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Monday, August 14, 2017

Forthcoming ARC Reviews for Late Summer and Autumn 2017




In the next couple of months, I'll be reviewing ARC copies of some pretty enticing books.

First up will be Lana Popovic's Wicked Like A Wildfire, which I hope to have up by no later than tomorrow because it releases tomorrow! (Worry about my kitty really killed the reading plans over the past couple of days...) Before the end of the month we'll have reviews for  Catherynne Valente's YA novel The Glasstown Game (releases September 5th, followed by National Book Award winning Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied Sing, releasing the same date. And on September 5th, I'll finally get a chance to share my review of Seanan McGuire's The Brightest Fell, following the author's request to delay publishing reviews until release date. Boy, do I want to talk about The Brightest Fell... Some of it is going to stun longtime Toby Daye readers.

Looking onward toward October, I have internationally best-selling author David Walton's The Genius Plague (a reversal of the usually dire plague trope). But you'll be seeing a host of reviews in late October for all the November releases, including actress Krysten Ritter's (Marvel's Jessica Jones) debut novel Bonfire, Andy Weir's (author of the acclaimed international bestseller The Martian) new book Artemis, and Mira Grant's Into the Drowning Deep.

Thereafter I have Katherine Arden's follow up to the Russian folktale inspired The Bear and the Nightingale, titled The Girl in the Tower, which releases in early January. The Bear and the Nightingale is one of the most impressive debuts I've read since I started reviewing formally. I'm looking forward to seeing where goes thing in book two!

In between, I'll be doing my regular NetGalley and Edelweiss duty on a host of new authors, and filling in around the edges with a couple of more academic approaches to fairy and folktale forms (Baba Yaga, Seepling Beauty) plus there are those forthcoming releases that I couldn't get my greedy little hands on in ARC formats, like Nora K. Jemisin's The Stone Sky, which releases tomorrow!

The months ahead promise to be filled with interesting reads!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: Country Grit: A Farmoir of Finding Purpose and Love

Country Grit: A Farmoir of Finding Purpose and Love Country Grit: A Farmoir of Finding Purpose and Love by Scottie Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from Edelweiss+ in exchange for an honest review. I have no connection with the author or her farm but do provide links below for informational purposes.

3.5 Stars rounded up to 4 stars because FARMS and FARM STAY!

Country Grit is a farm memoir or farmoir by Scottie Jones, who started the 'Farm Stay' movement in the USA and who is the founder and executive director of Farm Stay USA. Her farm, Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, Oregon, was the inception of the Farm Stay concept in the US back in 2006. If you don't understand how important Farm Stay as a concept is, go check out this Washington Post article in which children don't understand a distressing amount about what they eat and drink. (No Sally and Bobby, chocolate milk doesn't come from brown cows.) The story of how Scottie and her husband Greg came to own a farm in Oregon after a hectic life in Phoenix was an interesting one to read, but the compelling stories of the animals and interesting humans around Leaping Lamb Farm are what really captures the reader.

Scottie chooses to respect the privacy of her community by melding stories of the people in it, and indeed the town itself which she calls Elsie, into composites. She has done a good job with keeping these composite characters real, and some of their stories are quite poignant. I am still on the fence about the episodic nature of the vignettes she presents, some of which I wasn't always getting the feeling where in chronological order, thus making the memoir aspect slightly confused. I felt that the book would have benefited from better editing, which might have toned down the episodic tone and made a smoother, and maybe even slightly longer memoir. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this book and am happy to provide their first review.

Scottie has also authored another book, Paco the Dusty Donkey about her friend Jack's pet burro. I'm really feeling that her horse Tater deserves his own children's book, about horses with the magical power to open latches.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Review: Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market

Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If Arthur Rackham and H. P. Lovecraft had an artist lovechild, that artist might create fanciful horror illustrations like Omar Rayyan's lush watercolor and oil images. I discovered Rayyan long ago on on his Etsy studio page, where his print of his oil painting titled "The Socialite" made me laugh out loud. Finding that Rayyan had released an illustrated interpretive edition of Christina Rossetti's iconic poem Goblin Market was a delightful surprise that made great sense, when I think of some of Rayyan's frightful yet humorous creatures. It's easy to imagine that Goblin Market has long fascinated him.

This is a book targeting adults, based on its somewhat steep $35 price tag. But if you love his work, you'll know that it's a real bargain to have so many of his illustrations. And if you love the poem that has inspired so many writers of magic, it's all the better. My only criticism is that if you want to read the verses paired to the many images, the delicately drawn text is rather difficult to read. Though the full poem is offered in clear bold text at the back, flipping back and forth reduces the enjoyment and flow of his illustrations. I'd suggest reading the full poem first and then paging through the 80+ pages of illustrations, letting the imagery lead you through Christina Rossetti's sensuous masterpiece of sisterly love overcoming goblin malice.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas

Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna M. Lucey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was fortunate to receive an Advanced Reading Copy of this book

