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Book Review: Fudoki by Kij Johnson (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 10, 2014 4 comments

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture. Summary:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.

Review:
I’m not usually big into fantasy, particularly not ones involving court life, but I am a real sucker for any story involving cats, especially if that cat is a tortoiseshell, since I’m the proud kitty mommy of a talkative tortie.  This book didn’t just not disappoint me, it blew me away with two side-by-side, related by different, thoughtful tales.

I had no idea when I picked up the book that the empress would figure into the story quite so much.  At first I was a bit irritated that she was a) getting 40% to 50% of the storytime and b) rambling off from one thought to another like elderly people tend to do.  But I stayed patient, and I learned that there was more to the empress than met the eye and also that the two stories were actually informing each other.  Kagaya-hime’s story shows everything the empress had secretly wished for her whole life, and the empress’s life translated into how Kagaya-hime felt trapped in her human body.  It’s artfully done in a subtle way, which is part of what makes it so beautiful.

Kagaya-hime goes from a sad lost kitty with burned paws to a warrior woman, allowed along on a quest for revenge by a moderately elite rural family.  She is able to earn respect from the men as a warrior because as a cat she sees no reason not to hunt or defend herself.  She is a woman but no one ever took her claws away (though they may be arrows and knives now, instead of claws).  Thinking of her is empowering to the empress, who always had an interest in war and politics but was forced to remain literally behind screens in gorgeous gowns that are hard to move in.  It’s interesting to note that while the empress may be jealous of Kagaya-hime’s ability to do what she wants and defend herself, Kagaya-hime herself is unhappy because she simply wishes to be a cat again.  It is the conclusion to Kagaya-hime’s story that allows the empress to see a conclusion to her own story (her life) that will ultimately make her feel fulfilled.

The details of ancient Japan were clearly meticulously researched.  Johnson smoothly writes about the outfits, land, and battles as if she was there for them herself.  The information never comes through as an info dump but instead is something that simply is, that the reader learns about naturally just by venturing into Kagaya-hime and the empress’ world.  This is what knowing your history inside and out before starting writing does for historic fiction.  It makes history come to life.

Overall, this is a stunning piece of historic fiction the reading of which feels like slowly sipping a well-made matcha latte.  Fans of historic fiction of all sorts will be engaged, those that love cats will be enthralled, and those with an interest in women’s history will be enamored and touched by how much things change and yet still stay the same for women.  Recommended to all who think they might even possibly be interested in a piece of historic fiction set in Japan featuring an aging empress and a shape-changing cat.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Book Review: Raptor Red by Robert T. Bakker

August 28, 2014 2 comments

Silhouette of two dinosaurs against a sunset. The book's title "Raptor Red" is in gold letters.Summary:
Raptor Red is one of the utahraptors who’ve newly arrived in what will one day be the western United States.  Follow a year of her life as faces being both a predator and, as one of the smaller predator dinosaurs, prey.

Review:
I love dinosaurs. Who doesn’t?  When I saw that this book was written by a paleontologist, I immediately was intrigued.  Who better to tell a story about dinosaurs than someone who studies them extensively?  The book certainly presents a realistic view of dinosaurs based on science, but sometimes the story suffers as a result of the intense attention paid to science.

First I just want to say my absolute favorite part of the book is the beginning of each chapter.  Each chapter beginning has a small note in the corner about what month it is, but more importantly, it has a hilarious drawing of a dinosaur (or a few) along with a tongue-in-cheek chapter title.

A dinosaur who looks like he's dancing is above the words "raptor family values"

Look at that adorable dinosaur! Just look at him!

