Saturday, March 25, 2017

RIP Jimmy Breslin, Midnight, Texas TV Show, The Reader by Traci Chee, Arabella of Mars by David Levine, and Starcaster by Shana Shaheen

As a journalist of over 30 years, I've come to admire and respect the tough journalists who did the hard work before me. Jimmy Breslin was famed for his wit and his consummate writing talent. He was the Studs Terkel of newspapers, with a healthy dose of New York tough thrown in for good measure. He lived a long and satisfying life, but his like will never be seen again in the world of wordsmithing.

Obituary Note: Jimmy Breslin
Legendary New York City columnist, novelist, biographer and raconteur
Jimmy Breslin
"who leveled the powerful and elevated the powerless for more than 50
years with brick-hard words and a jagged-glass wit," died March 19, the
New York Times reported. He was 88 and, "until very recently, was still
pushing somebody's buttons with two-finger jabs at his keyboard."

Breslin's book about the first season of the hapless New York
Mets--Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?--landed him a job as a news
columnist with the New York Herald Tribune in 1963. Soon he was "counted
among the writers credited with inventing 'New Journalism,' in which
novelistic techniques are used to inject immediacy and narrative tension
into the news," the Times wrote, adding: "But Mr. Breslin's greatest
character was himself: the outer-borough boulevardier of bilious
persuasion." He would go on to write for several newspapers in the city.

Author Pete Hamill, a former colleague, said, "It seemed so new and
original. It was a very, very important moment in New York journalism,
and in national journalism."

Breslin's books include the novels The Gang That Couldn't Shoot
Straight, World Without End, Amen, and Table Money; the memoir I Want to
Thank My Brain for Remembering Me; biographies of Damon Runyon and
Branch Rickey, as well as The Good Rat, a book about mob culture.
"Perhaps the quintessential Breslin book was The Short Sweet Dream of
Eduardo Gutierrez, published in 2002, in which he focused on the death
of an unauthorized Mexican worker at a flawed Brooklyn construction site
to rail against the shoddy building practices, political cowardice and
racism of his beloved city," the Times noted.

Though I wasn't a huge fan of Midnight, Texas, I think it will translate very well to television. I certainly hope it's more faithful to the books than the TV show True Blood was to the Sookie Stackhouse novels written by Harris.
A new trailer has been released for the upcoming NBC show Midnight,
on the novel series by Charlaine Harris, Entertainment Weekly reported,
noting that "it seems the town's inhabitants are quite the colorful
bunch." The series stars Francois Arnaud, Jason Lewis, Yul
Vazquez, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Arielle Kebbel and Peter Mensah. Midnight,
Texas premieres on July 25.

The Reader by Traci Chee had a slow start, and was somewhat difficult to follow due to deliberate redaction of text with big swathes of black ink, and smudges, and text faded to illegibility. But once you get past the first few of these, and realize that they're part of the story of a society that is nearly 100 percent illiterate, then the plot picks up steam and motors right along until the end, which is a cliffhanger, of course. I liked the fact that the characters in this novel were multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, and I LOVED that magic was inherent in books and reading, and librarians were visionary magicians. What I didn't like was the violence and death and slavery forced on children in this world, and the inability of more than a few adults to put a stop to it. Still, most dystopian YA is full of children trained to violence and death, like the Hunger Games, Divergent, and even the Harry Potter series. Here's the blurb:  
Sefia knows what it means to survive. After her father is brutally murdered, she flees into the wilderness with her aunt Nin, who teaches her to hunt, track, and steal. But when Nin is kidnapped, leaving Sefia completely alone, none of her survival skills can help her discover where Nin’s been taken, or if she’s even alive. The only clue to both her aunt’s disappearance and her father’s murder is the odd rectangular object her father left behind, an object she comes to realize is a book—a marvelous item unheard of in her otherwise illiterate society. With the help of this book, and the aid of a mysterious stranger with dark secrets of his own, Sefia sets out to rescue her aunt and find out what really happened the day her father was killed—and punish the people responsible.With overlapping stories of swashbuckling pirates and merciless assassins, The Reader is a brilliantly told adventure from an extraordinary new talent.
Archer, the mysterious stranger mentioned above, was press-ganged into becoming a pit-fighter and a slave, whose owners abuse him and make money from his ability to kill his other child opponents. When Sefia rescues Archer from his captors, she helps him to overcome his brutal previous life and teaches him love and peace. But therein lies another problem that I have not just with this book, but with all of the dystopian YA fiction with a teenage female protagonist. They never go it alone. The authors of these books ALWAYS pair their heroines to a boy, usually one with some kind of stunted emotional growth or horrendous abusive childhood (which it is incumbent on the girls to heal) who also happens to be terribly handsome, and who of course falls in love with the female protagonist, and helps her fight her battles. It's not that I am against romance or romantic subplots, but it has become a trope, a cliche and a stereotype for nearly all YA fiction with female protagonists. Somehow, they're never able to be strong enough on their own. Still, though that's frustrating, I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who loves books and magic, but still has a stomach for violence and brutality that is inherent in Chee's world.

I'd like to make a quick note here about a book called "The Guineveres" by Sarah Domet. This book was on my wish list of books to purchase, but I decided not to wait and put it on hold at the library. I am so glad that I didn't shell out actual cash for this dreadfully dull novel, as the author tells readers what happens to the teenage girls (all named Guinevere) once they become adults before page 50. Why in the name of heaven would anyone tell the reader the ending at the beginning of the book? What would compel the reader to read on, knowing what was going to happen at the end? What precedes the revelation of what happens to the Guineveres is rather pathetic and sad, nothing that would make one want to know more about these Catholic schoolgirls who dream of something better, but can't seem to make that happen. I'm taking the book back to the library, and I'm glad that I dodged a bullet in not paying for such weak sauce of a novel.