3.5 Stars

John Singer Sargent has long been my favorite American painter. I first became fascinated with his work in the early 80's and was lucky enough to have been able to view the massive Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective of Sargent's work back in 1986. One thing that was evident from his massive production is that Sargent had immense natural facility that is often overlooked by his being brushed off as merely a high society portraitist. Like many artists before him, Sargent painted commissioned portraits on the Continent, in England, and in the United States, in order to make a living. These funded his peregrinations, documented in exquisite watercolours, oils, and simple sketches, throughout Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. His society portraits, many of which look as if they have captured characters straight out of an Edith Wharton novel, run the gamut from an homage to Velazquez (The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882) to the famously scandal-imbued Madame X (Virginie Amélie Avegno, Madame Pierre Gautreau, in a portrait that pretty much ruined her life). Sargent, an American expat who grew up in British and European society, was able to blend smoothly into high society and, until the "petite gaffe" with Virginie Gautreau at the Paris Salon exhibition in 1884, enjoyed a reputation of pleasant discretion. His reputation badly frayed after the Paris Salon of 1884, he departed Paris with the painting in tow. Sargent quickly recovered his reputation in England and the US, taking on some of his best known portraits. (Virginie, on the other hand, withdrew from society and though later commissioned portraits by Courtois and de la Gandara, never recovered her reputation, and was separated from her husband at her death. An interested reader can get the short version here or check out the book Strapless. )

Modern viewers of Sargent's portraits may look at them and wonder who exactly these people were. While male subjects often had public lives and accessible biographies, far less is often available about his female subjects. Lucey has given us short biographies of four of Sargent's American female subjects, all of whom came from some of America's most privileged families. (Presumably American-born Virginie was excluded since she has already been the subject of another book?) Detailing the lives of Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler, the Fairchild sisters, Sally (subject of several portraits) and Lucia (subject of none) and the iconoclast, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Lucey captures the lives of these women, particularly focusing on the period of time when they were painted by Sargent.

While the chapter devoted to Elsie Palmer was interesting, providing information about the Palmer family, the Aesthetic Movement at Ightham Mote, and Glen Eyrie, I found the chapter on the Fairchild sisters to be quite odd. Although Sally Fairchild was the object of a number of portraits by Sargent including a blue-veiled portrait now in a private collection, the bulk of the chapter is about her sister Lucia, presumed too homely by Sargent to bother painting, and who was herself a painter. So little information is provided about Sally's life that I found her selection for the book to be rather disappointing.

The chapter on Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler, later Mrs. John Jay Chapman, was the most interesting to me. Filled with pathos, one feels the poignancy of her early childhood and youth, and the tinge of scandal with her late marriage to her deceased best friend Minna Timmins' husband John Jay Chapman, who was the great love of her life, even when Timmins was still alive. This was a moving biographical sketch.

Isabella Stewart Gardner needs no real introduction to Sargent fans, or to Bostonians. She has been the subject of several books (a point which only makes me question the exclusion of Virginie Gautreau and inclusion of Sally Fairchild) This was an interesting chapter providing a brief biographical sketch of Belle Gardner, or Mrs. Jack, as she was also known. She was both Sargent's patron and friend. This ebullient woman had a great impact on art, privately collecting works by some of history's greatest artists. (Sadly, a number of them are equally famous for being part of art history's greatest theft, a 1990 robbery of 13 works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, a museum whose security is greatly constrained by the terms of Gardner's bequest creating the museum. Although recently there is a sign that there may be a bit more movement on resolving the heist case.)

I found the descriptions of the paintings by Lucey to be interesting and I'm not sure I always agreed with them. Elsie Palmer's painting, Young Lady in White feels almost preternaturally still and constrained, perhaps presaging her decades of being caught between two very different worlds (elite English society favored by her mother and a more rural Colorado lifestyle favored by her father) and her being shackled to a caregiver role in her family while her younger sister Dos engaged in an affair with the married man that Elsie loved. This portrait is currently on loan from the Colorado Fine Arts Center to Ightham Mote, in Kent, though December 2017. The Sally Fairchild painting favored by Lucey, that of her in a blue veil, while striking, reflects the fact that we don't really learn much about Sally in this book. This portrait is also now in a private collection (as are the other two portraits of her) so unless it is loaned for an exhibit at a major institution, the reader is not likely to see it in person. She remains rather obscured to the reader. The beautiful portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler, one of Sargent's better known portraits, now held by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art, speaks to me less of "innocence" than of her great personal strength and resolve. Sargent's admiration for his subject is palpable in this portrait. No doubt the similar health struggles shared by Elizabeth and Sargent's sister Emily fueled his empathy for Elizabeth. The prime of life portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner depicts her powerful persona against a backdrop that would suit a renaissance painting. This painting, of course, remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum in Boston. Sargent's delicate watercolor of her in dotage, swathed in white, is far more powerful to me than the large oil painting of her in her prime. It was touching that he painted her again, something that no doubt gave her pleasure. I do have to say however, much as I love Sargent, when I think of Mrs. Jack, I'm more inclined to think of her in the style of the dramatic pose in the Anders Zorn painting, also on display in that museum.

