Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review: Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller Daisy Miller by Henry James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a strange relationship with this novella. I saw the Peter Bogdanovich film when I was all of thirteen and I was puzzled by the fact that it was called a comedy of manners because it didn't seem very funny. I promptly read the novella and was certain it wasn't a comedy but, if anything was a tragic story of clashing cultural norms and the double standards visited upon women. (Yes, I was hung up on that even at age thirteen.) My take on the story evolves with time, or more accurately, with maturity.

We meet the eponymous Annie "Daisy" Miller in Vevey, Switzerland where she is traveling with her mother and her younger brother Randolph. Randolph encounters Mr. Frederic Winterbourne, an American expatriate (like James himself) living on the continent in Europe. Winterbourne is struck by Daisy's beauty and by her unusual, to him, manner. Rather than the reserved manner of the European women that Winterbourne has grown used to, Daisy is rather brash, openly flirtatious and saying what she thinks. After visiting the atmospheric Chillon Castle* (of Byronic fame), they part and Daisy hopes to see him again in Rome.

After traveling to Rome Winterbourne encounters Daisy at a gathering in the home of his friend Mrs. Walker some time later. Daisy has further ensconced herself in her willful ways and has taken up with a handsome young Italian man, Mr. Giovanelli. She goes about with him at all hours of the day and night in what is considered to be a scandalous fashion. Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Costello, Winterbourne's aunt, find Daisy and her family crass and "common." The clear implication that the Millers are nouveau riche and their perceived vulgarity mars Daisy's ability to socialize and drives her to a fatal error. Winterbourne meanwhile is alternately drawn to Daisy and repelled by her. Winterbourne meets with Daisy's mother to warn her of her daughter's waning social standing but encounters a woman as hapless and inappropriate as Lizzie Bennet's mother. Encountering Daisy and Giovanelli in public, he is relieved he no longer has to act as if she is a lady. He mentions her going about with Giovanelli as a shocking thing for an unmarried woman and Daisy pointedly, with her American pragmatism, says to her it would be far more inappropriate were she married. (A reference to the fact that married ladies frequently went about with men who were not their husbands in this era as if the marriage itself was a shield.) This collision of Daisy and Winterbourne's cultural sense of propriety culminates in tragedy, as Daisy flaunts not just convention but common sense, visiting the coliseum late at night during mosquito season, and falls fatally ill with malaria.

There are many levels to this story but to me the heart of it is Winterbourne's callousness. He finds Daisy beautiful but does not understand her. He is unwilling to risk anything to gain a better understanding. The point at which he is relieved that he no longer has to think of her as a lady is poignant for Daisy, who is clearly hurt by his manner. In her subsequent communiques to him while ill, the reader sees how much his opinion mattered to her. Winterbourne's ability to later brush off what he himself owns to his aunt as being a great mistake is the final straw. He returns to his regular life and Daisy is all but forgotten. Daisy may not have always comported herself as a young lady should but Winterbourne is no true gentleman, since he lacks character.

This is a fascinating novella when examined from the perspective of both cultural norms but also in terms of one's tendency to minimize one's mistakes and judgmental attitudes, reverting to the same state of living that led to such mistakes. It's hard to break out of familiar behavior. Reading Daisy Miller about a half dozen times over the past few decades has shown me how much my own judgment of a person's choices can evolve. Now I look at Winterbourne with considerable distaste.

*One of the times I reread this novella was actually in Vevey! I went to Chillon thinking about Daisy and Winterbourne.

I still have to post my sci-fi classic review of Neuromancer from back in September. The past six weeks has been crazy and that book is so BIG it requires quality time to write about it properly.

November's classic read will be Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, winner of the Great American Read. Why don't you join me in reading/rereading it?

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review: The Brilliant Death

The Brilliant Death The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Brilliant Death gives us an unusual story of witchcraft in which Teo, a young woman from a powerful Italian mob family, has been hiding her power from her family while she systematically uses it to eliminate her family's enemies. A crisis of power in which her father is attacked magically results in the revelation of her power to her brothers. She leaves her family with her younger brother Luca to broker peace with the local Capo and try to get a cure for her father. Along the way she encounters the gender-fluid Cielo, a strega who can shift shapes and genders with ease. They become her mentor as the two try to save her family, figure out what happened to Cielo's mother, and most of all why the strega in their area are diminishing in numbers.

This book grabbed me right from the start and though I felt it lost momentum a bit in the latter half, I really enjoyed the imperfect heroine who goes against the gender constraints of her family and cultural expectation. Capetta is definitely an author to watch.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Viking along with a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: House of Gold

House of Gold House of Gold by Natasha Solomons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A memorable historical fiction novel set at the dawn of the Great War (WWI), the Goldbaum family is clearly inspired by the Rothschild family, the most famous Jewish famly in Europe, whose fortune was considered to be the greatest private fortune in the world during the 19th Century. A family saga that focuses on the challenges of being Jewish, even if wealthy, in this era, House of Gold allows the readers to see the Goldbaums as a powerful family whose wealth was their shield against the antisemitism that was pervasive in Europe well before WWII.

