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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Silent Shadow: An Indie Thriller That I Wanted To Love

I was very interested in reading about Pat S. Clarke’s mute Brazilian protagonist and her quest for vengeance in The Silent Shadow.  I have enduring interests in differently abled protagonists and in fiction that takes place in Brazil though I haven't reviewed books dealing with these themes recently.  See my review of a book that takes place at a deaf school at Innocents of Oppression Review.  You can also read my review of a romantic eco-thriller taking place in Brazil at Amazon Burning Review. I expected to love The Silent Shadow.  That's why I purchased it from Amazon, and reviewed it for Bookplex.


I liked the sense of place in The Silent Shadow.  One example is the inclusion of sandstorms in the Amazon.  This brings home to readers that vast expanses of jungle once rich in plant and animal species have been radically transformed by deforestation.  When I ran a search about these sandstorms in Brazil, I encountered  No Rain in the Amazon on Google Books. I will definitely want to check out this volume further.  I also knew little of the Amazon Gold Rush.  This book inspired me to research its continuing impact on Brazil and its people.

I thought that mute Adelia’s  communication issues were well-handled for the most part, but I was skeptical about conveying an abstract phrase like “looking for a job” in gestures that would be widely understandable among those who use spoken language.  I ran a search on Brazilian sign language and found the  Wikipedia article.  It's known as Libras in Portuguese which stands for ngua Brasileira de Sinais".  Libras is related to American Sign Language (ASL) because both are based on French Sign Language.

The plot was appropriately fast paced, but I wondered at first why a woman who wanted to conceal and disguise herself was acting in a manner which drew attention.   This seemed foolish.  Yet in the long run she brought herself to the attention of allies as well as enemies.  Adelia was very fortunate, but there were times when I questioned her judgment.   I also disliked the villain’s stereotypical portrayal and a few predictable plot tropes.

There were noticeable problems with both formatting and copy editing.   The intermittent improper division of paragraphs was disconcerting.  At one point, the identification of who was speaking was separated from the dialogue which confused the speakers.   I found fifteen spelling and grammar errors.  There was one run on sentence late in the book that also contained two spelling errors.  I realize that this is Clarke’s first novel.  Yet when a book is offered for sale, readers have a right to expect professional editing. 

I really hoped to enjoy this book more than I did.   The author had a great idea and a fabulous protagonist, but the book had some flaws that limited my initial enthusiasm.



Sunday, April 16, 2017

Shooting Creek and Other Stories: Mainly Rural Noir

I'm not usually a fan of noir, but I occasionally interrupt my reading habits with an uncharacteristic book.  I was also interested in the rural settings of a number of these stories.  You don't see rural noir anywhere near as often as urban noir, but I have read it.   The most notable examples were by the extraordinary Appalachian writer, Daniel Woodrell.   The best of Shooting Creek and Other Stories by Scott Loring Sanders did remind me of Woodrell.  That's why I was glad to obtain a review copy from publicist Wiley Saicheck in return for this honest review.


As is typical with anthologies, I didn't love every story I read in this collection.  I think that Scott Loring Sanders has a gift for very real characters and the re-creation of settings, but there were stories that felt a bit too unresolved, and others that seemed rather predictable to me.

My personal favorite that really caused me to sit up and take notice was "Jim Limey's Confession".   This story takes place in the rural South during the 1920's.   Jim Limey is an African American man who was faced with the necessity of taking over his father's business in his early teens.   These were terrible times for African Americans as I've learned from other historical fiction.  So it shouldn't surprise any readers that the story deals with the impact of racism.  Racist attitudes place Jim Limey in a position where he had to choose between justice and survival.   This is a memorable story with a great deal of dramatic intensity.

I was also moved by the family tragedy depicted in the title story, "Shooting Creek".   I felt sad for how destiny altered the life paths of these characters beyond recognition.  Yet it starts off with a tranquil scene of  a ten year old boy snapping beans on the porch with his mother.  It's the contrast between that scene and the events that follow it that transfixes readers and engages their emotions.

All but one of these stories appeared in other publications, but Down and Out Books has collected them all in one volume, so that we can locate them more easily.   I confess that I wouldn't have read them at all if it hadn't been for this anthology.



Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire--A Biography of My Favorite Suffragette

I first discovered Sylvia Pankhurst when I read Suffragette Autumn, Women's Spring  by Ian Porter which I joint reviewed with my co-blogger Tara on Flying High Reviews here.   It's not that I didn't know she existed.  I knew that she was part of the celebrated Pankhurst family who were so influential in the women's suffrage movement in England, but I didn't  know any more than that.   Katherine Connelly, the author of  Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire, says that Sylvia was written out of suffrage history.   I saw that she was barely mentioned in the movie Suffragette which I reviewed here.  It was so ironic that a movie about working women in the suffrage movement portrayed them as followers of Emmeline Pankhurst who despised them and didn't include them in her organization.

