own life--as an
author, 'write what you know' was something Fisher took seriously--but
the books were more than veiled tidbits of the life of a Hollywood
scion. They announced the arrival of a writer whose voice--witty but
vulnerable, willing to push her readers to the edge of their comfort
zone with the same lines that made them laugh--was both all her own, and
part of a literary tradition that included writers like Dorothy Parker
and Elaine May....

"Fisher's memoirs were not universally loved... but it's possible that
in the final accounting, the openness in which Fisher addressed her
struggles with mental illness, pills and other drugs may have been the
most important thing she'd done.... There's no doubt that Fisher's fame
comes from Star Wars... But Fisher's legacy includes her written
words--cutting, clever, observant, self-aware and unbowed."
I was a big fan of Watership Down when I was a preteen, and I liked the movie, though not as well as the book. RIP Mr Adams.
British novelist Richard Adams
"who became one of the world's bestselling authors with his first book,
Watership Down, a tale of rabbits whose adventures in a pastoral realm
of epic perils explored Homeric themes of exile, courage and survival,"
died December 24, the New York Times reported. He was 96. Although the
novel was rejected by literary agents and publishers, in 1972 the small
press Rex Collings Ltd. printed a first edition of 2,500 copies and it
went on to win the Carnegie Medal in Literature in 1972 and the Guardian
Children's Fiction Prize in 1973. Macmillan published the first U.S.
edition in 1974.

Watership Down "quickly topped the New York Times bestseller list and
remained on it for eight months," the Times noted, adding: "Avon paid
$800,000 for the paperback rights. It eventually became Penguin's
all-time best seller, a staple of high school English classes and one of
the best-selling books of the century, with an estimated 50 million
copies in print in 18 languages worldwide." Other works by Adams include
Shardik, The Plague Dogs, Traveller, Tales From Watership Down and his
autobiography, The Day Gone By.

I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson was recommended to me by a friend, who pointed out a copy displayed in the high school library window when I was visiting the high school on my son's parent/teacher conference night. Though the subject matter didn't initially intrigue me, once I got past the first 20 pages, I couldn't put the book down. Here's the blurb:We were all heading for each other on a collision course, no matter what. Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story.”
At first, Jude and her twin brother are NoahandJude; inseparable. Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude wears red-red lipstick, cliff-dives, and does all the talking for both of them.
Years later, they are barely speaking. Something has happened to change the twins in different yet equally devastating ways . . . but then Jude meets an intriguing, irresistible boy and a mysterious new mentor.
The early years are Noah’s to tell; the later years are Jude’s. But they each have only half the story, and if they can only find their way back to one another, they’ll have a chance to remake their world. Publisher's Weekly: Twins Noah and Jude are inseparable until misunderstandings, jealousies, and a major loss rip them apart. Both are talented artists, and creating art plays a major role in their narratives. Both also struggle with their sexuality—Noah is gay, which both thrills and terrifies him, while Jude is recovering from a terrible first sexual experience at age 14, one of two important reasons she has sworn off dating. Nelson (The Sky Is Everywhere) unravels the twins’ stories in long chapters that alternate between their perspectives. Noah’s sections are set when the twins are 13, Jude’s at age 16, giving readers slanted insights into how their relationship deteriorated and how it begins to mend. The twins’ artistic passions and viewpoints suffuse their distinctive voices; Noah tends toward wild, dramatic overstatements, and Jude’s world is wrapped up in her late grandmother’s quirky superstitions and truisms. Readers are meant to feel big things, and they will—Nelson’s novel brims with emotion (grief, longing, and love in particular) as Noah, Jude, and the broken individuals in their lives find ways to heal.
At first, I was surprised by the vicious hatred and jealousy between the twins, not only because it was so strong, but because it was so destructive. I can't imagine a sibling destroying their brother's chances to go to the one school that will foster his tremendous talent, and then also making it appear that you've had sex with the love of his life. That level of cruelty is just horrifying to me as a human being. I had two brothers growing up, one of whom was a brilliant but self destructive narcissist, and the other a crude and egotistical boy, whose verbal abuse I put an end to for nearly 20 years when we didn't speak to one another. However, neither of them would do the things to me that Jude did to Noah out of jealousy and spite, or the things that Noah did to Jude for basically the same reasons. Then they freak out when they discover that their dead mother was going to leave their father for a famous sculptor, and the cycle of mean starts again. I really didn't like Jude or Noah, but I found Noah slightly more tolerable, though I kept wishing he'd come out as gay to everyone, because it was so obvious that was where his heart was. The prose in this novel is as quirky and eccentric as the characters, and the plot moves as a metered pace. I liked the ending, and I would give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who considers themselves an artist, or who has a twin. 

