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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Bird King: A Historical Fantasy About Escape From Christian Spain

It's said that history is written by the winners.  The Bird King by American Muslim G. Willow Wilson is about those who lost.  Before Ferdinand and Isabella became the rulers of Spain, there was a long struggle in Spain between Muslims and Christians.  As The Bird King opens Grenada is the only part of Spain that is still Islamic.  The protagonist Fatima is a concubine to the Sultan, and her closest friend Hassan is the Sultan's mapmaker who also has an unusual paranormal gift.

The Bird King has been sitting on top of my Net Galley priority list since I received the ARC.  Now I finally have the time to read it.  I've been a fan of G. Willow Wilson's work with Ms. Marvel, the first Islamic female superhero.  I also read her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque with interest.  I reviewed it here . I couldn't wait to spend time in Islamic Spain with an independent minded concubine and a paranormally gifted mapmaker.


To begin with I wasn't too fond of Fatima's immaturity, but I recognized that she was seventeen and made allowances for her age.  I liked her better over the course of the narrative because of her loyalty toward Hassan who is truly a remarkable character.   His paranormal gift apparently results from a type of neurodivergence.  He's also gay.  Fatima is determined to rescue Hassan from the Spanish Inquisition when it arrives in Grenada with a Castilian delegation.  They escape with the help of a djinn.

 Fatima matures as a result of their journey which takes them away from their familiar lives into a mythical realm where I perceive them as eventually becoming lost to history as a result of a difficult decision that Fatima makes.   I feel that this decision has highly ambivalent consequences.  Many readers probably feel more positive about it than I did.  I saw many five star reviews on Goodreads, but  I have a more mixed perspective toward the resolution of  The Bird King.  I just wished that the ending could have been different.



Monday, December 24, 2018

Dumpstermancer 1: Discarded--Magic Incorporated?

I've always believed that fantasy should be imaginative and entertaining.  I want to be immersed in a plot that keeps me turning pages, a well-developed magical system and characters that I can care about.  Yet I also believe that fantasy can be more.   It can grapple with issues that are relevant to the real world lives of readers.  Canadian urban fantasy author Charles de Lint is such a writer.  He deals with important themes in a lyrical style straddling the modern world and the world of myth.  He writes books that make fantasy seem true in a very deep way that connects with readers.

Michael J. Allen isn't the same sort of writer as Charles de Lint.  His world is a good deal darker than Charles de Lint's Newford.  Yet, like de Lint, he also deals with significant real world issues in the context of urban fantasy. This post is a review of his first  Dumpstermancer novel, Discarded.  I agreed to review the second in the series, Duplicity.   When I told Allen that I hadn't read Discarded.  He generously sent it to me via Bookfunnel.


The central theme of Discarded is magic for profit.   This is the first time I have ever seen the corporatization of magic in a fantasy novel.  There is nothing inherently wrong with making a profit.   The problem arises when profit becomes a service provider's only consideration.  In the real world, we have seen people robbed of their life savings by schools for profit that didn't provide students with any skills.  Thoth, the corporation that is the antagonist in Allen's series,  doesn't care whether the spells they sell actually benefit their clients. Protagonist Elias Graham, who had once been a spell designer for Thoth, cared very much about helping people.  Thoth didn't just fire him. They completely destroyed his life.

Racism is more of an implied theme than an explicit one in Discarded.  Elias is an African American, but this is only mentioned once late in the novel.   It was then that it hit me that he had been the victim of racial prejudice.  Thoth's successful plot to frame Elias for a crime he didn't commit was facilitated by a justice system that was inclined to look the other way when people  of color were railroaded.

All of this had happened before the novel begins.  Discarded opens with Elias on the street after having served a prison term.   As we know from the title of the series, Elias eventually learns to use the resources available to him as a homeless mage.  Some readers might have a visceral response of disgust to the concept of a dumpstermancer.  I was intrigued by the idea of a homeless individual in an urban fantasy being empowered by magic.

Elias, who is often referred to as Eli, is definitely a sympathetic character.  His circumstances showed me why someone who was homeless might want to remain on the street.  Allen also gave us a female sympathetic character in Sunny, the operator of a Christian homeless shelter, that Eli visited briefly.  What I enjoyed most about Sunny is that she was a woman who got things done.  I also very much liked Razcolm, the entity who possessed the origami spider that Eli created and animated, in order to spy on Thoth's activities.  Razcolm provides some much needed doses of humor through snarky dialogue.

