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Friday, January 22, 2016

The Maid of Heaven: Joan of Arc's Unusual Ally

 I decided to copy my most recent Book Babe post to this blog because I thought my readers here would be interested in what I have to say about the portrayal of Joan of Arc in this novel.
When I saw a summary of The Maid of Heaven by Aidan James and Michelle Wright on the publisher's website, I was intrigued.  It's the third in the Judas Reflections series about an immortal Judas Iscariot.  I hadn't read any of the books by these authors about the immortal Judas before, but I was particularly interested in this one because it involves Joan of Arc, one of my favorite historical personages.  I received a free copy of The Maid of Heaven  from the publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for this honest review.


First, I ought to say that Judas is the viewpoint character.  His name in the 15th century is Emmanuel Ortiz and he came to France expressly for the purpose of fighting for Joan of Arc's cause.   Joan of Arc had some unusual allies in real life such as Gilles de Rais who became known as Bluebeard, but certainly Judas Iscariot would stand out.  This is not a saintly Judas.  He enjoys his life for the most part.  This is why I commented in my book journal that if immortality was supposed to be a divine penance, it wasn't working.   He does experience angst at times, but it doesn't put a halt to his recreational activities.   He reminded me of the Immortal Duncan MacLeod from the Highlander television series.  Duncan MacLeod also lived with gusto, and was interested in fighting for great causes at one point in his life.

I liked the portrayal of Joan of Arc for the most part.  She is courageous and has tremendous fortitude.  When she was wounded with an arrow, she drew it out herself.  I have read of this stalwart Joan in many books.  Yet there were two anomalies in this portrait of Joan.

 According to the trial transcript, Joan had vowed to dress as a man.   In this novel, it's a pragmatic choice.  She dressed as a man in battle and when she was imprisoned in order to avoid rape.   Unfortunately, the trial transcripts reveal that she was raped a number of times while awaiting trial.   This is mentioned in the novel.  Judas is enraged when he learns of it.

The other anomaly is that in this book Joan was not a virgin before she was captured by the English.  Saints aren't supposed to be sexual, and most authors seem to have the attitude that Joan couldn't engage in consensual sex because it would weaken her.  I think this is a puritanical attitude.   The authors of The Maid of Heaven evidently don't believe this is true.  It humanizes Joan, but it doesn't make her less strong.  I was actually glad that the authors had made this choice, but it is a controversial one.  This Joan doesn't think of herself as a saint, and she mocked Judas when he suggested that she might one day be canonized.

I thought that The Maid of Heaven was an unexpected and compelling read.   I might be interested in following future adventures of the immortal Judas--especially if he encounters any other favorite female historical personages.    


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine: Because "Books Cannot Fight For Themselves"

This is the book that caused me to discover bestselling author Rachel Caine.   I had never read any of her books and I almost didn't read this one either.  The reviews made it clear that it's a dystopia. I'm not that fond of dystopias, but I love alternate history.   Ink and Bone had a premise that was irresistible to me.  The ancient Library of Alexandria was never destroyed.   This library student just had to read it.


So how is this a dystopia?   Shouldn't it be wonderful that the Library of Alexandria is still with us and influential?  It's somewhat like the Library of Congress but it's worldwide and makes every effort to be all-inclusive.  This should be a tremendous boon for scholarship. 

Their opponents are the Burners, and there is no doubt that any book lover would find them extremely reprehensible.   They burn libraries and they attack librarians.  They surely must be advocates of censorship.  Yet what motivates them? Are they anti-intellectual?  Are they terrorists?     At the beginning of Ink and Bone, it certainly seems as if the Burners are nothing but dangerous terrorists.

Yet as I progressed through this book, I discovered more and more things about the Library of Alexandria that I found objectionable.   They aren't the benevolent preservers  of knowledge I thought they were.

