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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Monday, July 24, 2017

Review: The Han Agent

The Han Agent The Han Agent by Amy Rogers
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Sadly, they're definitely getting one.

While most of you who have followed my reviews for a while know I love sci-fi, fantasy, Jane Austen, history, and architecture, most of you probably don't know that I'm a card carrying scientist with a PhD. While my area of expertise is now chemistry, my undergraduate degree was in Microbiology and Immunology. My parents are physician researchers. I've been a National Science Foundation fellow. And thus, my problems with this book begin.

Amika Nakamura is a post-doctoral research fellow who mysteriously finds a way to acquire highly infectious viral culture specimens of the 1918 influenza that caused the global pandemic that wiped out millions. She is working with them in her humble Berkeley virology lab clean room, unbeknownst to her post-doctoral advisor, and the university, until with much hubris she submits a paper for a conference about her research. Because if you're doing something illicit, by all means try to tell the entire research community. Yeah, it's amazing that she could keep that whole thing going, especially since highly contagious influenza viruses require at a minimum Bio-Safety Level 2 facilities and in the case of particularly virulent forms, BSL-3 facilities. There are only a handful of BSL-3 rated facilities in the US and Berkeley isn't one of them. Okay, you say, suspend a little belief. This is fiction. Well...

Imagine a protagonist who is filled with hubris, who gets fired for blatantly unsafe research you have no idea how she was doing in the first place, who has to destroy all her specimens because they are so unsafe, and who takes a job with a big Japanese pharma firm and then spends her time ogling the big director thinking to herself that Hiroshi Naito is good-looking and so of course she should try to seduce him because "job security and a little fun." Hey great idea, said no female scientist wanting to be taken seriously EVER. This character and her various machinations are like a parody. From trying to help her brother by going along with a trumped up rape scenario she denies to a reporter and then later tacitly confirms in public, this character lacks all credibility and logic for a trained scientist. Amika-san has to be one of the least likable lead characters I've read in a long time. She has nothing going for her. She is shallow, calculating, and risk-taking in a field where risk can easily kill people. All the characters appear to be equally vacuous, and self-consumed, btw.

And then there is the backdrop of the research scenario and its lack of understanding of public health research. For instance, if you have an outbreak of avian flu, do you 1) do sample collection and analysis through your governmental public health branch to research and track the flu or 2) give all your bird specimens to a big pharma company and tell them to start gain-of-function research on a vaccine? (By which, in the latter case, we mean lump together a whole bunch of terminology and try to make a plausible story out of them.) Why, 2, of course! The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Japan wants no part of this scary bad research and is happy to have a post-doctoral fellow, who was FIRED from her previous gig for doing unsafe research, handling the research for a mega-corporation interested in helping viral genes GAIN function (by which we mean enhanced activation of various genes of interest). Of course they do.

Rogers has taken a bunch of facts about influenza and avian flu (including the very real fact that in Japan they have had a great interest in the risks of an influenza pandemic affecting a densely populated country, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9REA... for instance) and the dispute over the Shenkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyutai Islands and, like a test to see if it's cooked spaghetti, she has thrown them together to make a story stick against a dryase board.

On top of these overriding problems, I have the underlying issue of cultural appropriation, with which I can foresee others far more qualified than I am will have a boatload of fun. Yes, those clever revenge-seeking Japanese and those bad Chinese jackals! Add viruses! Shake, stir! Oh, such fun!

If you want to read a good fiction book about a pandemic, reread Richard Preston's The Cobra Event. If you want political intrigue added to a global viral mutation pandemic, read Mira Grant's Newsflesh series.

Special note added: Why do you have to heavily tranquilize a goat, when already you're "vaccinating" them with birth control in a dart? Hmmm. Search me.

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Review: Full Fathom Five

Full Fathom Five Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My favorite of The Craft Sequence thus far, I loved Full Fathom Five for its four (full five, if we count Elayne) strong female characters who, though they came from differing perspectives, worked collaboratively to effectively problem solve, in addition to talking with each other about their philosophies, lives and not guys. What a concept!

There are enough summaries of this book out there that review readers probably don't need another review detailing the basic premise of the novel. What I can give you is a description of why Kai Pohala and this novel were so striking to me. Kai is one of the least angst-y transgender characters that I have had the pleasure of reading. She is happy with herself and, instead of suffering about being transgender, is working on regular things, like heartache and questions over the breakup of a long term relationship, and worrying about justice for her community and some of her company's creations. This made me so happy, I can't tell you.

