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Friday, October 19, 2018

A Different Kind of Angel: The False Imprisonment of a 19th Century Refugee

I first heard of  Paulette Mahurin on author Christoph Fischer's blog a number of years ago when he was heaping praise on her novel The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap,  dealing with bigotry against a lesbian in a small Nevada town in the late 19th century.  When Mahurin recently gifted me with her latest book, A Different Kind of Angel, I was reminded that I still hadn't read The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap.  I hope to rectify that error in the immediate future.

A Different Kind of Angel focuses on a fictional woman unjustly consigned to the asylum where  the real investigative journalist Nellie Bly went undercover in 1887 to expose their abuse of patients.  Nellie Bly appears as a character late in the novel.

                               

In the current political climate in which my government considers its harsh treatment of refugees justifiable, it's instructive to examine earlier times when American authorities had a similar attitude.  

A Different Kind of Angel's protagonist Klara Gelfman was sent to a mental institution because she couldn't speak English.   She was a refugee fleeing Russia due to a major pogrom that really did occur in 1881 precipitated by the Jews of Russia being irrationally blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.

Mahurin's fictional Klara was still imprisoned inside that institution when Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883 whose famous lines about "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" were later inscribed on a plaque placed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.  This was the same period when the Immigration Restriction League was founded and gained an influential following.  They believed that immigrants were inferior  and that they would destroy America's social fabric.  I can only conclude that Emma Lazarus wasn't reflecting the cultural consensus of her time.  Her poem must have been aspirational.   She hoped that Americans would one day be welcoming toward refugees.   Let's just say that we still need to do a great deal of work on that issue.

I thought that Mahurin portrayed Klara and other patients convincingly as human beings.  On the other hand, she has Klara make an observation about the nature of insanity that seemed too much like current ideas.   I agreed with it.  I just don't believe that someone from late 19th century Russia would be thinking in those terms.

What I liked most about this book was that Mahurin brought Nellie Bly's real undercover investigation of the asylum to life powerfully by showing us the impact of their abusive practices on patients.  I felt that Mahurin was herself playing the investigative role of Nellie Bly by uncovering the horrors of that institution for her readers before Nellie Bly showed up in the story line.

                         

                           

                          

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Black God's Drums--The African Diasporic Steampunk That I Was Looking For

Back in 2016 I read an alternate history novel called Everfair by Nisi Shawl and absolutely loved it both conceptually and spiritually.  It was my favorite read of  2016. My review is here. Yet I was really looking for a book that centered on an authentic character who was privileged to have direct contact with one of the spirits from the rich religious traditions that were brought from the land of the Yoruba in Nigeria, and spread all over the world.  Since then I have read fantasy novels containing significant African religious content, but still not what I was looking for.  Contemporary YA novel American Street  by Ibi Zoboi came very close with her protagonist who was very devoted to a Haitian Loa. See my review here.

The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark is IMAO under-rated because it's a novella.   It's as if people believe that shorter books can't possibly be as good as longer ones.  Over and over again, I see in reviews that it's good for a novella.  This is a backhanded compliment.  Short literary forms are very much on point.  There is nothing unnecessary.  So it seems to me that the best ones have more power than a full length novel. It never surprises me to find exactly what I wanted to read in a short story, novelette or novella.  Clark's The Black God's Drums is a complete slam dunk.



                             


Protagonist Creeper was born during a hurricane in alternate steampunk  Louisiana and was declared a daughter of the Yoruban Orisha Oya by her mother at birth. Oya wasn't originally an Orisha from Yorubaland.  According to Oya scholar Judith Gleason, she came from Benin and was syncretized  (a theological term that means combined) with various Yoruban spirits. ( See Gleason's book Oya: In Praise of an African Goddess.) This resulted in a very complex figure with numerous aspects.

Creeper is very close to the aspect of Oya who dances during storms with her husband, a thunder spirit variously known as Chango, Shango or Xango depending on which African diasporic tradition is most familiar to you.  This Oya flies and is often depicted with wings.  So naturally her daughter Creeper wanted to fly in an airship.  

