Monday, September 26, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Published by: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: September 27th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 560 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn't think they'd survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they're right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz's cunning and test the team's fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city's dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world."

Anyone else think duologies are cool because you don't have to wait as long for the full story? Just me?

A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev
Published by: Kensington
Publication Date: September 27th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Dr. Nikhil 'Nic' Joshi had it all—marriage, career, purpose. Until, while working for Doctors Without Borders in a Mumbai slum, his wife, Jen, discovered a black market organ transplant ring. Before she could expose the truth, Jen was killed.

Two years after the tragedy, Nic is a cruise ship doctor who spends his days treating seasickness and sunburn and his nights in a boozy haze. On one of those blurry evenings on deck, Nic meets a woman who makes a startling claim: she received Jen’s heart in a transplant and has a message for him. Nic wants to discount Jess Koirala’s story as absurd, but there’s something about her reckless desperation that resonates despite his doubts.

Jess has spent years working her way out of a nightmarish life in Calcutta and into a respectable Bollywood dance troupe. Now she faces losing the one thing that matters—her young son, Joy. She needs to uncover the secrets Jen risked everything for; but the unforeseen bond that results between her and Nic is both a lifeline and a perilous complication.

Delving beyond the surface of modern Indian-American life, acclaimed author Sonali Dev’s page-turning novel is both riveting and emotionally rewarding—an extraordinary story of human connection, bravery, and hope."

I got to see Sonali speak at an event back in February that I went to for Lauren Willig and have been meaning to pick up one of Sonali's books since then. Actually I would have gotten one at the event, but really rude booksellers tend to put you off. But now there's this shiny new book that looks really good. Can not wait.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review - Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden's Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Published by: Spectra
Publication Date: August 28th, 2007
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Captain Henry Baltimore led a night attack in the Ardennes that would forever change the world. As his entire battalion is cut down he survives the initial onslaught but is left to die with a leg wound. Out of the night sky comes large bat-like creatures, carrion eaters to feast on the dead. But there's something not right about them. One sees Baltimore and decides that he will be his feast. Lashing out Baltimore injures the creature but in return the creature destroys his leg. Later in hospital, a man appears beside his bed, and Baltimore knows he's one and the same to the creature on that battlefield. This "man" tells Baltimore that he knows not what he has done and the world will pay for the injury Baltimore inflicted on him. After this incident there are three people that Baltimore confides this story to, his three friends; Captain Demetrius Aischros, Thomas Childress, and Dr. Lemuel Rose. They know not of each other until one night when Baltimore asks them to meet him in a pub whose air of decrepitude and despair matches that of the rest of the world since the plague took hold and the Great War became of no consequence in the face of this new threat.

There they sit, waiting for Baltimore. In the interim they tell their stories because it is obvious that in order to have believed Baltimore's story, without hesitation, they too must have had some experience of this supernatural evil that walks the earth. Dr. Rose, besides treating Baltimore, also treated a man who believed he was responsible for the death of all the men he was stationed with. Dr. Rose couldn't believe this to be the case, but after a night in the woods keeping watch, believing Baltimore later was a given. Captain Aischros helped escort Baltimore home after he was invalided out of the war, if he wasn't convinced by what he saw on Baltimore's island home he was by an experience years earlier. Aischros recounts a tale from his youth when he was walking the coast of Italy and came upon the town of Cicagne, famed for their puppet shows, and barely escaped with his life. Childress is the last to tell his tale, having grown up with Baltimore on Trevelyan Island, he knew Baltimore all his life, but it was an incident while working for his own father's company in Chile that opened his eyes. They talk and wait hours, the pub becoming oppressive. They aren't sure if Baltimore is going to show, but they feel the final battle with the monster from that day in the Ardennes is at hand.

If you are a fan of good art and good storytelling then the only explanation for not knowing who Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden are would be that you've spent the last few decades under a rock. While I knew of them individually, in fact meeting Christopher Golden at a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Convention in upstate New York and fangirling over his videogame script, it was in a roundabout way that I learned about Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. Before I started this blog I was very cunning in getting press passes for events. In February of 2007 I was supposed to go to the New York Comic Con with a friend of mine but the train from Chicago to New York was snowbound and the trip was cancelled because I wouldn't be able to make it in time. I insisted that my friend go and meet Christopher Golden knowing she would love him as much as me and it so happened that he was signing posters for a new collaboration with Mike Mignola. I still have the signed poster on my office wall next to my computer. Beautifully enlarged drawings from Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire of the church in Reveka and the church interior at Cicagne, and a weeping angel that would forever slightly freak me out after the Doctor Who episode "Blink" aired later that year. THIS I knew was a book written and illustrated just for me.

What is interesting about these two authors collaborating is that both are very familiar with vampires. Mike Mignola worked on the inadvertently hilariously awesome Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as Blade II, and the Angel comics. Whereas Christopher Golden, besides writing the scripts for both Buffy the Vampire Slayer Video Games also wrote comics and books for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. So their individual and combined vampire street cred could hardly be surpassed. But what struck me so much about this book was that it wasn't just a way to shoehorn vampires into the first world war, a time when these opportunistic creatures could flourish, instead it was almost a reinvention of the vampire for a new generation. They were carrion eaters awoken by the violence of men further spurred onto creating a destructive plague by violence against one of their own, The Red King. They lived in a symbiotic relationship with man, feeding off their dead and dying. Rarely are vampires shown as creatures there to keep the balance, keep the scales from tipping. The Red King in fact lays all the vengeful ills that have befallen mankind on Baltimore lashing out to save himself on that battlefield. It's almost as if the plague is a result of hurt pride, making the vampires pitiable more than anything else.