The other central female characters, Izza, Cat, Teo, and Elayne Kevarian, who is like a thread woven through each of these books, each embody strengths, and, in some cases, poignant vulnerabilities. Splendid character diversity here. I'm also fascinated by Mako's backstory and wonder if we will learn more of him.

The world building in The Craft Sequence has gained further depth in this story set in Kavekana. Of all the things I've read thus far in the Craft world, the Penitents are some of the most harrowing forms of magic Max Gladstone has created. The imagination on display, as we tour the various parts of the Craft world- from Alt Coulomb to Dresediel Lex to Kavekana- is truly amazing.

Looking forward to moving forward in the Craft World! Though, most of all, I look ahead to Ruin of Angels, which publishes in September, with more Kai and hopefully Izza!

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: The Clockwork Dynasty

The Clockwork Dynasty The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Daniel H. Wilson's marvelous book is all that a blended sci-fi/fantasy genre tale should and can be. Those looking for simple steampunk novel are going to find a whole lot more. A sweeping, epic story of artificial intelligence like none I have read before, Wilson gives us two protagonists, Peter and June, whose alternating storylines cross decades and much, much longer, finally meeting in a commonality of purpose in the present day. Peter, a sentient form of artificial intelligence, is one of a created race called avtomats. June, granddaughter of a clockwork lover, has a fascination with automata and mechanical creations, borne of a story and legacy left her by her grandfather. While June's story evolves over decades, Peter's has evolved over a much longer time period. I don't want to steal thunder from the book, but a story that begins in Russia during the reign of Peter the Great (in 1700's) does not even begin to scratch Peter's history.

One of the central themes of the avotmats is the "word" that motivates their choices and actions. Peter's word, pravda (правда), or truth has many alternate meanings, including justice. Peter's evolution, in understanding his motivating "word," over the arc of this novel was one of the best facets of the book for me. Peter stands for the universal questions. What is truth? What is a truth-seeker? What happens when we forget the truth really is? What if your truth and my truth are different? Who is right? What if no one is?

The avtomats of this book (Peter, Elena (logic), Hypatia (virtue), Talus, Leizu, Bauto and others) are not cold, programmed (beyond their guiding word) sentient machines. They are self-determinant, aspiring, evolving entities who have feelings of affection and loyalty, but also hatred, derision and greed. The mystery of their origins remains shrouded. Their incredible modern physical form is almost equally so.

Wilson, who has written largely about robots and robotics (he has a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon, but has also studied philosophy, and it certainly shows here) has written a marvelous book that I would hope could have sequels. Those with a love of automata books from Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret to Gaby Woods's Edison's Eve and Living Dolls will find a novel that takes us far beyond wind up toys or regular old robots.

It's a great journey.


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Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood

Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood by Marjorie M. Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The continuation of the exquisitely drawn Monstress series, Volume 2, The Blood continues from right where we left Maika Halfwolf at the end of <i>Awakening</i>. Maika, with the aid of Little Fox Kippa and the dubiously trustworthy Master Ren, continues her pursuit for answers about her mother, the significance of the Bone Key, and the origins of her possession by a monstrous creature that she keeps barely contained within her. Along her path, we learn more about the identities of some of Maika's early companions, like Tuya, and her surprising connection to a foe. As the trauma of the long war continues to affect both allies and foes, Maika's search for answers takes her to Thyria, and from there to the mysterious Isle of Bones where she encounters the Blood Fox, a cruel prisoner on the island. As a result of this visit, Maika connects with part of her destiny and has recollections of her mother's admonishments about never letting anyone control her.

This is a beautiful volume that drives forward the story but still leaves the ultimate reasons for the mask's existence, the battle between the Arcanics and humans, open for interpretation. I have so many questions about Maika and Tuya's friendship. There is so much in the backstory between Moriko and her sister to be revealed, as well. I look forward to future installments.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Hugo Awards Voting Completed!

Little My by Tove Jansson


Tove Jansson's Little My perfectly captures my feeling about finalizing my voting for this year's Hugo Awards! Gloria and I are headed to Helsinki next month to see who all wins, but I sigh my relief that voting is ended and that I no longer have to struggle with rankings in some very tough categories. If you voted, you'll know exactly what I mean.