I wish that this ability to both present scientifically realistic dinosaurs and be humorous/cartoonish about them simultaneously had carried through to the writing.  The overarching story that the book tells is sound.  Raptor Red’s mate dies, and she reunites with her similarly widowed sister while simultaneously looking for a new mate.  (This is not a spoiler, it is well-established in the first chapter).  But the story on the sentence level is belabored by the author’s apparent need to couch everything in speculations.  For instance, instead of just saying Raptor Red stamped her foot angrily, he’ll say something like Raptor Red was probably angry because she stamped her foot, and we know that dinosaurs stamping their foot indicated impatience, and if we believe that higher-thinking animals can feel emotions, then it was probably anger she was feeling.  Passages like that really gum up the storytelling.  The story would have worked better if he had some disclaimer at the beginning regarding emotions in animals, literary license, etc…, and then just ran with putting emotions on the extremely well-researched animal behavior.

The book teaches the reader a lot about dinosaurs in the context of the story, but the storytelling manner makes the reader get bogged down and realize they’re learning, instead of enjoying a story and happening to get some knowledge about dinosaurs in the process.  The former makes for a tough read, in spite of enjoyable illustrations.

Overall, dinosaur enthusiasts will enjoy both the illustrations and the high level of science present in the story.  Some may be frustrated by the author’s insistence on not personifying the dinosaurs, in spite of telling a very emotional story of being widowed and finding a new mate.  Recommended primarily to those with a vested interest in reading everything dinosaur who won’t mind that the story sometimes suffers at the hands of science.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Series Review: The Georgina Kincaid Series by Richelle Mead

January 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Red-headed woman in front of Seattle skylineSummary:
Georgina Kincaid loves her job managing a bookstore in Seattle.  She’s not so sure about her job as Seattle’s only succubus, but she doesn’t have much choice about that one since she sold her soul to Hell back when she was mortal in ancient Greece.  After hundreds of years of being a succubus, Georgina has started to feel guilty about stealing the life energy of good-souled men.  So she’s switched to stealing the less high-quality life energy of bad-souled men.  Her demon boss, Jerome, is none too happy about this.  Things take an even more interesting turn when famous author, Seth Mortensen, moves to Seattle and chooses Georgina’s bookstore as his base of operations.  Georgina quickly finds herself falling for him.  Her first time falling for a man since WWII.  Nobody seems to like the idea of Georgina dating Seth, except for Seth, but Georgina doesn’t have much time to wonder why as supernatural life carries on.  Everything from an incubus plot to attempts at overthrowing her demonic boss (by another demon of course) to an escaped ancient supernatural power who feeds on dreams come Georgina’s way.  Georgina starts to notice that Seattle seems to be facing more than the normal level of supernatural upheaval, and she starts to wonder why.

Woman in push-up vest against red background.Review:
A tightly told, sexy, humorous series featuring an overarching plot that ties into all of the smaller plots and lends the series as a whole a greater meaning makes this urban fantasy stand out above the rest.

The series ostensibly focuses on the bad guys of the supernatural world, not something that is seen very often in urban fantasy.  Yes, Georgina is a succubus with a guilt complex, but she is still a succubus, and she still goes out and does her succubus thing.  She is not out trying to save the world.  She’s just trying to get by day by day in the role she has chosen for herself–fighting on the bad guy side of the battle.  But Mead does not let the series fall easily into clear good versus evil.  It soon becomes evident that good guys can be on the bad guy side and bad guys on the good guy side.  In most cases, one decision or the fault of birth decides where they land.  Just because someone is a vampire doesn’t mean he can’t desire to help out his friends.  Just because someone is an angel doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes.  And the rules aren’t always fair and sometimes incomprehensible.  This gray complexity lends a lot of interesting notes to the series that otherwise wouldn’t be there, not least of Woman standing in front of electrical storm.which is the fact that the characters are able to be three-dimensional in this world Mead has created.

The characters, even the minor ones, are indeed three-dimensional.  They sometimes make stupid choices, big mistakes, and are annoying.  But they also make tough good choices, ones that aren’t easy but still happen.  They fall in genuine love.  They accidentally hurt each other but also sacrifice themselves for each other.  They worry about having a bad hair day.  They cry.  They have great sex and bad sex.  And they come to life in the reader’s mind.