Connelly thinks that Sylvia was written out of suffrage history because she wasn't a member of organizations.    I think this is inaccurate.  Connelly mentions  a suffrage organization that Sylvia founded called ELFS (East London Federation of the Suffragettes) which was for working women.  I contend that  Sylvia was written out of  suffragette history because she made the classist suffragettes of her day uncomfortable. She was too far ahead of her time.  Connelly's biography shows us why Sylvia Pankhurst was so extraordinary.


It appears evident from this biography that the most influential figure in Sylvia's life was her father, Richard Pankhurst. He taught her to stand by her principles without regard for the opinions of others.  Richard Pankhurst was a lawyer and a radical political activist.  He left the Liberal Party and  unsuccessfully ran for Parliament as an independent. He was the author of the first women's suffrage bill in England in 1869.   He also wrote the Married Women's Property Act which became law in 1882.  Before that, a married woman couldn't own anything.   Any assets she brought into the marriage became her husband's.  This was related to the suffrage issue.   Since only men who owned property could vote in Britain at that point,  the idea of women becoming the equals of men when it came to the vote meant that only women who owned property would have that right.  Before the Married Women's Property Act, the vote on equal terms with men would only apply to single women who owned property. Richard Pankhurst believed that married women should also be able to vote.  He died in 1898 when Sylvia was sixteen.

I found out that Sylvia was an artist when I first researched her online after reading Ian Porter's novel.   There's a section on dealing with her art at Sylvia's Art.   As someone who is interested in woman artists, I took note of Connelly's account of the discrimination she dealt with in studying art.  She had the same issue that art patron Adele Bloch-Bauer experienced that I discussed in my review of  Stolen Beauty which I reviewed here.

When her snobbish sister Christabel was abroad, Sylvia was asked to take over the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union) which was founded by their mother, Emmeline.   So she recruited working class and labor activists.  She held massive rallies with Labour Party speakers even though her mother and sister were strongly identified with the Conservative Party.  She also involved suffragettes in strikes and sent them to speak at union locals.  When Christabel learned what Sylvia was doing, she summoned Sylvia to Paris.   The result was a complete break between the Pankhurst sisters, but I'm sure that Sylvia was on the right side of history.   She built alliances and refused to exclude anyone on the basis of class.

Sylvia  wasn't perfect.  She went through a period when she was enamored with Russian Communism because she was impressed with Lenin, but she was disillusioned by the NEP (New Economic Program) which brought back private enterprise, and totally alienated by Stalin who she called counter-revolutionary.  I think that many left of center idealists in the West went through a similar process of disillusionment and separation from Communism during this period.   Sylvia was anti-fascist and she recognized that there was no difference between Stalin and other fascist dictators.

Fascist Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia was what first got her interested in that African nation.   No one else in England was writing about Ethiopia at the time. The post-war occupation of Ethiopia by Britain also drew criticism from Sylvia because she was opposed to Africa being colonized.  She was in favor of  Haile Selassie's rule.  Africans in London were tremendously supportive, but Whitehall was not pleased. Connelly commented "More than thirty years after the end of the suffragette movement, Sylvia Pankhurst was still driving the British government to distraction."  Sylvia moved to Ethiopia in 1956 and spent her final years there.   She was buried in Ethiopia.

 Her son, named Richard after the original Richard Pankhurst, became an expert on Ethiopia.   When I ran a search for Richard Pankhurst as part of my research for this review, almost all the results were dealing with Sylvia's son and how respected he was as an academic. He died in February 2017.  His daughter Dr. Helen Pankhurst became an advisor on Ethiopia for  the Care International organization , and  a women's rights activist. See Helen Pankhurst's article on Wikipedia.  Helen Pankhurst has a daughter named Laura who is also a feminist.   So the Pankhurst legacy of activism founded by the first Richard Pankhurst back in the 19th century continues.

I consider this book the best non-fiction that I've read so far in 2017.  Sylvia Pankhurst is such an inspiring figure.  




Friday, April 7, 2017

In Shadowland--The Death of Quentin Roosevelt

I think it was the connection to Teddy Roosevelt that first drew me to this thriller.  In  high school my American history teacher  considered him one of our greatest Presidents.   The more I learn about TR (as my teacher called him), the more he has impressed me.

