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Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus
Is Sophia Fevvers a fact? Or is she fiction? These questions lie at the heart of Angela Carter's increasingly weird—but always interesting—Nights at the Circus. Jack Walser, American journalist, interviews Fevvers in the first part of the book. He attended her strange aerealiste show and made notes to check up on things later. Does she have a navel? How does she manage to hover in the air so long? When he meets her in her dressing room after the show, Fevvers tells her story in such a hypnotic way that Walser falls under her spell. Then he runs away with a circus to learn more about the strange woman with wings.

In Part I, Fevvers (named for the Cockney pronunciation of the word "feathers") tells of being found surrounded by eggshell and bearing two patches of downy feathers on her shoulders. She is adopted by the women of Nelson's brothel. When her wings sprout, she becomes a tableau vivant of Cupid. When she grows older, Nelson sets her up as a Winged Victory. Nelson dies in an accident and the brothel breaks up. Fevvers and her foster mother, Lizzie, go to live with Lizzie's sister before misfortune sends Fevvers to work for a miserly Living Skeleton in a freak show. Even more misfortune follows before Fevvers comes into her own as an aerealiste and goes on a European tour.

Part II begins in St. Petersburg. Walser has joined Colonel Kearney's circus as a clown in order to follow Fevvers. Kearney, with his gift for gab and prophetic pig, have set up a grand show for the Tsar of All the Russias with Fevvers as the star. There are trained chimpanzees, tigers that dance to the music of a silent woman from Marseilles, and bizarrely philosophical and nihilistic clowns. Nothing goes according to plan in St. Petersburg. The chimpanzees rebel. One of the tigresses attacks one of the performers and is shot. A love triangle between the ape trainer, his wife, and the strong man turns bloody. The circus barely survives their big show before boarding the Trans Siberian Railroad for their next spectacular in Japan.

All hell breaks loose in Part III. Exiled Russian convicts blow up the train and kidnap Fevvers and the rest of the show. Walser is left to wander before being rescued by a shaman who suspects he hallucinated the amnesiac America. This is the weirdest part of an already weird book. Things get distinctly mystical. Worse, time is, as the Bard would say, out of joint. This part features Russian murderesses and their female lovers, a duped musical maestro, bears, and hallucinogens.

Nights at the Circus struck me as the inverse of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. (Although, since Nights at the Circus was published first, this should be the other way around.) Instead of ethereal beauty, Carter gives us the smells and dirtiness of an end-of-the-nineteenth-century circus. Her heroes are as real as fiction can make them, giving a firm floor for the flights of fancy that come later.

As Carter weaves her tale of Fevvers, Walser, and the rest, we get to see the backstories of the various minor characters. We see what brings them to Kearney's circus and Russia. Nearly everyone has a tale of woe, though the circus gives them a chance to become more than just victims of fate and the corrupt people they collide with. In the end, it doesn't matter if Fevvers is real or an elaborate trick.
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Preview of coming attractions; Or, the book trailer

I just watched the trailer for a book I read only a few week's ago, Ayalet Waldman's Love and Treasure. Here's the trailer:

I've been seeing more and more book trailers produced in the last few years. But I have to wonder if they're the right way to advertise new books. Can you really capture the essence of a book in a short video? The trailer for Love and Treasure does give you a very, very brief snapshot of what the book is about. I feel I understood the trailer better because I've actually read the book.

Book reviews have been the best way for me to find new things to read. Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist all have sections about upcoming books and I've been known to browse the Barnes and Noble website for books that will be published in the next half year. In a review, I can learn the gist of a book's plot plus what a reader thought of it. Ignore bad reviews by readers who don't like what I like in books. The system has worked well so far.

Of course, I could just be whining about this because I'm not a video person. I'm a word nerd. Unless the video is spectacular, I get bored waiting for it to get to the point.
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The Well of Tears, by Roberta Trahan

The Well of Tears
The Wales of Roberta Trahan's The Well of Tears has real magic. An ancient prophecy guides the actions of the Stewards, who have been preparing for a thousand years* to guide Hywel to his rightful place as high king. They have sent four of their number abroad to await the right time. Twenty years later, it's time for them to come home.

Alwen has raised a family and found a home in Norvik, in Frisia, when an old friend reappears to summon her back to Cymru. At Fane Gramarye, Alwen reunites with her old mentor, Madoc. She also takes the measure of Cerrigwen, another of the four chosen. Sparks immediately fly between the two. Cerrigwen is arrogant and is greatly annoyed that Alwen is chosen over her as leader of the four. It's not long before Cerrigwen is plotting with Madoc's successor to overthrow the established order.

