Monday, February 27, 2017

A Deadly Affection by Cuyler Overholt, The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict, The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan and The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

After last night's Oscar debacle, I am even more sold on being a bibliophile, and I am glad to note that I am ahead of schedule in making my way to 600 posts of book reviews on Butterfly Books. The four books I am reviewing on this post are all from the Maple Valley branch of the King County Library System (KCLS), and each book was excellent in it's own surprising way.

A Deadly Affection by the lyrically-named Cuyler Overholt (I found myself imagining a car named for her, as in "This deluxe 2017 Cuyler Overholt sports coupe in lipstick red goes from zero to 60 in 10 seconds!") is a Victorian mystery with a female protagonist who is a physician/psychiatrist at the turn of the last century. Usually anything with a brave woman who blazes a trail in an all-male field hooks me into a book right away, but I hesitated a bit with this book because it was the first of a series, and those can be spotty, if not handled deftly. 
I need not have worried, Overholt handled the history and the characters like an old pro, delving right into the life and times of Dr Genevieve Summerford with graceful prose that would seem to come from an author with dozens of books to her credit. Here's the blurb: 
"Do no harm" is easier said than done...
Dr. Genevieve Summerford prides herself on her ability as a psychiatrist to understand the inner workings of the human mind. But when one of her patients is arrested for murder-a murder Genevieve fears she may have unwittingly provoked-she begins to doubt her training and intuition. Unable to believe that her patient could have committed the gruesome crime, Genevieve seeks out answers, desperate to clear the woman's name-and her own.
Over the course of her investigation, Genevieve uncovers a dark secret-one that could, should Genevieve choose to reveal it, bring down catastrophe on those she cares most about. But, should she let it lie, it will almost certainly send her patient to the electric chair. Steeped in the gritty atmosphere of turn-of-the-century New York City, A Deadly Affection is a riveting debut mystery and the first in an exciting new series featuring Dr. Genevieve Summerford.
Though I know it's appropriate for the time, my only difficulty with the book is the parent/child relationship that Genna has with her bullying, straight-laced, old fashioned father, who wants his daughter to take a fluff job at a hospital where she will be bored and safe, instead of doing what she loves and helping women with mental illness that is causing them physical ailments as well. Dr Gen is a proponent of what is now called "group" talk therapy, wherein a group of people with similar mental or physical ailments get together and commiserate and talk through their issues, ridding themselves of loneliness and bringing their pain into the open, so that they can heal. Unfortunately, her advice is misinterpreted by one of her patients, who is then accused of decapitating the doctor who delivered and sold her baby daughter 20 years earlier. When it comes to light that this patient may have Huntington's Chorea, a dreadful genetic disease, Dr Gen hunts for the real killer and for the father of her patient's baby to see if he had the disease as well. Readers should note that there are two gruesome decapitations and a horrible incest/rape scene that might be a trigger. I am not a fan of horror, but that said, I loved this book, which was a real page-turner, despite the heroine's constant knuckling under to her awful father and his good opinion of her. I think she should have told him to go to hell and moved out, but at the time this book takes place, that wasn't really an option. Also, I want to note here that Huntington's Chorea still has no cure, 100 plus years after this story takes place, which is a crime unto itself. Still, I'd give this moving book an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes historical mysteries with strong female protagonists.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict is the story of Mitza Maric, the brilliant young woman who studied physics, science and math with Albert Einstein in the late 19th, early 20th century in Switzerland. She was Albert's first wife, and from what is posited in the story, she was the one who did the math and wrote most of his original paper on relativity, which had him up for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. Apparently Albert, like many German men I've known in my own family, was a lying, cheating, immature, oppressive sexist bastard who felt that Mitza's only role should be as his slavish hausfrau, taking care of his children and writing papers for him and not getting any credit because, as a woman, she doesn't deserve any.  The first half of the book focuses on Mitza's life and studies, and it is only in the second half that she succumbs to Alberts blandishments, in which he assures her that he wants a "bohemian" marriage of equals, where they'd work alongside one another and she'd get credit for her work just like he does. Of course that doesn't happen, and Mitza, who has a lame leg and who has been told she'd never wed because of it, ends up giving up her studies, her career and her dignity when Albert welshes on their deal ASAP. Here's the blurb:
In the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein offers us a window into a brilliant, fascinating woman whose light was lost in Einstein's enormous shadow. It is the story of Einstein's wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated and may have been inspired by her own profound and very personal insight.