Airships are common in steampunk worlds, but the weapon known as the Black God's Drums comes from Clark's alternate Haiti.  I would describe it as that universe's equivalent of the nuclear option.  It has much broader effects than the purpose for which it's deployed.  Anyone who considers using such a weapon really ought to think it over, but there are those in Clark's universe who don't consider the consequences of their actions.  I am familiar with those types in our own universe. 

Any author who has mastered the magic of combining political, historical and spiritual themes with an action plot and characterization is one I will want to continue reading.   I sincerely hope that P. Djèlí Clark will be writing and getting published for some time to come.

                           

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Astronaut's Son--Blog Tour and Giveaway @woodhallpress @tom_seigel

Like many American science fiction fans, I've always been a supporter of  NASA.  This is the primary reason why I downloaded a Net Galley of The Astronaut's Son which is the first novel of Tom Seigel.  This is also why I decided to participate in the blog tour for this novel.  Scroll down for information about the giveaway.

                         

If you were looking for a feel good romanticization of the space program, The Astronaut's Son isn't that book.   It's a provocative thriller that addresses a number of significant issues that can make for uncomfortable reading.   This is especially true if you have a Jewish background, and the only thing you really know about Nazi scientists at NASA is Tom Lehrer's satiric song, "Wernher von Braun". If you don't remember this song or never knew it, you can watch Tom Lehrer sing it at the hyperlink I've provided.

The Astronaut's Son takes you inside the experience of protagonist Jonathan Stein.  His father had been the Israeli astronaut Avi Stein who had tragically died of a heart attack just before his departure on a NASA moon mission. Jonathan's entire life has been devoted to honoring his father's memory by reaching that shining lunar destination in the sky.  Yet what if  his father hadn't died of natural causes?  What if he'd been murdered?  If Avi Stein had been murdered, then his first priority should be to find out the truth.

I found Jonathan Stein complex and sympathetic.  The discoveries that he makes in trying to find out what really happened to his father create a very personal dilemma for him. Jonathan thinks about a range of ethical issues that trouble him throughout the book.  I respected the fact that he had integrity.

I think that being an astronaut is a calling.  It requires tremendous dedication to a very demanding career path. I read an award winning story called "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal dealing with a female protagonist who wrestles with a decision over life priorities like Jonathan Stein. You can read it at Tor.com here.

I admit to being bothered by Jonathan Stein putting science fiction fans on a list that included hoax believers, fraudsters and mass murderers.  He also seemed to think that science fiction fans are generally male.  I would like to point out that the demographics of science fiction fandom began to change in the late 1960's when women started to organize their own fan conventions and publications as a result of Star Trek.

Aside from the issue I had in the above paragraph, I was impressed by the Astronaut's Son.  The plot and characters had a great deal of impact on me.  There were revelations about NASA's history that caused me to place Tom Seigel's book on  my list of top reads for 2018.

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If you would like to see the entire schedule of this blog tour, you can find it at https://www.tomseigel.com/blog-tour


                        GIVEAWAY!


 The prizes will be a copy of THE ASTRONAUT’S SON, a package of freeze dried astronaut ice cream and a gift card for 2 movie tickets (hopefully people will use the tickets to go and see the Neil Armstrong movie, First Man which opens on October 12).  There will be one winner from this blog. The giveaway is  limited to the USA only.  Sorry international readers, but Over The River Public Relations which has organized this blog tour only wants to mail prizes within the U.S.

In order to enter, you will need to comment on this review with a contact e-mail.   Your deadline for entry will be October 18th.  I will then select a winner.  If you are the winner, I will e-mail you and request your postal mailing address.  Then I will forward your info to Over The River Public Relations.