The sex scenes, a key element of an urban fantasy series about a succubus, are never repetitive.  They are tantalizing and sexy, except for a few which are aiming to show that sex can be bad.  They range from the intense love making of a couple madly in love to a fun night out having sex in public at a public sex bar.  And many positions and types of sex are covered as well.  The sex scenes walk the line between barely mentioned and extremely explicit quite well.  They are fully fleshed-out sex scenes without being extremely explicit.

Read-headed pale woman standing seductively against a purplish-red backdrop. The book title and author name are over her.The overarching plot, though, is what really made me fall in love with the series.  Georgina became a succubus in exchange for her husband and all those who knew her forgetting all about her.  She cheated on her husband, and she felt so much guilt at both the act and the pain it caused that she felt this was the best solution.  At first, she goes into being a succubus with enthusiasm but over time her feelings change.  Her hurt starts to heal, and she begins to see the good side of both humanity and life.  She is in the throes of this complex situation of wanting to be good but having already signed a contract for the bad side of the fight when Seth shows up and everything starts going haywire in the supernatural world in Seattle.  Eventually, she finds out that Seth is the reincarnation of her original husband, Kiriakos.  He lived his life thinking he must have a soul mate but never meeting her, so when he died he struck a bargain to get more chances at meeting her.  He has a limited number of reincarnations (10, I believe), that will occur in the same vicinity as his soul mate.  His soul mate is Georgina, and she has met him multiple times throughout her life as as a succubus.  This reincarnation as Seth is his last chance.  From here, the story takes a hard look at what makes people soul mates, that being soul mates doesn’t mean no mistakes will be made, that love Redheaded woman in a sexy leather top standing in front of fog.and a relationship aren’t an easy cakewalk and sacrifices and compromises must be made.  It delves into the idea of redemption, and that being a good person and having a good life aren’t just something innate in you.  It’s a beautiful love story, spanning many centuries, that takes a hard look at what makes relationships work.  It also ties in nicely with the questions established earlier about good versus evil and if being good or evil is a one-time choice or something that happens over time.  I never would have guessed that I could end up feeling so positively about a love story that begins with betrayal but that’s where Mead uses the supernatural with great skill.  The story works because the betrayal is treated so seriously.  Georgina’s betrayal of her husband (and soul mate) leads them both to centuries of pain.  It is not something that can be just brushed off.  It’s a mistake she made, yes, but just because it was a mistake doesn’t mean she can just say sorry and make it all right.  On that note, Kiriakos/Seth also made mistakes when they were first together that he also has to work through.  They both learn through time that you can’t just sit back and let the marriage happen.  You have to pay attention, invest, and work at growing together.

Woman in white and wearing a cross standing in front of a foggy sky.The fun setting, tantalizing sex scenes, three-dimensional characters, and unexpected yet beautiful overarching plot about the nature of good and evil and love and redemption makes this series a stunner in urban fantasy.  Highly recommended to urban fantasy and romance fans alike, although those who are irritated at the concept of soul mates might not enjoy it as much.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap, library, gift, Audible

Books in Series:
Succubus Blues, review, 4 stars
Succubus On Top, review, 4 stars
Succubus Dreams, review, 5 stars
Succubus Heat, review, 4 stars
Succubus Shadows, review, 5 stars
Succubus Revealed, review, 5 stars

2014’s Accepted Review Copies

January 5, 2014 9 comments

Here on Opinions of a Wolf, I have started accepting review copy submissions for the upcoming year in November and December.  Then, out of the books submitted to me for review, I select 12 to review in the upcoming year.

This year, 34 review requests were submitted.  This means I accepted only 35% of the submitted books.  Of those 34 book submissions, 2 didn’t follow my review request guidelines, so were automatically eliminated.  Of the authors submitting, 74% were male and 26% female.  The most popular genre submitted to me was thriller with 10 submissions.  The least submitted genre (that wasn’t a genre I don’t accept) was a tie between romance, horror, urban fantasy, and fantasy, with 2 each.  I ultimately accepted: 4 scifi, 2 fantasy, 2 horror, 2 thriller, 1 urban fantasy, and 1 historic fiction.