In the best novel category I think I changed my rankings below my top choice at least a half-dozen times. My struggle for #2 was a continual battle between Nora K. Jemisin's magnificent sequel to her Hugo Award-winning The Fifth Season, titled The Obelisk Gate, and Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, a book that I spent the better part of two weeks trying to wrap my head around. (Thanks Ada Palmer for a long Twitter discussion about my questions). In the end, even though I suspect that The Obelisk Gate stands little chance of winning with after NKJ won last year, I ranked her book second since I loved it so, Palmer's book third, Yoon Ha Lee's challenging immersion experience Ninefox Gambit fourth and Cixin Li's book last because honestly, I just find his work utterly mind-numbing, even as I hear everyone's argument that it's brilliant. As many of you will note, there is a missing book here. I just cannot abide All the Birds in the Sky. (I will never understand the book's popularity. See my review here.) If it wins, which I know it may, I shall just weep because my first choice was Becky Chamber's lovely A Closed and Common Orbit, a book about artificial intelligence that renders AI complex and interesting, all in another joyous Becky Chambers book. I loved that book. Sidra and Owl are marvelous. You can read my review of A Closed and Common Orbit here.

In the best novella category it should surprise no one that I place Every Heart a Doorway as my top choice. This is a such a well-written book and whatever quibbles I may have with the plot working as part-mystery, my concerns are overwritten by my absolute love of the concept of this book- what happens when children who have been to one of these portal worlds have to come back to this world and live here with all their memories of that other world they ventured to. I was never satisfied with C.S. Lewis's Narnia world rules where Susan just comes home, puts on makeup, hits puberty and it's "bye-bye, Narnia, I'm all grown up now." So I loved this book. Kai Ashanti Wilson's A Taste of Honey, whose Wildeeps series I now need to read more of, was my second choice. And that's one theme of this years voting for me- discovering authors I simply have to read more of. Carrie Vaughn, Fran Wilde... I discovered so many new writers to love.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde was my favorite novelette from start to finish of nominations and voting this year. And I just found out from Gloria that the audiobook of the novelette is terrific, so I have to go back and listen to it. Audiobooks were my salvation this year, allowing me to listen to so many books while doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, and while driving. Of course, they were also the source of feelings of withdrawal (more on that later).

In the short story category, the most haunting and emotionally evocative story for me was Carrie Vaughn's luminous That Game We Played During the War. As much as I utterly adore Amal El-Mohtar's Seasons of Iron and Glass and everything that story represents about women saving themselves, Carrie Vaughn's short story just pierced my heart. It is such a beautiful evocation of sadness, depression and communication.

Skipping ahead to best long form dramatic presentation, can I state once again that as a PhD chemist, the idea that Hidden Figures is nominated for what is pretty much a science fiction award is so annoying I want to break things. Think about it. Women doing astrophysics nominated for a science fiction award. No, no, no. So I warred with myself ever since the ballot was released in April. I didn't rank it. I ranked it first. I ranked it at the bottom of the ballot. Then I got mean and pragmatic at the last moment (thanks in part to Gloria's texting me about my ballot, which she saw) and said, "an award is an award, and this film deserves awards and maybe people won't even know what a Hugo Award is," and ranked it first. Arrival, with it's potent message about how we communicate, was my second choice. For short form, my top choice is the Black Mirror episode San Junipero.

The Campbell Award for Best New Author was always down to Ada Palmer for me. While I struggled with Too Like the Lightning, there is no denying how awesomely written the book is. I already have Seven Surrenders, the sequel, on my Kindle, ready to start reading when I'm caught up on Net Galley duty.

And finally, there's the hardest of hard choices. Best Series. Wow was this tough. I went into it thinking October Daye! October Daye! October Daye! And, by the tiniest, of razor thin edges, I remained October Daye! I have so much love for Rivers of London. Like, I am addicted to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's narration of that series. Now if I look back and read any of them, I hear Kobna's voice. I seriously was tweeting just the other day that I am so sorely tempted to marathon them all over again. I was sooooo sad when I finished those audiobooks. And then there is Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, which I haven't finished yet but I am totally sold on the uniqueness of his created world. I haven't found a character to love as much as Toby or Peter Grant, but maybe I haven't been reading long enough yet. The choice between these three series was soooooo hard. I'm not really much of a Naomi Novik fan, other than Uprooted which was a standalone, nor am I sold on Lois Bujold McMaster's series. But wow, those three top choices were grueling. It came down to which series was more advanced, under the assumption (weak as it may be) that it would finish sooner and have fewer shots at winning if this category remains, which I would hope to be the case. So in that instance, Max Gladstone has said 10-13 books are anticipated and Ruin of Angels, out later this year, will be Book 6 in the Craft Sequence. Ben Aaronovitch hasn't said much about the length of the Rivers of London series. Book 6, The Hanging Tree, released last year and The Furthest Station, a novella, releases this year (already published in a special edition from Subterranean Press). And so that's how I ranked them. My beloved October Daye first, Rivers of London second, and Craft Sequence third. It was almost like a Sophie's Choice scenario.

