book reviews by Althea

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The Barefoot Queen – Ildefonso Falcones ****

Caridad is an African slave, forced to work on a tobacco plantation in Cuba for many years. She is unexpectedly freed when her master dies while she is accompanying him to Spain, but ‘freedom,’ it turns out, is relative, when she is dumped onto a foreign shore, penniless and ill-equipped to survive.

By pure luck, she is, after some horrible misadventures, taken in by the gypsy community. She forms a bond with the man who takes her in, Melchor, and becomes fast friends with his granddaughter, Milagros.

However, both bonds will be strained and torn by the turbulence of the world they live in.

The gypsy community is both persecuted by the government and divided within itself. The gypsies live by their own laws, and too often those ‘laws’ are a dizzying swirl of old grudges and vicious vendettas. Life also isn’t easy for any woman in 18th-century Spain, where husbands and patriarchs assume their word is law.

The novel follows both women through the events of several years of their lives. It’s rather a long book, but it kept my interest throughout. However, I felt that the third-person omniscient narration style made me feel a little bit distanced – from all the characters, but especially from Caridad. This may have been partly intentional, as, when we meet her, Caridad is seriously emotionally damaged and closed off from even her own feelings, as a defense mechanism. But I felt like I wanted to get closer to her.

The setting here may be the star of the show – 18th-century Spain comes to colorful life through Falcones’ excellent writing. I felt fully convinced of the verity of his depiction of the gypsy community and the research into the historical persecutions that they experienced seemed thorough.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for the opportunity to read this book. As always, my opinions are my own.


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Mother Ocean, Daughter Sea – Diana Marcellas ***

Reminded in feel of 1980’s-1990’s era Marion Zimmer Bradley. Woman-centric fantasy with a ‘classic’ setting.

In this world, witchcraft is outlawed, punishable by death. Our Heroine, the teenaged Brierley, knows she is a witch. She believes she may be the last of her people. All she knows of her heritage, she has gleaned from her predecessors journals, hidden in a secret cave.

Her particular talent is healing – and when Brierley feels ‘called’ to heal, there’s not much she can do about it. It’s bad luck for her when she is ‘called’ to do a healing in front of witnesses, including the local lord. Soon enough, she’s arrested. However, she’s not without her supporters, as she’s always been a valued part of her community.

The story progresses very much in the manner of a courtroom drama. Heroes and villains are all fairly clear-cut, although there is a bit of ambiguity when it comes to a relationship with a married man. (However, his was an arranged marriage and it’s made quite clear that the couple isn’t quite right for each other. I was still rooting for them to come to understand each other better, though.)

I see that there’s a sequel to this book, but this one ends at a satisfyingly conclusive point.

A copy of this book was provided to me by NetGalley. Many thanks to Open Road Media and NetGalley for the chance to read this novel. As always, my opinions are my own.

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Gunpowder Alchemy – Jeannie Lin ***

If you’re looking for a G-rated YA romance set in 19th-century China – this is the book for you.
I see from the author’s bio that she’s known for her historical romances with a Chinese setting. If you liked those, I’m sure you’ll like this one as well. However, I was persuaded to read this by the touted ‘steampunk’ angle – and in that, I was disappointed. All of the ‘steampunk’ elements in this book could easily have been inserted with half an hour’s editing of a completed manuscript. None of them are any more than window dressing, and affect the plot not at all.

Our Heroine is the young woman Soling. Her family has fallen from Imperial favor, and she is living in poverty. Once, her father was the Emperor’s chief engineer, but after a naval defeat at the hands of Western invaders, he was executed for his failure.
When Soling resorts to trying to sell one of the last items of her father’s that she owns, she unintentionally attracts Imperial attention. Before she knows it, she’s whisked from the streets and brought to the palace, where the Crown Prince, who disagreed with the Emperor’s policies, hopes to acquire any secrets that may be in Soling’s possession. While there, she happens to encounter the man to whom she once was betrothed… and, of course, finds herself attracted to him.

From there, Soling gets bundled off this way and that way, most of it against her will, while she tries to keep her head above water and get back to taking care of her young brother and her opium-addicted mother. She’s mystifyingly reluctant to accept help or grab opportunities that present themselves.

That said, the book was fun, action-filled, and kept my interest throughout. A good beach read, if you’re not looking for anything too heavy or involved.