Discarded is one of several indie published fantasy novels that I read this year which I found to be both well-written and provocative.  I look forward to reading and reviewing the sequel, Duplicity, early in 2019.



Saturday, December 22, 2018

In The Month of the Midnight Sun: A Dark Mystery Set in 19th Century Sweden

I first learned of In The Month of the Midnight Sun by Cecilia Ekbäck when it was nominated as a Book of the Month on a Goodreads group.  When I looked at the summary, I discovered that this historical murder mystery contained Sami characters.  The Sami is what the indigenous inhabitants of Lapland call themselves.  I had read and loved a thriller dealing with Sami characters translated into English as Forty Days Without Shadow by French author Olivier Truc.  I reviewed it on this blog here.  Truc has written two more Sami thrillers that haven't been translated into English.  So I leaped at the opportunity to read more in English about  Sami characters from an author whose parents come from Lapland.  See Cecilia Ekbäck's bio on Goodreads hereIn The Month of the Midnight Sun isn't available from U.S. sources.  So I purchased it from Book Depository, and this is my honest review.


This is the second novel by Ekbäck.  The first, Wolf Winter takes place in Lapland a century earlier.  So In the Month of the Midnight Sun can be read as a standalone. I haven't read Wolf Winter and based on my experience of  Ekbäck's second book, I'm not certain that I ever will.

Ekbäck's style is very literary.  She states in a Q & A  appended after the text that all three narrators are deliberately portrayed as unreliable.  This is appropriate in a noir novel, but I am not all that fond of noir.   We do find out whodunit and there is a form of justice, but there was also terrible injustice.  I found the book rather dark and tragic which isn't my preference.

The viewpoint characters are complex enough to be interesting, but they aren't always sympathetic.  Each one is an outsider who has been victimized by conventional attitudes, but they are also invested in the beliefs of 19th century conventional Swedes to at least some extent.   I found it particularly sad that Biija, the Sami viewpoint character, was so Christian that she was deaf to the spirit of  her deceased shamanic husband.

The female character that I found most interesting was Adelaide who had founded a local sect of  Christian mystics with no clergy who I thought seemed somewhat similar to the Shakers.  They are referred to as separatists because they had separated from the official Church of Sweden which was Lutheran.  I discovered through research that Sweden had a
Tolerance Act for religious dissenters such as Adelaide and her followers.

Attitudes toward the Sami were quite negative.  There was a reference to a Sami revolt that had taken place four years before the events of  In the Month of the Midnight Sun called the Kautokeino Uprising. Ekbäck's Author's Note discusses it briefly, but I found a fascinating page about it on a University of Texas Sami culture site here that deals with its causes and various theories about this revolt in depth. 

I learned quite a bit about the Sami in the 19th century, and 19th century Sweden in general from this book, but I finished it feeling depressed.  I would only recommend it to people who enjoy rather literary Scandinavian noir.



Saturday, December 8, 2018

Unsheltered: In Times of Paradigm Shift

The truth is that I've never previously read anything by Barbara Kingsolver.  I thought I'd read and loved The Bean Trees, but I wondered if perhaps it might have once had another somewhat different title that included a reference to a town in Maine. When I ran a search, it turned out that I was trying to recall a different book called The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute.  I read it so long ago that I'd forgotten the name of the author.  Aw Chute! 😬 Carolyn Chute isn't an author I should have forgotten, and I've just re-discovered her. I'll be picking up on that lost thread as soon as I can manage it, but it probably won't be until next year.

This time I'm blogging about the first book I've ever read by Barbara Kingsolver,  Unsheltered.  It's her most recent novel, and I won it in a Goodreads giveaway.  The last Goodreads giveaway win that I reviewed was an Amish romantic suspense novel called Her Fear.  That review is here.  I have four more 2018 Goodreads giveaway wins to fit in to my schedule.  I'm sorry that I continue to fall behind.  I have committed myself to giving each one an honest review that will appear on Goodreads at the very least.  Unsheltered  merits a longer review because it's a complex book, and my reaction to it is also complicated.  That's why it's appearing here.


It seems to me that there are two different perspectives on the concept of being "unsheltered" in this book.