This spin of the morals of the vampires isn't the only way that this book stands head and shoulders above the rest. The main attraction for me was that this book reeked of Victorian Christmas ghost stories. The three men thrown together around a fire while the bleakness of the day bares down on them and they tell their terrifying stories couldn't have been more Dickensian if Dickens had written it himself. I literally couldn't contain my joy as a read this book into the late hours with chills going down my spin thinking that finally someone had written my own personal The Turn of the Screw, but with vampires and the Great War and totally not a lame premise! Seeing as I read so many stories with vampires predictability of plot and worldbuilding becomes problematic. You either have it modern, which can work, though I often like it without the tweaks to our world, or you can go all Bram Stoker. It's like there's an either or switch and you're not allowed in that middle ground. But that middle ground is where the best stories can be found. Think of one of the best episodes of Angel ever, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been." It was set during the height of McCarthyism and was approached in a whole new way. It wasn't Victorian stodginess and it wasn't new and hip. Much like here, we have a new spin that is quite fascinating and is able to harken back to the origin story yet while still keeping the feeling of another era.

This ability of the authors to not only capture but understand the era they are writing about and tweaking just made me giddy. Let's look at the basics. The Great War resulted in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic which actually killed more people than the war itself. So World War I is forever linked to a horrible plague, The Spanish Flu. But what Golden and Mignola do here is to cleverly expand on this. What if the flu had been worse? What if this plague was supernatural in origin? What if it wasn't just supernatural but was a vampire with a severe grudge for getting his face a little scarred? The truth is, they have taken real events and made a believable extrapolation of events to their worst possible outcome. I know I shouldn't be so happy about a vampire plague descending on the world, but they just wrote it so well. They made a compelling alternate history. If you want to extrapolate further you could even take this into World War II. Now you're probably thinking I'm talking crazy, but think about it. World War II was inevitable as soon as we placed such hard sanctions on the Germans. We created our own worst enemy and we made Germany want another war. Here Baltimore by lashing out at The Red King to save himself creates the plague. Sometimes in trying to protect we make matters far worse and the ramifications impossible to foresee. Plague, World War II, you see?

With all that this book has going for it, the feeling of Poe, the more relevant yet completely original vampire, the Dickensian Christmas, I wonder if perhaps the drawings weren't a step to far. Yes, I don't think it would be a true collaboration without the drawings, but I don't really think there needed to be so many. More judiciously used illustrations better positioned would have worked better in my opinion perhaps with some red as a spot color. Yes, this seems counter intuitive with me picking up the book in the first place because of the illustrations, but they just don't really work for me. I felt they were unnecessary. My main problem was that these images were forcing us to view the story in a certain way and that's not right. Words evoke images in the reader's imagination and it's the work of these readers to create the scene in their heads. To people the world of the book as we see fit. But here we are meant to view the language in a proscribed manner. Thus making the book closer to the graphic novel end of the spectrum. Don't get me wrong, I love graphic novels, they just use a different part of the brain, one where image is primary and text is secondary, and if we're lucky they merge into a cohesive whole. Instead here Mignola's illustration would draw me out of the text make me think allowed that that isn't how I saw it and also realize that if you've seen one skull or one peaked rooftop you've probably seen them all. I am interested to see how they transitioned this book into a series of comics... perhaps that will be the proper outlet for the drawings. Whereas the story? The story is something you shouldn't miss. Just never mind that skull or that one or that other one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Television Review - Blackadder Goes Forth

Blackadder Goes Forth
Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Tim McInnerny, Stephen Fry, Stephen Frost, Gabrielle Glaister, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Miranda Richardson, and Geoffrey Palmer
Release Date: September 28th, 1989 - November 2nd, 1989
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

When Edmund Blackadder decided on a career as a solider it was made when the most dangerous fighting he could expect to see was a native with a sharpened mango. He didn't expect the Germans and their war machine, no one did. He would never have signed up if it meant spending all his time in the mud with two dimwits praying that his baaahing mad General, Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, KCB, doesn't decide for them to go over the top or pay for the death of his beloved pigeon, Speckled Jim. All Blackadder's time is spent trying to conceive of ways to get as far away from the front and the trenches as possible, though hopefully not by being removed and placed in front of a firing squad as the Flanders Pigeon Murderer. Blackadder is forever hindered by General Melchett's nefarious adjutant Captain Darling. Combine Darling's antipathy with Blackadders two disastrously dysfunctional "friends," Baldrick and Lieutenant George, and if they survive the war it will be a miracle. If only they could put on the best music hall showcase and decamp to London. Or perhaps a stay in hospital is needed. Then there's the flying corps. So many schemes, can one of them save them?

One Christmas my friend Sara gave me the first half of Blackadder the Third on VHS and we promptly sat down and watched all three episodes. I immediately had to have the second half of the season and over the years I have rewatched those tapes so many times that I wore them out. Sara grew up with a love of all things relating to British Comedy thanks to her older brother Paul. Once they became a part of my life my British Comedy horizons expanded. Paul was forever searching for the elusive Blackadder: The Cavalier Years. It just so happens that I was the one who found it on eBay. I remember as we watched the grainy bootleg tape Paul's disbelief that this young girl who was rapidly gaining in British Comedy knowledge had somehow beat him to the punch. It was an odd little tape made up of Comic Relief Sketches and a music video of Cliff Richard singing "Living Doll" with The Young Ones. But it also had one episode of Blackadder on there that I hadn't seen. I was very strapped for cash at the time and most of my money was going towards my Red Dwarf purchases so I hadn't yet gotten Blackadder Goes Forth. Figuring I knew enough about Blackadder I watched "Goodbyeee" and was just floored by the episode.

