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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Mandate of Heaven--Preserving A Dynasty in Alternate China

 Mandate of Heaven by J.C. Kang is the fourth novel in the YA Daughter of the Dragon Throne alternate China fantasy series. I reviewed the previous three
 here , here and here though they all have new covers and titles now.

 In our world, when there was a transition between dynasties in China, the previous dynasty was said to have lost the Mandate of Heaven.  See Chinese Dynasties and the Mandate of Heaven for an explanation.   There is a great deal of turmoil in J.C. Kang's alternate China known as Hua or Cathay.   So the question arose as to whether the Wang family, who had been the rulers of this realm, had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

This sounded like a compelling storyline, so I purchased this book on Amazon and told J. C. Kang I would review it.

                             


A destructive dragon had played a role in the first two books. I am happy to say that the dragon in Mandate of Heaven is one who preserves, the Guardian Dragon of Hua.  If the Guardian Dragon comes to the defense of a ruler, that individual can be said to retain the Mandate of Heaven.

In the aftermath of the Emperor's death, Princess Kaiya turns out to be the only one of his children who is competent to rule in the midst of a major crisis for Cathay.  Kaiya  must deal with a revolting cousin who she once trusted, and a simultaneous Teleri invasion. She is also attempting to recover from the traumatic events of the previous novel.   Some readers might consider this too tall an order for a nineteen year old, but Kaiya has shouldered her responsibilities and met big challenges in the earlier novels in this series.  So I was rooting for her to succeed throughout the conflict.

                                   
                        

                                

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Exiles--1920's Paris Literary Mystery

The literary mystery which focuses on the world of writers has always been a favorite sub-genre of mine.  When it's also set in Paris in the 1920's,  I am over the moon--or at least the Eiffel Tower.   This is why I purchased Exiles by Lawrence J. Epstein and reviewed it for Bookplex.


Author Lawrence J. Epstein’s has written extensively about Judaism and Jewish life.  This book is a departure since it’s his first mystery. Although the central character of Exiles has a Jewish background, he has come to Paris to escape his past.   In the 1920’s, which is when Exiles takes place, a number of American writers had made their home in Paris.  The most prominent among them who were included as characters in this book were Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Protagonist Daniel Levin arrives in France with high hopes of becoming a writer, but is soon confronted with the murder of the editor of a literary magazine in a bookstore.

                         

                              
A real strength of the novel is that Daniel Levin is complex and well-portrayed.  Yet some readers may become impatient because he hesitates to investigate the killing for the first third of Exiles despite receiving numerous requests to do so.   I understood the inner conflict that prevented him from joining the genre’s fellowship of amateur detectives.  My interest also never flagged because I loved Daniel’s encounters with prominent literary figures and the great dialogue that ensued.

I would never have guessed that Epstein had never written a mystery before this one because there were all the requisite plot twists.   I certainly didn’t guess the identity of the killer before the end.   So I give this author high marks for the first outing of his new series.

                                          


 



Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Ghost Talkers: Spiritualist Mediums in World War I

 This is the first time in 2017 that I am copying a review I wrote for Flying High Reviews and expanding on it a bit for this blog.  

My reviews dealing with Madame Presidentess  about Victoria Woodhull  and The Witch of Napoli  here , show my interest in spiritualist mediums.  This is why I wanted to read and review Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal.   The premise is that during WWI the British secretly utilized mediums to pass on information from recently dead soldiers to military authorities.  This is an extraordinary concept.  So I thought it would make for a highly unusual novel.

                                     


 Ghost Talkers reflects the world wide predominance of women among spirit mediums.  This doesn't mean that it's impossible for men to be mediums.   There actually are male mediums shown in this novel, but mediums are usually women.  The reasons are largely based on cultural traditions and gender stereotypes.   Mediums must be receptive to spirits. That ability to be receptive is a strength in the context of mediumship, not a weakness.  Gifted men must overcome the idea that receptivity is unmasculine in order to accept that they are mediums. 

Kowal presents mediumship as a way for women to play an important role in the war.   It was not the only role that women played in WWI. We know that women were nurses, ambulance drivers and espionage agents.  There were also woman pilots in WWI.   See  Inspirational Women of World War IGhost Talkers does include nurses, and Kowal prominently mentions ambulance drivers in her historical note.

