Thursday, February 28, 2013

Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman

Title: Between Two Thorns
Author: Emma Newman

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Fantasy / Parallel Worlds / UK / Bath / Fey / Sorcery / Conspiracy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Angry Robot (3/1/2013)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Okay to liked, depending on my mood.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The world is split into three realms, populated with humans, 'chosen' ones, and the fey, and the treaties and rules dividing and managing those realms are dangerously challenged.
Reading Challenges: E-book

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- love the colors, the font, the layout, design -- it is dark and mischievous and imaginative. (The story within isn't totally a let down.)

I'm reminded of...: Tina Connolly

First line: That night in Bath was the third time Sam's beer bladder had gotten him into trouble.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like novels focusing on the fairy realm.

Why did I get this book?: The dual worlds of Bath / Aquae Sulis.

Review: Halfway through this book, I found myself describing it to my wife as 'fine' -- a passable fantasy-ish novel, a decent debut -- but upon finishing, I had to revise my opinion.  While this isn't an earth-shattering entry in the genre, it is fun and has some intriguing world building.

When done, I jotted down some fairly critical notes, but a week or so later, I'm looking back at this book a bit more fondly. My dislike of our heroine faded -- or maybe I've forgotten how bland I found her -- and I'm really really eager for the next book. Impatient, actually.

It took me some time to get into the story; Newman plunges us right into her world and it takes a few chapters to work out what the rules are.  In short, there are three realms: Mundanus, where the humans live and cities like Bath exist; Nether, then the mirror wold stuck in the Regency and Georgian era, where humans age slowly and live for beauty, pleasure, and their fairy patrons, where Bath exists as Aquae Sulis; and Exilium, the realm of the fey, where humans are enslaved for eternity.

Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, from a powerful Nether family, has neither beauty nor grace, but a prodigious desire for knowledge.  She hides out in Mundanus to learn but her Fairy Patron finds her and orders her back to Nether, where among the usual social machinations and dramas, a bigger scandal is brewing.  Back in Mundanus, Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, stumbles across crimes that indicate fairy involvement, and worse, his emotions have settled in a stone gargoyle who becomes an unlikely sidekick. Humans are kidnapped, social reputations are made and shredded, and Cathy fights to be happy and Max fights to stay alive.

Max might be my favorite character -- he has the delicious grouchiness of a classic private eye -- and Cathy my least favorite. But their world, and the book's drama, hooked me.

There is quite a cliffhanger at the end -- two major plot threads left out in the cold -- so don't pick this up if you're impatient. However, the author has a lovely site where you can sign up for short stories from the Split World universe, which I am all over. The second book comes out in July, and I plan to be all over it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Title: The House Girl
Author: Tara Conklin

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Dual Narrative / New York City / 1850s / Virginia / Slavery / Artists / Reparations / Lawyer / Underground Railroad)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow (2/12/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loved -- got double teary at the end!
Did I finish?: Yes!
One-sentence summary: A Virginia slave in the 1850s and a New York lawyer in 2004 are tied together by art, a lawsuit on slavery, and one man.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do, actually -- very pretty, striking, kind of fits the mood of the story.

I'm reminded of...: Tracy Chevalier, Barbara Kingsolver

First line: Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like meaty historical fiction that tackles heavy themes without being heavy handed!

Why did I get this book?: I was super curious about the slavery, art, and reparations connection and how this novel would wrangle with these topics.

Review: Conklin is yet another lawyer-turned-novelist which makes me, once more, contemplate law school as a way to get my writer-ly career going. It doesn't hurt that this debut is enviously readable.

This is a complex novel that develops slowly but not ponderously, threaded with various plot lines that knit together neatly, and some deep, painful emotions handled without melodrama.

Opening in 1852, Virginia slave Josephine Bell decides to runaway from the plantation where she is kept, her sick mistress fading away like the collapsing farm where she lives. In 2004, Lina Sparrow, a young lawyer at a cut-throat corporate law firm, is assigned to work on a class action lawsuit for reparations for the descendants of slaves. Tasked with finding the perfect (photogenic) plaintiff to represent the case, the past and present meet when Lina learns of Josephine Bell through her artist father. A talented artist, Josephine's art work has been mis-attributed to her owner, and a controversial showing of the art provides Lina with her possible plaintiff.