As The Well of Tears meanders towards its climax, Trahan shows us more about her cast of characters. We meet Alwen's children and husband, her daughter's betrothed, and members of the Cad Nawdd (the guards of Fane Gramarye). The real action of the book doesn't occur until after the midway point. It's clear that The Well of Tears is meant to be an introduction to the rest of the series. It doesn't so much come to a conclusion as find a convenient pause in the action at which to end. Thus, it's a frustrating read.


* It's always a thousand years, isn't it?

I received a free review copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. 
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London Falling, by Paul Cornell

London Falling
What is it about London? It's gone from tribal village to Roman outpost to symbol of Britain. There are thousands of stories about the city and its people. The very stones bleed history, it seems, and you can't dig foundations for a new building without accidentally hitting a coin cache or a tomb or forgotten temple. Paul Cornell takes that sense of history and runs with it in his stellar novel, London Falling.

The novel begins with a scene from the grittiest of mysteries. Undercover police officers Costain and Sefton are in a car with crime lord, Rob Toshack. Toshack's rise has been unprecedented. He's consolidates gangs and rackets and scams all across London. No one stands against him. The police have been investigating him for years, but they can't find any evidence against the man. As the book opens, it's New Year's Eve and the plug is about to be pulled on Operation Goodfellow. It's Costain and Sefton's last chance to get Toshack to admit to something. Toshack is panicking, but refuses to say what he's after as he races with his team across the boroughs of London. When the clock hits midnight, the Metropolitan Police move in and arrest everyone. Toshack is brought into the interview room. Startlingly, he ignores his lawyers advice and starts to confess to all his suspected crimes. Detective Inspector Quill is eagerly taping the whole thing then Toshack's head explodes.

Toshack would never speak of his "freelancers," the people he called in to take care of the special jobs that always ended up with someone dying messily. DI Quill, Costain, Sefton, and analyst Ross are pulled into a new, covert team to continue investigating Toshack. Ross is brilliant at finding patters in mountains of data and—being Toshack's niece—she knows for a fact that he was guilty. The evidence they have been able to find leads the team into strange territory. They discover that Toshack was merely the public face of a greater terror. The freelancer was a witch, a warped, unreasonable spellcaster who also uses her powers to kill footballers who score a hat trick against West Ham United.

As Operation Toto (because they're not in Kansas anymore) digs even deeper into the mystery of Mora Losley, they find that they're afflicted with the Sight. They can see the ghosts of London. They can see the corruption that Losley has spread during her very long life. They don't even have first principles to fall back on. Sefton and the rest have to figure out how this new ability works as well as find a way to destroy an apparently immortal witch.

London Falling was a fascinating read for me. I love stories about the mythical side of London. (Neverwhere is one of my absolute favorites.) The characters are distinctly and beautifully drawn. Cornell shows a deft hand as he lets the members of Toto take turns telling this story, giving the whole tale a rich feeling of depth and history.
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I'm dating a library; Or, how I manage to read so much

I read a lot. Anyone who's spoken to me for more than five minutes or who's been following this blog for a couple of weeks knows that. There are time I wonder how I get through so many books. Three books in a weekend is normal. I usually manage two during the work week, because I have to pay for my habit some how. But here's how I do it.

1. I read all the time. After work, I grab some dinner and I read. On the weekend, I fit in chores around chapters. Sometimes I resent it when people ask me out or invite themselves over to my apartment because it cuts into my reading time. 

2. I read on an iPad most of the time. I am entirely serious about this, but it turns out I was wasting precious seconds turning pages in print books. 

3. I read what I want. I have broad tastes in reading and I don't stick to a firm "this book, then that one" list. My to-read pile is not an actual list. It's just a handy well to draw from. 

4. I give myself permission to give up on books. I usually give a book fifty pages to hook me. If that doesn't happen, I stop reading it. It may be that the book isn't right for me at that time or I'm just not the right reader for it. Either way, there are too many other things for me to read to torture myself by slogging through a book I'm not enjoying. (That said, sometimes you do need to push yourself: "Well, that sucked.")