 First, there's contemporary protagonist Willa's perspective.   Willa still believes in the American Dream.  I perceive this as a middle class sense of entitlement.  A key part of this American Dream is that Americans should all be able to own homes.   Her home is falling apart.  So she feels "unsheltered".  It makes her uneasy.

Another perspective is that being "sheltered" means that you don't understand what the world outside your own protected bubble is really like.  You have the illusion that all Americans have access to achieving the American Dream. Willa's daughter Antigone feels that her mother has been sheltered from the realities of existence, and considers the American Dream unsustainable.  Antigone wears her "unsheltered" status as a badge of honor.

If you get the impression that I am more in sympathy with the views of Antigone, you'd be right.  While reading Unsheltered, I alternated between feeling sorry for Willa with being annoyed with her.  A continuing source of annoyance was her calling Antigone by the nickname Tig.  Many parents affectionately nickname their children, but this one felt trivializing to me. Willa's Greek husband had named their daughter.  Antigone is one of my favorite plays in the classical Greek canon.  Willa disliked the name and didn't seem to realize that the classical Greek Antigone might be significant.

I've always seen Antigone as a symbol of resistance to unjust authority.  French playwright Jean Anouilh must have felt the same about her.  He portrayed Antigone as a French Resistance figure in his 1944 play based on the original Greek tragedy by Sophocles.  There's an essay by Alexa Rae Burk that discusses the Anouilh play, and what Antigone represents in a modern context which appears on Burk's blog here.  I was also struck by a link in Burk's bibliography to an NPR article about a performance of Antigone by female Syrian refugees in Beirut which I am also hyperlinking here.  The Syrian refugee women identified with Antigone.  It bothered me that a writer like Willa was so clueless about this cultural icon.

If Barbara Kingsolver had made Antigone the central character of the contemporary story line instead of Willa, I would have loved it. I think that Antigone's life from her own perspective instead of  Willa's uncomprehending one, would have made this a much stronger book.  I particularly would have wanted to know more about Antigone's experiences in Cuba.

The historical narrative dealing with the real woman scientist, Mary Treat and the 19th century opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution, worked much better for me.  Mary Treat was a rebel against conventional expectations in the 19th century just as Antigone was in the contemporary narrative.

 For me, Antigone and Mary Treat run parallel to each other. They both grasped the need for a re-examination of  worldviews in their respective times of change. Willa perceived Mary Treat as having been "born under the moon of paradigm shift" toward the end of the book, but didn't see her own daughter in the same light.  Why choose a protagonist who lacks insight?  I think this was a discordant decision that caused me to view Unsheltered ambivalently.



Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Storm Over Paris--A World War II Art Thriller

 The Storm Over Paris, a debut novel by William Ian Grubman, is about a courageous Jewish art gallery owner in German occupied Paris during World War II who conceives of an audacious plan to save art from the Nazis.  This is a story line that captures my interest.  So I agreed to review this book and received a copy from publicist Wiley Saichek.


The strategy that protagonist Mori Rothstein uses to save the art looks like collaboration with the Nazis.  There's a book that might seem similar called The Woman Who Heard Color by  Kelly Jones which I found very problematic.  It seemed to me that the art dealer Hanna Schmid in the Kelly Jones novel really was collaborating with the Nazis. So I would like to emphasize that Mori Rothstein only appeared to be collaborating.  I considered him quite admirable.  On the other hand, I thought that the Kelly Jones character was seriously ethically challenged.

Mori's son, Emile, played a crucial role in this plot to save the art, and his son Jacob was also involved to a lesser extent. The risks they all took made The Storm Over Paris very suspenseful.

The book did leave me with an unsolved mystery.  A Caravaggio painting that probably doesn't exist of the Biblical expulsion of Hagar was prominent in The Storm Over Paris.  The expulsion of Hagar has been painted by many artists, but I couldn't find one dealing with this subject by Caravaggio when I ran searches. The cover of this novel looks like an expulsion of Hagar. It's probably intended to represent the presumably fictional Caravaggio painting.  The art isn't credited, so I wondered who was responsible for that illustration. I uploaded it to Google Images, and it was correctly identified as the cover for The Storm Over Paris, but no name was given for the artist.  I'm just curious about the cover, and would like to know more about it.

I also wondered if Mori identified with Hagar because those in power in the country that he had always thought was his home didn't consider him welcome to remain there.

I recommend The Storm Over Paris to those who love World War II thrillers and to those who love fiction centered on art.  This was a wonderful example of both these types of books.