The episode is so poignant as I watched these characters die. Sure, we'd seen certain characters bite the big one before on previous seasons, but this was just so much more. This was the final goodbye. Blackadder Goes Forth was the final of four series and we had come to know and love these characters over many years and here they were leaving us forever. How could the writers give the perfect send off while also doing right by their creations? At the time when it was revealed that this final season was to be set during World War I it was criticized for being inappropriate. But I defy you to find any show that shows the horrors of the Great War so heartrendingly. When the show fades to black and white and then the field turns into a field of poppies, I dare anyone not to cry. It does justice to the war by showing how these characters we love reacted to it. It makes so much sense to end the show when the world forever changed. Each season was a different epoch, but I don't think anything quite got the point across to me that history was forever changed by the advent of World War I than a single episode of a rather silly British Comedy.

While people were initially concerned that this series would trivialize the war it not only forged a closer connection and understanding to the war with viewers but it continued the honorable tradition of using humor to shine a light on the truth. Yes, who would have thought that a show based on sarcastic put-downs and sex jokes would show the true horrors of the war? It's not like there was precedence? Oh wait says 'Allo 'Allo, Dad's Army, F Troop, Hogan's Heroes, M*A*S*H*, McHale's Navy and others. Comedy is, in my opinion, the best way to understand a situation but also to make it bearable. Humor is healing. Just as I said when I read Nancy Mitford's Nazis satire, Wigs on the Green, by taking something scary and laughing at it we take away it's power. We memorialize while putting the pain in it's place. But Blackadder Goes Forth does so much more. I remember when I first watched this last episode I couldn't believe that a show that had made me laugh so hard could also make me cry so much. Could make me really care about the Great War. For all those history books I read and even for my love of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles for some reason I never got the human element, it was all larger than life. It was the humor that revealed the humans.

But it's the asides, the throwaway jokes that shed a light on what World War I was really like. You might laugh at Baldrick saying he's grateful for the new trench ladders because they had kindling for the first time in months, or how rat is what is on the menu, cooked in a variety of fashions that are all eerily similar, or drinking coffee that is actually just mud, but the truth was the war was full of privations and attrition. We may think of it now as beautiful fields of poppies and heroic men and women who gave their lives, but it was mud and diseases these heroes faced. Plus, the humor used doesn't just aid in understanding the war but in understanding how the soldiers probably survived. If they couldn't think like Blackadder and use a little dark humor now and again how could they survive without all going wooble? Just look at the terrifying thought of the flying squadron? The 'Twenty Minuters.' Called such not because of the length of a mission but because that was the average life expectancy of a new pilot. While this might be stretching the truth a little, it's not by much. Remember, the planes they fought in were mostly made of canvas!

The show also tackles the problem of the "old boys club" that was the military at the time. World War I was the last war where rank was almost solely decided by social ranking. The upper classes taking on the more senior leadership roles, no matter how inept they were. I mean, how messed up was it that you could buy your commission? Pompous, childish, incompetent, and rather dim we see this "club" in the interactions between George and Melchett who speak in their own weird language at the top of the ladder. George is even given a "get out of jail free card" when Melchett offers him the chance to leave the trench before the big push. George though isn't just of the "old boys club" he also embodies the idealistic young men who joined up in a group thinking they'd all be home for Christmas. George is in fact the last one left of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers. When he talks about all the others he joined up with, and their ludicrous nicknames, you see the idealism that was the start of the war. The fact that George has been able to hang onto that throughout is something of a miracle. That he didn't turn into a cynic like Blackadder just goes to show that the war was made up of many good men, of all different kinds, that did what had to be done, even if it seemed contrary to just walk at the guns, they did it for liberty and their loss will be forever felt.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter: "In spite of being ejected from Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is excited to be sailing home to England. But instead of a joyous homecoming, she is greeted on the docks with unfortunate news: Her father has fallen ill, and a hospital visit will have to wait while he rests. But with Flavia’s blasted sisters and insufferable cousin underfoot, Buckshaw now seems both too empty—and not empty enough. Only too eager to run an errand for the vicar’s wife, Flavia hops on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, to deliver a message to a reclusive wood-carver. Finding the front door ajar, Flavia enters and stumbles upon the poor man’s body hanging upside down on the back of his bedroom door. The only living creature in the house is a feline that shows little interest in the disturbing scene. Curiosity may not kill this cat, but Flavia is energized at the prospect of a new investigation. It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one’s spirits. But what awaits Flavia will shake her to the very core."

A new Flavia De Luce book makes EVERYTHING right with the world. 

Pushing Up Daisies by M.C. Beaton
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 288 Pages
To Buy

The official patter: "When Agatha Raisin left behind her PR business in London, she fulfilled her dream of settling in the cozy British Cotswolds where she began a successful private detective agency. Unfortunately, the village she lives in is about to get a little less cozy. Lord Bellington, a wealthy land developer, wants to turn the community garden into a housing estate. When Agatha and her friend Sir Charles Fraith attempt to convince Lord Bellington to abandon his plans he scoffs: “Do you think I give a damn about those pesky villagers?” So when Agatha finds his obituary in the newspaper two weeks later, it’s no surprise that some in town are feeling celebratory.