I received a digital review copy of this book from Net Galley and First to Read, along with a paper copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Review: Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse

Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse by Jane Yolen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"This Is Not a Fairy Tale
Expect no princes*
Expect no magic rings
Expect no glass slippers
Expect no fairy godmothers
Expect no singing dwarfs
                             Expect no dragons."

*Well, maybe you should expect one, because every tale with a Vasilisa must have a prince. But Vasilisa is not our protagonist here.

This is a luminous retelling of Baba Yaga, in which we see the making of a Baba Yaga through the eyes and life of a runaway girl, Natasha (Nasty to some, Tasha to Vasilisa). Natasha has run away from a home with an abusive father, submissive mother and a life that was not worth remaining for. Over days and weeks she crosses tundra, taiga, major highways, the nineteen stones, and a meadow to come to the forest where she finds her voice, her life, her mentor. This is a story of witches made, not born. We meet all the usual suspects, including Kostchai (Koschei) the Deathless, Prince Ivan, the Firebird, and the wondrous hut and speedy mortar. But most of all we meet a wise Baba Yaga who scries and runs a website dispensing occasional advice or prognostications of the future. Who has renovated her entire kitchen with new and useful appliances and who has a sister who sounds a lot like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, with a sticky candy house and filthy ovens that Baba Yaga detests. Natasha sees Baba Yaga as she is and wisely learns from her, in all ways. She sees the beauty in the woman who takes her in and who finds the daughter she adopts to be more amenable than the one she birthed.

Filled with love, irony, and modern humor, this was a delight to read.

Readers of my blog have seen photos of my childhood volumes of Russian folk and fairy tales. (Treasured, since I was five years old!) And so when Jane Yolen's Finding Baba Yaga, a novella in verse, was announced, I was not above begging. Thus.... Thank you!

I received an uncorrected proof copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Below I decided to reprise my review of Ask Baba Yaga, a book published in 2017, that Jane Yolen mentions as an influence in her writing of Finding Baba Yaga.

Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday TroublesAsk Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few years back, on Fairy Tales News Once Upon a blog, I read about the Ask Baba Yaga columns which formed the basis of this book and were one of the inspirations for Jane Yolen's forthcoming Finding Baba Yaga. Having been obsessed with Russian folktales since childhood you might say I've always been a little obsessed with Baba Yaga (no, not John Wick, do not go there). I've always disagreed with perceptions of Baba Yaga as a one-dimensional evil figure because she was certainly transformative in some stories as you can see in Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales.

I was happy to find that Taisia Kitaiskaia gathered all her Baba Yaga advice into a novella length book. At the interface of Russian folklore and Zen Buddhism, in Ask Baba Yaga we see Baba Yaga as a figure dispensing deep, if occasionally abstruse, advice. Asked "How do I keep from dwelling on the love I haven't had?" Baba Yaga's answer is:

"The life of every being has some vast emptiness in it. Unspeakable, grievous, there is a field in the middle of my wood where no one goes. It is the heart of my loneliness. I go there to dance and be quiet & I love the intensity of its silence. If I were human I would wish to take another there. You must know every contour of your emptiness before you can know whom you wish to invite in."


"Why does this one physical feature make me grotesque?" to which she answers:

"All mirrors tell the wrong story." Your cloak-hem has already brushed the ink-pool that mars all of us; the marring of being not as we thought we were... You have made a loveliness of your body through the moving of it & the mirror is a false confidant. Evermore, to be as I am is an honor & a magic."

There is much that I love in this little book and it seems that Jane Yolen found much here, too. I'm certainly planning to read more of Kitaiskaia's work.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Review: Slender Man

Slender Man Slender Man by Anonymous
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A solid 4 Stars

Slender Man is a creepypasta/urban legend horror figure that may have origins in folklore. He's a spooky character who appears in forested areas (even those in urban settings) and who snatches children or young people. He is very tall, very thin, faceless, and has long arms that have been described by those unfortunate enough to have seen him as tentacle-like. Paying too much attention to Slender Man, whether talking about him, or trying to photoshop photos that look like he's in them, can attract his attention, drawing him near you. You really don't want him near you. Hence, if you're brazen enough to write a book titled Slender Man, it's probably better to do it anonymously. It will make it harder for him to find you.

