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Books Reviews

Book Review: Artemis

Cover of Artemis by Jessica CaleI got to know Jessica Cale after reading her wonderful highwayman novel, Tyburn, set in 17th-century London. She’s moved into the Regency era with Artemis, a novella that was previously part of the Holly and Hopeful Hearts box set from the Bluestocking Belles. This one doesn’t deal with highwaymen, but it does feature a few interests we have in common. Here’s the review I posted over on Goodreads:

I loved Jessica Cale’s Tyburn, and this novella was a great read, too — perfect for a rainy vacation day. It’s great to see Ms. Cale moving into the Regency, and also giving us LGBT characters. It’s important to imagine the lives of people who loved differently in the past, given where we are today in the back-and-forth struggle for LGBT rights.

The story revolves around Apollo Rothschild, the reclusive Earl of Somerton, and Charlotte Halfpenny, a disgraced actress. Apollo has loved Charlotte from afar since he first saw her on stage; Charlotte needs a protector for herself and her baby on the way. What could get in their way? First, Charlotte distrusts the intentions of a nobleman she’s never met. Second, and most important, Apollo has a secret. Something to do with a mysterious inability to sire children, which is his justification for offering marriage to a pregnant, disgraced actress — like all noblemen, he needs an heir.

The story is propelled by the unraveling mystery of Apollo’s secret. Given that this is an LGBT story, the truth behind the mystery shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but the details of it are intricate and fascinating. For readers who do twig Apollo’s identity right away, the pleasure comes from the dramatic irony of watching Charlotte try to unravel the secret the reader already knows. By the end, we’re convinced that these two characters are incredibly fortunate to have found each other.

Along the way, Ms. Cale’s vivid depictions of life in London in the early 19th century, with just the right amount of historical detail, make the novella a pleasure to read. Highly recommended.

Categories
Books Feminism Reviews

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Cover of Jane Austen, the Secret RadicalI have one friend who will never read Jane Austen because he thinks they’re “just” romances, and he doesn’t like romance. I have another acquaintance who believes Jane wrote anti-romances. I think they’re both right (although that first friend isn’t right to deride romance out of hand.)

The thing I love about Jane Austen’s novels is that they’re not just one thing; just about any interpretation can’t encompass them, but has to leave something out. I’ll go out on a limb and say this attribute — complexity, if you will — is the main thing that propels a book from being merely good into greatness. Emma, for instance, is both a mystery and an ironic comedy, depending on the sharpness of the reader and whether it’s a first or second reading. And it’s about much more than whom Emma decides to marry in the end.

Of course, all of Jane’s novels are romances in the structural sense, because they all feature couples achieving an apparent happy ending by getting married. But did Jane’s central interest lie in getting the couples to that point, or did she perhaps use the structure of the romance as a convenient (and sales-worthy) framework on which to hang the real business of her novels — social satire, moral lessons, skillful delineations of character, or the many other things you can say her novels are about?

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Books Reviews

Tremontaine at the Midpoint

(Spoiler warning: The following review gives away a couple of events in the first quarter of the series in order to establish character conflicts. Beyond that, you won’t find any big plot revelations.) 

Tremontaine cover by Kathleen Jennings
Tremontaine cover by Kathleen Jennings

Tremontaine, Serial Box Publishing’s prequel to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series of novels, will certainly feel familiar to Kushner fans, yet it also serves as a playful introduction for readers new to this world. Appearing in weekly installments, it features the gleefully varied sexualities and gender expressions of Kushner’s universe, along with its cross-dressing swordswomen, its arrogant scholars, its political intrigue, and its focus on manners, where much more is going on beneath the surface than the reader first expects.

The world of Riverside exists in an alternate Europe, sometime between the Renaissance and early modern periods, with a bit of 1980s New York thrown in. Firearms have yet to be invented, so conflicts are settled at the point of a sword, usually wielded by a hired duelist. Though the genre is fantasy, there are no wizards and no magic, because these have long since been purged from society, along with the corrupt kings. The city and the country go unnamed, leaving us with neighborhoods: the lumpenproletarian Riverside and the aristocratic Hill, with the University existing in a social space somewhere between the two.