 This giveaway is now over. Sadly, no one entered.   This doesn't exactly encourage me to do future giveaways.  OTOH, looking at the bright side, I can afford to do lots of my own  giveaways if no one will take me up on it. There are no shipping costs for a failed giveaway. 😄

                           

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Claire's Last Secret: The Perspective of Claire Claremont

When publicist Mary Glenn McCombs asked me if I wanted to read Marty Ambrose's first historical mystery, Claire's Last Secret, for review I jumped at the chance because I hadn't read a novel from the perspective of Claire Claremont.  I was generously supplied with free review copies in both digital and print formats via Mary Glenn McCombs.

                     
 

Claire Claremont (1798-1879) was brought up in the household of  political philosopher William Godwin along with her stepsisters Mary and Fanny. Seventeen year old  Mary ran off with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and sixteen year old Claire tagged along because she wanted to have an interesting adventurous life.  Many contemporary readers would think of these girls as irresponsible teenagers.  Mary eventually married Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.  Yet what about Claire?  Before reading this book, I knew little about her beyond her brief involvement with Lord Byron.

I found the historical aspect of Claire's Last Secret intriguing. Ambrose raises the possibility that Byron may have been involved in an Italian secret society.  I was also interested in some background scenes dealing with how Byron became inspired to write his iconic narrative poem "The Prisoner of Chillon" which was based on the life of the real 16th century Swiss historical figure François Bonivard whose Wikipedia article can be found here.

Claire's Last Secret is a dual period novel that contains sections taking place during Claire's youth in 1816 and Claire's old age in 1873.  There are mysterious events in both these periods, but only the 1873 murder appeared to be fully resolved.  I saw a review on Goodreads that said that this novel ended with a cliffhanger.  In my view, the protagonist needs to be in actual jeopardy in order to describe the ending as a cliffhanger.  There are some dangling plot strands, but I didn't believe that Claire was in any danger when I finished reading the final scene in this book.  So I would definitely disagree with that criticism.

I do need to say that the police investigation of the 1873 murder isn't really a prominent element in the plot, but I wasn't expecting Claire's Last Secret to be a police procedural. The surprising resolution made it a satisfying mystery.

This book's greatest strength was Marty Ambrose's solid research which made her characters so convincing.   I would definitely read another historical mystery by this author.

                        



 




 

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Lost Queen: A Different Approach To Arthurian Legend

I have an interest in the legends that inspire us including those that are collectively known as the Matter of Britain.   Most people call them Arthurian although some of these stories deal with figures who were only parenthetically involved in the tale of King Arthur.

Signe Pike decided to re-examine the Arthurian Mythos when she learned that a man who appears to have been the historical Merlin had a twin sister.  A novel focused on Merlin's twin sister would certainly be covering new ground.  That's why I agreed to review The Lost Queen by Signe Pike when the publisher made a review request.  I received a digital ARC from the publisher via Net Galley and  this is my honest review.
                           
                                  

What sets this Arthurian novel apart is Signe Pike's source of inspiration.  She wasn't inspired by earlier Arthurian fiction, but by a history book called Finding Merlin by Adam Ardrey. Ardrey's Merlin is an individual who actually lived in 6th century Scotland.  If I had the time, I would have read this book and evaluated it as a work of historical scholarship before writing this review.  Since I am trying to keep my commitment to the publisher who entrusted me with an ARC for review before The Lost Queen's release, I decided to look for independent confirmation online instead.

 The search that I conducted first led me to a site called Undiscovered Scotland which has a page that I've hyperlinked devoted to a man who lived during the same period and in the same location, but didn't use the name Lailoken which Ardrey associated with his Merlin.  Yet I also found a book by historian Tim Clarkson called Scotland's Merlin which was published a number of years after Ardrey's.  It did use the name Lailoken.  Based on a review of Scotland's Merlin which I found on History Scotland's website here, Clarkson dismisses the idea that Lailoken was a Pagan.  The review states that Lailoken's story can be found in medieval legends dealing with St. Kentigern, one of those who is credited with having been involved in the process of converting Scotland. Lailoken is portrayed as a contemporary opponent of St. Kentigern in The Lost Queen.  The Christian conversion of Scotland is known to have taken place during a period of two centuries during which Scotland was in a state of religious transition that involved a great deal of conflict.  Stories associated with St. Kentigern are likely to have been hagiographic (celebrating his saintliness).  So the perspective they convey might be very biased.  Winston Churchill said that "history is written by the victors".  I believe that this quote applies to the medieval source about Lailoken mentioned in the review of Scotland's Merlin.