The accepted review copies are listed below, alphabetically.  Summaries are pulled from GoodReads or Amazon, since I have yet to read them myself and so cannot write my own.  These books will be read and reviewed here in 2014, although what order they are read in is entirely up to my whim at the moment.

Close-up of an elephant's eyeBad Elephant Far Stream
By: Samuel Hawley
Genre: Historic Fiction
Summary:
Bad Elephant Far Stream is an elephant’s life story, told from her own perspective, through her own eyes.
Inspired by the life of a real elephant known as Topsy, it follows Far Stream from her birth and capture in the wild in Ceylon in the late 1860s, through her transportation to America and thirty years with the circus, which ultimately led to her being labeled as “bad.” It’s an unusual and uncompromising novel that explores the questions: What is it like to be an elephant trained for human amusement? What does such a creature think? What does it feel? What does it yearn for?
Bad Elephant Far Stream takes the reader on a voyage of discovery to find out

Image of a man and a woman standing next to a car in front of a creepy house.Barely Breathing
By: Michael J. Kolinski
Genre: Thriller
Summary:
Jake Wood receives an e-mail message from his cousin Jana whom he hasn’t seen in over a decade. Jana has learned of Jake’s tragedy: The seven people dead and the downward spiral of depression and survivor’s guilt his life has become. She invites him to leave a bitter cold Iowa winter to visit her in sunny Los Angeles.
Jake accepts Jana’s invitation but when he arrives, she is nowhere to be found. All Jake knows for certain is that Jana was working for renowned primatologist Dr. Gregory Mirek, a scientist with a towering reputation and a wide circle of wealthy and influential friends.
With the assistance of Jana’s best friend Laurie Summers, Jake travels across California and into Las Vegas in search of Jana. It’s a path that leads to a desperate real estate developer, a seedy casino owner, and the discovery that Dr. Mirek has ghastly secrets that he will do anything to protect.

Black and white image of a giant clock with a red person jumping from it.The City of Time & Memory
By: Justin Childress
Genre: Horror
Summary:
The City rises up from the silent gray clouds that surround it, structures like tombstones, built with recollections of bad days gone by, populated by fading screams and stale sobs. Unnameable nightmares stalk the streets, the alleys, the stairs, hungry for those unfortunate to find themselves lost in the City of Time & Memory.
Zak awakens to find himself in his room, but not in his house. His doorways no longer connect to the rest of his home, but to silent hallways and endless gray voids. He must find a way out of the labyrinth of alien rooms and endless stairwells, before something finds him.

A colorful nebula.Enormity
By: Nick Milligan
Genre: Scifi
Summary:
Jack is the most famous rockstar in the world… he’s just not from this planet.
Before joining NASA’s space program, Jack had dreams of a career as a professional musician. When a deep space mission goes awry, he crashes on an alien planet. Jack discovers that his new world is inhabited by a race of humans that have evolved in parallel to those on Earth. He picks up a guitar and performs the most wondrous rock songs of his home planet. Neil Young. Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan. Superstardom beckons as audiences around the globe revere Jack and his apparent songwriting abilities. He basks in the boundless glow of a hedonistic dream world. But Jack soon learns that his lie will have sinister consequences.

Purple pentagram against a black background.The House of Azareal
By: Erik Dreistadt
Genre: Horror
Summary:
Christopher Porter lives a peaceful life with his wife and twin children in the mountains of Tennessee. Christopher’s life is about to be turned upside down as he and his family are drawn to a mysterious, old house deep in the woods near their home. After entering the house, he struggles to keep his family safe and try to escape the mysterious creatures living inside.

Title against a foggy image of a man walking in the woodsI’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
By: E. A. Aymar
Genre: Thriller
Summary:
Tom Starks has spent the three years since his wife’s murder struggling to single-handedly raise their daughter, Julie, while haunted by memories of his dead spouse. When he learns that the man accused of her murder, Chris Taylor, has been released from prison, Tom hires a pair of hit men to get his revenge. But when the hit men botch the assassination, Tom is inadvertently pulled into their violent world. And now those hit men are after him and his daughter.