Monday, November 26, 2018

Ghost Boys: Remembering Child Victims of Racism

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a nominee for the Goodreads Choice Awards of 2018 that made it to the final round.   Since Jewell Parker Rhodes is one of my favorite authors, I prioritized the book.  I was fairly certain that it would be worthy of my vote.   I've reviewed Rhodes' Bayou Magic and Hurricane on this blog.  The reviews can be found at the hyperlinks I've provided.  So based on previous experience, I expected great things of Ghost Boys.


Ghost Boys deals with the misperception of African-American boy children as threats due to deeply ingrained prejudice.  Jewell Parker Rhodes shows that this is by no means a new issue.  She traces it back to the lynching of Emmet Till in 1955, but there were probably other Black children who died un-noticed in earlier periods of American history.

Peter Pan is mentioned in Ghost Boys. A discussion question in the back of the book wonders about how this English Victorian children's fantasy could be connected to Rhodes' anguished protest against very real violence. I saw a troubling parallel between these works.  Like the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, the ghosts of the victims portrayed in this novel would never grow up.  They are as lost to their families and communities as if they had been spirited away to Neverland.

The Latino character Carlos plays an ambivalent role in the heartbreaking story of the young protagonist Jerome, but in the end his influence is positive.  He and his family show Jerome's family a spiritual means of always remembering him through the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition.  This inter-cultural relationship of families bound together by the loss of Jerome was very moving.

The historical and spiritual dimensions of Ghost Boys deepens the narrative.  Jewell Parker Rhodes met my expectations by providing a truly meaningful portrayal of a contemporary tragedy.



Sunday, November 25, 2018

Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa

I've never read YA fantasist Julie Kagawa previously, but when I saw that she had written an Own Voices fantasy taking place in Japan, I couldn't resist.  I was very grateful to be approved by the publisher for an ARC via Net Galley.


I've actually read some fantasies based on Japanese legends, but none were Own Voices books.  They were all by Caucasians, and they were mainly martial arts oriented fantasies grounded in samurai films.  Shadow of the Fox has a number of similarities to those books, but the biggest difference is that Julie Kagawa gave us a character who poked fun at the samurai and their values.  The reviews I've seen don't even mention this character, but he was the one who stood out for me.

The protagonists also don't fit the formula I've seen in Japanese background fantasies.   I've seen kitsune (fox woman) characters.  They're usually destructive villains, not protagonists.  Yumeko was trained to suppress her kitsune persona and powers at a temple where she was brought up.  Then there's the samurai protagonist, Tatsumi.  Samurai tradition contends that the soul of the samurai is in his sword. This is a metaphor for the samurai's total commitment to the way of the warrior.  It isn't intended to be literal. In Shadow of the Fox, there really is a spirit in Tatsumi's sword, but it's a demon.  This is a significant challenge for a protagonist.  He had to fight that demon in order to maintain self-mastery.  So both these protagonists had divided natures.  They weren't entirely trustworthy.

My favorite character was essentially a sidekick.  His name was Okame, and he's a ronin which means masterless samurai.  Every ronin I've ever read about before is continually trying to find a master.  They're never happy unless they've sworn fealty to a lord, and can be proper samurai.  At first, I thought of Okame as a drunken fool who lacked ambition, but as time went on I realized that he was a subversive who had some really good dialogue.

I liked the fact that Julie Kagawa claimed the freedom to play with the standard figures of Japanese fantasy and move beyond formula.   I am looking forward to finding out what she does in future volumes.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Another Anne Perry Christmas Mystery

I admit that I'm usually much more impressed by Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries, but authors can't always be brilliant.  I did hope for better when I requested A Christmas Revelation from Net Galley.

This is my one hundredth review for Net Galley.  May I have many more!


I read A Christmas Garland by Anne Perry primarily because I was intrigued by it being located in India, and I did enjoy it.  A Christmas Revelation was scheduled for the December meeting of my F2F mystery group.  So I thought I'd try that one too.

What stood out about this Christmas mystery is that it dealt with ordinary working class people.   Perry has a tendency to focus on the perspectives of aristocrats and officialdom.  I applaud her for thinking that there was a story worth telling in the lives of an accountant for a clinic catering to street prostitutes called Squeaky and a street urchin named Worm that he'd adopted.  I'd be more interested in the women who were treated at the clinic.  They actually are human beings.  There could be an inspiring Christmas story dealing with them.