A copy was provided to me by NetGalley – many thanks for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are my own.

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What’s a Girl Gotta Do? – Sparkle Hayter ****

My friend insisted that I read this book quite some time ago… I bought it right away, but then it just kind of sat around. It really shouldn’t have taken me this long to get around to taking her advice!

It’s a light-hearted, humorous murder mystery… but I have to admit that, for me, what really made it shine wasn’t the plot but its spot-on depiction of the New York City that I moved to. The book was published in 1994 and set shortly before then. The main character, Robin Hudson, lives in the East Village and works as a struggling reporter [the recommending friend and I both lived in the same neighborhood and worked in the media field at that time as well…] Robin’s a bit older than I was at the time – but that just means that I think I actually enjoyed it more, reading it now, than I would have if I’d found it when it first came out.

When we’re introduced to Robin, she’s admittedly at a low point. Her husband has just left her for a younger woman. She’s made two embarrassing gaffes at work that mean she’s been demoted from high-profile journalism to Special Reports (in one case, this mean going undercover for an expose of a sperm bank). And to top it all off, she’s now been contacted by a mysterious caller who seems to have blackmail in mind. But when the potential blackmailer turns up dead at her office costume party (“dress as your favorite news story” [ah, for the days when tasteless Halloween costumes were de rigueur!]), suddenly Robin’s no longer the one reporting the news; she’s the one in the news – as a murder suspect. Will she be able to clear her name and find out who’s behind the plot?

As I said – it needs to be read to truly realize how funny the book is. It’s just got so many devastatingly accurate details, all delivered with wit. I found the attitude refreshing – and as sparkling as the author’s name… like reading a glass of bubbly.

It also made me really nostalgic for a whole social milieu that just isn’t there any more… yeah, there were crappy parts of that time period, but in a way, it was mine… so yeah, definitely going to go ahead and find the other books in this series.

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Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel ****

My post-apocalyptic book club selection for this month.

Imagine J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’ – with the collapse of civilization added in.
In both books, events are precipitated by a random death – and the remainder of the book thoughtfully and rather slowly investigates what becomes of all the different people who touched and were touched by this man’s life.

Of course, here, the details are quite different. The man who dies, Arthur Leander, is an aging but still well-known actor, who expires in the midst of a performance of ‘King Lear.’ It’s a heart attack that kills him, but little does anyone present know that soon, most of them will all be dead, due to a flu epidemic of unprecedented severity.

From this point, the book flashes both back and forward, exploring the lives of Leander and those who knew him – his wives, his son, the young actress with a bit part in ‘Lear,’ the audience member with aspirations of becoming an EMT, who ministered to Leander as he was dying.

The book explores the concept of celebrity from several viewpoints – what is fame like for the one who becomes famous, for those who knew the star before fame hit, for those who are drawn into the orbit of that star, for the paparazzi, for the fans? Is there a difference in how art affects others when some seek recognition for their art, and others avoid the public eye?

The story is also concerned with the role of art in society. These characters cling to things of the past – things of beauty. The Traveling Symphony takes their show on the road, bringing Shakespeare and classical music to far-flung post-collapse villages. At a distant location, one man curates the Museum of Civilization, putting now-anachronistic items such as defunct iPads and high-heeled shoes on display. Characters hang on to items such as a glass paperweight and an artist’s graphic novel, solely for their evocative, aesthetic value.

My one – slight – criticism of the book has to do with how religion is dealt with in the plot. It’s a common feature of post-apocalyptic novels to have some kind of weird and sinister cult appear – and this one is no exception. I liked where it seemed to be going, with the cult turning out to be influenced – in a warped way – by some of the same factors that came into play in some of the other characters’ lives; but I came away feeling like the issue was settled too neatly and easily, and that I wanted a stronger statement from the author on the issue… it’s almost like the book walked up to it, and then backed away…

Overall, though, I found this to be a quietly enjoyable novel.

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The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin ***

From the author’s postscript:
“I’ve always felt that the greatest and most beautiful stories in the history of humanity were not sung by wandering bards or written by playwrights and novelists, but told by science. … Only, these wonderful stories are locked in cold equations that most do not know how to read.”

Before becoming China’s most popular science-fiction writer, Liu Cixin was an engineer, and his scientific and mathematical bent is clearly seen in this story. While it doesn’t ignore the small things – indeed, one of the larger themes of the book is how individual actions can change the course of history – the focus is wide.

