Sunday, August 27, 2017

Greedy Pigs by Matt Wallace, The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag, The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth and The Reluctant Queen by Sarah Beth Durst

I'm not going to add any publishing/author tidbits this week, because it's the dog days of summer's end, and there isn't much happening, since everyone is trying to get the last bits of vacation in before school starts in September. Also, I've got four books to review, so lets get right to it.

Greedy Pigs by Matt Wallace is the 5th book in the Sin Du Jour series, about a group of caterers to the supernatural community that lives within our society, but cleverly hidden. All of Wallace's books in this series are slender volumes, coming in at well under 200 pages, but he makes each paragraph, each page and each chapter count, with saucy prose and a plot that moves like a bullet train on greased tracks. Once you pick up a Sin Du Jour novel, you won't be able to put it down until the final page...that's just a warning so you can eat and drink and go to the bathroom beforehand. Here's the blurb from Publisher's Weekly: In the fun fifth novella featuring Sin du Jour, these caterers to the otherworldly are preparing for the inauguration of Enzo Consoné, the president-elect of the Sceadu, the supernatural governing body. It’s going to be a great big party with an all-pork theme. The team is ready to get back to normal after the male members of the crew were struck by a lust spell in Pride’s Spell, but chef Lena Tarr’s best friend, Darren Vargas, who has been trying to conquer his debilitating fear, is acting strangely. When the team members get separated en route to the Virginia woods, Lena and head chef Bronko’s half of the crew is diverted to the D.C. inauguration of the U.S. president. The others scramble to make do, but things inevitably go poorly in Virginia, and sweet-natured baker Nikki must step up to save the day. In D.C., Lena discovers the outrageous truth behind the American presidency, a twist that hits uncomfortably close to home; a cameo from the outgoing president is a poignant, bittersweet touch. Wallace’s imagination is boundless, and his wryly funny storytelling manages to be heartfelt and completely gonzo at the same time.   
I completely agree, there's so much fun and yet such pathos in Wallace's storytelling, that the craziness seems somehow normal. And while I realize that we are supposed to fall in love with the main characters, I still find the secondary characters loads of fun, like Nikki, the pastry chef who can literally create dessert out of any ingredient, and Mr Mok, who, along with his other nearly immortal Chinese guys, are huge Hall & Oates fans, because "Hall and Oates number one rock and roll forever!" Bronko, the head chef, shows his softer side in this book, by showing Lena how many legendary unique creatures, both animal and human, that he feeds each week, just because he knows that if he doesn't, no one else will. And we get to see the downfall of the one character I wish they'd jettison, Darren, who is such an idiot, and so weak that he always manages to mess up whatever he touches. This time, he's messed up badly enough that Lena won't be able to clean up his mess, fortunately. My hope is that in the next book, we see Darren locked up and not even in the picture while the rest of the gang gets everything straightened out. Wallace has mentioned that the Sin Du Jour series will comprise 7 books, so the next to the last volume, I assume will appear next year. I will be eagerly awaiting book 6, (and 7). This book, and the series, deserves an A, and I'd recommend it to anyone who loves the Food Network and action/adventure fantasy novels.

