Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Porcelain Dove

Delia Sherman
Completed 10/30/2021, Reviewed 10/30/2021
4 stars

Winner of the Mythopoeic Award in 1994, this book is a tour de force of alternative history and light fantasy.  It takes the story of a dysfunctional noble family in eighteenth century France through the Revolution bracketed by a four-hundred-year-old family curse as told through the eyes of a chambermaid.  The story is richly conveyed with personal details, history, society, and gossip, so much so that the curse is occasionally lost in the telling.  However, the telling is superb.  I read Through a Brazen Mirror by Sherman about a year and a half ago and loved it.  So I went into this book expecting a lot and I got it.  

Berthe Duvet is the chambermaid of Adele du Fourchet, who becomes the Duchess of Malvoeux.  The Duke is an obsessed bird collector.  When the family curse takes hold, Berthe bears witness as the family descends into madness.  After failed attempts by the two sons, the daughter seeks out the so-called porcelain dove to break the curse.  Two hundred years later Berthe, living in enchantment, recounts the tale of the Adele, the family, the curse, and French revolution that occurred amidst all the chaos.  

Right off the bat, I have to say that the prose and the world-building are simply mind-blowing.  Sherman writes beautifully, capturing such detail of the mid to late 18th century that I felt completely immersed in it.  Everything, from the clothing to the gossip, is described exquisitely.  As I discovered in Brazen Mirror, Sherman is an amazing storyteller.  Unfortunately, the detail sidetracks the story of the curse which causes the very slow decline of the family.  I felt that the book dragged for about a hundred or so pages.  After a while, I just wanted the French Revolution to happen just to liven up things.  

Like the world-building, the characters are amazing.  There are a lot of them.  Besides Berthe and the family of Malvoeux, there are a multitude of other servants as well as Adele’s family, Berthe’s family, the people of Parisian society, and the townspeople of Beauxpres.  However, I had no trouble following most of them, except I occasionally got a few of the servants mixed up.  They are all vividly drawn and their dialogue very believable.  Berthe is the main character, recounting the history of the family.  She is wonderfully cynical, yet completely wed to the idea of her station as chambermaid, or femme de chambre.  She loves her madame, Adele, and in fact, is somewhat in love with her.  Adele is perfect as the flighty society girl who is more focused on herself than she is her children.  You get the sense that she too is in love Berthe.  

As for the rest of the family, the Duke is aggravating, as are most of his peers.  His obsession with his birds takes precedence over his love for his wife and children.  Leon, the eldest son is a lecherous cad.  He tortures animals and ruins women’s reputations, both of high and low station.  Justin, the middle son, is just kind of lost, finding solace in God and the monastery.  The daughter, Linotte, seems to have an old soul.  She can see people and things for what they are.  In addition, she’s a sorceress in training.  The children are all basically ignored by their parents and grow up wild and obstinate in their own ways.  

I really liked the historical aspect of the novel, particularly, how the French Revolution affects the Malvoeux family in its three-hundred-room mansion far from Paris.  Sherman did a lot of research about this time period.  She includes a bibliography and references letters and memoirs of the time.  I certainly felt I was right there as the peasants of Beauxpres rise up against the Duke.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  I think you’ll like it if you like this period of French history and are an historical novel buff.  If you aren’t, I think you’ll have the same experience I did of it just taking a little too long.  Trigger warning, the origins of the curse are very gruesome.  It might turn you off, so be forewarned.  Overall, I found it a well-crafted novel worthy of the Mythopoeic.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel

Julian K. Jarboe
Completed 10/26/2021, Reviewed 10/26/2021
4 stars

This is a collection of short fiction and poetry which won the Lambda Literary Award for Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror for 2021.  The works are beautifully written, but I didn’t get most of them.  It’s the kind of literary work that I would need to study and discuss in some kind of group setting to really understand.  I did get themes of freedom, loss, alienation, and discrimination.  I loved reading it because the word choices and descriptions were marvelous.  But most of the time, I wasn’t really sure what I just read.  There isn’t a lot of plot.  It’s more like feelings and experiences. 

The stories in the book range from urban fantasy to body-horror to light sci fi.  I think the publisher’s blurb says it best: “body-horror fairy tales and mid-apocalyptic Catholic cyberpunk, memory and myth, loss and age”.  The following are some of the stories I found interesting and worthy of note:

The Marks of Aegis – a very short piece about relieving one’s negative emotions and actions

Self Care – A trans man joins a church support group and stays in its shelter in return for doing chores.  It takes place in a coastal city being drowned by the rising sea level.

