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Saturday, July 7, 2018

Smoke and Iron (Great Library #4)-- Saving The Great Library From Itself

I reviewed the previous novel in Rachel Caine's dystopian alternate history fantasy series back in April here and promised that I would get to Smoke and Iron relatively soon.  The time got away from me. With the best of intentions, I become over-committed.  Then I heard from the publisher wondering when I would review it.  So I shoe-horned this Net Galley into my schedule as best as I could.  Many thanks to the publisher and Net Galley for the ARC.
 
                             

The central characters of this series are rebels, but they are rebels that are part of the Great Library.  They are scholars, obscurists with magical abilities and High Garda military officers who want the Great Library to be restored to its original values without the authoritarianism and corruption that had crept in.  They're something like the contemporary Americans who call themselves the Resistance except that the protagonists of this series are only a small group.  They needed to gain more support or they couldn't possibly succeed.  Smoke and Iron is the story of how they start to build a network.   This isn't a simple process.  It's difficult and dangerous.  It also couldn't be completed in one book.

There is a belief that heroes are people who accomplish great feats on their own.   This is a myth.  Heroes have mentors and allies.  Even an impressively strong character like the hijabi heroine Khalila couldn't do it all on her own.   Even the powerful obscurist Morgan needed help from within her own order.   Jess had connections from the criminal world where he originated.  They all had people that they could call on.  Some of those who responded were surprising.   The inventor Thomas provided some astonishing innovations.

By the end of Smoke and Iron what had seemed like a quixotic mission began to look possible.   This novel is the turning point.   So it's definitely essential to readers of the Great Library series.   Yet a  positive resolution isn't guaranteed.  Hold on to your metaphorical headgear.  The fifth book in the series is likely to be  hair-raising because the Archivist and his cronies won't give up their power without a tremendous struggle.

                           
 
                          

Sunday, July 1, 2018

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia--A Rebuttal To Hillbilly Elegy

When I came across commentary about Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, I thought about what I knew of the history of the region and it didn't sit right.  So I never did read it.   I figured that I wouldn't get any fresh insight from Vance.  I read Kephart's Our Southern Highlanders many years ago.  So I'm familiar with that perspective. I was glad to come across What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by historian Elizabeth Catte who is also native to the region.  I thought I could learn something from Catte's book.

                         

 I already knew that Appalachians were portrayed as backwards as an excuse to seize their land. Catte tells us about Kentucky widow Ollie Combs trying to block the bulldozers that were destroying her house in 1965.  (See a page on Appalachian Women on the Appalachian Voices website.) The company made the argument that Combs owned everything above ground, but the mining company had purchased the resources underneath her property. The house stood in the way of extracting that mineral wealth.  Ollie Combs was arrested.  Catte tells us that Bill Strode, the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist who documented Ollie Combs' act of  resistance, was also arrested. (See the article about Bill Strode on Wikipedia.)

It wasn't just about the destruction of the environment though that was also a serious issue.  It was about taking everything these people had--their homes and the farms that were their livelihood. This is the root cause of Appalachian poverty.

Before the labor regulations of the New Deal, the mining companies didn't treat their Appalachian employees much better. You can find out more about the serious exploitation that was going on by reading the History Channel's article about the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, which was called "the largest labor uprising" in American history.  Although I was aware of the intense labor struggle between miners and mine owners in West Virginia,  I learned from Catte that the mine owners actually had a private army which was dropping bombs on the strikers from private planes.  The fight to preserve Blair Mountain as a historical site is currently ongoing. It's slated for mountaintop removal mining. (See this article on the Progressive.org website.)

Catte also mentions  Black Appalachians in her book. If you read Vance's book you'd think that there were no African Americans in Appalachia.

Elizabeth Catte has an extensive bibliography to bolster her arguments.   It was refreshing to see her perspective. She successfully proves that there have been  and still are Appalachian radicals, and that the population of Appalachia is more ethnically diverse than Vance portrays.

                       











                             

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Lost Pilots--Aviation History Marred By True Crime

I won The Lost Pilots by Corey Mead from Goodreads giveaways.  It was published last month, so I'm about a month late with my review.  I admit that I've been a good deal later than that, but I do wish I could manage to be more timely.  I read giveaway books in the order that I receive them rather than the order that I won them.  So the next book on the giveaway pile was actually a 2017 win that arrived very late due to a mix up.  I hope to review it some time in July.

I wanted to read The Lost Pilots because the history of women's aviation is one of my abiding interests.  See the very first review that appeared on this blog of a book dealing with the female Russian WWII ace, Lilia Litvyak here.  So I hoped to find out about the female Australian aviator, Jessie Miller, by reading The Lost Pilots.

                                


The aviation history aspect of this book was fascinating.  I enjoyed reading about Jessie Miller's aviation accomplishments.  I even liked reading about the discrimination against women that held her back because it gave me a clearer picture of the experience of woman pilots during this period.  I felt that the speed limitations on women in the Women's Air Derby were the aviation equivalent of footbinding because they hobbled women probably due to a mistaken belief that women were incapable of flying safely at greater speed.   I considered this ironic because it seemed to me that it was William Lancaster who was incapable of flying safely.  He had a pattern of poor decisions that resulted in accidents which ruined his flying career.   He was continually being given opportunities and wrecking planes.  This caused potential employers to lose confidence in him.   Honestly, I don't know why anyone was impressed with Lancaster.

As much as I admired Jessie, she sure did have bad judgement about men. Over the course of the narrative, I kept on changing my mind about which of the men involved in the true crime sequence was worse. 
 
In the title of this review I state that The Lost Pilots was "marred" by true crime since this is a genre that makes me uncomfortable.  Because I tend to avoid true crime, I've never really thought about why I have problems with it.  In my entire past history on Goodreads, I've only shelved one of my reads as true crime.  It was Murder in the High Himalaya which I didn't review on a blog, but only on Goodreads.  I remember feeling that it was sordid with no redeeming value.  I love fictional crime novels for their clever plots, important themes, memorable protagonists and witty dialogue.   All of these are products of a novel's artistry.   True crime lacks these characteristics.  So all that's left is the facts of what occurred which can feel rather sordid.

