Search This Blog

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

When a book is difficult for me to review, I'm always tempted not to review it at all.  Then I think that I got this one for free from Edelweiss.  I'm very late with my review, but I did request it with enthusiasm for a futuristic Joan of Arc. Last year I loved the alternate history Khazar Joan of Arc in The Book of Esther by Emily Barton  which I reviewed here .  Yet what happens when I read The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch, and I find that I'm queasy and doubtful about my responses?  So let's see if I can figure out why I'm having these problems by writing this review.


A part of my unease is that this is an extremely dark dystopia starring a dictator who revels in violence and cruelty.  Yuknavitch doesn't shove the torture, butchery and destruction off-stage.  She wants us to experience every horrific detail. She shows how it impacts his victims.  I thought that Yuknavitch's dictator owed a great deal to the work of the Marquis de Sade-- particularly De Sade's idea of a utopia,  The 120 Days of Sodom.

 Dystopian fiction is intended as a warning. It portrays what will happen "if this goes on".  "If this goes on" is a central impulse that drives all of science fiction.   Yet readers can be forgiven if they feel that living in what seems like an embryonic dystopia is enough for us.  Musical satirist Tom Lehrer once sang "imagine Broadway melody of  1984".  I don't need to imagine it.   I've had  far too much dystopia lately.  I want some respite from the fear and the stress that pervades my current environment.

Then there's Yuknavitch's Joan who is no saint.   She's a young woman who's been hardened by surviving too much death and terror.   Through much of the book I wondered how much she had in common with the original Maid of Orleans.  It took a long while for me to warm up to this Joan.   I felt sick for all her losses, but I didn't really connect with her until fairly late in the narrative.

Yuknavitch questions the actions of the original Joan, the value of her goals and what she achieved. Since I live in the 21st century and not in the 15th  century as Joan of Arc did, I might be more sympathetic toward Yuknavitch's views if she hadn't made the decision to place her words inside the head of a medieval girl who simply wouldn't think in those terms about her mission.  It seemed totally anachronistic.   Joan of Arc speaks very eloquently for herself in the trial transcripts.   Yuknavitch's inauthentic voice of the original Joan lost me completely.  It was false to history.

This wasn't the only mis-step that I found in The Book of Joan.   There are also lengthy info dumps which I consider a lazy method of world building. Worse still, Yuknavitch broke into the narrative to deliver lectures containing her opinions about current social trends.   The issue is not whether I agree with her, but whether such overt didacticism is appropriate in a novel.   I prefer fiction that is more subtle.

 The ending of this novel did have a great deal of power.  It caused me to think that this potentially could have been a really good book if all the digressions had been removed.  So I guess I have come to a conclusion through the review process.   If I were grading The Book of Joan as a submitted assignment I would have said that it needs improvement.



Sunday, August 6, 2017

Destiny is Woven By The Light of Hidden Candles

I first found out about By Light of Hidden Candles by Daniella Levy when the author asked people to vote on cover candidates for this book on the Goodreads group Jewish Historical Fiction.  I voted for the cover that Levy decided to use.  So I recognized it when I saw it on Net Galley which is my source for this ARC.   By Light of Hidden Candles won't be published until October 2017.


The historical aspect of this novel deals with 15th century Spain.   Long before I began blogging, I had read quite a bit about Jews during this period.    The only time I've approached the subject on this blog was when I reviewed The Mapmaker's Daughter by Laurel Corona here.  Corona's book was set apart by her highly accomplished female protagonist.

What makes By Light of Hidden Candles different is that it's a dual period novel.   We pretty much know where the 15th century Jewish characters will end up because Alma, their 21st century descendant, already knew that information.  This necessarily lessens the suspense in the historical story line.  So the central drama of the narrative involves the contemporary characters, what they will discover about their ancestors, how they will discover it and the impact that learning about their ancestors will have on them.
I was most interested in the Spanish Catholic contemporary protagonist,  Manuel Aguilar, who we first encounter unexpectedly walking into a Judaica store in New York.   Readers may think they know why he entered that store, but this is a complex character whose motivations aren't completely clear even to himself.  Readers come to know Manuel through the process of his own grappling with his faith, values and identity.

I very much enjoyed the fact that Alma and Manuel found history as compelling and meaningful as I do.   They are excited by finding documents that are centuries old.  Any readers who don't think that history has any real relevance will be amazed by the power of research to change the lives of Alma and Manuel.  As someone who absolutely loves archives, I was delighted by a novel where the entire plot turns on a mention of an ancestor in archival records.

Although the contemporary story has a less obvious ending than the historical plot, there is an element of predictability for the contemporary characters.  The strong sense of destiny at work plus other factors that are spoilers made me realize how the contemporary plotline would resolve very early in my reading.  So very little was surprising in By Light of Hidden Candles,  yet I was still moved by the characters and their relationships.

 I recommend this book to people  who want to read about family history and genealogy that makes a difference in the way people see themselves.



