Friday, June 26, 2020

Short Book Reviews: The Bureau of Faery Godmothers

Wishful Thinking (How To Be The Best Damn Faery Godmother In The World (Or Die Trying), Book 1) by Helen Harper (Harperfire)

Saffron may be the best drug faery ever, creating hallucinations to guide addicts back to sobriety or at least sanity, but her own ambition is to join the august company of faery godmothers. The most wonderful job she can imagine is to grant the dearest wish of her human client. When she at last receives a coveted invitation to join that elite organization, she is thrilled . . . until she discovers that faery godmothers are going missing and she is to be the bait for the kidnapper. Her welcome is anything but warm as the other godmothers, male and female alike, ignore, spurn, or attack her. To make matters worse, the darkly sinister and intimidating Devil’s Advocate arrives to investigate the situation.

Saffron’s personality shines through the story. She’s warm and funny and earthy, and compassionate in a way few other faeries are. The story achieves a nice balance between dramatic tension, action, and quieter but no less fascinating events. The magic is innovative, the setting (London) a quixotic blend of mundane and otherworldly, and all the characters grow and change. I especially love stories in which both the protagonist and her adversaries reveal hidden depths, becoming more complex and appealing (or revolting, as the case may be). Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the next adventures of Saffron and her friends.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Today's Pandemic Thoughts.

We're in for a rough ride, folks. This is from today's NYT. US death toll on worldometer is 124,406.
Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Stay at least 6 feet away from other folks. Stay home as much as you can. Quarantine yourself if you feel ill. Keep all this up for the long haul.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Black Detective in Slave-Holding Texas

Lady of Perdition, by Barbara Hambly

A new Benjamin January novel is an occasion of delight. I’ve loved the series since the very first volume, Free Man of Color. In pre-Civil War New Orleans, the French-influenced culture viewed race in a very different, nuanced way than their slave-holding American neighbors to the north. Benjamin, born a slave of an African father, has studied medicine in Paris, yet finds the only way to earn a living in the New World is as a pianist at balls and other social events. This, of course, is the perfect combination of skills with which to solve a murder. Now, many mysteries and adventures later, he’s married, with connections in both the white and the many gradations of colored communities. When a spoiled, rebellious young student at his wife’s school runs off with a man of dubious character and even more problematic intentions, Ben goes after her, ably assisted by his white friends, a Yankee lawman and a consumptive, classically educated fiddler.

As Ben feared, the girl has been sold into slavery, then beaten and raped into submission. Getting her free will be tough enough, but she’s been taken into the Republic of Texas, which which prides itself on being a slave-holding nation. Ben himself is now at risk of being captured and claimed as a slave, for papers can be destroyed as easily as they can be forged. Texas itself is in turmoil, with those who want to join the US coming to (literal) blows with those who want to remain independent. In an escapade based on historical incident, one party steals the official State Archives.

That’s just the initial set-up, the action that gets him and his friends to Texas. Once there, he runs into an old nemesis, Valentina de Castellón, now Valentina Taggart (from Days of the Dead), who lands in a serious mess when her rancher husband is found murdered and she is the most likely suspect. Her husband’s family wants the title to her land rights, inherited from an original Spanish land grant, and her allies are few, so she turns to Ben as a skilled detective, able to gather information from “invisible” witnesses, such as servants and slaves.

Hambly effortlessly weaves vibrant characters, dramatic tension, and history – with all its quirks and dangers – into a murder mystery. This is the 17th Benjamin January adventure, and like its predecessors, it stands well on its own. The series remains fresh and captivating as American history and social history unfold into a panorama that informs and shapes each new mystery. Reading Lady of Perdition makes me want to get the previous stories off the bookshelf and reread them all.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Train Robbery, a Russian Wizard, and a Hired Gun

A Longer Fall, by Charlaine Harris (Saga)

An alternate 1920s American South, complete with racial tensions, railroad travel, and conventional roles for women, forms the backdrop for this delicious mystery/thriller/urban-fantasy/romance in true Charlaine Harris style.

Lizbeth Rose is a gunnie, a hired gun, and she’s part of a crew who have been employed to transport a mysterious, crated object and in the process prevent anyone from stealing it. Their method of transportation is railroad, and it comes as no surprise that the train is sabotaged, resulting in much bloodshed, and in the wreckage that follows, the leader of the crew, badly wounded but holding on to the box, is murdered. 

