Friday, May 20, 2016

If Bees Are Few: A Hive of Bee Poems, edited by James P. Lenfestey

Publisher description: An anthology of 2,500 years of poetry, from Sappho to Sherman Alexie, humming with bees, at a moment when the beloved honey makers and pollinators are in danger of disappearing. Virgil wrote of bees, as did Shakespeare, Burns, Coleridge, Emerson, and Whitman, among many others. Amid the crisis befalling bees—hives collapsing, wild species disappearing—the poems collected here speak with a quiet urgency of a world lost if bees were to fall silent. A portion of the proceeds from this anthology will be donated to support research at the Bee Lab in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota.

I enjoy poetry and am worried about the status of bees, so this anthology of poems about bees intrigued me. The fact that some of the proceeds will benefit the Bee Lab alone makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

Some of the poems are focused on bees; in other poems, the bees are merely background. Some poems are long and lyrical, and others are  short and modern and to the point about vanishing bees. As usual with anthologies, some of the poems spoke to me and some did not. My three favorite poems were Two New World Bees by John Caddy, Bumblebee in the Basement by James Silas Rogers, and the pedigree of honey by Emily Dickinson:
The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee;
A clover, any time, to him
Is aristocracy.
If you enjoy reading poetry written by a variety of poets over thousands of years of human history, you might enjoy dipping in to If Bees Are Few. Be prepared to crave some honey!

I read a digital advance reader copy of If Bees Are Few. It will be published on May 30 and will be available in the new nonfiction section of the Galesburg Public Library.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Windcatcher by A.J. Norfield.

I love fantasy novels involving dragons and enjoyed Windcatcher, the first book in the Stone War Chronicles, by A.J. Norfield. Windcatcher is an old-fashioned (in the best sense) traditional fantasy dragon novel. A small squad of soldiers travels deep into enemy territory in an attempt to retrieve a treasure stolen from their kingdom’s ally. The treasure turns out to be something thought to exist only in legends – a dragon egg. He hatches, bonds with one of the soldiers, and becomes an ally in their fight against the enemy.

First person narrators are all the rage these days, and I’m tired of them. I’m especially tired of unreliable first person narrators. Give me a good old omniscient third person narrator any day. It was refreshing to read Windcatcher from that standpoint – it reads like a throwback fantasy novel. 

Windcatcher starts slowly, but I recognize that one has to take the time to do some world building in a long fantasy series. Once the dragon, Galirras, hatches and joins the cast of characters, things really take off.

The author is also a fan of traditional fantasy, and it shows. Sometimes the story is derivative. For example, on page 300 I could hear the Wilhelm scream used in many blockbusters, including The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, in this sentence: “The soldier disappeared from sight with a high-pitched scream.” But since the book is well written and well plotted, I can forgive the occasional lapse into cliché.

One way in which the book is not quite traditional is that the author does attempt to work in some diversity. For example, there is a “same gender” couple in the small troop, and the human tells the dragon, “Unfortunately, same gender lovers are heavily frowned upon by some. You often hear about such people being ridiculed, beaten up, or worse. They’re ignorant and small-minded people that do those things. I mean, who gave them the right to judge how others should feel?” (p. 159 of the ebook)

I do wish the Evil Bad Guy had a little more depth. He is pretty much a stereotypical, one dimensional fantasy villain. I’d like some explanation as to why he is evil and what motivates him. I was surprised by a violent episode that occurred at the end of chapter 13. It seemed extreme compared to the tone of the rest of the book, and its only point seemed to be “hey, this guy is really evil!” Perhaps we will learn more in the second book. 

Book one definitely does not stand alone. It stops in the middle of the story, and I’m ready for book two. If you like immersive traditional fantasy novels, especially those involving dragons, I recommend Windcatcher. It will be available in print at the Galesburg Public Library within the next month.

I was given a free digital copy of Windcatcher by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

Publisher Description: College grad Bailey Chen has a few demons: no job and a rocky relationship with Zane, her only friend when she moves back home. But when Zane introduces Bailey to his fellow monster-fighting bartenders, her demons get a lot more literal.

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is a silly and entertaining tale of cocktails that give one the power to fight demons.