The villagers are relieved to learn that Bellington’s son and heir, Damian, has no interest in continuing his father’s development plans. But the police are definitely interested in him―as suspect number one. His father’s death, it seems, was no accident. But when Damian hires Agatha to find the real killer, she finds no shortage of suspects. The good news is that a handsome retired detective named Gerald has recently moved to town. Too bad he was seen kissing another newcomer. But when she is also found murdered, Gerald is eager to help Agatha with the case. Agatha, Gerald, and her team of detectives must untangle a web of contempt in order to uncover a killer’s identity. "

And if my mom wasn't happy enough with a new Flavia, there's a new Agatha Raisin book this week too!

The Girl Who Fought Napoleon by Linda Lafferty
Published by: Lake Union Publishing
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 442 Pages
To Buy

The official patter: "In a sweeping story straight out of Russian history, Tsar Alexander I and a courageous girl named Nadezhda Durova join forces against Napoleon.

It’s 1803, and an adolescent Nadya is determined not to follow in her overbearing Ukrainian mother’s footsteps. She’s a horsewoman, not a housewife. When Tsar Paul is assassinated in St. Petersburg and a reluctant and naive Alexander is crowned emperor, Nadya runs away from home and joins the Russian cavalry in the war against Napoleon. Disguised as a boy and riding her spirited stallion, Alcides, Nadya rises in the ranks, even as her father begs the tsar to find his daughter and send her home.

Both Nadya and Alexander defy expectations—she as a heroic fighter and he as a spiritual seeker—while the battles of Austerlitz, Friedland, Borodino, and Smolensk rage on.

In a captivating tale that brings Durova’s memoirs to life, from bloody battlefields to glittering palaces, two rebels dare to break free of their expected roles and discover themselves in the process."

Napoleon, Russians, based on fact! Yes please!

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter
Published by: Tor Teen
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter: "Vassa in the Night is an enchanting, modern retelling of the Russian folktale “Vassilissa the Beautiful” for young adults by the critically-acclaimed author, Sarah Porter. Leigh Bardugo, New York Times bestselling author of the Grisha Trilogy, calls it, "A dark, thoroughly modern fairy tale crackling with wit and magical mayhem."

In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now―but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling out again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters―and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair….

Inspired by the Russian folktale “Vassilissa the Beautiful” and her years of experience teaching creative writing to students in New York City public schools, acclaimed author Sarah Porter weaves a dark yet hopeful tale about a young girl’s search for home, love, and belonging."

So, you MIGHT think I was doing a Russian theme here at the end, and while yes, I did thing that was cool, it was more hearing that this book was reminiscent of Leigh Bardugo than anything else that sold me...

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review - Mata Hari's Last Dance

Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran
Published by: Touchstone
Publication Date: July 19th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

The woman formerly known as Lady Margaretha MacLeod has come to Paris to reinvent herself. Styled as Mata Hari, the "Eye of the Dawn," she has been trying to get work in the various dance halls. But she is too exotic, too foreign. Little do they know she's just a girl from the Netherlands who can spin a tale. At the last place she auditions, the disreputable L'Ete, she is once again turned away, but her luck is about to change. Edouard Clunet, a respectable and successful lawyer saw her dance and wants to act as her agent. The dance halls aren't the place for Mata Hari, she needs a select and refined audience, one Edouard can introduce her to. Her first production is for Clunet's client, Guimet, who has built a library to house his extensive collections and wants to have a ceremony with two hundred guests to open his Place d'Iena. Mata Hari's dance is a sensation. Her storytelling, her risque dances, they electrify the audience and soon she is coveted by all of Paris to perform at their function. But Clunet is clever, he only chooses the best venues with the best hosts, concerned just as much with Mata Hari's image as with her abilities.

Soon Mata Hari is performing one of a kind shows for the Rothschilds, Jeanne de Loynes, and Givenchy. Her habit to also occupy her host's bed lets Mata Hari accumulate beautiful possessions and living quarters, those that her pricey performance fees don't quite stretch to. She is the name on everyone's lips, so of course she is given opportunities beyond Paris which she jumps at. Madrid, Berlin, never did she think she'd play such lavish locations! But now that she has everything she could ever have wanted she realizes what she misses most, that which she ran away from. Her daughter, Jeanne Louise, whom she left behind with her husband when she fled after the death of their son. She has spent so much of her life telling tales and reinventing herself that to open up to Edouard, to tell him a truth, raw and painful, is a revelation. Her success will continue longer than she ever imagined, but it's her past she can never recapture that she wants most. As time goes on her habits with her lovers and her ability to spin a yarn will catch up to her with the most dire of consequences. Everyone has to face the music in the end.

When I was younger I didn't quite know who Mata Hari was. But then again, being told of a great courtesan doesn't seem like the kind of tale you'd tell as a bedside story to a child. So I had these wild ideas about who she was. A seductress, a storyteller, and a spy, all with the most amazing outfits. Someone out of The Arabian Nights like Scheherazade. Someone from antiquity when Gods walked among the deserts. A grand heroine of myth. The truth is she'd probably like the myth in my mind. It wasn't until much later that I learned the truth of her tragic life. Ironically I didn't learn about Mata Hari in any history class but in the episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles that was written by Carrie Fisher, which should have been subtitled "Indy Gets His Groove On." Here was the beginning of the truth I never knew. The woman I thought relegated to dusty tomes was a "spy" during the first world war! While there are those who'd argue that this is old, to me, if a person was alive in the same century I was born that's pretty recent news. Gone were The Arabian Nights delusions and in their place was this woman who defied convention and died for the greater good.