The novel alternates view points -- mostly between Josephine and Lina, but after half the book, with the characters who interacted with Josephine -- and I didn't mind the shift until near the end, when we learn about Josephine through written records of those with her. I didn't like that 'barrier' that came up between me and her, so to speak, but I was grateful to learn what happened to her. Conklin's writing style is clear, balancing emotion and action, and she changes up the narrative style, not just with the alternating POVs but by sharing the 'source documents' Lina reads with the reader. We can have our own emotional responses separate of Lina's, and I appreciated that.

Most importantly, tackling the issue of reparations in a book like this (this isn't a John Grishom novel) and making it real without preachy is key - and Conklin nailed it. (I say this as someone who strongly believes we need to have a national conversation about reparations, a la South Africa's truth & reconciliation movement.) I think Conklin presents some shocking, upsetting, and emotionally raw themes and stories in a way that resonates without minimizing, and creates a rather provocative frame -- both from the reparations angle and the art authentication angle. It's daring and I love that Conklin went there.

In short, this is a winner of a historical novel. A fascinating angle for a Civil War-era historical novel, and with the subplot around art authentication, I think those who enjoyed The Art Forger might dig this one.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a giveaway for The House Girl to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 3/8.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

Title: The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow
Author: Rita Leganski

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1950s / New Orleans / Widow / Catholic / Murder Mystery / Supernatural / Magical Realism / Faith / Skeletons in the Closet)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Paperbacks (2/26/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a very good deal.
Did I finish?: Yes!
One-sentence summary: A boy, born mute in 1950s New Orleans, becomes the vessel through which is fractured loved ones find peace and happiness.

Do I like the cover?: I do, very much, but I do confuse the sparkles with snow, which doesn't work as this novel is set in New Orleans!

I'm reminded of...: Sarah Addison Allen

First line: Bonaventure Arrow didn't make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you want an atmospheric Southern novel in the vein of Sarah Addison Allen.

Why did I get this book?: The title, the cover, the premise of 1950s New Orleans...

Review: Set in New Orleans and surrounding areas from 1949 - 1957, this debut novel tells the story of one Bonaventure Arrow, his widowed mother Dancy, his grandmothers Letice and Adelaide, his dead father William, the local healer Trinidad, and a man known only as the Wanderer. (The cast might seem huge but actually it is super manageable and doesn't overwhelm.)

When the Wanderer inexplicably murders William, pregnant Dancy nearly dies from sadness, and in that moment her infant suddenly goes mute -- and develops a near supernatural sense of hearing. When born, baby Bonaventure remains mute and able to hear things no human can: the sounds of nature, the body, even his dead father in Almost-Heaven.  Challenged by the literal sounds of sadness in his life and the voice of William, Bonaventure is a vessel through which his fractured loved ones gain some measure of healing.

That description might sound a bit feel good-y and cloying, but the story doesn't feel that way. I was apprehensive about Lovely Bones-type treacle-y sentiment but the book steered pretty clear of that territory, too. This isn't quite Southern gothic nor is it magical realism, but it has elements of both in a delightful way. I laughed, I was caught up, I got teary, I was swayed.

Leganski's writing has a kind of oral cadence to it; not precisely like a story being told aloud, and certainly not affected, but with a kind of lilt or tumble that makes it feel almost alive. Nearly a character unto itself. It talks so Bonaventure doesn't have to and at least once a chapter, if not more, I found myself pausing to savor a turn of phrase or particularly catchy splash of words. The story isn't told exactly chronologically; as a character recalls something, or as the omniscient voice of the novel clues the reader in, Leganski drifts into that memory, scene, or moment. It perpetuates the state of fluid emotion, inserting some family saga-ish elements into this story of a mother and son, a bereaved lover, injured widows, the faithful and faithless.

Speaking of faith, I could almost argue this is an inspirational novel -- the spirituality of the characters fuels the story, and Leganski makes no bones about connecting Bonaventure's gift and the ineffable intelligence of the universe to a kind of God. She manages to keep that thread from becoming a blanket and I didn't mind the religiosity, implied or otherwise, in the narrative; and it fit for the place and time. (And as a smells-and-bells ex-Catholic, the emphasis on the saints totally charmed me, as did the mix of indigenous herbal magic with Catholicism.)

I inhaled this book in one night, wanting to see how the story concluded. Still, I felt aware I was reading a first novel -- at times it felt a leeeetle too long for me, like a novella that was padded into novel length -- and I couldn't shake the feeling that Trinidad was simply Bonaventure's 'Magical Negro'. (While she has a back story, she literally quits her job and packs up to move near to Bonaventure and waits until the Arrows hire her, and then she works as a housekeeper and cook until Bonaventure comes to her for 'hoodoo' magic, and after her magic saves the day, she gets a paragraph sum up and disappears from the story.)