There's a great quote from George R. R. Martin about reading. Martin said, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads only lives one." Apart from being good news for Tyrion Lannister fans, this quote capture what life is like for a dedicated bibliophile. Don't feel sorry for us. Don't tell us that we're missing out. We're living whole lives, quietly to be sure, but we're fulfilled. 
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Marvel 1602, by Niel Gaiman and Andy Kubert

What if the mutants, heroes, villains, and gods we know from the Marvel Universe had popped up four hundred years earlier? The answer comes from the delightfully demented mind of Neil Gaiman in Marvel 1602

Marvel 1602
Virginia Dare sailed for England in the company of Rojhaz, a blond Native American, in 1602. Count Otto von Doom plots to take over the world from Latveria. Sir Nick Fury and Doctor Stephen Strange try to keep Queen Elizabeth safe. Carlos Javier runs a school for the children of the gentry in rural England. Blind Matthew travels across Europe with the mysterious Natasha to recover a lost Templar treasure. The Inquisition tracks down "witchbreed" along with heretics and Jews. Dinosaurs roam the North American content. Strange storms make travel unpredictable. All this plays out in just eight swift chapters.

This is going to be a short review because I feel the urge to gush coming on, but this graphic novel had so many things that I love. Historical fiction blended with science fiction and the supernatural. Witty banter. Great illustrations. Historical and literary allusions. The only problem with it is that it's too short!
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Raven's Banquet, by Clifford Beal

Raven's Banquet
Richard Treadwell is always in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because his chosen profession is that of a soldier, his bad luck is sure to be the death of him. Only the fact that Fortuna seems to have more in store for him keeps from being burnt as a witch, hanged, killed in battle, or poisoned. Clifford Beal's Raven's Banquet is a prequel to Gideon's Angel, which tells the story of Treadwell's service on the wrong side of the English Civil War. Raven's Banquet tells us what happened to Richard twenty years before he is captured by Parliamentarians.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby in June of 1646, Colonel Richard Treadwell is waiting in custody for his leg to heal when he is unexpected arrested by another band of Parliamentarians. They're taking him to London for trial. The charge is treason. Treadwell wrote letters to the King of Denmark the behest of King Charles' advisers. Those letters, asking the Danish monarch to send troops to assist the Royalist cause, are now evidence against Treadwell. As the so-called trial against him proceeds, Beal takes us back twenty years to 1625-1626, when Treadwell served in the Danish army against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Young Richard chafes at his life as the younger son of a local knight and decides to fight for the Protestant Cause (he uses capital letters) in Germany. Along with a local man pressed into service as dogsbody and manservant, Richard arrives in Hamburg and sets about trying to find the Danish army. He imagines that soldiering is his path to fortune and glory. These notions are swiftly disabused by his new commanding officers. Richard is told to earn his way up to a rank from common trooper. This galls him, but he follows orders.

Nothing is as Richard expected. The soldiers he serves with are coarse and rapacious. They spend more time foraging—meaning stealing any food and fodder that isn't nailed down to feed the army—than fighting or even gathering intelligence. His cohorts rape and rob and murder. His manservant turns on him. Then Richard finally sees real battle, but it's a rout. After another disastrous battle, Richard and his remaining comrades find refuge among a colony of strange women in the German forest.

When I read Raven's Banquet, I didn't know it was a prequel, so I genuinely feared for Richard. He ends up in so many impossible situations and his world is a violent one. But the book ends with one last, gigantic challenge for Treadwell. And it really could be his last challenge.

One of the problems writers of historical fiction have to solve concerned dialog. Do you use period dialog and risk your novel sounding hackneyed? Or do you modernize it have characters swearing like gangsters with Tourette's, à la Deadwood? Beal does an incredible job of finding a middle point between authenticity and readability. Raven's Banquet sounds right. This is a wonderful work of historical fiction.

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. It is, according to NetGalley, scheduled to be released 13 May 2014 but I can't find a listing for it on either Amazon or Amazon.co.uk. When I checked the publisher site, I only found a listing for Beal's previous Richard Treadwell book, Gideon's Angel.
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All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See
A diamond and the invisible waves of radio transmission link together a blind French girl, a German mechanical genius, and a rapacious German treasure hunter in Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. As the book's plot unfolds, the three characters circle closer and closer to each other in Saint-Malo, in Brittany, to meet up on a fateful day in August 1944.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc lost her sight at the age of six to cataracts. She learned to make her way around her Paris neighborhood thanks to a scale model her father built and his determination that she would learn to be independent. The two LeBlancs live an ideal life between their apartment and the natural history museum at which M. LeBlanc works. In the Ruhr Valley in Germany, Werner Pfenning—an orghan—discovers he has a talent for machines when he repairs a discarded radio. He tinkers and tinkers and gains a reputation for being able to repair any radio. His skill earns him the dubious honor of a spot at a military school. The curriculum is designed to churn out ideal young Nazis. While Marie-Laure learns how to classify molluscs by touch, Werner learns trigonometry and doubt about what his instructors are trying to teach them.