The women in the British medium corps are presented  as strong individuals.  It's mentioned that some were Afro-Caribbean immigrants.  One Afro-Caribbean medium was a named minor character. Yet the main protagonist was Ginger Stuyvesant, an American whose mother was English.  I ended up respecting Ginger for her courage.   Her romance with British Captain Ben Hadford is very central to the plot, and her last scene with him was very moving.

There were some literary references in Ghost Talkers.  A number of them were due to the use of books as keys for coded letters.  There were a couple of others that I enjoyed.

One was a reference to a martial arts form that was mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story.   Arthur Conan Doyle mistakenly called it "baritsu" in "The Adventure of the Empty House".   Sherlock Holmes was supposed to have survived his encounter with Moriarity at Reichenbach Falls by using this martial art.  It was actually bartitsu .  What interested me most about the Wikipedia article on bartitsu that I linked is that Edith Garrud, who trained women to guard suffragettes, studied it.   I discovered Edith Garrud when I researched the movie Suffragette which I reviewed here.  Another literary connection with bartitsu, according to its Wikipedia article, is Will Thomas' Barker & Llewellyn mysteries.  Since I've read a couple of them, I was tickled that Will Thomas based protagonist Cyrus Barker on the founder of bartitsu, E. W. Barton-Wright.

I also enjoyed finding out in the acknowledgements that the Lieutenant Tolkien who was briefly mentioned in Ghost Talkers really was J.R.R. Tolkien who did fight in WWI, and based The Battle of  Helm's Deep on his war experiences. 

 I give this book an A for originality.  It may be a candidate for my favorite read of 2017, but it's much too early in the year to know that for certain.  It would be wonderful if Mary Robinette Kowal wrote further about the women of the medium corps.

                                     


Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Bone Witch

The theme of necromancy fascinates me.  It got me to read the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton.  The necromancy concept was never really developed in those books, and Hamilton wandered away from it.   This resulted in my wandering away from the series.

I've seen some stories of necromancers as ceremonial magicians who draw a protective magical circle and summon the spirits of the dead into that circle.  A cautious attitude is wise when you don't know the spirit you're summoning.   Yet what about the beloved dead?

When I read in the description of  YA fantasy The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco that twelve year old protagonist Tea refused to accept the death of her brother and ended up resurrecting him, I was intrigued.  I also loved the cover.    So I requested an ARC from Net Galley,  and am now posting this honest review.

                             




Chupeco  doesn't spend nearly enough time on necromancy, but she does eventually show us how a deliberate act of necromancy works in her universe.   It's a dark approach, but it's  based on ancient beliefs about the nature of life and death.  I thought it was an excellent concept.

On the other hand, this is what is now called an epic fantasy.  This means that it takes place in a universe imagined by the author as opposed to urban fantasy whose setting is in a contemporary urban context, or historical fantasy which deals with a specific time and place in our past.  I always hope that an epic fantasy will be less derivative than they usually are, and I'm  always disappointed.  This is why I read so little epic fantasy.   

This book pulls background from a bestselling historical novel, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.  I wondered if this was originally supposed to be historical fantasy.  I also  imagine that Chupeco considered the borrowed background a selling point.  She thought that the fans of Memoirs of a Geisha would buy the book.  I am not one of those fans.  I read Geisha: A Life by Mineko Iwasaki.  Iwasaki was the geisha that Arthur Golden interviewed when he was writing his book.  She considered the novel a misrepresentation.   I urge people who want to know the truth about geisha to read Iwasaki's memoir.

From a feminist viewpoint, the idea that women who have magical gifts that could potentially transform their world for the better should spend a great deal of their time entertaining wealthy and powerful men is repulsive.  It nevertheless makes sense in the patriarchal context that Chupeco is  portraying.   This practice provides these pseudo-geisha with important connections, but it also defuses the fear of strong women by making them seem harmless.   Since Tea turns out to be far too much of a powerhouse to be confined to the traditional geisha role, this strategy completely fails to render her unintimidating.