A strong debut, high on ambiance and atmosphere, that reminded me of Sarah Addison Allen -- I think fans of her will enjoy this novel. It hits all the right emotions for someone who wants to be a little sad and a lot satisfied, and has some armchair time travel to boot. I'm looking forward to Leganski's next offering eagerly.

*** *** ***


GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 3/8.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Mailbox Monday, Feb 25

My last week hosting Mailbox Monday!! Mailbox Monday is a weekly meme where bloggers share their book arrivals -- and the rest of us grow our TBRs!

March's host is Caitlin @ chaotic compendiums so be sure to stop by her blog next week!

If you have a blog, share your Mailbox Monday link below; but if you don't, feel free to get your brag on in the comments!




Sunday, February 24, 2013

My Mailbox Monday, Feb 25

So our snowstorm turned into a rainstorm, which I have mixed feelings about: I suppose I'm glad we don't have another foot of snow but all this rain is making everything a slushy, icy mess!  Oh, New England...

Here are my arrivals for the week.  To learn more about a book, click on the title -- it'll open in a new tab/window.

What did you get this week?

For Review















Saturday, February 23, 2013

Winners!

Sorry for the wait -- had a chance to spend the day with friends I hadn't seen in a while, and we did some marathon lazing: mimosas, Cards Against Humanity, ice cream, and lots of catching up.  It was wonderful and just what I needed.  And now, winners!

The winner of Driving Alone is ... Rhonda!

The winner of The Sign of the Weeping Virgin is ... Melinda!

Congrats to the winners!  Folks have until Wed to respond or I'll draw again.  If you didn't win, check out my open giveaways -- more coming!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Weekend reads and yet more snow...

Apparently we've got snow coming this Sunday and the following week, making this three (or is it four?) solid weekends of snow.  I mean, I get this is winter and all, but I've grown accustomed to Boston's milder winters.

My weekend read is The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski.  (I'm still waking up so my little tableau features my breakfast: yogurt-pineapple-banana-spinach smoothie. Odd color, good taste.)  I'll be (reluctantly) finishing Carol K. Carr's India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy today -- another great read with characters I want to linger with!

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Future Arrived by Phillip Rock

Title: A Future Arrived
Author: Phillip Rock

Genre: Fiction (Historical / UK / 1930s / Jazz Age / Country Estate / Social Class / Family Saga / Journalism / Marriage / Military)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (2/5/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loooooooooooooved.
Did I finish?: Oh yes, and cried at the end!!
One-sentence summary: The final novel in the Greville family saga, as parents from one war watch their children experience their own war.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- less so than the previous two, but it matches the set.

I'm reminded of...: Anya Seton

First line: Spring came at last after a winter of snow and icy winds that had sent trees crashing into the tangled depths of Leith Wood and had blocked the narrow country roads with drifts.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this one, and the other two.

Why did I get this book?: Like I was going to pass up reading this final volume!

Review: I am seriously not ready for this trilogy to end. I actually feel melancholy, reluctant to start another book for fear of losing the 'taste' of the novel. (For recaps, see my reviews of the first novel, The Passing Bells, and the second novel, Circles of Time.)

The novel opens similarly to the first book, The Passing Bells, with Lord Stanmore getting dressed for the day, and my heart lifted -- until the scene changed to sadness with the death of a tertiary character. With that mood established, Rock's final novel is a bounce between familiarity, bittersweet loss, and heady hope.

Seven years have passed between the end of the second novel and the start of this one. Those who wanted more time with the 'original' cast might feel some loss at the shifting direction -- I will admit I initially was disappointed -- but the twining connection between the 'new' cast and the other characters, as well as Rock's wonderful writing, sucked me in and I no longer mourned the shifting focus.

This book has the largest scope -- ten years -- from 1930 through 1940 and in that sense, I think it felt a bit rushed. Rock covered six years in The Passing Bells but conveyed, I thought, the unending grind of trench warfare rather well without losing the reader.  I felt the two years covered in the second book was too little -- even though the page length was the same as the first novel! (What can I say, I just want more!)  Still, this isn't an unsatisfying story: threads are tied up, characters come to some concluding arc (whether I like it or not!), and the Grevilles and their beloved Abington Pryory continue to live on, changed.