I have friends who love true crime.  So they are likely to feel that The Lost Pilots was enlivened by true crime, rather than marred by it.   I will say that the true crime aspect of this book did affect me powerfully.  I was very conscious of the fact that these were real people and I cared very much about Jessie Miller. When I became fully aware of the personal consequences of these events for Jessie, I felt sick to my stomach and couldn't continue reading until the following day.  It seemed to me that she was more of a victim than the dead man, Haden Clarke, because she had to live with the repercussions for the rest of her life.

Since I can't imagine writing about the lives of Jesse Miller and William Lancaster without introducing Haden Clarke into the mix,  I suppose it was inevitable that this book was destined to include the true crime element, and that I would enjoy reading it less.  Yet Corey Mead's writing, organization and research are first rate.  So I would recommend The Lost Pilots from a historical perspective.

                              


                                

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Yes, We Do Need Better Science About Women

 I received a review copy of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong from Edelweiss last year. I admit that I should have gotten to it sooner. I finally read it because it was the Book of the Month on a Goodreads group.  I've posted some comments to the group's discussion thread, but I know that isn't sufficient.  When I request books from Edelweiss, I commit to reviewing them on my blog.  My review is rather late, but I still feel that I owe the publisher and Edelweiss a blog review.  So let's see if I can generate one. 

                                




 I consider Inferior a survey on the subject of science written about women which has actually been dealt with in more depth in narrower books dealing with women in particular fields of science.  

Nevertheless, Saini points things out that I hadn't realized before.  For example,  I hadn't known that androgen increases risk-taking behavior, not aggression.   It occurred to me that there are both pros and cons to being risk-takers.  Saini doesn't really discuss the implications of androgen and risk-taking very much.  Since women's hormone balance changes as we become older, does science show that post-menopausal women do in general take more risks than younger women?  I am skeptical about this possibility.

 I also hadn't known that in addition to human women only female killer whales survive past menopause. This is interesting, but then the book lets me down with obvious ideas about elders having something to contribute which is very inter-cultural.

So while I do agree that we need better science about women, I didn't find that Saini provided much in the way of fresh insight on the subject.

                          






                      

Nyira and the Invisible Boy--Slavery and Child Separation in a Historical Fantasy

While I was thinking about an approach to this review of Nyira and the Invisible Boy by K. M. Harrell, I realized that the opening of this novel related to current events.  Thousands of children have recently been separated from their parents who were seeking asylum in the United States.  I saw mention on social media of separation of families happening in the 18th and 19th century before the abolition of slavery. This timely reminder of shameful history became noteworthy for me because Harrell's historical fantasy contains an example.  It showed the young protagonist being tragically parted from her only parent.

After reading the description and seeing the extraordinary cover on Goodreads giveaways, I purchased a copy of Nyira and the Invisible Boy.  I considered it a must read and buying it was my best option.  Somewhat later, the author contacted me and requested a review.   I voluntarily agreed to provide one.

                             


Regarding the cover, I had already started writing this review when I came across a discussion  of the racist association of African Americans with primates on the blog Reading While White posted by Elisa Gall.  I think that African American author  K. M. Harrell is conscious of this association and was deliberately subverting that racist stereotype by showing gorillas to be superior to humans involved with slavery in his book. It's important to state that this intention is not visible to those whose only contact with this novel is viewing the cover. Yet it seems to me that associating a human being with an animal is only racist, if you accept that animals are inferior to humans.  I have never accepted the idea that humans are the culmination of the process of evolution.  On the scale of evolution, humans are recent.   Human dominance may also be very temporary. Sadly, some key dominant humans seem intent on committing species suicide by ignoring climate change.                      

 But let's get back to Nyira and the Invisible Boy.  The  female central character, Nyira , was a small child when she was  permanently separated from her father. Her village in the Congo during the 18th century, was attacked and destroyed by slavers.  Nyira fled the slavers, and encountered wild animals who were more humane than those humans who were most invested in maintaining slavery.  For a powerful book which focuses on wild animals parenting human children, see my review of the Australian novel Into That Forest here.

Nyira is eventually enslaved and is later transported to what is now known as Haiti where we meet the male protagonist, Enriquillo.

Enriquillo is a Taino.  Wikipedia and numerous other sources will tell you that the Taino were extinct by the  18th century, but Taino genes certainly survive in contemporary Haiti and Puerto Rico.  There are also numerous Taino cultural survivals.  So could there have been secret villages of Taino hiding in the mountains, as we see in Harrell's book?  We don't know for certain.  This is also a fantasy novel that involves paranormal gifts.   I am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story, and this is a humdinger of a tale.  There is some cultural verisimilitude. Harell includes a bibliography of books that he consulted on Taino society and customs.  Yet he doesn't claim to be completely authentic.

I believe that the cooperation of Africans and Taino symbolized by the relationship of Nyira and Enriquillo is laying the ground for the future revolution in Haiti.  This is Haiti as I've never seen it before. Despite the horrors and degradations of slavery, I found Nyira and the Invisible Boy inspiring.   I consider it the best indie book that I've read in the first half of 2018.

                         


Friday, June 15, 2018

Illegal Holdings: UN Investigator Fights Corporate Plot In Mozambique

I  once took a MOOC  (Massive Open Online Course) on the Hague's international courts.  So I know that there is investigation of international crime.  I didn't know anything about U.N. investigation of fraudulent misuse of U.N. funds. It certainly makes sense that they would investigate if they received a report of possible fraud.  A brief search confirmed that there are such investigators.

Author Michael Niemann has been writing a thriller series about the cases of  fictional U.N. fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen.  Publicist Wiley Saichek asked me to review Illegal Holdings, the third novel in this series which takes place in Mozambique.  This sounded like an unusual focus for a thriller, so I accepted a free copy from the publisher via Wiley Saichek.