Saint-Malo, Brittany, France
The third major character, Reinhold von Rumpel, doesn't appear until the end of the first third. Von Rumpel works for the Einsatztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, a taskforce that systematically looted Europe of its cultural and historical treasures. He becomes obsessed with a diamond, the Sea of Flames, that was held by the natural history museum. When the Germans invaded France, the director of M. LeBlanc's museum had three copies made and sent four employees out across the country to keep it safe. None of them known which is the real one. Von Rumpel tracks the couriers down and finds the fakes one by one.

Doerr's stories do not follow a straight line. All the Light We Cannot See tracks back and forth from the siege of Saint-Malo in 1944, back to the late 1930s, to various points in the war. We see Marie-Laure become involved with the French Resistance. We see Werner tasked with using his radio and math skills to find covert radio transmissions from partisans. He is eventually sent to Brittany, where someone is sending out information about German weapon and troop placements. We see von Rumpel, dying of cancer, seeking out the diamond. We also see what happens when all the characters finally meet up in an old house in Saint-Malo, just hours before the Americans arrive.

All the Light We Cannot See is a dizzying, thrilling tale. It bucks nearly all of the conventions of the historical fiction genre by showing us the tentative webs that can link people to each other. There's bad luck and coincidence and pure chance. People make bad choices, then try to do the right thing (or succumb to their madness). There is no larger plan. It's people trying to survive for another day. Doerr writes in an impressionistic way, even Impressionist. All the little details together create a chaotic portrait of France in the  Second World War.

I received a free review copy of this ebook from Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 6 May 2014.
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Finishing books at bedtime and why you shouldn't

The ending of a book should be cathartic. All the plot threads should be tied up, leaving just a few in the case of series. There should be a sense of closure.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way for me.

It may be the kinds of books I'm attracted to, but I almost always feel wound up when I finish a book. All the emotional tension the plot has been churning up is still there and I'm left feeling restless. After I finished reading The Lewis Man by Peter May last night, it took forever to fall asleep. (I have strange problems, I know.) This means that really thrilling reads can touch off temporary insomnia for me.

The only solution is to stop reading before the end of the book and leave the rest for the next day. But if the book is really good, there's no way that's going to happen. I must know what happens next.
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The Lewis Man, by Peter May

The Lewis Man
Fin Macleod returns to the Isle of Lewis, for good this time, in Peter May's The Lewis Man. There's nothing left for him in mainland Scotland. His divorce has been finalized. He quit his job with the Edinburgh police. Of course, he can't leave his past behind as easily as he turned in his resignation. He still obsessively goes over the case file of the fatal hit-and-run that killed his son and he's just begun restoring the family croft. Fin isn't the only one haunted by the past in this book. His almost father-in-law, Tormod Macdonald, is sliding deeper and deeper into Alzheimer's and dementia just as a body is found in a bog not far from Stornoway. The body and Tormod share DNA.

Fin doesn't have an official right to investigate. But because Tormod is the father of Fin's first love, he decides to look into the matter before a police investigator comes over from the mainland to solve the murder. The body has been in the bog for more than 50 years. All they know is that he was related to Tormod in someway and that he was an Elvis fan. That's all Fin and his former college, George Gunn, have to go on. They know Tormod will be the main (and probably only) suspect. Because of Tormod's advanced Alzheimer's, they can't get a straight answer out of him. Tormod is adrift in time, recounting in snatches episodes from his past.

May divides his book into two narrative threads. Fin has one. Through him we follow the clues to uncover Tormod's mysterious past. Tormod tells the other thread in the first person. From the old man, we immediately learn that Tormod isn't who he says he is. In his memories, everyone calls him Johnny. He had a brother named Peter who suffered a brain injury. They are orphans who are send first to a strict orphanage before the Catholic Church ships them off to faithful members in the Outer Hebrides after an accident causes the death of another boy. The details of Tormod's early life are still fuzzy until Fin starts to piece things together.

Eriskay. Photo by Marco Dado Foto.
Even though the body in the bog was murdered so many decades ago, its discovery reignites an old quest for vengeance that comes to a surprising climax on the island of Eriskay. Tormod tried so hard to escape his past and his bad memories that it's heartbreaking to see it all catch up to him now, when he's forgotten so much.

I enjoyed the first Fin Macleod book, The Black House, but I liked The Lewis Man even more. It may be that the Isle of Lewis doesn't seem as foreign to me this time around. Maybe its because I saw Fin start to come out of his shell and live again after his sorrows in Edinburgh.

