April 16, 2015

A Magical Quest for a Cure

The Water and the Wild, by K. E. Ormsbee, illustrated by Elsa Mora, (Chronicle Books), 448 Pages, release date 14 April, 2015

The Water and the Wild is described as being for ages 8 to 12—but that greatly underestimates its charms. This novel travels between present day mediocrity and timeless fantasy laced with both menace and magic. Our present-day heroine, Lottie Fiske, is an orphan being raised by a guardian who cares little (really, not at all) for her. Lottie’s a poor fit in the local school because, “She had the audacity to not be very pretty or rich or even stupid, and at least one of the qualities was essential for a girl.” She’s bullied by the popular crowd and fantasizes with her best friend Eliot about winning scholarships and leaving their small town forever. Unfortunately, Eliot’s always-poor health is worsening, and he may not live long enough to achieve their dream.

The fantasy world is Albion—a place populated by sprites, each of whom has a keen and a genga. A keen is a special talent related to one of the senses that allows a sprite to perceive the world with great intensity. A sprite with a taste keen can taste the words used by those around him to determine the motives behind those words. A sprite with a hearing keen is able to listen at great distances: through walls, in other buildings, even, with the right training, at distances of hundreds of miles. A genga is a bird companion each sprite is born with, and each genga is able to provide a particular kind of aid to its owner.

Unfortunately, Albion is beset by political turmoil that constantly threatens violence. The Southern King and the Northern Rebels each hope to overcome the other. Caught between these two forces are the Wisps, who are dying of a plague. The Southerly Court has a cure for the plague and innoculates its own citizens against it, but “the ingredients are rare. [Southerlies] don’t have enough to hand out to everyone.” As one bored Southerly explains, “[Wisps will] go extinct. Nearly a quarter are dead as it is. By the time [we Southerlies] are grown, there won’t be any more wisps left on the Isle.”

Lottie, searching for a cure for Eliot, finds herself in Albion where she’s hunted by parties on all sides who believe she’s the last of the Fiskes, the family that once ruled Albion. Albion isn’t necessarily any kinder than Lottie’s home town, but with the help of two sprites and a wisp halfling, who may or may not truly be her friends, Lottie sets out to find a cure for Eliot.

The pacing of this novel is simultaneously gentle and urgent. Lottie gradually comes to learn more about herself and about Albion, but at the same time, she needs to accomplish her goal in a just a few days if there’s to be any hope for Eliot. One feels compelled to continue reading, but is able to savor the story at the same time.

Even if you’re nowhere near ages 8 to 12, The Water and the Wild will provide you with an experience that both reminds you of your own world and that transports you to another world entirely.

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April 14, 2015

A Wealth of Ideas

Her Idea, by Rilla Alexander, (Nobrow Ltd.), 56 pages, release date 14 April 2015

Her Idea is a brilliant children’s book about Sozi, a girl with—ideas. They pop up endlessly, follow her about, overwhelm her, and they keep on coming. Sound like any early-graders you know?

This fun, rhyming book-within-a-book is great for read-aloud. It’s also the sort of thing that a young reader can leaf through again and again. The illustrations are whimsical and full of details to be discovered. Those ideas—sometimes they look like baby squid, sometimes like homunculi—are everywhere.

Any children in your life who are thinkers and makers will be delighted with this book.

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April 09, 2015

A Three-Hours’ Tale on the Pakistani-Afghani Border

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon: A Novel, by Fatima Bhutto, (Penguin Press), 240 pages, release date 24 March, 2015

Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is a novel that deserves wide reading for its topic—but more than that, it deserves wide reading for its writing. The novel recounts the experiences of three brothers on Eid (the Muslim new year) in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, whose populace have been engaged in a long-term civil war against the Pakistani government.

Life in Mir Ali is perpetually violent. In addition to government and local combatants, there are US drones, and an influx of guerrillas from Afghanistan, who see themselves as freedom fighters, but who don’t differentiate between government targets and local targets that don’t share their particular branch of Islam. In fact, the violence has become so commonplace that for the first time ever the three brothers will not be attending the same mosque for Eid. Instead, each of them is going to a different mosque, a way of ensuring that at least someone will survive the violence that is apt to occur.

Although the primary action of the novel takes place during a period of a few hours, Bhutto offers enough back story that readers can unravel the complicated politics of the region. Perhaps not completely—but certainly more effectively and thoroughly  than I’ve seen them explained in any other popular source.