One thing that stuck in my craw was those character names.   It seemed to me that people who allow others to call them Squeaky and Worm should have more self-respect.  The name Squeaky reminds me of an accusation hurled at cowards. "What are you, a man or a mouse?"  Squeaky turned out to be rather heroic.   It made me think that he shouldn't put up with being called Squeaky.

The mystery itself seemed rather routine to me.   It was okay.  I'd give it three stars.



Friday, November 23, 2018

To Live Out Loud-- A Novel About Émile Zola's Life and Death

When I reviewed A Different Kind of Angel by Paulette Mahurin last month here , I said that I would be getting to Mahurin's 19th century homophobia novel, The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, soon.  Yet I had Mahurin's Zola novel, To Live Out Loud, on my Kindle. Yes, I actually purchased it. Sometimes I do review books I bought.  😄


A more cogent reason to prioritize To Live Out Loud is because it now seems so urgently necessary to remind people about what happened in late 19th century France.  Right wing military officials inflamed an antisemitic hysteria by court-martialing loyal Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 and condemning him for treason based on falsified evidence.  For  American Jews, this is a travesty of justice that echoes through history due to recent events.

 In 2017 white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia chanting "Jews will not replace us." Then in 2018, the worst antisemitic atrocity in American history occurred when a right wing extremist killed 11 praying Jews on the Sabbath at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue.

Dreyfus had a defender in the French press.  He was Émile Zola who wrote a searing editorial commentary called "J'Accuse!" which became famous.  I knew about "J'Accuse!", but it was To Live Out Loud that made me aware that Zola was subjected to violent attacks afterward.  Today journalists who expose injustices are no more safe than Zola had been.  There is a hostile atmosphere that encourages persecution of journalists.  So I very much appreciate that Paulette Mahurin focuses on journalists who were social activists such as
Émile Zola in this book, and Nellie Bly in her most recent novel, A Different Kind of Angel.

To Live Out Loud also made me aware of a French Kristellnacht  in the French colony of Algeria that was an incident which happened during the same period as the Dreyfus case.  According to a Wikipedia article on The History of Jews in Algeria,  in 1898 two Jews were killed and 156 Jewish shops in Algiers were attacked as a result of antisemitic hysteria among the French colonists.

My only criticism of this book is that I thought it would have been more intense if it had been from Zola's perspective.  I don't really see the need for a fictionalized friend of Zola who barely exists as a character.  After Zola's death, there could have been an epilogue from the perspective of Alfred Dreyfus perhaps.

Otherwise To Live Out Loud was a meticulously researched novel that speaks to our times.  Zola's courage and integrity are memorialized through this book.

I'd like to close with a quote from Anatole France's eulogy at Zola's funeral:

"Zola deserves well of his country for not having lost faith in its ability to rule by law."



Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Rat Catchers' Olympics: Dr. Siri Mystery at the 1980 Summer Olympics

I was introduced to Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun series by the F2F mystery group that I attend a number of years ago.  I said then that the first Dr. Siri novel, The Coroner's Lunch,was delicious.  I have loved this 20th century Lao doctor and his circle of friends, but I've never blogged about any of the books in the series.   It's about time that I did.  I received a free copy of The Rat Catchers' Olympics from Edelweiss and this is my review.


The first eleven books of the Dr. Siri series took place primarily in Laos though there was a foray into Thailand and a nightmarish journey into Pol Pot Cambodia.  The series has also dawdled in the 1970's for more years than that decade had.  With The Rat Catchers' Olympics Cotterill finally turns to 1980. He also leaves Southeast Asia for the circus like atmosphere of an Olympics in the Soviet Union.

Don't get me wrong.  I love the Olympics.  I watch my favorite events with rapt attention.  I also adore the human feats of skill and daring at circuses.  So calling the Olympics a circus wasn't intended to be a disparaging comment.  Yet it is a very different background for a Dr. Siri novel.