I wonder what revelations wait in the last book in the series.

I received a free review copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review.
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That time when the CIA started a book club

Yesterday, the book world gleefully reported on a series of declassified documents from the late 1950s about the CIA's efforts to disseminate Boris Pasternak's classic Doctor Zhivago behind the Iron Curtain. The documents and the history of the publication of Doctor Zhivago are the subject of a book due out this June by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée entitled The Zhivago Affair.

I suspect that part of the reason all the bookworms are excited is because—apart from the fact that Doctor Zhivago is a great work of literature—this story shows just how powerful literature can be. The Doctor wasn't kidding when he said books were the greatest weapons. We bookworms have known this for years.

What is it about books that makes them such a powerful means of changing deeply ingrained modes of thought and prejudices? Is it because we spend time alone with just an author's words on a page? Is it because the reader has to take those words and construct them in their minds using their imagination? A CIA memo, recovered by Finn and Couvée, dated 24 April 1958 had this to say about Doctor Zhivago:
“This book has great propaganda value, not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”
The memo is correct that Zhivago wasn't available to Russian readers at the time. A legal copy wasn't available in Russia for years. According to the articles I've read about The Zhivago Affair (The Guardian, The Washington Post), CIA agents were encouraged to pass the book around and even discuss it with people from communist countries.

I wonder if this happened with any other books. There may be a CIA book group that still meets, even today.
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A Thing Done, by Tinney Sue Heath

A Thing Done
They say it started with a fool's jest. That's what they say, anyway, about the centuries' long feud between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Tinney Heath takes us back to the murky origins of the feud in A Thing Done.

It's not Corrado's fault. He was at the feast celebrating a new knight getting his spurs when one of the lords pays him to steal a plate of meat from a rival. The hotheaded rival reacts with insults, then cuts the man who paid Corrado. To Florentines in 1215, this is a mortal insult to their honor. The only way Oddo—the instigator—will make peace is if Boundelmonte—his victim—marries his shrewish niece. Not only does Boundelmonte not want to marry this woman because of her reputed temper, he's already promised to another. So, Boundelmonte compounds the insult by marrying his betrothed by marrying her on the same day he was supposed to marry Oddo's niece. Oddo's family swears a vendetta against Boundelmonte in retaliation. Then, as vendetta tend to do, murder follows murder and the factions become more entrenched.

All this is narrated by Corrado the Fool. Oddo and Boundelmonte both find it convenient to use the fool to run errands and pass messages, much to Corrado's vexation. A couple of times in the book, various parties hold him hostage in their palaces because he knows too damned much. Meanwhile, Corrado's relationships are falling apart around him because he keeps getting caught up in the business of "people with surnames"—the nobility.

It did bother me that Heath's protagonist, Corrado, keeps overhearing important conversations and being drafted into messenger duty. It felt forced at times. This book might have been even better if Heath had used a few more narrators, ones that would have been more believable in the situations Corrado ends up. After the first few times, you start to wonder—like Corrado does—"Why him?"

What really makes Heath's book more than just a novel of a medieval vendetta is the rich detail that she builds into her descriptions. She writes about the clothing and the food and the sights and smells of thirteenth century Florence. I had to run to Wikipedia a few times to look up the names of obscure instruments and customs to figure out what Heath was talking about, but that's a plus for a word nerd like me.

I received a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.
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Written off

In the most recent episode of The Readers, "Episode 95: Catching Up on Rather a Lot & Classic Literature," hosts Simon and Thomas asked each other about classic authors and books they'd tried and given up. I immediately thought of a few that I have written off in the past. This list of authors is, of course, wildly biased, and based on my own personal tastes and preferences.

Nope. Nope, nope, nope.
I won't read*:
  1. James Joyce...because I'm pretty sure Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake are pranks.
  2. Marcel Proust...because get bored just reading about Proust. 
  3. Ernest Hemingway...because I couldn't relate to anyone in the two books I read by Hemingway. They are men's books, but they didn't explain men.
  4. Virginia Woolf...because stream of consciousness drives me mental.
  5. William Faulkner...because of the stream of consciousness malarky.
  6. John Updike...because white dude's problems.
  7. Philip Roth...because white dude's problems and masturbation.
  8. Salman Rushdie...because I've found most of his books too weird to get into. I have a high tolerance for weirdness, but jeez.
  9. Sylvia Plath...because the thought of spending time in her head scares the hell out of me.
  10. J.D. Salinger...because I still think Holden Caulfield is a punk.
There are many classic writers, past and present, that I just haven't gotten around to yet. I plan do. I plan to read Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison and Joseph Heller and Fyodor Dostoevsky. But my life is too short—and I'm not in a literature program—to spend time on literature I know I won't like without someone to help me read my way into it.