The existence of Lailoken was confirmed by my research, but readers should decide for themselves whether to believe what the supporters of St. Kentigern wrote about him. Signe Pike's protagonist, who is Lailoken's twin sister Languoreth, is portrayed in the novel as defending her brother from slanders that were written about him.

Languoreth is not portrayed as a medieval feminist.  As a  woman who was a daughter of a King, she was constrained in her choices.   She married the man that her father chose instead of the man she loved.   She did this for the sake of her family.   There was a great deal of tragedy in Languoreth's life.  I felt compassion for her, and tried not to judge her.  

This novel is compared to The Mists of Avalon because it takes the perspective of a woman, and portrays the struggle between Pagans and Christians that was taking place during that period.  Since it's the first volume in a trilogy, I will be interested in seeing how Signe Pike will put her personal stamp on her version of the Arthurian legend in future books.

                                

                             


                           

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Spying Moon: An RCMP Police Procedural

When publicist Wiley Saichek invited me to select a title for review from the upcoming releases of his client, Down and Out Books, I chose Spying Moon by Sandra Ruttan.  I'd never read anything by this author previously, nor had I read a police procedural dealing with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).  The  only crime author that I've blogged about who writes books that take place in Canada is Ausma Zehanat Khan whose protagonists work for the Toronto Police.  (See my review of Khan's The Unquiet Dead here.  I considered it the best mystery I read in 2017.)  The RCMP is a national police force.  I knew very little about them before starting this book.  I received a free copy for review from the publisher via Wiley Saichek.

                       


 The title is apparently derived from a legend about the North American indigenous trickster deity, Coyote, replacing the moon and spying on people.   I found a similar tale to the one mentioned in Spying Moon here.  You will need to scroll down to find the story.  It's credited as a myth of the Kalispel people  who have a reservation in the U.S. state of Washington.

Ruttan's protagonist is an RCMP constable who is female.  According to the RCMP Official Website, there were women working for them as constables as early as 1900.  Currently, one fifth of RCMP officers are women.  The central character Kendall Moreau was assigned to a town called Maple River which seems to be fictional.

Moreau's missing mother was of First Nations descent.  This is how Canada refers to its indigenous population.  Moreau was a child when her mother disappeared, and she had no other family that was known to the authorities. She was placed into foster care. This means that she knows nothing of her First Nations heritage.  In a more typical narrative centered on a character with this background, Moreau would have been studying with a medicine woman in order to get back to her roots.   This doesn't happen in Spying Moon.  Although Moreau was disappointed not to be in a position where she can work on her mother's very cold case, readers can expect her to be a professional who is focused on solving crimes.  She doesn't allow any prejudice or harassment that she encounters to stop her from doing her job.  I found her admirable.

The male partners that Moreau works with in her assignments are more ambivalent figures whose motives become  more clear over the course of the narrative.

Since Moreau is dealing with multiple investigations simultaneously, there is a large cast of  minor characters.   Sometimes Ruttan reminds us briefly of the role that they play, but not always.  There were a couple of occasions when I needed to page through my notes to refresh my memory about how these miscellaneous individuals fit into their respective cases.  This is my only criticism of Spying Moon.

I learned all sorts of interesting details about police procedures.  For example, CSI didn't just bag the contents of a victim's high school locker.  They removed the entire locker to dust for fingerprints and test for DNA.   There were also numerous plot twists and dramatic confrontations.   Ruttan is an experienced writer who knows how to build suspense.