I think where my erroneous impressions of Mata Hari came from was the fact she was a courtesan. Courtesans seem of an older era, when Kings walked through Versailles and a Maharajah took a woman to bed bedecked with jewels. When you think of the turn of the past century when a woman slept around or had a lover she was a mistress or worse. But mistress doesn't do Mata Hari justice. Neither does any of the more derogatory slurs that could be mentioned. She was a true courtesan. She was well educated, skilled, and able to tell the most intoxicating stories. So she accepted gifts of jewels and property, these were never payment, they weren't even really a transaction of any kind, more a thank you for a good seduction. She lived outside the expectations of society. Or at least the expectations of a woman in society. She acted more like a man when it came to whom she took to bed. It was all about desire, hers and theirs, and if they happened to look really fabulous in a uniform, all the better.

By living outside of the proscribed norms it was interesting in how I related to Mata Hari. As in, I didn't relate to her AT ALL. I mean, sure spending a night on your back or a day dancing to be draped in jewels might be some people's ideal life, just not mine. The truth is, she's not the most likable person. It's not just that her morals don't jive with mine, it's something more, something deep down that while I can be fascinated by her I would never like her. In fact, I found it interesting that Mata Hari kind of reminded me of Linda Radlett from Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. They are both very acquisitive beings who like the finer things in life and don't scruple when it comes to what they want to do. While I like to view myself as carving out my own life, I'd never go for such a drastic trailblazing method. But that is what makes Mata Hari so interesting. She goes big or goes home. More than that though she really knows how to craft a tale. Her lies are so intoxicating and fascinating, that while you might balk at her life choices, you have to admire her style.

Where Moran's storytelling surpasses Mata Hari's is in showing the real purpose of all Mata Hari's storytelling, to mask her pain. Mata Hari's life growing up as Margaretha Zelle, later MacLeod, wasn't the smoothest of journeys to be sure. The situations that she was forced into by the abandonment of her family at a young age eventually resulting in her early marriage would be events best forgotten. When this is compounded by the death of her beloved son you can see why she ran away and rewrote her own story. Many people would give anything to be able to rewrite their past, even pasts not nearly as traumatic as that lived by Mata Hari. A new city, a new name, a new past. She did a marvelous job reinventing herself and creating a legend. But legends are rarely relatable. Through her writing Moran lets us see behind the veil and while you might never quite come to terms with and like Mata Hari, you really feel for her. Her struggles, her pains, her decisions, even the atrocious ones, you just get it, and that's what historical fiction is about, connecting to another person in another place and time.

As for whether Mata Hari was killed because she was a spy? Well, I'm not of the harsh opinion Wikipedia holds that she was too naive and stupid to be a double agent. Because if anything her reinvention shows that she was a clever woman who knew what she wanted and got it. I agree with Moran's inference that Mata Hari's downfall was a judgment on her as a person versus any knowledge or secrets she might have held. Mata Hari didn't fit into the standard mold. She was a woman who lived her life as she wished. Certain men in power couldn't handle this. The world was at war and people were expected to toe the line and behave or all would be lost. Mata Hari went from being a juicy topic of conversation used to titillate to a wanton woman who was out to steal your husband. She was judged for what she did and paid the ultimate price. So what if men did what she did all the time, she was a woman and therefore her death was for the greater good. Yes, her ability to spin stories did come back to bite her on the ass, because she had a honeyed tongue and could make anything sound like truth so how could you believe a word she said? But what this book made me realize is that her story still resonates. She was a woman who lived her life outside of societies expectations and paid for it. Therefore I give you Mata Hari, a true feminist icon! She died for the cause, and can that be said about Isadora Duncan?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book Review - Elizabeth Speller's The Return of Captain John Emmett

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: March 4th, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 448 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Laurence Bartram survived the Great War, his wife and child did not. In the years since he has become more and more recluse ostensibly working on a book about churches while hiding away in his garret of an apartment. A letter from someone out of his past is about to bring him back into the world. Mary Emmett, attractive and nymph like younger sister of his former classmate John Emmett has reached out to Laurence as perhaps the only person in the world who knew her brother well. This past winter John killed himself after a stay in a sanatorium and Mary wants to know why. Laurence insists that he is not the right man to make these inquiries on her behalf because he lost touch with John long before the war and he wouldn't possibly know where to begin. Yet his affection for Mary and what might have been reluctantly enlists his help, and she does have a suggestion for a starting point. John left three bequests in his will to people other than his family. A Captain William Bolitho, a widow named Mrs. Lovell, and a Frenchman the solicitors were never able to find, a Monsieur Meurice. With these three names Laurence starts to piece together a horrific event that happened during the war. An event that still has ramifications as those who were present start turning up dead. Sadly Laurence realizes that John Emmett has ended up being more important to him dead than alive... just as he is to a mysterious figure in a coat and hat who is following him.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a good old fashioned ripping yarn that is reminiscent of the golden age of detection when Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham were writing murder mysteries that the world devoured. Just as I have imbibed the books of these "Queens of Crime" I couldn't put down Elizabeth Speller's book about Laurence Bartram. Phone calls went unanswered, emails were not replied to. I once again started to lament my inability to just absorb books into the very fibers of my being à la dark Willow in the season six finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But as much as I wanted to reach that grand unveiling, feverishly reading page after page, I almost didn't want the denouement to come because then this marvelous caper would be concluded. With each page I kept thinking back to the day I found this book at my local used bookstore and all I could think was, who could ever sell this awesome of a book? It had everything you could want! Atmospheric London right after the war, unrequited love, mysterious deaths, suicides that might not be as they seem, mistaken identities, adultery, murder, paternity issues, poetry, villains, heroes, humor, insane asylums, quaint rural pubs, love... everything! Seriously, there are some people lacking discernment in Madison. But there loss was my gain. As it always seems to be.