The 1980 Summer Olympics was unique for a number of reasons.  Up until I read this Cotterill novel, I only knew that it was the Olympics that the Western nations boycotted due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

 I researched all the tidbits of info about this Olympics that Cotterill dropped into the narrative.  This was indeed the first Olympic appearance of athletes from Laos.  I thought that Cotterill was engaging in wordplay when he told us that the pole vault was won by a Pole--especially when he followed it up with the shameless puntification that the gold medal in boxing had not been won by a box.  It did turn out that Polish athlete Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz  won pole vault gold and he made a defiant gesture for which he became famous.  I couldn't confirm the Cotterill assertion that more women athletes participated in the 1980  Moscow Spring Olympics than in any previous Olympics, but  it was true that the most dramatic result was the victory of the inexperienced Zimbabwe women's field hockey team who were only invited because the Soviet women's field hockey team found themselves unopposed due to the boycott.

I didn't research the post-Olympic rat catching contest in this novel because it seemed pretty clear that it was purely fictional. Cotterill invented it for the entertainment of his readers like all the wonderful dialogue that always appears in every Dr. Siri novel.

Oh yes, there are also murders in Moscow that need to be solved.   The resolution certainly wasn't what I expected, but it was in keeping with our current atmosphere of political cynicism.

The only thing I missed was the shamanic aspect which wasn't at all prominent in this particular Dr. Siri book. As a fan of the paranormal, I consider this the best part of the series.  I hope that the most recent Dr. Siri novel, Don't Eat Me, includes lots of communications from spirits.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Eagle and the Dragon--An Original and Multicultural Historical Fiction Novel

It was a total surprise when I won The Eagle and the Dragon by Lewis McIntyre from one of  author Stephanie Dray's monthly giveaways for her list members.  McIntyre's novel is about an ancient Roman diplomatic mission to China which makes it very unusual. So when I was gifted with a copy by the author via Amazon, I looked forward to reading it.  Yet at 682 pages, I wasn't sure where I could fit it into my schedule.   I ended up having to start it and put it aside while I dealt with books that I had committed myself to review.   I finally finished The Eagle and the Dragon recently, and this is my honest review.


I wondered about whether this book had any historical basis.  I found a 2004 article in The Economist  called "They Came, Saw and Settled: The Romans in China" here.   Judging from the content of that article, I would say that it's possible that the events described in The Eagle and the Dragon could have happened.  McIntyre definitely did his research.

While browsing reviews, I encountered one on Goodreads which claimed that The Eagle and the Dragon becomes a preachy Christian novel at some point.   This didn't seem to be in keeping with what I'd seen of the book.  I also didn't think that Stephanie Dray would have failed to mention that in her description of The Eagle and The Dragon.  A giveaway is a promotion, so she would have wanted the book to find its audience.  There are readers who prefer Christian inspirational fiction, and there are readers that avoid it.  I sometimes read in this category.  When I do, they are usually books about the Amish.  See my recent review of Her Fear by Shelley Shephard Gray here .The only reason why I thought it was possible that the review might be accurate is because McIntyre did write what seems to be a Christian short story that appeared before this novel called "Come Follow Me".

After finishing the book, I have to say that I don't consider this a Christian inspirational novel.   There are characters who represent a variety of spiritual traditions in this book.  They are all presented sympathetically.  I believe that the reviewer was referring to a character who went through a Christian conversion experience.   A Christian inspirational novel would follow that up by primarily focusing on that character's perspective.  Yet after the section about the Christian conversion experience, the focus of The Eagle and the Dragon remained on central characters who were non-Christians practicing their religions and being shown in a positive light.   I believe that this book reflects the spiritual pluralism in the ancient world by including within its pages characters who were Roman, Mongolian and Bactrian polytheists as well as Jews, Buddhists and Christians.

My favorite character in The Eagle and the Dragon was Marcia, a Chinese woman who was also of Roman descent.  Since she knew Latin as well as (probably Mandarin) Chinese, she functioned as a translator who could speak to both Chinese and Romans.   As the narrative progresses she learns fighting skills and becomes even more extraordinary.

For me, The Eagle and the Dragon is five star fiction because its narrative trajectory is original. I also found it to be a gripping novel of adventure that was also culturally inclusive.


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 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.


If you would like to see the entire schedule of this blog tour, you can find it at


 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 Gray 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 Gray.

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 Gray.


 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.