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag is the fourth book of Praag's that I've read, and while I enjoyed The House at the End of Hope Street, The Lost Art of Letter Writing and The Witches of Cambridge (with reservations), this novel really strained my credulity by the end. Poor Cora Carraway's brilliant scientist parents died in a fire when she was a child, so she's been raised by her grandmother Etta, who has the magical ability to make any woman beautiful and confident with the perfect dress from her dress shop. Cora has spent most of her life shut off from her emotions, working as a scientist (with her college mentor, Dr Colin Baxter) to continue her parent's work that was supposed to change the world. She grew up alongside a shy young boy named Walt, who grew to love and nearly worship her, yet she barely seems to notice him. Walt also has a magical talent, a deep and wonderful voice that he uses to read novels over the radio for an hour or so every evening. Naturally he gets a ton of letters from lonely women, but, because he only has eyes for Cora, he tells the radio station manager, Dylan, to throw them away. Dylan, who is a complete jerk, ignores Walt's directive and writes back to each woman, and eventually engages in a relationship via letters with a woman named Milly, who assumes that Dylan is Walt, because that is how he signs his letters (he's also a coward). Here's the blurb:
Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.
Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.
SPOILERS ahead! So Milly begins a relationship with Walt, thinking he's her dream guy, and because he can't get into Cora's pants, he figures he has no choice but to hook up with Milly, who seems to love him enough for them both. He's not aware that she's exchanging love letters with Dylan writing under his name. Etta finds a way to get Cora to reopen the investigation into her parent's death, and from that action, Cora's heart is thawed, but I think it gets too drippy, as when she discovers that Dr Baxter killed her parents and burned them alive (he manages to get her out of the house in time) and then plagiarized her parent's research and used it as his own to win the Nobel Prize. Instead of calling the police and sending this murderer and arsonist to jail, Cora and the police detective that she brings along with her (Seriously, he just ignores the law? WTF?) decide that he can do "more good" out in the scientific community making breakthroughs to help people. But he is required to give up his Nobel Prize and come clean about stealing her parents discovery. He is under no obligation to tell anyone that he murdered them and burned them alive, however. UGH. Cora, who is supposedly smart, just became the biggest idiot in the novel. Baxter not only gets away with murder, but Cora just forgives him as if she hadn't spent the past 20 some years walling away her emotions because she was devastated by her parent's death!Then Milly and Walt discover Dylan's treachery, and suddenly, Milly, who was so in love with Walt that she totally lost it whenever she thought he would leave her, and she was willing to get pregnant to trick him into marrying her, suddenly falls out of love with Walt and in love with Dylan instantly, like turning on and off a faucet. Let the eye rolling ensue. For that reason, I have to give this book a C+, and I can only recommend it to those who are easily amused and don't mind huge errors in the plot. 
The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth was recommended to me as someone who loves the BBC production of "Call the Midwife," which is based on a series of books by Jennifer Worth. While I love Call the Midwife, I felt that this book was way too prejudiced on the side of home births, which are not safe or feasible for every woman. The main character, Neva, is even able to have a vaginal birth of a footling breech baby, which is very rare and dangerous, especially if the child is premature, as my footling breech baby was (He was only 31 weeks, while it turns out Neva's baby is actually full term). Here's the blurb:
Three generations of women
Secrets in the present and from the past
A captivating tale of life, loss, and love...
Neva Bradley, a third-generation midwife, is determined to keep the details surrounding her own pregnancy-including the identity of the baby's father- hidden from her family and co-workers for as long as possible. Her mother, Grace, finds it impossible to let this secret rest. The more Grace prods, the tighter Neva holds to her story, and the more the lifelong differences between private, quiet Neva and open, gregarious Grace strain their relationship. For Floss, Neva's grandmother and a retired midwife, Neva's situation thrusts her back sixty years in time to a secret that eerily mirrors her granddaughter's-one which, if revealed, will have life-changing consequences for them all. As Neva's pregnancy progresses and speculation makes it harder and harder to conceal the truth, Floss wonders if hiding her own truth is ultimately more harmful than telling it. Will these women reveal their secrets and deal with the inevitable consequences? Or are some secrets best kept hidden?
The chapters go from Neva to Grace to Floss and back, each telling their stories from their POV. While I understood Neva's need to keep the fact that she slept with a married man after his wife was diagnosed with cancer (and we're not supposed to find her or the guy repugnant because of this) from her insanely nosy mother Grace and her chill lesbian grandmother Floss, I found the ultimate revelation that the father wasn't the married man, but just a one night stand with some jerk who is now engaged to be too pat, and completely ridiculous. That the handsome pediatrician eventually forgives her and agrees to raise the baby with her is a given. Floss's  story is the one that matters here, as she reveals that Grace isn't really her daughter, but the daughter of a severely abused and starved woman that Floss used to work with (as a midwife) in England during WWII. Floss's friend dies in childbirth and Floss knows that she can't leave a baby with an alcoholic abuser, so she has another midwife cover for her and they make it seem as if the husband drowned the baby in a drunken rage after his wife died. Floss starts a new life in America, and doesn't tell Grace until the final hour that she's not really Floss' daughter. Though the prose decent, the plot is way too easy to plumb. I'd give this novel a B, and recommend it to those seeking something not too taxing to read, who don't mind the constant antipathy towards doctors and hospitals.
The Reluctant Queen by Sarah Beth Durst is the sequel to The Queen of Blood. In this tale, Daleina is just coming into her own as Queen, trying to control the savage spirits that populate her world (and want to wipe out all human life), when she's struck down with an illness called the False Death, which, like an epileptic seizure, makes her seem like she's gone from her body for short periods of time. Unfortunately, when she is "dead" she can't control the spirits, and they go wild, killing and maiming as many people as possible before she wakes up and takes control again. Her healer discovers that this isn't the False Death that is inherited, but a poison version that she was given by someone close to her. That doesn't change the fact that she has only weeks to find an heir and replacement who has enough power to control the spirits and save her people. Here's the blurb:
Filled with political intrigue, violent magic, and malevolent spirits, the mesmerizing second book in Sarah Beth Durst’s Queens of Renthia epic fantasy trilogy.
Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .
And those spirits want to kill you.
It’s the first lesson that every Renthian learns.
Not long ago, Daleina used her strength and skill to survive those spirits and assume the royal throne. Since then, the new queen has kept the peace and protected the humans of her land. But now for all her power, she is hiding a terrible secret: she is dying. And if she leaves the world before a new heir is ready, the spirits that inhabit her beloved realm will run wild, destroying her cities and slaughtering her people.
Naelin is one such person, and she couldn’t be further removed from the Queen—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her world is her two children, her husband, and the remote village tucked deep in the forest that is her home, and that’s all she needs. But when Ven, the Queens champion, passes through the village, Naelin’s ambitious husband proudly tells him of his wife’s ability to control spirits—magic that Naelin fervently denies. She knows that if the truth of her abilities is known, it will bring only death and separation from those she loves.
But Ven has a single task: to find the best possible candidate to protect the people of Aratay. He did it once when he discovered Daleina, and he’s certain he’s done it again. Yet for all his appeals to duty, Naelin is a mother, and she knows her duty is to her children first and foremost. Only as the Queen’s power begins to wane and the spirits become emboldened—even as ominous rumors trickle down from the north—does she realize that the best way to keep her son and daughter safe is to risk everything.
SPOILER alert! Once it is discovered that Captain Alet, Daleina's closest advisor, is actually the sister of evil Queen Merecot of Somo (the next kingdom over) and that she's the one who poisoned Daleina so that her sister could invade and take over Aratay and annex it to Somo (she claims her kingdom is being overrun by spirits that are killing her people), all bets are off and you know that a magical battle with a ton of death and dismemberment is in the offing. Naelin, though she's powerful, seems almost too petulant and whiny to be a mother of two, and I got rather tired of her constant attempts to find a way out of saving the kingdom, when it was obvious that the only way to save her children was to work with Ven and Daleina and push back the invaders and the spirits. It also struck me as hypocrisy of the highest order for Daleina to watch as thousands are slaughtered and dismembered during battle, and then, once she's caught Merecot, she refuses to kill her, because she feels there has been "too much bloodshed." Seriously? Merecot is the woman who CAUSED all the bloodshed! She had Daleina poisoned, she invaded Aratay and did her best to kill everyone Daleina loves. And Merecot made it clear that she would do it all again, because she feels she has no choice. Daleina swears she is going to send envoys to Somo to try and figure out a way to help Merecot's kingdom, but the last few pages of the book are dedicated to the crone who is helping Merecot become Maleficent incarnate, and find another way to kill Daleina and Naelin and take over Aratay. When Ven makes it clear that he'd gladly kill Merecot and thus solve Daleina's problem and ensure she won't have that problem in the future, Daleina is suddenly all soft hearted and worried about Merecot and her kingdom,instead of worrying about the devastation wrought on her own kingdom. Ugh. Once again, a female protagonist becomes too stupid to live. I really hate it when that happens, and therefore I have to downgrade this book from an A to a B-, and only recommend it to ardent fans who don't mind these obvious plot holes. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