* ...unless someone can recommend a book by these authors that will change my mind.
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Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh

I received a free review copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher. 

Shovel Ready
People call him with a very specific problem. He doesn't want to know why. Spademan only wants a name. Then, like the garbageman he used to be, he will take care of your problem by making someone disappear. He only has one rule. He won't kill kids. When his latest target turns out to be a pregnant girl on the run from her preacher father, Spademan finds himself becoming an unlikely hero in Adam Sternbergh's Shovel Ready.

I shouldn't have liked this book. It's written with two stylistic gimmicks that I loathe. I guess it proves how talented a writer Sternbergh is that I didn't get annoyed by all his one-sentence paragraphs and didn't lose track of who was talking with all the unmarked dialog. In Sternbergh's hands, these devices lent a noirish realism and immediacy to the tale of Spademan becoming more than just a man who makes problem people disappear.

Spademan lives in Hoboken, but he works in what's left of New York after a series of dirty bombings gutted Manhattan. Only very serious clients call him and Spademan thinks of himself as a bullet. He hits wherever someone fires him. It's easier for him if he doesn't know why the client pulled the metaphorical trigger in the first place. His job is surprisingly easy, given the state New York is in nowadays. No one wants to rebuild a place that won't be safe for several half-lives, so the police only guard the rich. No one investigates anything. Still, Spademan is careful. When he gets the call to "remove" Grace Chastity Harrow—known as Persephone—Spademan doesn't think anything of it. He even buys her breakfast, since she's been living rough for weeks. Then he spots her five-month belly and smacks up against the only rule he has left.

As Spademan goes to work for Persephone, protecting her from her preacher father, Sternbergh reveals what happened to New York and what happened to Spademan to turn him into the man he is. Sternbergh also shows his protagonist beginning to wonder about the people pulling the trigger. He doesn't feel remorse for what he's done in the past. He knows he's not a good person. But then, Persephone isn't exactly a good girl, either. She can handle herself, which she credits to her newly discovered motherly instincts. Her father just has too much firepower he can send her way. Together, Spademan and Persephone make a hell of a team.

Shovel Ready deserves all the praise I've seen reviewers and critics showering its way. This was a thrilling read. It's dark, gritty, with plenty of challenging ethics to keep you pondering even after you've read the last page.
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The Liminal People, by Ayize Jama-Everett

The Liminal People
All his life, Taggert has been testing himself. He throws himself into dangerous situations to see how much damage he can take. He takes on impossible cases to see how far his healing abilities stretch. Then, he became disillusioned and wander the wilderness of Africa until a very scary man gave him a job in exchange for knowledge. What Taggert didn't realize was that it would cost him his soul. Ayize Jama-Everett shows us what it takes to return Taggert to life in The Liminal People

When we meet him, Taggert is solidly in the employ of Nordeen Maximus. Nordeen runs drugs in order to fund his real business: finding people like Taggert, who have powers. Taggert can heal and manipulate the body down to the chemicals in the brain and the melanin in skin and acids in the stomach. He also learned to use his abilities to hurt people at Nordeen's command. After yet another job, Taggert gets a call from a woman he never expected to hear from again. More than a decade before, Yasmine told Taggert he was a freak and left him. Now she needs him to help find her missing daughter, Tamara. With permission from Nordeen, Taggert returns to London and find that this is not just a case of a pissed off runaway teenager or a kidnapping gone wrong. Tamara has powers, too, and someone wants her to join their gang. They won't take no for an answer.

Taggert answers the call because, above all, he wants to be the kind of man who keeps his word—no matter how long it's been. He's reluctant, but he'll do the job. It doesn't take him long to figure out that he's dealing with a bunch of amateurs. They make him angry after one of the gang uses her abilities to sic what seems like every rat and dog in an entire London neighborhood after him. Then they make him incandescently angry when they kill the only woman Taggert ever loved.

All this—plus a good chunk of Taggert's backstory—unfolds in just the first third of The Liminal People. Jama-Everett just keeps building layers into the story and throwing complications at his protagonist so that Taggert is not just trying to save Tamara from the powered denizens of London, he's also questioning just what his boss is really up to. He also starts questioning whether he is meant for more than just being Nordeen's enforcer.

