[Book Review] More history in my tsar and dragon novel, please.

Tsar DragonsBook Review: The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple

Canaries, you know those times when all you need to see is the cover, and you know (you know) the book is meant for you. Well, this was one of those. I was absolutely charmed by this cover.

Then I read the premise: Russian Revolution + Dragons? Yes, please. Sign me up.

And damn, for how good its premise and cover were, this novella came up so oddly short.

If you’re a fan of Russian history like me, you’ll be disappointed by the odd misses and factual inaccuracies. If you’re here for the dragons, you might be satisfied, but they’re not quite a driving force of the story. And if you’re there for the story and characters as reimagined by Jane Yolen and her son and co-author Adam Stemple, you might get distracted and bogged down in anti-semitic, sexist,  racist (take your pick of –isms) bits of the narration. It’s used to color the stories and perspectives of the characters, fine, but it sure didn’t make for a pleasant read.

In fact, when I started reading, my first impression from the heavy antisemitism was that this was going to be a sort of political satire on the time period—truth through dark humor and exaggeration, and there was definitely that in the first person narrator. But it never stayed over the top enough for that to work, and never felt tasteful enough to be cutting. And by the final third of the book, we were looking at a full on tragedy with the style and tone to match.

Now, I’m probably not the average reader for this – I know my Russian history and culture, and the big miss for me was just that. Yolen brought her masterful style, and the last few scenes were brutally powerful (though they had nothing on the actual account of the end of the Romanovs; Yolen and Stemple admitted to gentling that ending. Check out Michael Farquhar’s Secret Life of Tsars for a great historical look.).

But did the story work overall? I don’t know, canaries. I couldn’t see past the things that didn’t.

My Rating: One star.

I’m looking forward to seeing more reviews to see how other folks who aren’t as into Russian history take to the story. In the meantime, mileage may vary!

Canaries, what’s your favorite non-western historical novel? Would it be improved with dragons?

Review copy generously provided by the publisher.

 

[Book Review] Consulting sorceress and alternate universes

LetterBook Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

I’m a bit of a Sherlock alt-canon completionism. If it’s a Sherlock Holmes-inspired story, I’ll read (or watch) it. So after a long hiatus from NetGalley, of course The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall was the first thing I requested.

Imagine this: Consulting sorceress Shaharazad Haas (Sherlock) and ex-special military John Wyndham (Watson) end up as flatmates in a crazy world of necromancers, aliens, vampires, and alternate universes. Haas’ ex-flame needs her help; she’s being blackmailed to break off her engagement, and who best to get to the bottom of it all but the world’s foremost consulting sorceress?

It’s a clever take on the Sherlock story, with the narrative “written” by Wyndham (Watson) as if for a weekly serial in a magazine in John’s world. Because it takes manuscript form, littered with dry asides aimed at Wyndham’s editor, the story gets to use some excellent foreshadowing: how does Haas (eventually) die, who of the many characters we encounter ends up being Wyndham’s husband…and so on.

But wait, you ask, does this mean you liked the book?

No, not really. But if the ratings are anything to go by, it seems most folks are loving it. So first, the positive! Here are a couple reasons you might dig The Affair of the Mysterious Letter:

  • Man, this universe. It’s a vast, expansive world in which all gods, magic, and science exist simultaneously, realities overlap, and magic powers can be arbitrary and limitless.
  • All the callbacks. Fans of Sherlock will enjoy the many nods to the original. There’s a superbly fun take on Mrs. Hudson (Ms. Hive, in this universe).
  • Representation! The easy, full acceptance of different gender identities and relationships in this world: Haas’ has romantic entanglements with the most dangerous of ladies, adventuress Viola’s engagement to the charming Miss Beck is the crux of the mystery, and there’s that casual blink-and-you-missed-it mention that Wyndham grew up female…
  • Wyndham is the best. Speaking of Wyndham, he’s the unquestionable star of this book. I came for the Sherlock sorceress, but stayed for Wyndham’s formal (yet) amusingly prudish, wit and dry style. In fact, much like in my recent reading of the (unrelated) The Rook, I fell in love with and wanted to hear more about our narrator’s past self and adventures.

Okay, so that seems pretty great. What’s the catch?

Well, the catch is that the character Haas was (unintentionally?) the worst.

See, the thing is, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter relies on you to know the Sherlock world. In that world, of course John and Sherlock (Wyndham and Haas, in this case) would bond immediately. Of course Haas has a charming, magnetic personality that transforms Wyndham’s life and makes him willing to risk life, sanity and reputation.

Unfortunately, because the story accepts these as given, it never shows the moments that built the foundation on which the characters then interact and go off adventuring. Taken as a standalone novel, Haas and Wyndham’s relationship comes across as rather one-sided and abusive, from Haas endlessly belittling Wyndham, to Wyndham ending up doing Haas’ laundry.