                       

Vermeulen had been sent to Mozambique to determine whether a non-profit NGO (non-governmental organization) had fraudulently misappropriated $5 million of the U.N.'s funds.  This sounds like a routine case that is unlikely to generate much suspense.  Yet someone who has committed $5 million worth of fraud would be willing to do some pretty awful things to cover his or her tracks.

There  also turns out to be some underlying motivations for the fraud that involve agricultural and land use policy which are controversial and have tremendous impact.   Which is the best way to feed the world?  Should farming be family based and small scale with a large variety of crops, or should farms be large industrial single crop operations?  What happens when large corporations who are mainly concerned with their bottom line are pitted against the interests of local communities?  This is the central conflict in Illegal Holdings.

I admired Vermeulen for his commitment to justice and his willingness to take risks on behalf of marginalized people who need someone to advocate for them.   I also very much liked his relationship with investigative journalist Tessa Bishonga whose work overlapped with Vermeulen's and helped to bring about a successful resolution of the case.


Since I believe that the issues that Vermeulen faces in Illegal Holdings are crucial ones that will decide the future of humanity as a whole, I was very much invested in this story line.   I considered the underlying conspiracy behind these events completely believable and extremely chilling.   Michael Niemann has written an immensely powerful thriller.  I can't imagine what he'll do for an encore in his next Vermeulen book.

                           

                              

                         

Friday, June 8, 2018

The White Mirror (Li Du #2) --Review of Mystery in 18th Century Tibet Plus Giveaway

So I said at the beginning of this year that I probably wasn't going to hold a giveaway, but I decided that I wanted to commemorate the 200th post on this blog.  It seemed appropriate somehow to do a giveaway of the second book of the Li Du series by Elsa Hart since my first giveaway was a copy of her first Li Du novel, Jade Dragon Mountain. See that review and giveaway here. Scroll down below my review to find out how to enter this giveaway and win the hardcover copy.

The copy I am giving away comes from the F2F mystery group that I attend.  The facilitator of that group receives many more review copies from publishers than she has the time to review.  So members get the opportunity to claim review copies for themselves.

A digital ARC of City of Ink (Li Du #3) recently arrived on my Kindle as a result of a review request from the publisher who sent it to me via Net Galley.  So I prioritized The White Mirror in order to catch up on the series.  I should have reviewed it some time ago, but late is certainly better than never.

                           


Tibet is a setting that particularly interests me.  I have read a number of Eliot Pattison's  Inspector Shan series which take place in contemporary occupied Tibet.  I have never read any book dealing with 18th century Tibet.  So this sets The White Mirror apart.

Before starting this book,  I knew relatively little about the pre-20th century history of Tibet or the history of the Dalai Lama.   Let me say that there were some eye openers in White Mirror.  I wasn't aware that the Fifth Dalai Lama  (1617-1682) was the first to rule all of Tibet.  Elsa Hart portrays a Tibet that was enmired in a ferment of factions.  The young sixth Dalai Lama and his regent had been overthrown by Lhazang Khan also known as  Lha-bzang Khan who had allied himself with China.  See his article on Wikipedia.   Some Tibetans still supported the Dalai Lama, and others supported neither ruler.

Into this chaotic situation comes the protagonist Imperial Librarian Li Du who is traveling to Lhasa with a caravan.   There is an atmosphere of fear and suspicion at the manor where the caravan takes shelter from a storm. As the caravan arrives, an apparent suicide of a visionary painter is discovered.  Li Du becomes convinced that the painter was murdered.  His investigation uncovers more than one secret conspiracy.

I have always been intrigued by the concept that Tibetan Buddhist lamas are tulkus.  What is a tulku?  Each lama is supposed to be a single reincarnated spirit that has been reborn for centuries and must be re-discovered as a child who will then become the next lama.  The process of discovering a tulku is a significant plot element in The White Mirror. 

 I wondered if  the history I discovered in this novel was consistent with the idea that the Dalai Lama is actually one reincarnated individual.   The conquering fifth Dalai Lama was certainly nothing like the pacifistic fourteenth Dalai Lama who holds court in contemporary Dharamsala.  Yet it's at least possible that the fourteenth Dalai Lama is the same individual who has evolved spiritually.  After all, spiritual evolution is supposed to be the goal of reincarnation.  Other readers may reach a different conclusion about tulkus.

I felt that The White Mirror had historical and cultural depth which makes it a solid candidate for one of my best reads of 2018.


                                       GIVEAWAY!

If you want to enter  for the giveaway of a hardback copy of The White Mirror, there are two requirements for entry.  You must fulfill both of them.

 1) You must visibly follow this blog which can be found on the right side of the page.  You will need to have a Google account in order to become a visible follower.

2)You will also need to:
a) either comment on this post telling me what interests you about the book with a contact e-mail.
b)or you can private message me on Goodreads.  In order to do this you must be a Goodreads member.  You can then go to my profile which is at the link I've given and click on More. The first menu item is Message.  Use "White Mirror Giveaway" as your subject and include a contact e-mail.

The deadline has passed with no one interested in this book.  Tuesday 6/26 this copy gets donated to the library.

                             




                                













         

                          

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Fairfax Incident: Investigating a Death in Early 1930's New York

My favorite mystery sub-genre is historical mystery, but I haven't had a chance to review any historical crime novel since February when I posted a review of one on Flying High Reviews here .  Now that I think about it, the portrait of  law enforcement corruption in 19th century San Francisco provided in Chinawoman's Chance by James Musgrave, isn't very different from the situation in New York in the early 1930's that I recently saw in The Fairfax Incident by Terrence McCauley. Yet I do need to make a distinction between the harsh lives of 19th century Chinese immigrants described in Musgrave's book, and the glittering privileged lives of the German aristocratic immigrants depicted in McCauley's mystery.

I was asked to review The Fairfax Incident by publicist Wiley Saichek and was provided with a review copy from the publisher via Net Galley.


                       


The PI protagonist Charlie Doherty was very much a part of NYC corruption when he worked for the police.  Mention is made of Teddy Roosevelt's crusade against police corruption in The Fairfax Incident.