The Seed and the Stone – When people die, their ashes are used to fertilize fruit trees.  This story felt like the author built a whole world in a short piece, creating a mythology of life and death and keeping the ancestors present.

Estranged Children of Story book Houses – A Changeling grows up in a human family that basically hates her and longs for their own child who was taken by the faeries.  When she becomes an adult, she goes looking for the land of Fae for that child.

Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel – The title story, it’s about Sebastian and his dysfunctional family.  His oldest sister tries to discuss their mother’s abuse with Sebastian and the middle brother Oscar, but they don’t see it.  Because he feels like he has no future and is not worth anything, he decides to take a job on the moon.

I Am a Beautiful Bug! – Sort of a meta-riff on Kafka.  A person gets a surgery to become a bug.  They face abuse and discrimination.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s clearly an amazingly written collection.  I just wish I could see deeper into the stories and could appreciate beyond the prose.  

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Innamorati

Midori Snyder
Completed 10/23/2021, Reviewed 10/14/2021
4 stars

I’ve begun a new personal challenge of reading all the Mythopoeic and World Fantasy Award winners.  I’ve already read just over twenty over the years and I have about eighty to go.  This challenge should last me about 2 years or so.  So my blog entries will have mostly fantasy reviews for a while.  The first of this new challenge is a Mythopoeic winner from 2001.  It’s an alternate Renaissance Italy with some interesting magic based on mythology and the Commedia dell’Arte.  Innamorati itself means the lovers, stock characters from the Commedia whose sole purpose was to fall in love and win in the end.  I learned a lot about the Commedia in this very interesting and well written novel.  It was very intriguing and once I got my bearings in the book, was really gripped by it.  

It’s hard to give a plot summary because there are so many characters, but I’ll give it a try.  The story begins with Anna, a mask maker whose masks make the wearer fully embody the characters they represent, like Il Capitano, Pulcinella, and Columbina.  The masks even speak when not being worn.  Anna has been cursed and has not been able to make a new mask for five years.  She and her daughter are now on the brink of poverty.  After a tryst with a local priest, she decides to go to Labirinto, the city of a maze that when traversed supposedly removes the curse.  Besides Anna and her daughter, the guilt-ridden priest, and the man who secretly loves Anna follow her to the maze.  Several others find themselves on the journey there as well, including a stuttering actor, a landlocked silent siren, a street urchin, a lawyer who used to be a poet, his untrustworthy assistant, a prostitute, and a former war hero who now is constantly in duels.  Their paths eventually cross, and all are seeking some sort of relief from the misery of their lives.

The number of characters really had me thrown for a while.  There were so many, but they were all very different.  Except for a few names that were a little too close for comfort, I was able to keep them straight in my head.  The book was written in third person omniscient, which was easier than having so many first-person narrators.  I have a hard time saying which characters I liked the best because they were all so well done.  All of them drew on my empathy, even the untrustworthy assistant to the lawyer.  He was a lying thief and swindler who took advantage of the lawyer, but turned out to be an asset to the street urchin.  Anna’s daughter is also worth noting.  She doesn’t believe she’s been cursed as her mother had been, but she’s shy, bespectacled, plain looking, and sixteen years old with no prospects for marriage.  However, on her journey, she finds understanding and appreciation from the stuttering actor whose impediment seems to originate from his father’s emotional coldness.  

I thought the world-building was terrific.  The magic of the masks and the maze were mesmerizing (see, I alliterated there).  It wasn’t abracadabra magic.  It was a little more subtle and well-integrated.  The introduction of mythology was also well done.  The siren features prominently.  She’s been forced into silence by Orpheus and condemned to live on land.  The goddess Diana, nymphs, satyrs, and centaurs make appearances in the maze.  

I think the most amazing thing about this book is that it was a large ensemble piece where every character received a good amount of attention without making the book huge.  I felt like I got to know them all and they were all believable.  I give this book four stars out of five.  I highly recommend this book if you can find it.  It’s out of print and there’s no e-book version.  I got it from the library the next county over.  Snyder is not that prolific a novel writer, but has written a lot of shorter works and is involved with fantasy literature in other capacities.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Invisible life of Addie LaRue

V. E. Schwab
Completed 10/19/2021, Reviewed 10/19/2021
5 stars

This is the book club selection for December.  Once again, I read it early because I wanted to get it from the Library and there are tons of holds on the e-copies and I lucked out getting a hard copy.  The book astounded me.  It started off a little slow, but burned itself into my heart, leaving me devastated at the end.  Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good modern fantasy romance, but boy, did I love it.  This book has great prose, a great main character, and a really interesting plot.  It bounces back and forth between the past and the present, but the chapters are pretty short and you don’t lose the plot in either timeline.  This book came out in 2020 and I’m surprised this didn’t end up on more awards’ short lists.