Our intrepid American reporter Martin is still the moral 'voice' of the novel; his interest in European politics and experience as a war reporter allow him to be a bit of an oracle or Greek chorus here, hinting at what we know will come. Fenton Wood-Lacey, still in the military, returns to the same battlefields where he fought during World War I, again fighting Germany. His daughters are now vibrant and passionate young women, hungry for their own victories, infatuated with soldiers the way the characters from the first novel were.  Lord and Lady Stanmore, the Greville patriarchs, clinging to the past as much as they grab for the future, keep their beloved Abingdon Pryory as their seat.  Rock doesn't forget the working class either: the brother of one of the Greville house maids becomes a main character, eager to change his fortunes the way he saw his sister change hers. 

As with his previous novels, Rock articulates so well the societal shifts in behavior, attitudes, and mores -- and the ways parts of society haven't changed. There's a seen where a character decides to marry a divorcee, and Lady Standmore has to have a frank conversation with the woman about how, pre-war, this marriage would have never happened and how, even now, some society will never accept her. It is in this world that the children bristle -- having grown up in a post-war era of parties, blatant sexuality, explosive politics, economic boom -- and just as they hurtle into adulthood, war approaches.  The bookending of these two conflicts is wonderful/upsetting/moving/cinematic/exciting/so ridiculously sad, and I love/hate Rock for doing so.

The ending was lovely, a note of hope, but I still got teary just remembering all the losses and changes that the characters experienced. (I'm getting a tiny bit teary right now!)  This trilogy definitely makes my top ten for this year -- these books were everything I love about reading -- and I feel the absence of my favorite characters now that I'm done.  I anticipate a reread of these books -- they're that kind of read -- and I hope this trilogy enters into the canon of 'classic' historical fiction.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer all three books of The Passing Bells trilogy -- made up of The Passing Bells, Circles of Time, and A Future Arrived -- to one lucky reader!

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/1.  For another entry, see my review of Circles of Time and my review of The Passing Bells.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Circles of Time by Phillip Rock

Title: Circles of Time
Author: Phillip Rock

Genre: Fiction (Historical / UK / 192s / post-WWI / Country Estate / Social Class / Family Saga / PTSD / Journalism / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (1/2/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loooooooooooooooooooooooooooved.
Did I finish?: Yep.
One-sentence summary: Following World War I, the residents of Abingdon Pryory, their employees, and their friends come to terms with the changing world of post-War Britian.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- stunning. While I know they're just ambiance shots, I did mentally decide what couple it represented, and was satisfied.

I'm reminded of...: Anya Seton

First line: He drove up to Flanders in the early summer of 1921 knowing that it would be for the last time.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, but start with Book One and have Book Three on hand to immediately begin!

Why did I get this book?: The cover, the setting, the era (and of course, wanting to continue the story from The Passing Bells

Review: I really haven't been able to breath since starting these books, the three novels that make up Philip Rock's Passing Bells trilogy. I am in serious love.  (See my review of the first book for the start of my swooning fit.)

This book has a much tighter time span -- 1921 to 1923 -- and starts a year after the first book ends. Life in Britain has changed: the 'Jazz Age' has dawned, and the public starts to accept a more open discussion of the events of World War I. Rock covers an array of details in this novel as in the first book; here, we learn about the development of engines for jet planes and the growing Fascist presence in Britain.

A good deal -- but not all -- of the characters from the first book return. As in life, some of the characters have come to terms with the losses from the war, while others are still in denial about it. Beautiful Alexandra, no longer flighty and superficial, must be married, according to her mother -- but the war decimated the population of marriageable men. Four members of the Abingdon Pryory staff were killed in the war, and what staff are there are new, men too old to have served. Chauffer Jamie is now a successful engineer, and Martin still travels Europe, reporting on the shifting political landscapes. (Rock has really honed in on his American journalist, Martin Rilke, as the main character of this saga, which kind of disappoints me because he's not my favorite. Which isn't to say he's not interesting or anything, but I'm far more fond of the women and their challenges.)

Oddly, even though the page count is similar to the first book, I feel like I saw 'less' of the characters than I did in The Passing Bells. Perhaps it's because Rock has narrowed his focus a little, keeping an eye on Martin, with the rest of the characters circling around that plot arc.  (I'm hesitant to squee or wail about specific characters for fear of spoiling the story for anyone, so I apologize if this review seems super vague!)