So who did you vote for on this year's ballot?


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review: Wildfire

Wildfire Wildfire by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from Edelweiss Plus and Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

As most who follow my reviews will have noted, getting me to read paranormal romance is kind of like dragging me off screaming into the dark to be tortured. I'm more of a high fantasy, urban fantasy, fae fantasy kind of girl, if I'm going to be reading about fantastical things. So how exactly did I get here, you may ask, and I may ask myself, as well. Ilona Andrews, those clever writers, hooked me long ago with the beginning of their truly fabulous Kate Daniel series, which I refuse to avow as mere paranormal romance due to its superior fantasy elements drawing from Russian and Asian folk and fairy tales and its fabulous balance of world-building and character development. The characters! The humor! The weaving of Russian folktales into a well-developed modern story! Skillz. These two have them and then some. So I followed them into The Edge/Innkeeper world and then into the Hidden Legacy World, in spite of the latter's truly abysmal covers. Covers which frankly I might add, I also find misleading. Yeah, there's the hot guy. But Hidden Legacy is more about the Baylor Family and I struggle to think of another "writer" in this urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre that can write family the way Ilona Andrews can. (The covers would be more accurate if Nevada was alone on the first cover ("Burn for Me"), if Nevada, and her teasing sisters Catalina and Arabella, were on the second cover (White Hot"), and for the third book... Well, here it's true that it's all about Nevada and Rogan. And grandma. And Catalina and Arabella and Bern and Leon. And a few other interesting characters. Oh, well, I read in ebook format, so I don't have to complain, too much.)

Wildfire is a wonderfully written entry in the Hidden Legacy series and it will answer about 85% of your questions about Victoria Tremaine and what she wants with Nevada and the Baylor family. You'll finally see more about Arabella's powers, Leon's gifts, and decision about said same gifts, and whether or not House Baylor is a go. You'll also see if Nevada and Rogan are a go. (It is a romance, after all.) Most of all, what you will see is some of the best genre fiction writing out there.

Happily, I still have soooo many unanswered questions about who is plotting a magical takeover of the political structure and why. Which to me means there's plenty of material for another couple of books, Harper Collins. And to that I say...



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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review: White Horses: A Novel

White Horses: A Novel White Horses: A Novel by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this new release of Alice Hoffman's book, first published in 1999, in exchange for an honest review.

An early and imperfect Hoffman book, this novel manages, with Hoffman's lyrical writing style, to blend aspects of magical realism, the bad boy mythos, family dysfunction, and incest. One of the factors contributing to the imperfection of Hoffman's story is that few of the characters are likeable and even Teresa, the protagonist, evokes only our sympathy. The incestuous relationship she developed with her brother Silver, is carefully developed, and presaged from the beginning of the book in Teresa's cryptic attraction to Silver, who is an attractively unscrupulous bad-boy.

Magical realism seems unanchored and poorly developed in this book. Teresa's expression of her rose-scent, first provoked by her sleepy spells, or later by periods of her losing her sense of self in others, isn't ever explained and is one of the few aspects of magic in the book.

I felt like there was a thin story of relationships here and Hoffman wasn't clear about her goals in the novel. While not her best work, the luminous quality of her writing style is already well developed.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Over the past few years, when I read books for the Hugos, it was done quietly, with little time for reviews, and often little joy, because of family circumstances. But if there is one thing my mother taught me which will linger for life, it was enjoyment of books and art. I wish I could have shown this book to my mom, who often scoffed at graphic novels. She would have been mesmerized. This book is an amazing, classic fantasy and a spectacularly drawn graphic novel. It's a work of art. It's also got a more engaging story than many a full length novel. And when I picked it up to read for the Hugos in April my fingers couldn't order Volume 2 fast enough. Many of you know I am now primarily reading ebooks, to the extent that I usually give paper books, including ARCs, away. I ordered this book in paper by error. I. Could. Not. Send. It. Back. It was too lovely. (Guess what format I ordered Volume 2 in?)