Adeline LaRue is a young woman in the early 1700s in France.  She’s about to be married off and she desperately does not want to be.  She prays to the gods to get out of this marriage match, but makes a mistake by praying to the gods who answer after dark.  But in the end, she sells her soul for freedom.  The god in question of course finds a way to trick her and makes it so that no one remembers her once she is out of their sight.  So when she returns home after making this deal, not even her parents remember her.  Thus begins a three hundred year journey of trying to survive in a world that doesn’t remember her, until one day in New York in 2014, she meets a young man who does.

Adeline, or Addie, is a terrific heroine.  She starts out a desperate peasant who is shocked by the reality of the deal she made with the god.  Over the years, she figures out what it takes to survive when she cannot hold a job or keep a place to live.  On the anniversaries of her deal, the god makes reappearances to tempt her to give up and let him have her soul.  But she becomes wise to his ways, never giving in, choosing her complicated, invisible life over the alternative.  When she finally meets Henry, the man who remembers her, she finally finds a love that lasts more than one date.  Granted, when she dated, she dated the same man for many months, though always restarting the relationship each new day.  But with Henry, she gets to actually let herself fall in love.

Henry is also great.  He’s a sad sack who is just over the love of his life, a love that wasn’t returned.  In fact, all his relationships ended because it seemed he was never enough.  With Addie, however, she sees him for what he really is, a good man worth loving, something he’s craved his whole life.  

The god, who Addie calls Luc, which could be short for Lucifer, is a major player in the story.  He only pops in infrequently, but he gives Addie her whole motivation for making her plight work to her advantage.  He’s not really the devil as he is one of the old gods, but he does have an evil streak.  He plays games with Addie popping in when she least expects it, ruining when she has something good going.  But by doing this, she learns how to read him.  And after three hundred years, she gets very good at reading people.  

The last fifty pages or so of the book is quite enthralling, in contrast to the first fifty which were a little slow and disorienting.  When I got to the end, I was simply devastated by three words.  You’ll know them when you get to them because they are in italics  😉.  I had an online doctor’s appointment right after I finished the book and it was hard to keep focused on the appointment and keep my eyes from running.  I still feel emotionally spent as I write this review.  This merits five stars out of five.

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Humans

Matt Haig
Completed 10/15/2021, Reviewed 10/15/2021
4 stars

This is the book club selection for November.  I’m reading it early because I wanted to get it from the Library and the ebook version already had several holds on it.  I’m glad I read this book.  It’s a well written, interesting, philosophical take on being human, told from the perspective of an alien.  It has a lot of very dry humor.  I didn’t find any of it laugh out loud funny, though the book has been compared to Douglas Adams.   I can’t say I actually enjoyed the book, though I was consumed by reading it.  I guess it filled me with pathos for the human condition.  

An unnamed alien takes the form of Professor Andrew Martin, killing him in the process.  The actual Professor Martin has solved the proof of a centuries-old mathematical theory.  The alien’s mission, to prevent humanity from advancing too far, he must kill anyone Martin may have shared the proof with.  The reason: this knowledge would advance human knowledge in such a way to cause it eventually to destroy itself.  In the process of infiltrating Martin’s life, he develops empathy for his wife and son, thereby thwarting the mission.

It’s an interesting way to tell the story of a brilliant mathematician whose life is falling apart and trying to put it back together again.  Without the alien angle, that would be what this book is about.  Martin is a philanderer who ignores his son and basically has only one friend.  Every other acquaintance is either an intellectual rival or not worthy of the time of day.  With the alien’s narration, it transforms into something richer and more deeply understood.  It’s kind of ironic since the alien doesn’t understand human emotion, as well as customs and behavior.  Nor does it know anything about Martin’s life.  It fakes it until it realizes it’s having emotions and is falling in love with the wife and son.

The prose is really lovely.  My only problem with it is that Haig waxes philosophically quite often.  Those parts, while interesting at first, eventually start to drag the passages down.  Fortunately, the chapters are very short, so they don’t go on too long.  I preferred the parts of the story where there was actual interaction between the characters.  With the alien’s naivete, it made for some really rich sequences.  

The character of the alien is done very well, as are those of the wife and son.  The son is particularly interesting in that he’s a suicidal loner.  I thought it was a very authentic and compassionate plot line.  It is one of the things that helps the alien become more human.  It’s the alien’s turning point from assassin to traitor to his people.  Overall, the interaction of the whole family is just terrific.  