 The first revelation was that no one is allowed to own books.  The justification given is that individual owners of books who handle them on a regular basis or even lend them to their friends can cause them to deteriorate much faster.   In our era, early deterioration happens to popular circulating library books because they are handled so often.   Yet there are also strong arguments in favor of individual book ownership.  The most important of these is that so long as individuals are allowed to own books, everyone can choose their books.  It becomes more difficult to control what people read.

Today libraries are known as defenders of intellectual freedom who oppose censorship, but that hasn't always been the case.   In the 19th century libraries were expected to choose books for their collections that "elevated" people's morals.  The librarians were the ones who decided what that meant.  The first public libraries didn't allow browsing the shelves.  You had to know what you wanted and then ask for that particular item. Then a library staff member would search for it in the stacks and bring it to the requester. 

  When I took the Intellectual Freedom Seminar in library school,  I learned that many challenges requesting that books be removed from library shelves are initiated by library staff members.  I also located a post by prominent librarian blogger Sarah Houghton discussing the results of a survey done by a library student dealing with challenged book statistics.  The results showed that a number of challenged books had been improperly removed by staff without waiting for an official decision.

Clearly, library staff has power. It's also very possible for them to abuse it by restricting access to the collection or by refusing to order particular books because they disapprove of them.  In a society when no one is allowed to own books, librarians could theoretically control what people read if they were inclined to do so.  Rachel Caine's Great Library has the legal monopoly on book ownership, and they go to great lengths to maintain that monopoly.           

It didn't escape my notice that the magical means by which people received their books in Ink and Bone resembles downloading e-books.   The words appear on  blank pages.   Some have argued that if there were only one source for e-books, that one source could control what people read if printed books were no longer being published.   Fortunately, that hasn't happened in our universe.  Through Rachel Caine's alternate continuity, she is able to show us what could happen if we allowed such a book monopoly.

The quote I used in the title of my review are the words of a library official in Ink and Bone dealing with the war against Burners.  The Great Library is supposed to be fighting on behalf of books.  Yet what about books that had been suppressed by the Great Library? Who would fight on their behalf?

The protagonist of  Ink and Bone, Jess Brightwell, belongs to a family of book smugglers.  They provide books to individuals who want to own them illegally.   Since they care more about profit than what happens to the books, Jess' family didn't seem very sympathetic to me.  Jess himself was a complex character who had to deal with conflicting loyalties, but he genuinely cared about books.  Rachel Caine seems to be developing him into the champion who will fight for the books in her provocative new series.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Self Help For Cinderella?

When I first saw the title, I had imagined that Fairy Godmothers of the Four Directions was a modern re-visioning of the Cinderella fairy tale.  I hoped it would be an original approach to Cinderella.  I’m not a big fan of the Disney version.   When I began to read it, I realized that it’s intended as a self-help book in fairy tale format.   I  purchased this book on Amazon and reviewed it for Bookplex.   


My favorite scene in this book was Cinderella giving a tongue lashing to a troll.  I also enjoyed the fact that he’s different from other trolls that I’ve encountered in books. 

For me, the trouble is that the book’s conceptualization of Cinderella is not new.   In the fairy tale, Cinderella is a go with the flow type.   She lets life happen to her.  She also never has any goal beyond marrying The Prince.   In this book, Cinderella isn’t any more self-directed.  Cinderella’s love for The Prince is unconditional.   She embarks on the path of the four godmothers because The Prince thinks she should.   She’s all about marrying The Prince. 

 The Prince seems to have a very conditional love.  Cinderella is like the Greek myth of Galatea to him.  Galatea is a statue who is molded by the sculptor Pygmalion into his ideal woman.   The Prince turns Cinderella over to the godmothers to be re-molded.  He wants a wife made to order.  

 While Cinderella learns many important skills through the fairy godmothers, she remains fixated on that one goal.  She wants to meet The Prince’s expectations for a wife.  If you look at Fairy Godmothers of the Four Directions from a narrative perspective, it only sounds helpful to someone who wants to marry at all costs.  The message appears to be that you’ll have many challenges in becoming the wife your husband wants, but it will be worth it. 