Arabella of Mars by David Levine is a YA Steampunk science fiction novel that I was really looking forward to reading. Though the British Empire has conquered Mars and colonized it, as well as other planets, they still haven't allowed women to inherit property, have careers or remain unmarried and go to college to gain a career. Fortunately for Arabella and her weak twin brother Michael, they were raised by a crab-like Martian nanny on their plantation on Mars, who taught them to speak the language and fight to defend themselves. Arabella, like her father, has an affinity for creating and fixing "automatons" or clockwork robots that can do all manner of tasks with computer-like efficiency. Unfortunately for Arabella, once she's sent "home" to earth, she discovers that she has an evil cousin who departs earth to try and kill her brother so as to inherit the family plantation and turn out her mother and sisters with nothing onto the streets. Arabella has to disguise herself as "Arthur Ashby" in order to gain passage on a star ship headed for Mars to foil her cousin's plan and save the family fortune. Here's the blurb:
Since Newton witnessed a bubble rising from his bathtub, mankind has sought the stars. When William III of England commissioned Capt. William Kidd to command the first expedition to Mars in the late 1600s, he proved that space travel was both possible and profitable.
Now, one century later, a plantation in a flourishing British colony on Mars is home to Arabella Ashby, a young woman who is perfectly content growing up in the untamed frontier. But days spent working on complex automata with her father or stalking her brother Michael with her Martian nanny is not the proper behavior of an English lady. That is something her mother plans to remedy with a move to an exotic world Arabella has never seen: London, England.
However, when events transpire that threaten her home on Mars, Arabella decides that sometimes doing the right thing is far more important than behaving as expected. She disguises herself as a boy and joins the crew of the Diana, a ship serving the Mars Trading Company, where she meets a mysterious captain who is intrigued by her knack with clockwork creations. Now Arabella just has to weather the naval war currently raging between Britain and France, learn how to sail, and deal with a mutinous crew…if she hopes to save her family remaining on Mars.
Arabella of Mars, the debut novel by Hugo-winning author David D. Levine offers adventure, romance, political intrigue, and Napoleon in space!
The aforementioned Captain Singh is a native of India and has bronzed/brown skin, which is the reason some of his racist crew try to mutiny against him. Of course, Arabella stops the mutiny and falls for him, and though he's much older than she, they end up marrying, because it is impossible to have a young woman protagonist in these YA novels who doesn't have a boyfriend or husband (see review of The Reader, above). The prose tries to be old fashioned and intricate, but that just slows the plot, and the characters have to struggle against that somewhat. There was also way too much boring detail about life aboard a ship, about the knots tied, the balloons used to make it a dirigible and all sorts of other ship trivia that should have been edited down or out. Still, I liked Arabella's pluck, and I'd give this novel a B+,and recommend it to those who like sea-faring airship adventures.

Saving the best for last! Starcaster by Shana Abe, writing here as Shana Shaheen, is another triumph for Abe, who is a master storyteller and prose stylist. November Duval (called Ember) and her brother Mason live on a farm out in the middle of nowhere in the far future, when technology is for the rich and magic is something that is used only in rare cases and then only by dynasties. Ember is infected one day with a TB-3 plague when a girl on the bus coughs out the last of her lungs and her life onto Ember as she's leaving the bus and heading home. Her brother Mason, a scientific genius, refuses to allow her to die, so he manipulates the lottery to get her aboard a Time Train in space, where time slows so that for every month that goes by on the train, years go by on Earth. The hope is that each time the train is stopped, one or more of the plagues that infect the passengers will have found a cure so that they can disembark and continue on with their lives. Here's the blurb:
It was widely acknowledged that Taza Sullivan had a hole in his heart. Not a literal hole, but the shadow imitation of one; it stretched the breadth and depth of that unspoken space, the seat of his soul.
The hole remained despite the many blessings sprinkled like rose petals, like cherry blossoms, all through his life: firstborn of a sovereign, alight with power, handsome and charismatic and smart.
And even though no one had been able to foresee what, exactly, was needed to fill that gap within him, she did exist-a millennium before Taza was even born.
November Duval lives in a scientifically elegant world where the advances in technology are destroying the earth, even as the corporations promoting them assert they will save it. She considers herself an ordinary girl with an extraordinary problem: she's been exposed to a highly contagious, manmade disease: Tuberculosis Type Three.