What the meat of the book hung off of was the amazing character development. Each and every person was such a unique individual. While I think it might be a sin to say that the protagonist Laurence wasn't my favorite, he just wasn't. Laurence means well, he's stolid and trustworthy and so sweet in how he always gets the wrong end of the stick, much like another favorite detective of mine, Inspector Morse, who also just stumbled into answers versus actually solving them. But my heart is forever with Laurence's best friend Charles. Firstly, Charles is a rabid Agatha Christie fan, even if she had only written one book when this book was set, a slight historical accuracy oops. Yet Charles' love of mystery fiction doesn't force the book into the cliched Watson and Holmes shtick that so many golden age mysteries suffer from. Instead it manifests in his rapid love of the case and his suggested reading materials to Laurence. Who doesn't love a sidekick with a reading list? Plus, having Charles around would be wonderful, he always has a cousin who knows all the gossip, plus a car to get around. Sorry Laurence, you are trumped in every sleuthing category by Charles. Yet that's why I love this book, it's like Watson is the accidental protagonist for once! But these are just two of the amazingly multi-faceted characters. From John Emmett's father and his very Mitford-esque nature, to the fiery red-head Mrs. Bolitho who was a nurse during the war and has very progressive political ideas. Not one character was flat and lifeless, they just emerged from the page fully formed and instantly became my friends. People versus characters.

Though the heart of the book is how Speller deals with the more difficult topics of what war does to someone. How to some, like the newspaperman Brabourne, it's just a phase in a life that will be reminiscences to his grandchildren, where to Emmett, it forever changed him and lead him to his grave at that folly in the countryside. Then there is Laurence, who has shut himself off from the world and become a recluse. This investigation Laurence undertakes helps to bring him back to the world and out of his shell. Because of a simple letter asking for help he is slowly reentering the world. The strong characterization of each individual in the book lets Speller examine the effects and tolls on myriad people, all who are different and unique. Life is a house of cards and one wrong rotten thing can ruin it... for some. Speller shows us clearly the difference of life during wartime and life after wartime, making this an interesting examination of the Great War. Sometimes things just happen in a war that you could never, ever see yourself doing under normal circumstances. And when the war ends, it's about coming to terms with what you did. How can life ever become what it was? But sometimes we can not be held accountable for everything that happens. We cope, we deal in our way. For some it's poetry, for others photography, some prefer isolation, and for others still, it is surrendering to your base animal instincts. Yet Speller handles all these sensitive issues and more without being preachy. She has created real people and through them we understand.

And what we have to understand most of all is that the Great War's biggest repercussion was that it was a great demystifier. Prior to being sent to their deaths among dirt and disease, these young men believed it was noble and patriotic to die for your country. But the Great War was just hell on earth. Literally. You were forced to do your duty because otherwise, well, otherwise you were dead. The most terrifying aspect of the war was that if you tried to desert because of cowardice, because you literally could not face going over the top, then you were killed by your own men. All told, the number of soldiers shot for cowardice was very small in the grand scheme of things, but to have to kill one of your own because they acted on what every single one of them was surely feeling, it's a betrayal to your own beliefs, surely. Something one might never get over. In recent years more and more literature, film, and television, has focused on shell shock and the mental repercussions of the war. But here Speller is able to show us both sides of the argument. She delves deep into that which supposedly had to be done for the greater good. Yet here the repercussions spin a complex yarn of a tale, a mystery that you'll want to go back to again and again. In fact, every time you see it on a shelf at a bookstore you might just want to pick it up to pass it along to someone who hasn't yet had the honor of reading it.  

Monday, September 12, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

Nightmares: The Lost Lullaby by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller
Published by: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 13th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The third book in the hilariously scary Nightmares! series by New York Times bestselling authors Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller is here! You thought the nightmares were over? You better keep the lights on!

Charlie Laird has a very bad feeling.

1. There’s a NEW GIRL at school, and Charlie and his friends have DEFINITELY seen her before.

2. He’s been hearing strange noises after dark, which is NEVER a good sign.

3. The nightmares are back, and they’re WEIRDER THAN EVER.

Not since he faced his fears has Charlie had so many bad dreams. Whenever he falls asleep, he finds himself in a Netherworld field, surrounded by a flock of CREEPY BLACK SHEEP. They're not counting sheep. They refuse to jump. In fact, they don't do much at all. EVEN EERIER, THOUGH, is that it’s not Charlie’s nightmare. Somehow he’s trapped in someone else’s bad dream. And he’s pretty sure the twins ICK and INK are responsible.

Charlie and his friends thought they’d put the twins out of business, but it seems they didn’t quite finish the job. Now the WOOLLY NIGHTMARES are closing in, and INK has shown up at Cypress Creek Elementary! Charlie’s convinced that INK is up to NO GOOD. And if he’s right, it could be a very long time before anyone’s dreams are sweet again."

Not only is the another new Jason Segel book, it has SHEEP on the cover. Sold.

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
Published by: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: September 13th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 240 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Beloved author Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) returns with this long-anticipated new novel, a beautifully bittersweet tale of passion, enchantment, and the nature of fate.

It was a typically unpleasant Puget Sound winter before the arrival of Lioness Lazos. An enigmatic young waitress with strange abilities, when the lovely Lioness comes to Gardner Island even the weather takes notice.

