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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

People of the Book: A Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction Anthology

I consider this the year of the anthology because I've reviewed more anthologies than usual.  People of the Book edited by Rachel Swirsky and Sean Wallace is almost certainly the last review of an anthology that I am likely to post to this blog in 2017.

I recall reading at least one other Jewish science fiction anthology, but it probably was during the 20th century long before I had a blog.  People of the Book is a collection of 21st century stories.  I hadn't read a single one of them previously though they are all reprints.


This was another superior anthology because there were two stories that I considered excellent, and neither were by one of the well known contributors.  Many readers, when they read anthologies at all, gravitate to stories by writers with familiar names.   I give every story a chance to hook me.  If I have no commitment to review the anthology, I will be on to the next story very quickly when the writer hasn't caught my interest. I am capable of skipping stories by authors who have written novels that are favorites of mine.   I am convinced that novels and short fiction require different skills.  I also firmly believe that few authors, if any, can write at the same level of excellence throughout their careers.  All writers are human beings. Fiction can't be produced by robots on an assembly line.  So while an author may create a masterpiece,  you can't use a cookie cutter to produce masterpieces one after another.   Any attempt to do so would result in a writer falling into a rut, and becoming formulaic. I am never surprised that I don't love everything by an author. 

I read seven stories out of the twenty listed in the table of contents of  People of the Book.  That's about a third of the collection.  There have been many anthologies where I read no more than two or three stories.  When that happens, I usually don't review them.

The story that I loved the most was "Niels Bohr and the Sleeping Dane" by Jonathon Sullivan. This was a World War II story that dealt with the escape of Jews from Nazi occupied Denmark. I was transfixed by the characters and their situation.  Yet that would earn the story a B+.  What pushed Sullivan's tale up to an A was the excellent use of a figure from Danish folklore.  This made the story richer and more resonant for me. Although this story is definitely fiction, I also learned things I didn't know about the life of the renowned physicist Niels Bohr.

The Danish folkloric figure in Jonathon Sullivan's story is  Holger Danske who was first mentioned in the Chanson de Roland as Ogier the Dane who fought for Charlemagne.  As Holger Danske,  he seems like a sort of King Arthur in that he is the sleeping hero who will awake to defend Denmark when it's invaded.  This is why there was a Danish Resistance Group during World War II called Holger Danske.  Since Sullivan is writing fantasy, his "Sleeping Dane" plays a magical role in resistance to the Nazis. It was a wonderfully moving resolution.

The other extraordinary story in this anthology is dark and disturbing.  In  the alternate history tale "Dark Coffee, Bright Light and the Paradoxes of Omnipotence" by Ben Burgis, we enter a nightmarish Palestine where Jews are treated the same way as Palestinians are in our universe's Israel, and some Jews become terrorists just as some Jews did during the British Mandate before 1948.  The divergence point that created this Palestine is in 1967 when Israel lost what is called the Twelve Days War in that universe.  I found the story very powerful.  The Jewish protagonist reminded me of the Israeli Arab central character in The Attack by Yasmina Khadra which is a very dark and disturbing novel.

The story by a well-known contributor to this anthology that I thought most noteworthy was "Uncle Chaim, Aunt Rifke and the Angel" by Peter S. Beagle.  It takes place in the U.S. and is a culturally Ashkenazi  (Eastern European Jewish) story about a Jewish artist who paints portraits of an angel.   At first, I thought it was a light entertaining story but the resolution gave it a surprising psychological depth.   I gave it a grade of B+.

A number of stories in People of the Book didn't hold my interest, but the three stories I discussed above made this anthology a memorable one.




Sunday, December 24, 2017

Smoke City: The Quest For Redemption

Smoke City by Keith Rosson is my second literary encounter with   this author.  My first was in Behind The Mask: A Superhero Anthology which I reviewed here .  Both books were sent to me by the publisher, Meerkat Press, as ARCs for review.


Near future Los Angeles is having a huge epidemic of spectral appearances in Smoke City, but we don't become aware of them until the characters arrive there.   That's because this fantasy isn't primarily about ghosts.  It focuses on the characters.  There are two major viewpoint characters who are central to the narrative.

The first is Michael Vale, a former artist who has become a self-destructive alcoholic.  He is somewhat sympathetic because he was cheated out of the rights to his work by his agent.  Yet there are limits to my sympathy.   Like almost everyone in Vale's life, I lost patience with him.  Vale was ostensibly seeking redemption, but he seemed to be a hopeless case. If he were the only viewpoint character, I might not have continued reading Smoke City much beyond the novel's opening.  Fortunately, this was not the case.

