Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Wow. Just Wow. New Author!!

Beasts of Extraordinary CircumstanceBeasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances

Wow. It's a fable, it's magical realism, it's deep and dark and sad and funny. It's also kind of awkward, in the beginning. This may be because the critical mind is trying to fit the narrative into a box. Then, at some point, the critical mind says, "There must be more, many more books from this author." And then, one realizes, this is never going to fit into a box, this is a living narrative. It starts with a birth, and ends in new life. There's trauma and happiness along the way, all along the way of Weylin's life. Somehow, there's a thread of good humor woven throughout the musical tapestry of this novel, and one is left with a sense of the goodwill that binds all the earth's creatures together, a sense of hope in the mystery that dissolves the wall between wilderness and civilization that is not at all the sense of taming. At its heart, this is a story about what happens when magic (or love) comes into our lives, and we make the choice to believe...or not. There must be more, many more books from this author. It's a mystery, a ghost story, a love story, a fable, a jar full of magic light. Wow.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the e-galley for review, the book is on my Christmas wishlist!!

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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Roaring Good Fun

The Tiger’s Daughter (Their Bright Ascendency #1)The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed it, and I want to read the sequel. To me it was not a novel, more a prose anime or an unillustrated graphic novel, but I don't think that's necessarily bad. I don't read manga, so I can't speak to the similarities there, but culture is mere brushstrokes around the author's true idea of storytelling as drama and romance. It takes place in not-Mongolia, not-Japan, not-China. Here's where the American habit of pushing things into genres helps: when I am reading fantasy, I don't expect historical fiction. I expect the culture within the book to have only vague resemblances to the "real world". There is drama aplenty, an attempt to reflect a world transitioning from matriarchies to patriarchies, under magical assault by demons. And the drama of teen love. Two teen girls (warriors! possibly divine!) in love is drama and tragedy by definition, and so while I would have loved this sans reservations in my teens and twenties, I was bored with the angst (though not the adventure) until the last third of the book. Take away all the trappings of grandeur and grime, and we have all either been these girls or met them. What changed my mind to up the star score on the book is that it felt so much like a Chinese martial arts movie, with gods and legends and doomed love--but with an American flash of hope instead of full-on tragedy. (So far--enough for me to read the second book.) As a gamer, the author has a learning curve to establish character and background for readers, but those of us who did not grow up with the visual shortcuts and Hollywood trope shorthand of movies and video games are dying off, and that kind of depth may be something no longer provided by authors but by readers (consumers, appreciators?) in the future. I love this kind of mish-mash when it works, an exploration of the cracks and possibilities in the borderlands of myth and history, culture and conquest, and this one works for me.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the EARC for review.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

Get October in September

The Brightest Fell (October Daye, #11)The Brightest Fell by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! Seanan McGuire is on fire. Figuratively, of course. Anyway. The author deserves her accolades, and yes, worth the cost of transitioning to hardcover if you're able. This being the eleventh October Daye novel, it is truly magical—that means tense and bloody in Toby's world. Toby's wedding planning is interrupted by her mom: selfish, casually cruel and arrogant—that's right, she is related to the original Bad Fairy that people would rather not invite to anything. Her mother Amandine will October’s fiancé, the King of Cats, and her fetch’s lover Jazz hostage in their animal forms until Toby finds Amandine's other daughter and brings her back from whatever dimension she's been lost in since 1910. Throw in eternal rivalries and grudges eons old, and Toby must deal with the havoc wreaked. I can't tell you more, except that in Toby's world, though the magic folk are somewhat modern, they are still hidden from the mundane mortals, and McGuire's worldbuilding is superb. Read the whole series, if you haven't. There's a bonus novella, a wonderful surprise.
Thanks to Netgalley and Berkley for the review EARC; the raving is, as always, my own opinion.

