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Saturday, August 27, 2016

My Experience With Reviewing For Bookplex

I have been a reviewer for Bookplex  since February 2012.  I posted my first review for them on my former blog here.   My first post on this blog was a review I wrote for Bookplex.

 Today Bookplex has asked their reviewers who blog to post about our experience with them.   Some individuals continue to say that Bookplex reviews are dishonest and that our reviews aren't valid.   They have been saying the same things for as long as Bookplex has existed.  I may not be able to change their minds, but I can tell you the complete truth about the kind of reviews I write for Bookplex.

Those who read my blog know that all my reviews are honest.   I rarely write reviews that are completely positive or completely negative.   Most of my reviews contain some criticism.   This has also been the case with my reviews for Bookplex.  I always mention Bookplex in the reviews that I write for them. So you can locate all of them with a search, but I thought I'd point out a few examples. 

  Here's an example of a review of a Bookplex book that I consider balanced.  It contained some praise for the concept, and the portrayal of Soweto residents.  It also contains criticism of  the protagonist's characterization and mentions editing errors.  I won't say that I've never given a Bookplex book unqualified praise.   Here is the post about the book that I thought was the best that I reviewed for Bookplex in 2015.  I also have an example of a review of a Bookplex book that I considered extremely flawed. You can read that review here .  Please note that even when my review is largely negative, I try not to be harsh or disrespectful to the author.   

I believe that writing reviews for Bookplex has made me a better reviewer.  Bookplex has a number of requirements for reviews. So I need to be much more thorough when I review for Bookplex.  I now take very detailed notes about books as I read them because of my experience with Bookplex.  I now pay much more attention to copy editing errors because a Bookplex review requires me to mention them, and what sort of errors they were.  I also pay more attention to the cover, and whether I consider it effective. That is another required element of a Bookplex review. 

There's definitely a serious problem with fraudulent reviews on the internet.  There are people who write reviews without having read the book.  Such a review would never pass muster with Bookplex.  Bookplex reviews need to be detailed.  I make sure that it's obvious in my review that I read the entire book from beginning to end.  Given the standards that Bookplex has for reviews, I think that Bookplex isn't part of the problem.  It's part of the solution.  


Friday, August 26, 2016

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

 As a child I instinctively shied away from stories about Faerie.   I liked Tinkerbell in Peter Pan because she was vulnerable.  She was the only one of her kind, and could fade away if people didn't believe in her.  Yet in the tales, the Queens and Lords of Faerie didn't seem to have that problem.  They had immense powers which they would wield unpredictably.  I wanted predictability and dependability in my world. 

As an adult I have often said that I have an allergy to the Fae.  "Seelie" and "Unseelie" were the words that were most likely to precipitate my full blown Fae allergy attacks.   They would make me shudder.  In many stories, these are Fae factions each of which has their own royal court. I have always hated human royal court intrigues.   They're all about the acquisition, maintenance and abuse of power. I find them repulsive, and the Fae version hasn't seemed to be any different.

The last time when I deliberately subjected myself to the Fae was when I read Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear because I love fiction about the Elizabethan playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.  Once the book began to spend long periods of time in Faerie, I liked it progressively less and less, and the sequel was beyond tolerance for me.  I wouldn't put up with a book focused on Fae machinations for anyone-- not even for Shakespeare and Marlowe.

 I have also been tricked into reading about the Fae.  There is a wonderful fantasy novel about a mysterious people, and the surprise twist is that they are actually the Fae.  It was a very fresh approach, and I loved it. Unfortunately, now that his readers knew they were Fae, the author succumbed to the temptation to tell a very traditional and predictable Fae story in the sequel.  I lost my enthusiasm for that very quickly.

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard is another instance of having been tricked into reading a book dealing centrally with the Fae.   There was no mention of the Fae in the description.  I was hooked by the concept of two sisters at an artists' retreat.  I wouldn't have been tricked at all if I had read the reviews on Goodreads.   On the other hand, if  I had read them, I would probably have avoided this powerful debut novel and that would have been a shame.


As the POV character, the writer sister Imogen, is the most fully portrayed in Roses and Rot.   Her concerns are the central concerns of the book.   Through the lens of Imogen's narration, I didn't see any difference between abusive human parents and the Fae's abuse of  humans residing in places where they have power.  Kat Howard shows the various types of abuse as part of the same continuum.  I believe that she is telling her audience that the identity of the abuser doesn't matter.  Abuse is still abuse, and you shouldn't tolerate it.