And so the novels featured characters from a variety of social classes, creating a rich bed of conflict and social disdain. They also brought a welcome diversity of sexualities and gender to fantasy (beginning with Swordspoint, way back in 1987). Now Tremontaine adds racial diversity to that mix in the form of traders from far-off Kinwiinik, who supply the aristocrats on the Hill with that all-important commodity, chocolate.

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Reviews

Tremontaine: Go Read It

Tremontaine Arrivals CoverWhat the title says!

If you saw my preview of Tremontaine, you know how much I love Ellen Kushner’s Riverside universe. Nearly halfway through, this prequel series is everything I wanted it to be. You can sample the first episode or subscribe to the whole thing here.

(Or you can listen to it with the wonderfully performed audio versions, which are included with the text versions.)

Insightful, charming, spoilery, episode-by-episode reviews over on OvertheEffingRainbow.

Mid-point review of the series here at the end of the week.

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Reviews

It’s Queer Romance Month!

It’s October 30Subgenre-badge-2015th, and I just found out October is Queer Romance Month.

Why queer romance, you ask? For one thing, maybe if novels like this had existed when I was a kid, my own struggles with sexuality and gender expression might have been a little less tortured. (I read all of the Tarzan series as a teenager; imagine if somewhere along the way the Ape Man had taken a male lover. Huh, attraction to both men and women can be a thing.)

Also, it turns out I have something of an allergy to the traditional, hetero romance genre. Something about those alpha males with their washboard abs and their masterful ways that I just can’t relate to (that previous mention of Tarzan aside). It seems I can only tolerate Cecilia Grant, with her male characters who are as conflicted as I am, especially in A Gentleman Undone. Or Jane Austen, whose male characters seem mostly afterthoughts to her novels’ main concerns, Darcy and his non-canonical swimming scene notwithstanding. But whether it’s two men or two women getting together, in queer romance those concerns fall by the wayside.

So, without further ado, some of my favorite queer romances, only one strictly in the romance genre, and the others ecstatically straddling genre boundaries.

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Reviews

Review & Interview – Ruin Falls by Jenny Milchman

RuinFalls.WebRuin Falls
by Jenny Milchman
Ballantine Books, 2014
352 pp; $26.00

 

In her first novel, Cover of Snow, Jenny Milchman set out to discover what happens when a husband does the worst thing possible to his wife. In Ruin Falls, set in the same upstate New York town, she turns to the worst thing that can befall a mother. Milchman excels at depicting a completely normal milieu, then showing the cracks and dysfunctions in that normalcy.

Ruin Falls opens with that most classic American activity, the family vacation. But something isn’t quite right here. An act of road rage by another driver pushes Liz, the mom, nearly into a panic, while Paul, her husband, maintains a too-icy calm. At a Starbucks stop, we learn that their eight-year-old son, Reid, likes to lift people’s wallets just for fun. And at the hotel, Liz’s paranoia returns, directed at the bell-hop. Yet the next morning, it turns out that her paranoia is well founded: Reid and his sister, six-year-old Ally,  are missing from their suite of rooms. Panic and bedlam ensue.

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Reviews

Book Review – Hild: A Novel

Hild coverHild: A Novel
Nicola Griffith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
560 pp; $27.00
 

I haven’t read much historical fiction, but I imagine writers in this genre might get so focused on making the past real that they forget to make it strange, to make it art. Nicola Griffith’s Hild: A Novel avoids that trap, making seventh-century England simultaneously so vivid and so dreamlike that I didn’t want to leave it, even after 500-plus pages. Even now, having finished it a second time (and wow, double post-novel depression!), I find it difficult to express my admiration for this book. Perhaps I should just quote Emily L. Hauser (@emilylhauser on Twitter) and be done: “Good lord, that was a book. A gobsmacking, wonderful book.”

Count me among the gobsmacked, and Neal Stephenson, too, who said that Hild feels like the classic on which Beowulf, the legends of King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones are based. That and the other glowing blurbs on the book’s back cover are closer to the truth than some of the other reserved-but-appreciative reviews the book received in print periodicals.