Slender Man the novel is the tale of Matt Barker and his friend Lauren Bailey. Matt and Lauren have been friends since childhood and in that teen way, though they're close enough to be texting each other all the time, even though they are in the same high school (The Riley School) they don't really hang out. Lauren is quite popular and Matt is more low key. Their parents have been close for many years because their mothers were in grad school together. Lauren is a supportive beta reader for Matt's writing and encourages him to take the prospects of studying writing in college more seriously. Matt feels for Lauren because her dad, a well known gynecologist, is a real cad whose name has been associated with gossip column scandals with supermodels. Matt doesn't ask too many questions but does ask supportive ones. He and Lauren really care for each other. Yet, for all their quiet connectedness, they haven't shared with each other the fact that Matt has been having terrible nightmares for weeks and that Laura has been taking some mighty creepy photographs late at night. Both kids live at swanky Central Park West addresses. Central Park has some pretty nicely forested areas, especially near the reservoir. Funny how Matt has started dreaming about a lake... Funny creepy. He's only shared a bit of his creepy dreams with his friend Jamie, a friend who doesn't even know how close Matt and Lauren really are. Of course he hasn't really talked to his therapist about them... or his parents. And so when Lauren disappears in the middle of the night, one cool March evening, and Matt has his worst yet nightmare at that exact moment, you know things are about to get pretty scary. Matt gets frustrated with the lack of progress in Lauren's missing persons case and tries to investigate Lauren's disappearance on his own, with a bit of help and encouragement from a mysterious online friend, Ryan, who warns him again and again to... Be Careful.

Told in what I call the "modern epistolary format," with emails and text message exchanges and reddit threads, Slender Man tells a genuinely creepy story that is a perfectly scary YA Halloween read.

A bit of research shows that the true author of this book might be YA author Will Hill. But I wouldn't be surprised if he won't own it. After all... there are forests pretty much everywhere.

Thank you HarperCollins! I received a paper review copy of this book from Harper Voyager in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review: A Conspiracy of Truths

A Conspiracy of Truths A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is just a sheer delight. As I told Alex Can Read who steered me to this book, I laughed so often that it was a tonic in these dark times.

A Conspiracy of Truths is about a storyteller and his stories within his larger story, like the famed Arabian Nights or Catherynne Valente's The Orphan's Tales. We have a cantankerous old storyteller who we can call Chant (a title, not a name, and you're not getting a name because for religious reasons he won't tell you so don't bother asking, you insolent cur because it's none of your business) who has been charged with black witchcraft. Well, that and brazen impertinence. (Yes, that's a charge.) Oh, and the espionage charge, because hanging out with pirates and spies, while great for your storytelling archive, is probably ill-advised if you plan to go to Nuryevet. Frankly, I'd really suggest you avoid going to Nuryevet. But, okay, if you're reading this book, you're effectively there. Watch out for the Queens. The Queen of Justice, the Queen of Pattern... wait, Queen of Secrets? (Do Secrets have Patterns?) Then there's the Queen of Order and the Queen of Coin...Wait, no... Queen of Gold? Penny Queen? Dragon Queen? (scary!) These are all mostly elected positions, by the by. And as in any political system there are fights for power, position, dominance, information, and oh, you get it. Poor Chant. They fight over Chant. What does he know? So much, but some of it is embedded in stories. He must be hiding something. Is he a spy? A blackwitch? His public defender Consanza is all but useless, preoccupied, a seeming narcissist. She's never lost a case before the Court of Justice. Will Chant's be the first if she keeps his case? And Yfling, Chant's young and kind apprentice... gosh knows how he will fare in this den of political wolves. Poor boy will probably end in tears. Tears of joy? Tears of relief?

So look, this book is worth your time but just keep your cards close to your chest. Don't mention who you know and spent time sailing with, or anything you might have heard about royalty in other courts, or anything you know about border skirmishes, or really just... just shut up and read. Or listen. Because I waited to listen to the start of the newly released audiobook and it's super.

If you ever wanted a story in which you could imagine a totally snarky character like Elliot from In Other Lands grew up and grew old after visiting all the border and other lands and had a bunch of allegorical stories and intrigue to share, this is your book. And if you don't want to read a story with snarky, cantankerous characters, shame on you! What are you thinking?!

P.S. A Story

Over the summer I attended a WorldCon Kaffeeklatsch hosted by Saga editor Navah Wolfe. Navah described what she was looking for when she looks at submissions. She described a situation in which a book, no matter how weird (you mean like seventy-something snarky and cursing protagonist who is charged with multiple trumped up crimes?) just GRABS YOU. Yep. I see what she means by that...

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Saga Press via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Review: Dracul

Dracul Dracul by Dacre Stoker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dracul is a marvelously rendered gothic novel about author Bram Stoker and the origins of the Dracula story. Capturing the epistolary feel of the original, Dracul is told in part by the journal entries of young Bram Stoker. The lush descriptive power of the real Bram Stoker's writing is perfectly emulated, recreating the same deeply creepy sensation found in Dracula. Author Dacre Stoker is the great grand-nephew of Bram Stoker.

Beautifully atmospheric. A perfect read for Halloween/Samhain.

The full cast audiobook of the novel is wonderful, as well.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from GP Putnam's Sons via the First to Read Program.