Friday, August 31, 2018

Killing in C Sharp--African American Woman Solves Mysteries in Ireland

I received Killing in C Sharp by Alexia Gordon from Net Galley, but read it recently because it's going to be discussed next week at the F2F mystery book club that I attend.   It's the third in a paranormal mystery series whose protagonist, Gethsemane Brown, is a school musical director in a small Irish village.  Like author Alexia Gordon, Gethsemane is African American.  The first book in the series, Murder in G Major reveals how Gethsemane ended up in Ireland.   If you feel that it's important to know the central character's background, by all means read Murder in G Major before this book. Yet I should point out that Gethsemane's U.S. background plays no role in Killing in C Sharp. So it's definitely possible to read this book first. I read Murder in G Major before there were any other books in the series and enjoyed it for the most part.  This inclined me to read another book in the series.


Gethsemane rents a cottage that is haunted by a ghost.  So the owner of the cottage decided to pay a ghost hunting TV series to film an episode at his cottage.  Since I tend to suspect TV ghost hunters of faking the phenomena that they are supposedly investigating, I almost didn't read this book.  I expected it to deal with frauds discovering that there actually was a ghost which is mildly amusing, but I felt that I had better things to do with my reading time.   I turned out to be wrong about the TV ghost hunters.  There was also content that was a great deal more interesting to me.

Gethsemane invited an Irish composer, Aed Devlin, to give a series of lectures to her students.  Devlin was also premiering a new opera which was based on a Hungarian legend associated with a curse.  I happen to be an opera fan, and the legend described in the book definitely caused this feminist to sit up and take notice. I researched the story and learned that it isn't an actual Hungarian legend.  Alexia Gordon created it probably from the bones of a folk tale called The Walled Up Wife .  It's a different yet equally awful story from a feminist perspective, but Gordon's addition of a curse and a ghost vastly improved the narrative.

The murder expected by mystery lovers happened, and the local Catholic priest was given an opportunity to contribute a very fine witticism which I just adored.  I'll leave my readers to discover it for themselves.

 I consider Killing in C Sharp better than its description and the mystery more intriguing than in the first novel in the series.  The resolution was inventive.  I can't wait to see what Alexia Gordon comes up with in her next Gethsemane Brown novel.




Saturday, August 18, 2018

Madilla: The Spirit of U'Katang--Fighting For A Woman's Right to Play A Musical Instrument

I obtained Madilla: The Spirit of U'Katang by Ian B. Boyd from Net Galley because the book deals with a girl who plays the piano.  I have an interest in female protagonists who are involved in any of the arts.  The summary implies very adverse circumstances for this young musician.  I don't believe this book was written with a teen audience in mind.  There are mature themes and mature content.


The author states that Madilla takes place in an imaginary country.  There are linguistic and cultural similarities to real places.  At first,  I wondered why  Boyd didn't situate it in a known location. The village described is under military occupation.  It could have been in a number of different nations, but it occurred to me that Boyd wants us to realize that this type of story could apply to all of them.  He shows the impact of occupation on everyone in that village.
 Madilla's problem with a ban on women participating in music wasn't imposed by the occupiers. This is a traditional taboo in her own culture which she defies.  I could identify with her since I came up against some serious opposition to women singing as a child in the Jewish Orthodox community.   I discuss the spectrum of  Jewish opinions on women singing in "Are The Haredi Jewish Taliban?" here.

Although I knew of religious traditions where music isn't allowed at all, I wasn't aware of specific cultural proscriptions against women playing or even touching musical instruments. So I ran a search on the topic.  As a result, I discovered a very illuminating blog article by Josh Middleton dealing with this prohibition as a cross-cultural issue here.  There are still prejudices against women playing certain musical instruments. Middleton points out that in contemporary pop music, there are few highly regarded female guitarists.

I consider this a feminist book.  Both men and women have hard lives in Madilla, but there is a strong focus on the problems of women, and it seems to me that the most sympathetic characters are female.

The first ten percent of Madilla establishes the character and context.   I wasn't bothered by this, and considered the entire novel well-written.  Some readers may experience the book as slow-paced.

Madilla has been shelved as fantasy on Goodreads.  It isn't epic fantasy.  It takes place in our contemporary world, so readers may feel genre confusion.  Others may identify the book with magic realism.  The category to which Madilla belongs isn't obvious at the outset.  This may be problematic for those who really want to know what sort of book they're reading.  It isn't clear at the beginning whether Madilla is paranormally gifted or highly imaginative.  Let's just say that by the end of the novel you will definitely know the answer to that question.

  Madilla is not a book for people who are uncomfortable with uncertainty.  Yet if you're willing to deal with fantasy/magical realism and you love protagonists who are musicians, you may enjoy this book as much as I did.