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On Writing Reviews

Why I Love – and Hate – Game of Thrones*

Game-of-Thrones-Episode-3.01-Valar-Dohaeris-Promotional-Photos-1_595_slogo

  • Because it’s about the real world, despite the dragons and the magic.
  • Because it’s a meditation on the uses and abuses of power.
  • Because it reminds that there is little hope, and terrible things always about to happen.
  • Because, like the real world, we’re never sure who the good guys are (no, not even the Starks, not even Daenerys) and who the bad guys are (well, maybe the Bastard of Bolton).
  • Because George Martin can somehow get me involved in a character’s life (even Jaime Lannister’s!) in just a couple of paragraphs. And just as in real life, the people I care about may be snatched away at any time.
  • Because I like strong female characters.
  • Because, like the real world, there is a looming threat (summer is coming!) that most people write off as a fairy-tale or hoax.
  • Because it doesn’t attempt to console me with a fantasy of good always prevailing over evil. If there is good in the world, it’s always provisional, individual, and mixed in with the evil.
  • Because, while I really just wanted an escape into fantasy, it won’t let me escape.

Storm of Swords cover*And by “Game of Thrones,” I really mean the Song of Ice and Fire book series.

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Reviews

Book Review: Cover of Snow

coverofsnowwebCover of Snow: A Novel
Jenny Milchman
Ballantine Books, 2013
336 pp; $26.00
 

When I heard Jenny Milchman at her book talk at Schuler Books, she nearly put me off reading her first novel, Cover of Snow. She said the story opened with “the worst thing a husband can do to his wife.” My mind immediately jumped to something from either Fargo or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I really didn’t want to go there. Fortunately, neither woodchippers nor torture chambers make an appearance in this suspense novel, just lots and lots of snow, perfect for hiding bodies.

The story revolves around Nora Hamilton, a (reasonably) happily married woman who wakes up one morning to find her husband missing. It doesn’t take her long to discover that Brendan has hanged himself in his study. Nora is not only devastated but perplexed: why would Brendan do such a thing when he seemed content and untroubled?

As Nora begins to explore that question, she meets resistance from surprising quarters, including her mother-in-law and much of the police force for which Brendan worked. Spending too much time asking why will drive you crazy, the police chief warns her, suggesting she leave their small town in the Adirondacks to visit her family. She’s from down-state, after all. And that only pushes her to ask more questions. She soon learns that her adopted hometown not only has a dark past, but also an even darker present.

As Nora begins her journey into the mystery surrounding her husband’s death, she also begins an exploration of her own way of being, one that has kept her emotionally shut off from her husband and family. She seems uniquely uninquisitive about the interior lives of others, making her a good match for a husband with secrets. Now, if she’s going to uncover what happened to Brendan, she must overcome this central failing. Milchman’s skillful depiction of Nora split open by her own grief makes the story not only suspenseful but emotionally compelling.

Milchman is a fine writer, with deft prose and a sharp eye for detail. I’d be happy to follow her around any New England town, suspenseful situation or not. In fact, my one quibble with the novel comes from those moments when it too obviously cranks up the suspense. Nora seems to move awfully quickly from devastation to detective-on-the-case, with possible suspects lining up for the reader’s inspection at her husband’s funeral.

While most of the novel is told in Nora’s first-person point of view, several chapters in third person show chilling events from a variety of perspectives. James Lee Burke adopted a similar technique at some point in his series of Dave Robicheaux novels. I think there used to be some law of narrative unity against this approach, but if Burke can get away with it, maybe such rules no longer apply. Still, I’d prefer to have the villains looming in the background, making their appearance only when the first-person narrator comes across them. To me, that can be even more suspenseful, and a writer of Milchman’s talent should be able to pull it off.

Overall, Cover of Snow is an outstanding debut novel, highly recommended for fans of both suspense and sharp depictions of small-town life.

Tangential Postscript: While it’s true this is Milchman’s first published novel, it’s also the eighth one she’s written. She began her first novel thirteen years ago and has had an agent since she began shopping that first novel. She kept coming this close to getting published, but never quite making it. Heads of publishing houses would say they loved one of her novels, but it wasn’t quite right.