As an impossibly beautiful spring leads into a perfect summer, Lioness is drawn to a complicated family. She is taken in by two disenchanted lovers—dynamic Joanna Delvecchio and scholarly Abe Aronson — visited by Joanna’s previously unlucky-in-love daughter, Lily. With Lioness in their lives, they are suddenly compelled to explore their deepest dreams and desires.

Lioness grows more captivating as the days grow longer. Her new family thrives, even as they may be growing apart. But lingering in Lioness’s past is a dark secret — and even summer days must pass."

Firstly, that cover! Secondly, it's Peter S. Beagle people!

Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan
Published by: Tor.com
Publication Date: September 13th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 112 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need.

And so, in reply, there is a woman.

At the beginning―no―at the end―she appears, full of fury and bound by chains of prophecy.

Setting off on an unexplained quest from which she is compelled to complete, and facing unnatural challenges in a land that doesn’t seem to exist, she will discover the secrets of herself, or die trying. But along the way, the obstacles will grow to a seemingly insurmountable point, and the final choice will be the biggest sacrifice yet.

This is the story of a woman’s struggle against her very existence, an epic tale of the adventure and emotional upheaval on the way to face an ancient enigmatic foe. This could only spun from the imagination of Marie Brennan, award-winning author and beloved fantasist, beginning a new series about the consequences of war―and of fate.

Cold-Forged Flame is the first in a new series by Marie Brennan."

I met Marie Brennan when she was doing a signing tour with Mary Robinette Kowal. She is totally fascinating and I CAN NOT wait to read this new book. Also, that cover! 

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: September 13th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Mrs. Laetitia Rodd, aged fifty-two, is the widow of an archdeacon. Living in Hampstead with her confidante and landlady, Mrs. Bentley, who once let rooms to John Keats, Laetitia makes her living as a highly discreet private investigator.

Her brother, Frederick Tyson, is a criminal barrister living in the neighboring village of Highgate with his wife and ten children. Frederick finds the cases, and Laetitia solves them using her arch intelligence, her iron discretion, and her immaculate cover as an unsuspecting widow. When Frederick brings to her attention a case involving the son of the well-respected, highly connected Sir James Calderstone, Laetitia sets off for Lincolnshire to take up a position as the family's new governess--quickly making herself indispensable.But the seemingly simple case--looking into young Charles Calderstone's “inappropriate” love interest--soon takes a rather unpleasant turn. And as the family's secrets begin to unfold, Laetitia discovers the Calderstones have more to hide than most.

Dickensian in its scope and characters, The Secrets of Wishtide brings nineteenth century society vividly to life and illuminates the effect of Victorian morality on women's lives. Introducing an irresistible new detective, the first book in the Laetitia Rodd Mystery series will enthrall and delight."

Oh, a new series of cozy yet period mysteries? Yes please!

Death of an Avid Reader by Frances Brody
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: September 13th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Kate Shackleton's sterling reputation for courageous sleuthing attracts the attention of the venerable Lady Coulton. Hidden in her past is a daughter, born out of wedlock and given up to a different family. Now, Lady Coulton is determined to find her and puts Kate on the case. But as Kate delves deeper into Lady Coulton's past, she soon finds herself thrust into a scandal much closer to home. When the body of the respected Horatio Potter is found in the Leeds Library basement, the quiet literary community is suddenly turned upside down with suspicions, accusations and - much to Kate's surprise - the appearance of a particularly intelligent Capuchin monkey! Convinced an innocent man has been blamed, Kate sets out to discover the truth."

Um, yeah, this is a fun series so go read it people!

Truths, Half Truths and Little White Lies by Nick Frost
Published by: Hodder and Stoughton
Publication Date: September 13th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"'No life can really be all black, right? Even during the darkest times, what got me through that bleakness was laughter and time. With enough of both of these things I reckon you could get over just about anything.'

Nick Frost burst onto our screens in a blaze of camo fatigues and weaponry as the Territorial Army obsessed loveable idiot Mike Watt in the hit cult comedy Spaced. Since then, fans around the world have watched him with a fervent devotion as he fought zombies, rescued aliens and salsa'd his way to box office smash after smash.

It's quite a story. But it's not this story. This story isn't the romp from movie set to Hollywood party. This is a story of a life like no other.

With blistering candour Frost recounts his childhood growing up in Essex in a household full of love and optimism but tragically blighted by alcoholism, illness and sudden life shattering misfortune.

Dogged by his own personal demons, Nick tells of the hilarious, jaw dropping and at times heartbreaking experiences that have punctuated his tumultuous life.

This is exhilarating, joyful and unforgettable storytelling and unlike any memoir you're likely to read."

Nick Frost has written a book. OK. I'm trying to contain myself but I kind of want to yell out something about the power of Greyskull... or shoot some guns into the air while yelling ahhhhhh.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Television Review - The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Tales of Innocence
Starring: Sean Patrick Flanery, Jay Underwood, Veronica Logan, Pernilla August, Renato Scarpa, Anna Lelio, Selina Giles, Clare Higgins, Evan Richards, David Haig, and Roshan Seth
Release Date: July 14th, 1999
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Indy is stationed in Northern Italy. While his work has him arranging the dangerous defection of German troops to the allied forces, he spends all his time thinking of getting back to Guiletta. Guiletta, the girl of his dreams. Sure, her parents don't approve, but what does that have to do with love? All is well until he realizes he has a mysterious rival for the affections of Guiletta. He spills his guts out to a fellow American who drives an ambulance that night in the local cantena. Ernest Hemingway seems full of great ideas to one-up this upstart, that is until Indy realizes that Ernest is his rival! The two friends quickly become bitter enemies trying to win the heart of Guiletta while still doing their duty in the war. And war being war, anything could happen. Ernest and Indy are both injured in an air raid. While Indy is recuperating in Venice, his body and his heart start to heal. Though once healed he will be back in action, stealing hearts and saving the world. He only wishes his new assignment were more exciting. Trying to find out the culprits behind the transferring of arms in Morocco seems dull compared to fighting on the front lines. Yet his companion, the novelist Edith Wharton, turns what would be a boring mission into the journey of a lifetime.

