Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky

Beneath the Sugar Sky Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars!

"All you have to do is believe... There is kindness in the world, if we know how to look for it. If we never start denying it the door."

This is the third book in the Wayward Children series. I have to admit that much as I enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway I have enjoyed the successor books much more. Part of it lies in my growing appreciation for some of the characters (especially Kade, whose sardonic humor is wonderful) but also in my enjoyment of the diverse and imaginative worlds that McGuire has created. Rini's search for her mother Sumi takes us from Eleanor West's school to Nancy's world and into Confection. It dances with time- present, past and future- in delightful ways.

This series is a children's series for young adults or adults. That has probably never been more so than in this book. We can raise the dire warning flag on some more adult language and on the amusing (at least to me) fact that the word "vagina" is high on the list or words used by Rini, one of the central characters. I am sure that's all likely to get this book banned somewhere in Texas. Then of course there is the fact that this entire series is one great big LGBTQ/marginalized children/disabled children confection. A series for all of us who ever felt we didn't fit. For those waiting for their door.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: Enchantress of Numbers

Enchantress of Numbers Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I was excited to have the chance to read a novelization of the life of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the great English romantic poet Lord Byron, who is often credited with writing the first computer algorithm. That algorithm, described in Lovelace's Note G, was to generate the sequence of Bernoulli numbers (numbers commonly found in some Taylor series expansions, power series like the Euler-Maclaurin series and the Riemann zeta function). Lovelace's accomplishment, as a mathematician and hypothetical programmer of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, has long been shadowed by the tragedy of her death at age 36. (You can read Lovelace's treatise about the Babbage Analytical Engine here) Lovelace, while perhaps not the most pleasant person, led a fascinating though challenging life. She was clearly a brilliant mind. She believed that imagination was crucial to developing mathematics and eschewed her mother's rejection of all things fanciful. The strained relationship she developed with her mother was balanced with the counterpoint of her fascination with her famous (infamous?) father, who she never knew and who died on the Continent when she was only eight years old.

While this book was by no means bad, I was left feeling that it lacked luster and life. Early on, I was bothered by the awkward narrative choice in the first part of the book, in which Annabella, Lady Byron, appears to tell the story of her marriage to George Gordon, Lord Byron, only for us to be told after some 40 pages of third-person narration that it is Ada herself who is telling the story of her parents marriage and then switching to first-person narration and explaining/justifying how a seven-week-old infant can know all these many things. The first person perspective and the narrative pace became tedious at times. The best I can say is that the book may spur readers to read a biography of Lovelace.

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Review: The Girl in the Tower

The Girl in the Tower The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was fortunate to receive an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

"Come in, Vasya," Morozko said. "It is cold."

When last we left Vasilisa Petrovna in The Bear and the Nightingale she had left Leznaya Semlya on her beloved Solovey, the magnificent and magical stallion son of the great horse of Morozko. As the story in The Girl in the Tower opens we find ourselves in Moscow, with Vasya's sister Olya, and eventually again meet her brother Sasha and even the shameful priest who had harmed Leznaya Semlya's delicate balance between the old ways and the new. It takes a deliciously long while for us to find out what happened with Vasya arriving at the home among the tree grove that is Morozko's.

There is no magic. Things are. Or they are not.

In many ways, The Girl in the Tower is a deeper and more complex story than The Bear and the Nightingale. The complexity is both due to the interweaving of more folklore (we see other famous 'monsters' from the pantheon) than just that of Morozko in this book, but also deeper because of questions about mortality, immortality, love, truth, and magic. The relationship between Vasya and Morozko deepens and we find that Death is surprisingly kind. Vasya must deal with further strife in terms of how everyone, at times even Morozko want her to be. But the two most important male figures in her life- Morozko and her brother Sasha, seem to find some way, some space, to allow Vasya to always be herself, even as they fear for her safety. Their fears are well justified. Torn between fates that would be anathema to her- two different towers with both implying differing horrors if you are Vasya, she is also caught between Death and Deathless, for a time.

There was a passage in the first book in which Solovey rebuts Vasya's saying he is not a bird with the comment "You do not know what you are; can you know what I am?" Although, yes, we can call Vasya a witch, I'm not sure, still, even at the end of this book, that we know exactly what Vasya is or what has been passed down to her from Tamara's mother to  Tamara, then Marina to Vasya and even Masha. We are left with strong suspicions, however. It will be interesting to see what Vasya can rebuild from what she has destroyed. And what little Masha will become.

This was a masterful second novel and an entirely satisfying middle book in the Winternight trilogy. I cannot wait to see what Katherine Arden has in store for us in the final book, "The Winter of the Witch."

And your mystery picture about this book is:

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Friday, December 1, 2017

Russian Folklore Sources

Morozko (Father Frost), Ivan Bilibin, 1932

In recent years a number of writers I love have written novels featuring Russian folk figures. From Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series (Baba Yaga variants, volhvs, and Chernobog) to Catherynne Valente's Deathless (Maria Morevna and Koschei the Deathless) to Katherine Arden's Winternight trilogy (Morozko, Vasilisa the Brave), authors are creating their own spin on classic Russian folktales, expanding on the interplay between natural magic and the Church, the Soviet state, taking on stereotypical gender roles imposed on clever women, and mingling modern magic with the old. This post offers the reader some good sources of Russian folklore, most of which are available on Kindle. We'll start with the scholarly sources and then finish up with some children's books.

I've been reading Russian folk and fairy tales since I was five. I still have my first book of Russian Folk Tales:

Russian Folk Tales (Folk Tales of the People's of the U.S.S.R.)