RIP Brian Aldiss, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, The Demon's Librarian by Lilith Saintcrow, The Lost Art of Letter Writing by Menna Van Praag and A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet

I remember reading an Aldiss science fiction novel as a teenager, though I don't remember the title. I do remember his prose was beautifully rendered. I also remember that he was widely beloved among his fellow science fiction authors. RIP, Mr Aldiss.

Obituary Note: Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss
the "grand old man" of science fiction "whose writing has shaped the
genre since he was first published in the 1950s," died August 19, the
Guardian reported. He was 92. Aldiss was the author of science fiction
classics, including Non-Stop, Hothouse and Greybeard, as well as the
Helliconia trilogy. His short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long"
was adapted into the Steven Spielberg film AI. His Horatio Stubbs saga
(The Hand-Reared Boy, A Soldier Erect and A Rude Awakening) "was based
on his time during the war in Burma and the far east," the Guardian

Aldiss received numerous awards, including Hugo and Nebula prizes, an
honorary doctorate from the University of Reading, the title of grand
master from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and an
OBE for services to literature.

On Twitter, Neil Gaiman noted
hit me like a meteor to the heart: Brian Aldiss died on his 92nd
Birthday. A larger than life wise writer." In the introduction to a new
edition of Hothouse, Gaiman had written that Aldiss's career "has
recapitulated British SF, always with a ferocious intelligence, always
with poetry and oddness, always with passion; while his work outside the
boundaries of science fiction, as a writer of mainstream fiction, gained
respect and attention from the wider world."

Natasha Bardon, Aldiss's editor at HarperCollins, said, "For the short
time I had the pleasure of knowing Brian, there wasn't a moment when he
wasn't writing something. His passion for language and literature was
wonderful and he wielded his skill like a blade. Fiction, non-fiction,
poetry: there was just no stopping him. Though I came to publish Brian
later in his career, I feel the luckiest, because it wasn't just the
fiction I heard about. Brian told the most incredible stories: of days
when he and his contemporaries were writing books that would become
classics of the genre, of evenings out among other giants of literature,
and of much cheekier tales, always told with a smile and twinkle in his
eye. It is with great sadness that we say farewell to such a beloved
author and I am so proud I was able to publish him even briefly."

In a tribute, author Christopher Priest observed
"Aldiss was by a long chalk the premier British science fiction
writer--that he was also one of the most versatile writers of any kind
was a fact that only a comparatively few readers outside the SF field
came to discover. His work is still, in this sense, to be discovered."

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, was recommended by a book lover's website as being similar to A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, so, because I adored Ove, I decided to give this book a whirl. The first thing I discovered was that this is a non fiction book that really is the diary entries (which are like newspaper columns) of a grumpy Netherlands man named Hendrik.  Whereas Ove was a work of fiction, Henrik is as real and grimly grumpy as can be. He wields his cantankerousness like a knife, verbally eviscerating nearly everyone in the nursing home except his few friends. He reserves most of his venom for the nursing home administrator and her ilk, who dare to assume that the elderly are brainless and blind to all the nasty things bureaucrats get up to behind the scenes to make them miserable. Here's the blurb: 
Technically speaking, Hendrik Groen is....elderly. But at age 83 1/4, this feisty, indomitable curmudgeon has no plans to go out quietly. Bored of weak tea and potted geraniums, exasperated by the indignities of aging, Hendrik has decided to rebel—on his own terms. He begins writing an exposé: secretly recording the antics of day-to-day life in his retirement home, where he refuses to take himself, or his fellow "inmates," too seriously.With an eccentric group of friends he founds the wickedly anarchic Old-But-Not-Dead Club—"Rule #3: No Whining Allowed"—and he and his best friend, Evert, gleefully stir up trouble, enraging the home's humorless director and turning themselves into unlikely heroes. And when a sweet and sassy widow moves in next door, he polishes his shoes, grooms what's left of his hair, and determines to savor every ounce of joy in the time he has left, with hilarious and tender consequences.
A bestselling phenomenon that has captured imaginations around the world, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen is inspiring, charming, and laugh-out-loud funny with a deep and poignant core: a page-turning delight for readers of any age. Publisher's Weekly: Delightful and moving, Groen’s novel shares a full year of the eponymous octogenarian’s journal entries, detailing his day-to-day observations, humorous inner monologues, and overall zest for life within a nursing home in Amsterdam. Bored with the daily monotony of life at the center, he decides to keep a journal for a complete year to expose the frustrations, gripes, and groans of his fellow “inmates” and the realities of growing old. Between hilarious quips about life, Hendrik regales readers with the joys of the motor scooter and his decision to relent and wear adult diapers. Hendrik’s good friend Evert—a crotchety old fellow who gets his kicks riling up the other residents—helps stave off the loneliness, but it’s when new resident Eefje arrives that Hendrik feels a spark he hasn’t experienced in a long time. Hendrik, Eefje, and Evert, along with a small group of wily seniors, decide to have a little fun while they still can by organizing the Old-But-Not-Dead Club to plan outings and excursions, including tai chi and cooking classes, and visits to the casino and museums. Engaging and hilarious, Hendrik’s diary gives a dignity and respect to the elderly often overlooked in popular culture, providing readers a look into the importance of friendship and the realities of the senior care system in modern society
Though Hendrik has to watch his friend Evert fall prey to the ravages of diabetes and his girlfriend wither and die from a stroke, Hendrik never succumbs to mawkishness or self pity, he just gets on with life and does his best by his friends. I was surprised that this translation from Dutch created such fluid prose that reads beautifully and never feels anything but familiar. The plot was metered but never slow, and though the ending was abrupt and sad, there was still a great deal of fun in this story, enough so that anyone who has ever felt even remotely oppressed by authority figures will find themselves pumping their fists in sympathy with Hendrik and Evert as they kill the nursing home fish with cake, twice.Having worked in nursing homes and hospice when I was young, I can definitely say that Groen's observations on the way the elderly are robbed of their money and mistreated as well as warehoused until they die is spot on. It's criminal and much worse in America than it is in Amsterdam. Still, I'd give this saucy diary/memoir a B+, and recommend it to anyone who likes stories where the underdogs triumph.