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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Curious Minds

Curious Minds (Knight and Moon, #1)Curious Minds by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Curious Minds is a hoot! The first in the Knight and Moon series, this pure escapist thriller makes us imagine: What would Sheldon and Penny (of Big Bang Theory) do?
Sheldon--I mean Emerson Knight, is a handsome, eccentric rich guy. Penny--meaning Riley Moon, is a red-haired, gun-friendly graduate of Harvard Business and Law Schools. She's the one from Texas. Of course they are not complete copies of the characters, but that gives you the flavor of the book.
Credibility has never been Evanovich's goal; it's always been obvious to and appreciated by her readers that she's a genius at escapist fantasy, just like the sitcoms of old. In this book, co-authors Sutton and Evanovich take on global conspiracy theories, from the lizard people to Nazi heirs. There's a Nazi plot to destabilize the world's global gold reserves, and it's up to Knight and Moon to stop it in the nick of time to save the world, indulging in clever dialogue and edging towards romance on the way. Throw in some mystic Hindu powers, flunkies with assault rifles, exotic menageries, a couple more broadly outlined quirky characters, and you have all the escape you could ever want until the story's over. Book two, Dangerous Minds, was just released, and hopefully it's as fun!

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Green Magic

The Waking LandThe Waking Land by Callie Bates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's worth the hype. I don't know if this one is ya or not, it doesn't need to be. Unlike some other recent reads, every single time I thought she was going for the usual, she turned the cliche around. I'm dazzled. Lady Elanna's grown up a hostage all her life, raised in luxury and favored by the king. What does she do when she's forced to flee her privileged life and face her feelings of betrayal and abandonment in the face of real dangers and responsibilities? Pretty much what any reader of fantasy hopes we would do, with green magic running through our veins: she steps up. The dangers of stepping up are not sugar-coated, either. Beautiful language, stellar character development, and two more books in the pipeline. Hurray, and HIGHLY recommended. I was lucky enough to win an ARC, and thank Del Rey profusely. There's nothing like getting to add someone new to your "favorite authors" list. (Note to publisher: look at those reviews on goodreads, maybe you need to market this as an adult fantasy. Me, Robin Hobb, other adults: 5-4 stars, great reviews; teenagers: 1-2 stars. This is more like Recluce and only mature readers evidently can see it.)

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Recent Reads

Friday, August 4, 2017

The New Voices of FantasyThe New Voices of Fantasy by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow. Hard times are good for great writing and serious reading. Here are serious practitioners of fantasy and lovers of language, tinged with truth and mudded with blood and myth. Many of the writers have won or been nominated for awards, and they know their stuff. Buy it, read it, and dream larger, possibly darker, definitely deeper dreams. Each story is a portal to a different world. Each is a literary gem, shining like a necklace of stars in the hands of a dragon. Even the ones that you may not like are beautiful. It was edited by Peter Beagle, after all. Delightful, but not light reading, highly recommended. (I received an EARC for review from the publisher and Netgalley.)

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Moonbeams and Hard Truths Can Go Together

Ginny MoonGinny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ginny Moon's birth mother has trouble with drugs, men, cops, and her temper. She also has trouble with Ginny Moon, who has a LOT of trouble understanding people in general, due to her position on the autism spectrum. Ginny Moon was removed from her birth mother's custody four years ago when she was nine, and since then she has done nothing but do her best by hook or crook to get back to her birth mother and Ginny's job of taking care of Baby Doll. Lying, stealing, running away: Ginny knows these are wrong, but she doesn't know what else to do, because taking care of Baby Doll is VERY important, and none of the adults around her, even her therapist, seem to understand.
Things come to a head when her adoptive parents are about to have their own birth child. Ginny comes from a violent background; despite her obsession with Baby Doll, can she be trusted around the new baby? Ludwig does an amazing job of showing why it's hard to communicate for the autistic and with the autistic. The book is told in Ginny's voice and yet we can see when she can't how people are caring for her and about her, and feel empathy and frustration for everyone in the story. That's amazingly hard to do when you're taking on autism, social services, adoption and foster care, poverty and high school all at once. Both tender and tough, this is a great read for adults and teens.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fantastic Fforde