Eventually, it will kill her, and millions like her. There is no cure.
Yet Ember's given a second chance at life when she wins a coveted ticket to the Time Train: the most innovative, sophisticated spaceship ever built. Along with a few of the richest, most powerful people in the world, the train will speed Ember into the future-all the way to the day her disease is cured.
At least, that's what's supposed to happen...
Ember makes friends with the extremely wealthy technological genius who created the Time Train, an old man who is dying of cancer. She also befriends a child who has TB-3 and a young man who, of course, falls in love with her. Unsurprisingly, most of the rest of the wealthy and ill people on the Time Train turn out to be total scumbags, selfish and cruel, with the added "bonus" that one of the other young men on the Train is also a rapist. Though he tries to rape and kill Ember, she's saved by the robots and AI aboard the train. When it becomes apparent that the train is no longer making stops, and they've been aboard almost a thousand years (just a few years in train time), Ember manages to stop the train and helps figure out a way to pilot it back to earth, in a crash that doesn't kill everyone aboard. Meanwhile, alternating chapters tell the story of Taza, the prince whose life is under constant surveillance from his grandmother and father, who seek to control him until he becomes king. Taza has magic and visions, though, and his main vision has been of Ember and her life both on earth and aboard the time ship, which he sees streak across the skies as a meteor falling to earth. He gets a dispensation from his father to travel to wherever the meteor has fallen and find the girl of his visions, though he doesn't actually find her until the final pages, when he realizes that everything about her, including her AI fireflies, are forbidden technology. This left me yearning for another chapter or at least a few more pages, so Taza and Ember get to know one another across the years. But I realize that there will have to be a sequel so at least we can find out if there's a cure for Ember's TB. The prose is, as with all of Abe's books, gloriously lush and original. It makes the plot swift and the whole novel riveting reading. The compelling characters are the real stars here, though. I'd give this book a well-deserved A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys mesmerizing science fiction/romance. 
and in national journalism."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Secret Garden Books Celebrates 40th Birthday, The House on Tradd Street by Karen White, The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown and Prospero in Hell by L Jagi Lamplighter

Happy 40th Birthday, Secret Garden Books!
One of the first bookstores that I encountered (other than the Couth Buzzard Used Bookstore) was Secret Garden Books, which was not too far from the apartment complex I was living in at the time. They had bricks out front of the store which would "sing" when you walked over them. This was in 1991. I've visited the bookstore since then, several times, even after it moved to the downtown Ballard corridor. The last time I visited was in 2014, and I spent way too much on new books. It's still thriving, and is still a great community bookstore.

Congratulations to Secret Garden Books
celebrating its 40th anniversary on Saturday, April 1, from 10 a.m.-7
p.m., with cake, prizes, a homemade photo booth--and "mutual adoration."
Customers are encouraged to bring memories, "and they will be shared
creatively with all."

The store has always been owned by women, beginning as a children's
bookstore and becoming a general bookstore in 2000. It continues to have
an emphasis on children's books.

Christy McDanold, who bought Secret Garden Books 22 years ago, recalled
that the store then had "no lease, no books, no staff; just the name of
a bookshop that had been beloved for many years.  But I knew even then
that I had taken on more than just another retail business.

"For me and the two women who owned the shop before me, the Secret
Garden has been a labor of love; love of books, love of people and love
of the community that we have fostered throughout the years. The Secret
Garden is a place where friends meet, families come on days off from
school, and no day goes by without a new friend or an old one cheering
us, telling us that this is their favorite place to buy books.

"Over the years, we have presented inspiring authors and illustrators to
lucky audiences all over the region, delivered fabulous book fairs to
local schools and contributed to hundreds of other fundraisers in a
myriad of ways.

"We have also hired scores of young people, sometimes for their very
first job, sending them on with new skills.

"Yet I truly believe that our most enduring contribution to our
community is our brick and mortar store, filled with beautiful books
carefully chosen with customers old and new in mind, and booksellers
ready and highly capable of helping each customer find just the right
one.  Every day we open our doors the Secret Garden Bookshop is part of
the civic and economic vibrancy that IS community."

The House on Tradd Street by Karen White was a book that I was going to purchase, because, with its blend of history and mystery and ghosts, it sounded right up my alley. I ended up getting a copy from the MV Library, and I was thankful that I did so, because the book wasn't what I thought it would be at all. The protagonist, for all we're supposed to think she's a "modern" woman who doesn't kowtow to anyone and makes her own decisions, is actually pretty comfortable with allowing a man she barely knows to tell her what to do. She also allows this guy, who is pretty obnoxious, full access to her home, even as he pursues her sexually, when she makes it clear she's not interested. Not only is Jack (who gets away with a lot because he's handsome) a stalker jerk, but there's another guy who is obviously out for her money/stolen diamonds who makes it a point to woo Melaine, who is supposedly level headed and practical, but only to a point. Once handsome men are involved, apparently she becomes an idiot, and allows all kinds of evil creepers to be in her life, though she knows nothing about them and they obviously don't have her best interests in mind. Oh, and Melanie can forgive her alcoholic, deadbeat dad anything when he comes crawling back into her life, telling her that he kept her mother's letters from her, allowing her to feel abandoned by both of her parents. She forgives her scumbag father, but not her mother, whom she refuses to talk to or hear her side of the story at all. WTF? Why the double standard and sexism? Anyway, here's the blurb:  
The brilliant, chilling debut of Karen White's New York Times bestselling Tradd Street series, featuring a Charleston real estate agent who loves old houses—and the secret histories inside them.
Practical Melanie Middleton hates to admit she can see ghosts. But she's going to have to accept it. An old man she recently met has died, leaving her his historic Tradd Street home, complete with housekeeper, dog—and a family of ghosts anxious to tell her their secrets.
Enter Jack Trenholm, a gorgeous writer obsessed with unsolved mysteries. He has reason to believe that diamonds from the Confederate Treasury are hidden in the house. So he turns the charm on with Melanie, only to discover he's the smitten one...
It turns out Jack's search has caught the attention of a malevolent ghost. Now, Jack and Melanie must unravel a mystery of passion, heartbreak—and even murder.
The prose was simplistic but clean, and the plot swift enough to keep the pages turning, but I had serious reservations about nearly all the characters in this pot boiler of a novel. It deserves a lower grade, but I'm going to give it a B-, and recommend it as a beach read for those who don't like their mysteries, or their characters, too complex or rational. 
The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown was another book I was slated to buy, but borrowed from the library instead. Again, I was glad that I did. The prose is rich and lush in this two POV novel, which switches back and forth from Madeleine in 1999 to Margie, her grandmother in 1919. Madeleine (I'll call her Maddy) is a visual artist, a painter, who has been forced by her cold and proper b*tch of a mother and her cruel and mentally abusive husband to starve herself and give up painting in order to be the perfect society wife. Margie has also been forced by her horrible parents to stop reading and writing stories and instead look for a husband, or they'll force her to marry an old man with money, just to increase their own fortune and to get her out of the way. Margie is also considered "too different" and "unfit" for the marriage market because she's stout, and not some delicate petite flower with no brains. Fortunately, her younger cousin needs a chaperone for a trip to Paris, and Margie is tapped to go with her, and while there, Margie totally wimps out and allows her cousin to steal all the money and go out on benders and do whatever she wants with a group of disreputable friends. Margie, though she's a coward who lies to her parents so she can stay in Paris, falls in love with the city of light, and ends up taking a job so that she can stay there and write. Inevitably, she meets an artist (who lies to her and is actually an aristocrat) who gets her pregnant and then basically dumps her. Meanwhile, our modern day heroine Maddy is trying in a feeble way to extricate herself from her evil husband and start painting again, and while she's helping her mother move out of the family mansion, she finds her grandmother's journals about her time in Paris, and they inspire her to defy convention (eventually) and start life anew as the artist she was meant to be. Here's the blurb:  
The Light of Paris is the miraculous new novel from New York Times–bestselling author Eleanor Brown, whose debut, The Weird Sisters, was a sensation beloved by critics and readers alike.
Madeleine is trapped—by her family's expectations, by her controlling husband, and by her own fears—in an unhappy marriage and a life she never wanted. From the outside, it looks like she has everything, but on the inside, she fears she has nothing that matters.

