The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden*****

TheGirlintheTowerOh hey now…do you hear bells?

There are plenty of reasons to read this luminous, intimate, magical novel, the second in the Winternight Trilogy. You can read it for its badass female warrior, an anomaly in ancient Russia; you can read it for its impressive use of figurative language and unmatchable word-smithery; or you can read it because you love excellent fiction. The main thing is that you have to read it. I was overjoyed to be invited to read it in advance by Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; thanks also go to Net Galley for the digital copy. The book is available to the public tomorrow, December 5, 2017.

Vasya is no ordinary young woman. She sees and hears things few others do. Take, for example, the domovoi that guard the home; the priests discourage belief in such creatures, but they’re right there. She can see them. Then there’s the matter of her extraordinary horse, Solovey, who is nobody’s property and nobody’s pet, but who makes a magnificent friend and ally. And then of course there is the Frost Demon, a mentor and intimate acquaintance with whom she has a complicated relationship. But these are only parts of her story. The whole of it is pure spun magic that no review can adequately describe.

In ancient Russia, there are three kinds of women: some are wives; some are nuns; and some are dead. Vasya is determined to be none of these. Everyone that cares about her tries to explain how the world works so that she can make her peace with it. Her father is dead now, and so her brother, who is a priest, and her elder sister Olga both implore her to be reasonable. And even the Frost Demon wants her to face the facts. He tells her:

“Having the world as you wish—that is not for the young,” he added. “They want too much.”

Nevertheless, Vasya sets out into the winter woodlands with Solovey; she’s dressed as a man for the sake of safety. She learns that bandits have kidnapped the girls of a village that lies in her path, and everywhere she sees the depredations, the burned homes and ruined fortresses that have been laid waste by the Mongol invaders that have preceded her. She vows to rescue the girls and to seek vengeance, and as one might expect, she brings down a world of ruin and pain upon herself in the process.

A character like Vasya comes along perhaps once in a generation. Together with the first story in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, it has the makings of a classic. My one small wish is not to see it become a romance rather than what it is now—brilliant historical fiction and deeply moving fantasy. At the same time, wherever Arden takes the third volume of her trilogy, I know she can be counted on to do it better than anyone else.

Can this book stand on its own if the first title isn’t available? Arden ensures that the reader has the basic information necessary to jump into the story, and yet I urge readers to get both books if at all possible. To disregard the first in the series is to cheat oneself.

This reviewer seldom keeps review copies on the shelves here at home. There are too many books and never enough space. This title (and the one before it) is an exception to this rule; I will love this series until I die.

You have to read this book.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward*****

Oh hell yes. Congratulations to Jesmyn Ward for making the long list of the #NationalBookAward for 2017.

Seattle Book Mama

SingUnburiedI had never read Ward’s work before, and now that I have I will follow her anywhere. Sing Unburied, Sing is a literary masterpiece, and one that fits the time in which we live. It opens up all sorts of thorny questions for examination, but like most thorns, it stings. I received my copy free and early courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley. This title is available to the public now.

Jojo and Kayla have been raised by their grandparents in rural Mississippi; Mam and Pop are their source of love and stability. Leonie, the mother they call by her first name as if she were a sister, drifts in and out, using copious amounts of meth and other drugs. Michael, the children’s Caucasian father, is being released from Parchman, the notorious prison where he has been sent after having killed Leonie’s brother, Given. Given comes to her when she’s…

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Hook’s Tale, by John Leonard Pielmeier***

HooksTalePielmeier’s debut novel gives poor, maligned Captain Hook an opportunity to share his side of the story. The teaser promises a “rollicking” story, and at first it seems to be exactly that, but it runs out of steam early on. Nevertheless, thank you, Net Galley and Scribner, for the opportunity to read and review.

At the outset, Captain James Cook (his name isn’t Hook!), named for the famous sea explorer, describes himself as looking nothing like the “unbearably pompous actor”, a clear reference to the hilarious Cyril Ritchard, who played Hook in the twentieth century complete with high heeled boots and a beauty mark; however, our pirate assures us, those periwinkle blue eyes do fit the bill. There is an assumption that the reader is well steeped in both the stage and cinematic depictions of the character, and it seems like a fair one. I love reading Hook’s fond and hugely original description of Smee, and our introduction to Hook’s pet crocodile.