All in all, I found the book to be a pleasant read. Those looking for a biography of more of Sargent than his subjects may be disappointed to see little of Sargent here, but I found the book, particular the Chanler chapter, to be commendable for giving us a story to pair with these pretty society women, whose single job and worth were tethered to making a powerful marriage and retaining social position. These were real women, with real lives, loves and sorrows.

Readers interested in perusing more of Sargent's catalog should check out the virtual museum of his work at http://jssgallery.org/

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: Raven Stratagem

Raven Stratagem Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I am posting based on the audiobook edition of this book, I also received an ARC copy from Solaris and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

“What good is immortality if nothing has been done to repair the fault lines of the human heart?”

At the outset I want to recommend to any reader of the Machineries of Empire series that they check out Yoon Ha Lee's extremely helpful Hexarchate Faction Cheat Sheet. Please note that the individual links he offers, which link to the Solaris website for his series, provide some extra information especially about the Heptarchate Liozh faction.

As much as I wanted to reread Ninefox Gambit before reading Raven Stratagem it was not possible, due to timing of completing my reading for voting on the Hugo Awards. Shortly before the publication date of Raven, Solaris had been kind enough to gift me with an ARC and I was already sooo late in getting a review out that rereading or even relistening to Ninefox seemed like a luxury I couldn’t afford, especially since I was sure I was going to end up wanting to reread this new book just as much. My feelings of the shock and awe of the immersion into the Hexarchate world of Cheris and Jedao in Ninefox still lingered. I felt like I had been tossed on a tempest for most of that book, much as I loved it. I wasn't sure I really understood it as much as I wanted to. So what to do before I embedded myself fully in Raven? (Which, btw, let's think about raven, shall we?) I felt like I needed a bit more grounding on the world I was reading about. Last week I spent a fair amount of time exploring the Machineries world on Yoon Ha Lee's website. I checked out the very useful cheatsheet he provides (as I mentioned above), plus I enjoyed reading some of the back stories of Jedao and Cheris. (Link with a full list of the short stories here reviews of the shorts to follow on the weekend) And it's a result of especially one of those short stories that I found that maybe I had a leg up on a bit of the endgame in this, the second book in the Machineries trilogy.

In contemplating the puzzling political world with mathematical zealots, exotic technologies, and the vast array of hexarchate terminology that gets thrown at us, at times it’s been all too easy to be lost in the details and not see the broad view of what’s going wrong at the heart of the world of the Hexarchate, the ultimate reasons for Heptarchate’s fall and why. It is little surprise that calendrical heresy is at the root of all. There is inextricable bond between the technological power of the Hexarchate and its reliance on a faltering, cruel system that places no value on life, while it perpetuating faith and formation instinct based on arcane rituals and and the assumption that sacrifice is a fantastic destiny. While the reason for Jedao’s use in Ninefox Gambit was made quite obvious, I had puzzled over what Jedao’s goal or ultimate purpose would be as we move forward in the series. We knew that ultimately Jedao wanted a better world but how to get create it? Certainly Hellspin Fortress wasn’t a great start and frankly, after a passage in this book, I'm still wondering about what the hell happened in the seeming fugue state Jedao was in at Hellspin. But, going back to basics, looking at Cheris and Jedao, we see characters that never fit neatly into their factions. Cheris, a Kel with reportedly stunning mathematical abilities that should have made her a Nirai, chose Kel. And then, that sneaky Ninefox Crowned with Eyes, Shuos Jedao, seemed to choose the Kel, as well. Why? Those that don’t fit their factions, in almost every sci-fi or dystopian world, are those who will broker the greatest change. (We could call them Divergent but this is so much deeper a world.) When making change on this scale, you're talking war and in a war, you need an army.

Among new and equally rich characters, we finally meet Shuos Hexarch Mikodez in all his glory. Mikodez is a true delight, probably my favorite character of the new set. From his growing onions, to his knitting, Mikodez, is a character almost as compelling as Jedao. Mikodez is a wonderful addition to the Machineries series, as is General Khiruev. Even Brexan, a character I occasionally wanted to give a good, hard shake, is an interesting mirror reflection of Jedao’s path re: Kel, Shuos and crashhawk status. The depth, quirkiness and complexity of the characters that Lee gives us are a marvel. They are a pleasure to read.

Many have written about Lee’s masterfully smooth world with respect to gender fluidity and sexual orientation. The world he has built with respect to gender and sexuality feels so natural it just flows. There are horrors here, like attempted genocides to get the attention of Jedao/Cheris, or the Hafn, who horrifyingly use their children as energy sources. Where Ninefox Gambit introduced us to the failings of rigid political systems based on religion, Raven Stratagem offers us a world where, by the slimmest of odds, hearts and minds prevail.

Right now this is my top choice for nominations for best novel for the Hugos next year. Such a great read. Worth all the effort to dig into Lee's vision.

Those wanting some insight into this book are directed to The Robot's Math Lessons which you can find here.

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