As a consulting Sorceress, Haas researches, consults on sorcery, and occasionally helps friends with cases by threatening (and killing?) people until they tell her what she wants to know. This isn’t a great look.

Without that core relationship, the rest of the story struggles. This book is lucky to be standing on the shoulders of canon, so if character dynamics are your jam, proceed with caution.

But if you’re here for a crazy world with backdrop of a posh historical (Victorian meets Mardi-Gras meets Venice) style sensibility, this could be your next favorite read.

Rating: Five stars for concept and style, two for characters and story.

 

Canaries, have you read this book?
What did you think?

 

Review copy generously provided by the publisher.

 

[Book Review] In which I re-evaluate my bias against magic libraries

 

Book Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Canaries, this is the book I was looking for when I had my ill-fated encounter with The Eyre Affair in 2017 and swore off all book-themed fantasy novels. Little did I know that The Invisible Library was out there.

Two years later, here I am, eating my words. Fantasy books about books can be excellent.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman (and the rest of the series) combines the high stakes of a spy thriller with the shenannigans of fantasy novel, populated with colorful characters, an intriguing and competent main lead, and several series level mysteries that kept me hooked. Continue reading

[Book Review] Why Consider Phlebas did nothing for me.

Book Review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Culture 1.jpg

So. After everything I’d heard about the AI-driven utopian world of “The Culture” in Iain M. Banks books…I was expecting a bit more, well, utopia in my Science Fiction read.

Instead, Consider Phlebas delivered a gritty military science fiction: A disconnected protagonist, rotating cast of loosely sketched out supporting characters, relationships based on alienation, violent conflict, lots of slow-build tension and suspense, and a loosely connected series of action sequences. Oh and a bunch of exposition on democracy vs theocracy (life vs AI, systems vs chaos, the meaning of being alive, etc etc) that I grimly power-read my way through.

Continue reading

The Handmaid’s Tale gets a sequel

Testament.jpgNot to sound ungrateful, but after the success of the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, does it really come as a surprise that Margaret Atwood is writing a sequel?

Originally published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale was a standalone story – in fact, Offred’s story was framed as a collection of tapes found by an archaeologist in the far, far future. So it makes sense within that framing device that Margaret Atwood’s next installment, The Testaments, skips over to follow three completely new(?) female characters 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale ends. (Will we ever find out what happened to Offred? Unlikely. And I’m okay with that.)

Continue reading

[Book Review] Conceptually intriguing, casually terrible

Eyre Affair.jpgBook Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

So many things to dislike, so little time to talk about them all.

(Spoilers ahead. All the spoilers, because idgaf.)

I rarely try books more than once, so I should have trusted my gut when I got stuck a couple chapter in – not once but twice. But this week, I got the audiobook, because I really wanted to get through this book about a murder mystery in an alternative history fantasy world of time travel and literature. Lesson learned, because this book was terrible.

I grit my teeth through the prose style and weird perspective shifts. I was willing to suffer through the self-indulgent literary babble and fangirling, because, okay, literature is as religion in this world, and as a book lover, I totally get it. I even powered through the weird inconsistencies: Okay, this universe has casual time travel, and yet the biggest mystery in Fforde’s world is the identity of the true author of Shakespeare’s plays? And Thursday is the first person ever to ask a time traveler to check? Fine, whatever. Continue reading

[Small Chirps] Goodreads Choice Awards 2012 – and our favorite genres!

It’s that time again, as 2012 slowly rolls on closer to the new year. Before we know it, it’ll be 2013. December is the perfect month to curl up with a mug of hot chocolate and a book – or celebrate this year’s favorite books! 1,156,852 votes (woohoo!) and Goodreads releases its top reader choice award picks for 2012!

Here are the highlights for our favorite genres:

YA Fantasy and Scifi

Dystopian YA is still the new black, with Insurgent by Veronica Roth taking first place with her oddball (albeit creative) world of factions, intrigue, and a society that’s imploding in on itself. The author, Veronica Roth also finds herself at the top of the Best Goodreads Author category, with over twenty-thousand votes, making her a three-time winner (once for Divergent in 2011, and twice again this year). I know I’m curious  whether Roth’s third book, coming out  September 26th next year, will place first at the 2013 Reader’s Choice Awards, collecting a full set of awards for the trilogy (gotta collect them all!).

We’ll just have to see.