“I named it Daisy, after my mother.”

Unfortunately, somewhere between the ten percent and twenty percent mark, the narrative founders, and the most frustrating part for this reviewer is that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what goes wrong. The concept is strong, the voice clear, and yet my interest is gone before the quarter-mark is reached, and at that point I am reading for duty rather than pleasure. I came away with two considerations.

The first is the linear quality of the prose. The formal, old-school language is fun at the outset, but it might be more powerful if alternated with a present day narrative. Hook could have a grandson or other present-day relative that contributes; since Hook marries Tiger Lily, that might be a way to get there. Readers of the digital era may not have the patience to read the rather Victorian-sounding dialect all the way through. An alternating narrative would probably pick up the pace and make for a more compelling arc.

The second consideration is audience. There are two characteristics here that suggest completely different types of reader, and they don’t overlap very well, which may make for a small readership. We have the Boomers and those that came right after them, folks that may have seen the Cyril Ritchard version of Captain Hook on television. It was a childhood favorite of this reviewer, and you can watch the entire thing here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6K2M…

The assumed knowledge and detailed descriptions jibe with this audience. But then there is the other sort of detail, the gore and guts that are more suited to a young reader, perhaps one in his early teens. Older readers may wince at the graphic gore here, decapitations and intestines and fountains of blood—I certainly did—but younger readers that are more likely to love it are unlikely to tolerate the formal prose style adopted. It’s hard to tell whether the writer had a particular audience in mind, but if so he shot wide of the mark.

Another possibility is that the story really is better as a visual medium. Reading about people flying is not as enjoyable as seeing them do it, and I say this as a person that prefers the printed word over film almost always. J.M. Barrie’s work itself is difficult to plow through, and also racist as hell; the story took wing on stage and screen. In addition, the stage version was the first time an actor had been hooked to cables and “flew” in front of a live audience; what seems like corny, ancient technology now, was new and exciting then.

All of this notwithstanding, you may love this book. It was released July 18, and is for sale now.

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

TheShipshapeMiracleThis is volume 10 of a complete collection of the writings of Clifford D. Simak, who won 3 Nebula awards, 1 Hugo Award, and was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1977. It’s my sixth volume of Simak’s stories, and it’s my favorite so far, which is saying a good deal. Thanks go to Net Galley, Open Road Media, and David W. Wixon, whose brief, useful notes set context for each of these stories. Wixon and Open Road have republished Simak’s work digitally for new generations to enjoy; I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

For those new to Simak’s work, here’s a thumbnail sketch. He began writing in the 1930’s, submitting short stories to various magazines, and continued writing stories and novels into the early 1980’s. He wrote a few war stories during the mid-1940’s, then continued writing Westerns and science fiction. Both of these genres make it into this volume, and although when I began reading Simak, I questioned the choice to foist annoying cowboy stories on sci fi readers, I came to see that it’s not easy to tease them apart in every case. One of my favorite stories here, “Rim of the Deep”, is about a journalist named Grant who is given the dreaded assignment of chasing a story in an undersea city. Once he is down there, it becomes a tongue-in-cheek underwater cowboy story:

“‘You think there’s a gang of robbers down in that deep?’ asked Grant.
‘That’s the only place they could be,’ said Gus. ‘It’s bad country and hard to get around in. Lots of caves and a couple of canyons that run down to the Big Deep. Dozens of places where a gang could hide.’
Gus sipped gustily at the coffee. ‘It used to be right peaceable down here,’ he mourned. ‘A man could find him a bed of clams and post the place and know it was his. Nobody would touch it. Or you could stake out a radium workings and know that your stakes wouldn’t be pulled up…But it ain’t that way no more. There’s been a lot of claim jumping and clam beds have been robbed. We kind of figure we’ll have to put a stop to it.'”