In Madeleine’s memories, her grandmother Margie is the kind of woman she should have been—elegant, reserved, perfect. But when Madeleine finds a diary detailing Margie’s bold, romantic trip to Jazz Age Paris, she meets the grandmother she never knew: a dreamer who defied her strict, staid family and spent an exhilarating summer writing in cafés, living on her own, and falling for a charismatic artist.
Despite her unhappiness, when Madeleine’s marriage is threatened, she panics, escaping to her hometown and staying with her critical, disapproving mother. In that unlikely place, shaken by the revelation of a long-hidden family secret and inspired by her grandmother’s bravery, Madeleine creates her own Parisian summer—reconnecting to her love of painting, cultivating a vibrant circle of creative friends, and finding a kindred spirit in a down-to-earth chef who reminds her to feed both her body and her heart.
Margie and Madeleine’s stories intertwine to explore the joys and risks of living life on our own terms, of defying the rules that hold us back from our dreams, and of becoming the people we are meant to be.
My problem with this book as the same one that I had with "Tradd Street," in that the female protagonists didn't seem to have any spine or guts or self esteem enough to stand up to their crappy parents and/or husbands and judgemental society friends. Both Margie and Maddy needed someone outside themselves to tell them they were worthwhile, beautiful and talented. And it's only after Maddy discovers, through her grandma's journals, that her mother is the bastard child of a Parisian artist that she stops being a heinous b*tch and allows her daughter to divorce her "perfect" abusive husband.  I really felt like Brown had to stretch for the eventual HEA, which felt rushed, like an afterthought or something the author was contracted to do. Still, I liked the person that Maddy was by the end of the book, and for that reason, and for the lovely prose, I'd give this novel a B+ and recommend it to anyone who feels like they're living the life someone else has chosen for them.
Propsero in Hell by L Jagi Lamplighter is the second book in this trilogy that is a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with a number of mythological beings, gods and monsters thrown in for good measure. The prose is slightly formal in tone and structure, and the plot follows suit, so it takes a bit more time to delve into these novels than usual, but I felt it was worth it for the great characters alone. Here's the blurb from Publisher's Weekly:  
In this epic sequel to 2009's Prospero Lost, Lamplighter continues the Amberesque adventures of an ancient family caught up in matters of mythic significance. The immortal sorcerer Prospero is missing, sucked into Hell after one of his plans went awry. His far-flung, quarrelsome children have come together for the first time in years to face down the ever-present threat of the Three Shadowed Ones, who hunt them for the legendary magical artifacts they possess. As Miranda, Prospero's ever-dutiful eldest child, struggles to keep her siblings in line, she's repeatedly thrown off guard by a series of unsettling revelations. The only false note is a pivotal scene where a monster rapes a woman to steal her power. The story is convoluted and occasionally overwrought, but the rich imagery, fast pace, and masterful use of mythology make this a real page-turner. 
The whole Prospero clan make appearances in this sequel, and while we learn a great deal more about each one, what their powers are, what they've been up to in the last few hundred years and what all their power struggles are (and their beefs with one another and Miranda) we don't actually get to the Hell part of the title until the final few chapters of the book, and even then, Papa Prospero doesn't make an appearance at all.  While I gather that's to be a big part of the final book, I wouldn't have named this book "Prospero in Hell" if there's no sign of Prospero in Hell. I could have done without all the convoluted machinations of the various siblings, who seem rather petty and ugly, which seems odd considering they're all immortal and have had a lot of time to mature. Still, I love Miranda's steadfast nature, especially in the face of her horrible siblings, none of whom was on hand to help her when she was raped by a demon, which seemed a bit too convenient, again. While I don't buy Miranda becoming so enamored of the elf/demon and of her old flame in disguise, I can imagine she'd get lonely after so many years of shouldering all the responsibility for the family business without any real help from her bizarre sister and brothers. However, I do plan on reading the final book in the series, and meanwhile, I'll give this one a B+ and recommend it to anyone who finds modern reboots of myths fascinating.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

ABA Condemns Restrictions on Freedom of the Press, Like Water for Chocolate on TV, Doppelganger by Marie Brennan, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, Propero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter and The Fiercest Joy by Shana Abe

While I don't normally post political items on this blog, I worked as a journalist for 30 years, and I find the current administration's restrictions on freedom of the press to be appalling. So when I saw this ABA condemnation of the attacks on the first amendment, I felt that it would fit in with the general theme of my book blog.