In Shadowland by Timothy Ashby centers on Seth Armitage, a Bureau of Investigation agent (the original name of the FBI), who investigates the death of Teddy Roosevelt's youngest son, Quentin in WWI.  I had never heard of Quentin Roosevelt, but when I researched his death, it seemed to me that it should have been investigated.  That's why I accepted a free review copy of In Shadowland  from Stephanie Nelson, a book marketer who also is a certified canine massage therapist.  This has nothing to do with the book, but it did sound like a worthy profession especially if you live with a dog who has arthritic joints.


As expected, a number of Roosevelts and J. Edgar Hoover appear in this book.  I hadn't expected Adolf Hitler to be as prominent a character as he turned out to be.   With all the assassination conspiracies that swirled around Hitler even before he became the dictator of Germany, you would think that one of them would have been successful. Timothy Ashby provides a speculative theory about the rise of Hitler along with his hypothetical explanation of what really happened to Quentin Roosevelt.  I thought that the conjectures presented by Ashby seemed very credible and well-researched.

Armitage is portrayed as having principles which he had to violate under the orders of J. Edgar Hoover whose main interest in Armitage's mission appeared to be the acquisition of additional blackmail material that he could hold over the Roosevelts.   Based on what I've read about Hoover in non-fiction sources,  I consider Ashby's depiction of him quite accurate.    

The only woman who was central to the plot of In Shadowland was a spy who hid her true loyalties.    There were points when I admired her, but she could be quite ruthless in the service of her cause.

I considered Armitage a heroic character.  His conflict between doing his duty and his sense of ethics made him even more sympathetic.

In Shadowland connected the dots for me by giving me pieces of the historical puzzle that I was missing.  I recommend it to people who are interested in events and historical personages between the two world wars.



Friday, March 24, 2017

Speculative Blackness: Blacks in Science Fiction Media and Fandom

Speculative Blackness by Black academic André M. Carrington  is a compilation of essays on Black characters portrayed in science fiction on television and in comics which are bracketed by a pair of essays on fandom.   There are mentions of science fiction novels and authors, but that isn't the focus of Carrington's study.


There was an essay on Uhura from Star Trek: The Original Series and another on Sisko from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  These were familiar territory for me, and I can't say that there were any fresh observations in those Star Trek essays.

The first of the essays on fandom was interesting because it dealt with a fake persona of a Black fan that was created by Caucasian fans.  The persona was intelligent and articulate.  I would speculate that one reason for creating the persona was to attract real Black fans. Yet it's also possible that these fans wanted to feel inclusive without actually being inclusive.  In the 1970's I met  local Black fans in New York City.  I feel that NYC fandom at the time was not as a diverse as the general population of NYC, but more diverse than fandom in other areas of the U.S.  

The essays dealing with comics are the reason why I felt it was important to review this book.  They educated me about comics characters that I either knew little about, or were totally unknown to me.

I would first like to call attention to the essay on Storm, an African female mutant in the X-Men universe.  I have to confess that  I used to be a DC comics fan who never read any Marvel.  So I discovered the X-Men through the movies, and knew nothing of Storm's background.

 I learned from this book that Storm was originally from Kenya where she was worshiped as a Goddess.   Carrington praised this as an African strategy for respecting difference rather than marginalizing those who are different.  I would like to add that this can also be seen in African diasporic religion where trance mediums are viewed as leaders in their community who are favored by the spirits rather than being considered suspect deviants.   Marie LeVaux  would be a prominent historical example. Carrington portrays Chris Claremont as believing that the origin of Storm was racist.  Claremont is a writer who was most instrumental in the popularization of the X-Men.  I'm not sure what origin he would have given Storm if he had the opportunity to re-boot her, but I prefer Carrington's interpretation of Storm's established origin over Claremont's.  It seems to me that your attitude toward the origin of Storm depends on how you feel about African culture.

I was also interested in Carrington's discussion of the origin of Storm's claustrophobia.  She became claustrophobic as a result of having been buried in rubble.  I was reminded of the award winning YA novel, In Darkness by Nick Lake.  The plot of In Darkness centers on a Haitian boy who was buried in rubble during Haiti's catastrophic earthquake in 2010.  The boy survives with the help of a spiritual connection to the 18th century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture.   I found In Darkness inspirational.   Storm's claustrophobia origin story portrays her as having PTSD that manifests as a phobia.  I think that it may have been intended as a way of making Storm more relatable.   This would seem to imply to me that Marvel had to give Storm this additional trait for relatability because they thought that no reader would normally identify with a character from Africa.  That would be sad if true.  I love Storm, and I didn't even know she was claustrophobic.