A French Affair: A perfect feel good summer romanceA French Affair: A perfect feel good summer romance by Katie Fforde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At last Katie Fforde is reappearing to an American audience! Katie is one of Britain's rom-com queens, for she manages to get just the right touches of setting, character, and story to tug your heartstrings and make you smile. The challenge of writing (and reading!) romance is that it's basically the same story every single time, even if it's our favorite. One of the pleasures of reading Fforde is that she gives us different settings in each book, so we're always exploring something, whether it's barges or wool factories or old country houses.
She takes us backstage to the antiques world in A French Affair. The old country house in this story has been turned into one of those antiques shops where lots of dealers use tiny spaces for storefronts. Gina and Sally have inherited a stall from their eccentric aunt. Tall, handsome and grumpy Matthew owns the building. Trouble and attraction and good humor ensue, along with true love, of course.
A French Affair was originally published in Britain in 2013 and is sitting on my home bookshelf, so it is not due to the free electronic version I received from the publisher and Netgalley that I encourage you to buy and read it and keep it on your bookshelf, too. Katie Fforde's books, all of them, are go-to books for comfort reading anytime--and some are even better than this one. If you want to read and close the pages with a smile on your face, Katie Fforde is your girl!

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Worth a Visit

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True HermitThe Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author shares his fascination with the story of Christopher Knight, who disappeared into the Maine woods in 1978 and was discovered 27 years later as the mysterious thief who'd become legendary in the local lake town. What makes a person withdraw from society? How does a thief not get caught for 27 years? These are the central questions driving the story, backed up by credible interviews and research.

Finkel calls Knight "the last true hermit" because all those years Knight had no intended interaction with another human being. Many disagree with Finkel's definition. Traditionally a hermit's withdrawn from society for spiritual reasons. In modern times, it can be a matter of philosophy or politics, too. A true hermit lives in seclusion, not isolation. Knight describes his walking into the woods as more of a whim, though it's obvious it was a compulsion. And it's hard to believe that he didn't pick his only ever job—working on home security alarms—with thieving in mind. Knight's certainly a recluse, but to call him a hermit is to reduce the stature of every non-thieving hermit in history. It's no wonder the unofficial arbiter of modern hermits, the Hermitary, refuses Knight membership.

Knight admits it is wrong to steal, but he did it; despite having made ingenious solutions to surviving Maine winters, he developed his skills in skulking and thieving instead of self-support. The residents of that Maine lake town seem to mostly hate or admire him; the break-ins, while Knight made sure to attack only empty houses, were frequent and some residents lived in fear while others left offerings of books and candy over the years.

It is indeed fascinating to read all about it and decide if you'd call him a nuisance, a bogeyman, a freak, or a lost soul. But not a hermit.

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Light Romance reading

A Stardance Summer (Eternity Springs, #13)A Stardance Summer by Emily March
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emily March's books are my guilty pleasure. There's unashamed romance and hope in every one, and Stardance Summer ticks all the boxes once more. The Eternity Springs series in particular honors those who have transformed the trauma in their lives into compassion, hope, and renewed commitment to love--not only romantic love, but love for self and community. The romance is between Brick Callahan, who's got a great thing going on with glamping, and Lili Howe, who had a childhood crush on him that's never gone away. Lili went into accounting to please her parents, and her heart has never been in it. When she has a crisis at work and her parents are unsupportive, she impulsively runs away. She buys a trailer, joins her landlady's glamping club, and ends up in Eternity Springs at Brick's campground. Growing and learning ensue, and plenty of romance and frustration, too.
If you like Debbie Macomber, you're sure to like Emily March; this one in particular has a Macomber "Blossom Street" feeling, maybe because it's number 13 in the series. Hope it's good luck, for I'd like there to be more.
I received an early electronic copy from the publisher and Netgalley for review.