ABA and Others Condemn Administration Attacks on Press Freedom

The American Booksellers Association has joined more than 80 other book,
free expression and press organizations in condemning the Trump
administration's attacks on press freedom.

The joint statement says in part, "we are alarmed by the efforts of the
President and his administration to demonize and marginalize the media
and to undermine their ability to inform the public about official
actions and policies," citing, among other things, the President's
assertion that CNN promotes "fake news"; that the media "manipulated"
images of the inauguration; that the media has covered up terrorist
attacks; that the media is "failing" and "dishonest"; and that the New
York Times, CBS, CNN, ABC and NBC News are "the enemy of the American

"The job of the press is not to please the President but to inform the
public, a function that is essential to democracy," the statement
continued, noting with concern that "the expressions of disdain for the
press and its role in democracy by federal officials send a signal to
state and local officials," who in some cases have acted in
unconstitutional ways against the press.

"Our Constitution enshrines the press as an independent watchdog and
bulwark against tyranny and official misconduct. Its function is to
monitor and report on the actions of public officials so that the public
can hold them accountable," the statement added. "The effort to
delegitimize the press undermines democracy, and officials who challenge
the value of an independent press or question its legitimacy betray the
country's most cherished values and undercut one of its most significant
strengths.... We condemn in the strongest possible terms all efforts by
elected and appointed officials to penalize, delegitimize, or intimidate
members of the press."

Other signatories include the American Library Association, the
Association of American University Presses, the Authors Guild, the
Freedom to Read Foundation and PEN America.

I was a big fan of this book when it first came out, and though the movie wasn't as good as the book, I'm still excited about it becoming a TV program. 

Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel's novel that was previously adapted as a 1992 hit movie,
will become a TV project. Indiewire reported that Endemol Shine Studios
has acquired the rights to the novel as "a global television franchise.
The book will be turned into an English language series, but Endemol
Shine plans to adapt it in other languages, as well."
"It fills me with joy to know that Like Water for Chocolate will be
brought to television screens throughout the world," Esquivel said.
Endemol Shine Studios president Sharon Hall noted that the "opportunity
to adapt this beloved novel is a privilege. Laura's epic love story has
all the ingredients of a breakthrough drama."
Doppelganger by Marie Brennan was an impulse buy at the local library book sale, because it looked like it had a kick-butt heroine, and I love fantasy with female protagonists who don't rely on men to save them. The story takes place in a sort of feudal Japanese society, with witches and warriors and politics that are reminiscent of The Giver (and all the other novels that I've read about societies that kill babies/children who are "different" or of the wrong gender). Though the book had a slow start, it picked up after the first 50 pages and went swiftly along the zippy plot thereafter. Here's the blurb:  
When a witch is born, a doppelganger is created. For the witch to master her powers, the twin must be killed. But what happens when the doppelganger survives? Mirage, a bounty hunter, lives by her wits and lethal fighting skills. She always gets her mark. But her new mission will take her into the shadowy world of witches, where her strength may not be a match against powerful magic. Miryo is a witch who has just failed her initiation test. She now knows that there is someone in the world who looks like her, who is her: Mirage. To control her powers and become a full witch, Miryo has only one choice: to hunt the hunter and destroy her. 
Brennan's prose was workmanlike, but became verbose in spots, so it slowed down the whole novel. Still, interesting tale that held my attention and had a satisfying ending, though there is a sequel. I'd give it a B, and recommend it to anyone who likes ninja and witch women working together in a fantasy setting.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer is March's book for my Tuesday Night Book Group at the local library. I wanted to like this book so badly, though it's non fiction and I am generally a bigger fan of fiction. Still, it was written by a journalist, and, as I've been a journalist for many years, I want to support my fellow ink-stained wretches in any way possible. Unfortunately, this book is less about librarians in war-torn Africa and the Middle East than it is about the rise of various factions and thuggish war lords of Al Qaeda, the predecessor to ISIS, the terrorist groups responsible for hundreds of bombings and deaths of so many Americans and Europeans. Hammer goes into detail on how these fundamentalist Islamic extremists became such murderous mad men, and he doesn't spare readers any of the horrors of rapings/beatings/murders of women, children and men who are seen as the enemy of these evil religious fanatics. That wasn't what I signed up for when I picked up this book, however, I signed up for a book about librarians saving ancient Middle Eastern books from these religious fanatics, so as to save their culture from ignorance. I was not prepared to read about horrific battle after horrific beheading. If I want to be shocked and horrified by what goes on in the Mideast, all I have to do is turn on the TV or read a newspaper. I read for enjoyment and entertainment, and I don't find this kind of book even remotely enjoyable. I find it disgusting and depressing. I was angry, too, that the author had obviously used his research for articles on the Mideast/African Islamic fanatic groups as filler for this book, instead of sticking to the subject of saving books. It was a bait and switch, and along with page after page of blatherings about these thugs and their leaders, left me bored and disgusted. Here's the blurb: To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.
In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.
In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.
Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.  
I disagree with the above blurb, in that Hammer didn't provide an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism at all. He just wrote a long-form story in order to make money off of publishing a book that used all his research from previously published articles. So he's lazy and disingenuous. I found the prose to be dull and there wasn't really much of a plot at all, and most of all, I didn't really care about Haidara and his minions scurrying around trying to save their old, bug-infested manuscripts. Part of good journalism is making the reader give a crap about your subject. One of the questions you have to answer with each story is WHY should anyone read this article, and WHY NOW, what makes it timely for them to spend precious time reading it? Most of the information in this book is dated, and the historical background only makes these warlords/religious extremists seem all the more pathetic, vile, cowardly and psychopathic. Therefore I'd give this book a D, and I can't really recommend it to anyone, as I hated reading it.
Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter is a reimagining of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with a fully modern cast of gods and monsters. Like Neil Gaiman's American Gods, readers discover that there are more family members to the Prospero clan than just Miranda and the monster Caliban and the fairy Ariel. In this reboot of the tale, once off the Island, Prospero had several other wives who produced demigod children, all of whom have their area of magical power and expertise. Prospero also founded two corporations, one that deals in magic that keeps elementals from destroying the earth and its inhabitants, and the other a regular business that brings in money. Unfortunately, when Prospero is kidnapped and thrust into Hell, Miranda takes her embodied detective-fairy Mab and seeks a way to get her father out of his prison, while also warning her brothers and sisters that their family is being hunted, and their staffs stolen. Equal parts mystery and fantasy, this fun book engaged me right away, and though Miranda seems a bit cold and aloof, she is a fascinating protagonist in her own right. Here's the blurb: Miranda, daughter of the magician Prospero from Shakespeare's Tempest, lives in the modern age. Upon discovering that her father has gone missing, she must discover the location of her other siblings and convince them to save their father, before the Three Shadowed Ones destroy the Family Prospero. She is accompanied by her company gumshoe, an airy spirit stuck in a body that looks a bit like Humphrey Bogart. Humor, mystery, wonder. Publisher's Weekly:Lamplighter's powerful debut draws inspiration from Shakespeare and world mythology, infused with humor and pure imagination. Four centuries after the events of The Tempest, Prospero's daughter Miranda runs Prospero Inc., a company with immense influence in the supernatural world. When she discovers a mysterious warning from her father, who has gone missing, Miranda sets forth accompanied by Mab, an Aerie Spirit manifested as a hard-boiled PI, to warn her far-flung, enigmatic siblings that the mysterious Shadowed Ones plan to steal their staffs of power. Every encounter brings new questions, new problems and a greater sense of what's at stake. Featuring glimpses into a rich and wondrous world of the unseen, this is no ordinary urban fantasy, but a treasure trove of nifty ideas and intriguing revelations. A cliffhanger ending will leave readers panting for sequels. 
The prose was clean and crisp, which helped the labyrinthine plot move along at a clipped pace. Though I found the brother Mephisto extremely irritating and ridiculous, I know that he was playing the part of the "trickster" god in the pantheon, and was therefore necessary to the plot. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes rebooted tales of old gods thrust into the new age. 