Marvin Deitz is far more interesting and compelling.  He is the latest incarnation of a 15th century Frenchman who lit the fire that burned Joan of Arc.  He has been cursed to a continuous cycle of violent death and rebirth since then, and is consumed with guilt.  Marvin also remembers every detail of his past lives without any need for past life regression therapy.

Joan of Arc is one of my historical obsessions.  This is why I read and reviewed The Maid of Heaven by Aiden James and Michelle Wright here.  Marvin reminded me of the protagonist of The Maid of Heaven who is the biblical Judas cursed with  immortality.   This isn't an identical concept to Rosson's, but it is a similar one since the immortal Judas has lived many lives by moving from place to place and assuming different identities.  A major difference is their relationship to Joan of Arc.  Marvin was once Joan's executioner, but the immortal Judas is an ally of Joan's who fought for her cause. Like Marvin, this Judas also wants to redeem himself, but his crime is a more ancient one which has made him infamous.  Marvin is a good deal more angst-ridden than the immortal Judas.  I think that not having to undergo terrible deaths gives that notorious betrayer a somewhat sunnier disposition.  When I was reading Marvin's account of his past lives, I couldn't help wondering what would have happened if he had met Judas from The Maid of Heaven.

I also found myself comparing Marvin to the Norse deity, Odin.  Both Marvin and Odin lost an eye, but Odin received wisdom in return for this loss.  Marvin's loss of an eye was not an ennobling sacrifice.  It was part of his ongoing punishment for his execution of a saint.   

For Vale and Marvin, their journey to Los Angeles turns out to be transformative.   Vale experiences character growth, and Marvin has some extraordinary experiences with ghosts that change everything for him.  I was glad to see the much improved Vale, and a happier Marvin.

Readers who like their urban fantasy with a focus on characters, and a historical dimension will probably like Smoke City a great deal.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Lights Out Summer: A Murder The Police Didn't Care About

Today I'm blogging about Lights Out Summer by Rich Zahradnick which I received free of charge as a review copy through publicist Wiley Saichek.  It's the 4th in a series of mysteries in which the protagonist is a reporter.  I have not read the previous three books, but I never felt that I was missing anything important.  So I think that it's possible to read Lights Out Summer first.


I liked the idea of going back to my home town, New York City, through the pages of a mystery.   NYC is vast and diverse.  Even native New Yorkers can't be expected to be equally conversant with every single neighborhood in the five boroughs of this great city.  I generally give Zahradnik high marks for authenticity. There is one exception. His brief mention of Inwood led me to suspect that he'd only ever been to its park.  In the 1970's, which is when Lights Out Summer took place, Inwood was an urban neighborhood.  It had streets lined with apartment buildings and stores.  It was accessible by subway.  I knew it very well. That's why I mentioned it even though Inwood doesn't really play a role in the plot.  I admit to nitpicking here.

  Since I was there in 1977 I can confirm that at the time, the overwhelming majority of column inches in NYC newspapers devoted to local crime did seem to be covering the Son of Sam murders.  Zahradnik's hero took the road less traveled because he wanted to do some original reporting.  He decided to cover the murder of an African American woman which had received a very perfunctory police investigation.  Since he met with a great deal of discouragement,  I thought that he should be congratulated for sticking with that case until it was resolved.                                      

Although I've seen journalists playing the role of detective before, I haven't always been impressed with them.  I've reviewed books in the Rebekah Roberts mystery series by Julia Dahl which also has a reporter protagonist.  So I'd like to make a distinction between these two central characters.  Zahradnick's Taylor is competent and well-suited to crime reporting unlike Julia Dahl's Rebekah. For my criticisms of Rebekah's competence as a journalist see my review of the first novel in her series here.  For my remarks about her suitability for crime reporting see my review of the second novel in the Rebekah Roberts series here. Taylor, on the other hand, was secure enough in the criminal investigation environment for me to categorize this novel as a procedural, but it's a journalist procedural rather than a police procedural.

In addition to being good at his job, Taylor also has martial arts skills.  This is not a martial arts novel, but it contained realistic fight scenes which enhanced my appreciation of the book.

Of the three books that I have reviewed for Wiley Saichek this year, I enjoyed Lights Out Summer the most.  It contained a number of sympathetic and credible characters along with the well-paced suspense of the narrative.  I'm glad I didn't miss it, and I would be inclined to read other books by Zahradnik.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Dollmaker Of Krakow: A Children's Book With Serious Themes

The story of a Polish dollmaker seemed like an interesting angle on World War II, but then I learned that it was from the perspective of a sentient doll which made The Dollmaker of Krakow by R. M. Romero even more unique.  This is also a debut novel.  Historical fantasy continues to renew its vitality with newcomer books like this one.