 Yet if you look at this book from a more metaphorical perspective, Cinderella’s concern with making the Kingdom stronger could be addressed to people who are searching for a new job.   Any organization would be pleased to employ someone who has done some thinking about how to strengthen it.  So this book could conceivably be useful to more than one type of reader.
Unfortunately, there were two continuity errors in which Morse contradicted something that she had written.  In one case, the author forgot that Cinderella was no longer where she had been earlier in the scene.  Another discontinuity involved Cinderella draining all her personal power, but she was still able to “gather a vortex of power in her belly” soon after that.  Continuity errors are more annoying to me than proofreading errors. 

Even more problematic was a magical act that makes no sense if you know the definition of the word “void”.   This indicates to me that Morse doesn’t always think through her concepts.

Despite these problems, I want to make clear that I did enjoy parts of this book. I have never identified with Cinderella, so I’m not the most ideal reader for Fairy Godmothers of the Four Directions.  On the other hand, I acknowledge that Jennifer Morse did occasionally show me new ways to think about certain issues that I hadn’t previously considered.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Shifter by Alma Alexander (Were Series #3)-- Random 2.0

I had high hopes for the third book in this series.  After all, it was from the perspective of the mysterious and supremely gifted, Saladin van Schalkwyk. How do you get a name like that?  You apparently have an Arab mother and an Afrikaner father ( though his ethnic heritage matters far less than his genetic heritage.)  Mal, the protagonist of the previous book, called him Chalky.   I'm going to call him Saladin out of respect for the character's own preference.

I received a digital galley of this book in advance of publication from the author in return for this honest review.


 The focus of this book wasn't on science like Wolf, the previous novel.  Science was in the background rather than the foreground, but that was enough for me to consider it science fiction.   We learn that some characters were genetically modified as part of a series of experiments.  There was no indication of fantasy underpinnings for this series.  When Saladin went looking for his origins, he didn't search for grimoires that might contain some magical spell that summoned him into existence.  He searched for laboratory records that would confirm his theory about how he came to have such unique abilities.

The previous protagonists came from a family of Randoms who could change into any animal that they saw around the time of the full moon.    Saladin goes beyond them.    He doesn't have any of the limitations of Randoms.   That's why I refer to him as Random 2.0   He's the next step in the evolution of shapechangers.

Due to human fear and prejudice Saladin's existence  had been buried in secrecy.  Saladin also became accustomed to a covert lifestyle when he became a hacker at a young age.  Yet his success as a hacker made Saladin arrogant and clouded his judgment.  He believed at that stage of his life that there was nothing he couldn't do, and that there wouldn't be any serious consequences to his actions.   He learned otherwise.  I was actually annoyed with Saladin in his arrogant phase.   I perceive his character arc to that point as going from a sympathetic runaway child who triumphed over abuse and neglect to a thoughtless adolescent who was misusing his abilities.  He thought he was clever, but his inability to see further than short-term repercussions made him seem very oblivious.

I was also bothered by a structural problem in this book.   I know I've said before that I don't like info dumps in novels.   I may not have said it recently, so it bears repeating.   I REALLY DON'T LIKE INFO DUMPS!  Some authors and readers appear to think that they are unavoidable in some circumstances.   They are never unavoidable.  The use of info dumps is always a choice and I consider it a bad one.   Perhaps Alma Alexander thought they would be consistent with Saladin's profession.   He is a seeker of information therefore the reader should see search results.   Yet an important purpose of fiction is storytelling.   Info dumps disrupt the plot and destroy its pacing.   I believe that they should be avoided at all costs.  Readers should be given information gradually on a need to know basis.  If the reader doesn't need to know it at that juncture, then insert it later when that piece of information is necessary.  Many of the facts that appear in info dumps never come into play during the course of the narrative.  This means that the reader doesn't need them at all.