Last Song Before Night by Ilana C Myer was another book that was recommended to me, and I got a copy, along with the above novel, from the MV library. I wasn't sure what to expect from this book, so I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a page-turner. Here's the blurb:
A high fantasy following a young woman's defiance of her culture as she undertakes a dangerous quest to restore her world's lost magic in Ilana C. Myer's Last Song Before Night.
Her name was Kimbralin Amaristoth: sister to a cruel brother, daughter of a hateful family. But she has forsworn that name, and now she is simply Lin, a musician and lyricist of uncommon ability in a land where women are forbidden to answer such callings—a fugitive who must conceal her identity or risk imprisonment and even death.
On the eve of a great festival, Lin learns that an ancient scourge has returned to the land of Eivar, a pandemic both deadly and unnatural. Its resurgence brings with it the memory of an apocalypse that transformed half a continent. Long ago, magic was everywhere, rising from artistic expression—from song, from verse, from stories. But in Eivar, where poets once wove enchantments from their words and harps, the power was lost. Forbidden experiments in blood divination unleashed the plague that is remembered as the Red Death, killing thousands before it was stopped, and Eivar's connection to the Otherworld from which all enchantment flowed, was broken.
The Red Death's return can mean only one thing: someone is spilling innocent blood in order to master dark magic. Now poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a challenge much greater: galvanized by Valanir Ocune, greatest Seer of the age, Lin and several others set out to reclaim their legacy and reopen the way to the Otherworld—a quest that will test their deepest desires, imperil their lives, and decide the future.Publisher's Weekly:In the complicated epic fantasy world of Myer’s debut novel, only men can become poets, play harps, set their work to music, and become magical Seers. Traumatized young heroine Lin is tormented by her sadistic brother and miserable that she cannot openly follow her musical vocation. After being surreptitiously trained in music and magic by the great poet-Seer Valanir Ocune, Lin escapes her brother and embarks on a dangerous journey to find a portal to the Otherworld and secure the true Silver Branch that empowers poets—an act of treason against the evil court poet, Nickon Gerrard, the power behind the throne. Lin endures increasingly horrific trials and humiliations, several of which emphasize the oppression of women; in Myer’s narrative, men must accept the necessity of self-sacrifice before their redemption can be achieved. Despite jarring modern dialogue and some foggy lapses in character development, Lin’s quest moves steadily to an effective though expected conclusion, leaving room for adventures to come.
This is a book for those who love old Celtic music and folk tunes, as well as fantasy that is somewhere to the left of Tolkien. Lin is severely abused by her evil brother R, and as a woman is not allowed to use her talent as a singer and poet in the challenge for the "silver branch." Yet she does manage to engage with many of the other characters, most of them men, to work with Valanir Ocune to try and find the portal and bring down the evil court poet Nickon, who has been taken over by an evil spirit (because he's used blood magic and killed people to maintain his power). Rianna is a wealthy young woman who has been sheltered enough that she ends up getting into trouble by being naive, and when Lin's evil brother uses her, she vows revenge, and in the end, guts him like a fish, which was very satisfying on an emotional level. Though I hated to see the male characters kowtow to the patriarchal system, it was refreshing to see Lin triumph over it all in the end. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who is a musician and those who like high fantasy and old folk music and poetry.

The Queen is Dead by Kate Locke is the second book in the Immortal Empire series. I read God Save the Queen, the first book in the series, and I enjoyed it enough to see what happened to Xandra, the new Goblin Queen in book two. Here's the blurb:
Xandra Vardan is the newly crowned Goblin Queen of England. But her complicated life is by no means over.
There are the political factions vying for her favor, and the all-too-close scrutiny of Queen Victoria, who wants her head. Not to mention her werewolf boyfriend has demands of his own, and her mother is hell-bent on destroying the monarchy. Now she's the main suspect in a murder investigation — and Xandra barely knows which way is up.
What she does know is that nothing lasts forever — and immortality isn't all its cracked up to be.
The spectacular follow-up in The Immortal Empire series that started with God Save the Queen and ends with Long Live the Queen.Library Journal:Newly proclaimed goblin queen Xandra Vardan is back and still in the mood to kick some serious butt. In this sequel to Locke's God Save the Queen, Xandra's brother Val has gone missing while investigating the suspicious disappearances of "halvies" from a popular London club. The suspects are vampire wannabes who will trade favors for a swig of vampire blood. Xandra, with the assistance of Vex, her boyfriend and alpha werewolf, and William, prince of the ferocious goblins, tackles a depraved group of villains searching for the reason behind the halvies' kidnappings. The constant action never lets the reader get bored and the humor keeps us amused.
Locke's prose is fun, her characters fascinating and her plots breeze along like a revved up motorcycle. And in this installment, we get more into the lives of the Goblin plague, and William introduces Xandra to a rare baby Goblin, whom the mother names Alexandra in her honor. But the weres and particularly the vampires seem to have it out for Xandra and for her brothers and sisters, and her wimpy father does nothing when he discovers that his most recent wife is at the helm of the horrible faction of aristos who are experimenting on and killing halvies. Of course, Xandra's mother is no better, only visiting her daughter when she assumes that she can force Xandra to ally the Goblins with her insurrectionists, stationed at Bedlam mental hospital. Thankfully, though, Xandra's beloved Vex the werewolf is always by her side, ready to help her defeat any and all evil, as is Goblin prince William, who not only supports Xandra, but nurtures and mentors her in her growing role as a Goblin aristocrat. I really loved the fact that the Goblins turned out to be like MI6, with all their surveilance cameras and underground informants. My only problem with the book was the same problem that I had with the last one, in it seems highly unfair to be that Xandra's family treats her like crap, with disdain and anger, until they need her, then suddenly she's good enough to put her life on the line to rescue her brother or her sister, but not good enough to live with her sister and escape her siblings prejudice.Even her Tranny friend Penny Dreadful uses Xandra shamelessly, sells her out, and doesn't seem to be too ashamed or guilt-ridden about it. Other than Vex and William, most of the other characters are terrible at defending of themselves and getting themselves out of bad situations. Her brother Val is supposed to be a police officer, yet he can't seem to do much but whine. And of course when everything goes wrong, everyone in town seems to have Xandra on speed dial, because even the police in steampunk London have it out for Xandra and her goblins, in addition to being totally ineffective at solving crimes or kidnappings. But I suppose that is the fate of the heroine, to be the only competent person in the story. Of course, all's well that ends well, but I am hoping that  Xandra's harvested ova aren't used against her in the third book of the trilogy. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to those who like Gail Carriger's steampunk novels.