Man in a hat standing next to a Europeanish building

 

One Death at a Time
By: Thomas M. Hewlett
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Summary:
“People think Alcoholics Anonymous is for drunks. It’s not. It’s for us, the real drinkers. The blood drinkers. All the rest of those meetings are just for show.”
Los Angeles, 1948. Detective Jack Strayhorn is killed while chasing down a suspect in the Black Dahlia murders all by himself.
Los Angeles, 2010. Jack Strayhorn is back in L.A. as a private investigator with a simple mission: catch the bad guys and try not to kill any innocent people along the way.
To him and his kind, human blood is the strongest drug in the world. Fortunately for Jack, he found the secret group within AA dedicated to helping Vampires survive the madness and destruction of their disease.
When a city councilmember with ties to a drug-dealing Fae clan is found dead in his home and the woman lying next to him is Jack’s current missing person’s case, tracking down the ghostlike hitman will test him like nothing before.
But this time, Jack won’t be alone. With the help of his unique powers of investigation, his magically talented friends, and a Medical Examiner with a few secrets of her own, Jack will face down a gang of outlaw biker werewolves, spell-casting Fae high on pixie dust, and an underground order of Vampires intent on ruling the world.
As Jack learned long ago, the only way to get through eternity is one death a time.

Painting of a woman in a white dress next to a pond.The Reflections of Queen Snow White
By: David C. Meredith
Genre: Fantasy
Summary:
What happens when “happily ever after” has come and gone?
On the eve of her only daughter, Princess Raven’s wedding, an aging Snow White finds it impossible to share in the joyous spirit of the occasion. The ceremony itself promises to be the most glamorous social event of the decade. Snow White’s castle has been meticulously scrubbed, polished and opulently decorated for the celebration. It is already nearly bursting with jubilant guests and merry well-wishers. Prince Edel, Raven’s fiancé, is a fine man from a neighboring kingdom and Snow White’s own domain is prosperous and at peace. Things could not be better, in fact, except for one thing:
The king is dead.
The queen has been in a moribund state of hopeless depression for over a year with no end in sight. It is only when, in a fit of bitter despair, she seeks solitude in the vastness of her own sprawling castle and climbs a long disused and forgotten tower stair that she comes face to face with herself in the very same magic mirror used by her stepmother of old.
It promises her respite in its shimmering depths, but can Snow White trust a device that was so precious to a woman who sought to cause her such irreparable harm? Can she confront the demons of her own difficult past to discover a better future for herself and her family? And finally, can she release her soul-crushing grief and suffocating loneliness to once again discover what “happily ever after” really means?
Only time will tell as she wrestles with her past and is forced to confront The Reflections of Queen Snow White

Brightly colored buildingsThe Running Game
By: L. E. Fitzpatrick
Genre: Scifi
Summary:
Her father called it the running game. Count the exits, calculate the routes. Always be ready to run because they’ll always be coming for you. Whatever happens, they’ll always be coming for you.
Rachel had let her guard down and they had found her. She could run now, leave the city and try her luck beyond the borders, but with no money and a dark secret to hide her chances of survival are slim.
But then she meets two brothers with a dangerous past and secrets of their own. Can they help her turn the game around?

Pencil drawing of Abraham LincolnThe Second Lives of Honest Men
By: John Cameron
Genre: Scifi, Historic Fiction
Summary:
On the evening of April 14th, 1865, a flawless duplicate replaced the 16th President an instant prior to his assassination. Two centuries later, Honest Abe opened his eyes to a world in desperate need of guidance.

Image of what appears to be a golden bird with a glowy bit in it.

