Friday, September 27, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Not Your Grandmother's Ugly Stepsister

Stepsister, by Jennifer Donnelly (Scholastic)

Stepsister is the latest “fractured fairytale” I’ve read, and there have been many over the years – some pedestrian, some relying only on a single concept, but some brilliant and insightful. Donnelly’s contribution falls squarely in the latter category. It’s based on “Cinderella,” and it takes place after the happy ending, from the viewpoint of one of the Ugly Stepsisters. Ella has gone off to live with her prince in the castle (and they have since become King and Queen of France), and the stepsisters and their mother live in a decaying mansion (Maison Douleur, “House of Pain”) with no money and certainly no social prospects, as they are widely reviled as the ones who heaped so much misery upon sweet, lovely Ella.

Of course, there’s more to the story. That’s only the set-up. Although Maman is very much the scheming match-maker of the popular tale, Octavia and Isabelle (the viewpoint character) are anything but the self-absorbed, selfish creatures we have come to despise. Neither particularly wanted to get married, let alone to a prince. Tavi lived for science and mathematics, while Isabelle was devoted to heroic adventure, military strategy, and her favorite horse (at least, before Maman embarked upon her marriage schemes). Even after Ella goes off to her happy ending, Isabelle’s fate is not their own. Literally, because the incarnations of Chance and Fate have a wager as to whether she can overcome the harshness of her present circumstances, or whether she and her family will fall prey to the invading armies of the evil General Volkmar. In the end, it’s up to Isabelle, with her keen wit and her capacity for growth (and remorse) to thwart the bloodbath and save Queen Ella’s throne.

The characters are wonderful, the details whimsical and grim, the emotional arc pitch-perfect, and luscious prose like this:
“The pieces of your heart are restored. The boy is love – constant and true. The horse, courage – wild and untamed. Your stepsister is your conscience – kind and compassionate. Know that you are a warrior, Isabelle, and that a true warrior carries love, courage, and her conscience into battle, as surely as she carries her sword.”
I’ll be re-reading this one. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Friday, September 20, 2019

Short Book Reviews: A Living Detective in the City of the Dead

Necropolis PD, by Nathan Sumsion (Parvus Press)

This debut novel from a small press is an interesting riff on the typical “zombies = bad” trope. Sumsion’s city, Necropolis, is made up of bits and pieces of forgotten things, whether they are articles of clothing, furniture, or entire buildings. The place has the grimy, worn, gloomy aspect of forgotten things, and it is into their worth that college student Jacob Green stumbles. After being interrogated by terrifying dead men, he’s drafted into the Necropolis Police Force as a detective, and his chief torturer, Marsh, is his partner. Neither Marsh nor the other detectives are willing to help educate Jacob, but the vampire Chief of Police insists that Jacob is crucial to solving their current case: a series of murders of the revenant (dead) citizens. In addition to Marsh, who slowly thaws toward Jacob, Jacob is psychically linked with Ms. Greystone, a ghost, who is my favorite character in the book. She’s brusque, efficient, dry-witted, and only half-there. The plot takes various twists as Jacob struggles to learn police procedure while tracking down clues and trying to integrate into the police department. The world of Necropolis includes shudder-worthy sequences (the insanely violent child revenants in “The Nursery,” for example) but also moments of humor and pathos. Needless to say, Jacob turns out to be considerably more resourceful than his dead colleagues or he himself give him credit for, much to my enjoyment.

The innovative elements, character development, and intrigue kept me turning the pages. I’m not an aficionado of zombie anything (movies, books, you name it) so aspects that caught my attention as fresh might not affect an informed zombie fan in the same way. However, Jacob and in particular Ms. Greystone rise above the genre. At the same time, I found a number of literary flaws problematic. Both the prose itself and the book are flabby in the sense of containing too much that is repetitious, redundant, or unnecessary. The flashbacks, at first confusing, became irritating because they only repeated information I had already surmised and broke the forward momentum of the story. I hope that the author learns to trust his readers to pick up subtle information instead of needing to hammer it home repeatedly. The use of “some” (instead of “a” or “the”) or “some kind of” are a bĂȘte noir of mine, and in almost all cases can be excised without significant alteration in meaning. That said, these shortcomings became less intrusive as the story proceeded and did not interfere with my enjoyment of the way everything wrapped up.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

A kitchen Staircase, Kristian Zahrtmann (1843-1917)

Monday, September 16, 2019

Late Summer Garden

This year our garden has been less successful than usual, in no small part due to skyrocketing inroads made by critters (squirrels for sure, maybe wood rats, too). They've managed to nibble the tender shoots and flowers of all our squash plants, so we aren't expecting any. Interestingly, they've left the cucumbers alone (too prickly?). The asparagus patch is about exhausted, the crowns having a limited life span. We're planning on eventually digging up those that are left, evaluating, and moving them to another location. Meanwhile, here's what I gathered the other day:

Rubarb: second harvest. Our plants give us two harvests a year, one in early spring, one in late summer. I simmer it with sugar and cinnamon, then freeze it to use for desserts in the winter holidays. Ours also never gets really red, but it tastes just dandy.

Lemon cucumbers. Rodent-proof. We hope. So far.

Green beans, Emerite variety. This type is prolific and stays tender even if seeds form. It's possible to use as a dry bean, too, but we eat them green. They freeze really well, too, when lightly steamed and vacuum sealed.

Not shown: tomatoes (late this year), grapefruit (our poor tree is sooo confused by climate change, it keeps dropping fruit now instead of in the winter). Wild blackberries, almost done in the heat (33 quarts frozen so far...)

Yet to come: pears and apples, sunchokes (after first frost), maybe parsnips (ditto).

Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: Saving Shakespeare's Endings

The Mercutio Problem, by Carol Anne Douglas (Hermione Books)

I picked up The Mercutio Problem unaware that it was a sequel to Merlin’s Shakespeare. One of the challenges of writing a stand-alone book within a series, or linked to other series, is the balance between giving the new reader all the necessary background, developing the characters well enough, and yet not boring readers who are already familiar with the cast and setting. Sometimes I can’t tell if a book is a sequel or a stand-alone with a rich and brilliantly handled back story. In this case, it became obvious almost immediately, although to her credit, the author gave me all the information I needed to understand and enjoy the present story.

So the back story from the first book is that Merlin (from the legends of King Arthur) enlists the help of Beth Owens, high school theater student, to convince William Shakespeare to write a play about King Arthur. In the course of this adventure, she meets many characters from Shakespeare’s plays, including flirtatious, charismatic Mercutio (from Romeo and Juliet) and the ultimate villain, Richard III.

At the beginning of the present book, Mercutio is dead, slain not by Tybalt but by Richard. Here comes Merlin again, only this time the problem is that Richard wants to change the ending of Shakespeare’s plays (especially his own) and is going about enlisting various other characters and the ghost of Christopher Marlowe in order to pressure Shakespeare. Not only that, but Merlin offers an added inducement to Beth, that she will take the form of Mercutio within Shakespeare’s plays and if she dies in that form, he will live again. Got all that?

Then comes the fun part, visiting the plays and interacting with the characters, many of whom wander into other plays, too. The dialog is often brilliant, reflecting not only Shakespearean language but the particularities of the specific character (for example, Julius Caesar always talks about himself in the third person and rambles on about honor and fate). Bottom has gone missing, so Midsummerland is perpetually rainy (and Bottomless). Lady MacBeth, who knows a thing or two about tyranny and regret, plays a pivotal role in organizing the resistance against Richard, and King Lear, consumed with guilt, goes rampaging through the other plays to slay anyone who wants to keep the plays as they were originally written.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Murder Mystery Set in a Magical High School

Magic for Liars, by Sarah Gailey (Tor)

In short: now I know why readers have been raving about Sarah Gailey.

In long: this tale begins as a murder mystery set in an exclusive, 
private high school for the magically gifted. The first-person narrator is a private detective who’s wearied of digging into cases of infidelity and embezzlement, and both excited and intimidated by her first murder investigation. So much is not all that astonishingly new territory. But this is where the story gets complex. Ivy is an unreliable narrator, whose unerring sense of the truth shines through her layers of self-deception, guilt, and inadequacy. To make matters worse, Ivy’s brilliant, charismatic, and magically talented sister teaches at the school and was romantically involved with the murder victim.

The unfolding of the mystery parallels Ivy’s exploration of her own past, her relationship to her sister, and who she herself might have been “in another life,” if she and her sister had been close, if she had been magical, if she had gone to a good school, if she were attractive and confident, and so forth. The line between Ivy’s wishful imagination and the possibility that she is in the process of unlocking hidden potential is ambivalent, as it should be, making Ivy a complex and utterly sympathetic character. This subtlety arises from superb narrative skill and deep insight into the human psyche, all within the framework of a fascinating familiar-but-new magical world, all the agonies of revisiting high school, and a murder mystery full of twists and surprises.

Strongly recommended.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to praise it. Although chocolates and fine imported tea are always welcome.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

Autumn in Kurakino, Nikolai Gritsenko (1856-1900)

Monday, September 2, 2019

New on Curious Fictions: Totem Night (Free Short Story)

This week's treat for you is a free short story in Curious Fictions. While you're there, I hope you'll subscribe or check out my other posted work.

When the young wizard journeys into the mountains to find her totem spirit, she little dreams of the twisted fate that would exchange her own soul with that of the winged unicorn.

Totem Night
The night was darker than she expected. Darker and colder. Frostmist haloed the stars. As she pulled her sheepswool ruach’ tight around her shoulders, Xiera wished, not for the first time, that she’d paid as much attention to her weaving as to her wizardry.
She had traveled, alone and unarmed, from Choa’tlexa at the edge of the Harvest Plains and into the barren mountains of Hua’tha’s Curse. At the fifth setting of Choa’tl’s Eye, she came across the circle of fallen stones. When she touched one, a spark crackled, stinging her hand. Her fingertips came away, covered in acrid dust. She sat cross-legged in the center of the circle and composed herself.
It will come, she reminded herself. My totem will come to me. Everything so far had been exactly as her teachers foretold, the journey to Hua’tha’s Curse, the moonless night, this place of power.
Moments crept by, bleeding into one another. The earth shivered, so light a ripple that she might not have noticed if she hadn’t been sitting so still. It was the third tremor that hour, each one raising it own false hope.
A speck of silver winked along the western ridge. Heartbeats followed one another. The mote of light elongated into a circle, quickly followed by the second moonlet.
 “The Kiss of the Twins,” a man’s voice spoke from the night, velvet-smooth. Darkness masked his face, as coppery as her own. She’d never known a life without him, from her earliest memories of following, playing and fighting with him and his brothers, sleeping on the mounded carpets of the children’s tent, curled together like puppies.
Only later, as her wizardry stirred and her body changed, so did Xiera’s feelings for him, and his for her. She wept when the elders sent her to Choa’tlexa with its towers, stepped pyramidal temples and markets, as priests, traders, artisans and wizards bustled along the narrow stone streets. She wept again when Tl’al followed her three years later. His beauty burned as sharp as the sun, as did the answering fire within her. That was the last time she had wept, for wizardry kills tears.