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Book Review: Tangled Lights and Silent Nights (anthology)

Tangled Lights and Silent NightsI was recently given the opportunity to review a charity anthology for The LifeAfter Project via an ARC. The book was published November 4, so I’m slightly behind on posting my review… Some of my favorite authors participated in the anthology, supporting the organization’s mission:

The LifeAfter Project aims to reach out and provide assistance for those who struggle with thoughts of suicide, substance abuse, or domestic abuse. All these things are related to mental illness. Our goal is to educate, inspire, and spread awareness. We hope that our efforts will help eradicate the stigma associated with this insidious epidemic.

Given that support, it should not be surprising that the range of stories included everything from high fantasy to mystery to romance to humor to poetry–every “genre” of person has had some experience with the issues associated with mental illness, so it was thoughtful of the organizers to include such a range of styles in the collection.

On the other hand, the strength of the individual stories varied widely–some had significant editing issues and some were not to my taste.

However, in keeping with my standard practice, I will call out the particular stand-outs of the anthology, because any one of them would be worth the $0.99 it takes to buy the whole set, and your taste might differ from mine–or you might find a new author to investigate.

Knowing my well-documented love of the Katie stories (I reviewed To Katie With Love when it came out in 2013), I was thrilled to see a short told from Cooper’s point of view. Revisiting the well-meaning terror of Silvia and the twin foils of Dean and icy blonde reminded me all over again of how much fun that series is. For me, this one alone is worth the price of admission.

Other strong contenders were (in order of appearance in the book): “Yuletide Homicide: A Liz Boyle Short Mystery,” by Kate Birdsall, “A Merry Mugging,” by Claude Bouchard, “Holiday in Hartland,” by Gail Cleare, “Some Carry-Tail: A Gabriel & Orson Story,” by Victor Catano, “The Christmas Jacket,” by Diane Byington, “A Gift for Momma,” by Debbie S. TenBrink, “Father Christmas,” by Timothy Woodward, and “And Mercy Mild,” by Justin Bog.

Many of these tie in to other, stand-alone books, as well as being authors who are new to me, so I’m happy to have had a short introduction to their styles and themes. Reviewing the list, it seems those with particularly strong redemption arcs–like in the Liz Boyle mystery, the “Merry Mugging” story, “A Gift for Momma,” “Father Christmas,” and “And Mercy Mild”–were the ones that spoke to me the deepest. Catano’s “Carry-Tail” story was pure, fun revenge and had just the right touch of magic in it. “Holiday in Hartland” was also about redemption, but on a generational scale, so felt like a different flavor altogether–and managed to wring a few tears from me.

Overall, given the charity these authors have chosen to support and the strength of a number of stand-out stories, you really can’t get much better bang for your buck–especially if you’re already a fan of these authors’ related works. I would highly recommend the anthology for those reasons.

Book Review: Tethered Mage

Tethered Mage by Melissa CarusoI’m finally catching up with my NetGalley duties. This week, in the few hours when dogs and work didn’t demand my attention, I read Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso. It doesn’t come out until October 24th, but for those who are interested in a meditation on all the ways we can be enslaved, set in a world where magic is recognized as dangerous, this is a compelling, literary take on high fantasy.

Here’s the blurb:

In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled — taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army.

Zaira has lived her life on the streets to avoid this fate, hiding her mage-mark and thieving to survive. But hers is a rare and dangerous magic, one that threatens the entire empire.

Lady Amalia Cornaro was never meant to be a Falconer. Heiress and scholar, she was born into a treacherous world of political machinations.

But fate has bound the heir and the mage. And as war looms on the horizon, a single spark could turn their city into a pyre.

I had hesitated to sign up for this one, since I’m more than a little leery of the next YA/NA Big Thing, but the concept piqued my curiosity, and I’m glad I picked up this story.

The parallels among the various traps for people who strive to fit in, meet expectations, or use their abilities are most clearly illustrated by the tethering process that captures Zaira and controls her out-of-control balefire. But reviewers who get stuck on that most obvious constriction miss the constriction of class that doesn’t allow Lady Amalia to follow her heart. Or the trap of birth that means otherwise ambitious characters alternately do everything possible to avoid their fate, as with Domenic Bergandon, or subvert their fate as Amalia’s uncle Ignazio and Ardence’s Steward, Lady Colanthe Savony do.