I give the book four stars out five.  It’s very nearly a five-star book in that it made me feel an awful lot of emotions as the alien developed them.  But it’s just that reason that made not really enjoy it.  It didn’t make me feel either happy or sad, but I ran the gamut of everything else in between.  I do recommend the book, though.  I haven’t read anything else quite like it, although it’s been compared to “The Man Who Fell To Earth” among other books.  It will leave you with a sense of wonder about the human condition and make you think about what makes you human as well.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Spinning Silver

Naomi Novik
Completed 10/13/2021, Reviewed 10/13/2021
4 stars

Like its predecessor Uprooted, this book is a retelling of a fairy tale, this one more well-known, infused with Slavic myth and culture.  It is loosely based on Rumpelstiltskin.  It features three women of different classes whose paths become intertwined when the faerie king, known as the Staryk (which I think would mean “old one” in Polish) king, prevents winter from receding.  It is very similar to Uprooted in storytelling style, pacing, and prose.  I really enjoyed the book, which won the Mythopoeic Award and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and other awards in 2018 and 2019.

The book begins with Miryem, a young Jewish woman whose father is a moneylender.  As she comes of age, she becomes angry at how he is too kind to force his customers to repay their loans, leaving the family in a near impoverished state.  So she becomes adept at collecting for him.  In addition, she makes wise investment choices and her family soon rises back to a more middle-class lifestyle.  One of her customers, an abusive drunk, won’t repay his loan, so she bargains with him to have his daughter work as a servant for her family for pay.  Wanda finds the arrangement more than satisfactory as she gets to escape from the physical and emotional abuse the father wields.  Word gets around that Miryem “turns silver into gold” and soon the Staryk king comes demanding she change his silver to gold.  After three times, he steals her away against her will to his kingdom as his queen.  In this land of Fae, her metaphorical ability becomes real magic.

The third woman, Irina, is the unattractive daughter of a duke.  Miryem “changes” the Staryk king’s silver in fabulous jewelry that the duke pays a premium for.  He uses it to enhance his daughter’s looks and dowry and he matches her with the tsar himself.  Little do they know that the tsar is hiding some evil magic of his own.  Irina and Miryem, in their new roles as tsarina and Staryk queen, try to use the magic around them to try to halt the spread of winter into spring and summer, a fate which seems tied up with the Staryk king.  

The plot is pretty complicated.  Novik juggles a lot of plots here, but she tells the story deftly, with good pacing and form.  The story is told from the three women’s perspectives in first person.  At first it was a little confusing, but I was able to follow along easily as the book progressed.  I hit a few snags as three more characters became narrators in first person, but that eased as well.  

The characterization is remarkable.  Even though there wasn’t much difference between the speaking style of the narrators, it was easy to tell who was who by what they were telling.  I liked all three characters, having clear pictures of them in my head, and empathizing with the plight of each one.  The gist of all three is that their lives are out of control because of the dominant men in their lives.  However, each one finds a way to overcome their plights by chance, trickery, and intelligence.  These are three strong, determined women in a time of subservience to men.  It’s empowering and exciting.

The men in the book are slimy or just plain evil, but not without redemption.  They were just as three dimensional as the women.  One exception was Wanda’s father who remains an abusive alcoholic.  Another was Miryem’s father is too kind for his own good.  

I give the book four stars out of five.  My only complaint was that the prose had a cold quality to it.  And I don’t think it was because of all the snow in the story.  The book was well written, but the prose was spare, as in not lush.  But it was fast-paced and very readable, particularly through the second half of the book.  It’s an enjoyable read and makes me interested in her next venture, a new series not in the fairy tale vein.  

Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

Garth Nix
Completed 10/7/2021, Reviewed 10/7/2021
4 stars

I’ve only read one other Garth Nix novel, “Sabriel”, and I enjoyed it immensely, though I read it way before I was writing reviews.  I enjoyed this book immensely as well.  It’s about an extended family of booksellers that keep the Old World spirits from invading the New World, that is, the present.   It has good prose, great action, and tremendous world-building.  It’s been nominated for several awards, including the Mythopoeic this year, I’m sure because of the strength of the magical world Nix created.

Susan is an eighteen-year-old woman who doesn’t know who her father is.  She leaves her ditsy mother to go to school in London and also to find her father.  She goes to a man, whom she calls Uncle Frank, looking for clues, only to find him being disintegrated with a silver hat pin.  She’s rushed out by the killer, only to find out he’s the good guy and her uncle was a vampire-like gangster.  Suddenly they are surrounded by fog and chased by something unnatural.  She finds out her companion is someone who deals with the supernatural.  She also finds out that she may have something stirring within her which is otherworldly.   Soon Susan is in a race to not only find her father, but to save her life.