Mitza Maric has always been a little different from other girls. Most twenty-year-olds are wives by now, not studying physics at an elite Zurich university with only male students trying to outdo her clever calculations. But Mitza is smart enough to know that, for her, math is an easier path than marriage. And then fellow student Albert Einstein takes an interest in her, and the world turns sideways. Theirs becomes a partnership of the mind and of the heart, but there might not be room for more than one genius in a marriage.Publisher's Weekly:Albert Einstein may not have been the only mastermind behind his groundbreaking ideas about relativity; it turns out the renowned theoretical physicist collaborated a great deal with his first wife, Mileva Marić—a Serbian woman of modest means who was one of the few women to study math and science at the Zurich Polytechnic School where the two meet. In her compelling novel, Benedict shows how Mileva transforms from a sheltered girl into a personally and professionally fulfilled young woman as she meets other educated women like her in the Swiss boarding house near her school and, through her new acquaintance Albert Einstein, engages in theoretical discussions with male colleagues during which her intelligence is both admired and supported. But Albert and Mileva are a product of their times; the turn of the century wasn’t exactly a liberating time for women, and the self-centered Albert has no compunctions about deleting her name from papers they assiduously work on together. Their tenuous personal life (including a child he ignores), his affairs, and his insistence that his wife be more possession than spouse causes the marriage to implode. Did giving Mileva his Nobel Prize earnings assuage his guilt for her unacknowledged assistance and confirm her contribution to his work? Benedict makes a strong case that the brilliant woman behind him was integral to his success, and creates a rich historical portrait in the process.
By the end of this book I wanted to kick Albert Einstein in the gonads and punch him in the face, repeatedly, just as he physically and mentally abused Mitza, also called Mileva. Still, it serves as a cautionary tale to women with ambition that it is rare to be able to "have it all" with a spouse and children and a career. It also highlights how much women give up when they marry men, who take time away from their goals and careers. Benedict's prose was workmanlike and clean, and her plot moved at a measured pace. I'd give this novel an A-, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in Einstein's early life.
The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan isn't aptly named, as the protagonist doesn't have a book shop on the corner at all, she has a big old book bus that she drives all over Scotland, bringing the love of reading and storytelling to rural people hungry for good literature. Other than the cliche of Nina Redmond, the protagonist, being a "petite" mousy librarian, afraid of her own shadow, those were the only problems I had with this delightful story that I devoured in one sitting.  Here's the blurb:
Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.
Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.
From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending. Kirkus Reviews: What’s a shy English librarian to do when she’s downsized out of a job and her only hope for remaining employed is to become a social media–savvy coordinator of online content? For 29-year-old Nina, it’s time to pursue her dream of opening a small bookshop. After all, since no one reads anymore, the library system is practically throwing away its books, and no will mind if Nina rescues them like orphans and finds them new homes. Certainly her roommate, the beautiful Surinder, will be pleased to rid their apartment of the architecture-imperiling weight of piles of novels. But real estate is expensive, so Nina decides to buy a van and travel around in a mobile bookstore. She locates the perfect vehicle in Kirrinfief, Scotland, where her real adventures begin. Soon enough, she’s relocated to the Highlands, and her life is newly populated with delightfully quirky characters, including Marek, a Latvian train engineer and romantic hero, who begins exchanging love letters and books of poetry with Nina on a tree at a railway crossing; Ainslee, a mercurial teenage girl eager for a job yet wary of revealing anything about her home life; and Lennox, Nina’s grumpy landlord, who’s separated from his posh wife and who increasingly occupies Nina’s thoughts. Amid the gorgeous scenery of Scotland, Nina sets out to find the right book for everyone in her new town. With a keen eye for the cinematic, Colgan is a deft mistress of romantic comedy; Nina’s story is laced with clever dialogue and scenes set like jewels, just begging to be filmed. A charming, bracingly fresh happily-ever-after tale with playful nods to the Outlander series.
I disliked the Outlander series, so I don't agree with the last line of the Kirkus review, but I did find the book to beautifully written and well plotted, and I was heartily disappointed that Marek turned out to be a jerk who was married, with a family back in Latvia, but because he was lonely he felt he could woo Nina and have an affair with her without consequence. Nina is quick to forgive him when I wouldn't have been, but once she picks up with her grumpy landlord Lennox, things start to fall into place for her, and her life gets back on track. Scotland, which is on my bucket list (along with Wales), sounds like a fantastic place to live and work, full of interesting and quirky people and hearty delicious cuisine. It was also the perfect place for Nina to grow up and gain a spine, to become the person she was meant to be, changing lives one book at a time. A well deserved A, with the recommendation to anyone who loves good stories and books and Scotland.