The Demon's Librarian by Lilith Saintcrow was an urban fantasy/romance that was written earlier in Saintcrow's career, so it's not as developed as her later works, such as Jill Kismet and Dante Valentine. Still, you can see where Saintcrow is going with her future female protagonists in this slender volume that packs a mean punch. I was drawn to this book because it was a fantasy about a librarian, and I love libraries and librarians, so I wanted to see what Saintcrow would do with such a quiescent job. I need not have worried. She turns Chess Barnes into a comic book superhero who goes wandering the sewers in search of a supernatural being who is eating her students. Here's the blurb:
When demons are preying on schoolchildren in her city, Francesca Barnes does what any red-blooded librarian would do—she does some research and goes hunting. But the books she finds in a secret cache don't tell her the whole story. Chess has no idea what she's just stepped into—or just how special she really is . . .
Orion (Ryan) is Drakul, part demon, and a loyal servant of the Order. He doesn't expect a motorcycle-riding librarian to be messing around with demonic forces, and he doesn't expect her to smell so damn good. But Ryan's got bigger problems. His partner has disappeared, and the forces of Darkness are rising. Now Chess is Ryan's only hope of finding his partner, and Ryan is Chess's only hope of survival, because the demons now know Chess exists—and that she is the heir to a long-lost power that could push back their dark tide.
If Ryan can keep her alive long enough, she just might be the key to destroying the demons completely. But Ryan doesn't know he's been betrayed by the very Order he serves. And if Chess does, by some miracle, survive, he won't ever be able to touch her again . . .
Though most readers will be able to spot the betrayer miles off, the story doesn't miss a beat with high octane prose and a fast plot. I wasn't too fond of Ryan the half demon, because he came off as too pushy and possessive, but by the end I was on board with a Chess/Ryan partnership. I'd give this book a B, and recommend it to supernatural fantasy romance fans.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing by Menna Van Praag is the second or third book of hers I've read, and enjoyed. The novel isn't completely epistolary, but does have some letters transcribed into each chapter.The protagonist Clara owns a "letter" shop stocked with a variety of gorgeous papers and beautiful pens, which she sells to people who come into the shop needing to write something to someone to get it off their chest. Clara is something of a psychic counselor herself, and when she walks around town snooping on people, she somehow manages to pick up on whatever it is that they need to hear the most, and then she stops by her store, uses a kind of automatic writing and ends up with just the inspirational missive that the person needs to move forward. She remembers nothing of what she has written, but when she is away from her shop for awhile, many of those who have received her letters send thank you notes about how she changed their lives for the better. Here's the blurb:  
In a forgotten nook of Cambridge a little shop stands where thousands of sheets of beautiful paper and hundreds of exquisite pens wait for the next person who, with Clara Cohen’s help, will express the love, despair and desire they feel to correspondents alive, estranged or dead. Clara knows better than most the power a letter can have to turn a person’s life around, so when she discovers a cache of wartime love letters, she follows them on the start of on a profound journey of her own.
I loved the warmth and charm of this book, because the author manages to maintain that feeling, though the book contains letters about a heavy subject, the concentration camps of WWII. While the prose is clean and neat, I wondered how Van Praag would manage to keep the plot from derailing with the appearance of the ghost of a dead man's wife and a violinist who becomes obsessed with her. Though the novel gets to be a bit too melodramatic, in the soap opera sense, when it comes to relationships, Van Praag is able to keep things from descending into campy bodice-ripper romance territory. Therefore I think this book deserves an A, and a recommendation to anyone who loves letters and correspondence and magic realism. 

A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet is the first book in a new mythological fantasy romance series. The society and world it's based on are traditional Greek society with present gods and goddesses who meddle in the affairs of their chose humans and "magoi" magicians at regular intervals. There is the inevitable sex scenes, of course, and while I appreciate the fact that romance novels have come a long way from the prim Harlequin romances I read in 1973 when I was 13 years old, I still feel something of an ick factor at the pages-long descriptions of oral and regular sexual actions, always using euphemisms for male and female genitals. For some odd reason, romance writers do not find the words penis and vagina sexy. So it's always "hard shafts" and "moist crevasses" meeting in the throes of passion that are always epic and create earth-shattering orgasms. While I can appreciate good sex just as much as the next gal, I wish there were more realistic scenes of what sex is really like, full of moments great and ridiculous, thrilling and embarrassing. No one ever farts in a romance novel, though plenty of alcoholic beverages, like beer, are consumed by the manly men therein. Here's the blurb:

