Friday, November 26, 2010

Palimpsest Review

Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente

Jacket Blurb:
Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse -- a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important -- a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

There's not really anything I could say that can do justice to this book, but bear with me and I'll do my best.

Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest is a world you want to bathe in. Valente has a genius for true sensuality of place, and each and every scene is the expression of a desire. Her prose is heartbreakingly beautiful, and intricately dense. I found that, every few chapters, I would have to put the book down and stare into space for a while. She weaves a tapestry of dreams within dreams, and as a result everything and everyone is dreamlike. Sex is a spell, a sacrament, a flippant prayer, and she creates new magics for her characters to obsess over: bibliomancy, cartomancy... This is truly a love letter to every deep dreamer and great lover of words.

However, Valente is also unafraid of addressing the darker side of desire. The futility of possession is a recurring theme, and she clearly links it to the disease of obsession, and all the destruction that can come in its wake. Those who have been to Palimpsest are irrevocably marked, and though they all deal with this in different ways, every one of them allows it to steer the course of their life. Sometimes their decisions, their thoughts, their passions are frustrating for the reader. This does not steal from the beauty of the book, and perhaps this is Valente gently showing the reader how easy it is to become attached to one's own desires for other people.

Reading Palimpsest is a journey and, I suspect, one that is difficult to forget. Valente's characters are larger than life--easily and unapologetically queer, kindly and sweetly deviant--but they are human, and they could be us. It might be impossible to parse, in the end, whether to take their story as the fulfillment of wishing, or as a cautionary tale. Either way, Palimpsest is an experience you shouldn't miss.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Frugalista Files Review

The Frugalista Files by Natalie McNeal

Jacket Blurb:
Fru·gal·is·ta [froo-guh-lee-stuh] - noun
1. A person who lives within her means and saves, but still looks good, eats well and lives fabulously.

Natalie P. McNeal opened her credit card statements in January 2008 and tallied up her loans to find that
she was a staggering five figures—$20,000!—in debt. Young, hip and gainfully (if Dilbertly) employed, Natalie loved her lifestyle of regular mani/pedis, daily take-out, shopping sprees and nights on the town. But clearly, something had to give.

And so The Frugalista Files was born. Through her Miami Herald blog, Natalie confessed her spending
habits to the world—and it turns out she wasn’t the only girl out there having trouble balancing the budget! The Frugalista Files will share the good, the bad and the ugly—how Natalie started the blog, stuck to her “no-buy month” despite a breakup that could have used some retail therapy, and ultimately discovered how to maintain her lifestyle while digging herself out of debt.

This is personal finance in peep-toe pumps—at once the inspiring story of how one woman went where no broke fashionista had gone before and your ultimate guide to living a fabulous, yet still frugal, life.

In The Frugalista Files Natalie McNeal tells us the story behind her successful "Frugalista" blog (and brand). McNeal has a very casual, friendly voice, and her story is delivered with an air of confidentiality, as from one girlfriend to another.

And, yes, McNeal's story isn't all that common. She begins as a "spending slut" with expensive tastes and a tendency towards retail therapy. Some of her problems may not seem all that troubling to a lot of readers, but part of the Harlequin brand is an aura of glamour and prestige, and McNeal is certainly all about cultivating that.

What could have been a very fluffy book about a woman growing up and learning to be responsible actual turns out to be quite inspiring. She has a real talent for making frugal living look good, and she delivers her story alongside some really solid saving tips.

All in all, while her bubbly voice and tendency for hyperbole may not be for everyone, McNeal means what she says, and what she says carries with it a surprising message of hope for these dark economic times. A cheerful, helpful read for those who feel overwhelmed by debt, and want a bit of friendly advice.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NaNoWriMo Fail

So, I meant to do NaNoWriMo this year. I got off to a really strong start, but it went no further. This is mostly because I've been focusing on this blog. Reviewing books means a lot more to me than writing fiction, and I enjoy it more as well.

So, a compromise. Let's see if, by combining every review I've written this month, I can make up my NaNoWriMo quota. Should be a fun challenge. If you want to keep an eye on my progress, I'm registered on the NaNoWriMo official site, under the name Aetherist. I'll post my total word count here at the end of the month.

Monday, November 22, 2010

New from AllBooks Review

My latest review appears in the most recent post from AllBooks.

Quest for Light: Adventure of the Magi via The AllBooks Review Showcase

Friday, November 19, 2010

An Occupation of Angels Review

An Occupation of Angels by Lavie Tidhar

Jacket Blurb:
After Archangels materialise over the bloodbaths of WWII, they take up residence in most of the world’s major cities. But what would happen if, more than quarter of a century later, something somehow managed to kill these supreme beings? Killarney knows and, as an agent working for the Bureau, a British agency that’s so secret it doesn’t officially exist, she finds herself embroiled in the consequences as, one by one, the Archangels die.