The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh is the second and final book in this wonderful duology based on the 1001 Nights tale of Shaharizad. Though I seriously doubt women in the middle east were given this much power or latitude in their lives, even now, I was still delighted by the kick-butt protagonist Shazi, who learns to control her powers and her flying carpet and wins the day, along with her Caliph/King in the end. Here's the blurb:
The much anticipated sequel to the breathtaking The Wrath and the Dawn, lauded by Publishers Weekly as "a potent page-turner of intrigue and romance."
I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.
In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid's empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.

While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn't yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.
Shazi's father Jahandar is a complete asshat, whose only interest is to gain power and status and have people bowing down to him, instead of actually helping people with his magic. He does redeem himself at the end, but it's a near thing, and I felt so sorry for Shazi that she has such a crappy family (including her weak and idiotic sister, who keeps making things worse)and no one but herself and her husband to rely on for support. However, Ahdieh serves up mesmerizing prose that is so lush and sensual that you can feel the hot sand beneath your feet and smell the exotic spices in the air throughout both books. Her plots fly like the magic carpet and her characters are fascinating. The HEA with Shazi and Kahlid is welcome and perfect, and I felt this set of novels deserves an A, with a recommendation for anyone who is interested in Tales of the Arabian Nights updated for the YA audience.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel, The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom, The Road to Enchantment by Kaya McLaren and The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

Today I have four books to review, so I'm going to get right to them.

Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel is this author's first YA novel, and it's amazing. I wasn't sure what to expect from this novel, but it reminded me of Baum's Wizard of Oz stories, with some fairy stories woven into them, like Seanan McGuire's cruel and capricious fey, not the pretty happy non-threatening fairies in some children's stories. Here's the blurb:
Fans of Libba Bray’s The Diviners will love the blend of fantasy and twentieth-century history in this stylish series.
Callie LeRoux is choking on dust. Just as the biggest dust storm in history sweeps through the Midwest, Callie discovers her mother's long-kept secret. Callie’s not just mixed race—she's half fairy, too. Now, Callie's fairy kin have found where she's been hidden, and they're coming for her.
While dust engulfs the prairie, magic unfolds around Callie. Buildings flicker from lush to shabby, and people aren’t what they seem. The only person Callie can trust may be Jack, the charming ex-bootlegger she helped break out of jail.
From the despair of the Dust Bowl to the hot jazz of Kansas City and the dangerous beauties of the fairy realm, Sarah Zettel creates a world rooted equally in American history and in magic, where two fairy clans war over a girl marked by prophecy.
A strong example of diversity in YA, the American Fairy Trilogy introduces Callie LeRoux, a half-black teen who stars in this evocative story full of American history and fairy tales.
The first thing I noticed about Dust Girl was the elegant and mesmerizing prose, which grabs the reader and doesn't let go until you've reached the end of the whirlwind plot. Callie's encounter with Coyote, who healed her of dust pneumonia was just the first of many bizarre and fascinating encounters with odd fae creatures, including a family of locusts, and scary racist humans like Bull Morgan. Somehow Callie, along with her scrappy Jewish friend Jack, manages to escape the clutches of the bad fae and return to Kansas City to search for her mom and dad. The "happy for now" ending is slightly abrupt, but it also leaves a door open for sequels that I will be eagerly anticipating. Zettel's excellent storytelling grants this book an A, and a recommendation to those who like historical YA fantasy with diverse characters.