I think that the singer/playwright Ariel is the character who takes the strongest stand for freedom from abuse.   It's her independence that gives Imogen the strength to do what most needs to be done.   I really admired Ariel, and at various points while I was reading Roses and Rot I thought that she was my favorite character.  By the way, I would really love to see the rock musical about Joan of Arc that Ariel proposed.  If it was written well and performed by the right cast, it could be one of the greatest musicals of all time.

I liked the statement that this book makes about HEA (Happily Ever After) most.  I think that no one ever really has HEA because we are haunted by unhappy memories that prevent unalloyed happiness.  I have always believed that there are values that are more significant than happiness.  Readers take whatever message relates to their lives most strongly from any book, but the one that reverberates for me most powerfully after I read the final page of this novel is that I'd always rather live with integrity.  That is the value that shines through in the characters that I respected in Roses and Rot.

This is certainly the best book that I've ever read about the Fae.  Faerie is left rather vague.   There is very little time spent there in the course of the narrative.   Kat Howard places humanity and human experience front and center , and that is what makes her book so powerful.




Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton: A Jewish Joan of Arc in an Alternate WWII

This is a review that I originally wrote for Flying High Reviews.  Yet I wanted to write a more extended version, and thought it would be more appropriate to post here.

The best excuse for an alternate history is that it makes a good story.  There are two types of alternate histories that I enjoy.  One type is an improvement on history.   I really wish that history had gone the way the author describes in the novel.   Some alternate histories that I've come across are dystopias.   These are good stories if they provide a meaningful conflict with some insight into problems that we are wrestling with in our own timeline.   I've reviewed a number of alternate history dystopias recently on this blog.  

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton is an alternate history of the first type.   It would be wonderful if history had gone this way.   Once upon a time there was a Jewish kingdom on the steppes bordering with Russia.  It was called Khazaria.  This kingdom actually existed, but in our universe it was overrun and destroyed during the medieval period.   Its inhabitants scattered throughout Eastern Europe.  Occasionally, you see Jews born with red hair.  They probably have Khazar genes, but the culture of the Khazars has vanished.  Now imagine that the Kingdom of the Khazars was still in existence during WWII and that Jewish refugees fled there.  I was intrigued by this concept and received a digital galley for free from Edelweiss.


The Germans are poised to invade Khazaria.  Esther, the protagonist, doesn't want to stand on the sidelines.  She wants to help save Khazaria from the Nazis. The problem is that the Khazars are Orthodox Jews who expect women to aspire only to marriage and motherhood.   She has an arranged engagement to a childhood friend.  She would be happy to marry him under normal circumstances, but the situation for Khazars is far from normal.  So Esther sets out for the legendary village of the Kabalists ,who are Jewish mystics and magicians.  She hopes to ask them  to change her into a man.   Nothing happens as Esther expects, but she does discover that she can play an important role in saving Khazaria.    This is definitely the sort of female central character that fans of this blog want to hear about.  

Since I am one of the ideal readers for The Book of Esther, I loved it.  It's obviously intended for readers who are very well-educated in Judaism.   Jewish customs and religious terminology aren't explained.   Neither is the structure of Khazar society.   So if you've read about the Khazars, as I have, you will also have a leg up in understanding who is who in this novel.   A glossary and recommended bibliography would have been very useful for many readers who have professed themselves mystified in their Goodreads reviews of this novel.  I'm not sure why Barton would have purposely narrowed her audience.
If you're inclined to research the books you read,  I think that Barton's book will reward you for this effort.   Esther is a courageous and intelligent heroine, and there is one rather surprising character that she encounters among the Kabalists.

This novel makes extensive and very interesting use of golems.  These are figures from Jewish folklore who will be recognized by those who encountered one in The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, a very well received historical fantasy taking place in late 19th century New York.   My main criticism of Wecker's book is that she made it easy to leave the late 19th century concept of women's role unexamined by making her female protagonist a golem. Barton, on the other hand, raises questions about golems that reminded me of how Socrates disturbed the intentions of the Goddess Athena for her robots in The Just City.  This was a time travel fantasy by Jo Walton which I reviewed on this blog  here .  In my review of The Just City I declared myself on Team Socrates because Socrates stood up for everyone's rights.  While reading  The Book of Esther,   I wrote in my notes at one point that I was on Team Golem because Barton gave golems more agency than the robots in Walton's book by allowing golems to express their own perspective.   When golems show evidence of  consciousness, we have to ask ourselves about the ethics of viewing golems solely as obedient servants.  So I thought that The Book of Esther approached golems with more complexity than Helene Wecker had in The Golem and the Jinni where the female protagonist's entire personality was predetermined by the fact that she was a golem.