Catalia "Cat" Fisa lives disguised as a soothsayer in a traveling circus. She is perfectly content avoiding the danger and destiny the Gods-and her homicidal mother-have saddled her with. That is, until Griffin, an ambitious warlord from the magic-deprived south, fixes her with his steely gaze and upsets her illusion of safety forever.
Griffin knows Cat is the Kingmaker, the woman who divines the truth through lies. He wants her as a powerful weapon for his newly conquered realm-until he realizes he wants her for much more than her magic. Cat fights him at every turn, but Griffin's fairness, loyalty, and smoldering advances make him increasingly hard to resist and leave her wondering if life really does have to be short, and lived alone. Publisher's Weekly: Debut author Bouchet makes a very strong start to her Kingmaker Chronicles, combining a richly developed political landscape defined by the influence of powerful ruling families, meddling gods, and destiny with a broad exploration of the relationship between might and magic in a social context. In a fantasy world where access to magical power is tied to geography and bloodline, Warlord Griffin, second in command of kingdom Sinta, is guided by a oracular dream from Poseidon to soothsayer Catalia Fisa, who’s hiding in a traveling circus from her family history and her magical role as Kingmaker. Griffin hopes to use Cat as a tool in his challenge of the status quo, in which the minority Magoi rule the hoi polloi. Their smoldering erotic burn hits charged love/hate buttons without falling too far into glorifying Griffin’s abduction of Cat, and by the end of the novel, they become a powerful team well situated for the fights ahead. Bouchet writes believable camaraderie, dramatic fight scenes, and moving personal angst, but worldbuilding purists will hate the insertion of the Greek gods into this secondary-world fantasy context.
Though I agree with most of the PW review, above, I disagree with the line about not "falling too far into glorifying Griffin's abduction of Cat," which he does with a magical rope that she cannot escape, and by forcing her to make a binding vow not to ever leave him, on pain of her own death. I felt that this master/slave and dominating male coercing abused female relationship set up a very unhealthy route for Griffin and Cat, and I just didn't buy that she could forgive him that easily and fall in love and move on with their relationship, knowing that he felt his interests and that of his family and the kingdom he conquered superceded her right to have her own agency and make her own choices and be free. It's obvious that he's going to use her powers to strengthen his own family rule, and take over the other countries surrounding his kingdom, but because he's a hot guy and she sleeps with him, somehow it's okay that he uses her, though she warns him that her family will come after her to kill her now that she's out of hiding. This doesn't strike me as a healthy love relationship at all. I smelled Stockholm Syndrome about halfway through the book. Still, the finely wrought prose and the waltzing plot kept me turning pages until I'd finished the book in one sitting. I'd give it a grudging B-, and recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of S&M in their erotic romance tales, as well as frolicking Greek gods.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Harry Potter Themed Store in Toronto, The Inventor's Secret, the Conjurer's Riddle and the Turncoat's Gambit by Andrea Cremer, and Wasteland King by Lilith Saintcrow

This wonderful looking bookstores gives me yet another reason to put a visit to Toronto, Canada on my bucket list!

Harry Potter-Themed Store Opens in Toronto

Curiosa: Purveyors of Extraordinary Things
store that's supposed to make you feel like you've landed in Diagon
Alley," has opened in Toronto
blogTO reported. In addition to Potter-related merchandise, the shop
sells games, books, toys and home goods that are unrelated to the boy

"We've tried to create a really immersive retail experience," said
Stephen Sauer, co-owner of the business with his wife Heather, who also
owns the Paper Place. "We wanted to create a space that was really fun
and magical and you really had to be there in person.... We really just
wanted to bring a bit of magic into people's lives."

Curiosa is also "only about a 15 minute walk from Toronto's Harry
Potter-themed bar, the Lockhart,"
blogTO noted.
The Inventor's Secret, The Conjurer's Riddle and The Turncoat's Gambit by Andrea Cremer are a YA steampunk fantasy series that should be the top choice of book lovers of any age seeking a ripping good read. Once begun, I literally could not put the first book, Inventor's Secret, down. Lacy and lovely prose flowed like the best Earl Grey tea down a swift sluice of a plot that kept me guessing right to the last page. Though she seems terribly naive for a 17 year old woman of that era, I still fell in love with Charlotte, the intrepid protagonist in these tales. Jack, the rogue she loves, comes off as more than a bit of a jerk at times, but their romance takes its time, and by the end, we know that all will be well with these two, and with Jack's half sister Linnet and her handsome pirate boyfriend. Here's the blurbs:
New from Andrea Cremer, the New York Times bestselling author of the Nightshade novels, comes an action-packed alternate-history steampunk adventure.
In this world, sixteen-year-old Charlotte and her fellow refugees have scraped out an existence on the edge of Britain’s industrial empire. Though they live by the skin of their teeth, they have their health (at least when they can find enough food and avoid the Imperial Labor Gatherers) and each other. When a new exile with no memory of his escape  or even his own name seeks shelter in their camp he brings new dangers with him and secrets about the terrible future that awaits all those who have struggled has to live free of the bonds of the empire’s Machineworks.
The Inventor’s Secret is the first book of a YA steampunk series set in an alternate nineteenth-century North America where the Revolutionary War never took place and the British Empire has expanded into a global juggernaut propelled by marvelous and horrible machinery. Perfect for fans of Libba Bray's The Diviners, Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel, Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan and Phillip Reeve's Mortal Engines.
The Conjurer's Riddle :
The Revolution is beginning–and Charlotte may be on the wrong side.
In this sequel to The Inventor's Secret, Charlotte and her companions escape the British Empire, but they haven't left danger behind. In fact, if they go against the revolutionaries, they face even greater peril. 
Charlotte leads her group of exiles west, plunging into a wild world of shady merchants and surly rivermen on the way to New Orleans. But as Charlotte learns more about the revolution she has championed, she wonders if she's on the right side after all. Charlotte and her friends get to know the mystical New Orleans bayou and deep into the shadowy tunnels below the city–the den of criminals, assassins and pirates–Charlotte must decide if the revolution's goals justify their means, or if some things, like the lives of her friends, are too sacred to sacrifice.
This alternate-history adventure series asks the questions: What would have happened if America had lost the Revolutionary War? And what would people be willing to do to finally taste freedom?
The Turncoat's Gambit:
From the bestselling author of Nightshade, this is the action-packed final chapter of The Inventor's Secret trilogy
Charlotte has spent her whole life fighting the British Empire, following in the footsteps of her parents and their group of rebels. But when her reunion with her mother laid bare horrible truths about the rebellion, Charlotte knew she had to escape. Now she is on the run, with no idea who the enemy is--or which of her compatriots is truly on her side.
In this action-packed conclusion to the Inventor's Secret trilogy, full of swashbuckling pirates and young ladies who can hold their own against them, Charlotte will need to fight for her life and for her beliefs -- whatever they might be.