The use of the three brothers allows Bhutto to offer multiple perspectives. Aman Erum, the eldest, has been studying in the U.S. and is desperate to leave Mir Ali for better opportunities elsewhere. Sikandar, the middle brother, is a physician whose son, an only child, has recently been killed in a bombing. Hayat, the youngest, has devoted his life to independence for Mir Ali, having spent his childhood listening to his father’s tales of earlier uprisings. Two women figure significantly as well: Mina, Sikandar’s wife, who has begun obsessively attending funerals of victims of terrorist violence, even when they are complete strangers to her, and Samarra, loved by both the oldest and the youngest, who has risen from a position as a courier for to leader of one of Mir Ali’s most active rebel cells.

As the few hours’ action plays out, readers are thrown from one crisis to the next. Even as each character strives to do what’s right, he (or she) finds himself trapped by circumstances, forced to betray his deepest convictions.

Don’t wait for this novel to come out in paperback. Read it now—both for its political context and for its crisp prose and rapidly paced plot.

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April 08, 2015

A Feminist Field Biologist in a World with Dragons

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan, (Tor Books, Macmillan), 352 pages, release date 31 March, 2015

If it weren’t for the fact that Voyage of the Basilisk is the third volume in the Lady Trent series, I’d have to say there’s nothing else out there like it. Instead, I suppose I’ll say there are only two books out there like Voyage of the Basilisk, and both of them are, not coincidentally, also by Marie Brennan.

Lady Trent is a remarkable woman. Living in an alternate universe at a time that seems analogous to the Victorian era, she travels her world as a field biologist, observing the rarest, most imposing creatures: dragons and their relatives in many forms. Some of them are land dwelling, others aquatic—there’s even an ocean-going giant fire turtle. While she has some of the sensibilities of her time, she never allows these to get in the way of her scientific pursuits. She dons trousers on expeditions, takes to the sea for years with her young son in tow, and even—gasp!—goes on expedition with groups of male scientists.

Lady Trent is a woman ahead of her time, whatever that time actually is. To give readers a taste of the sort of woman she is, here’s her depiction of the plight of governesses in her era:

I imagine many of my readers are aware of the awkward position in which governesses often find themselves—or rather, the awkward position into which their male employers often put them, for it does no one any service to pretend this happens by some natural and inexorable process, devoid of connection with anyone’s behavior.

Lady Trent approaches science with the same precision she uses in her observations of the mores of her time. She takes field notes, studies carcases, translates ancient glyphs, untangles evolutionary trees. She talks (or writes) of ovipositors, vestigal limbs, artificial synthesis of dragon bones.

If you know a young woman who’s dreaming of a career in the sciences and who enjoys books where women do more (much, much more!) than primp, pout, and stand about waiting to be rescued by men, she needs to meet Lady Trent. The balance of the rational and the fantastic in her travels is positively addictive.

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April 06, 2015

Silence in Eden

The Language of Paradise: A Novel, by Barbara Klein Moss, (W. W. Norton & Company), 416 pages, release date 6 April, 2015

The Language of Paradise is a slow read. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s slow because it lingers inside its characters, gives them room to reason and imagine.

Sophie, daughter of a Harvard divinity professor, marries Gideon, one of her father’s students. Gideon is fascinated with the question of what the first human language—the language of paradise—might have been. At first this seems like a harmless eccentricity. But when Gideon meets Leander, who shares his obsession, things quickly spin out of control. The two of them decide that the baby Sophie is carrying will be raised in silence. With no human language spoken to him, they assume the child will go back to humanity’s origins and speak in the original tongue. Sophie’s marriage become a strange sort of triad, with Leander in control.

We spend time with both Sophie and Gideon before this search for the language of paradise becomes an obsession. Sophie is a bit of a wild spirit, dancing in the fields to voices and music only she can hear. When she first sees the fair-haired Gideon, she mistakes him for an angel. Slowly the two move forward to the marriage that seems inevitable—but by time the couple are wed, neither of them is the person s/he was when they first met.

Ultimately, this is one of those novels that works its way into difficult spiritual questions, moving not toward a real resolution of those questions, but toward a new appreciation of the ordinary. The problem is, when one embraces the ordinary, sees what is, one also sees what one is not—simple joys are counter-weighted by a sense of all one isn’t, all one hasn’t accomplished.

This is a book to read when you’re not in a hurry, when you’re willing to mull things over slowly and to spend time immersed in the different characters’ consciousness. What would otherwise seem slow becomes fascinating, the pace perfect for the story.