The story is chock full of whimsy, and includes a pet octopus named Butch that bounds after them like a dog and occasionally does something heroic. I love it.

And this is the thing I love about old-school science fiction in general and Simak in particular: the reader doesn’t need a technical background to read and enjoy these stories. There are no jokes that only a programmer can understand; Simak writes fiction and writes it well, and so we liberal arts types can sit back and enjoy the stories.

In addition, the period in which the writing was done actually adds to the whimsy. For example, another favorite in this collection, “How-2”, is about a man that orders a kit to make himself a mechanical pet dog and inadvertently ends up with a very valuable robot instead. I won’t give the rest of the story away other than to tell you it’s hilarious, and I can’t imagine the author wrote it without laughing himself silly, but there’s also the unintentional hilarity of having a robot that can do almost anything imaginable, asking for a paper and pencil so that he can make a list of the things the protagonist desires. A pencil! I love it.

The collection contains 9 stories. One is a straight Western that I started and then gave myself permission to skip. That’s okay, though; the other 8 stories make this tasty collection worth the purchase price. (One story, “Paradise”, is a sequel to the story “Desertion”, which is included in an earlier collection, and if possible you should read it first.) I would not have named the collection for the story Wixon chose, but it’s also a strong story; it’s just a matter of taste. I happened to love at least 3 of these others more.

Finally, the reader should know two things: first, Simak was a creature of his time. Although he is more progressive than most writers of the mid-20th century, there are a couple of baldly sexist moments. This reviewer grew up watching reruns of television shows and movies produced in the 1950’s, and to hate Simak’s work, one would also have to hate every stinking one of those productions also. However, in the brief philosophical metaphors and other indirect allusions, Simak shows himself to have been unusually progressive where civil rights were concerned. Again, such references are oblique, since most of the featured characters aren’t actually even human.

The other thing the reader should know is that these collections are only available digitally. They’re ridiculously cheap, so those that love great old-school science fiction should order this collection and read it. Those that want it on paper will have to hunt up some used books most likely, and they will be either single stories or different groups within a given volume.

This collection is strongly recommended for all that love excellent science fiction.

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Himself, by Jess Kidd*****

himselfbyjesskiddAh, feck me blind now, Jess Kidd’s written herself a novel, and it’s good enough for any ten others. It comes out March 14, 2017, and although I read it free via Net Galley and Atria, there’s surely a chance I will buy one or more copies to give to those I love anyway. You should, too. It’s too clever to miss, and if you don’t mind a bit of irreverence, if you have a heart at all for Ireland and for ordinary working folk just trying to get along as best they’re able, this book is your book. Sly as hell and fall-down-laughing funny, it will put a spring in your step for a goodly while thereafter. That it will!

Mahony has come to the tiny Irish town of Mulderrig, looking to find out what happened to his mammy, who left him orphaned when he was small. The townsfolk aren’t happy to see anyone related to Orla Sweeney, but Mahony is undeniable in his charm, with:

“A face that women can love on sight and men will smile upon. Mahony has the right tone in his voice and the right words to go with it. Mahony has a hand that people want to shake and a back they want to pat.”

But beneath the charm, the voice, and the handsome face, “He’s a Dublin orphan, which means that he could survive on an iceberg in just his socks.”

You see, like Orla before him, Mahony sees the dead, and they’re thick as flies here. They’re sitting on the rafters knitting; they’re smoking a pipe in the roll-top bath; they’re sitting on the cistern, just watching. Because “The dead are drawn to those with shattered hearts.”

But his mother isn’t among them; how can that be so?

As we follow Mahony on his quest, we get to know a number of the townspeople. Shauna runs the only decent boarding house in town, and since Mahony is staying there, we get to know her and her father, Desmond. We get to know Mrs. Cauley, the wealthy senior citizen that keeps the town afloat, ancient, wheelchair bound, and surrounded in her quarters by a “literary labyrinth” that’s positively magical. In her, Mahony finds an unexpected confederate. Though elderly enough to be fragile, when the chips are down Mrs. Cauley is at the ready, declaring that “I’m Miss Marple, with balls.”