Friday, August 4, 2017

The Eldritch Heart--Blog Tour and Giveaway

The Eldritch Heart
Matthew S. Cox
Published by: Curiosity Quills Press
Publication date: August 1st 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Princess Oona Talomir enjoys the little things that come with her station: a handmaiden, her lavish bedchamber, and scores of fancy dresses―the duty to win a decades’ long war, not so much.
Oh, did I mention assassins?
Seers foretold the conflict would end by her hand. From the moment she drew her first breath, the neighboring kingdom has been trying to kill her so she could not grow powerful enough to destroy them. The king, fearing for his daughter’s life, has kept her confined to the castle grounds for most of her sixteen years. With the tide of war turning against them, the burden of her crown becomes too much to bear, yet one thing lifts her spirits amid the gloom.
Her servant girl, Kitlyn.
Alas, in a kingdom obsessed with the god of purity, she is terrified to confess her forbidden love. When her father makes a demand she cannot abide―marry a prince to forge a military alliance―Oona panics. He is handsome and honorable, but he’s not Kitlyn. Unable to admit why she cannot obey, Oona does the only thing she can think of, and runs away.
Alone and unprepared in the wilderness, she prays the gods will let Kitlyn find her—before the assassins do.

Author Bio:
Born in a little town known as South Amboy NJ in 1973, Matthew has been creating science fiction and fantasy worlds for most of his reasoning life. Somewhere between fifteen to eighteen of them spent developing the world in which Division Zero, Virtual Immortality, and The Awakened Series take place. He has several other projects in the works as well as a collaborative science fiction endeavor with author Tony Healey.
Hobbies and Interests:
Matthew is an avid gamer, a recovered WoW addict, Gamemaster for two custom systems (Chronicles of Eldrinaath [Fantasy] and Divergent Fates [Sci Fi], and a fan of anime, British humour,and intellectual science fiction that questions the nature of reality, life and what happens after it.  He is also found of cats.
Website / Goodreads / Facebook / Twitter
Scroll down below my review for the blog tour wide giveaway of a $25 Amazon gift card.


The first thing I need to say about this book is that it's entertaining with engaging central characters and intriguing plot twists.  I want novels that are page turners like this one, but I also want them to be more than that.   I want originality and important ideas too.

I once observed in another epic fantasy review that originality is synthesis.  It's the process of combining elements from a variety of sources so that they coalesce into a new fusion of themes, plot motifs and characters.  This is what I think Matthew Cox has done in The Eldritch Heart.  I recognized savory bits from the work of such authors as J.R.R. Tolkien, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Stephen Donaldson melded into a distinct recipe.

I requested a review copy of this novel and a slot in the blog tour because a lesbian protagonist is still relatively unusual in epic fantasy.  So I thought The Eldritch Heart  might need my help to reach its audience.  Oona could be an inspiration to those who need her in their lives. 

Once I read the book, I realized that it also deserved my support for another important reason.   Fantasy and science fiction author Jane Lindskold had complained at a reading which I attended a number of years ago that epic fantasy has a strong anti-democratic tendency.   She thought that American fantasy authors shouldn't be uncritical cheerleaders for monarchy and aristocracy.  So I noticed when Matthew Cox seemed to be questioning some of the values of traditional epic fantasy without completely overturning them. The plot actually resembles a Mark Twain classic in some ways.  I won't say which one.  That would be a spoiler.

I feel that I need to mention the use that The Eldritch Heart makes of the name of  Ogun , a spirit who is worshiped widely in a number of African diasporic traditions.  Some might think that this is disrespectful. Yet it's also possible that others might see some similarities to attributes of the African Ogun in Cox's character, and have no problem with it.  Readers will need to decide for themselves on this issue.  If you are an adherent of an African diasporic religion, you have the option of consulting Ogun yourself.

I enjoyed reading The Eldritch Heart for its plot and character relationships.  I also thought that it explores some important themes.  I considered it a good read.



Monday, July 24, 2017

The Beacons I See--The Paranormal Gift of An Autistic Protagonist

Autistic protagonists have become more common lately.  I have read a number of such books, and have been pleased with the authenticity of the authors’ portrayals of individuals on the autistic spectrum.   I need to point out that these autistic protagonists were children or teens.  The Beacons I See by Ty Unglebower is the first novel that I’ve encountered that is written from the perspective of an autistic adult.  This is why I decided to purchase it from Amazon and review it for Bookplex.

 I did recently read a book in which an autistic child was paranormally gifted like Vanessa Martine in The Beacons I See.   It’s called The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin by Stephanie Knipper which I won through a Goodreads giveaway.  I believe that the similarity in the surnames of the central characters is coincidental.  These two books are very dissimilar in perspective and tone.  They also diverge due to the differing paranormal gifts depicted in each novel.


The cover displays the puzzling bright purple beacon that Vanessa saw hovering over a forest in all its glory.   This book deals with how that purple beacon brings Vanessa to a greater understanding of her paranormal gift.   Vanessa is very introspective.  Her thought processes are unusual, but they help her to function in the neurotypical world.  Unglebower’s portrayal of Vanessa is the greatest strength of The Beacons I See.   Since the author is autistic, readers may wonder how much of his own personality was distilled into his creation.  For the purpose of this review, I think it’s sufficient to say that Vanessa seemed very real to me.    She reminded me very much of other functioning autistic adults that I know. 