This gives me a wonderful pretext for a historical digression. I remembered that Teddy Roosevelt had been a New York Police Commissioner, but it had been many years since I took a class in New York state history as an undergraduate history major.  So I did a search for more information and found a review of a book on the subject called  Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest To Clean Up Sin Loving New York by Richard Zacks.  It was reviewed by Krystal Thomas on the blog of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University here .  Although Roosevelt had been a failure, he made a reputation for himself as a reform minded Republican.  Those who like to remind us that the Republican Party had once been very different tend to use Abraham Lincoln as their example.  My favorite example is Teddy Roosevelt who ran for U.S. President as both a Republican and a Progressive.

Back to Charlie Doherty--He is no paragon of virtue, but he is sympathetic.  His wealthy patron, Van Dorn, who pays all his expenses and brings him clients, considers Doherty a hero because he rescued Van Dorn's son from a kidnapper.  Others might consider him a hero because he fought in WWI as a Marine.  Readers who are fans of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series are familiar with the problem of PTSD resulting from combat in WWI. Doherty is not immune to PTSD.  He experiences an instance of WWI flashbacks during the narrative.

The Fairfax Incident is the first book I've read dealing with the consequences of WWI that is set in the U.S.   The impact of Germany's defeat on German-Americans is central to the plot.  The author doesn't excuse the behavior of many of the German-American characters, but he does explain it.

The novel ends as more of an espionage thriller than a mystery.  Readers will learn whodunit, but there is an ongoing national security crisis involving the events leading up to WWII that is not resolved.   Presumably, there will be a sequel in which Doherty will continue to distinguish himself in service to his country.

I consider  The Fairfax Incident a thought provoking and suspenseful novel.

                         



           


                               

Friday, May 25, 2018

Bum Deal: Lassiter For The Prosecution

The twelfth novel in Paul Levine's Lassiter mysteries, Bum Deal, hasn't been released yet.  I'm reviewing an ARC that I received through the good graces of publicist Wiley Saichek via Net Galley.  I'm glad that I read and reviewed Bum Luck beforehand here--not only because it's an excellent book, but because it gave me some background that's important for fully appreciating the events of Bum Deal.

                               


Our hero Jake Lassiter has been through a great deal in his most recent adventure, Bum Luck.  He was probably feeling unmoored when State Attorney Raymond Pincher proposed that he prosecute a case.  Lassiter has been a defense attorney throughout his legal career, so this is a radical change.  Pincher told Lassiter that he and his entire office of prosecutors were recused from the case.  "Recused" is a legal term that I and many other Americans learned when the U.S. Attorney General recused himself last year.  It means that a lawyer can't be involved in a case because of a conflict.

Bum Deal addresses the ongoing issues of corruption in the justice system and the impact of frequent concussions on the lives of former NFL players like Jake Lassiter.  Yet it also deals with the sometimes problematic quandary of drawing the line between consensual sex and abuse, and how do you prosecute someone for murder when there's no body and no evidence?  I had to sympathize with Lassiter because it looked like a case that was impossible to win had been dumped into his lap at a very vulnerable time in his life.

If you really like plot twists in the mysteries that you read, there are a great number of them in Bum Deal.  I wondered if  this case could come to a satisfying resolution given all the obstacles that were thrown at Lassiter.  So the biggest surprise for me was that things turned out as well as they did.  I felt that justice was served in the end which is what I expect from a mystery.

                        
 


Build Me An Ark--Brenda Peterson Is The Priestess of the Peaceable Kingdom

After reading Brenda Peterson's memoir Build Me An Ark, I have to admit that my enthusiasm for Brenda Peterson is limitless.  I read this book in great gulps because I loved her thinking about animals and her experiences with them.

                             

This isn't a recent book.  Peterson describes situations for some wild animals in the late 20th century.  Their habitat and human relations with wild species have increasingly deteriorated since.    Readers should consider this book a historical account rather than a contemporary one.

Brenda Peterson's father was an employee of the U.S. Forestry Service.   Her early childhood was spent in a wilderness environment.  She encountered wild animals and felt a kinship with them.

Peterson loved the story of Noah's Ark because she interpreted the command to preserve animals to mean that animals had souls that made them worth saving.  As a child she constructed a small ark out of balsa wood and placed miniature plastic animals inside it.  She would sketch the inside of Noah's Ark as "the peaceable kingdom".  This is a utopian idea of interspecies cooperation that is derived from a prophetic Biblical passage (Isaiah 11:6).  It is supposed to happen after the coming of the Jewish messiah.  A famous depiction of "the peaceable kingdom" was painted by artist Edward Hicks in the 19th century.  The image of the painting reproduced below is public domain.

                           

Peterson includes a number of striking instances of interspecies cooperation in her memoir. The most notable is probably the research dolphin that warned Peterson's pregnant sister about the health of her baby.  She also mentions a friendship between a Siberian husky and a whale.  These are heartwarming and inspiring.

There are also sad tales like the story of the real Smokey Bear, a cub who was rescued from a forest fire and brought to live in a prison called a zoo in Washington D.C.

Just know that if you love animals and believe in animal rights advocacy, you will want to know about Brenda Peterson.

                          


                               

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Bum Luck--My Introduction to the Lassiter Mysteries

Paul Levine has written twelve mysteries focusing on Jake Lassiter.  Bum Luck is the eleventh one.  The twelfth, Bum Deal, will be released next month.  Publicist Wiley Saichek asked me to review Bum Deal, but suggested that I should read Bum Luck beforehand and sent me a free copy. This was the reverse of bum luck.   In fact, I consider it very good luck indeed.

                          

The first thing I noticed was the snappy dialogue.  Up until now my favorite dialogue in mysteries was in the Spenser novels by Robert Parker.  Lassiter's is of a different order.  It's full of pointed criticism of his own profession.

Jake Lassiter is a former linebacker in professional American football who has become a lawyer.  His having been a football player is very relevant to the plot of Bum Luck because this book deals with the tragic impact of  repeated concussions on the lives of many former football players.  Wikipedia has an article on this issue that provides a good introduction to it.  Bum Luck is also centrally concerned with corruption in the justice system.  I've seen the Lassiter series described as light, but this particular novel goes to some very dark places.