Grave, the clockwork boy who causes both sides to go crazy trying to find out the secret to his super strong immortal body, so they can use him as a weapon and make more soldiers based on his design, is something of a mcguffin here, as while he's protective of Charlotte, he allows himself to be captured and vivisected to keep her safe, when in reality she has to keep him safe from both sides and rescue him at the end and allow him to make his own choices about his future. The only other character who seemed a bit out of place to me was Charlotte's mother, who allows her husband to be locked up in a horrible prison called The Crucible, dying of Tuberculosis, and doesn't bother to try and rescue him. That made her seem like a cruel and cold person, but once Charlotte rescues him, suddenly all is forgiven and he's going to be fine. That was just a bit too pat for me. But other than those minor qualms, I loved this series, which had wonderful characters like Pip and Scoff and Birch, all young inventors and makers with strong senses of adventure and whose loyalty and courage were evident in every chapter. I'd give this series an A, and recommend it to anyone who liked Lilith Saintcrow's Bannon and Clare, or Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series, or Devon Monk's House Immortal series, or Maria V Snyder's Poison Study series. 

Wasteland King by Lilith Saintcrow is the third book in her "Gallow and Ragged" series of urban fantasies that are gritty and almost too horror focused for my tastes.Still, I found Robin Ragged to be a compelling character, though why both Gallow and Alstair are so madly in love with her remains a mystery. Here's the blurb:
The thrilling conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Lilith Saintcrow's dark fantasy series where the faery world inhabits diners, dive bars and trailer parks.
The plague has broken loose, the Wild Hunt is riding, and the balance of power in the sidhe realms is still shifting. The Unseelie King has a grudge against Jeremiah Gallow, but it will have to wait. For he needs Gallow's services for a very delicate mission -- and the prize for success is survival itself.
In order to save both Robin Ragged and himself, Gallow will have to do the unspeakable...Publisher's Weekly: aintcrow brings her Gallow and Ragged trilogy to a close with a lovingly written but choppy conclusion. The Summer Queen and the lord of the Unseelie, Unwinter, seem determined to go to war, and signs of the sidhe plague are still evident. Jeremiah Gallow, Summer's former armormaster, and Robin Ragged, along with her hound, Pepperbuckle, are caught in the middle, and they've been tasked by Unwinter with two separate, but very difficult missions. The Sluagh, an army of the undead, has been unleashed, and Gallow and his unlikely allies will need every tool at their disposal to survive. Saintcrow's gift for lyrical writing is on full display and her highly stylized prose is frequently stunning, probing the dark, damp corners of California's urban landscapes, often finding beauty where, at first glance, there seems to be only squalor. Unfortunately, the narrative reads more like a series of vignettes than a fully cohesive whole, but fans will likely be satisfied with a poignant ending that has its eye firmly on the light at the end of the tunnel, placing hope within reach of even the most desperate and downtrodden.
I agree with Publisher's Weekly that these three books are written more as a series of vignettes or scenes from a play than a novel, and the prose is antiquated and formal in an almost Shakespearian fashion. While that seems appropriate for the Fae, the switch back and forth between regular English and old English can give readers whiplash. And, as I've said before, the focus on the pain, abuse, squalor and death of the downtrodden, poor and unsavory criminal elements of California made me feel as if I were reading horror fiction, which I'm not a fan of. The way that Saintcrow made these scenes of mortals at their worst relevant to the story was to show how their encounters with the Fae changed the mortal's fate for better or worse, depending on how the mortal treated the Fae that they encountered. So when a truck driver gives one of the Fae (or half fae) a ride, he wins the lottery and is able to settle into retirement with a lovely young waitress. Those who do not treat the half Fae or Fae with deference and respect end up dead, or lost and forgotten,'never to be seen or heard from again.' Having read my share of fairy tales and legends, seeing the Fae portrayed as cruel and capricious wasn't so much surprising as it was intriguing. Their survival dependent on grubby humans living in substandard conditions was reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Anansi Boys, where old gods are having to slum it just to survive. And though I can't say I appreciated all the urban blight and ugliness that Saintcrow brought to bear in these novels, I admire her ability to wield language like a weapon and create compelling characters in the midst of chaos. A well deserved A, with a recommendation to those who like the more subtle horrors of Gaiman and his graphic novels mixed with Fae magic and excellent storytelling.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Brick and Mortar Books in Redmond, 15 Coolest Bookstores, In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear, The Library of Light and Shadow by MJ Rose and Trailer Park Fae/Roadside Magic by Lilith Saintcrow

It has always been a dream of mine to own a bookstore and tea shop, and I am always happy to hear of people who were able to fulfill their own bookstore dreams, especially when it is in the King County area, where I live and work. 