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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Review: Marilla of Green Gables

Marilla of Green Gables Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Few authors have tried to write prequels or sequels to the eight book Anne of Green Gables series. (Poor Jane Austen, in comparison...) There is an Anne prequel of Anne Shirley's life before coming to PEI, titled Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson, which had a fairly good reception. And now, going back further still, Sarah McCoy has built the hints of Marilla Cuthbert's life before Anne out into a novel.

Marilla of Green Gables presents much of the Cuthbert backstory, from Matthew's diffidence to Marilla's famed red currant wine to how Marilla acquired her precious amethyst brooch. We even get an insight into her later desire for plain, less fashionable dress due to a painful association of stylishness with loss. McCoy has successfully captured the tone of LM Montgomery's writing but I suppose given Marilla's often dour nature expressed in the early Anne books, she didn't have as much charm to load into a character as LMM had with Anne. Some nice passages relate Marilla's close relationship with her mother, Clara Johnson Cuthbert, and her nascent friendship with the ebullient Rachel White Lynde. While there are several subplots with her Aunt Izzy (who stays in Avonlea with the Cuthberts for the first third of the book) and the Canadian Underground railroad, of course, what many an Anne lover will be here for is to see just what happened between Marilla and Gilbert Blythe's father, John Blythe. It's an interesting take that McCoy has and following the trend of recent interpretations of the Anne series in light of feminism, Marilla herself is in some ways portrayed as something of a feminist in that she won't settle and make nice when she disagrees with a man. In McCoy's story Marilla remains on PEI after her mother's death, eschewing opportunities to live in Nova Scotia with her much loved aunt who was her mother's identical twin. She stays with her father Hugh and Matthew based partly on a sense of duty but also because she loves her home. John Blythe is portrayed by turns as charming and high-handed if not arrogant. Growing up in a small town on an island, Marilla has few options for beaus and John Blythe, as intelligent as his son will be, is the cream of the crop. He's drawn to Marilla but clearly puzzled by her. Marilla is portrayed as loyal to family, country and with an innate sense of boundaries and dignity. She won't be bullied into something she doesn't believe in and that, in a nutshell, makes for some heartbreak.

This was an enjoyable read for lovers of Anne of Green Gables. It does a good job of setting up the backstory of Marilla's lonely heart, ripe for loving an irrepressible child like Anne Shirley.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from William Morrow via Edelweiss and a paper review courtesy copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Witchmark

Witchmark Witchmark by C.L. Polk
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

Witchmark is a polished debut novel, first in a new gaslamp fantasy series by C. L. Polk. It follows the story of Miles Singer, aka Sir Christopher Miles Henley, a Kingston, Aeland-based doctor trying to maintain a low profile as he treats patients with a puzzling psychiatric illness. His patients are veterans from a war between Aeland and Laneer, and they believe there is someone else inside them that the must continuously battle to hold in check. As the story opens a man named Nick Elliot has arrived in Emergency on Dr. Singer's shift, claiming he has been poisoned and, just as he dies conveying a message to Sir Christopher (that would be Miles except no one was supposed to know that) and transferring some sort of soul stuff to him. All of this is, unbeknownst to Miles at the moment, witnessed by Tristan Hunter, a mysterious man who is also much more than he appears to be.

Miles turns out to be descended from a royal line of what are politely termed weather mages because being a witch will get you tossed in an asylum. The Aeland mage society in which they exist, the Invisibles, is predicated on a master and slave magical bond, where primary mages bind powerful secondary mages to draw on their magical energy. Typically secondaries are siblings or spouses, and they are little more than magical capacitors whose actual magical gifts (in Miles' case the gift is healing) are ignored or belittled. Miles ran away from his duties as a potential secondary to his sister, Grace, seven years before the novel begins. Thanks to Nick Elliot and various other factors, his carefully crafted identity is about to come crashing down. As he tries to resist being drawn back into the powerful Hensley family for the political capital he will bring his sister and father, Miles tries to solve the mystery of Nick Elliot's death. Tristan Hunter, who turns out to be an immortal man from a race called Amaranthines, joins forces with Miles, seeking answers to additional questions, but also finding love.

Witchmark can be classed as an m/m novel and the relationship portrayed in it is lovely. The social aspects of Aeland culture, including arranged marriages as alliances of political interests, regardless of orientation, is suitably despicable in this context. Miles's reasons for running from his family are apparent early on, and they only mount in justification as the book progresses. The Hensley family is caught up in some pretty awful stuff. Trapped between his desire for his freedom, authenticity, and his loyalty to his sister, Miles struggles against many constraints, remaining determined to do what is right. Doing what is right involves figuring out what Nick Elliot died for, and what is going on with his patients, no matter the cost. The underlying mystery of the book reminded me in many ways of aspects of Pullman's His Dark Materials.

There was much to enjoy in Witchmark, though I felt the end was rushed, even a bit abrupt. I look forward to the sequel, Greystar, though I believe it is told from the perspectives of Miles' sister Grace and Avia, a reporter who was involved with Nick while he was researching the stuff that got him killed. I'm still on the fence about Grace. It will be interesting to see where she goes with her influence after the events of Witchmark. I do hope at some point Polk will loop back around and give us more of Miles and Tristan, however! I've grown quite attached to them.