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April 01, 2015

Ghost Hunting During the Irish Uprising

The Blood Dimmed Tide, by Anthony Quinn, (Oldcastle Books), 256 pages, release date 1 April, 2015

I’ve always enjoyed mystery novels featuring literary characters. The Blood Dimmed Tide presents an interesting variation on that genre: literary character as paranormal investigator. In this case the character is W. B. Yeats. It’s 1918, World War I seems to be consuming an entire generation of young men, and the Irish independence movement is turning violent. Yeats is trying to balance his varying loyalties to the Crown and to his native Ireland.

This setting makes the book intellectually “chewy” in a way lacking for many murder-cum-literary-insights novels. The story begins in London, but quickly moves to Ireland. A young serving girl has been murdered, her body found in a two-hundred-year-old coffin floating off the Irish coast. Yeats is haunted by the girl, who inexplicably sent him a letter—a letter he didn’t receive until after her death—saying she feared for her life.

While Yeats is primarily concerned with the paranormal, most of the book’s characters are consumed by the “Irish question.” These characters include representatives of the British government in Ireland, a secret group of Irish women determined to contribute to the revolt, land owners who see an inevitable end to their generations of power, and the tenants of these land owners.

The mystery at the heart of this novel is good, not great—but the way it depicts this historical moment makes up for the lack of unanticipated plot twists.

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March 30, 2015

A Magical Tale

The Mermaid’s Sister, by Carrie Anne Noble, (Skyscape), 237 pages, release date 1 March, 2015

The Mermaid’s Sister is a fairy tale. Not a clumpy, damsel-in-distress story that’s been told for generations. The Mermaid’s Sister is fresh and heartening—and the damsel is perfectly capable of looking after herself.

From the moment I started reading this book, I found myself slipping into its world with an internal sigh of pleasure. The prose is beautiful: unadorned, but with sparkling clarity. I quite honestly could not put this book down once I started it.

Clara and Maren are foundlings being raised by an old woman, Aunt Verity, a healer who is of part-fairy blood. Clara was brought by a stork. Maren arrived in a seashell. All three of them have known that someday Maren would turn into a mermaid. As this transformation begins, Clara realizes she will eventually have to bring Maren to the sea. She doesn’t want to lose her sister, but as Aunt Verity says, “We have to be who we are.”

Clara is helped in this undertaking by O’Neill, another foundling, this one raised by a traveling peddler. The three of them leave the girls’ mountain-top home, journeying east toward the sea. The don’t know that they are being pursued by an unscrupulous trio who run a circus and patent medicine business and who hope to use Maren in their sideshow. As Maren grows smaller and weaker, Clara and O’Neill struggle to save her, aided by Clara’s pet wyvern.

This book is marketed as young adult fiction, but it will make satisfying reading for anyone ready to embrace a bit of magic.

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March 26, 2015

An Eclectically Populated Mystery

The Jade Butterfly: A Dan Sharp Mystery, (Dundurn), 344 pages, released 3 March, 2015

After I finished The Jade Butterfly last night, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the book. My experience with it was a mix of ups and downs, but it left me curious to see what the next Dan Sharp mystery will offer.

The Ups:

The Jade Butterfly is populated by a genuinely multicultural mix of characters. Seeing their interactions and the ways they build community was genuinely enjoyable.

• I love the fact that the central character, Dan Sharp, is both a gay father with primary responsibility for raising a son and a gay man who hasn’t compromised his own sexuality.

• Dan Sharpe’s best friend, Donny, a gay, black man is a well-developed character, and the thoughtful interactions between these two men ring true. The fact that Donny is now raising a former street kid, means we get not one, but two models of gay parenting.

• While the plot is a bit more spy-versus-spy than the type of mystery I typically read, it’s interesting. Most readers will find themselves surprised by the ending.

• I appreciate that the mystery centers around events at Tienanmen square, bringing the impact of that time up to the present day.

The Downs:

• The pacing of the book is uneven. Some scenes rush by quickly, some are drawn out. It’s not clear why the writer made these choices and the fluctuation doesn’t seem to serve a literary purpose.

• The prose gets turgid at points, weighed down in flourishes that detract from the action in the book. It’s as if the writer hasn’t clearly developed his own style, so is relying from time to time on exercises in analogy or structure or…. These sentences serve the purpose of being fancy sentences, but they don’t make a positive addition to the novel’s overall effect.

As I said at the start, I am curious to see where the Dan Sharp character goes. I’m also curious to see some of the secondary characters develop—not just Donny, but also Ked, Dan’s son; Kendra, the mother of Ked, a fiercely independent woman who has created an effective balance for herself between pursuing her own interests and making positive contributions to her son’s life; there’s even an inept government agent who could be developed into an interesting recurring character. If you like watching characters grow across a series, The Jade Butterfly may offer you a satisfying new experience.