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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Midlife in a Mess

City of FriendsCity of Friends by Joanna Trollope
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've got a mixed message about Trollope's twentieth novel. I did like it, but as emotionally on point this story about women friends in midlife's varied crises may be, the book itself falls flat. Melissa, Gaby, Stacey, and Beth have been friends since university. They are all extremely successful, Beth in academia and the others in business. Stacey is fired instead of given flex time when her mother is diagnosed with dementia; Gaby can't give her a job because she just hired the wife of the father of Melissa's fifteen-year-old son. Beth's relationship falls apart suddenly, spectacularly. Gaby has two teens and a preteen, plenty of drama in her household as well. The day Stacey is fired, she has a plot-pivotal interaction with an immigrant woman on a park bench, and it's what highlights the sour notes in the novel. Emotionally, the book rings true to upper middle class women dealing with sexism in the workplace, with changing relationships and teenage children and ageing parents, with job loss and stress and various degrees of spousal support; but I can't believe this pivotal interaction took place. That particular plot-working reeks of condescension and perhaps a clumsy attempt at political correctness that succeeds as smugness. (The "secret" is clumsy, too.) Though it's full of Facebook, the attitudes and atmosphere in this novel are firmly in the twentieth century and not the twenty-first. The best women's fiction mimics real life, only better; this is more escapist melodrama, fun but not profound.

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Silver Sensation

Silver Silence (Psy-Changeling Trinity, #1; Psy-Changeling, #16)Silver Silence by Nalini Singh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I consider Nalini Singh a crossover artist. I generally do not like my sci-fi/fantasy to focus on romance and sex, so it's pretty amazing that I've read 26 of Nalini's books. She is that good a world-builder, and sex alone (or mate-finding) is not the focus of her stories. In the near-future alternate world of the Psy/Changeling, the Trinity Accord is the promise of lifting humans to a more level playing field after years of being the "poor cousins" to the shifters and the psychics in the power structure of the planet. Plenty of adventure and suspense to add to romance as Nalini's brilliant world-building continues and the plots of the Consortium and the wacko Architect try to break the power of the Trinity alliance. Silver Silence takes us deeper into the lives of the Mercant Psy family as Silver Mercant takes center stage and debates stepping out from Silence. We also get to explore Bear sensibilities as Silver is drawn into the protective warmth and outsize humor of the Bear changelings. It's great to immerse oneself in a world where love and inclusion win over hatred and fear. It's a message we need to hear over and over again to keep fighting the good fight in our own lives, in our own world, and I love that Nalini never loses sight of the need for fun and delight in our quest for justice and healing. She writes good plots and good people. No need for guilt, only pleasure as you can go as deep or light as you like. In other words, these are smart and sexy and Miss Em cannot resist.
(Thank you Netgalley and Berkley for the early galley to review!)

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Recent Reads

Nostalgia Rules

Helen Simonson's previous book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, gently but firmly took on Britain's classism and racism with a charming love story. The Summer Before the War adds in sexism, homophobia, militarism, pacifism, socialism and almost every -ism you could imagine in a book that somehow pulls it off, even as you see the author's hand in this story of a young woman facing adulthood.
Nostalgia is the emotion that colors most of the book, looking back to a time before a World War was even conceivable. There's an intersection between young folks of the upper class and the upper middle class in the bucolic English countryside. Young men and women dreaming of love and duty become caught up in the hard realities of all those "-isms," and their struggles to reconcile them echo to the present day.

I prefer my novels to have invisible authors; perhaps an aside or two is permissible, but in novels I want story to be the key. The timing of outer events, the wider historical ones, felt off to me; the white feather girls seemed to appear way early in the story and they didn't show up in reality until August 1914, the end of summer. But if you were ever a swooning teenager, it's hard not to be lifted out of the story to admire every young poet's longed-for death scene: Noble! Tragic! Beautiful! Even as the tears washed my face, I was congratulating the author for fulfilling this fantasy and pulling it off beyond cliché. You will like this one if you liked her previous book or are an Anglophile! 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Tale of Heart and Passion

BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It begins with a cliffhanger: "Late one evening...a teenager picked up a shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there."

