Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Sunday, December 24, 2017

Smoke City: The Quest For Redemption

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 9, 2017

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

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


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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 2, 2017

1066 Turned Upside Down: England Unconquered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Lace and Blade 4-- A Higher Standard For Fantasy Anthologies

This continues to be the year of anthologies. I've always intended to read the Lace and Blade anthologies edited by Deborah J. Ross.  They seemed to be the sort of fantasy that I liked.  Yet I never got to them.  So many books and too little time.  More recently, I obtained an ARC of the fourth volume in the series for free from the publisher via Net Galley.

I had chosen a novel to read this Thanksgiving because I was certain I'd be thankful for it, but it turned out to be darker than I expected.  Then my eyes fell on Lace and Blade 4 on my digital galley priority list.  It was the right time to read it.  I would be thankful for some good fantasy. 


I started the anthology on Thanksgiving, but it took me several days to read Lace and Blade 4 because I read the anthology in its entirety.   I won't say that I liked every story.   That happens with anthologies very rarely.  In fact, I can only recall one anthology whose stories I thought were uniformly wonderful, and it was a Shakespearean mystery anthology called Much Ado About Murder edited by Anne Perry.  This is a very specialized theme anthology and that theme won't be as fascinating to all readers as it was to me.  Usually editors want to appeal to a variety of readers who will have different tastes.

Despite the above disclaimer, I have good news about Lace and Blade 4.  There were two stories that I would rate as excellent which is more than usual in an anthology. (See my review of Brave New Girls #2, another anthology that I found to be well above average here.)

"The Butcher's Boy and the Piri Folk" by Pat McEwen is the first of these excellent stories.  It contains a variety of fae, but it's really about a 17th century historical personage who was previously unknown to me.   Jeffrey Hudson was a dwarf, but he also fought in the English Civil War with the rank of Captain.   You can find an account of his far from ordinary life here.  McEwen's story takes place after his expulsion from court and provides an alternate fantastical explanation for a significant change that happened to him.  I'm not so fond of the fae, but I love reading about underdogs.

I was also impressed by "The Heart's Coda" by Carol Berg.  This highly original story deals with a bard who heals traumatized dragons by singing to them.  I admit to being very tired of the standard portrayals of dragons in fantasy.  Authors normally give us dragons who are monsters, or they are gentle and totally domesticated.  In Berg's story they are neither.  I also love stories that show the power of music.  So "The Heart's Coda" is very special indeed.

There was one other story that I found noteworthy. "A Sword For Liberty" by Diana Paxson is a compelling tale about a Patriot in the American Revolution who is also a visionary.  The story realistically portrays how angst ridden support for the revolution could be in some circumstances.

If this is the level of quality that I can expect from Lace and Blade, I will definitely need to pick up the earlier volumes.



Saturday, November 11, 2017

Ms. Marvel: Civil War II

Yes, I do read comic books and I'm almost a senior citizen.  I don't usually blog about a comic book unless I consider it really noteworthy. 

Ms. Marvel: Civil War II is a compilation of a number of issues of the Ms. Marvel comic book.   Such compilations are marketed as graphic novels even though they originally appeared separately over the course of a number of months.  I was recently astonished to find that this one is a nominee for Best Graphic Novel of 2017 on Goodreads.   I understood completely once I'd actually read it.  In fact, I voted for it myself.  I also decided that I needed to blog about it.


Back in 2015, I read a memoir by G. Willow Wilson, the woman who has been writing Ms. Marvel. The only thing I had previously read by Willow was a mini-series for DC about African Justice League member Vixen which really impressed me.  The first volume of Ms. Marvel compilations had already been published but I hadn't read it yet. Ms. Marvel is the first Muslim female superhero. Willow is an American Muslim with her own approach to Islam.  If you are interested in that aspect of her life you can read her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, which I reviewed on this blog here.

There have so far been seven volumes of  Ms. Marvel compilations.  Civil War II is the sixth volume.  I've read all the previous compilations in this series.