Aside from the thematic struggle against the visible and invisble boundaries that class, magical abilities, location of birth, and other pertinent demarcations most known societies struggle to come to terms with, the story is framed as a political thriller. It’s as gripping as anything Dan Brown or Tom Clancy might come up with, with more subtlety and complexity because of the diversity of the cast of characters as well as the fillip of magic that will always pique my curiosity.

Also, the language Caruso uses… each character has his/her own voice, the idioms are unique to that world (I have to say I loved the way the Hells and Graces were woven throughout), and the structure and tone support the weight of the theme being discussed.

There really wasn’t anything I didn’t like about the story. So when I started working on this review, and began researching what others had to say about the book, I was perplexed by the number of low ratings and DNF notations both on Amazon and Goodreads. There’s a part of me that really wants to shake these folks and point out to them that fiction is an entirely appropriate place to ruminate about social ills; if you’re that sensitive about slavery, it suggests to me you haven’t considered the sneaky ways society has trapped you. I say this as a working woman, well aware of the freight that comes with both of those categories. Slavery may be just the most obvious and repugnant experience of entrapment–but that’s exactly what makes it worth unpacking. Exploring the theoretical boundaries and parallels it might have with other experiences.

So I will strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a political thriller that confronts some dark topics in unconventional ways. It’s a story full of surprises and worth digesting for the surprises it reveals about the ways an unconventional/unrecognized slavery can warp a person.

Being Real

We were born to be real, not to be perfect.My mental vacation continued this week with a day of actual vacation. I took Friday off to extend my Memorial Day weekend to four days. My thought was that there have been so many little honey-dos on my list for so long, maybe if I had enough days in a row at home, I might get them done. I did. Finally getting around to hanging mini blinds that have lurked in a closet since we moved in, or putting together the bookshelves we bought last year to hold our burgeoning collection of Blu-rays, or fixing a broken toilet seat might not sound like a lot, but they have combined to create a sense of accomplishment and relief almost on par with finishing my novel last week.

Now my hands and arms ache, though, with the unaccustomed exertion associated with wielding power tools. It was enough to keep me up and restless last night, so I’m grateful hubs gave me a treatment tonight.

I suspect my remaining to-do (closet cleaning/purging) is going to wait for next Round, and my next long weekend at home.

The best part of my time off has been my continued exposure to some excellent creative expressions. Friday, because of my NetGalley membership, I got to read Carrie Vaughn’s newest, Bannerless. It doesn’t come out until July 11, but I posted my review on Goodreads already because literally my reaction after the last page of the story was… WOW. I’ll share one of the more thought-provoking quotes from the book here once more:

The worst storms were the ones that changed you. The ones you remembered not for how bad they objectively were, but for how much damage they did to your own world.

It’s a personal perspective that was reflected in a different way when hubs and I watched Arrival. The odd echo of losing children between the two stories made for an emotional viewing, but hubs and I have been discussing the central premise ever since. This is the kind of scifi I like to write. The kind that takes off on a premise science has explored (in this case, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) and pushes it in a philosophical direction that allows those who are open to the experience to participate in a different kind of thought experiment. One that might even open their hearts.

An article I ran across this week about how women are underdiagnosed and treated differently than men when they report pain, could easily be a plotbunny of that sort. So could the recent economists’ debate about Thomas Piketty’s hypothesis and its premise that “wealth begets wealth faster than economic growth creates wealth”–and especially the article I read based on Rognlie’s critique of that hypothesis. And then there’s the blogger who urges everyone to work on their story-telling skills.

That last has revived my itch to write again, though I still haven’t decided exactly what. Meantime, we’re keeping our uptick in walking alive. My phone says this week I averaged 3,473 steps per day. Tashie is now strong enough to keep up even at almost two miles, and that makes me very happy.

There are another 24 days to go in this round of ROW80, so I’ll keep checking in, though it’s hard not to feel at loose ends with my major goal of the round out of the way. Meantime, check out how my cohorts are doing with theirs.

Book Review: Before It’s Too Late

Before It's Too Late by Jane IsaacThis was another book I received via my Netgalley membership–and was thrilled to have a chance at, since Isaac’s debut novel, An Unfamiliar Murder had been such an unexpected treat. This one did not disappoint. Once again, the reader is pulled into an emotionally complex world in which stressed detectives work against the pressure of a ticking incident clock as well as their own past traumas.

I concentrated hard, desperately listening for something familiar, the sound of life. I heard nothing. Just my own breaths and the wind, whistling through branches above. . . . The thought made me shiver. I am buried alive.