The Time Keeper is the 4th book that I've read by Mitch Albom, and I assumed I'd know what to expect because of that, but this book surprised me. This book is a fable of the beginning of time and Father Time, as told through his eyes during the Babylonian era, and several other people in the modern era. This book is more religious than his previous works, and God is often present as a punishing figure who doesn't approve of Dor/Father Time's hubris in trying to stop time and save his wife from plague. There are more than a few "preachy" moments that slowed the plot for me, and I didn't appreciate the interruption of the story. Here's the blurb:  
In Mitch Albom's exceptional work of fiction, the inventor of the world's first clock is punished for trying to measure God's greatest gift. He is banished to a cave for centuries and forced to listen to the voices of all who come after him seeking more days, more years.
Eventually, with his soul nearly broken, Father Time is granted his freedom, along with a magical hourglass and a mission: a chance to redeem himself by teaching two earthly people the true meaning of time.
He returns to our world—now dominated by the hour-counting he so innocently began—and commences a journey with two unlikely partners: one a teenage girl who is about to give up on life, the other a wealthy old businessman who wants to live forever. To save himself, he must save them both. And stop the world to do so.
Told in Albom's signature spare, evocative prose, this remarkably original tale will inspire readers everywhere to reconsider their own notions of time, how they spend it, and how precious it truly is. Publisher's Weekly: Bestselling author Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie) turns his attention to Father Time in his new fabulist page-turner. Long ago—before a word like "ago" had any meaning—a man named Dor began to chart the passage of time, immediately realizing that "all his days were numbered," and so were his wife's. When she falls deathly ill, Dor climbs the Tower of Babel to beg the gods for help. But as a result of his brazenness, he is banished to a cave where he must endure listening to humanity plead for "more hours, more years, more time." After 6,000 years of torment, Dor is finally released back into the modern world with an enchanted hourglass and a mission: to teach two wayward souls the true value of time—Sarah Lemon, a distressed teen, who wishes the end would come quickly, and Victor Delamonte, a prosperous aging businessman trying his best to keep the end at bay. With a clever conceit and frequent shifts in perspective, Albom deftly juggles multiple narratives to craft an inspiring tale that will please his fans and newcomers alike.
I loved Tuesdays with Morrie, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, but honestly, this book felt condescending and heavy-handed (with religion) to me. I didn't understand why God would see fit to punish Dor for seeking to save his wife, and for measuring time. Why would God care about such a thing? An infinite being would surely have better things to do than torment a man for 6,000 years. It seems beneath a supreme being, to me. Also, the cliche of the old rich man who wants to cryogenically freeze himself until a cure for cancer is found, and a teenage girl who is bullied and harassed online and off by a popular jerk boy at her school, so she wants to commit suicide to end the embarrassment is just too easy, too unimaginative to really resonate with readers. Why is cryogenic suspension such a sin? I could see how the old rich guy wanted to live forever, but just because he didn't consult his fanatically religious wife, knowing that she would keep him from freezing himself at the moment of death, doesn't sound like he was in the wrong. So she stops him from freezing himself and he dies, and that is better how? I can see saving the teenager and letting her know that the jerk boy at her school isn't worth her life, but did we really need Father Time to bolster her self esteem? Isn't that overkill? This dissatisfying book left me with more questions than answers, so I'd give it a C, and only recommend it to those who like boring Christian pablum in book form.