I consider Ms. Marvel an important development for American popular culture.   She is obviously intended to combat Islamophobia in the United States . Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, an American born Muslim teen with immigrant family members.  I appreciated the fact that the series juxtaposes typical American high school experiences and Muslim family life.   I have to say that the superhero adventure aspect seemed rather routine in the first four volumes.  As a superhero fan, I was rather underwhelmed. Volume 5: Super Famous had a superhero plot line  that involved economic issues for Ms. Marvel's Jersey City.

Civil War II steps up the drama in Ms. Marvel's superhero life and introduces issues that directly relate to the contemporary politics of minority communities in the U.S.  There are justice and law enforcement issues.   Ms. Marvel must choose between the policy decisions of respected figures and protecting her community.   It's a much darker story which doesn't lighten up any when  Kamala tries to get some rest from the troubling conflicts she faced as Ms. Marvel by visiting family in Pakistan.   Ms. Marvel is no longer superhero lite.  Kamala is growing up, and the problems she confronts are tougher to resolve.   That's why I voted for Civil War II for best graphic novel of 2017 on Goodreads.




Sunday, October 29, 2017

Mistress Mine--Reading the Translation and Original Simultaneously


When French author Gabrielle Dubois asked to become my Goodreads Friend, I took a look at her work to see if it interested me.  This is the criterion that I use for authors on Goodreads.  I noticed that she had a historical novel that had been translated to English that looked like it had potential.  I purchased it from Amazon though I didn't have time to review it at that point.

As I expected, Dubois eventually requested a review of  her novel that was translated under the title of Mistress Mine.  She also offered to provide me with a review copy.  I  responded that I had already purchased it, and that I was glad to have the translation because it has been some time since I read anything in French.  She then wanted to send me the original French edition to improve my French reading skills.  I told her that was very generous and scheduled a review.

 I had already begun reading Mistress Mine when Sous Les Eucalyptus Deuxième partie (second part) arrived in the mail.  I noted that this French volume started at chapter 35.  I had only reached chapter 25 in the translation at that point.  So I had time to plan how I was going to handle my reading of the French version in relation to my reading of the translation.  I examined a page at random and noticed that I didn't find the French very difficult.  I had read a number of untranslated French classics  as an undergraduate and had retained more French vocabulary than I realized.  I found that I could read most of the page without referring to my French dictionary.   This was good news because it meant that the project of improving my French reading skills would probably be a great success.  I decided that my best strategy would be to read the translated version of a chapter and then follow it up with reading the same chapter in the original.  This meant that when I  encountered French words that were new to me, I could refer to my memory of the translation to decipher their meaning before looking them up in the dictionary.  This process would assist me in learning and retaining more French vocabulary.  Every chapter became easier to read than the previous one.  I definitely recommend this method to anyone who wants to improve their French.

Since this is actually supposed to be a review of Mistress Mine I had better get on with it.


I would categorize Mistress Mine as a historical romance.  I considered it far less stereotypical than most examples of this genre.  Louise St. Quentin, the 19th century French protagonist, exhibits character growth.  She eventually comes to understand what she really wants from a relationship.  Fans of this genre need to understand that there is a sequel.  This means that there isn't quite as much of a resolution as they might prefer.  The ending may seem abrupt to romance readers.

In some respects, Louise St. Quentin reminded me of George Sand. I read and reviewed a couple of biographical novels about George Sand. Unfortunately, Gabrielle Dubois' heroine cared far too much about what people thought of her unconventional life. I often wished Louise were more like George Sand.  Perhaps when she is fully mature, Louise will be a woman who I would find more inspirational.

Based on the portion of the French original edition that I read, I thought that translator Jane Hentgès did an excellent job.  She was true to the essence of the text which is what I consider to be the hallmark of a successful translation.