This synopsis only lightly touches on all the supernatural things that Susan encounters.  After the opening, the excitement only builds.  I have to say that this was one of the most exciting fantasies I’ve read in a long time.  It’s kind of fluff, but it’s highly entertaining fluff.  It’s also very imaginative.  Nix built a terrific supernatural system of magic and the power of the ancient ones.  

There’s a lot of character building as well.  Susan is the main character.  At eighteen, she acts somewhere between a teen and a grownup.  She’s kinda whiny but still interesting and relatable.  She works with two booksellers, a left-handed one and right-handed one.  Merlin, the left-handed one, is the doer, the fighter.  He’s a shapeshifter, but also likes to dress either as a man or a woman.  His sister, Vivien, is the intellectual right-handed one.  Vivien is the more rational one.  She wields spells, puts people to sleep, and confuses them.  Together they navigate London and its outskirts trying to figure out why Susan is special.  

I give this book four out of five stars.  It’s excellent fluff.  It may be argued that this might even be categorized as YA, as the Susan is just barely eighteen.  But the story stands on its own as an urban fantasy that all ages can enjoy.  And while it is a standalone novel, it can easily generate other novels in the same world, as the was built with lots of possibilities for other stories.  

Sunday, October 3, 2021


Jo Walton
Completed 10/3/2021, Reviewed 10/3/2021
3 stars

This is the first book by Jo Walton I was less than thrilled by.  It was okay, very ambitious in what it set out to do, but didn’t quite succeed.  According to an article she wrote, Walton noted that her goal in this short novel was to write a sci fi or fantasy story with no adventure in it, as she was tired of the adventure trope.  She says it took her five or six books to learn how to do it.  This seemed like her first attempt.  I’d say it’s a character study, but that’s not even quite accurate.  I’d say it doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  It has its merits, but it’s not her best.  Nonetheless, she won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009 for it and was nominated for an Otherwise Award. 

First of all, the lifelode is the role of a person’s life, their passion, not just their job.  The story is about four people who live together in a polyamorous relationship.  They have several children between them.  The main character is Taveth.  Her lifelode is the housekeeper of the household.  She cooks, cleans, and is the primary raiser of the children.  She loves what she does.  There’s also Ferrand, the Lord of the village, Appledkirk.  His wife is Chayra, a potter, but he’s also Taveth’s lover.  Ranal is Taveth’s husband and Chayra’s lover.  Her runs the farm at Applekirk.  Then within a few days of each other, two people come into the household.  The first is Jankin, a visiting scholar from the west.  The second is Hanethe, a powerful wielder of yeya (magic), great-grandmother of Ferrand, and former lord of Applekirk.  She’s visiting from the east where time moves much more slowly than in the western areas such as Applekirk.

Hanethe left the east because she crossed the goddess of marriage.  She decided to come back to her home in hope of being far away from the goddess’ influence.  However, a local priest of the goddess tries to call her out as evil and drive her back east to get what’s coming to her.  She secretly enlists Jankin the scholar to help her by destroying the relationships of the household of Applekirk through sex.  What’s left is a fight for the survival the Applekirk household and surrounding village.

We see most of the story through Taveth’s eyes.  Her yeya is that she can see the past and the future of a person, though not their death.  So when she looks at Ferrand for example, she can see him as a boy and as an older man with one arm.  It’s all very interesting, but Walton tells the whole book in present tense.  It makes it difficult to tell when Taveth is seeing the past and the future because it is written in the present.  It takes about thirty to fifty pages to really figure this out.  Once you get it though, you understand the whole perspective.

While there is really no adventure, there is conflict.  Taveth is put off by Hanethe.  The latter takes Taveth’s younger daughter under her wing to mentor her yeya gifts.  Taveth is also Jankin’s first target.  He then pursues Chayra, who is the more beautiful of the two women.  Chayra has already had many lovers outside the primary unit, so this incites jealousy in Taveth who doesn’t have much time for such play.  It sounds soapy, but it doesn’t read melodramatic.  One could say it’s more like domestic drama, several steps up from soap opera.  

The prose is decent, though the whole present tense thing is difficult to get used to.  I think the world-building is decent, but could have been better.  Perhaps if the book was longer, it would might have worked better.  I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s a good concept.  I just think the execution was lacking.  And as Walton said herself, this was part of a learning process for her.