I can't describe how much I enjoyed reading The Liminal People without completely descending into hyperbole. This book has so many of the things I love in thrillers. It's got a great, conflicted, thoughtful protagonist. The plot has so many delicious layers to peel back as it races along. And then there are the powers. Jama-Everett uses a few of the usual extrasensory powers, but throws in some intriguing new ones and shows you what the implications might be. Taggert, for example, can heal anything, but he can also turn that power inside out and use it to torture people with their own bodies. My only regret is that there isn't a sequel that I can immediately start reading.
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The Kraken King, Parts I and II, by Meljean Brook

I received free review copies of these stories from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

The Kraken King, Part I
Kraken, balloon-borne marauders, and boilerworms! Oh my! Zenobia Fox has her work out cut out for her when she sets off from Denmark to accompany her friend, Helene, to the Red City of the Far East in The Kraken King and the Scribbling Spinster, by Meljean Brook. Zenobia is a writer of adventure stories, based on the adventures of her famous, wealthy brother Archimedes Fox. She has been kidnapped more than once and, when mysterious attackers destroy the airship she is travelling on, she suspects that it's happening again. Ariq, known as the Kraken King, rescues her and her party and spirits them away to his smuggler's paradise in western Australia.

The Kraken King, Part II
Zenobia and Ariq's story continues in The Kraken King and the Abominable Worm. The pair set off in search of the raiders that downed Zenobia and Helene's airship. Along the way, Zenobia continues to fight against her attraction to Ariq—though he really wishes she wouldn't. The two did not get off to a good start in part one, due to a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, the entire party is attacked by a boilerworm. A boilerworm is a remnant of Imperial technology that has invaded the Australian outback. They're attracted to heat and absolutely lethal. Brook leaves us hanging at the end of part two, to make sure that every reader who has enjoyed the ride so far will be dying to see what happens in part three.

In Zenobia and Ariq's world, the Golden Horde managed to survive through history and conquer Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa and Australia. Technology has a distinctly steampunk flavor, though some characters spot nanobot-enabled enhancements. The world has a distinctly neo-Victorian feel, but with a generous (and gratefully received) dollop of gender equality thrown on. I loved that Zenobia got to ogle Ariq as much as he seemed to ogle her.

Brook has the same problem with one-sentence paragraphs I've been seeing in lighter literature lately. Despite that, The Kraken King is manages to conjure an intriguing world that I was eager to explore. They're a modern day version of dime novels, I think, and they were a lot of fun to read. I really wish the publishers had released more of the stories at the same time so that I could have had a bigger ending and some resolution of plot threads.
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One Night in Winter, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I received a free review copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publishers. It will be released 6 May 2014.

One Night in Winter
On the same day as the Victory Parade, with Stalin and the rest of the Central Committee only yards away, two children are shot and killed. The children were the sheltered children of the Soviet elite so, rather than having the matter rushed to a conclusion, the NKVD get involved. Once the characters of Simon Montefiore's One Night in Winter get caught in the machine of Soviet "justice," a small tragedy is transformed into a gigantic one.

The students of the elite are taught at Joseph Stalin School 801. Andrei Kurbsky, the son of a man who was arrested during the Great Terror, thought he didn't have a chance of getting in. He somehow gets a place and, miracle of miracles, finds himself making friends with the children of state ministers and film stars—especially when he finds and returns a notebook that holds the rules and member names of the Fatal Romantics' Club. The Club is run by Nikolasha Blagov. Blagov is so obsessed with the works of Aleksandr Pushkin that he created a club that dresses up in costume and acts out the duel scene in Eugene Onegin with stolen theater pistols loaded with blanks. Nikolasha arranges for the Club members to play their game right after the Victory Parade in June 1945 and that's when everything goes wrong. The children's "game" and their membership book is misinterpreted by the NKVD. Fear and lies spread like a virus and soon it seems that everyone is on their way to the Lubyanka.

Montefiore takes us back six months from the shooting to show us the beginnings of two love stories. Serafima Romashkina is the object of desire for almost everyone (male) who meets her. One day at the Bolshoi, she shares a box with an American diplomat. Before long, they've fallen in love with each other. Hercules Satinov is in the Soviet high command during the final battles with the Germans when he meets and is instantly attracted to Doctor Dashka Dorova. Both couples hid their affairs, but when the Children's Case—as it becomes known—is used by various vindictive parties, the affairs put all four in jeopardy.

Over the course of a few weeks in June and July of 1945, everyone in the Fatal Romantics' Club is arrested. Then their siblings and friends are arrested. Once the NKVD have found out everything they think they can get out of the kids, they start questioning the children about their parents. Denunciations and lies and stories start to swirl around. Everyone is terrified and no one is safe—unless you're one of Stalin's personal favorites, but even that's precarious. There's no way out.