Friday, October 27, 2017

Introducing Noblebright Fantasy: A Guest Post and Instafreebie Giveaway

Are you tired of being depressed by Grimdark fantasy?  I know that I am.  In fact, I was never a fan of Grimdark.   I want to be inspired by fantasy.  That's why I've agreed to post a couple of promotions for the type of fantasy that is the opposite of Grimdark.


The following is a guest post by Arel B. Grant:

Do you know about Noblebright Fantasy?

Noblebright Fantasy refers to stories in which the main motivation of the characters is an altruistic proposal or quest, and the world in which they live upholds hope and the possibility of better. Noblebright stories present characters that choose to act with kindness and honor, and are rewarded for their good qualities and actions. In a Noblebright Fantasy, the outlook of the story is a positive one and the world presented, although not perfect, is beautiful and valuable in the eyes of the characters.

Noblebright Fantasy in other media.

Although the Noblebright concept made its debut within the gaming community, as a counterpart for the “Grimdark” denomination of the popular game WarHammer 40,000, its popularity has grown ever since, and given way for people to start applying it through other media. 

Literature, cinema, television, and comic books and animation are now being judged under this light, and the traits of Noblebright Fantasy are appearing in each of these spheres.
Today let’s talk about the genre as we can see it in the movie theaters.

Noblebright in the movies: Marvel Cinematic Universe

Probably the biggest exponent of the genre right now is Marvel Studios. Movies in their MCU have consistently kept to the Noblebright topic, presenting heroes that are self-sacrificing and have the power to save their worlds. From the plain courage and unshakable principles of Captain America to the self-imposed isolation of The Hulk, Marvel's heroes fight to protect those around them and use their strength not for personal gain, but for the greater good, even though it may not always benefit them. The Marvel movies present characters that are complicated and whose morals can be complicated, but that ultimately choose altruism over selfishness where it really matters.

Marvel villains are also complex and Noblebright in their own right. Recent examples like Thor's Loki, Guardians of the Galaxy's Nebula, and Spiderman Homecoming's Vulture are just some of them. They are villains that can be redeemed and hold qualities you can empathize with, and in one way or the other, they end up bowing to the heroes that protect their worlds.

Noblebright in the movies: May the Noble Force be with you

Another great example of a Straight-to-Cinema Noblebright piece is everyone's darling space opera, Star Wars. The Skywalker siblings' thrilling journey to rid the galaxy of the evil empire and restore the reign of piece of the Jedi knights is a wonderful example of Noblebright Fantasy. Luke and Leia's struggle, their courage and their strength, make for amazing heroes. The overall outlook of the story is filled with humor, adventure and the hope for victory. And their journey through the galaxy, although ripe with danger, is also filled with wonder, love and excitement.

Yet again in Star Wars' case, the villain is a crucial and interesting part of the story, and its redemption through family love at the end, contributes to the Noblebright quality of the piece. It leaves in the audience the message that the world can be saved, and even the utmost evil can be cleansed with the power of determination and kindness.

Noblebright in the movies: Pirates, Robots and More...

Beyond just the epic sagas and block-buster phenomenons, the Noblebright concept has been re-used in cinema many times over the years, not only because of its positive message. With its hopeful outlook, Noblebright Fantasy offers the audience the opportunity to believe in better, to strive for better, and to submerge themselves in a world that can be changed by the action of its heroes, that can be improved with the right motive, with determination, courage and kindness. Whether it be a young girl lost in a fantasy land, a conniving pirate entangled in a seven-seas quest, or a teenage boy caught in an intergalactic struggle with sentient robots, the Noblebright message at the core it's still the same:

"It's worth it to act. It's worth it to risk it. With your actions, you can make this world better" 

 Heroes and Swords: A Noblebright Fantasy Collection.

In the spirit of the classic fantasy of Tolkien, Terry Pratchett and Brandon Sanderson, authors of Noblebright Fantasy all around the world have come together in this E-book giveaway. With stories that are uplifting and full of hope, and heroes who strive for goodness and fight to save their worlds, Heroes and Swords will transport readers back to the glory of heroic fantasies, fabulous quests and characters full of charisma and courage