Another aspect of this book that I found tedious was the repetition of the entire plot of  Wolf from Saladin's perspective.   There was repetition of the events of  Random from Mal's perspective in Wolf, but I didn't find that so problematic.   I felt that Mal's experiences were sufficiently different from those of his sister that they made a real contribution to my understanding of those events.   I gained  insight into Mal's character.  I didn't feel that way about Saladin's recounting of what happened in Wolf.   Perhaps this was because I'd just read Wolf, and definitely didn't need a refresher course.

 For this reason,  I wouldn't advise readers to save the Were novels until the series is complete so that they can be read one after another.  The repetition element makes them more suitable to be read with a significant interval between them.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Random was the strongest that I've read in the Were series, and that each successive novel has had less to offer me.   Because I thought so highly of Random I wanted to like them more.

What I found most engaging about Shifter was the opening dealing with Saladin's difficult childhood and the final section of Saladin's story.   Between those dramatic high points, I didn't feel as invested in the book.




Friday, January 1, 2016

My 2015 Retrospective

2015 was a great year for this blog!  At the beginning of the year I promised to post more than I had in 2014.  Well, I more than doubled the number of my posts, and my views in 2015 were  nearly triple what they were in 2014.  I reached almost 4400 total views.

My most viewed post in this blog's history has changed.  It is now the very first post on this blog, Lilia Litvyak of the White Lily.  I am delighted that there is so much continuing interest in this World War II Russian woman aviator.

My most viewed 2015 post was on Book Babe this year.   It was my review of
the World War II thriller, A Chance Kill which also displayed my interest in aviation.   My most viewed 2015 post on this blog during the year of 2015 was my review of an alternate World War II baseball novel, The Lost Tribe. So it's safe to say that WWII was a winning theme for me in 2015.

2015 was the first time I did a giveaway on this blog.  The giveaway didn't attract many entries, but I thought it was successful because the giveaway post had the second highest number of views among my 2015 posts on this blog.  I hope to do other giveaways in the future. 

And now without any further delay I present:

                    The 2015 Golden Mask Awards

Best Book I Read in 2015

The War Against Women in Israel by Elana Maryles Sztokman

It was also the best non-fiction I read in 2015.   I reviewed it on this blog

Best Fiction I Read in 2015

Alice Takes Back Wonderland  by David D. Hammons

 It was the best book published in 2015, the best fantasy novel, the best YA novel and it was also the best indie book having been published by Curiosity Quills Press.  I reviewed it on this blog here.

Best Mystery I Read in 2015

Hurricane by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Although I read a bunch of excellent mysteries over the last year, this one dealt with themes that felt most significant to me as someone deeply concerned about environmental issues.  I reviewed it on this blog here.

Best Historical Fiction I Read in 2015

The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau

 I read this late in the year, and didn't have time to review it due to heavy review commitments in December. So I'll comment briefly here on why it impressed me so much.   This magical realist novel that begins in the 1960's deals with a fated friendship between an indio boy in a small Mexican village and a girl from a caravan of wandering Romani (usually called gypsies) who wanted to become a famous singer.    Despite the initial opposition of their two peoples, they become sources of support for each other. I was very moved by this beautiful book that builds bridges across cultural divisions.  I also admired the mythology that Esma, the Romani girl, constructed for herself.  

Best Contemporary Fiction I Read in 2015

The Translator by Nina Schuyler

Although I rarely read contemporary fiction, this one caused me to reflect a great deal about translation.  I reviewed it on this blog here.

Best Net Galley I Read in 2015

In A Different Key by John Donvan and Caren Zucker

This history of autism will be published this month.  Thanks to Net Galley I was able to review it in advance of publication on this blog here.  

1/31/16  Over the course of  January 2016 my review of  In A Different Key has become my most viewed 2015 post on this blog.

Best Bookplex Book I Read in 2015

Stalking Los Angeles by Tom Berquist

This YA contemporary fiction won my affection because of the strong commitment that the author showed for wildlife through his inspiring story.  I reviewed it on this blog here.

Since I am going back to graduate school to complete my MLIS degree (Masters of Library and Information Science), it's very likely that I will be posting much less in 2016.   I will try to contribute quality posts even though I can't maintain a high level of frequency.