I found the characterization of Lassiter complex yet sympathetic.   Although Lassiter had done things he regrets, he seemed to me like a wounded hero which is my favorite type of protagonist. 

I had never seen frequent concussion syndrome as a theme in a novel.  I appreciated the honesty with which Levine approached this subject which lent Bum Luck a kind of raw intensity.

I considered this book both original and well-written.  I very much look forward to the digital ARC of Bum Deal that I've obtained through the good graces of Wiley Saichek via Net Galley.

                         


Saturday, April 28, 2018

Ash and Quill (The Great Library #3) by Rachel Caine

I've had  a Net Galley copy of Ash and Quill, the third book in the YA Great Library series by Rachel Caine for some time, and now I've been approved by the publisher for the fourth book, Smoke and Iron.  I really apologize.  I should have gotten to it sooner.  I'm trying to read more Net Galleys this year.

This alternate history dystopian series is fascinating to me conceptually.  I've reviewed Ink and Bone and Paper and Fire on this blog at the locations I've hyperlinked.

                         


                                                          
The focus of Ash and Quill is the implementation of a pivotal forbidden technology in  Philadelphia which is a Burner city opposed to the Great Library.  The Burners of this alternate America are trying to evade control by the authoritarians in charge of the Great Library, but leaders of movements that oppose established institutions may also want to consolidate their own power.  We have seen this in our timeline over and over.  The comedian W.C. Fields famously stated a mordant preference for being in Philadelphia.   I assure you that there are no circumstances in which he'd rather be in this Philadelphia.
 
I've seen  Khalila, the Islamic hijabi character, mentioned approvingly in reviews.  Khalila is one of the small group of rebels who are the heroes of this series.  She is one of my favorites too, but I wondered why she is portrayed as standing for prayer at one point in Ash and Quill.   I've usually seen Muslim prayer in the prostration position with the forehead touching the ground.  As a result of a search for this review, I now know that there is a sequence of Islamic prayer postures that apparently usually begins with a calming and centering period of standing.  See this article on islamreligion.com .  So I learned a bit more about Islam due to having read this book.

I enjoyed savoring a few morsels of Burner history.  Benjamin Franklin was a Burner in the Great Library timeline.   For those who know Benjamin Franklin's history as an inventor in our universe,  there is a moment of supreme irony in this book that I appreciated.  The inclusion of Benjamin Franklin caused me to wonder about other historical figures in the context of the Great Library and Burners.  I'd like to see how they fared in Rachel Caine's universe.

Ash and Quill does end on a dramatic cliffhanger, but fortunately I have an ARC of the sequel ready to go on my e-reader.  So our heroes needn't be left dangling for long.  I hope to review Smoke and Iron relatively soon.

                                   


Monday, April 23, 2018

Banthology--Stories From Banned Countries

In honor of World Book Day, which is celebrated today in the U.S., I've decided to post my review of Banthology edited by Sarah Cleave. This is a collection of seven stories from the seven nations that were banned in the first version of the 2017 U.S. executive order on immigration.  All the stories have been translated into English from their original languages.   I received a digital copy from Edelweiss in return for this honest review.

                           




Sarah Cleave states in her introduction that one goal of the anthology is to show that people from these countries aren't all terrorists.  She also says that she hopes that the book will help to make the world "a more welcoming and gracious place".  It's fair to state that every story is at least implicitly a criticism of the 2017 executive order on immigration. In the U.S, disagreement with government positions is constitutionally protected speech.  If a reviewer were to take issue with my opinions about this book, that would also be constitutionally protected speech.

There were stories with strong satiric elements.  I would characterize them as overtly critical of  the 2017 immigration executive order.  One of them was my favorite story in the anthology because it was a more complex tale with multiple themes.  Satire of the executive order was only one of its purposes.

That story is "Return Ticket" by Najwa Binshatwan of Libya.   I loved it because it's a magical realist story that also contained satire of rigid Islamic fundamentalism.   It is written in the form of a letter by the female protagonist addressed to her grandchild who hasn't yet been born.   The story deals with satiric depictions of the places where she traveled, her relationship with her husband and her attempt to return to the fictional utopian village of Schrödinger.  It was presumably given this name because of the village's uncertain location like the physicist Erwin Schrödinger's theoretical cat which might be either alive or dead.  It's a clever story with a well-developed viewpoint character who I found sympathetic.

I liked other stories for particular features that caused them to stand out for me.  "Bird of Paradise" by Rania Mamoun of Sudan was stylistically beautiful, and "Jujube" by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah of Somalia contained an intriguing medicine woman character who would have been my preferred protagonist.   Unfortunately, the viewpoint character was one of her daughters.

There were other contributions to Banthology that I disliked either because I despised all the characters, or because I felt those stories didn't make a strong enough statement.

I was attracted to the anthology by its central concept which I felt was well-intended.   The stories that I liked made Banthology worthwhile particularly Binshatwan's excellent "Return Ticket".

                         


                           

 


                               

                                

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Binti:The Night Masquerade--The Xenophiles vs The Xenophobes

Xenophiles are those who are comfortable with people who aren't like them.  Xenophobes hate and fear people who are different.  They are only comfortable with people who are similar to them.  The xenophobes don't understand xenophiles.  In fact, for them xenophiles are among those who they hate and fear.

I have always identified science fiction as a xenophile genre.  Of course science fiction isn't all xenophilic. There's xenophobic science fiction and it's immensely popular.  Yet being a xenophile is a possible approach to science fiction.  There's a whole tradition of science fiction that's created by and for xenophiles--most notably Star Trek.
                                


As I read the third Binti book by Nnedi Okorafor, it occurred to me that I like Binti because she's a xenophile, and that her series of novellas is really about the conflict between xenophiles and xenophobes.  I expect that Okorafor is likely to be a xenophile herself or she couldn't write sympathetically about Binti.