The title of the book comes from a classic problem of physics (…). There is extensive discussion of this, and other ideas in physics, both direct and metaphorical, throughout the book. As the novel begins, renowned scientists, some of whom have been working on this problem, have been discovered to be killing themselves. Is there some secret that has been divulged to them that has caused them to lose all hope?

Are these deaths tied in, in some way, with a secret society tied to an organization of scientists? Is a mysterious and abstruse video game which puts the player into a virtual reality world ruled by unpredictable physics a key to what’s happening?

The plot is not one that’s easy to summarize – there’s a lot in here. But I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that this does turn out to be a first contact/threat of alien invasion story. Like many such stories, it explores how different groups of people might react to such a possibility, and how these reactions might divide society. However, I found some of the ideas here to be quite fresh and unusual. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference in expectations; perhaps it’s just Liu’s original take on the genre.

I have to admit I was mainly drawn to the book by finding out that Liu is so popular in China, and thus was curious as to what people are reading there. This is, without doubt, a Chinese book. Translator Ken Liu (no relation to the author) notes that Chinese literature comes with a different set of readers’ expectations.
To me, at times the book moved rather slowly, had extended tangents/digressions, and neglected interpersonal relationships & emotions in favor of more intellectual motivations. However, I also felt that all of these qualities were intentional on the author’s part, and that some readers may see these aspects of the book as strengths.

In addition to form, the plot very explicitly deals with Chinese culture and politics – the beginning is set during the Cultural Revolution, and the horrors and traumas that his characters experience during that civil conflict set the stage for their decisions later in life.

I felt that the book was worth reading just for that – the glimpse into another perspective on history; one that may be unfamiliar to many Western readers. However, it’s also a fascinating tale for anyone interested in theories about alien civilizations, and one that will be of particular interest to those with an interest in physics.

A copy of this book was provided to me by NetGalley. Many thanks. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Shattered Shields – Jennifer Brozek, ed.

** Ashes and Starlight (Runelords) by David Farland
Number of ‘Runelords’ books read by me before reading this story: 0. Number I’ll read after having read this story: yeah, still likely 0.
‘Classic’ fantasy with a very 80’s feel, mixed with ‘alien-invasion.’ Almost felt like a tie-in to a D&D-style game. The story is action-oriented, with a captive warrior-prince, a buffoonish king, and a winsome young princess. It felt like an episode from a longer story, not a self-contained piece. The writing is a bit clunky overall, including misspelled faux-German, and some odd word choices.
Checking out the full-length books in this series, well, sometime WYSIWYG. If covers like this appeal to you, you will probably enjoy:…

** The Fixed Stars (October Daye) by Seanan McGuire
A mix of Welsh myth and Arthurian lore appear in this tale of a besieged castle of BrocĂ©liande, and a Nimue who betrays her native Faerie. This is apparently a tie-in to McGuire’s other work; and I think it might work better in context. As it was, I remained somewhat uninvolved in the characters and uncertain why they might be making the decisions they do.

*** The Keeper of Names by Larry Correia
Like the previous selection, this felt like a prequel to a larger story. Keta is a casteless man in a rigidly structured society. He’s planning a bloody rebellion against his masters. However, just when his uprising is planned; a powerful enforcer arrives in town. Coincidence – or not? Plans are thrown into chaos, but after a mysterious visitor, the way things turn out promises more adventure to come.
Not bad – but not impressive enough to get me to immediately seek out more from this author, either.

** The Smaller We Are by John Helfers
Faerie is at war against the humans who are destroying the forests to build villages and cities. I didn’t feel like the story contained anything new, and the writing was rather clunky. Reminded me a bit of a blow-by-blow transcription of a D&D-style battle: each character has different ‘powers,’ etc. The setting felt very vague – not sure if it’s our world or an alternate one.

*** Invictus by Annie Bellet
Yet another one that’s definitely part of a larger work. This is one-half of a naval engagement. A ship carrying two non-human ambassadors with gifts and a treaty to be ratified, is attacked by two legendary opposing warships. Outgunned, it will take clever strategy and cooperation between the seamen and the, well, sea-men, just to survive, let alone succeed. This would be just fine as a chapter in a novel, but there’s not enough here to be fully successful as a stand-alone piece.