The paranormal teen romance genre is represented with Cassandra Clare’s latest book in the Mortal Instrument (the trailer for the upcoming movie is looking pretty good!) and Richelle Mead’s Golden Lily. The android-meets-moon-prince retelling of Cinderella, coming in fourth, had our canary vote, and –

– oh, why, hello there, Rise of Nine by Pittacus Lore. In almost-fate, Rise of Nine misses ninth place by just a few votes, coming in tenth. Continue reading

Top Five: Literary Wizards

Who doesn’t want to be a wizard? In that secret little place in our hearts – the place that still thinks the admissions letter from Hogwarts might come in the mail at any moment – there’s an undying dream that one day we might discover that we can wield magic. And while we’re waiting for our powers to kick in, we consume everything there is to know about our comrades in books about magical escapades. Wizards abound in literature right now, making reading a magical event indeed.

We bring you the Canary collection of top wizards in literature.

Honorable Mention:

Septimus Heap, from the Magik series by Angie Sage

Something about this young wizard is so intriguing. It may be Sage’s straightforward writing style, but the no-nonsense, always-ready-to-do-right and eager-to-prove Septimus is just so dang endearing. The reading level is fairly low – I’d say a precocious fifth grader could tackle the books just fine – and he is a great introduction to the wizarding world. Continue reading

[ Best and Worst ] Little Lo & Big Blu

Incidentally, both the best and the worst books I’ve read were courtesy of the same professor. One was an unassigned, personal recommendation, and the other required for class. One of these books I’ve read so many times in the intervening three years that I’ve inadvertently memorized the first chapter. The other I will never, ever forgive my dear professor for implanting in my memory.

Best: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Once again, I return to my original Lolita, with its ailing spine, peeling cover, and well-thumbed through pages. It’s the 50th Anniversary Vintage Edition, with fleshy pink lips gracing a cover that I know Nabokov would abhor. The précis, which I am fairly sure Nabokov would decry as a clumsy, cliché, and cursory sketch of his most complex novel, reads:

Awe and exhilaration – along with heartbreak and mordant wit – abound in Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Most of all, it is a meditation on love – love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

When I learned that half my task was to write about my best read, it took less than a millisecond for Lolita to burst to the forefront of my prefrontal cortex. It was instantaneous, reflexive. I’m not even sure it came from my memory, but rather my spine. However, it took only another half a second for me to say to myself, “No, Whitney, you cannot write about Lolita. I forbid it.” Continue reading

Fantasy Watch: Fairy-Tales the New Trend?

One day, they found themselves trapped in a world where all their happy endings were stolen. …our world.

Whenever a new paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction show appears on my TV watching radar, I pounce. This Halloween week, we have the pleasure of seeing two fairy-tale related premieres. Grimm, a detective-style story about a guy who can see the fairy tale creatures all around us, and Once Upon a Time, a story of fairy tale characters who find themselves in a small modern-day USA town.

The Story: Once Upon a Time…

…an evil queen got her revenge on Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) by cursing them to be sent to a parallel world, their memories wiped and their happily ever afters gone.

“Where are we going?” Snow White demands, as a maelstrom of psychedelic curse clouds consumes the walls of the nursery.

“Somewhere horrible,” the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) says. “Absolutely horrible.”

Modern-day state of Maine.

But the story really starts when a ten year old kid (Jared Gilmore) takes a Greyhound bus upstate, turns up on bail bondswoman Emma’s  (Jennifer Morrison)  doorstep, and announces, “I’m your son.”

Not only that, he insists that Emma needs to come back with him to Storybrooke, Maine to save everyone from the Evil Queen’s curse. Everyone there is a fairy tale character, he tells her, and they’ve all forgotten who they are.

By pairing the two worlds, Once Upon a Time promises something to both fantasy-lovers and those of us in it for the mystery, drama, and small-town angst. Each episode will spend time in both worlds, moving Emma’s story forward, even as it retraces the steps of Snow White’s happy ending and the lead up to the Evil Queen’s curse.

The performance is top-notch, with the actors playing up the melodrama of their fairy tale roles, and the gritty humanity of their modern day counterparts. Robert Carlyle (Mr. Gold aka Rumpelstiltskin) plays his creepy, mad role to perfection and there’s something so adorable about Jennifer Morrison’s frustrated confusion as the little boy demands she return to Storybrooke with him.

And of course, my personal favorite bit of the first episode? The soundtrack as the Evil Queen crashes the wedding.  Dun-Dun Dun-Dun Dun-Dun.

The pilot creates and builds on its dramatic tension. We, as viewers, know the truth about Storybrooke and we also know who everyone’s alter ego is. But it’s a secret between us, the town mayor (aka Evil Queen), and the little boy. Fairyland itself incorporates an interesting cross-section of fairy tale characters: Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio exists alongside Brothers Grimm’s Snow White and Red Riding Hood, promising variety and vivid characters.

With its premiere on ABC netting over 12 million viewers, Once Upon a Time is sure to stick around. But only time will tell if it’s a story worth watching.