 

 

 

 

Stinger Stars
By: Paul Bussard
Genre: Scifi
Summary:
Stinger Stars is the story of mankind’s first contact with another intelligent species—a man-made species that can enable humans to regenerate lost or damaged body parts. Tragically, the intelligent creatures must be repeatedly maimed in order for them to produce the regenerative agent that makes them so useful. Set in a world of rival genetic research companies, ruthless alpha males, unauthorized experiments, and industrial espionage, Stinger Stars follows Maria de la Cruz, a lowly biology student with a stunted arm, as she struggles with the very personal moral and ethical issues—whether to protect the intelligent animals from cruel exploitation or benefit from their suffering to regain the use of her arm.

A Hindu god holding a sword and staring at a lizard.The Underworld King
By: Ranjit More
Genre: Fantasy
Summary:
60,000 miles below the surface of the earth thrives a kingdom inhabited by daityas – giant, fanged beings of the night who sometimes travel to the surface above and eat humans in the hearts of grim forests. Their four-armed king, Drumila, faces a new peril, and this time it is advancing upon him not from the heavens, where his eternal enemies reside; but from the darkest depths of creation. The naagas -giant, flame-breathing serpents- are traveling towards the capital of daityas, intent upon reducing them to ashes, and Drumila must do something about it. For no matter how strongly he detests his subjects’ lifestyle and nature, it is his duty to protect them as king.
Moved by Drumila’s plight, the powerful sage, Shukracharya, swims down into the underworld upon the back of his giant crocodile and convinces his disciple-king to migrate to the surface of the earth.
What follows is an epic exodus to the world above and a strange encounter with a beautiful girl thereupon. Nandini seems to be human, but all signs point towards her having descended from the heavens, the least of which are a delicate waist and long eyes extending up to her ears. But is this a trick of the gods? Drumila will find out soon enough, when the battle begins.

Book Review: The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

July 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Boy's legs dangling from a branch.Summary:
Christy is a Traveller, what Irish gypsies call themselves, in the 1950s.  He’s eleven, and his family is about to stay in one town for a whole 40 days and 40 nights for Lent so he and his cousin, Martin, can get ready for confirmation.  Christy has always thought his mam died giving birth to him, but when his grandda dies, he finds a newspaper clipping that shows his mam holding him when he’s months old.  Thus begins a quest to find out who he really is.

Review:
The particular copy I read I won on a book blog somewhere (I’m afraid I didn’t write down the name), but I also received an ARC during one of the holiday swaps one year.  It’s interesting to me, then, that this book wound up on my tbr pile both because I was interested and because someone else thought I would enjoy it.  And of course I did.

It is honestly, immediately abundantly clear that Christy’s mother isn’t a Pavee (a Traveller).  I was thus skeptical that the story would hold my interest, since predictable ones don’t tend to.  I am pleased to say that I was wrong about this on both counts.  Although it’s true that Christy’s mother isn’t a Traveller, everything else about her and Christy’s history is actually quite surprising and moving.  I’m glad I stuck with it.

The book examines many different issues, some universal and others specific to Irish history.  There of course is the issue of identity.  Who we are and what makes us that. Is it nature or nurture?  The often tough relationship between fathers and sons during the son’s adolescence is also wonderfully presented.  Of course a book about gypsies also addresses prejudice, stereotyping, and the norm.  Cummins doesn’t sugar coat things.  She shows the positive and negative aspects of Traveller culture, which is as it should be.  No culture is all perfect or all bad.  What the book does a great job of doing is showing how kids learn prejudice and how multiculturalism can enrich everyone’s lives.  Some people are one way and some another, and neither is necessarily bad.  The book also touches on the animosity between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, as well as the very real issue of Irish society stealing babies from single mothers in that time period.  I know that sounds like a lot, and honestly I’m surprised now that it’s all listed out at how much was touched upon.  Cummins strikes the perfect balance of touching on real issues without ever seeming pushy or forced.

Although the storyline and characters are good, it didn’t 100% draw me in.  I think it moves a bit too slowly for me in the first half or so of the book.  I also, honestly, struggled to like Christy.  I eventually came to understand his viewpoint and choices, but I still find him kind of annoying.  His father, on the other hand, is incredibly interesting and wonderful, and I kind of wish we had a book about him instead of about Christy.  But, some readers enjoy more slowly paced books and others might relate better to Christy than I did.  It just personally is what made it a book I liked but didn’t love.

