Mini Review: Cards and Caravans, by Cindy Spencer Pape

Cards and Caravans CoverCards and Caravans is the fifth book in the Gaslight Chronicles series by Cindy Spencer Pape.  This fun but uneven romance series combines Victorian steampunk with magic and the paranormal.  The books are published online by Carina Press.  I loved Pape’s book Kilts and Kraken, but found the follow-up, Moonlight and Mechanicals, to be disappointing.  Cards and Caravans falls somewhere in between, and the whole book feels like a placeholder in the series.  Having said that, it was a pleasant book to read, with engaging characters.  There’s a surprising lack of tension or suspense in the book so it might be just the light read you need during a stressful or fatiguing time.

I had no problem jumping into the series with Kilts and Kraken.  It was a strong stand-alone and I still recommend it.  However, I’m not sure how much you’d get out of Cards and Caravans without having read at least a couple of the other books, especially Moonlight and Mechanicals.  You can find my full-length review of Cards and Caravans at: Smart Bitches Trashy Books.  And for the book I truly enjoyed, my full-length review of Kilts and Kraken is at this link.  Enjoy!

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Review: The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Cover of Drowning girlMy Nebula Review Series continues with The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan.

The Drowning Girl is certainly not a romance, and yet within its pages a quite touching romance unfolds, almost without the reader noticing it.  The overall tone is one of menace and confusion and dread, but the resolution involves healing and love, and healing because of love (and a lot of therapy and medication and art and research – there’s nothing trite about the story).

The plot is hard to describe because a lot of the story is ambiguous.  India, also known as Imp, is a writer and painter who is living with schizophrenia.  She is able to control her symptoms with a complicated regimen of medications and therapy.  One night Imp sees a naked woman walking down the side of the road, and she picks her up and takes her home.  This woman’s name is Eva, and she becomes an object of obsession for Imp.

As Imp goes on and off and on her meds, she doubts her own perceptions of what is happening.  In one version of her story, Eva comes to her in July, and her function is that of a siren.  In another, Eva arrives in November, and her function is that of a wolf.  How many Evas there are, and whether they are mermaid or wolf, and what they want from Imp, are mysteries Imp struggles to solve as she wrestles with her mental illness.

The two most important technical components of this book are voice and imagery.  Imp is the book’s narrator.  Listen to this incredible passage, from a period when Imp is deeply obsessed with Eva and has stopped taking her medication:

All our thoughts are mustard seeds.  Oh, many days now.  Many days.  Many days of mustard seeds.  India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad, sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for two strangers who would not, could not stop for me.  She, she who is me, and I creep around the edges of my own life afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds.

And here’s a more lucid passage, in which she talks about the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood:

 Anyway, even with the happy ending, the story terrified me.  For one thing, I never pictured the wolf as a real wolf, but as something that walked upright on two legs, and looked a lot more like a man than a wolf.  So I suppose I saw it as a werewolf.  When I was older, and saw a National Geographic documentary, I realized that the way I’d seen the wolf, in my mind’s eye, made the story truer, because men are much more dangerous than wolves.  Especially if you’re a wolf, or a little girl.

I read Drowning because it’s nominated for a Nebula Award for best novel.  I expected something dark and scary, not anything romantic.  So it was a delightful surprise to find that the love affair between India and Abalyn is quite beautiful and vital to the rest of the story.  Abalyn is Imp’s lover and roommate.  In a story in which characters are always changing their identity, Abalyn is the only character who seems completely sure of who she is.  Abalyn is a male to female transsexual, and despite the altering of her physical form, she is very clear that she didn’t “change her sex” – she was always female.  Abalyn is also Imp’s link to the rest of the world and her tether to sanity.  Even though the focus is on other things, I grew to adore Abalyn, and her relationship with Imp is what allows Imp to move through the obsession with Eva and heal.

I recommend Drowning Girl to anyone who has an interest in revisionist fairy tales, in psychological horror, or in books with a strong narrative voice and an unreliable narrator.  It’s prose was lovely and horrifying, and although neither I nor imp is completely sure of what happened, it’s nice to know that love, as well as a very good therapist, helped things get to some sort of a happy ending.

Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Welcome to the first of my Nebula Review Series.   I’ll be attending the Nebula Awards in May, and am reading the books that have been nominated for best novel in preparation.  This year has a nice mix of science fiction and fantasy and male and female authors, and a surprisingly high romance content in the books, which I just love, of course.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fantasy novel beloved by everybody.  It’s been nominated for both a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award and is getting great reviews everywhere, and I can see why.  It’s a story with a vibrant fascinating setting and interesting characters.  However, I was frustrated by the pacing, which is oddly slow considering the plot elements.

Throne revolves around Adoulla, an aging ghul hunter who is feeling his years, and his assistant Raseed, a young man who is beginning to question the black and white morality of his Dervish training.  Adoulla and Raseed partner with a shape-shifting woman who seeks to avenge her tribe, and a magician and his wife, in an effort to defeat a sinister and darkly magical foe.  Along the way they become caught up in the political maneuverings of the Falcon Prince, who is trying to overthrow the corrupt and cruel Khalif of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.

There are so many things to love about this book.  For starters there’s the setting.  It is a gorgeously rendered world straight out of The Arabian Nights.  The city of Dhamsawaat is huge, chaotic, and marvelously rendered – in the sense that it’s described with great technical skill, and in the sense that it’s full of marvels.  The smells and sounds and tastes and traffic jams and gardens all seem so exotic and so real at the same time.  You can see why some of the characters love it passionately and other find it exhausting.