Rock still has the habit of having some major events happen 'off the page', so to speak; we only learn of it when a character mentions it in passing.  Which isn't to say the reader is denied emotion and drama -- that's to be found here, although less gutting than in the first book -- as we hurtle toward the 1930s, World War II, and a shifting focus from the parents to their children.

This could possibly be read as a standalone -- Rock recapped characters and plot quite frequently, which surprised me given that originally there had been only a year between the publishing of the first and second book.  (Rock took four years between this book and the final book in the trilogy.)   Still, for maximum oomph, pick up The Passing Bells before this one, and have a weekend, lots of tea, and tissues handy.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer all three books of The Passing Bells trilogy -- made up of The Passing Bells, Circles of Time, and A Future Arrived -- to one lucky reader!

To enter, please be a follower on Twitter, Facebook, or via Google Friends Connect. You can let me know how you follow on this form. Ends 3/1, open to US and Canadian readers.

For another entry, be sure to see my review of the first book, The Passing Bells and my review of A Future Arrived.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Shadow Wars by Rod Rees

Title: The Shadow Wars
Author: Rod Rees

Genre: Fiction (Futuristic / Computer Simulation / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Nazis / Historical Anachronisms / War Games / Conspiracy)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (2/19/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The further adventures of jazz singer Ella and her coterie of Resistance fighters in the cyber world of the Demi-Monde.

Do I like the cover?: Nope -- definitely hate the way they're designing them!

I'm reminded of...: Philip Pullman, Astro Teller

First line: I present to the Grand Council of The Most Secret Order of Grigori this report on the progress made in achieving the Final Solution.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- these are bricks! -- if you like cyber-y alterna-historical thrillers.

Why did I get this book?: I'd read the first one!

Review: First, see my review of the first book in this series -- I semi-exhaustively (it felt) recapped the premise of this world.

This is the second book in Rees' four-book series exploring the virtual world of the Demi-Monde, a computer model filled with 30 million historical figures who are self-learning, free-thinking, and self-governing. Initially designed to train US military in aggressive warfare, the real reasons for the programs design comes clearer in this book, and there's an insidious religio-political plot to make Dan Brown jealous.

As with the first book, the world of Demi-Monde is the star and Rees' is unstinting in his time spent there, with the people, the places, the philosophies of the Demi-Monde (for good and for bad).  However, if pressed, I'd say there was a smidgen less emphasis on the world as much of this novel's plot revolved around the real world / Demi-Monde divide (or lack thereof).

The story still has a fairly tight focus on characters, so despite the million side players who show up, I felt I understood what was going on.  I had some of the same problems with this one as with the first one:  when I'm not frustrated by the caricatures and stereotypical exaggerations, I'm caught up in the drama -- its like Les Mis meets any WWII resistance film with a dash of government conspiracy. Rees makes these disparate styles work in his world and it is a fun, escapist mish-mosh.

Still, Rees' exaggerated world and focus on Super Nazi Heydrich's Final Solution as a plot means lots of racism and sexism. But he's also set up one of his three female leads as the messiah, so, pretty amazing.  I'm really torn!

I found Rees' writing very readable - quite cinematic, very action packed - but I really could go without the PoMo caps. (Given that the computer characters have independent thought - enough to form religions, philosophies, and scientific communities - one would imagine that linguistically, they'd drop the random caps esp since they love corrupting words, ie jouissance as JuiceSense, etc.)  As with some of his characterizations, he's uneven.

Definitely not a standalone novel - start with the first book to get your feet solidly on the ground. I'm stunned there are to be two more books - clocking at more 400 pages each, rees has a huge canvas to paint his cyber-steampunk epic. I'm daunted at the idea of two more but I'll be getting the third book!

As I said in my review of the first book, fans of Tron or The Matrix will like this series as well as anyone who loves a dark dystopia. I think Rees is trying for the kind of punk fantasy saga of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -- an examination of religion, philosophy, sex, identity, oppression -- so those who enjoy that kind of adventurous fiction should give this series a go!

The Demi-Monde by Rod Rees

Title: The Demi-Monde
Author: Rod Rees

Genre: Fiction (Futuristic / Computer Simulation / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Nazis / Historical Anachronisms / War Games / Conspiracy)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow (2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked, I think...
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A computer-based dystopia becomes a living hell for three women -- two from the real world and one from the game.

Do I like the cover?: No -- suuuper boring although I suppose it better represents the more sci-fi elements -- the hardcover design is partially to blame for my confusion, I say!

I'm reminded of...: Astro Teller

First line: Norma ran.