I decided to bring up one other issue that has been raised in Goodreads reviews of The Book of Esther.  Many people wondered about the rest of the world beyond Khazaria.   They thought that Barton had the responsibility to show us more to develop her alternate world.   They had questions about that world.     Since nothing happened outside of Khazaria in The Book of Esther, I thought that Barton's level of information was appropriate.  I believe that authors should only tell readers what they need to know when they need to know it.   I also thought that Barton's task of developing Khazaria itself was challenging enough without adding the previous alternate history of Europe as a whole.  I admit that when I saw a reference to the Ottomans late in this book, I wondered about how the survival of the Ottoman Empire in this alternate 1942 would have impacted Palestine.   In our universe, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered in 1920.  Evidently, there were differences in how WWI and its aftermath proceeded in Barton's continuity.  Yet it seems to me that it makes sense to answer questions if and when they are relevant to the plot.  There may be a sequel.  If that happens, Barton may find it necessary to answer some of our questions about her world.  


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Judenstaat by Simone Zelitch-- Is a Just Jewish State Possible?

This is the second alternate Jewish state novel that I've read.  The first , The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon, came totally out of left field.  The Jewish State is where?  Alaska? Are you kidding me?  It was certainly imaginative, but it didn't seem at all likely.  Judenstaat at least sounds like it could really have happened in the universe next door, not very far from our own.   So I took this book and its implications more seriously.


Many left of center American Jews are very critical of Israel.  They believe that it should be a more just state.  Let's leave aside the issue of whether there is anywhere that could be described as a completely just state in the real world.  Let us consider whether a Jewish state could be more just if it were not in Palestine. Let us suppose it could be situated in uncontested territory.  If so, where could such a place be located? There were real proposals to establish a Jewish state in Uganda or in Argentina.  Yet Zelitch decided to locate her fictional version in Europe.  In her universe, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, a Jewish state was established on German soil.   Some Holocaust survivors would probably have called it a blood bargain, but the rest of the world would most likely have considered it an appropriate form of restitution for the Holocaust.      

Quite a number of devout Jews believe that Palestine was promised to their ancestors by God, and it is therefore the only place where a Jewish state can exist.  My grandmother's family settled in Palestine in the 19th century.   There were also a community of Jews who made Palestine their home after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.  I read about  a family descended from these Spanish Jews in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi which I reviewed here .What happened to these Jews in Zelitch's universe?  Did they fall into a black hole? She only tells us that settlement in Palestine was a failure, but doesn't give us any specifics.   There is no mention of Sephardic (Spanish) or Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews in Judenstaat.   It was as if the only Jews in the world were Ashkenazis (German and Eastern European Jews). I found this very troubling because of a pattern of injustice in the Jewish state of our universe.  In modern Israel, Ashkenazi Jews are politically and economically dominant.  American Jews who are opposed to Israel focus on their discrimination against Arabs, but they also discriminate against Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews.   In their absence, the German speaking Jews of Zelitch's Judenstaat discriminate against the Yiddish speaking Jews of Eastern Europe.

Does Zelitch believe that a just society is impossible?  I believe that there is no such thing as a utopia, but that we should aspire toward a society where there is less prejudice, and less bigoted behavior on the part of those who represent our institutions.  The main goal of those in power in Judenstaat seemed to be the concealment of injustice.

I found Judenstaat thought provoking, disturbing and saddening.   It was a difficult read and I can't say that I was glad that I read it.   I'm not sure that I actually needed to read this book, but there may be much more idealistic readers who still believe that utopia is possible, and that solutions to social problems are easy.   They are the ones who should read Judenstaat.






Friday, August 12, 2016

Intriguing Women- Indian Women Have Become Too Westernized

Net Galley issued a challenge to post a review by today August 12th. I've been meaning to review more Net Galleys.  Their emphasis in the challenge is on helping new books achieve visibility. So I didn't think I should review one of my Net Galleys that had already been archived.  I also like to try indie authors who are unknown to me.

I had just been approved for the anthology Intriguing Women by Lakshmi Raj Sharma. A search revealed that the author is a man.  This astonished me because Lakshmi is a Hindu Goddess.  I think that it's unusual for parents to name a male child after a Goddess.  Perhaps the author is a devotee of Lakshmi and took this name himself.  Intriguing Women is Sharma's third book. I received a free digital ARC from Net Galley in return for this honest review.