 In Binti's world a xenophile is called a harmonizer.   They have a gift for building bridges between disparate groups, and finding common ground.  In our world the harmonizer is called a diplomat.  Xenophobes have tremendous contempt for diplomats.  They don't believe that any rapprochement with those who are different is possible.  They are resolved to either avoid those who are different or kill them.   When a harmonizer or diplomat is negotiating on behalf of a xenophobe and/or attempting to reach an agreement with a xenophobe, they are in the most challenging situation they will ever face.  Binti ends up in this situation in Binti: The Night Masquerade.

Since the events of this third book are so climactic, I somehow doubt there will ever be a fourth one.   If there ever is another Binti book, it will probably focus on another way of being a harmonizer which is mentioned in relation to Binti's fellow harmonizer, Mwinyi.  Perhaps there will be a Mwinyi trilogy.  I would look forward to that.

                         


                                

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Old Fashioned With A Twist: Sequel To Stone Cold Sober

Last month I reviewed Stone Cold Sober by Rebecca Marks hereOld Fashioned With A Twist picks up much closer to pregnant protagonist Dana Cohen's delivery date.  Her condition makes her very sympathetic to the plight of her ex-husband who asks her to find his kidnapped new baby.

 I received this most recent novel in the Dana Cohen mystery series as a gift from publicist Wiley Saichek in return for this honest review.

                              

 So the fate of  two infants takes center stage in this book -- the one who has been kidnapped and the one who is about to be born. This means the suspense is doubled.  Readers will worry about whether the kidnapped child will be restored alive and healthy to his parents, but another grave matter of concern is whether Dana's investigation will endanger her and the baby she carries.

As you might imagine, the father of Dana's baby is less than happy with these circumstances.  Yet Dana and Alex are still going forward with their plan to marry before the baby is born.  Dana must juggle the demands of her pregnancy, her wedding and the kidnapping investigation simultaneously. I think that this represents the superwoman syndrome.  Dana wants to be a wife, mother and use her professional skills.  This is a common expectation for 21st century women.   Some woman readers  may feel that Dana's experiences reflect their lives to a certain extent.  Others may think that Dana asks too much of herself.

In Stone Cold Sober Alex exceeded Dana's expectations by studying Judaism with the goal of conversion.   In Old Fashioned With A Twist, Alex expects to complete this process before the wedding.  Religion is evidently a higher priority for Alex than for Dana.  This may lead to conflict in their relationship in future Dana Cohen novels. 

Yet the plot line of the current book provides more than enough drama without any additional sources of strife.   The intensity of some scenes toward the end of Old Fashioned With A Twist makes the resolution of the case quite moving.  Mystery fans should be satisfied.

                                


  


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone

 The last book that I reviewed on this blog was Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor, a YA fantasy based in West African folklore that ended up disappointing me.  See my review here.

When I read that Tomi Adeyemi, the author of Children of Blood and Bone , had studied West African folklore, religion and culture in Brazil, I was intrigued.  I am particularly interested in Afro-Brazilian spirituality.  Then when I discovered that her magically gifted characters were divided into ten clans that were devoted to Yoruban spirits, I was completely sold on this novel.  I expected this to be the fantasy novel that I've been wanting to read for years. I have learned that high expectations are rarely met, but that never stops me from hoping that they'll be fulfilled. (So far the novel dealing with Yoruban spirits that has been closest to what I'm looking for is the 2016 alternate history Everfair by Nisi Shawl which I reviewed  here.)

                         

I think that this first book in a projected series was always destined to fall short for me because it starts off with the premise that the gods are believed to have disappeared.   I crave a protagonist who lives with at least one Yoruban spirit or egun (ancestor) as a constant presence.   Zelie, the protagonist of Children of Blood and Bone belongs to the clan devoted to Oya.   I would have been delighted to see a novel permeated with visions, dreams and consultations with Oya.   Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.  Oya wasn't completely absent from Children of Blood and Bone, but she wasn't really a major focus of the book.  Since Oya has special significance for me, Adeyemi gets lots of points for including her in the narrative even though she played a relatively small role.

The main theme of this novel is persecution.  Adeyemi has an important message to deliver to readers.  It's even urgent in the current social climate as she emphasizes in her Author's Note, but she isn't the only current writer to focus on this theme.  If she could have fused her deep concern with crimes against minorities by authority figures with an equally deep Yoruban spirituality, she would have had a masterpiece.  She may one day write it.   This is only her first novel.   So I continue to have high hopes for Adeyemi's future work.

                         

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Akata Warrior: A Predictable Fantasy Plot With Some Fascinating Glimpses

I have to issue a disclaimer.  I didn't read the book that preceded this one, Akata Witch.  I read some reviews that said that it was like Harry Potter.  Since I couldn't get past the first page of the first Harry Potter novel, this wasn't an inducement to read it. I've been reading fantasy since the 1960's.  I'm a very jaded reader who is always looking for the unusual.   It seems to me that the premise of the Harry Potter series is formulaic, and I really can't abide formula.   I nevertheless made an attempt to read Akata Witch because I have loved several of Nnedi Okorafor's books for adults.  Let's just say, I didn't get very far.

So why did I decide to read the sequel?  It sounded like it had possibilities, that it might be more complex than Akata Witch.

                   


Since I have always believed that books should stand on their own, I was pleased that there was background to bring me up to speed on what I'd missed by not reading Akata Witch.  I was introduced to Sunny, an American born girl of Nigerian descent whose family returned to Nigeria.

 Sunny is also an albino.  I researched the persecution of albinos in Africa, and was horrified by what I discovered.  See a newspaper article about the situation for albinos in Malawi in 2016. I also found a recent post on the Albino Foundation blog dealing with discrimination against albinos in Nigeria here.   Akata Warrior caused me to become more aware of this issue.

My favorite scene in this novel involved a cowrie shell divination that blew my socks off.   I would love to read more about Bola, the diviner.  She was totally awesome.   At that point in my reading of Akata Warrior, I posted on a Goodreads group that I thought it was the best book I'd read by Nnedi Okorafor.