The Road to Enchantment by Kaya McLaren was exactly that, an enchanting book that takes readers on a fascinating personal journey. Full disclosure, I won a copy of this book from the Author Buzz section of the Shelf Awareness e-newsletter. So that was the first of many unexpected delights that I uncovered with this lovely trade paperback book. The second was McLaren's warm, elegant prose that reads like silk and glides along a beautifully-paced plot with the greatest of ease. Another joy was reading that Willow grew up in Enumclaw, Washington, which is one of my favorite towns nearby (its only 15 miles from Maple Valley, WA, where I live), so I had an extra frame of reference for the character. Here's the blurb:
As a young girl, Willow watched her mother leave their home in Washington State in a literal blaze of glory: she set the mattress of her cheating husband on fire in her driveway, roasting marshmallow peeps and hot dogs before the fire department arrived.
And with that, she and Willow set off to New Mexico, to a new life, to a world of arroyos and canyons bordering an Apache reservation. Willow was devastated. Her eccentric mother believed in this new life and set about starting a winery and goat ranch. But for Willow, it meant initially being bullied and feeling like an outsider. Today, as a grown woman, Willow much prefers Los Angeles and her job as a studio musician. But things tend to happen in threes: her mother dies, her boyfriend dumps her, and Willow discovers she is pregnant.
The DeVine Winery and Goat Ranch is all she has left, even if it is in financial straits and unmanageable back taxes. There is something, though, about the call of “home.” She's surprised to find that her Apache best friend Darrel along with the rest of the community seems to think she belongs far more than she ever thought she did. Can Willow redefine what home means for her, and can she make a go of the legacy her mother left behind?
Told with Kaya McLaren’s humor and heart, The Road to Enchantment is a story about discovering that the last thing you want is sometimes the one thing you need.
“This is a potent coming of true age novel. One that gently leads us to leave behind all we imagined as lost, encourages us to embrace what adventure of the simple day lies ahead. The Road to Enchantment carries us into that place beyond the dark hour where the power of story reigns, truth will not be denied, and all the magic of this life will be remembered.” –River Jordan
My only problem with the book was my dislike and disgust of Willow's mother Monica, who was selfish, delusional and cruel enough to leave her daughter with tons of debt, a broken down farmstead and winery and a bunch of old useless animals that should have been put down. The blurbs call it a "legacy" but I honestly can't imagine why anyone would see the disaster that Monica left behind as any kind of asset. She also didn't treat Willow kindly or show much compassion to her daughter at all. Most mothers are more than willing to make sacrifices for the comfort and well being of their children, especially after divorce. To be fair, Willow's father wasn't too interested in his daughter, either, once he'd started a new family, and his rejection and abandonment of his first child was made all the more bitter because it left her without anyone in her corner. It was perfect then, when Darrel and his family stepped up and saved Willow from bullying, harassment, near-starvation and isolation by basically adopting her. Darrel brings Willow a horse, and the two go riding and discuss her problems. When a pregnant Willow comes back to settle her mother's debt-ridden estate, Darrel and his family step up the plate once again, letting her know that she's supported and among family if she wants to save the winery and take over the business. I was rooting for Willow all the way, and found the ending to be as gratifying as the rest of this well-told tale. A definite A, with a recommendation to anyone who likes female protagonist "rising from the ashes" kinds of stories.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh is a new and fresh YA take on the Thousand and One Nights tales of Shaharizhad, who told stories to the prince or sultan in order to keep him from executing her at dawn. Among the stories she traditionally told is the story of Aladdin and the Genie. These tales take on a different meaning when it is revealed in this retelling that the prince/Caliph has no choice but to execute 100 young brides or thousands of his people will die, due to a curse placed on him by the father of his first bride, who killed herself when she discovered that the Caliph didn't love her. Here's the blurb:
Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch . . . she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend.
She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.
The vivid and bright prose keeps the rapid-fire plot zooming right along, and Shazi's an excellent protagonist who, though she faces multiple road blocks and problems, still manages to find out what she needs to know about the curse on Khalid and the political machinations of all his relatives, who are poised to pounce on his territory and throne, once he's overthrown. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Tariq, and Shazi's father will stop at nothing to save her from the Caliph, not realizing that by starting an uprising they're putting her in more danger than ever. I was not a fan of Tariq, who seems like a bully who always gets his way, and I wasn't too thrilled with Shazi's father, either, who seems to be working blood magic and wreaking havoc on everyone. If I were Shazi, I would never have left with Tariq, and I would have explained the situation with the Caliph, who she's in love with, so that Tariq can go off and wage war for his own bloody reasons and leave her alone. I have the second book in the series coming today, and I'm looking forward to the further adventures of these intriguing characters. I also found it odd, by the way, that the magic carpet never really was used in the book after it was introduced and shown to be able to fly. I would think someone as sharp as Shazi would be on that thing in a heartbeat to escape both factions.Still, this legendary retelling was well worth an A, and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys reboots of old tales in exotic locales. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 05, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

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

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

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

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

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