You can support C. L. Polk's writing on Patreon.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: The Rain Watcher

The Rain Watcher The Rain Watcher by Tatiana de Rosnay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 Stars

The Rain Watcher is a brief novel about family and the traumas that shape us. Linden Malegarde*, the central character, is a Franco-American San Francisco-based photographer who arrives in Paris for his father Paul's 70th birthday and his parents, Paul and Lauren's fortieth anniversary celebration. Linden's sister Tilia arrives from London shortly after him and they await the arrival of their parents as a steady rainfall in Paris begins what will become a major flood event. (Those who follow European news know just how real, and distressingly frequent, the flooding problems are in Paris.) This celebratory gathering, by design, excludes spouses and children, though we quickly learn that Paul has seemed to resist meeting Linden's fiancé Sacha and you start wondering if that's why spouses and children were excluded. Tilia, who is stuck in a terrible second marriage with a psychologically abusive alcoholic, is haunted by an accident that occurred in her mid-twenties, which left her with mobility issues. As we quickly see from Linden and Tilia's interactions, much is left unsaid in this family. Linden's confidantes are his supportive maternal Aunt Candice and his niece, Mistral, who quickly shows up in Paris, despite the lack of invitation from her grandmother.

Interwoven with Linden's observations are Paul's memories which center on childhood recollections of a beautiful young woman named Suzanne. His fateful recollections of Suzanne are cast like breadcrumbs throughout the book. Although we see Paul's contemplation of his beloved trees (he is famous for saving celebrated trees around the world) from the very first moment of the book, for I time I felt like he was almost a cipher, because there was so much going on between Linden and his mother Lauren, especially given his rather painful coming out to her and her clumsy, self-consumed response to him. But the dark heart of the story surrounds Paul and the mysterious Suzanne (a name that makes "something inside me break").

This novel has an almost dreamlike quality to it, as so much of it deals with remembered events, or more accurately traumas, great and small. There is a gradual swell of emotion set against the backdrop of a literal rising flood in Paris. I was reminded of the Coleridge lines, "water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink." For the all the emotions pent up in the Malegarde family there is so little emotional communication to provide sustenance to their relationships. That is until it seems that everything just spills over and becomes unstoppable, like the flooding Seine.

An interesting portrait of a dysfunctional family.

*Malegarde is literally "bad guard"? One can analyze the choice of the name given the memories of a boy sheltering, too afraid to call out or fight, in the linden trees.

Trigger warning: rape, murder

I received a copy of this book from St. Martin's Press via NetGalley, along with a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Travelling Cat Chronicles The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

The Travelling Cat Chronicles tells the story of a cat (a boy cat!) named Nana and his beloved owner Satoru. The story is told from the perspective of Nana, who starts out as a stray befriended by Satoru, who then takes Nana in after he is hit by a car and incurs a serious leg fracture. The two become very attached to each other and spend a happy five years together. That's just the prologue. For reasons Nana doesn't quite understand, after many apologies, Satoru packs Nana up in his travel basket and begins to travel around with him, connecting with various childhood friends and ultimately with his Aunt Noriko, who raised him after Satoru's parents died when he was a child. It is clear he is looking for a new home for Nana and Nana doesn't really understand why. The reason and urgency for the visits becomes obvious to the reader as the story progresses, for there is only one reason a devoted cat parent would be looking for a new home for their dearest furry friend.

This is a sweet story but the dialog felt so stilted at times (especially notable when Nana is hit by the car) that it diminished my enjoyment of the book. I'm not sure, since the novel is translated from the Japanese, if this is because of the caliber of the translation, or is in part because of underlying linguistic differences that can plague translations.

This is a quiet story with some charm that will certainly have cat lovers tearing up by its end.

I received a copy of this book from Berkley via Edelweiss, along with a paper ARC, in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, October 15, 2018

Review: The Little Shop of Found Things

The Little Shop of Found Things The Little Shop of Found Things by Paula Brackston
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

The Little Shop of Found Things is the first in a series about Xanthe Westlake, a young woman possessed of psychometric powers- she can sense the history of object, complete with visual imagery of the history of previous owners. On the face of it, this is an exciting skill, especially for an antique dealer looking for insights into the provenance of an article. On the other hand, when the ghosts start talking to you and demanding things, and you fall into another time about 400 years ago, you're looking at some serious challenges. A silver chatelaine poses just that problem. It comes with a haunting Martha Merton, and her wrongfully accused daughter Alice, one very appealing Samuel Appleby, and the mystery of missing parts of the chatelaine.

This is a quick, enjoyable read but not particularly deep. It develops slowly and in all honesty I didn't feel it was particularly novel in its use of time travel. (That may be because the bar is set so high in the past year because of reading Diana Gabaldon and Octavia Butler novels using the plot device.) Nevertheless, I'd pick up the next in the series to see if Xanthe can find her way back to see Samuel again.