   There are two connotations for the word "intriguing".  Americans are likely to use it to mean the same as interesting, but it's also a synonym for scheming.   Judging from the content of this anthology, Sharma is using the word to mean scheming.   I would probably have never requested the book if I had known this.  I had hoped to read about interesting women, not scheming women.  From my perspective, scheming women are irritating.   They are also usually boring because most of their plots are extremely predictable.  So it's not surprising that there were very few stories in this anthology that I liked.   I should point out that this is often the case with anthologies.  I expect to enjoy only a small percentage of the volume.  If there's even one story that I find memorable, I will consider the anthology worthwhile.  If I hadn't read it, I wouldn't have encountered that particular story.

My favorite story in Intriguing Women was "The Company Garden".  It's a British Raj era story dealing with reincarnation.  This is a theme that interests me.  The protagonist has visions of a "nautch girl".  I had never heard of this term, so I conducted a search and found this rather enlightening article from the Tribune of India.   They were secular dancers as opposed to temple dancers.  It occurs to me that Mata Hari would have been considered a nautch girl in India. I recently reviewed The Last Dance of Mata Hari by Michelle Moran here. According to the Tribune article, Christian missionaries degraded nautch girls.  Westerners did the same with the geisha of Japan.   Women who danced or who engaged in other performance arts were more respected in traditional Eastern cultures.   I was glad to learn something I hadn't known about India.

 The stories that I preferred in this anthology centered on unusual concepts rather than characters.  Since Intriguing Women was predominately satiric, the characters were largely designed as objects of derision. They tended to be lightweight stereotypes.  This often applied to the men as well as the women. Yet the main target of the anthology appeared to be westernized Indian women.  While I might agree with the author about the negative impact of westernization,  I did find the majority of these stories rather repetitive.


Saturday, August 6, 2016

Separation (Catnip #4) by J.S. Frankel Has Potential

Lately, my science fiction reads have been dystopian because the dystopian sub-genre has been diversifying its themes in intriguing directions.  Science fiction dystopias that primarily deal with censorship (Melophobia) have emerged.  So have dystopias focusing on climate change such as The Memory of Water by Emi Itäranta.  Nevertheless there is more to science fiction than dystopias.  Science fiction can also hold up a mirror to current society.

 I agreed to review the fourth book in J. S. Frankel's YA Catnip series because I was interested in the concept of inter-species hybrids.   I had read many novels dealing with the magical shapeshifters of fantasy, but this author's protagonists were genetically altered in secret laboratories so that they possessed both human and feline traits.  Humans with animal genes are known as transgenics in the Catnip series.  How would contemporary governments and ordinary citizens react to them?  What issues would J. S. Frankel explore?  With these questions in mind, I began reading my free copy from the author with anticipation.


 I hadn't read the previous three novels in the Catnip series.  So this was my introduction to the teen protagonists, Harry and Anastasia.   As the novel opens, they have already married. Yet there was considerable controversy over whether they should have the right to marry.   This brings to mind the struggle over same sex marriage in the United States.    Harry and Anastasia encounter people who  consider difference dangerous and disturbing.  The most extreme responses toward transgenics in Catnip #4 are displayed by populations in various European nations with a background of fascist or communist dictatorship in the 20th century, though I was reminded of current fear-mongering over Middle Eastern refugees in the United States.   J.S. Frankel's themes in this book seemed very contemporary to me.

It is important to point out that there are legitimate reasons to fear transgenics.  Not all transgenics are as well-intentioned as Harry and Anastasia.   There is also the problem that most transgenics devolve into animals. While this might not seem too bad for readers who have a great deal of affection for animals, the ability of transgenics to communicate and function in human society gradually declines over time in most cases.   This impacts human attitudes toward transgenics.  They aren't likely to achieve acceptance until the tendency to devolve is finally terminated.

Readers who love action will be very pleased by Catnip #4.  There is a prominent thriller component since the protagonists work with the FBI.  Harry and Anastasia get to display their  strength, speed and especially their superior claws on numerous occasions.   The story is largely told from Harry's viewpoint.  Their former and current FBI handlers are also well-portrayed.  Yet I was disappointed that I learned so little about Anastasia.   By the end of the book, I had a general idea of her history with very little in the way of specifics.  I also know that she had a hair trigger temper and makes a terrific ally in a fight, but I don't feel that I really understand her as I could understand and relate to Harry.

Another significant flaw for me is that I thought that the FBI wasn't depicted believably from a procedural standpoint.   At one point they were caught completely flatfooted despite having received a report that should have prepared them for the scenario that developed.   This just wasn't credible.  It made the FBI seem foolish and incompetent.  

I still feel that the Catnip series has the potential to develop in an interesting direction.   Perhaps it will meet my expectations in future volumes.