Overall, this book is an interesting entry in historic Irish fiction.  It looks at Ireland in the 1950s through the eyes of a small band of gypsies, which is certainly a unique viewpoint.  The writing is fluid, if a bit slow-moving, and the plot is not as predictable as it seems at first.  Recommended to fans of historic fiction and works set in Ireland.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Won on a book blog (If it was yours, let me know, and I’ll link to you!)

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Book Review: Sophie and the Rising Sun by Augusta Trobaugh

July 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Woman with 1940s hair in a red dress.Summary:
Sophie was raised in the rural American south by her elderly widowed mother and two crazy aunts.  She was always reserved and a real lady, especially after having lost the first boy she liked in the Great War.  Now the year is 1941, and her neighbor Miss Anne has taken on a Japanese-American gardener. He’s not white, but he’s not quite black either, and he and Sophie have painting in common.

Review:
I was excited to see an Asian male/white female (amwf, as it’s known online) story pop up on Netgalley.  They can be hard to find, and I thought the dual extra setting of the racist rural south and WWII would make it more interesting.  I still don’t doubt that these positive things are what the author was going for, but it didn’t quite come through for me in the story.

Trobaugh picked an interesting writing structure that I found worked well for the story.  It’s a mix of an elderly Miss Anne relating her part of the story of what she saw occur between Sophie and Mr. Oto and an omniscient third person narration.  This lets the reader see both what the town saw as well as some private moments between Sophie and Mr. Oto that we would not have otherwise seen.  It also helped keep the pace flowing forward.

There were also some truly beautiful sequences in the book, such as this sentence:

Too hot. Feel like Satan sucking the breath right out of this old world. (location 1631)

I am disappointed then that I felt the story itself didn’t live up to the writing.  Trobaugh falls prey to some stereotyping tropes, and I don’t believe she realized she did.  I genuinely believe she meant the story to be progressive, but the two minority characters in the story are two-dimensional and essentially act out the roles assigned to them in American pop culture.

In spite of falling for a white woman, everything else about Mr. Oto is stereotype 101 for Asian-American men.  He is: quiet, reserved, effeminate, painfully polite, and bows all the time.   The bowing really bothered me, because Mr. Oto was born in America to first generation immigrant parents.  I don’t know any first generation Americans who hold on to societal norms from their parents’ country around anyone but their family.  The bowing is used as a plot device to show how Mr. Oto is “different” and makes some of the rural whites uncomfortable.  I kept hoping that maybe Mr. Oto was putting on an act for the white people to keep himself safe and we would see that he was actually a strong man around Sophie in private, but no. He is precisely the emasculating stereotype of an Asian-American male that we first see.

The other minority character is “Big Sally.”  She is, surprise surprise, domestic help.  Anyone who was here for The Real Help Reading Project will be aware of all the stereotypes surrounding black women domestic workers.  The main one being of course that they’re happy to be the help and will gladly help out white women who are kind to them with their problems.  Kind of the all-knowing wise woman who just so happens to scrub your floors.  I was truly saddened to see Sally show up and play this role to a T.  She overcleans around the white women she doesn’t like to make them feel dirty, but she has no problem stepping right in and fixing everything up for Sophie.  There is a scene that made me cringe where she sits down and has a heart-to-heart with Sophie and basically sorts out all of her life problems.  I know that Trobaugh thought she was writing a positive image of a black woman, but the character is pure stereotype.  She exists to help Sophie and Miss Anne.  She ends up being buddy-buddy with Miss Anne and living with her. In the 1940s and 1950s rural south. Yeah. Right.   I’m not saying there can’t be a black woman character who is domestic help.  That was indeed reality for that historical time period.  But why couldn’t there be a scene where Sally and Mr. Oto talk about being othered in the town?  Where they talk about the dangers to Mr. Oto after Pearl Harbor and how they are similar to some of what Sally has faced as a black woman?  That would have been a truly progressive plot element, and I’m sorry the opportunity wasn’t taken.