My favorite character in this novel is a boy whose nature and talents cause him to rebel against established gender roles.   His name is Likh.   He has magical abilities.  In this society, he would be required to join a special force of male magical adepts who are deployed militarily.  Yet Likh is a gentle soul who is unsuited to the military.   He is also a graceful dancer.  This would qualify him to be a pseudo-geisha, but males aren't permitted to assume this role.   I wanted this book to be about Likh's conflict with his society, but he was a minor character who didn't get enough space in the narrative to suit me.

Another important bone that I would like to pick with The Bone Witch is that I feel that it ended up reinforcing stereotypes about necromancers.  It seems to me that magic is a tool.  Whether it's good or evil depends on the ethical compass of the practitioner.   If someone's magical abilities are particularly potent, it is much more incumbent upon that individual to consider the consequences of every magical act.

 I also think that a character who isn't introspective or ambivalent about his or her decisions, isn't very interesting.   Perhaps  the YA genre doesn't really accommodate the maturity that I wanted to see in Tea, but I was a reflective teenager myself.  This is probably why I believe that she fell short, and that The Bone Witch became less worthwhile as a result.

                                     









                                    




Sunday, January 1, 2017

My 2016 Retrospective

                                       
                                             Image courtesy of  arcadante at
                                                         FreeDigitalPhotos.net


 As I predicted in the beginning of 2016, I didn't post as frequently, but at least I can say that my post total was higher than this blog's first year.   My views total was a bit short of 8800, but I believe that I can claim that my views nearly doubled.

Book Babe, where I have been co-blogging with Tara , now has a new title.   This means that my most viewed post in 2016 appeared on Flying High Reviews.  It was my review of  The Last Painting of  Sara de Vos  by Dominic Smith.  My most viewed 2016 post on Shomeret: Masked Reviewer was my review of Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran.  This is not surprising since both books are popular historical fiction from major publishers.  

Now I will present the best books I read in 2016 which are recipients of 

                                 The Golden Mask Awards 

Best Book of the Year

Everfair  by Nisi Shawl

This first novel receives the award for originality and compelling themes.   It portrays an alternate history of the Congo.  It was also the best book published in 2016, the best science fiction book and the best ARC that I received from Net Galley in 2016.  You can read my review here. 

Best Fantasy Novel

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton 

This one was also a first novel and an alternate history.   In our world, the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria was destroyed in the  medieval period, but in Barton's magical novel it survived to fight the Nazis in WWII!   See my review here.

Best Contemporary Fiction

The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes 

This was a book that I nominated on Kindle Scout which ended up being accepted for publication on Kindle Press.   I've been impressed with all my previous Kindle Scout nominees that have been published by Amazon.   This affecting novel deals with an autistic teen who loves trees and becomes an activist to preserve his favorite tree. It's also the best YA novel I read in 2016 and the best indie published book of 2016.  My review can be read here.

Since Amazon is rather dominant in the book business, I gave some thought about whether I should consider Kindle Press an indie publisher.  I decided that my criterion was whether you can obtain titles from the publisher at libraries.  Overdrive only offers e-books from major publishers that have also been published in print formats.   This means that Kindle Press books aren't able to attain the same level of distribution, and should be considered at a similar disadvantage to indie publishers.

Best Historical Fiction

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones

I discovered this book on the Goodreads group African American Historical Fiction.   It deals with a 1930's African American musician who finds that he can leave racial discrimination behind by going to China.   My review can be found here.

Best Romance

Miss Jacobson's Journey by Carola Dunn


Jewish protagonists are rare in romance.  I certainly wouldn't expect to find them in the Regency sub-genre which tends to focus on the world of British aristocrats.  I was also impressed by the independence of the heroine.   See my review here .

Best Graphic Novel

Wonder Woman: Hiketeia by Greg Rucka


I read other wonderful graphic novels in 2016, but this Wonder Woman book with classical Greek content and structure was a masterpiece.   I read this close to the end of the year and didn't have time to do this title justice in a full length blog review, but it shows why Greg Rucka is eminently qualified to write Wonder Woman.

Best Non-Fiction

Honorary White by E. R. Braithwaite

This memoir of a stay in apartheid South Africa was written by the author of To Sir With Love.  I thought that it was the most thorough depiction of South Africa during this period.  Braithwaite spoke to a cross-section of the population in a number of cities plus Soweto and Transkei.   

I wish you all good reads in 2017!