The essay that I found really amazing was the one about Black owned comic publisher Milestone Media's title, Icon.   The superhero Icon was a Black equivalent of Superman, but the really groundbreaking character was Icon's female sidekick, Rocket.   Rocket wanted to be a writer.  She was inspired by Toni Morrison.  When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize, there was an editorial about it on the letters page of Icon which mentioned that Rocket was really pleased.  Not only did Rocket have literary interests, she was independent minded.   I was thrilled by everything I read in this book about Rocket.  I have never heard of a comics character like her, and I also had never heard of Milestone Media. They have a website.  It would be very interesting if they resumed publishing.    I ordered a paperback compilation of Icon issues from Amazon and I'm looking forward to reading it.

The essay about Icon alone makes this book very worthwhile.   I recommend it to anyone interested in Black characters in comics or television.




Saturday, March 18, 2017

Kasper Mützenmacher's Cursed Hat

I'm a reviewer for the indie publisher, Curiosity Quills.  They periodically send me e-mails offering me ARCs.  I have reviewed several titles from this press in various genre categories, and they've all been conceptually unusual. (They were Alice Takes Back WonderlandThis Above AllThe Heartless City and The Maid of Heaven) The historical fantasy Kasper Mutzenmacher's Cursed Hat by Keith Fentonmiller is equally unusual.  That's why I requested an ARC of this title.


My main association with the name Kasper is a cartoon that aired on television during my childhood called Casper The Friendly Ghost.  I had a talking Casper doll who told me reassuringly "I'm a friendly ghost.  Don't be afraid of me." (For more information see the Casper The Friendly Ghost Wiki)  Fentonmiller's Kasper is neither a ghost nor particularly friendly.  He always had to protect the family secret of the cursed hat, and he also lived under Hitler for a period.  These circumstances didn't incline him to let very many people into his life.  I found Kasper semi-sympathetic.   He was capable of learning from his misdeeds.  He also did some great things for which he was remembered.

I think that all the characters were fallible human beings who were very believable, but not always likable.   The villain, who did really terrible things in Nazi Germany, became more sympathetic when we learned about the background of that character.  The villain also attempted to engage in redemptive actions after WWII.  In the end, I felt that this character was a tragic figure with some serious psychological problems.  

The "cursed" hat was the only fantastical element in the book.   Otherwise it was the story of a  German family which emigrated to the United States.   The hat had an amazing power that could have done a great deal of good in Nazi Germany, but the necessity of keeping it secret limited the amount of good it could do. Nevertheless, it was still very central to the novel.  The hat cast a huge shadow over the lives of the major characters.

Kasper's role in the narrative is complete at the end of the book, but this is the first book in the series.  The conclusion of the novel made it clear that the next book would continue with the story of Chance, Kasper's grandson.  I look forward to finding out how Chance and his descendants will utilize the magical hat's powers.




Saturday, March 4, 2017

Behind The Mask: A Superhero Anthology

I started reading superhero comic books when I was a mere sprout in the 1960's.  I still love them-especially female superheroes. Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman was an inspiration, and  I would probably watch the current Supergirl series even if the star hadn't been on Glee.  

That's why I immediately jumped at the chance to read and review an ARC of  Behind The Mask: A Superhero Anthology from Net Galley.


 Sixteen of the twenty stories that appear in this volume are original to the anthology.  Only four are reprints.  The stories I liked best have never appeared anywhere else.   Other stories were well-written but didn't appeal to me.  There also were stories that didn't feel complete in themselves.  They were probably sneak peeks for upcoming novels.

My #1 favorite of the anthology was "Destroy The City With Me Tonight" by Kate Marshall.   I found it original and compelling.  It's a riff on the idea of superheroes being linked to cities.  The link in Marshall's story is  much stronger.  The story also deals with memory as a bond between human beings.   When that bond dissipates,  you feel isolated.  People with superpowers feeling disconnected from humanity is a dangerous situation.  The protagonist deals with an ethical dilemma that would cause her to morph from hero to villain if she made the wrong choice.

Another amazing standout story was "Madjack" by Nathan Crowder.  It was a moving story about a recently deceased rock star with powers that would be very useful for someone in that profession.  The protagonist is his daughter, a rock star in her own right.  If this were in another science fiction anthology, no one would consider it a superhero story.   It stretches the concept a bit, but I loved it.   I now want to read Crowder's fantasy novel, Ink Calls To Ink.

I think that what these stories had in common is that they involved characters with enough stature to be called heroes, characters that I admired because they struggled against becoming villains.   That's my motivation for reading about superheroes.   I want to believe in heroes.  I feel that they represent the best in us.  In this world where cynicism and noir are popular, I feel that superheroes are the antidote.   I found that hopeful vision in those particular stories of Behind The Mask which makes me glad that I read them.