Following an argument with her British boyfriend, Chinese student Min Li is abducted while walking the dark streets of picturesque Stratford-upon-Avon alone. Trapped in a dark pit, Min is at the mercy of her captor. Detective Inspector Will Jackman is tasked with solving the case and in his search for answers discovers that the truth is buried deeper than he ever expected. But, as another student vanishes and Min grows ever weaker, time is running out. Can Jackman track down the kidnapper, before it’s too late?

The characters are different from those in her first story, but feel familiar. A DI who’s trying to prove he still has the chops to resolve the case before it turns into a murder. A victim who is given a voice. And the parallel between the investigator’s personal trials and the case they are working on. It all works. My heart broke for DI Jackman early in the story with this emotionally real description:

He fidgeted in his seat. Her words conjured up images of those awkward moments when he’d returned to work after the car accident that had reduced his wife to a permanent comatose state a year ago. Some colleagues shuffled in their shoes, dug their hands in their pockets when they enquired after Alice’s health. Others made a beeline for him with their head tilts and soppy eyes. A few avoided him altogether, unsure of what to say. The answer was always the same, “No change.” Because there never was any change.

The memories made his stomach dip. It wasn’t that he was cold-hearted. He knew everyone meant well, but the last thing he wanted to talk about at work, his one area of respite, was his wife’s tragic situation.

I was prepared for Isaac’s engaging style this time, but not for how compelling it is to have the victim speaking in her own voice at intervals during the police investigation. The twists and turns had me reading as quickly as possible to figure out whodunnit. For anyone who like police procedurals, suspense thrillers, and mysteries, I can highly recommend this latest from Jane Isaac.

Book Review: Footsteps in the Sky

Footsteps in the Sky by Greg KeyesI received this book as part of my Netgalley membership last year, and am finally getting around to posting my review. The premise is intriguing: Descendants of U.S. southwestern native tribes remain hard at work terraforming a new planet and trying to retain the faith of their forebears regarding the Kachina preparing a better place for them. Against this backdrop, the mega-corporation that sent them is returning to check on their progress at the same time the original terraformers are returning to the planet. In theory, this sets up a three-way polarity among factions that are each vying for their way to win. It’s a highly unusual mix of space opera with native lore:

The pueblo people who landed on the Fifth World found it Earthlike, empty, and ready for colonization . . . but a century later, they are about to meet the planet’s owners

One hundred years ago, Sand’s ancestors made the long, one-way trip to the Fifth World, ready to work ceaselessly to terraform the planet. Descendants of native peoples like the Hopi and Zuni, they wanted to return to the way of life of their forebears, who honored the Kachina spirits.

Now, though, many of the planet’s inhabitants have begun to resent their grandparents’ decision to strand them in this harsh and forbidding place, and some have turned away from the customs of the Well-Behaved People. Sand has her doubts, but she longs to believe that the Kachina live on beyond the stars and have been readying a new domain for her people.

She may be right. Humans have discovered nine habitable worlds, all with life that shares a genetic code entirely alien to any on Earth. Someone has been seeding planets, bringing life to them. But no other sign of the ancient farmers has ever been discovered—until one day they return to the Fifth World. They do not like what they find.

Because of the multi-polarity and shifting perspective, it is sometimes difficult to track the narrative flow, but I was captivated by the unique take on how a First People might reinterpret their myths and legends in the context of living in a space age. In these few key ways, it reminded me of Louise Marley’s Child Goddess. On the other hand, the insertion of an alien who takes on the form of one of the protagonists’ mothers into the mix, and the delicate balancing of political needs versus emotional needs added a whole other dimension to the tale.

Each of the characters has unique voices and perspectives, but the one closest to the current human condition is Alvar:

Alvar smiled. “Right continent, wrong tribe. Some of the plains Indians of North America used to say that, not the Hopi. ‘Today is a good day to die.’ They mostly did, too, poor fuckers. Did you know that there was a whole movement that believed they were immune to bullets? The Ghost Dancers.”

Teng had a fierce little grin on her face. “I like that. That’s beautiful.”

Alvar glanced back at the speculative ship and shrugged. They sat in silence for awhile.

From the perspective of a memorable tale, this could fit the bill for anyone who likes their scifi flavored with space opera overtones, but Marion Zimmer Bradley-like characterizations. However, I would be careful about recommending this to a general audience since the language is dense and some of the scenes are quite graphic.

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