We also get to know one of my favorite characters, Bridget Doosey, as well as the “crocodilian” parish priest, Father Quinn.

The lyricism of the text is owed to no small skill on the part of the author, partly with the use of figurative language—and here I tell my readers that are teachers, you’ll find no better passages for teaching the effective use of repetition anywhere, but select carefully, because the text is very spicy—but a certain amount of it is due to the intangible talent that some of us have, and that some of us don’t. I note that every chapter is ended brilliantly and the next also begun as much so.
I could reach into my notes all day long and find more passages that are lyrical, moving, or funny enough to make you wish you’d been to the bathroom first. But in the end I’d be doing you a disservice, because what you really need is the book itself. With a little planning, you can have a copy in your hands before St. Patrick’s Day. And you should do so.

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri**

thefamishedroadI surrender! Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Media, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for an honest review; however, try though I have, I cannot push past the molasses-like allegory and other figurative language to locate a plot. After painfully forcing my way through the first 20% of the book, I went to Goodreads to see what other reviewers had to say about it. Some felt as I did, but others swore that if the reader could endure the first two-thirds of the story, the last third would not only be so amazing, it would also enlighten us as to why the earlier part was necessary. Seeing this, I vowed to persevere. By the 25% mark, I found I was avoiding this DRC, because just about every other galley in my possession was either more enjoyable to read, or more rewarding, or both.

Tonight I decided it was time to put up or shut up. Maybe this is one of those rare occasions when one should read a book out of sequence. I skipped to the 70% mark and found it was pretty much more of the same. The allegory pointed toward the horrific debt load that cripples African nations, but I already knew that, and if that is actually where this story is supposed to lead me–because really, I am still not sure–then it’s a disappointment. I already knew about the impact of colonial overlords on African nations, and this did nothing to improve either my knowledge or my appreciation for that, or for literature.

I will add, however, that I have also never liked magical realism. Either write fiction or nonfiction, don’t try to do both at once. Even the work of literary goddess Isabel Allende makes me crazy this way: we are in the midst of what feels like a genuine memoir, and then someone turns bottle-green and levitates. No, no, and no.

Those that have a great love of magical realism and thirst for African fiction may find joy here. This book has won prestigious awards, and I had anticipated that reading it would be rewarding. Just because it didn’t happen for me doesn’t mean it won’t happen for you; but if you come to feast at Okri’s table, bring a high literacy level with you, or you’ll find yourself leaving it still hungry.

This title is available for purchase now.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden*****

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

 thebearandthenigh

The Bear and the Nightingale is the most brilliant fantasy novel I’ve seen since Tolkien wrote, and I want you to understand how different, how special it is. I received my copy free in exchange for an honest review—and those of you that read my last two reviews know that this privilege has never made me obsequious. Thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the advance copy. It’s worth its weight in spun golden magic, and it will be available to the public this Tuesday, January 10, 2017.

 

“The brave live…The cowards die in the snow.”

 

Our protagonist is Vasilisa, affectionately known as Vasya; she’s an adolescent with many talents, some of which are supernatural. She generally keeps these abilities to herself, lest she be called a witch. Her father, Pyotr, is a minor prince in the frozen Northern hinterlands of Russia during the 14th century.  The setting here is mesmerizing, and from the first page I understood that this particular story is one I would save for late nights when my family is asleep. Let my other reading be interrupted by the minutiae of running a household, but not this one. This is a juicy tale, perfect for a cold winter night burrowed beneath the quilts. I open this magical tale and am lost inside it.

Our setting is ancient Northern Russia, then known as ‘Rus’, since no central government had formed yet. This is a time when women carry about as much social worth as a poker chip or livestock, and yet as the story progresses, I realize that this is a stand-up-tall feminist folk tale of the highest order; in fact, it’s a lot of things. This is the sort of debut that most likely causes writers like Harper Lee to go back in the house and never publish anything else, lest the second novel be considered a let-down after the first.  I hope, however, that we’ll see a lot more of Arden.