I read it in one sitting, for it reads like a thriller, even though it's all flashback. Backman's previous books have been wise and funny and a little tragic, but this is a masterpiece. It centers on a small town seeking glory from its hockey club. I know these kids and these families and so will you. You'll recognize "how we got here", too. Backman brings to life their hopes and dreams, frustrations and difficulties--adults and teens alike. "Beartown" should be read and discussed in every high school; it's topical and yet these events have happened for centuries. It takes place in Sweden, but could be any small town in America, too. In sports and life what we hope our children learn is to make good choices in a very un-ideal world. Fiction is a way to enter into an age-old discussion framed so beautifully by one of the characters: "This town doesn't always know the difference between right and wrong...but we know the difference between good and evil." What is the right thing to do when things go very wrong? You'll be compelled to find your answer. Backman is the Dickens of our age, and though you'll cry, your heart is safe in his hands.

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Short Takes

Friday, April 14, 2017

Starting Over

A Hundred Pieces of MeA Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucy Dillon's stories always have a dog and therefore are love stories. Not romance, but "women's fiction," so-called because it deals with the messy details of life like relationships, home, and life and death. This particular book is good for Green Valley folks, since most of us have either recently had to sort through our "stuff”, or will soon have to. The main character has just been through a divorce after being clear of breast cancer for two years; she's a project manager/designer for homebuilders and renovators, and in the face of having to rebuild her life she's taking the opportunity to downsize and reframe. She decides that out of all the knick-knacks, party frills, enhancers-but-not-necessities, she will keep only 100 items that will suit her life now and what she hopes it will be. There are great descriptions of the inner process of appreciation, memory, and letting go that certain items trigger, and Gina's story is told a lot in flashbacks that were confusing sometimes but interesting always. I've loved all of Dillon's books, and this one is very special, not only for the greyhound, and the insights into letting go, but for being a lot like life. Gina doesn't find a happy-ever-after; she finds the grace and strength to grab and build on love and happiness in the now. There are themes of youthful folly, love and regret, and some humor, too. A truly satisfying read for all Brit lit fans.

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One of the Best

All the Winters AfterAll the Winters After by Seré Prince Halverson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a rare pleasure and treasure! A novel that succeeds as a thriller, as literature, as travel guide and as love story: love of place as well as love of family and romance. Kache's mom and dad and brother all died in the same plane crash and survivor's guilt drove him from his native Alaska for 20 years. Now his aunt has called him to face the past.
She told him no one had checked on his family's remote, isolated home in all that time, but when he gets close, he sees smoke coming from the chimney. Nadia has been living there in hiding for the last ten years, no contact with the outside world. Kache's return brings both redemption and danger to the family he's got left, and the family he hopes to build.
Halverson manages to pull off great characters in youth, midlife, and old age. Though diverse in most ways, they all ring true. I enjoyed the story as a thriller: what or who is Nadia hiding from? What the heck is Kache hiding from? And Kache's remaining family are a big part of the story, too: his aunt and failing grandmother. There's gentle humor amid the elements of reconciliation and grief; there's coming to terms with changed perceptions, through maturing or compassion. Every family has its unspoken griefs and resentments...and unspoken forgivenesses, sometimes, too. It's also a true pleasure to have the state of Alaska, the landscape and attitudes, be a character intrinsic to the story. Alaska rings as authentic as in the Kate Shugak novels by Dana Stabenow, but Halverson sings her own tune beautifully. ~Em Maxwell

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Curious Charms

The Curious Charms of Arthur PepperThe Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a journey we get to take with 69-year-old Arthur Pepper as he discovers the life of the woman he never knew, his wife before they married. He's clearing out her closet on the one-year anniversary of her death when he discovers a solid gold charm bracelet hidden in a shoe. Readers may be reminded of Harold Fry, another fictional Englishman on a journey, but this is a sweeter, funnier, and ultimately more tender book than that one.
Arthur has mourned his wife greatly, but this discovery makes him doubt everything, especially their love. Arthur's journey over the course of the year as he finds the history behind the charms—she was a nanny in India! partied with the hoi-polloi! lived in Paris!—shows the path of a heart opening up to living again (for when grieving it seems we wait ourselves at Death's borders).
Arthur finds in himself a man he never knew, as well: adventurous, helpful and kind, and by the time his 70th birthday rolls around, he is ready to celebrate life and love again and cherish his wife's memory. In the end, this lovely book is life-affirming, charming, humorous and quirky—the perfect read, in other words. ~Em Maxwell

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