Assigned to trace a missing cryptographer thought to have information on the murders, she travels from England, through France, heading for the frozen wastes of the USSR. But there’s an unknown third party intent on stopping her, and there’s God, who also has an agenda. Not knowing who is friend and who is foe, and with only a brief glimpse of a swastika on angel wings as solid information, Killarney struggles to remain alive long enough to glean sufficient information to put together the pieces of the puzzle and complete what is, without them, an impossible mission.

An Occupation of Angels is exhausting, but in a good way. Tidhar delivers a supernatural spy novella that gallops along at a break-neck pace. True to his usual form, Tidhar drops you into the middle of the action, only feeding you pieces of information as they naturally come up in the story. The result is that you're endlessly intrigued, both by what's happening, and where and when it's happening. Tidhar never falls into the trap of standing back and admiring the alternative history he's created. Rather, he uses it, with all its richness and mystery, as an effective backdrop to a cinematic thriller, and the reader is left hungry for more.

What we're given is startling. Most of us are not used to thinking of angels as anything other than benign, if overwhelming. However, these angels inspire fear and dread easily, just by entering the scene. The figure of Killarney, our narrator and hero, is more than capable of holding her own with them. With her control issues, rampant mind/body dualism, and almost absolute amorality, she is never once upstaged by her winged adversaries. And she certainly keeps your attention. While she often seems curiously empty of motivations or emotions other than anger and suspicion, she is at her most interesting when she's at the end of her rope, and some humanity shows through.

I inhaled Occupation of Angels in one sitting, and I've no doubt you will too. This is another great read from Lavie Tidhar.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hebrew Punk Review

Hebrew Punk by Lavie Tidhar

Jacket Blurb:
Popular short fiction writer Lavie Tidhar gathers some of his best work in one collection. Stories that are infused with centuries of tradition and painted with Hebrew mythology. We meet the Tzaddik as he faces off against a vengeful angel intent on sending the Fallen to hell. The shape shifting Rat fights lycanthropic Nazis. The Rabbi takes us on a thoughtful and amusing journey into the possibilities of a Jewish state in the heart of Africa. Finally, all three protagonists appear in an old-fashioned caper story that will leave you breathless.

This is a deep, brooding book. While not without humour, it's humour that comes from a wry sense of realism, even though it takes place in a world rooted in fantasy. The stories here come from a place of deep history, as well as the more recent past, and drag all their action into a lightning-fast present. Just what you'd expect from a book called HebrewPunk.

"The Heist"

This story reads a little like an action movie. We're dropped unceremoniously into a world we don't understand, and follow a group of mysterious Semitic heroes through a caper we are never told the real reason for. As intros go, it's fairly breathtaking, and it definitely makes you want to know more about these people and this place. I was disappointed, when I reached the end, that I didn't know more about The Rabbi, The Rat, and The Tzaddik.

"Transylvanian Mission"

Starting with the next story, however, Tidhar delivers. It's WWII, and a group of Jewish rebels are gathered around The Rat who, as a vampiric shapeshifter, they consider the lesser evil when held up against the Nazis. I'd have to agree. And, of course, this is a perfect set up for Nazi werewolves, which is something that should be added to any story that will allow for it. "Transylvanian" is darker, and more viscerally satisfying than "Heist," and it stands, as it was meant to, as a character study of one of our enigmatic trio.


Next we get to have a look at The Rabbi, at the turn of the twentieth century. This one centres around an unsuccessful mission to establish a Jewish homeland in continental Africa. Everything is told through documents--transcripts and journal entries--and this makes for a fragmented plot. While some of the documents were, well, boring, The Rabbi's journal entries are beautiful, by turns pragmatic and magical. They tell the story of a character who is full of mystery, neither good nor bad, and who, while very world-weary, seems more alive than most.

"The Dope Fiend"

The last story is about The Tzaddik, of course. Tidhar pulls a fast one on his readers in this one. This is a first person narrative, told by Tzaddik, and his voice is the strongest and probably the most interesting in this collection. This supernatural mystery is painted all over with the coke-culture of the twenties. As our narrator, Tzaddik starts by telling the story from outside this culture, but we quickly realize that he is completely involved in it, totally trapped by his own addictions. Tidhar manages to combine cultural myths and drug-induced nightmares in a way that makes them strangely appealing, and all the more terrifying for that.