Am... I completely blown away by the website for the series?: YES. It is insane -- could easily be the product of a fancy, expensive video game -- tons of extras, downloads, accoutrement -- I spent hours browsing.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like dystopias.

Why did I get this book?: I misunderstood the premise based on the title. Ooops!

Review: This might be my biggest reader-ly booboo as I totally thought this was some kind of steampunk-y novel set during the historical demimonde (late 1800s, France) although to be fair, other than the title, nothing about this book should have lead me to that conclusion. Nope, I own this mistake and fortunately, it ended pretty well.

The actual premise is that it is 2018 and the Demi-Monde is an online training 'game' for US soldiers to experience immersive extreme combat situations in foreign locales with factions headed by some of history's most violent, deranged, and methodical leaders. The game is self-learning, an active world of 30 million 'dupes' who continue to grow, shape, change, adapt, and evolve even when not in use. (There's a 'Product Description Manual' available for download from the book's website -- oddly enough, from option 9, 'Fashion of the Demi-Monde' -- which has some fascinating, nerdy details about the game world, factions, that kind of thing. I found it enormously helpful for understanding the world.)

Most 'dupes' are just ordinary historical figures, but eleven are 'Singularities' -- the super insane, psychotic, charismatic, violent leaders from world history: Ivan the Terrible, Reinhard Heydrich, Henry VIII. Programmers designed the world into five factions, modeled on real world cities and loose exaggerations of cultural stereotypes, and created a nomadic people to increase tension so that there would always be conflict and war between at least two of the factions.

This is a world designed for armed personnel, but at the novel's open, the U.S. President's daughter is scrambling around inside the Demi-Monde, trying desperately to keep away from the SS-Ordo-Templi-Aryanis -- a group that, even if you're not exactly sure who they are, is obviously very very evil -- as, for totally bizarre reasons, the primary currency in Demi-Monde is blood, and the dupes don't make blood. (Seriously, this book takes something from every genre and the kitchen sink, and weirdly, it kind of works!)

The military wants to stage a rescue of the President's daughter Norma, but there's a hitch: the Demi-Mondians have started wondering about the random soldiers who show up now and then (in the Demi-Monde, Aleister Crowley has invited a pseudo-science that says real world humans are demons from another realm) and have sealed off entrances to the Demi-Monde. (I will admit I still have some serious fuzziness on how a computer game can 'stop' people from entering the game, but whatever.) So the military has to 'trick' the Demi-Monde into accepting their hero, an 18-year old high school jazz singer named Ella.

Thankfully, Ella is as ignorant as we of the Demi-Monde, so the first few chapters explain all the world-building around the Demi-Monde, like why the world is centered around Victorian-era technology (allegedly to replicate the kind of circumstances that US troops face when storming foreign locales), why it feels so real, who some of the factions are, that kind of thing.

And here's where I get to some of the things that didn't work for me in this book, starting with Ella. For all this creative, elaborate world-building, the three lead female characters all super flat and dependent on static shorthand. Ella is a gorgeous, tough, sassy woman of color -- which is exciting -- but her main survival skill seems to be being too gorgeous for the villains to mess with. Her off-the-charts intelligence isn't reflected; in fact, she has a frightening lack of basic knowledge. Our imperious 'British' Demi-Mondian, Trixiebelle Dashwood, who flouts convention in the search for what she wants, remains just that, foot-stompy and head tossing, straight out of a romance novel. Norma, the President's daughter, alternates between being remarkably tough and annoyingly pathetic.

After the heroines, I struggled with Rees' exaggerated Demi-Mondian cultures. One faction, 'The Coven', is basically an extreme man-hating-lesbian-feminist cult. As a lesbian and a feminist who doesn't hate men, it is one of my pet peeves when feminism and lesbians are twisted into this horrible caricature. Not that he singles out feminists and lesbians for this treatment: the Abrahamic traditions are twisted into an extreme anti-woman patriarchy, the Germanic/Tuetonic cultures are smashed into a crazy Nazi/Occult potpourri, the European joie de vivre and bohemianism of the 19th century has mutated into a hedonistic sex party.  Subtlety isn't the thing 'round these parts. When I could get past my irritation, or, grew so accustomed that I no longer was bothered, I got lost in the very messed up world of the Demi-Monde.