Scholarly Sources

Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales by Sibelan Forrester

This is the most comprehensive book, not just on Baba Yaga stories but also on Baba Yaga imagery. Here we see the full spectrum of Baba Yagas in Slavic culture, from ugly wicked witch (the classic child-eater, etc) to wise woman (the source of solutions to impossible questions like you don't know what and you don't know where). This is a wonderful book and meticulously researched resource.

Russian Folk Belief  by Linda J. Ivanits

While perhaps not the most eloquent in writing style, this book is an excellent resource for those looking for further information and sources on Russian nature spirits (rusalkas, leshii, vodyanoi) and house spirits like domovoi. This book also looks at the interface between Russian folk beliefs and early Christianity in Russian culture.

This highly regarded edition is touted as the most complete volume on Russian fairy tales, including four never before translated versions of stories from the Afanasyev collection. Professor Pilkington uses this book in his class on Russian folk literature.

The original compendium of Russian folktales is the classic Afanasyev edition with hundreds of folk stories. There are many beautiful editions out there but they are all largely the same book and while lacking the glamorous cover of a competitor Kindle edition, the volume at the left has both a searchable table of contents (long listing at the front, compressed listing at the end of the book in lieu of an index) and at the current price of $1.26 simply can't be beat.

Children's Books

N.B. There are so many children's books now on Russian folklore that I'm choosing to focus on figures similar to those in the Katherine Arden Winternight trilogy.

The classic FAther Frost/Morozko story, similar to the Grimm Märchen's Mother Holle, wherein two half-sisters, one good-natured, the other bad-natured, come to differing fortunes when asked to serve a magical figure.

One of the most famous of Russian fairy tales in the classic edition, illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, one of Russia's most beloved illustrators. An iconic story of a mother's love providing the ultimate protection against evil. (Harry Potter, anyone?)

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: Under Winter Lights: Part One

Under Winter Lights: Part One Under Winter Lights: Part One by Bree M. Lewandowski
My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

3.75 Stars

As most of my readers know, I typically don't read in the romance genre. So I was a little caught off-guard when author Bree Lewandowski asked me if I would review her book. After reading through its summary, my interest was piqued because it is set in the world of a fictional ballet company, The Bellus Ballet, which seems somewhat loosely based on The Joffrey Ballet. My mother was a ballet dancer who trained with a Russian ballet master before she married. I was raised attending performances and watching Russian films of the Bolshoi and Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet. In my childhood, all our kitties were named after Russian ballerinas- Maya, Galina, Natalia, and Ekaterina. Ballet feels warm and familiar. So I accepted the review request.

First things first, let's get it out of the way, since the book is titled Under Winter Lights, Part 1: let me assure the readers that hate them that there isn't a cliffhanger here. Think of this as a ballet in two acts. This book is Act 1.

Set in Chicago, Under Winter Lights details a sometimes frustratingly tentative and unsure of herself protagonist, Martina Mariposa (the surname being the Spanish word for 'butterfly' but we have no idea about this redhead's Latin origins), age nineteen. Martina was brave enough to move away from home and join The Bellus Ballet but is so timid about so many things that at times it was hard to envision how she got to where she is. I tried to make peace with that thought by thinking that Martina isn't sure, either. The other main character is her dashing dance partner, Maraav Levondovska (whose first name is the Hebrew for West and whose last name is mostly Ukrainian or Polish and appears to be a feminine rather than masculine form of a surname, and whose parents are Laine and Bruce Levondovska and yeah, Bruce is clearly not a Russian name either so like Elsa in Frozen, let's let it go about names already) who is about twenty-four or twenty-five. Young Martina has been elevated from a young and relatively inexperienced corps de ballet dancer to principal dancer in a production of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker because of the desire on the part of unpleasant Bellus Ballet director Alan Jung to cast an innocent and childlike dancer in the role of Clara Silberhaus (Clara Stahlbaum in the original ballet). When questioned about Martina's ability to rise to this challenge, Jung seems to relish the idea of his formative role in developing her as a principal dancer. Or, as Jung so pleasantly puts it at one point during a media event, "It's as if, before her entrance into The Bellus, she did not exist." Jung has to be every reader's least favorite character, and in a dark backstory about a prior dancer he elevated, the ill-fated Daisy, we learn that he is without scruples or empathy. I was quite put off by this believably egotistical and Svengali-like character. For a brief moment I was worried that there would be a love triangle here, with this predatory director, but thus far that's not been fully realized. (And thank goodness. In the Harvey Weinstein era, this creepy man is all too real.)

Although we see a lush amount of detail about the ballet world from Martina's perspective, the novel's focus remains tightly bound to Martina and Maraav. The evolving relationship between Martina and Maraav is built out nicely by Lewandowski. Maraav, whose moniker "The Wolf of the Mariinsky" has provided him with the handy insulation of not true in reality bad-boy reputation, is actually a charming character. Maraav also has a fair amount of insight into self-worth and how to get some. Lewandowski spends more time building out Maraav's history than she does building out a backstory for Martina. While I'm sure she means to contrast the simple origins of Martina with the complex ones of Maraav, I was sometimes left feeling she lavished more writing love on Maraav than on her heroine. Lewandowski is also a little too prone to the telling us, instead of showing us, style of writing. But the story she builds is interesting enough to keep the reader reading.

I found much to like in this book. Lewandowski's love of the city of Chicago, and of ballet, is woven through this book wonderfully. Her depiction of Martina's loneliness, especially over a bitterly cold Thanksgiving day, is genuine and poignant. Lewandowski has given me enough enjoyment so that I'm planning to follow up with Part 2 over the holidays.

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