I've saved the best for last! The Fiercest Joy by Shana Abe was one of the best books I've read in the past 9 months. Beautifully written with Abe's lush and elegant prose, Fiercest Joy brings the tale of Lora the drakon to a close. Here's the blurb:
In the autumn of 1915, Eleanore Jones is on the verge of becoming who she was always meant to be: a drákon of stunning beauty and strength. She has discovered she is not the last dragon in the world, as she'd long thought: not one but two drákon brothers vie for her heart. And just as Lora begins to embrace her destiny, yet another drákon enters her life-another female who, like her, has disguised herself as a student at the prestigious Iverson School for Girls.
It's no coincidence.
Secrets come unraveled; time comes undone. Soon all four of the drákon caught in Iverson's mysterious, enchanted world are going to have to confront a new enemy: an army of dragons, come to steal Lora away-and destroy anyone who attempts to stop them.
I was fascinated that her former lover Jesse the star came back into play, and I was also intrigued by Armand's (her fiancee) ability to turn precious stones, such as diamonds, into screaming alarms that can send dragons mad. Aubrey, Armand's brother, was also a wonderful character who manages to help the lovers, though he's been crippled by being a POW during WW1. The whole part with Eleanor's mother being a time traveler was strange, but somehow it worked, in the end, though I had my reservations about any mother who would treat her daughter so poorly. It also bothered me that all the drakon seek to use Eleanor, to entrap her as breeding stock and force her to marry a cruel and terrible alpha drakon of their choosing. Fortunately, the HEA managed to get Eleanor and Armand out from under these terrible people, all while closing down the asylum that served as a torture chamber for experimentation on children thought to be expendable orphans. All in all, a magnificent read, well worth an A, and recommended to anyone who loves well-written fantasy with romantic themes woven into the stories. 

Saturday, March 04, 2017

AAAL Honors Ursula LeGuin, Cumberbatch Stars as Melrose, The Shadow Queen by CJ Redwine, The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies, The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman and Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst

Ursula LeGuin has been one of my favorite science fiction writers since 1977, and after meeting her and hearing how difficult it is for female authors, who write over half the books in this country to get even a small percentage of writing awards, I admire her even more, and am thrilled to hear it when she bags a well-deserved prize like this!