Overall then, Trobaugh can indeed write.  The book was highly readable and contains some eloquent passages.  In spite of attempting a progressive message, though, the book falls to the easier method of plugging in a couple of stereotyped, two-dimensional characters.  I hope in future works Trobaugh will put more work into developing truly three-dimensional minority characters. This will strengthen her work and make it more than just a piece of chick lit repeating the same old tropes.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Thieftaker by D. B. Jackson (Series, #1)

July 9, 2012 2 comments

Man in tricorn hat standing over body of dead girl.Summary:
After spending over a decade serving hard labor in the Caribbean for mutiny and conjuring, Ethan has finally made it back to Boston.  He now makes his living as a thieftaker, essentially a private investigator who hunts down stolen items, using his conjuring where necessary to help him out.  But the year is 1767 and trouble is starting to brew in Boston. The Stamp Tax has been enacted, and the people don’t like it.  There are even riots in the street.  Against this back-drop, Ethan is asked to find a brooch that was stolen–from the body of a dead girl.  He doesn’t usually take on cases involving murder, but this one is different.

Review:
It’s probably hard to tell from this blog, because they’re hard to find, but I am a real sucker for a good Boston during the American Revolution story.   So when this title showed up I snapped it up.  I’m glad I did because it’s an interesting take on the Stamp Act Riots.

This is an interesting piece of historic fiction, because it’s more like urban fantasy historic fiction. Is that a genre? Can it be? What on earth would we call it? In any case, I was in heaven, because I love BOTH urban fantasy and history so having both in one book was heaven. I mean first it’s breeches and three corner hats then it’s look at this illusion of a creepy little girl. Brilliant.

I struggled a bit with Ethan, which in retrospect wasn’t a bad thing.  That shows he’s a realistic, well-rounded character.  But let’s be honest. I’m more of a Sam Adams revolutionary type. Ethan served in the British Navy and is all “oh these hooligans.” This bothered me a lot! Especially when I got suspicious that the book as a whole would lean Tory. But! This all ends up being part of the character development, which in the end is what makes the book stronger. Ethan isn’t sure about protesting and fighting the aristocracy at first. But he changes his mind with time. This makes for a great plot-line. I like it. I do hope in the sequel we will get less of this hemming and hawing about owing things to the crown and yadda yadda. DOWN WITH THE KING. Ahem.

As a Bostonian, can I just say, I haven’t seen a book so intent on giving actual street names and buildings before, but it worked. They are totally accurate. I could completely visualize not just the streets but the entire routes Ethan was walking along. Granted, it was as if through a looking glass, since when I walk them they’re a bit different than in 1767, but still. It was very cool. I also really appreciated the depiction of the South Enders, since I spend quite a bit of time in Southie. Seeing the historical versions was really fun.

The magic portion of the book was also unique. Ethan has to cut himself to get blood to work the more powerful spells. The less powerful ones he can work with surrounding grasses, plants, etc… This makes the interesting problem that people struggle in fist-fighting him because if he bleeds he just uses it to work spells. It’s a nice touch.

So with all this glowing, why not five stars?  Well, honestly, Ethan bugged me so much for the first 2/3 of the book that I kept almost stopping in spite of all the good things. He’s just such a…a…Tory. For most of the book. Instead of being angry at the man for putting him in prison for conjuring, he blames himself.  Instead of being angry that the rich just keep getting richer while he struggles to pay his rent, he blames himself. You get the picture. Being irritated almost constantly by Ethan kind of pulled me out of the world and the story, which I wish hadn’t happened, because it really is such a cool world.  I get what Jackson was trying to do, character development wise, but the payoff in the end was almost missed because I kept stopping reading due to being irritated with Ethan.  Perhaps if his change of heart had started to show up a bit sooner it would have worked better for me.

Overall, though, this is well-researched and thought out version of Boston during the Stamp Act Riots.  Fans of historic fiction and urban fantasy will get a kick out of seeing the latter glamoring up the former.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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