 Unfortunately, after the divination, the narrative became predictable.   I am so bored by formula fantasy villains with no motivation except being evil.  I've been bored by them for decades. That's why I tend to avoid any book that has even a whiff of standardized fantasy about it.   So I was disappointed by Akata Warrior, but I don't regret reading it.  I loved the glimpses of Nigerian culture that Okorafor provided, and I'm very much looking forward to  Binti: The Night Masquerade.

                             
 
                             

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Full Circle: Topical Novel About An Iraqi Woman Refugee

The central character of Full Circle by Regina Timothy escaped an honor killing by her family in Iraq and managed to flee to the U.S.   I've read a really extraordinary book about an honor killing in the Druze community of Israel called The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice 
which I reviewed here.  In that review I discuss honor killing as a world wide trans-cultural phenomenon.  I didn't choose to read Full Circle because it was about an honor killing.  Its themes are broader. It deals with a number of issues that have been at the center of discussion in the U.S. That's why I requested it for from the author in return for this honest review.

                     
 

 In addition to honor killings, Timothy's characters grapple with immigration, terrorism, Islamophobia, the impact of the Iraq War on both Iraqis and Americans, income disparity, bullying and the often related issue of school shootings.   So Full Circle is very topical.  I appreciated seeing how the author made connections between all these issues through the events of her plot.

I admired central character Samia Al-Sayid's ability to survive so much adversity.  She isn't a strong woman protagonist on the model of Wonder Woman. Some readers appear to believe that only women who are action heroes can be considered strong, but Samia is internally strong.  That is why she is the one left standing amidst so much tragedy.

 As other reviews have mentioned, the story is often quite moving but since this is a first novel, I was not surprised to find flaws.  There are  moments of overt didacticism in which the author appears to be telling us what to think through the mouth of her protagonist.   I'd prefer not to see that in a novel.  Readers should be considered capable of drawing their own conclusions from events.  Full Circle could also use more thorough proofreading.  There were occasional missing words and words out of order in common phrases or place names. As a New Yorker by birth, I considered  "Central Grand Station" instead of Grand Central Station the most obvious example.  The errors weren't frequent, and I was able to determine what the author intended.   Many readers may not be bothered by mistakes that don't interfere too much with the book's readability.  Yet I feel that authors should take care that published products offered for sale on websites represent their best work.

When I ran a search on Regina Timothy, I expected to find that she is an American or an immigrant to the United States. I was surprised to learn that she is a Kenyan who resides in Kenya.  Full Circle shows so much familiarity with the social reality of  immigrants and minorities in the U.S.  This represents a great measure of success in her first novel.  So I recommend that  Timothy continue to practice her craft.   Her future work can only improve.

                               
 




                           

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Stone Cold Sober--A Pregnant Investigator on the Case

Publicist Wiley Saichek is  actually listed in the acknowledgements of  Stone Cold Sober by Rebecca Marks.  This is the third mystery in the Dana Cohen series.   Dana is a retired NYPD officer in her late forties who nevertheless finds herself in the middle of criminal investigations.   I decided  to try out this series.  Stone Cold Sober looked like the one that I would be most likely to enjoy because it involves an amateur theatrical production which reminds me of my own participation in performances of plays and  dramatic readings on an amateur basis.  So I requested it, and was gifted with a copy for review by Wiley Saichek.

                                        

I have to admit that the title didn't particularly appeal to me.  It seemed to imply that there would be a great deal of space devoted to the protagonist's struggle to maintain her sobriety.  I was relieved to discover that this didn't turn out to be the case.   Resisting alcohol seemed to be a relatively minor issue for the pregnant Dana Cohen.

The pregnancy itself had major impact.   Pregnancy symptoms, and the difficulties that the pregnancy caused in Dana's already troubled relationship with the baby's father seemed to dominate the book.  I was continually questioning whether this relationship was a healthy one that was worth maintaining.

 I think that many authors in the mystery field who believe women are the equals of men tend to de-emphasize any issues that might arise from pregnancy.  They don't want to appear to be disqualifying women, who might potentially be pregnant, from participation in investigation.   Readers who are looking for a crime novel that prominently focuses on the personal dimension of the protagonist's life may find Stone Cold Sober refreshingly realistic in this area.

At the outset, the case in Stone Cold Sober seems to be open and shut, but Dana has suspicions that police were missing crucial information that would lead them in a more unexpected direction.   It turned out that the perpetrator wasn't on anyone's suspect list.  This makes the third Dana Cohen novel a better than average mystery.

                                  






                         

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Sapphire Song: Mystical Symbolism in a Fantasy

I receive e-mails from Book Buzz.net offering review copies.  When I applied for The Sapphire Song by Todd Erick Pederson,  I requested a Net Galley copy for which I was approved.   Book Buzz. net called it a mystical fantasy with paranormal content.  The protagonists are a male sculptor and a female storyteller.   All of this sounded like it would be of interest to me.  So I agreed to review it.

                                   

 
Previous reviews have remarked on the lyrical prose  which is indeed very lovely.   The spiritual content has been compared to Hesse's Siddhartha which is a novel about the Buddha.   Pederson does seem to draw on Buddhist themes.

 A sculpture that is central to the narrative could be said to be an indirect reference to The Jewel in the Lotus which is a representation of the mantra Om mani padme hum as an image. The Wikipedia article I've linked discusses the significance of each word in the mantra.   It relates to Buddhist enlightenment.  Meditation, which is a means of achieving Buddhist enlightenment, is an important activity for the male and female protagonists in The Sapphire Song.

Metaxaeus, the sculptor, visualizes and sculpts a phoenix from a gemstone.  The phoenix is conceptualized as the Western phoenix which rises from the ashes and therefore symbolizes reincarnation.  This makes the Western idea of the phoenix compatible with Buddhism which also deals with reincarnation as the way in which karma is worked out.  The working out of karma is definitely an important aspect of this story.  Yet I think that Pederson also weaves the Chinese phoenix into his book through his plot.  The Chinese phoenix is the fusion of yin and yang which represents the unity of male and female spiritual forces. (See The Legend of the Chinese Phoenix .) The arc of the narrative in The Sapphire Song is about  the male and female protagonists dreaming about each other and seeking unification. This is why the Chinese phoenix is associated with weddings.