I've never read Tidhar before, but I'll have to read more after this. HebrewPunk is a compelling and unique idea, and I'd love to re-visit this world and these characters another time. Go read it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Open Your Eyes Review

Open Your Eyes by Paul Jessup

Jacket Blurb:
Her lover was a supernova who took worlds with him when he died, and as a new world grows within Ekhi, savage lives rage and love on a small ship in the outer reaches of space. A ship with an agenda of its own.

Critically acclaimed author of weird fiction Paul Jessup sends puppets to speak and fight for their masters while a linguistic virus eats through the minds of a group of scavengers in Open Your Eyes, a surrealist space opera of haunting beauty and infinite darkness.

Reading Open Your Eyes is something of a mystical experience. Like all of Apex's books, it has a pervading darkness to it, but it also has a hard kind of hope.

As the reader, you are pulled into a world utterly unlike our own, and pulled relentlessly through a series of complicated and confusing events. Jessup's talent is obvious in that, while explaining nothing, he can still make you care. And you will care about these characters. Enough to fear for them and wish that things would become easier for them.

However, it can't be easier, for the characters or the reader. Open Your Eyes is a cathartic experience, plunging through space and time, the human psyche, and the nature of intelligence in all its forms. It calls on us to face problems bigger than ourselves, problems and stories that are almost beyond our ken. All of this in an exquisite novella, short but haunting.

This is not an easy-going read, but one that is essential for fans of space opera that want something truly different. Mind-altering, even.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Labyrinth of the Dead Review

The Labyrinth of the Dead by Sara M. Harvey

Jacket Blurb:
In ghostly worlds, souls are the only currency. When lost lovers and ancient enemies meet, a rescue mission becomes a fight for the survival of all that is real.

Portia Gyony, Nephilim and warrior, is sworn to protect the human race. But when her ghostly lover, Imogen, has the chance to return to life in her own body once again, Portia must brave the twisted forces of the shadow-world to rescue Imogen and prevent the world of the dead from bleeding through into the land of the living.

Sara M. Harvey, you're on my list. Another cliffhanger?? I mean, you have to know that people would follow your wonderful trilogy without all the emotional torture... Right? You do know that, don't you?

Yes, Portia Gyony is back, being awesome as usual. In The Labyrinth of the Dead, Harvey goes deeper into the universe she has set up, drawing readers into the afterlife, a hellish twilight realm where the dead are no better than currency. Portia ventures there alive, like Orpheus, in an attempt to bring Imogen back to life once and for all. And, wow, does she ever take us for a ride.

I may complain about Harvey's shameless cliffhangers, but they are SO worth it. Whereas Convent, necessarily, had to spend a lot of time in set-up, Labyrinth gives us a better sense of who these characters are, and what they're capable of. We also get to see more of this mystical steampunk world, and are shown exactly what's been at stake since the first page of the first book.

So, to sum up all my rambling: this trilogy is amazing so far. Go and pick it up if you like angels or steampunk or dark fantasy or women being hardcore badasses. Then you can join me in suffering the wait for the next one.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Convent of the Pure Review

The Convent of the Pure by Sara M. Harvey

Jacket Blurb:
Secrets and illusions abound in a decaying convent wrapped in dark magic and scented with blood. Portia came to the convent with the ghost of Imogen, the lover she failed to protect in life. Now, the spell casting caste wants to make sure that neither she nor her spirit ever leave.

Portia's ignorance of her own power may be even more deadly than those who conspire against her as she fights to fulfill her sworn duty to protect humankind in a battle against dark illusions and painful realities.

Words cannot express how excited I was when I heard about The Convent of the Pure for the first time. I was told that Sara M. Harvey had written a dark fantasy that featured Catholic mythology, Nephilim, badass lesbian heroes, and steampunk themes. Basically, one more author decided to write something just for me (shhhh, don't burst my bubble). I pre-ordered Convent from the Apex Book Company, which meant I got a signed copy, and inhaled it the moment I got it.

I've read this book twice now. Each time I got something new from it. The first time I breathlessly followed Portia as she haplessly stumbled through a sinister conspiracy that encompassed heaven and hell and all points in between. The second time I was slowly drawn along by the hopeless love between Portia and the long-dead Imogen. I felt myself being swallowed by an acute sense of dread and betrayal. I reveled in Harvey's clever use of Catholic prayers and trinkets, and gleefully studied every piece of steampunk technology that appeared.

This is a short book, but it has a tight plot, and an evil cliffhanger. To top it off, it is lovingly illustrated by Melissa Gay, who simply seems to life the characters off the page and spin them into visual reality. I can't recommend it enough for its freshness, suspense, and steampunky goodness.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Spontaneously Arising Theme

Starting on Monday, the 15th, I'll be posting a week of entries about The Apex Book Company.