This book is marketed to middle grade children.   A novel from a doll's viewpoint may sound very sweet and whimsical, but parents need to be aware that the doll's experiences in both the Land of the Dolls and Poland deal with mature themes.   Your child may be ready to learn about invasions and genocide, or may have already been exposed to these themes in another context.  Yet I would still recommend that parents read this book with their children and discuss it with them.

As an adult reader, I found the book rewarding.  I could draw parallels between the way dolls were viewed by invaders in the Land of the Dolls, and the treatment of androids on the first season of the television series Humans (for more information see the article about this science fiction series on Wikipedia ) which is also similar to the stigmatization of Jews and other minorities as sub-human by some members of dominant groups throughout history.

Another aspect of this book that fascinated me was the Eastern European folklore.   R. M. Romero dropped figures from local myths and legends into 20th century Poland.  As a Robin Hood fan, I particularly enjoyed the presence of Juraj Jánošík, who was a Robin Hood figure. His legend was based on an actual highwayman who lived from 1688-1713 according to his article on Wikipedia .   I also found a blog entry about him dealing more extensively with the legend  at "Robbing The Rich: Juraj Janosik" .  He was supposed to have been given three magical objects by mythic figures who may have been either goddesses or witches.

From the author's note I learned that this novel took its current shape due to Romero's visits to the site of the concentration camp at Auschwitz in 2005 and 2016.    These experiences and her associated research lend the book its historical authenticity.   Its magical and mythic elements make The Dollmaker of Krakow an outstanding fantasy novel.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

1066 Turned Upside Down: England Unconquered

I admit that I imprinted on Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe as a child. Scott's oppressive Normans versus the downtrodden Saxons was the original template that formed the foundation of my later obsession with legendary freedom fighters like Robin Hood particularly Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood television series. (For more information see the Wikipedia article on this TV show.) By the time I became an ROS fan, I had studied history.  So I knew very well that 12th century England wasn't really a Norman vs. Saxon world as portrayed in Ivanhoe.  Yet I also knew that William the Conqueror had imposed European feudalism on England which was a considerably more oppressive system than the Saxon Witan mentioned in the anthology that is the subject of this review, 1066 Turned Upside Down.

Because of the background described above, I have more emotional investment in stories that reverse the Norman Conquest than many other topics in alternate history.  That's why I purchased the anthology when I first learned about it, but didn't read it until I found out that there was a Roma Nova story included in the collection.

Roma Nova is an alternate history series created by Alison Morton based on the premise that a Roman colony was established by Pagan Romans who wanted to continue practicing their religion after it was outlawed during the reign of the Roman Emperor Theodosius.  This Roman colony outlasted the Roman Empire and is an independent nation in an alternate 21st century.  I have reviewed two Roma Nova novels and a novella.  You can find my reviews of  Inceptio, Perfiditas and Carina by clicking on their titles.

The Roma Nova story in 1066 Turned Upside Down is the first to take place before the 20th century.   All the  Roma Nova novels that have so far appeared either deal with 21st century protagonist Carina or are 20th century flashbacks to the life of her grandmother, Aurelia.  "A Roman Intervenes" takes place in 1066.  I was glad to see that Carina's ancestor, Galla Mitela, was just as capable of unorthodox improvisation in the service of her goals.  In this case, her goal was the prevention of William of Normandy's invasion of England.

I also really liked another similar story because of the characters.  "The Danish Crutch" by Anna Belfrage deals with a pair of very interesting Danish spies in Normandy.  One is a woman who speaks Norman French, and the other is a bard who walks with a crutch.  Both are underestimated, but can deliver the unexpected.

Another story with memorable characters was "The Dragon Tailed Star" by Carol McGrath whose young protagonist Thea is vividly portrayed.  I was impressed with McGrath's depiction of Harold's Queen as well.   I thought that the most interesting aspect of that story was the extent of Norman penetration and influence before the Norman invasion.

Also noteworthy was the feminist oriented tale "The Needle Can Mend" by Eliza  Redgold in which women can be peace weavers and those who wove the Bayeux Tapestry could have introduced hidden messages.   I had actually read a book of historical scholarship that argued for a subversive interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry.  So this story's controversial concept wasn't new to me, but it was the first time I'd seen it in a fictional context.

So I'm glad that I purchased 1066 Turned Upside Down.  I consider it a worthwhile read.