Right before I started high school The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles premiered. Despite being such a short lived series it will forever hold a place in my heart. In fact, starting high school it was a good way to weed out prospective friends, if they watched the show and loved Sean Patrick Flanery as much as I did, well, friends for life. Literally. I fell hard for Young Indy and Sean Patrick Flanery, River Phoenix in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was long forgotten. I even have the premiere issue of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles Magazine that I ordered through Scholastic signed by Sean Patrick Flanery, who was the nicest person you could hope to meet and I had so much fun talking about the show with him at Wizard World Chicago. Yes, I fully admit to fangirling all over this series and Sean but luckily not to his face. I was so caught up in the stories and the romance and the action, and let's not omit the Sean angle, that I didn't realize how sneaky George Lucas was being. George Lucas was making me learn history! Designed as an educational program for children and teenagers, historical figures and important events were showcased through these prequels to the films.

I learned much of my history through the life of Indiana Jones. While I was more into the romantic travails of Indy fending off a young Ernest Hemingway, the Easter Rebellion wormed it's way into my brain. Pancho Villa worked his way in while I was admiring Indy's horsemanship. Damn that boy can ride! George Lucas had secretly succeeded in teaching me where my teachers failed. To be fair though, in grade school, it was the fault of the teachers not of history. The film franchise with Harrison Ford was very much centered on the Nazis and World War II. Therefore, due to Indy's age, it only made sense for "Young" Indy to be involved in World War I. From enlisting in the Belgian Army because of his young age, to fighting at the Somme and Verdun, to transporting weaponry across German East Africa and the Congo, to escaping from a prisoner of war camp, to escorting Austrian Princes, to even being seduced by Mata Hari, Henry Jones Junior encapsulated all of the Great War in his escapades in a way that was memorable and entertaining. I can't help but think that if my high school English teacher had combined A Farewell to Arms with Indy's adventures in Northern Italy in June of 1918 I might not have taken such a strong dislike to Hemingway.

Watching the first half of this episode twenty-three years after it first aired I'm amazed that it still holds up. It's not just for the Sean Patrick Flanery devotees, there's a good solid plot, lots of zany and goofy humor, in particular one scene involving the mass consumption of pasta, as well as some nice jabs at Hemingway. And yes, I still don't like Hemingway all these years later, so I take great amusement in his suffering. But what really struck me this time around was the influence of E.M. Forster on the look and feel of the Italian storyline. Yes, there's probably a part of me nostalgic for all his books and movies I devoured just last fall, yet there's this lovely innocence to Indy and Hemingway vying for the love of Guiletta, even if they get a little debauched at the bar after wooing hours... this story does have Hemingway in it so it was inevitable. I also think the fact that Howard's End coming out a year before this episode aired isn't a coincidence, even though this story is more reminiscent of A Room with a View in my opinion. When Indy goes on a walk with Guiletta with Granny as guardian, the beauty of the countryside is almost overwhelming. The show might have ended because it cost so much to make, but just watching it again, they did it right, and isn't that what matters?

What I love though about this storyline is that it shows that the Great War wasn't just in trenches in France with Germany bombarding them. This was the smallest section of the "European Theater" yet the war effected quite literally the entire world. With Indy traveling around we see how the war was fought from North Africa to Russia. Here we get a glimpse of the work being done in Northern Italy, with German forces successfully defecting, as well as the importance of non-active troops, such as ambulance drivers, which is how Hemingway served during the war. We also see that not every second of every day was devoted to battle. They have down time to drink, to think of the future, to love. Just because there is a war doesn't mean that we stop being human. I think that is what comes across most with the adventures of Indy, these famous people were actually people. Sometimes we look on celebrities as a different breed, people apart. But in the end they're just like us. They have hopes and dreams, like Hemingway wanting to be a writer, even if Indy shuns his idea of a love letter, which is hilariously literal. Humanizing history is what this show does, and perhaps that's why I became a lover of historical fiction.

Though while the first half is forever one of my favorite sections, the second section with Edith Wharton, which was never aired, I think is the most eye opening. To me Edith Wharton is so of a different time that I have never really connected her to the fact that she was around during World War I. She seems somehow of the past yet unmoored from historical events. Yet she tirelessly helped the war effort in France throughout the conflict. All that she did is amazing if you read about it, heck she even wrote several books on it herself. She was even appointed to the Legion of Honour for her work! And while the continuity doesn't quite work with her actual travels in Morocco, it's interesting to see Indy, not just solving a mystery, but having a relationship with a woman that is more about conversation and mutual understanding than about infatuation or seduction. Indy is, after all, a ladies' man, but Wharton here has the power. In an obvious mirroring of Wharton's own work, I mean just look to the title of this episode, Indy is relegated to the weaker role, that of Newland Archer, where Wharton holds all the cards of a intelligent and irresistible Countess Olenska. It's great fun to see Indy wrong-footed, but also to appreciate a woman for something more than just her looks. Which is why I knew he always HAD to end up with Marion Ravenwood. Always.

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