A silver chatelaine from the mid-1800's, Victoria and Albert Museum

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from St. Martin's Press, along with a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: In the Vanishers’ Palace

In the Vanishers’ Palace In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.75 Stars

Imagine a post-apocalyptic Vietnamese f/f retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" with a dragon-lady Beast and you'd find yourself in the world of In the Vanisher's Palace. Yên, a young woman who has failed her university entrance exams, lives in a world ravaged by cruel colonizers called the Vanishers, who broke and despoiled the Earth and then abandoned it. Poisons and viruses sweep the Earth. Healers, who use what weak magic they possess, try in vain to heal. Yên's mother, Kim Ngoc, desperately tries to save a young woman, Oanh, by summoning a dragon healer from the spirit realm. The dragon, Vu Côn, takes the form of a cold and proud woman. She heals Oanh but claims Yên as her price for being summoned. Yên is drawn with her into the spirit world of the Vanisher's Palace, meeting Vu Côn's children Thông (genderless) and Liên (female), and rather than being devoured, as she had expected to be, finds herself a governess to these two strange children. Increasingly attracted to one another, Vu Côn and Yên struggle with the boundaries of their relationship. Among the interesting subjects tackled in this novella is the issue of consent. As Vu Côn points out to her children, can a slave or servant ever truly grant consent? Even if freed, is sex given out of gratitude or obligation or out of genuine affection? Though a romantic relationship evolves between these two women, Vu Côn's secrets threaten to sabotage Yên's trust. Additionally, Vu Côn's high-handed decision-making infuriates Yên, who is evidently clever enough to be tutoring Vu Côn's children but not enough so to be informed of major choices being made about her own life, family, and health. Yên is not without her own flaws, however, and is too bound by her own prejudices. Both will have to change in order to achieve the sense of equality needed in a true relationship.

This is another fascinating Aliette de Bodard story, with strong female characters and interesting perspectives on consent, colonialism, and racism. I just wish we had had a bit more background on the Vanishers.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Review: In the Night Wood

In the Night Wood In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

In the Night Wood is a short novel that is nevertheless not an easy read. A dark fantasy, it features an antihero who is an adulterous, failed parent and struggling scholar, and whose wife is a descendent of Caedmon Hollow, English author of the titular story, "In the Night Wood." At a fortuitous moment, American Charles Hayden and his grief-stricken wife Erin find themselves the beneficiaries of her recently deceased Hollow ancestor, who bestowed Hollow House, its lands and its fortune upon Erin, his last living descendant upon his death. Seeking to escape the death of his child and near wreck of his marriage, Charles, who first read Hollow's "Into the Night Wood" as a child of eight or nine years of age, moves to England with Erin, to research the life and work of Caedmon Hollow while living in Hollow House, situated near a village called Yarrow. Hayden is haunted by the death of his young daughter, for which he blames himself, and for his ruinous affair with a colleague, the sultrily named Syrah. Erin meanwhile loses herself in a haze of prescription drugs and seeming hallucinations, seeing their dead daughter Lissa in every girl of similar age that she encounters. She spends her hours drawing her daughter again and again, until a new obsession overtakes her art (spoilers). Over the course of a few days, Charles meets the police inspector, along with a handful of other Yarrow locals like the pub owner, the hardware store owner, and most importantly, the Hollow estate's steward, Cillian Harris. Charles pursues his research, encountering Silva, who manages the Yarrow village's historical society and whose daughter, Lorna, is a ringer for Lissa. Meanwhile, just before the Haydens move to Hollow House, a little girl named Mary, who also looks like Lissa and Lorna, has gone missing. Together, Charles and Silva find evidence of dark doings in Caedmon Hollow's past and the strange links between the Hollow family and the stewards of the estate. Along the way, Charles receives many warnings about Eorl Wood, the forest that encloses Hollow House. As Erin descends further into her depression over her daughter's death and fractured marriage, Charles sinks deeper into his own guilt and despair, eventually walking into the forest and finding greater darkness.

The past is never dead. It isn't even past. ~ William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

The dark heart of this story lies in "In the Night Wood," in which the long-dead character of Caedmon Hollow wrote a story that seems (we get excerpts of the story but never the whole story) to be a merging of the faery ride of Tam Lin and the legend of Herne the Hunter of Windsor Forest. A child named Laura becomes lost in the wood and tries to escape the an evil Horned Man. We're told the story is not a children's story since it's implied that Laura does not escape the Horned Man. Her fate isn't clearly spelled out until Charles and Silva begin to unravel the fate of a long ago murdered child, Livia. There are plenty of literary allusions in the story, to the fae and Goblin Market, Tam Lin and other tales of folklore, along with occasional pithy quotes like Faulkner's famous quote about the past. The story of Herne or Horne first appears in written folklore of the British Isles in a reference in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. The folklore figure reemerges in the 1792 in the writing of Samuel Ireland and then again in the 1840's. Herne or Horne has sometimes been linked to Cernunnos, a Gaulish folklore deity but most of the stories of Herne, the horned man, are centered in the Berkshire region of England. The Berkshire Herne is most commonly held to merely be a poacher. In Caedmon Hollow's story, however, the Horned Man is a figure who periodically requires a tithe or tiend to remain youthful and strong, hence the allusion to Tam Lin and the faery ride. Like a Green Man of folklore, he is leaf-covered but he is not peaceful entity.