Writers Honored by American Academy of Arts and Letters

Ten writers are among the newly elected members of the American Academy
of Arts and Letters
They will be honored in mid-May when the academy holds its annual
induction and award ceremony, during which Calvin Trillin, secretary,
will induct 14 members into the 250-person organization and president
Yehudi Wyner will induct three foreign honorary members. Joyce Carol
Oates is delivering the centennial Blashfield Foundation Address. The
new academy members include:

Henri Cole, poet
Junot Diaz, writer
Amy Hempel, writer
Edward Hirsch, writer
Ursula K. LeGuin, writer
Column McCann, writer
Ann Patchett, writer
Kay Ryan, poet

Foreign Honorary Members
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writer of Nigeria
Zadie Smith, writer of England

I adore Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock on TV, so I am thrilled he's taking on another book-related role.

TV: Cumberbatch as Melrose
Showtime has ordered Melrose
a five-part limited series that will feature Benedict Cumberbatch as
star and executive producer. Deadline reported that the project, a
co-production of Showtime and Sky Atlantic, is based on the Patrick
Melrose series of semi-autobiographical novels (Never Mind, Bad News,
Some Hope, Mother's Milk and At Last) by Edward St. Aubyn.

David Nicholls (Far From the Madding Crowd), who called Cumberbatch "the
perfect Patrick Melrose," is writing all of the episodes. The search for
a director is currently underway for the series, which will begin
shooting in New York, London and the South of France in August.

"We have been huge fans of these books for many years and David
Nicholls' adaptations are extraordinary," said Cumberbatch and Adam
Ackland of Cumberbatch's SunnyMarch TV.

I've got too many books piled up this time to review, so I am going to try and keep the reviews as brief as possible and only do 4 out of the 5 (by the end of the weekend it will be 6) books that I've read in the past 7 days.

First up is the Shadow Queen by CJ Redwine, which is a rebooted fairy tale, based on sleeping beauty, and told in a YA style that was fresh and interesting. Here's the blurb:
A New York Times bestselling dark epic fantasy inspired by the tale of Snow White, from C. J. Redwine, the author of the Defiance series. This breathtakingly romantic, action-packed fantasy is perfect for fans of A Court of Thorns and Roses and Cinder
Lorelai Diederich, crown princess and fugitive at large, has one mission: kill the wicked queen who took both the Ravenspire throne and the life of her father. To do that, Lorelai needs to use the one weapon she and Queen Irina have in common—magic. She’ll have to be stronger, faster, and more powerful than Irina, the most dangerous sorceress Ravenspire has ever seen.
In the neighboring kingdom of Eldr, when Prince Kol’s father and older brother are killed by an invading army of magic-wielding ogres, the second-born prince is suddenly given the responsibility of saving his kingdom. To do that, Kol needs magic of his own—and the only way to get it is to make a deal with the queen of Ravenspire, promise to become her personal huntsman—and bring her Lorelai’s heart.
But Lorelai is nothing like Kol expected—beautiful, fierce, and unstoppable—and despite dark magic, Lorelai is drawn in by the passionate and troubled king. Fighting to stay one step ahead of the dragon huntsman—who she likes far more than she should—Lorelai does everything in her power to ruin the wicked queen. But Irina isn’t going down without a fight, and her final move may cost the princess the one thing she still has left to lose.
Irina the wicked queen was almost too wicked, in the sense that she seemed to have no heart, and was willing to kill the man she loved for power. Still, Lorelai was spunky and fiesty and strong enough to be a true heroine, which more than made up for the cartoonish evil of the evil queen. The prose was lovely and light, and the plot full of surprises, and I loved the dragon people of Eldr and their outrageous attitudes. A definite A, with the recommendation that anyone who likes rewritten fairy tales with character grab this one off the shelf ASAP.

The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies was a completely different novel than I thought it would be. It was somewhat like Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier in its bones, but there were hints of Brideshead Revisited and Jane Austin novels woven throughout. Here's the blurb from Publisher's Weekly: In her U.S. debut, Jefferies (The Separation), who was born in Malaysia and lives in England, delivers an engrossing tale of mystery, manners, and prejudice set against the backdrop of Ceylon (current-day Sri Lanka). Arriving from England by ship not long after the sinking of the Titanic, Gwen, the 19-year-old bride of Laurence Hooper, heir to a massive tea plantation, senses tension on every side when she comes to the serene but secluded plantation. Who is this widowed man she has married, and what is he hiding from his past? And why does everyone—Laurence’s sister, the plantation manager, and Laurence himself—want Gwen to keep her distance from the affairs of the native workers? As Laurence becomes involved with a mysterious businesswoman and Gwen spends her time with a local Sinhalese man, the past begins to spill into the present at the scenic plantation. Though the writing is at times cluttered and needlessly verbose, Jefferies shows that she can weave a suspenseful tale in which characters’ complex motivations converge in surprising ways—where compromise can turn out to have been cruelty, and where the aspiration to love overcomes prejudice and tradition. While characters aside from Gwen and Laurence never feel fully fleshed out, Jefferies makes up for this defect by offering suspense and pathos, and by resisting the temptation to gloss over true heartbreak and regret.
What this review neglects to mention is the evil sister in law, Verity, whose name is truly ironic, as she's the one who can't tell the truth to anybody, and who not only tries to kill her Gwen, her brothers new wife, but she doesn't get her nephew a diptheria vaccination and he almost dies of the disease. Then she tries to blackmail her brother and Gwen, and when she's not doing that, she is doing everything in her power to cause everyone else pain and penury. This is a SPOILER, but Gwen and her husband Laurence's prejudice against the natives of Ceylon is taken as a given, and cruel treatment seems to be the order of the day until Gwen has twins and one of them is "colored" or "black" as the Indian natives, so Gwen assumes a Sinhalese man, who is wealthy and handsome, raped her while she was drunk one night and fathered this twin, while the other white child was fathered by her husband. Due to the shame of this, which she puts squarely on her own shoulders (like the rapist should take no responsiblity for his actions in creating a child at all), Gwen sends her daughter off to be raised by a native, whom she's paying, while she lies and tells everyone that she birthed only one child. Eventually, the people caring for this poor little girl die, and because she's mixed race, none of the natives want to care for her, and Gwen realizes she can't let her daughter starve, so she brings her, reluctantly, into the home, disguised as the child of a servant. Unfortunately, her little girl contracts what would seem to be MS or Polio, and conveniently dies, but her mother realized that she loves her during her short stay in the household, and she also discovers that her husband has native blood in his heritage, which was expressed genetically in her one dark twin. Laurence confesses that his first wife had a dark child, and the shame and accusation of people assuming she'd had an affair drove her to kill herself and the child years before. All of the lives lost due to prejudice in this book disgusted me, and I found it hard to believe that these characters couldn't figure out that Laurence had native genes soon after the birth of his children, as I did. And I agree with the blurb in that the author needed a good editor, as the book dragged under the weight of the heavy prose more than once. The plot was too obvious, and tragic, but I'd still give the novel a B, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in colonial Ceylon during the 1920s and 30s.