Redmond's Brick & Mortar Books Owners 'Living Their Dream'

"I think half the people I know have had that dream," Dan Ullom told the
Seattle Times in a profile
of the recently opened Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, Wash., which he owns with his parents
John Ullom. The question ("Haven't you always dreamed of owning an
independent bookstore?") is a familiar one, as is Ullom's goal to help
Brick & Mortar "become what the best bookstores are: a hub for its

The Ulloms "know that it's no easy trick to sustain a business like
theirs, when they can't offer the discounts available from online
booksellers. Instead, they offer a personal touch," the Times wrote.
"They're listening to what their customers want--Tina noted that they
have greatly expanded their selection of greeting cards, after learning
that no other Redmond Town Center store sells them--and are heartened by
recent reports that show a rise in independent bookstores nationwide.
The anecdotal evidence is encouraging."

"Hundreds of people have walked in the door, saying 'Thank you for being
here,' " Tina Ullom said, adding that her bookselling peers have also
been an inspiration. At a recent Pacific Northwest Booksellers
Association meeting, "everyone said, 'I wake up in the morning and I'm
happy to go to work. I love what I do.' "
"You can feel that good vibe at their store," the Times wrote.

Very interesting list, and I've visited several of these places. Bookstores and libraries are the hub of every community.

'The 15 Coolest Bookstores in America'

"Sometimes the best way to understand a town is to visit its best
bookstores," MSN wrote in showcasing its picks for "the 15 coolest
bookstores in America
Noting that bookshops "are communal places that offer ideas in a
tangible form and a venue for sharing a love of literature," MSN
observed: "They add substance to shopping districts and reflect the
literary passions and history of their communities, making each one
unique and worth exploring even while on a tight vacation schedule."
In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear is her 14th Maisie Dobbs mystery, and one of her most succulent novels to date. This story catches Maisie on the cusp of World War II, in 1939, when the world held it's collective breath. Here's the blurb:
Sunday September 3rd 1939.  At the moment Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcasts to the nation Britain’s declaration of war with Germany, a senior Secret Service agent breaks into Maisie Dobbs' flat to await her return. Dr. Francesca Thomas has an urgent assignment for Maisie: to find the killer of a man who escaped occupied Belgium as a boy, some twenty-three years earlier during the Great War.
In a London shadowed by barrage balloons, bomb shelters and the threat of invasion, within days another former Belgian refugee is found murdered.  And as Maisie delves deeper into the killings of the dispossessed from the “last war," a new kind of refugee — an evacuee from London — appears in Maisie's life. The little girl billeted at Maisie’s home in Kent does not, or cannot, speak, and the authorities do not know who the child belongs to or who might have put her on the “Operation Pied Piper” evacuee train.  They know only that her name is Anna.
As Maisie’s search for the killer escalates, the country braces for what is to come.  Britain is approaching its gravest hour — and Maisie could be nearing a crossroads of her own. Kirkus Reviews: As World War II dawns for Britain, investigator Maisie Dobbs takes on a case involving murdered Belgian refugees with shadowy ties to the Great War. Back in England after her undercover mission in Germany (Journey to Munich, 2016, etc.), Maisie re-establishes herself as private investigator extraordinaire just as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announces that England is once again at war on Sept. 3, 1939. Conflict, of the armed or emotional variety, is nothing new to Maisie: she's been suffering nobly for the entirety of Winspear's series, since the death of her husband and her subsequent miscarriage. So when Dr. Francesca Thomas, a Belgian national who once fought with the resistance group La Dame Blanche and trained Maisie in all things spy, comes inquiring about a new murder investigation, Maisie's interest is piqued. Fellow Belgian Frederick Addens, who came to London as a teenager during WWI and later married an Englishwoman, was shot to death outside his engineering post at St. Pancras station, but Dr. Thomas doesn't buy the cops' explanation that theft motivated the murder. Maisie starts digging, uncovering a trail of mysterious figures with questionable alliances, several of whom don't survive her investigation. Also occupying her time is the plight of 5-year-old Anna, a refugee who's been evacuated to Maisie's family home in Kent but seems to have no family of her own, sending up not only Maisie's detecting red flags, but her long-dormant maternal ones as well. Winspear teeters on the brink of stating the emotionally obvious at times but largely pulls back and weaves a convincing historical drama together with a rocky journey for her heroine.
Interesting as the primary whodunnit was, I found myself more drawn to the mystery of the little girl Anna, who she was and what would happen to her after the mystery was solved. Unfortunately, the author leaves us somewhat up in the air about Anna's fate, as she's residing with Maisie's father and stepmother, and they're hoping to find some family members or someone to adopt her, though that seems impossible during wartime. Also I was not happy about the way Maisie was shamed into detaching from Anna, by being told that Anna could not and should not replace her lost husband and baby. I mean why not? Why would it be such a bad thing for Maisie and her family to take on this wee orphan and raise her with love and care? I honestly think it would be healing for both of them. And why also Maisie is dragged into signing up for the ambulance corps with her snooty wealthy friend Priscilla is beyond me. Priscilla is way too flighty to be much good in a crisis, and with her eldest going off to war, I can only imagine her heartbreak and breakdown when, or if, he comes back broken or not at all. So the ending wasn't really satisfying, but the main part of the book was engrossing, with well written prose and a somewhat odd plot. I'd give it a B+, and recommend it to anyone who has read all the other Maisie mysteries.
The Library of Light and Shadow by MJ Rose is the 3rd book in her "daughters of La Lune" series, and it's so lush and gorgeous that I never wanted it to end. Since there is one more daughter who hasn't had her story told yet, I can only assume that the next book will be the last in the series, though I can always hope that Rose will find another French family to focus her magical gaze upon. Here's the blurb:
In this riveting and richly drawn novel from “one of the master storytellers of historical fiction” (New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams), a talented young artist flees New York for the South of France after one of her scandalous drawings reveals a dark secret—and triggers a terrible tragedy.
In the wake of a dark and brutal World War, the glitz and glamour of 1925 Manhattan shine like a beacon for the high society set, desperate to keep their gaze firmly fixed to the future. But Delphine Duplessi sees more than most. At a time in her career when she could easily be unknown and penniless, like so many of her classmates from L’École des Beaux Arts, in America she has gained notoriety for her stunning “shadow portraits” that frequently expose her subjects’ most scandalous secrets. Most nights Delphine doesn’t mind that her gift has become mere entertainment—a party trick—for the fashionable crowd.
Then, on a snowy night in February, in a penthouse high above Fifth Avenue, Delphine’s mystical talent leads to a tragedy between two brothers. Devastated and disconsolate, Delphine renounces her gift and returns to her old life in the south of France where Picasso, Matisse, and the Fitzgeralds are summering. There, Delphine is thrust into recapturing the past. First by her charismatic twin brother and business manager Sebastian who attempts to cajole her back to work and into co-dependence, then by the world famous opera singer Emma Calvé, who is obsessed with the writings of the fourteenth-century alchemist Nicolas Flamel. And finally by her ex-lover Mathieu, who is determined to lure her back into his arms, unaware of the danger that led Delphine to flee Paris for New York five years before.
Trapped in an ancient chateau where hidden knowledge lurks in the shadows, Delphine questions everything and everyone she loves the most—her art, her magick, her family, and Mathieu—in an effort to accept them as the gifts they are. Only there can she shed her fear of loving and living with her eyes wide open.
I could certainly identify with Delphine in having a brother who used her for his own gain, and who is jealous of her talent, as I had a brother who, though he had far more gifts than I did, was jealous of what I did lay claim to, and therefore had no qualms about trying to destroy me emotionally. I should mention, before I forget, that there are 3 other paranormal/historical romance/adventure books that are linked to this series by MJ Rose, and reading them adds background density to the "Daughters" series. Anyway, I loved the mystery of trying to find the book, and Delphine's ability to draw the deepest secrets while blindfolded, and I loved her interactions with her mother and Mathieu, the love of her life. While we aren't allowed to know if Delphine and Mathieu fall prey to the family curse in the end, we do find out what happened to the book by Nicholas Flamel, and we discover how horrible Sebastian, Delphine's twin, really is, as he tries to kill her after using her for money to pay off gambling debts. I wished he had drowned and died, but Rose allows him to live and manipulate everyone again, so we can only surmise how Delphine will deal with him when she gets back to the chateau. Nevertheless, I found the delicious prose and beautifully complex plot to be riveting, and I couldn't put this book down. A solid A, with a recommendation to anyone who loves paranormal/historical romance with dashes of mystery and adventure in their novels.
Trailer Park Fae and Roadside Magic by Lilith Saintcrow were both books that I read about on a book website dedicated to fantasy and science fiction genres. Because I'd read Saintcrow's Bannon and Clare series, her Jill Kismet series and her Dante Valentine series, I hoped that this would be an equally exciting read, with less bloodshed.  Unfortunately, the bloodshed seems to be inevitable in Saintcrow's work, but these two novels differed from her other works in the nearly Elizabethan prose style that she chose to use to tell her tale. Here's the blurbs:  
New York Times bestselling author Lilith Saintcrow returns to dark fantasy with a new series where the faery world inhabits diners, dive bars and trailer parks.
Jeremiah Gallow is just another construction worker, and that's the way he likes it. He's left his past behind, but some things cannot be erased. Like the tattoos on his arms that transform into a weapon, or that he was once closer to the Queen of Summer than any half-human should be.