This is a dark and compelling fantasy but I felt it could have been developed further into a stronger novel. I wanted to understand Erin and the marriage better, and get a stronger sense of the cultural displacement that the Haydens would have faced transitioning from life in Ransom, North Carolina to that of a small English village like Yarrow. (Readers who go looking for a real English village of the name will only find a Yarrow in the Scottish Borderlands region.) We see how word travels quickly in the small community about the Hayden's dead daughter but we don't see any real struggles on their part with adapting to their new home. There is never a question on Charles' part about whether they have traded one nosy or judgmental community for another, for instance. While Bailey developed the dreamlike feel of the Eorl Woods and Hollow House beautifully, I just didn't buy the idea of Charles adapting so rapidly to his new environs and society. I also wanted to know more about Cillian, Mrs. Ramsden, Silva and even Ann Merrow, an attorney who seems to have questioned little up to the point the novel gets going.

This is an interesting read but not one for those looking for a happy fantasy tale.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Edelweiss, along with a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Review: The Clockmaker's Daughter

The Clockmaker's Daughter The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever come across an old photograph, say from the last century or earlier, and been haunted by it? I certainly have, in gazing at Victorian era photos in my family or of my family's friends. I've been haunted by a photo of my great-grandmother's sister Margo, beautiful in a white dress with elegant puffed sleeves, her hair up, looking the very picture of a Gibson girl. Who was this woman? What was her life like? If you've ever had a similar experience, The Clockmaker's Daughter is a story sure to engage you.

This is my first foray into the work of Kate Morton. (Yes, I'm late to the shelf!) I was intrigued by the synopsis of the book and its interplay between the present, WWII, and a Victorian era past, and the interplay of art, music and mystery. In all honesty I went in expecting historiographic metafiction, like that in A. S. Byatt's Possession, where in this case an archivist's research into a recently discovered sketchbook and photograph would be the entrée to the Victorian era story of a fictional artist and his muse. I wasn't disappointed in that expectation, though there is a lot more going on in this story than a Elodie, the archivist, being haunted by the mystery of Edward Radcliffe and his "Lily." Morton has developed an almost Dickensian backstory for Lily and the large host of characters in this lengthy novel. The reader gets clued in to one aspect of the story early on when there is the apparent anachronism of a character watching a man use a mobile phone in the wrong century. I won't say more than that, since there would be spoilers. But there is romance, a stolen jewel, murder, a mysterious manor, and a complex web linking the present day (Elodie Winslow and her family) to the past (Edward, Lily, and their families).

At times I felt I was getting lost in the narrative of all these characters, a few of whose presences felt evanescent. In some respects I felt the book should either have been more tightly edited, or should have been longer to clearly resolve the fate of some characters. I also confess that I had to make a character diagram, to keep everyone straight. No harm in that, though!

This is an enjoyable, albeit lengthy, read that should appeal to lovers of historical or literary mysteries.

I received a Digital Review Copy from Atria Books, along with a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, October 8, 2018

Review: Hag

Hag Hag by Kathleen Kaufman
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

It's seldom that I comment on a cover but in this case I have to say that the cover was a real disservice to the book. This is a beautiful novel with intertwined stories, principally of an ancient Scottish magical entity called Cailleach, that stems from the era of Scandinavian Scotland, and Alice Grace Kyles, one of Cailleach's descendants, along with a variety of other women descended from the Cailleach's line. Alice's story alternates chapters with Cailleach's stories and memories of her many daughters, slicing back and forth through time, eventually closing the circle. It's a beautiful novel and one that is well suited to those looking for a great Samhain read.

Those who know little about the Viking period in Scotland can read more about it here. The Ingwaz design on the cover of the book and used as chapter headers throughout the text is on of the original furthorc designs has an interesting history itself, not appearing part of the Kylver stone that lists the runes of the elder furthark. Named for Ing, a mythical male godlike figure who united the Vikings in peace and harmony, it symbolizes unity, completion. Though it is associated with maleness, I loved that it is claimed by the Cailleach as her symbol in this story.