The end has a serious cliff-hanger, so I'm kind of eager for the next book, but at the same time, I really wish this wasn't a four book series. I'm exhausted by the Demi-Monde and Rees' use of random capitalization and acronyms -- I would probably take more time between books were I not scheduled to review the second book. (Speaking of the second book, I was super confused about the books as there seem to be multiple editions of these novels under varying names, but I think this book, the first, also goes by The Demi-Monde: Winter while the second book, The Shadow Wars, also goes by The Demi-Monde: Spring. I believe the third book has been released in the UK as The Demi-Monde: Summer but I haven't seen what the US release will be titled.)

If you like dystopias, this is your book: it is a dystopia of dystopias. If you like Tron or The Matrix and big chunksters, this also is your book.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Mailbox Monday, Feb 18

Happy Mailbox Monday!

For those in the US who have Monday off, hope you're able to get some reading in. I'm spending my morning shoveling snow -- then I plan to read.

Mailbox Monday is a meme where folks share their weekly arrivals -- so what did you get?

If you've got a blog, link up -- and if you don't, feel free to brag in the comments!




Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Mailbox Monday, Feb 18

My week has been bookend-ed by snow, although this weekend's snow is vastly less dramatic than last weekend's. Thankfully, the books weren't impeded, and got some great arrivals for this week's Mailbox Monday (hosted in Feb by me!).

To learn more about any book, click on a title -- it'll open in a new tab/window.

What did you get this week?

For Review













Won



Won thanks to GoodReads



Won thanks to LibraryThing

Purchased/Gifted/Swapped



Free downloads from the Reader store

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Whip Smart by Kit Brennan

Title: Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards
Author: Kit Brennan

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Courtesan / Dancing / London / Spain / Espionage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Astor + Blue Editions (2/2013)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Liked a very good deal.
Did I finish?: I raced through this one!
One-sentence summary: The spicy, sexy, wild year in the life of Lola Montez, dancer and lady of danger.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I'm of two minds -- it's certainly eye-catching but I don't think it reflects the 1840s fashion Lola Montez wore.

I'm reminded of...: Kage Baker, Carol K. Carr

First line: "Tell us in your own words."

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you love historical figures with chutzpah, zest, and a slightly overinflated sense of self.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a Lola Montez fangirl.

Review: Lola Montez was a 19th-century adventuress who started in the UK, traveled all over Europe -- at one point, as the mistress to a King! -- then Australia and the US. She was known for a scandalous dance of her own invention, her romantic escapades, and her liberal use of a whip.

In this novel, Brennan imagines the year when Eliza Rosanna Gilbert transformed herself into Lola Montez (what actually happened is fuzzy, so Brennan takes liberties, which she acknowledges in her Afterward).

In 1842, Rosanna -- as she prefers to be called -- is facing a divorce trial from her husband on grounds of infidelity (on her side, scandalously). Virtually penniless, she finds herself a patron, of sorts, and decides to take acting lessons, where she is introduced to Juan de Grimaldi, a dance master for the Spanish court.

The novel is written in Lola's voice, and like her life, the prose is breathless, dramatic, punctuated with exclamation points and a variety of oaths, curses, and wails. I found it playful ('“¡Fabulosa!” he’d squeak, and “¡Deliciosa!” I’d gasp back.', p26) and dramatically emotive as Lola punctuates her story with commentary and coy asides. 

While reading, I was reminded a bit of Kage Baker and Carol K. Carr, with the mix of banter, snark, and history. There's a very earthy sense of sex and sexuality here -- not explicit, but obvious, if that makes sense -- and I found it hilariously fun.  There's a sense of heaving bosoms here, but not because Lola's met her One True Love -- no, Lola is on the run, working her wiles, and trying to come out on top.

I'm super excited for the sequel -- Whip Smart: Lola Montez and the Poisoned Nom de Plume -- because Brennan's Lola is a trip. For a wintry armchair escape to sunnier, sexier lands, this was perfect.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Whip Smart to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 3/1.

Winners!

Three giveaways ended this week!



The winner of Parlor Games is ... Nicole!

The winner of The Burn Palace is ... Jodi!

The winner of There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself is ... Kim C.!

Congrats to the winners! Folks have until end of day Tuesday to respond. If you didn't win, don't be sad: I have many great open giveaways and more coming next week.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Interview with Anne Easter Smith

Last year (oh, wait, in 2011?!), I read and enjoyed Anne Easter Smith's novel Queen By Right, so I was delighted when Ms. Smith agreed to answer some of my questions about the skeleton discovered in York -- now verified to be the notorious King Richard III.