Now the half-sidhe all in Summer once feared is dragged back into the world of enchantment, danger, and fickle fae - by a woman who looks uncannily like his dead wife. Her name is Robin, and her secrets are more than enough to get them both killed. A plague has come, the fullborn-fae are dying, and the dark answer to Summer's Court is breaking loose.
Be afraid, for Unwinter is riding...
Roadside Magic:
Robin Ragged has revenge to wreak and redemption to steal. As for Jeremy Gallow, the poison in his wound is slowly killing him, while old friends turn traitor and long-lost enemies return to haunt him.
In the dive bars and trailer parks, the sidhe are hunting. War looms, and on a rooftop in the heart of the city, the most dangerous sidhe of all is given new life. He has only one thought, this new hunter: Where is the Ragged?

While I understand why Saintcrow used Shakespearean prose to tell much of her tale (these are, after all, fae who have graced his plays, including Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck, playing the father to the heroine Robin Ragged), I still found it annoying that the formal prose was mixed with the 'vulgar' tongue of English and slang, so that in the dirty streets and the dwarvish underground lairs, it seemed somehow defamed and diluted, which might have been intentional. The plots of both novels are as swift as the lightfeet of the fae who inhabit the pages, and the stories themselves of heartbreak and abuse, love and loss are fascinating stuff. That said, I was surprised at the nearly cartoonish evil of the Queen of Summer (who is basically Queen Mab or Titania, head of the seelie fae) and of Puck, who has been portrayed as mischievous and manipulative, to be sure, but never purely malevolent. Why he would seek to harm his child is never quite clear, and why the men/half fae around her, including Gallow, claim to love her and yet only manage to harm her as they chase her thither and yon also doesn't make sense to me. Still, both books are page turners and deserve an A, as well as a recommendation to all who enjoy 'dark and gritty' fantasy novels with a formal twist and some interesting insights into the world of dwarves, fae and other creatures of the magic realms.