*** Rising Above by Sarah A. Hoyt
Germany, WWI. A couple of soldiers have tried, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that they are were-dragons: shapeshifting is shameful, illegal, and punished by death. However, in a dungeon cell, a realization occurs that may change both their fate – and the direction of the war.

**** A Cup of Wisdom by Joseph Zieja
A father prepares his young son for war by giving him magical visions of past battles. Really nicely done; the brief ‘visions’ are very immersive and powerful for such short segments. I felt the boy’s resentment, confusion, and wavering convictions. I remain uncertain as to whether this is a winning strategy for the characters, but as a piece of writing I very much enjoyed it.
The first piece in this book that I felt was emotionally moving.

*** Words of Power by Wendy N. Wagner
In this alternate-history piece, an American-Hungarian alliance is fighting the French. There’s a fierce competition to remain one step ahead of the enemy, in both technology and magic – which here, comes in the form of ceramic-enhanced fighting golems. The focus is on one overworked woman, doing her utmost to keep this military equipment serviced and functional – even under fire. Not bad at all.

*** Lightweaver in Shadow by Gray Rinehart
Unexpectedly, when the tough soldiers they accompanied fall in battle, a couple of young boys – one literally a little drummer boy – are the last survivors of their group. Now they must use talents of stealth to try to accomplish the final mission they were tasked with.

*** Hoofsore and Weary by Cat Rambo
A rag-tag band of military survivors seek to retreat to safety through dangerous territory. Insubordination, hunger, and stress make their difficult task even harder. The soldiers just happen to be female centaurs (and one snake-handling witch). This story was very much what I was expecting from the theme of the anthology. Pretty good.

*** Vengeance (Frost) by Robin Wayne Bailey
A classic-style sword-and-sorceress tale, which I felt would’ve fit right in to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s extensive anthology series. (And indeed, checking the bibliography, I see that Bailey’s been featured in ‘Swords and Sorceress’ more than once!) This story in a tie-in to the 1980’s ‘Frost’ trilogy, which I haven’t read.

*** Deadfall by Nancy Fulda
Villages are being attacked by hordes from the sky… One remote outpost’s military leader notices that they don’t seem like normal attackers… are they possibly bewitched into their aggression? He risks leaving his post, against orders, to bring the dismaying news to the King. This is another story that feels like the beginning of a novel.

*** Yael of the Strings by John R. Fultz
After a disastrous rout, a minstrel is pressed into military service. I very much liked the minstrel as a character, and his strength and doing what he must – and incorporating his natural talents into what he must do of necessity – but the sword-and-sorcery battle action is a little cheesy. (“Ghothian” wizards that control spiders? That’s… pretty goth, I guess.)

*** The Gleaners by Dave Gross
Another classic-feeling sword-and-sorcery tale, but this one contains some nicely original touches and some very horrific images. Three partners make their living collecting the valuable magic from enchanted weapons that are found on the field after a bloody battle. It’s dangerous and unpleasant work – but becomes even more so when one day they encounter a witch.

*** Bonded Men by James L. Sutter
An argument against the idea that gay people in the military will weaken an army, harking back to the Greek idea that men will fight fiercely for their lovers. Of course, here it’s portrayed in a classic fantasy setting.

**** Bone Candy (Black Company) by Glen Cook
This one is yet another in this collection that feels more like an introduction to a longer story than a complete work. However, in this case, I don’t really care. I really enjoy the Black Company tales, but I didn’t feel that a previous familiarity with the series is necessary to enjoy this. I was quickly engaged by this episode featuring the down-and-dirty mercenaries and some sly and slippery wizards.

**** First Blood (Paksenarrion) by Elizabeth Moon
Moon is deservedly one of the biggest names in military fantasy, and this anthology closes on a high note with this selection. Set in the world of her ‘Paksennarion’ series, fans will find tie-in of interest, but the story fully works as a stand-alone. (Yes, this is how it’s done!) The tale is a classic theme: young yet noble squire is sorely tested and rises to the occasion in battle, gaining the respect of his men and a new level of maturity. The execution makes it a strong and enjoyable piece.

Many anthologies seem to start with a bang and then fizzle out… my personal experience with this one was the opposite; I felt like it got stronger as it went along…

Many thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read…