Speaking of characters, they are the real high point of the book.  All of them go through profound and believable changes.  All of them are struggling with different life stages.  I loved that some characters were dealing with the realities of aging while other were dealing with the realities of young adulthood. Every character was a person, not a type.  They are funny, they are annoying, and they are moving.  Although it’s not a romance, there is a lot of romance going on, and I liked it that the love stories that involved older people were just as compelling, if not more so, than that between the cute twenty-somethings.

I did get very impatient with the pacing.  Maybe I was just having a weird week when I read this, or maybe I’ve been damaged by reading too many science fiction novellas in which people meet, have sex, save the world, have sex again, and declare eternal love for one another, usually in that order, in about 30,000 words.  But I have to say that considering the massive amount of carnage contained in these pages, there sure is a lot of chitchat in between battles.  Rasheed and Zamia are constantly saying things to the effect of, “The heck with all this research, let’s go kill something!” and eventually I started to agree with them.  I found this book easy to put down, even when I was only a few chapters from the end.  

Throne is the first book in a planned trilogy, and probably that’s why so much of it felt like set-up.  It ended well, on an emotionally satisfying note, with plenty to write about in the future but a resolved enough conclusion to enjoy as a stand-alone.  I certainly recommend it to fantasy fans, but be prepared for a startling amount of both gore and conversation.

Mini Review: Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet is Book Two of the Lunar Chronicles Series.  This series, while not strictly a romance series, is a high-quality romance-friendly crossover, and its inventive steampunk/science fiction twists on fairy tales make it a must-read for genre fans.  I enjoyed the world-building and the twists on fairy tales.  I do recommend that readers read the first book, Cinder, before reading Scarlet.  Cinder is the book that sets events in motion, and frankly, I think is a stronger book overall, although both books are compelling.  For a full length review of Scarlet, check me out at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Review: Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

It’s my great honor to kick off my book reviewing features with a thoughtful analysis of the most frequently challenged book of 2012 (according to the just-released list of 2012’s challenged books by the American Library Association).  Ladies and Gentlemen I give you…CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS!

Captain Underpants

My Hero!

The Captain Underpants series tells the stories of George and Harold, two boys who (sort-of accidentally) have caused their principal to turn into the super hero “Captain Underpants” whenever anyone snaps their fingers in his presence.  Their adventures are endlessly convoluted and hilarious and yes, pretty gross.  I’ve been a huge fan of the series ever since my daughter got her first Captain Underpants as a prize from the library, and for the first time, but not the last, got in trouble for secretly trying to stay up all night to read.  It was a proud moment at our house, I tell you.

This website will generally focus on books that involve some mix of science fiction, fantasy, or other geeky goodness, and romance.  Just to be clear, there’s no romance in Captain Underpants.  Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants promises romance on the cover but immediately adds (“Just Kidding”).  There sure is a lot of geeky goodness, though.  The most recent installment, Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-boxers included the following elements:  time travel, a pet pterodactyl, a robotic hamster, an explanation for the extinction of dinosaurs, the Big Bang, and the Ice Age, clones, and a giant squid.  Top that.

Captain Underpants is justly famous for its potty humor, but it’s a very clever series.  It contains all kinds of wacky fun and some surprisingly sharp satire, as when Mr. Krupp spends some time in prison and discovers that it is remarkably similar to elementary school but with a bigger budget (Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers).  George and Harold make fun of adults, but they make sure that no one gets hurt, and one of the messages of the books is that teasing people can make them evil – so don’t.

How I love Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies From Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds) with its villainesses, Zorx, Klax, and Jennifer.  If this doesn’t make you laugh, your soul is dead:

“And where did that super evil rapidly growing dandelion come from?”  asked Captain Underpants.

George and Harold gasped.  They looked at each other with the sudden panicked realization that only children who have created a giant mutated garden nuisance would know.

Here’s what gets me:  the reasons listed for challenging the Underpants series are:  “Offensive language, unsuited for age group”.  I hope I’ve made it clear that the Underpants series is more than poop jokes.  But seriously, this is a series in which an entire book revolves around people being eaten by talking toilets (The Attack of the Talking Toilets, natch).  What audience would anyone think this series is appropriate for?  Here’s a tip – kids love potty humor.  Adults (usually, OK, sometimes) don’t.  When I think of a target audience for a book about wedgies, I don’t think “CEO of a major corporation”, although that would explain a lot about the state of finances today.  No, I think:  “Ages 5 – 10”.  I did ask my handy nine-year-old consultant if she thought these books encourage her to disobey and disrespect adults and she said, and I quote, “They encourage me to disobey adults that are evil and crazy”.  Sounds fair to me.

Dav Pilkey is no stranger to the most frequently challenged books list.  However, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first year that he’s made the top of the list.  Congratulations Dav!  You’re number one!  You have joined the ranks of some amazing books, including To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and The Lord of the Rings.  May your underpants always remain soft and cottony and free from the evils of starch.  Thanks for turning my kid into a reader!

Mini Review: Jenna Starborn, by Sharon Shinn

One of my favorite books is Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë.  By “favorite”, I mean I have a copy wrapped up in plastic on top of the can opener in my earthquake/alien invasion/zombie apocalypse kit in case I have to rebuild civilization.  So any adaptation of Jane is going to have to work hard to make me happy.  Jenna is a very inventive take on Jane Eyre.  By far its strongest feature was the carefully developed society and culture. Sharon Shinn creates a culture which is completely distinct from that of Victorian England, but which still imposes many of the same limitation on Jenna that Jane experiences in Jane Eyre.  The book’s biggest flaw is that Jenna, while admirable, is simply not sufficiently fiery, layered, or interesting enough to fill in for Jane.

For a full length review, check out my entry over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  You can also find my Jane Eyre TV and film adaptation round-up over there.  Toby Stephens, call me!

Jenna Starborn book cover

Jenna Starborn