Our story commences in the house of Pyotr, a minor prince whose wife has died in childbirth. He loved Marina dearly, but as his daughters grow closer to marriageable age, he knows he must go to Moscow to seek a new bride to run his home, and marry his elder daughter Olga to a man of wealth and power. And though Olga’s match is a good one, it’s in Pyotr’s remarriage that things go badly wrong.

A brief note about the setting and other details involved with time and place. First know that this story does require a relatively high literacy level; for those that struggle with a high vocabulary level, it may prove to be more work than fun. However—for those reading digitally especially—please note that there’s a glossary at the back of the book. And those that are able to read this digitally on a device with a touch screen will be happiest of all, because it’s so easy to touch a word and get a definition immediately. I also ran a few searches due to curiosity, since I was not at all eager for this book to end. I took my time with it, and while I was buried in this magical world, I was nevertheless learning details of history and geography that I hadn’t known before.

Because I taught teenagers how to write for a number of years, it’s my natural inclination, even in an absorbing story such as Arden’s, to go back and look again to see what specifically produced this alchemy.  Undoubtedly, the development of multiple characters in a deft, expert manner is essential. There’s not one character in this story that I don’t believe. Every last one of them is real to me, a feat in and of itself when writing fantasy. It takes confidence and authority to tell the reader that although the story contains all manner of supernatural elements, it’s all true, and so are its characters.

But also, there are real life details true to the time and place that Arden weaves in seamlessly. As I reread some key passages, I note that when the men come indoors from the snowy woods, they aren’t merely cold, dirty and tired; they’re covered in scratches, they’re voracious, and their boots steam and stink up the room once they remove them. In another scene, when Pyotr travels far from home, he can afford fine guest lodging, but although he gets a big, soft, fluffy bed, he also has to put up with vermin, because they were a part of everyone’s life.  Such details contribute to the immediacy of the story.

It’s Arden’s outstanding word smithery that makes this story a standout. When Arden writes, the mists clear and we are transported, quivering in the snowy forest of the 14th century Russia, tearing pell mell across frozen ground on the back of a noble stallion, facing down death as demons scream and shadows dance.

I won’t spoil any of the subsequent plot points for you, but please know that this is a multifaceted story with a lot of secondary threads that contribute to the main story rather than distracting us from it.  To do so in a debut novel is stunning. A particularly interesting side character is Dunya, the nurse that has raised Vasya and has held onto a talisman intended for Vasya at great personal cost.

Messages and possible themes come out of the woodwork once one looks for them. A story such as this one, in which Vasya defends the old pagan deities against the religion of Kostantin, would once upon a time have caused conservative Christian parents to come screaming to the school with their lawyers on their cell phones in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. It could happen still, but what greater honor could Arden ask than to find her way into the ten most frequently banned books?

Meanwhile, in this trying time for independent women, we need strong female characters like Vasya and Dunya to remind girls and women that we are powerful, and that together, we can conquer those that would strip us of our autonomy and march us barefoot back to our kitchens. I have no idea whether any such direct political purpose is intended by Arden, but it certainly serves as a potent message: we will be oppressed only if we let that happen. Those that have even a fraction of Vasya’s independence, confidence and courage can not only prevent the door opportunity from slamming shut;  we can knock that door off its fucking hinges, for ourselves, our daughters, and theirs as well.

 

’All my life,’ she said, ‘ I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’”

 

Those looking for themes here have a banquet of opportunities. Though I would say the story is one of solidarity among women, or of woman’s independence, there are so many other possibilities. One could make a case that this story is about loyalty; one could claim it’s about family. One could say it’s about the victory of the collective good over the pride, greed, and ambition of the individual.

One thing I can say for certain is that The Bear and the Nightingale is impressive any way you approach it. It holds the potential to become a favorite of the genre, handed down lovingly from one generation to the next.  Buy it for yourself, for your daughter, your mother, or for any woman that you love, or for someone that loves women and good fiction. A book like this doesn’t come along every day.

Don’t even think of missing this book. You can get it Tuesday, or better still, you can pre-order it now.