 Since I really love books dealing with art and artists, I was very interested in Vanessa's sketching activities, her artistic process and how her choice of subjects assisted her psychologically.  She drew spiritual figures from several different religious traditions employing insights from her studies of these religions.   Since I consider myself a student of all forms of spirituality, this aspect of Vanessa caused me to identify with her.

From a plot perspective, this novel may seem slow paced to readers who expect to see a great deal happening in the novels they read.   This is definitely not a thriller.   There is eventually a highly dramatic incident that brings about a resolution, but Unglebower is in no hurry to get us there.  Vanessa is on a journey and she stops to reflect on every step she takes along her path.  If you have no patience for such a novel of character, then this is not the book for you.

The editing wasn’t flawless.   I found nine copyediting issues which included missing words, incorrect words and a duplication of words in one particular case.   This wasn’t beyond tolerance, but the editing could have been better.  

I would like to close with a note about genre.   Some might want to categorize this book as contemporary fiction with a magical realist aspect.   I feel that the development of the context for Vanessa’s paranormal heritage was significant enough that I am comfortable calling The Beacons I See a rather special fantasy novel that allows us to perceive a unique viewpoint.   


Monday, July 17, 2017

Brave New Girls #2-- A YA Science Fiction Anthology Featuring Ingenious Girls

When I reviewed the science fiction/mystery crossover anthology, Love, Murder 
and Mayhem on this blog here, I particularly mentioned author Mary Fan's AI Sherlock story and the Brave New Girls anthologies which she co-edits with author Paige Daniels.  Mary Fan noticed my review and sent me an ARC of Brave New Girls # 2 in return for this honest review.

Let me say that I was impressed by the series concept which is to encourage girls to study the sciences and enter scientific professions.  The proceeds from this anthology go to the scholarship fund of the Society of Women Engineers.  Although I am not myself a scientist, I would like to see a world where more girls consider these fields.  I would also like to see an end to discrimination against woman scientists.   See my review of The Other Einstein here for my remarks about discrimination against women in the professions.  This anthology is probably aimed at girls. Yet it seems to me that unless boys also read anthologies like this one, the situation is unlikely to change.


My normal disclaimer when I review anthologies is that I usually only like a few stories.   That disclaimer does apply here, but what is unusual is that I absolutely loved two of these stories.  So I'll devote a paragraph to each.

My favorite was "Circus in the Sky" by Lisa Toohey.  It combines two subjects  which are perennial themes in my reading--circuses and animal welfare.   Let me be clear that I don't enjoy circuses that imprison animals in order to entertain humans.  The circus acts that attract my admiration exhibit human grace, skill and power. It's trapeze artists and acrobats that thrill me.  Like Kaleigh, the protagonist of "Circus in the Sky", I believe animals belong in their natural habitats.    This story is different from many others in this anthology.  Kaleigh isn't an inventor or a tinkerer, but she does have scientific ambitions.  Her scientific progenitor is a heroine of mine, Jane Goodall.   Kaleigh is also very courageous.  She stands up for an animal who has no other advocate within the circus that employs her.   I was delighted to meet someone like her within the pages of a book.  A novel dealing with Kaleigh's adventures in her future career could be amazing.

Another story that really wowed me was "Hack" by Evangeline Jennings.  This story centers on the strong bond between two female protagonists in a desperate situation aboard a space ship where essential ship functions are failing.   It's emotionally intense and very suspenseful.   I appreciated the fact that the most knowledgeable of the pair of protagonists is disabled.   There is a political substrate that readers may find topical.   Jennings is much more explicit about her politics in her biographical note.

There were other stories that stood out. The dystopian "Our Very Respected and Always Benevolent Leader" was memorable because the non-deaf central characters communicated by hand signing.  I was also struck by the ideology behind their communication choice. "In A Whole New Light" was a contemporary tale that dealt with bullying.  That description sounds pedestrian, but it raised an ethical question for me.   When I did research in my graduate program, I had to obtain consent from all participants.   Is it ethical to experiment on someone without his knowledge if the result achieves a worthwhile goal?  I thought this was a thought provoking issue. Finally,  "Let Androids Eat Cake" got my attention by being the first steampunk story I'd read that took place during the French Revolution.

There were a few stories that I considered flawed.  A story with a great deal of potential required more research in an area where I am no expert, but knew enough to spot inaccurate terminology.  The same story also made a highly misleading statement about a legal issue.  I spotted that because I had taken a course dealing with international law. Another story disappointed me because there appeared to have been no attempt at diplomacy in a conflict between two cities.   Then there was a story that ended with an AI making what seemed to be a rather stupid decision that didn't take into consideration the likely motivations of the villains.  Worse yet, the protagonist didn't question the AI's advice.   It seemed to me that the author might have lost track of the narrative in that particular case.

Despite the stories to which I referred in the paragraph above, I thought there was enough worthwhile content in Brave New Girls #2 to recommend it to teens in search of science fiction adventure starring girls using science to achieve their goals.