Lizbeth teams up with an old flame, Eli Savarov, a magic-wielding “grigori” wizard otherwise in service to the Holy Russian Empire. They’re forced to remain in the town of Sally, Louisiana, until the box is recovered and the mystery solved. Step by step, they are drawn deeper into the layers of oppression, from the social pressure on Lizbeth to dress and behave like a submissive woman to the casual lynching of blacks.

The first person narrative echoes the “Sookie Stackhouse” novels in tone and diction, but that is part of their charm. Both Lizbeth and Sookie convey savvy, sass, and depth of emotion in deceptively simple language. They’re not the same character, however, and neither are they the author, who demonstrates her deep understanding of Southern American culture with all its shadows and strengths.

A fast-paced, engaging read with quirky world-building and compelling characters that left me hungry for the next installment.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Horses in The Seven-Petaled Shield

Scythian gold comb

The stories that gave rise to The Seven-Petaled Shield began with my love of horses and a special exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County of the art of the nomads of the Eurasian steppe. I marveled at the beautiful gold artifacts of the Scythians, depicting horses, elk, and snow leopards, and the lives and adventures of these people. The Greek historian Herodotus described the Scythians as “invincible and inaccessible,” and Thucydides asserted, “there is none which can make a stand against the Scythians if they all act in concert.” This world, its people, and its marvelous horses practically begged for stories to be written about them.

The Scythians were only one of many nomadic horse-faring peoples who roamed the Central Asian steppe from the beginning of the first millennium before the Common Era into the 20th Century. Sarmatians, Cimmerians, Massagetae, Alani, and many others were followed by such groups as the Hun, Kazars, Uzbeks, Bulgars, and Magyars. Although these peoples differed in culture, language, religion, and place of origin, they shared the characteristics of nomadic horse folk. They were highly mobile, superb archers, and their survival depended on their horses.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Saturday's Moment

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof / צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף 

Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.

-- Deuteronomy 16:20

Friday, June 5, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Librarians as Feminist Revolutionaries

Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey (

In a post-collapse eternally-at-war America, most States are rigidly controlled, with traveling women Librarians bringing only Approved Materials to small communities. 

Conventionally rigid “virtue,” subservience to male authority, and suppression of free thought are the rule in Esther’s world. Just before the start of the story, she has fallen in love with another teen girl, their affair has been discovered, and her lover has been hanged. Only the power and political standing of her father has saved Esther’s life. So she does the only reasonable thing: she runs away to join the Librarians. Who are not at all the conventional, convention-enforcing women she expected: a lesbian couple and a third, who presents as female in public but wears trousers and insists on “they” in private. To say this blows up Esther’s preconceptions and challenges her guilt for having the “wrong” attractions is putting it mildly.

The core of the story emerges as Esther gains in confidence, rising to face one increasingly dangerous challenge after another. The world is nothing like what she expected, and the only way to gain her own freedom to be fully herself is to fight for the rights of others to do the same.

A satisfying ending concludes this thoughtful page-turner.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Today's Words of Sorrow

"A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God.”

-- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Monday, June 1, 2020

[personal silliness] On The Size of Ears

Some people agonize over the size and shape of their ears. Babies don't care, but kids who have unusually shaped ears or ears that stick out can (and are!) made to feel self-conscious about them. People even have surgery to flatten ears against the skull, or I assume their parents do. I never thought about ears -- my own or those of my friends -- when I was a kid.

So it came as a surprise to me when I was an adult that my mother was self-conscious about the size of her ears. The outer ear is mostly cartilage, which continues to grow -- albeit slowly -- throughout your life. Older folks generally have bigger ears than youngsters. I suppose the self-consciousness came from "my ears show my age," but I never asked her. I just observed the lengths she went to in styling her hair in order to cover part of her ears.

It also came as surprise to me as I achieved senior citizen status myself that my own ears were not as I remembered them. They looked like my mother's ears. They're neither pretty nor ugly. They're bigger than when I was a child (I think -- I'm relying on old photos here) and somewhat longer top to bottom. There's a funny crease in the skin of the lobes that I assume is due to decades of wearing pierced earrings. But maybe not. It might have done that, anyway.

Mostly I think it's cool that my ears look like my mother's when she was my age. Sometimes it's puzzling that a body part up and changes itself, but that seems to be happening to more than my ears. Every once in a while, though, it bothers me. I have discovered a solution:

I don't look in the mirror.

From the inside, my ears feel just fine. And then I think of the images of the Buddha with long, long ears. And I giggle.