This wasn't a planned project. It just happened that I have read three Apex books recently, and am about to read a fourth. Hopefully I can read a fifth in time for Friday.

Plus, I don't mind spending the time writing about them if it means people will go check them out. They publish fiction that is so refreshingly different, and buying books from them always feels personal. You know, like they care. I like that.

So, meet me back here on Monday if you're curious.

No Priest But Love Review

No Priest But Love: The Journals of Anne Lister from 1824-1826 edited by Helena Whitbread

This book is a follow up to Whitbread's previous collection I Know My Own Heart, which excerpted Anne Lister's diaries from five of the most tumultuous years of her life. No Priest covers three years, but in greater detail.

Whereas the first collection often buried the "juicy bits" amid more commonplace entries, this second book focuses almost exclusively on Anne's love affairs. Though it covers a shorter time period than the first, there is more to cover, as this was a very intense and important period in Anne's life.

Specifically, it deals with her affair with Maria Barlow, a woman she met, then lived with, in Paris. This relationship is held in contrast with her continued engagement to the married Marianne Lawton. She finds herself torn between them and, strikingly, at one point she writes, "I have a wife and mistress of my own."

I wrote before that I fell a little in love with Anne Lister while reading I Know My Own Heart. After reading this, well, the honeymoon is over. The book itself is a more engrossing read than the first, with a quicker pace and more events chosen to be of interest to a modern reader. However, Lister herself suffers in this light. She was a selfish, womanizing, hard-assed woman. She was astounding, but incredibly complicated, and not someone most people would want to deal with now.

All that being said, you should read this. Yes you. I don't care who you are. This book is fascinating, and the fact that it's all true makes it even more absorbing. I invite you to meet Anne Lister yourself, and judge her by whatever standard you wish. Whatever conclusion you come to, you will not regret the experience.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New Blood Review

New Blood by Gail Dayton

Even with the upsurge in interest recently, it's still relatively difficult to find dead tree books of steampunk erotica and romance. The Blood series started in 2009 with this book, New Blood. Fans of erotica and erotic romance beware, though: while there is lots of tension between our heroes in this book, there are only two sex scenes, one of which is very traditional.

The setting is the Victorian era, but with lots of interesting changes. Magic is known and prevalent worldwide, although some countries are more tolerant of it than others. There are four schools of magic: alchemy, wizardry, conjuring, and the long-lost sorcery, or blood magic. Blood magic being practiced almost solely by women, it was systematically wiped out during the Renaissance, with the death of the last known sorcerer, Yvaine.

We follow Amanusa, Yvaine's successor in magic. She's found by Yvaine's blood servant, Jax, and he must convince her to become a blood sorcerer and use her power to help save Europe from a mysterious magic plague.

I was excited about the relationship between Amanusa and Jax at the beginning. It looked like, even though they were falling in love, Jax would be content to be her servant, and Amanusa would be happy to have him as her possession and servant, as well as lover. Perhaps I'm just exposing my biases. Dayton does not takes this route; rather, she opts for a more conventional romantic plot, which I can't be mad at her for since this is romantic fantasy. It was heartening that Jax is not the typical alpha male, and that their growing love is actually believable.

The world of New Blood is rich, if a little under-utilized. Magic and the Victorian era seem made for each other. The prim propriety of proper English society blends well with the ritualistic and hierarchical magic society. As a Victorian magical romance, it delivers, and is a quick and absorbing read.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Know My Own Heart Review

I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840
edited by Helena Whitbread

I have a fondness for Regency novels and personalities that is kinda tied up in my love for the Victorian era. The philosophy and atmosphere is very different, but the "punk" elements of steampunk have a similar ring to the Enlightenment values of the Regency. So, yeah, that's why I'm going to talk about this book here.

I found myself falling a little in love with Anne Lister, for all that she was a touch too conservative and snobbish for my tastes. It's hard not to feel affection for someone who you learn so much about and come to know so intimately. Reading this diary convinced me that I would have loved to have a pint with Miss Lister, even if that meant we'd end up arguing about the rights of women or the safety of coal mining.

Those who get bored by journals, or who are not interested in the minutiae of Georgian gentry life, should probably steer clear of this one. Anne records her daily activities, her clothing, the health of herself and her family, and outlines of her exhaustive programs of study in excruciating detail. I was utterly absorbed, but I'm a giant geek.

More importantly, these diaries tell the story of all her love affairs with women. I couldn't help but laugh at her ridiculous flings with acquaintances (think tool shed), and shake my head at the unending drama of her long-term romance with the married Marianna Lawton.

Read it if you'd like a window on a different time, and into the mind of a woman decidedly ahead of her time, who lived her life courageously.