My research into the symbolism of Pederson's images helped me to appreciate The Sapphire Song more. I hope that this review will also be helpful to other readers who are seeking to interpret the spiritual journey of Pederson's characters.  

                             
 




                            

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Night of the Flood--An Anthologized Disaster Novel

Night of the Flood edited by E. A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen is an unusual book.  The stories by a variety of authors share a setting, plot events and characters.  They represent different perspectives on an unnatural disaster engineered by a group of women who call themselves The Daughters.  I was intrigued and requested a free copy from the publisher via publicist Wiley Saichek.

                              

The book opens with "Dear Townspeople of Everton" which is a letter explaining the motivations of The Daughters.   They consider their destruction of a dam just outside the fictional town of Everton, Pennsylvania an act of justice.  Is it indeed an act of justice, or is it an act of terrorism?  Can it be justified?

The remaining stories show how people react to the disaster, and how it impacts their lives.

 I thought the first of these, "The Orphans" by E. A. Aymar about a brother and sister pair of central characters was immensely powerful because it made me sympathize with a girl who was a total sociopath.  Her life had damaged her so severely that she was incapable of empathy. The last story in the anthology, "The Chase" by Elizabeth Heiter, was also about a brother and sister pair who seem to be almost mirror opposites of the central characters in the first story.  These brother and sister pairs, the horrors in their pasts and what they made of their lives seemed to bracket the anthology.  This shows that The Night of the Flood focuses more on character dilemmas than on the disaster that has overwhelmed Everton.

As if Everton didn't have enough homegrown problems, they had to be visited by an out of town serial killer in "Carter Hank McKatar Takes A Sedative At One In The AM" by Shannon Kirk.   The concept of this story is what causes it to stand out.  It involves a twist that makes it even darker than the standard serial killer story.

On the other end of the spectrum are a pair of stories about women that I considered heartening. "The Darkest Hour" by Hilary Davidson opens with a mother and her children taking refuge in a high school gymnasium which reminded me of  news footage showing the survivors of real life hurricanes.  It turned out that the flood wasn't the biggest threat to this family.  In "A Watery Grave" by Sarah M. Chen, a female trucker is caught in the Everton disaster.  Both female protagonists seem to be trapped, but they are underestimated and turn out to be more resourceful than they appear.

I found The Night of the Flood  unexpected.  Some stories moved me while others made me think.  I recommend it to readers who have an appetite for a book that's very different.

                           
 





  
                              

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington

I am very aware that I decided to read and review an alternate history about America's first President that sounds dire on President's Day weekend.   I would like readers to know that this book by Charles Rosenberg shows George Washington in a very positive light for the most part.  I received it from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this review.

                          


 The fact that Rosenberg's novel is an alternate history means that the book was quite suspenseful for me because I had no idea of how far it would wander from our timeline.  George Washington is in British hands.  The fate of the American Revolution is in doubt.  I wouldn't want to ruin that suspense for other readers by giving even a hint about how the novel ends.

Although Rosenberg's George Washington did not regard himself as irreplaceable, some characters in this novel appeared to believe that the revolution that resulted in the formation of the United States had no general other than Washington who could have led Americans to victory.  Yet there is a mention in this book of General Morgan and his defeat of the British at Cowpens which did happen in our version of history.  There is an illuminating page about General Daniel Morgan at a website called The History Junkie written by Russell Yost.  Daniel Morgan sounds like an unusual figure.  I would like to know more about him.

Rosenberg's portrayal of George Washington seemed to me very authentic with one exception.   Last year I reviewed a non-fiction book  about the American Revolution called Scars of Independence here.  At the time, I noted that this work of history characterized Washington as someone who cared very much about his reputation. That's why I didn't think it likely that Washington would have publicly joked about adultery as he did in a scene in this novel.  Then he tried to rescue himself by adding that he was completely faithful to his wife.  At the very least, he had placed himself  in an awkward situation by making such a joke.  Probably Rosenberg wanted to humanize his Washington.  It just didn't seem to me that Washington would have wanted to embarrass himself that way.

On the other hand,  I thought there was some really entertaining dialogue at various points in this novel.   Some of my favorite lines were spoken during Washington's trial.

Rosenberg's historical notes showed me that his alternate history is so credible because it was based on real possibilities.   I always appreciate when authors of fiction involving history do the necessary research to make characters and events convincing.  This is why I would consider The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington a successful example of this speculative fiction sub-genre.

                               



                                 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

And The Wolf Shall Dwell-- A UK Indie Spy Thriller

I decided to read  the indie spy thriller novel And The Wolf Shall Dwell by Joni Dee because  I was interested in the perspective of this new Israeli-Canadian author.  So I accepted a free copy from Joni Dee in return for this honest review.

                                 

Like most spy thrillers, And The Wolf Shall Dwell is plot driven. So it will fulfill the expectations of thriller fans who expect a fast paced plot with a great deal of action.   Joni Dee's protagonists aren't unthinking, but neither do they bog the plot down with a great deal of angst.

A book is written in a different moment in history than the one the current reader is experiencing.    To this American reader, the references to the American President in this novel seemed very out of sync with my reality.   I had to remind myself that this is fiction.  This novel's American President may have been someone who previously occupied that office.  It would also be perfectly legitimate for the author to create political leaders or situations that have never existed for speculative purposes.  The events are credible enough so that they could have happened in those particular circumstances.  One character is so much a relic of an earlier era that he has no home, and you have to wonder what he thinks of what has happened to his country of origin.

I visited the website of the publisher of this book, Blue Poppy Publishing, because I hadn't previously heard of it.   Although they expect authors to either pay for the costs of publication or crowdfund them, they make a distinction between what they do and a vanity press.   Blue Poppy says that they provide guidance for authors as well as services, and they will not publish a shoddy product.  There are a great many self-published books that are unedited first drafts uploaded to book vending websites.   We have all encountered them.  I am happy to say that  And The Wolf Shall Dwell confirms Blue Poppy's publicity.   It is a competently written novel with a suspenseful narrative.