The story of Maika Halfwolf and Tuya, and of the loyal Little Fox child, Kippa, is a beautifully told magical fantasy. A tale of warring gods, demigods and humans, a bit of kindness, a lot of cruelty and more than a bit of injustice. I heartily hope it wins the Hugo for Best Graphic Novel.

My review of Volume 2 of Monstress will follow shortly.

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Review: Two Serpents Rise

Two Serpents Rise Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

The second Craft Sequence book takes us to a different place and time in the Craft World. Leaving Alt Coulomb, the setting for the first book, we arrive in Dresdiel Lex, with a burgeoning population of 17 million people, struggling to survive on rapidly diminishing resources. The methods of their short term survival are secured by truly abominable means. The protagonist of this volume, Caleb Altemoc, struggles with the realities of this world and with his painful family history. Caleb is the fulcrum for change but how that change can be safely and morally achieved is the unsettling question he wrestles with throughout this book.

Gladstone has built a complex and impressive world in these books. Magic comes with contractual boundaries and obligations in the Craft world. Rules and reciprocity dictate almost everything. 

One of the things I like best about Gladstone's protagonists is that they always seem to end up in an "outside the box" resolution. The depth of motivation for some of the other central characters is a cautionary tale, however.

As to my overall feelings about this book, I like Caleb (and Teo) but I do miss Tara!


Onward to Full Fathom Five.

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review: Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't even know where to begin.

A book that is a mystery/thriller set in the 25th Century, couched in neo-Age of Enlightenment philosophy and occasionally true Age of Enlightenment, 18th Century language, in a world that is a failed Utopia. There is so much richness in this book but it is not a facile read. Following the central characters of Mycroft Canner and Carlyle Foster, we enter a world in which countries are largely abolished in favor of a multi-hive concept and hives are further broken down into 'bashes, a concept I love so much, I can't tell you. A 'bash is like a family but in this future world, you can choose your family. You can be part of the Humanist hive and a member of the Saneer-Weeksbooth 'bash, for instance, and that is in fact, where we begin. In addition to firm country affiliations falling by the wayside, religion is banned and gender is rendered neutrally complex. There isn't supposed to be gender (though Cousins are counted as female?) but the use of ungendered pronouns like "they" is sometimes followed with extensive description of ample breasts and considerable pondering about what's under someone's skirts or robes. So clearly, that 'they' thing is going nowhere. (The religion ban is also not going well.) Sex, however, is doing just fine. And so is violence. There is also plenty of questionable morality about childraising.

There are some truly luminous, spellbinding moments in this book. My favorite was a discussion between Carlyle, a sensayer (spiritual counselor, yeah, but not religious, think more like a philosophical therapist), and Bridger, a child, about the ethics and morality of using his unique gift. There are others, namely dealing with gender, and gender expression, that made me want to throw my phone (listened to the excellent audiobook and often followed up on the ebook when I would say to myself, "wait... what!?") across the room.

This is a big, complicated, sprawling, crazy quilt. It's worth your time if you want a challenge, and against all odds, considering that at the halfway point I was considering not finishing, I'm looking forward to starting the second book when I'm done with my reading for the Hugos. While I don't think of reading sci-fi and fantasy books because I want a challenge, in this case my interest has been piqued enough to want more challenge.

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How rare is it that a sequel or second book in a series outshines a bright and shiny first book? So rare. Unlike the first Wayfarers book, which took a wide view of the universe, here we have a standalone sequel with a narrow focus on Pepper and the new incarnation of Lovelace. A Closed and Common Orbit is such a delight that I didn't want to finish it. I loved Sidra and Owl and the entire way Chambers envisions the capacity of AI to grow, change and feel. Pepper and Blue's background is just as poignant. The origins of Pepper's tender care of Sidra become obvious over the course of a moving backstory.

My only possible criticism of this wonderful book is that once again, as in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, all the action in this story happens In the last few chapters of the book. The plot pacing reminds me of a German sentence, all the verbs piled up at the end, because that's where the action is here, in the last 8% of the book. Although this structure allows us to linger in the wonder of the Wayfarer world Chambers has built, as a repetitive structure in her novels, it may wear thin with subsequent books.