Your newest novel, Royal Mistress, touches on Richard's reign. When you began writing, what was your opinion of Richard? Now that you've finished, has it changed?

Yes and no. I have been fascinated by this king for forty years and become more knowledgeable about him since beginning my research for “A Rose for the Crown.” He has always seemed complicated, and I think that is what I like about him. That first book told aspects of his story from the point of view of a woman who loved him, and necessarily, his positive nature shone through. I don’t think I whitewashed him in that book, but I gave readers a very different portrait of him than that of Shakespeare or most historians through the years. Because I had to look at Richard from my protagonist Jane Shore’s and her good friend William Hastings’s perspectives in “Royal Mistress,” Richard’s darker side emerged. Using the omniscient voice meant I could be in his head, too, and I show how he wrestled with many of the decisions he made and that those decisions came from a deep sense of morality and duty and were not always popular.
Anne Easter Smith

Does Richard III deserve the rap he has? (Nephew murderer, malicious monarch, etc.)

No, he does not. Again, if you really study the contemporary texts, he comes across as a loyal brother, faithful husband, quite handsome and who established some new laws that benefited his subjects. It is the Tudor historians who began to spin the events that led to Richard’s crowning into a tale of a hunchbacked murderer. History is written by the winners, and the Tudors had wrested Richard’s crown from him and killed him.

What is one thing you'd like readers to know about Richard?

That loyalty is the most important virtue a man can possess. I would also like them to know that he loved music.

In his play on Richard, Shakespeare famously -- and controversially -- made Richard a hunchback. Is there any truth to that suggestion? (It should be noted that news reports suggest the remains show signs of spinal curvature.)

Facial reconstruction based on skeleton
Yes, the skeleton does indeed show scoliosis, which might cause one shoulder to be higher than the other. But hardly a hunchback. I have always thought the portraits of Richard show a man who seems to be hiding pain. I wonder if his back ached constantly. We know he was a magnificent soldier and known for his skill with broadsword and battleaxe. Hard to imagine a deformed man handling those immense weapons while controlling a warhorse! Lots of people have scoliosis and are not visibly hunchbacks. That was a word that was used by the Tudors to describe Richard--in those days, any deformity was said to be the mark of the devil and thus the person must have evil tendencies. There is no contemporary description of Richard to prove that he was deformed, however. One portrait of Richard showing a marked deformity was x-rayed in the last century, and the hump on it was added after the original was painted!

There's been some debate over where to inter the remains: York, Leicester, or even a state burial at Westminster Abbey with other monarchs. Do you have an opinion?
Portrait of Richard III

I think Leicester is going to win out here. After all, they claim they have looked after him for 500 years (although hiding him under a parking lot doesn’t seem to me to be “looking after” someone!) and there is room for him in Leicester Cathedral. York Minster does seem like the right place to me and is where he had indicated he would prefer to be buried. But after writing “Queen By Right” and coming to really admire the parents that Richard of York and Cecily were, I’d be happy if he returned to Fotheringhay Church, where they and his brother, Edmund, are buried. Fotheringhay was the York family seat and where Richard was born in 1452.

Now that Richard's remains have been found, is there another monarch mystery you'd love to see come to light?

Not exactly a monarch mystery (because there really aren’t any more in England), but I would love to know if the pretender Perkin Warbeck was really Edward IV’s youngest son, Richard--one of the princes in the Tower. If you have read “The King’s Grace” you will know I don’t think he was, but it would be wonderful to have someone solve that mystery. That would then start to clear up what happened to those darling little princes in the Tower!

Does this discovery change anything about what we know about Richard? Can we learn anything else about Richard from these remains?

Sadly, it will only give us the facts about his physicality and how he died. They now have the means to make a reconstruction of his face, and that will be fascinating for all of us who hold Richard dear in our hearts!

Thank you so much for hosting me today and letting me talk about my favorite subject, Richard III.

*** *** ***

Learn more about Royal Mistress.

About the Author

Anne Easter Smith is an award-winning historical novelist whose research and writing concentrates on England in the 15th century. Meticulous historical research, rich period detail, and compelling female protagonists combine to provide the reader with a sweeping portrait of England in the time of the Wars of the Roses. Her critically acclaimed first book, A Rose for the Crown, debuted in 2006, and her third, The King’s Grace, was the recipient of a Romantic Times Review Best Biography award in 2009. A Queen by Right has been nominated by Romantic Times Review for the Best Historical Fiction award, 2011.