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March 25, 2015

When Henry James Met Sherlock Holmes


The Fifth Heart: A Novel, by Dan Simmons, (Little, Brown and Company), 624 pages, release date 24 March, 2015

Sprawling would be a good adjective to describe Dan Simmon’s The Fifth Heart—so long as one is willing to embrace the idea of intellectual sprawl. This novel attempts to do many things at once and, for the most part, succeeds.

Like many recent novels, The Fifth Heart makes use of Sherlock Holmes’ missing years following his supposed death at Reichenbach Falls to place Holmes in a situation quite unlike any found in the original Conan Doyle titles. Here the unusual setting is literary America shortly before the opening of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. Instead of Watson, Holmes has Henry James for a sidekick. Other well-know characters include Henry Adams, Samuel Clemmons, and Theodore Roosevelt.

There are two mysteries at the heart of this novel: the suicide (or was it?) of Henry Adams’ wife a number of years previously and a world-wide anarchist plot set to coincide with the opening of the Exposition. The former mystery is better developed in terms of the ways in which it communicates the logic and emotions of the novel’s various characters. The second is more richly plotted and more effectively resolved at the novel’s end.

Simmons alternates between three narrative points of view (all presented in third person): there’s an omniscient-Holmes viewpoint, an omniscient-James viewpoint, and a philosophical author-of-this-particular-novel viewpoint. At times, the shifts into these different voices—particularly the third—jar, but the richness they add to the novel more than compensates for such infelicities.

I just wrote that there are two mysteries at the heart of this novel, but there’s actually a third as well: the question of human existence. How do we know we exist? To what extent are we our own creations? To what extent are we the creations of others? The Holmes-James pairing is ideal for exploring such questions. Holmes has become convinced that he is a fictional character; James meanwhile, a creator of fictions, is also his own greatest creation.

All these riches make the book a pleasure on many levels. It offers a workable pair of mysteries; an interesting new twist in Holmesian literature; documentation of a time of wide gaps between rich and poor in the U.S.; and a genuinely interesting, multi-voiced reflection on the nature of self. When you need a big novel to sink into, one that you can approach from a philosophical point of view or for pure entertainment, The Fifth Heart will serve you well.

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March 24, 2015

A Victorian Detective for Our Times

Children of the Tide: A Victorian Detective Story, by Jon Redfern, (Dundurn), 296 pages, release date March 24, 2015

Children of the Tide is the second novel featuring inspector Owen Endersby, though it’s the first novel in I’ve read in this series—and I am hoping it will be a many-volumed series. While the book is set in Victorian London, Endersby is one of those characters whose views bridge his purported time and our own, allowing for a commentary on life in Victoria’s England that is perhaps a bit modern in its outlook, but that is also sympathetic and not unbelievable.

Endersby critiques the norms of his time, while living comfortably within them. In this case, he is investigating the murders of two workhouse matrons and the aborted kidnapping of two workhouse girls, both named Catherine. Early on we’re told “Any mention to [Endersby] of workhouses and their cruelty to children roused a deep anger in his heart. Many times he had passed the filthy courtyards of the city’s eight workhouses and seen their young inmates marching around them in circles, their faces wan, their eyes sad like those of inmates he’d seen in the yard of Fleet Prison.” Once inside one of these workhouses, Endersby reflects: “What sorrow pervades the morning light…. What thin hands and thin bodies are arrayed on the rows of beds. Why does our time treat women so cruelly?” Whether or not such questions were typical of his time, they are worth asking.

Endersby began his career as a Bow Street Runner, more concerned with seeing someone convicted of a crime than with finding the actual perpetrator. Now, as a member of the city’s new police force, he is more cautious and contemplative, more interested in uncovering what has happened than he is in quickly finding someone, anyone on whom to place the blame. He talks his way through a crime as if it were one of the wooden puzzles he amuses himself with during the evenings.

Endersby is also a theater-goer with a particular love of Shakespeare. Children of the Tide contains echoes of both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, the first Endersby mystery (which I’ve just ordered through my local, independent bookseller) takes place within the theater world. I’m eager to read it.

Jon Redfern has plotted this mystery well, with a number of tantalizing solutions hanging for readers to pluck like a bunches of ripe grapes. And because Redfern leaves so many possibilities open, the reader really does remain in doubt until the finish of the book. Redfern and Endersby are a gift to readers of mysteries and historical fiction—I urge you to open these books and to enjoy them for yourself.

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