The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman is a truly fascinating novel based on a news story that I read a year or two ago, about an apartment in Paris that was sealed before WWII and was discovered only recently. When it was opened, there were opulent furnishings, ceramics, objets d'art and paintings, and an old-fashioned Mickey Mouse doll among the treasures found in the apartment, which had been paid for by generations of a family that eventually died out, so it was only discovered when the rent was no longer paid. I remember oogling the photos of this snapshot of a different time, and wondering about the woman who had lived there, and what her story might have been. Richman has come through with a lush and evocative tale of a beautiful courtesan whose patron lavished her with jewelry, money and exquisite gifts because he loved her. Here's the blurb:
As Paris teeters on the edge of the German occupation, a young French woman closes the door to her late grandmother’s treasure-filled apartment, unsure if she’ll ever return. 
An elusive courtesan, Marthe de Florian cultivated a life of art and beauty, casting out all recollections of her impoverished childhood in the dark alleys of Montmartre. With Europe on the brink of war, she shares her story with her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, using her prized possessions to reveal her innermost secrets. Most striking of all are a beautiful string of pearls and a magnificent portrait of Marthe painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. As Marthe’s tale unfolds, like velvet itself, stitched with its own shadow and light, it helps to guide Solange on her own path. 
Inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment, Alyson Richman brings to life Solange, the young woman forced to leave her fabled grandmother’s legacy behind to save all that she loved.
Marthe's story, as told to her granddaughter Solange, is utterly riveting. Richman's prose is eloquent without being stuffy, and the plot flies on butterfly wings in this page-turner of a novel. I enjoyed the secondary plot of Solange discovering that her mother's ancient books are ancient Jewish texts that are extremely rare and valuable, and which are eventually sold to help her Jewish boyfriend and his family flee the Nazi occupation of Paris. This book deserves an A, and a recommendation to anyone who finds a peek into history and the objects we leave behind fascinating.

Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst is the second book of hers I've read. I recently read Queen of Blood and was amazed at the inventiveness of this story. Into the Wild appears to be one of her early writing efforts, created for middle school age students (rather than for the older YA audience.) This is not just a reboot of a fairy tale, but rather a peek into the inner workings of fairy tales, which are run in a place called "The Wild" which lives under Julie's bed. Here's the blurb via Kirkus Reviews: Imagining something called "The Wild," which might eat your shoes while living under your bed, might be easier for a 12-year-old than an adult. But The Wild doesn't stay under Julie's bed for long, and its identity emerges quickly for all readers. Once unleashed, it threatens to take over the entire community where fairy-tale characters live peaceful, ordinary lives in suburban Massachusetts. Set free by someone making a wish at the "Wishing Well Motel," it now re-launches the characters into their stories. Julie, however, blames herself for setting the fairy-tale cycle in motion: She has wished that her mother not be her mother. She's tired of being odd without knowing why, of entertaining the seven dwarves for dinner, of being picked up by Cindy in her orange Subaru and hanging out in the hair salon her mother, Zel, operates. Zel enters The Wild immediately to free the fairy-tale characters and stop its progression. Julie enters it to save her mother-and to learn her true identity and about the absent father she longs for. Deeper than most rewritten fairy tales, this existential story is chunked with big ideas about the fairy-tale genre, yet the story is lightened with touches that will connect with its audience. 
Zel is, of course, Rapunzel, whose mother is an evil witch once she's in the Wild, but outside of it is a rather hilarious and feisty grandma, intimidating only when she needs to. Julie is exactly what's called for, an intelligent and practical preteen who longs, as only middle schoolers can, for acceptance and entrance into the "in" crowd of popular, pretty kids. Of course, she's tormented by one of those perfect and pretty popular girls, and gets her revenge when this girl ends up having to sew outfits for hundreds of swans as part of a fairy tale. Julie learns, through her journey, the important lesson of the power of family to shelter and accept us, just as we are. I felt that the prose was a bit too simplistic, but the storytelling more than made up for any deficiencies, as did the swerving and diving roller coaster of the plot. This book deserves an A, and I'd recommend it to any middle grade girl who likes fairy tales turned on their heads.