Montefiore then takes you forward in time to show you the aftermath of the frenzied investigation. I won't give away what happens to who, because One Night in Winter is a book that should be read with one's heart in one's mouth. Even though this is a work of fiction, Montefiore writes in his historical note at the end that there are elements of historical truth woven into the story. This could have happened the way it was written. One Night in Winter is a powerful story of love and fear.
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Seven Kinds of Hell, by Dana Cameron

I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers.

It's been so long since I've read a work of contemporary fantasy, I've almost forgotten what they were like.

Seven Kinds of Hell
Zoe Miller has lived her entire life on the run. Her mother has been hiding from Zoe's father's family all of Zoe's life. All Zoe knows is that they are dangerous people. When her mother dies, it seems like it's only a matter of hours before people are chasing Zoe all over Boston. As Dana Cameron's Seven Kinds of Hell unspools, government agents, werewolves and vampires, Russian gangsters, and who knows who else end up chasing Zoe to London, Paris, Berlin, and beyond.

There's a lot going on in Seven Kinds of Hell. So much in fact, that the book kicks off before you realize it. Zoe is an archaeologist. One day, she takes home what she thinks is tourist junk that got tossed in with some other donations to the materials just because she took a shine to it. It's so out of character that she's surprised at herself. She forgets all about it when mayhem breaks out around her wherever she goes. And then Zoe's cousin is kidnapped by the aforementioned Russian gangster. He wants the figure Zoe stole. He wants it because he believes that it's part of an ancient relic that will turn him into a werewolf.

While Zoe hopes planes and trains to get her cousin back, she also has to wrestle with her discovery that there are werewolves and vampires running around the world and that she is one of them. Zoe has a lot to deal with in this book and she doesn't know who she can trust. She only has her instincts to rely on. It's a rip-roaring adventure all the way.

The beginning of Seven Kinds of Hell is a bit rocky, but Cameron hits her stride when the action moves to Europe. She's very fond of one sentence paragraphs. I enjoyed the book anyway. Sometimes you need something that just entertains you, with some archaeology and werewolves thrown in for fun.
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The bastard child of prose and poetry; Or, the one sentence paragraph

The one sentence paragraph, when overused, is a hallmark of bad writing.

They may be written all in italics.

They may just be short.

Sometimes both.

But, budding author, the one sentence paragraph does not add ironic poignancy to your writing when they're everywhere.

It makes you look like a student trying to cheat a page length minimum.

The one sentence paragraph does not make your plot race and crackle with tension.

It makes you sound like Christopher Walken.
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Luminous Chaos, by Jean-Christophe Valtat

I received a free review copy of this book from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher.

Luminous Chaos
Imagine a city at the far north of the world, close to the Arctic Circle. This city was built with magic and money and industry and strange science. The city is peopled with Inuit and adventurers and wizards. The city is frozen in time, adrift from the rest of the world. Jean-Christophe Valtat introduced readers to New Venice in Aurororama and continues the unlikely adventures of its inhabitants in Luminous Chaos.

Brentford Orsini has just handed over the reigns of his regency to a political enemy, but that's democracy for you. That enemy sends Brentford and six of his friends and allies to Paris on a made up diplomatic mission. Orsini can't refuse because his other option is prison. Of course the mission goes wrong because Brentford has been ordered to take the most dangerous and unreliable means of transportation. The Psychomotive, piloted by a former explorer who has been reduced to being nothing but a head kept alive by machinery, ends up transporting the diplomats back to 1895 Paris.

Brentford and the diplomats spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how to travel in space and time to get back to their beloved, improbable city. While they are in Paris, they become involved in a conspiracy. In 1895, the founders of New Venice have only just begun their plans to create a Hyperborean city. Brentford and his friend, Gabriel d'Allier, can't resist trying to learn more about these founders because the origins of New Venice have been lost to them over time. Meanwhile, the diplomats run afoul of virulently nationalist elements of the French police. Valtat ratchets up the tension by killing off several major characters.

The charm of Luminous Chaos lies in the dense and dazzling world building Valtat does. The diplomatic mission arrives inauspiciously in Paris through the Montparnasse Train Wreck. They run into members of the Parisian literary scene in delightful cameos from August Strindberg and Marcel Proust, among others. They visit the catacombs and seances. On top of all this, Valtat layers a generous helping of mad steampunk science and occultists meddling with forces they ken not. Luminous Chaos is a book to be savored.