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Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is 4.5 stars full of fun. The plot is well developed, the characters (save one, and you may soften on him by the end) likable, regular people and low and behold, the characters evolve (what a concept, right?). With complex relationships, complex genders, and various humanoid species that have learned to live with and love one another aboard the Wayfarer, TLWtoSAP is reminiscent of Firefly. A moral dilemma in the book is resolved in a surprising (still not sure it's wholly believable or that I even agree with it) way. There are lesser moral crises that occur during the story and each time, the characters involved rise to the occasion.

This is an impressive start to a series, whose second book, "A Closed and Common Orbit," has been shortlisted for the Hugo Best Novel 2017. I look forward to seeing more from Chambers. She's come a long way since her 2012 Kickstarter campaign that allowed her to work on this novel. (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/...)

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Review: The Waking Land

The Waking Land The Waking Land by Callie Bates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

At the outset, let me say that this book has a lot going for it, from its beautiful cover to an interesting magical world, to a heroine that is likable both at the start and at the finish. The first person narrative, however, limits the perspectives we have of this world to the paradigm of a teenage girl and that was a source of plot and character problems for me. Elanna is a teenage hostage, gently held by King Antoine of Eren since she was age five, as a means to force good behavior on Elanna's rebellious father. Raised outside her native duchy she forgets, as she loses touch with her land, her magical heritage. When the king is murdered, and Elanna falsely accused, she makes a run for it and finds out that the world she had been raised in by King Antoine was one based on lies. She runs to her now foreign-to-her homeland and struggles to adjust. I found this aspect of the book quite promising- her reconnection with her land, her heritage, and with parents who are very different from what she remembered or assumed. It was ripe territory for dramatic development. But the path to fulfill that promise wasn't clear. The inconsistent character development of secondary characters was a frustration (more on that below).

As I mentioned, Elanna, the protagonist, is quite likable. She kind, smart, and manages herself well through a series of reversals of fortune and a surprise betrayal (view spoiler). But this is where the plot muddies for me. None of the secondary characters seem to have problems with these betrayals, perceived or real, and are just willing to take this teenage girl's word that everything is 'cool,' so to speak. There is no caution generated around two important characters when they appear to have done the Caerisian rebels great wrong. Everything is forgiven quickly, easily and multiple times. The plot, which goes from here to there to here to there in terms of action, wasn't smoothly developed. I think a better editorial hand might have been beneficial here. The same is true of the world building. I wanted a better sense of Eren and the Ereni people to understand the plight of the Caerisians. All I got is that they were awful and a pack of liars and murderers, except for Guerin, Hensey and Victoire. I'm not even one hundred percent sure why Paladis was so involved in Eren and Caeris affairs. (I do thank the publisher for the map at the start of the book, by the way. It's a helpful addition.)

Beyond the plot and world building, we have the issue of character development. A number of the relationships don't ring true due to lack of development. For instance, Sophy (the girl Elanna's parents basically adopted after Elanna is taken as a hostage by King Antoine) and Elanna have little time to explore their mutual situations. Sophy views Elanna's parents as her own and truly loves them, and Elanna feels what seems to be only fleeting resentment or jealousy over the life this young woman led in what should have been Elanna's place in this duchy. Sophy, who behaves as if she is a person of importance, has her own secrets to keep and we see none of her own resentments of a returned Elanna and what this may mean for her own situation because the book is told from Elanna's first person perspective and Elanna doesn't spend much time analysing Sophy's role as a seeming placeholder for the Duke and Duchess's hostage daughter.

(view spoiler)

All in all, this is a first novel and writers learn as they go. The book would have been stronger with a smoother, better-outlined plot and stronger character development. I feel as if the editor and publisher may not have wanted the page count to go above a certain threshold and that development of the plot and characters may have suffered because of it. In any case, this book reminded me of Patty Briggs' first novel, Masques, which she later rewrote and expanded, in its show of promise in the high fantasy genre. Bates similarly is an author who has a lot of promise. I'd definitely pick up her next book to give it a try.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Review: Three Parts Dead

Three Parts Dead Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

So much love for this book, in which the protagonist, necromancer Tara Abernathy, gets to follow her own path, and gets to talk to other women characters about life, work and sense of self rather than relationship problems. (So refreshing!) Other characters, even more peripheral ones, are richly drawn with complex motivations. Elayne Kevarian, Tara's supervisor, is especially fascinating and inscrutable. Gladstone's magical world, shackled to contracts, legislation, compensation and the required jurisprudence to make it all work, was engrossing to dive into. Can't wait to continue with Two Serpents Rise!

N.B. The omnibus ebook edition of the first five books is available at an absolute steal of a price. Click Here for info

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