I look forward to reading future novels about the adventures of Kendall Moreau in the RCMP.  Perhaps she may investigate cases that involve First Nations individuals or communities.  Yet she could be dealing with numerous types of ethnicities that reflect the diversity of 21st century Canadian society.  I have confidence in Moreau's ability to handle all the situations that might arise in the course of her career, and Ruttan's ability to portray them.

                        



                   

                          

                          

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Her Fear: An Amish Romantic Suspense Novel That Should Have Been Wonderful

I was a recipient of an ARC of Her Fear by Shelley Shepard Grey which I won in a Goodreads giveaway that was sent to me by the publisher, Avon Inspire.  This is #5 in the Amish of Hart County.  It should be considered Christian romantic suspense.  I have in the past read a number of Amish novels in this category, but none were in this series by Shelley Shepard Grey.

As someone who had experience with a minority culture that found modern life problematic (Orthodox Jews) , I have an interest in how the Amish are dealing with the 21st century.  Christian writers who have done their research are more likely to be authentic in portraying Amish characters than those who aren't Christians. That's why I prefer to read Amish novels by Christian authors like Shelley Shepard Grey.

                       


 What I liked most about this book is that Gray doesn't portray the Amish as uniform in their beliefs and practices.  The Old Order Amish that I read about in novels by Beverly Lewis still exist, but there are also New Order Amish and other distinct flavors of Amish that represent a variety of approaches.  Gray has done her research.  She includes notes on a couple of different topics that are relevant to this book.  I was surprised to learn about the New Order Amish attitude toward alcohol use.

 After reading this book, I looked at a chart on Wikipedia  here about the adoption of technology in different sects of Amish and discovered that the most widely adopted technological device among all varieties of Amish is the electric washing machine.  I would speculate that the need of Amish women to do laundry for large families is what drives the Amish embrace of washing machines.  I also read the text of a radio interview on NPR's website here about Amish being selective in their adoption of technology based on whether they believe it will support or harm the Amish community. The Wikipedia chart shows that they have made a variety of such decisions depending on their particular beliefs.

I appreciated Shelley Shepard Gray's characterization in Her Fear.   The slow development of  Sadie, the female protagonist, toward independent judgement and the evolution of her attitude toward the male protagonist was very well handled.  I considered all the characters and relationships in this novel credible.  There were some very emotionally powerful moments.

I also thought that the investigation of the murders that were happening among Sadie's relatives led to surprising revelations.  So I would evaluate the suspense aspect of the novel as successful as well.

I was considering giving this book five stars on Goodreads until relatively late in my reading process when my evaluation changed.

Unfortunately, the ARC edition that I received from the publisher contained errors that went beyond ordinary typographical mistakes.   The most serious was an inconsistency in describing the relationship between Sadie's family of origin and her cousins.  Were they related to her mother or her father?  The first is more likely, but the second is possible and would alter my entire view of Sadie's father. The implications of the Kentucky cousins being the family of origin for Sadie's father involve a major shift in character dynamics.   It would make Sadie's father a more complex character with understandable motivations who becomes somewhat more sympathetic in retrospect.  In some ways, this would be an improvement in the novel, but it does seem more likely that the original idea that they are related to Sadie's mother is what the author intended.  I have no idea if this inconsistency exists in the finished book.  I did see another review from someone who received a free copy on Goodreads who complained about this error and others that were less serious.  Since it is a significant inconsistency, I can't in good conscience give this book a five star rating.

Publishers ask professional reviewers to consider only the text in finished copies even if they received an ARC.  They are expected to consult the published version before finalizing their reviews.   I feel that readers who aren't writing professional reviews shouldn't be expected to consult anything but the edition in their hands. I myself am in the category of non-professional reviewer.   I'm just a blogger, folks.   I do this in my spare time.  So I'm telling you about the copy of the book that I read, but for the sake of accuracy I'm notifying readers who are considering a purchase of this book that the version for sale may be a corrected text without the errors that I found in the ARC.

I'm really sorry that the early edition of such a good book had such a serious problem.