ETA: found a link to more information on Cailleach... Beautiful images here.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Review: The Witch of Willow Hall

The Witch of Willow Hall The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hester Fox's debut novel The Witch of Willow Hall is the perfect gothic ghost story for October book clubs looking for a creepy October read. Set in Massachusetts in the Era of Good Feelings (the period after the War of 1812), it tells the story of the Montrose family along with that of their ancestors, the Hales, and Prestons. The protagonist, Lydia, is the middle sister and has occasionally seemed to possess some interesting ability to both see and do things. She dotes on her younger sister Emeline but struggles to relate to her beautiful older sister Catherine, and her older brother Charles. After a scandal not involving Lydia, the family is forced, without Charles, to move to New Oldbury (a name that Catherine ridicules) to her father's recently purchased estate of Willow Hall. There Lydia meets John Barrett, who recently sold Willow Hall to Mr. Montrose but seems shocked that the family is moving there permanently. Montrose and Barrett have a mill business together. (Of course, given the date of 1821, you can guess where all that cotton is coming from...)

You attract them. Some mean you harm. Be prepared for what lies ahead.

Lydia has visions of what appear to be ghosts and receives cryptic warnings written on steamy mirrors or heard in voices that others seem not to hear. When stressed, intriguing things happen around Lydia. Her gift is both frustrating and protective, as she forges a path through mysteries and tragedies in her own family and that of John Barrett. Lydia is a fairly likable, if self-doubting heroine. Her relationship with her younger sister is especially well written and poignant. Not being much of a romance fan, her relationships with her potential suitors, Cyrus and John, struck just the right balance for me.

The novel is well written and plotted. It's evident that Fox researched her subject and the region of New England. Although some of the character interactions feel a bit anachronistic for the era in tone and language, the book is still quite enjoyable for readers of historical fiction. If Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Alice Hoffman had a book baby/project, it could be this book!

All in all, I'd recommend the book for those looking for a light witchy read for October for their book club. I do have a trigger warning mentioned below the image, in a spoiler...*

Image Copyright Lucz Fowler

*SPOILER* Trigger Warning: This book contains a subplot with incest.

I received a Digital Review Copy and a paper review copy from Graydon House/Harlequin, a division of Harper Collins, in exchange for an honest review.

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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Review: Virgil Wander

Virgil Wander Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leif Enger, whose previous works Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young and Handsome have drawn much praise, has authored a quiet jewel of a book in Virgil Wander. The Virgil of the title is a quiet man living in fictional Greenstone, Minnesota, a fading mine town. Virgil, like many in the town, holds two jobs. By day he's the town clerk, and by night he runs the Empress, a failing movie theater with low attendance and a fascinating if problematic stash of contraband films inherited from the previous owner. As the novel opens, Virgil has managed to survive losing control of his car, which crashed through a barricade into Lake Superior. Rescued, as his car (and cell phone) plummets to the bottom of the lake, Virgil sustains a brain injury that affects both his language and to no small degree his disposition. As his brain heals and he recovers his adjective vocabulary, Virgil is more open to things and people, more willing to take a bit of a chance. He sees the world a little differently after the accident, and it's not just because of his vertigo. This new openness changes his life and the world around him. The rich secondary characters include Rune, a visiting Norwegian man who's come to Greenstone looking for stories of his disappeared son Alec a son he never knew or met, Nadine who is Alec's presumed widow, Bjorn who is Alec's son, the Pea family, and the malevolent and mysterious Adam Leer, all members of the Greenstone community. Greenstone has evolved a bad luck reputation since the closing of its mines, but the people who remain there are trying to rebuild the town. Virgil is in no small way central to that idea.

There are quiet traces of magical realism in this book, from the magical way our brain processes information, and from Virgil's own sense of the numinous. There is a quiet battle between good an evil in Greenstone. While some have compared Virgil Wander to Garrison Keillor's NPR show Lake Wobegon, I find Enger's beautiful writing to be far more similar to that of Norman Maclean and William Maxwell, which is no small praise. This isn't a flashy book, but it is one full of hope in the face of loss and the power of second chances. Carpe diem, indeed.

I received a Digital Review Copy and a paper review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, October 1, 2018

Review: The Quantum Magician

The Quantum Magician The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Quantum Magician is Canadian author Derek Künsken's sci-fi debut novel. Originally serialized in three parts in early 2018 in the magazine Analog Science Fiction, it's a rollicking blend of space travel, transhuman evolution, space-time travel, and an impressive heist. Employing that time-honored trope of a crew of vagabonds drawn together in space to do a job, Künsken has put together a fun tale with plenty of humor. The speculative tech fiction and very theoretical physics were also engaging and the author platformed his imagination off of real science, which is always something I enjoy in sci-fi. If you ever wanted to see a sort of Ocean's Eleven set in space, this would be your novel. But Belisarius Arjona, a Homo quantus, is a con man like none you've ever met before, as he is an engineered man capable of exploiting quantum probabilities.

I'm not sure if it was the oddly paginated structure of my review copy but my one criticism of the novel is that I felt it could have been more tightly edited. Having not had the pleasure of reading the Analog serial installments, I am not sure how much re-editing went into the full length novel, which looks to be about 500 pages. There is, however, plenty of space left for further installments! ;)

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Solaris, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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