It shows how broken publishing is that a writer of Jenny Milchman’s caliber couldn’t get published for thirteen years. It’s hard to believe that her fifth, sixth, or seventh novels were that much worse, or unsaleable, than Cover of Snow. Clearly, the publishing industry needed a good kick in the pants. On the other hand, it’s now possible for anyone with some computer skills and an internet connection (or a few hundred bucks lying around) to publish their own work (I hope to be one of them soon). So we’re caught between two poles: a traditional publishing system that can’t connect a good writer like Milchman with readers, and a (largely electronic) self-publishing system that threatens to drown readers and good writers in a sea of dreck writing from all levels of ability.

It will be interesting to see how the book world shakes out over the next decade or so. How will discerning readers discover good writers? Will the discerning reader still exist? Will publishing houses still have a role in setting a standard for quality? (And I take with a large clump of sea salt the idea of publishers as gatekeepers — after all, Vintage published Fifty Shades of Bad Jane Austen-ish Dialogue Combined with Cliches from a Dictionary of American Slang and, Oh Yeah, Some Whipping and Handcuffing). Or will it be something like an online book club? Find your favorite writers on Twitter, and read what they read. And if you’re a writer, try to get them to retweet you. Who knows, but it promises to be one thrilling and bumpy ride.

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Reviews

Book Review: Gold and Silver in the Mojave

Gold and SilverGold and Silver in the Mojave: Images of a Last Frontier
Nicholas Clapp
Sunbelt Publications, 2012
200 pp; $24.95
 (Note: This review first appeared in the Winter/Spring issue El Paisano, the quarterly newsletter of the Desert Protective Council.)

The history of the western U.S. is a history of booms and busts. A lode is discovered or a policy is enacted (the Homestead Act, the wind energy tax credit). Where once was “pristine” (lightly populated, subtly changed) nature, civilization rushes in, with all its attendant virtues and vices. Then the ore plays out, or the policy changes, or the rain fails to follow the plow. The people move on, leaving the rusting tin cans, the broken dreams, the windmills creaking idly in the wind.

And they leave photographs. Stashed away in shoe boxes or on display in county historical societies, these old photos can seem quaintly picturesque. Trapped in their black-and-white world, the subjects seem more actors on a stage than real people who lived, worked, loved and died.

In his excellent Gold and Silver in the Mojave: Images of a Last Frontier, Nicholas Clapp scrapes away that quaint layer to reveal the lives behind the photos. Through vivid story-telling, insightful commentary, and carefully selected photographs, the book gets at the actual experience of the people who were part of this later, lesser-known mining boom, spanning the years 1895 to 1920. Clapp calls it a rowdy Last Act for the Old West.

From Randsburg to Ballarat to Tonopah, the book presents photos both expected and unexpected: the gold-panners and the miners, the bankers and the saloon-keepers, the gamblers and the red-light districts; but also the families, the ladies’ clubs, the children, and the Mojave Desert’s first tourists. Some of the most striking are portraits of the people of Tonopah, Nevada, taken by E.W. Smith in his studio, featuring classical backdrops and a laughing gnome for a prop. Himself an award-winning filmmaker, Clapp expertly dissects the images he presents, whether commenting on habits of dress, the expressions of men in a saloon, or the changes in photographic technology that made the images possible.

Gold and Silver in the Mojave explores all the ways wealth was made and squandered here. There was the mining of ore, but also the mining of investors’ pocketbooks; “high-grading” (mine workers lining their clothing with stolen ore); the trick of selling out while a shallow claim still “showed;” and “bucking the tiger” – trying to beat the house in the often-rigged game of faro.

And of course there is the desert. This being the Mojave, the landscapes are dramatic. Even in their heyday, these boomtowns were dwarfed by the desert that surrounded them, the humans, tiny figures amidst nature on a grand scale. This contrast is even more striking in the book’s examples of “rephotography.” A shot of Rhyolite taken a hundred years ago shows the town of 5,000 that sprang up in less than five years; today, a photo taken from the same vantage shows the blackbrush holding sway once more.

Residents of currently booming North Dakota, take heed: this is your future.