The fighting demons with cocktails conceit wore a little thin, but the robust plot kept me going as a reader. There was one shockingly out of place incident that won't make dog lovers happy, but otherwise the violence is of the over-the-top demon fighting kind. Overall, I’d rate this book a little gimmicky but amusing and fun. It definitely does not take itself seriously. (The demons are called tremens - a group of them? A delirium.) It also has a diverse cast of characters, always welcome.

I loved the Chicago setting and details. The cover says the writer lives in L.A., but I have to believe from the accurate Chicago vocabulary that he was a Chicagoan at one time. Some lines made me laugh out loud (off to fight demons and the bad guy, the main character’s hair was “styled to weather both Chicago winds and possibly the end of the world.” p. 327 of the advance reader copy).

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge really feels like a “new adult” novel (although I do hate that label). (“She’d spent so much of the past two months running from her old self, but for the first time she felt maybe she didn’t have to. … What mattered was the future, and she still had plenty of that left.” (p. 276) This from a recent college graduate.)

Recommended for lovers of urban fantasy like Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files and for “new adult” Chicagoans who like quirky fantasy. In fact, if you are a Chicagoan or ex-Chicagoan of any age and the book’s description intrigues you, give it a shot. The opening of the author’s Acknowledgments give you an idea of what to expect: 
The hardest part about writing the acknowledgments for a book I wrote is finding a way to stretch the words “Great job, Paul!” See, that’s the thing about this book: I wrote it all by myself. If there’s anyone to acknowledge, it’s definitely just me and me alone. Well, me and Mira. I will definitely thank her. She’s my roommate’s cat, and she spent most of the draft process lying quietly in a nearby sunbeam. It was the single most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen. (p. 280 of the ARC)
 I read an advance reader copy of Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge. It will be published on June 7 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an ebook.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer

Publisher description: Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings, and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. After all, her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there. When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. Deeply injured by her mother’s deceptions, Madelyn soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner, prodigal daughter of the town’s founder. Miss Rose is a suffragette who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte. Madelyn, though, wants to feel beautiful and loved, and she pins her hopes on William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran. 

Reliance, Illinois appealed to me because it is set in a fictional small town in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi. The description on the back of the book made me laugh ("offers a large-hearted look at the stories animating a small town: gossip, murder, love and hate, lace making and drunken fist fights, sinners, saviors, and even an appearance by Mark Twain himself").

The book seems exhaustively researched. It exhausted me just reading all the details. There are many characters and I had some trouble keeping them straight. The narrative and the history are fine, but character development isn't one of the novel's strengths. The one part that didn't ring true to me was a section on the names of female private parts and a certain contraceptive device. While I'm sure there were women trying to spread the word about and the availability of contraception, it just seemed a little too forward to me. 

If you enjoy historical fiction with a touch of humor and bigger than life colorful characters, you may enjoy Reliance, Illinois.

I read an advance reader copy of Reliance, Illinois.  It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library starting May 10.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Arcadia by Iain Pears

From library patron Norm:

Arcadia follows characters in three different worlds. The author is well known for running different narrative streams in his novels, whether it’s seeing the same events or small period of time from the point of view of several different characters or telling stories from different time periods centuries apart, so he knows how to move effectively from one place, time, and character to another, and he creates interesting characters and situations in each. One of them is as far as we know the world we are familiar with, its setting the Oxford of the 1950’s, and while one character finds a gate to a different world, another is charged with finding a mole in the British Secret Service. The second is apparently a highly technological and overcrowded world in the future run by scientists (not the enlightened rulers one would wish) where there is tension with green back-to-nature enclaves, and a brilliant scientist who warns that a scheme to travel to parallel universes will bring disaster vanishes with vital resources and becomes the subject of a manhunt. The third is the delightful rural world of the title, with scholars who interpret the sacred “story,” idyllic celebrations, romantic love, and wronged noblemen.

There are engaging characters in each world, and the plots play out well in all of them. It wouldn’t be any fun, though, if the characters from one world didn’t find their way to the others, and if we didn’t eventually realize that characters we meet in one world were originally from another. How all this happens and the mystery of how these three worlds are connected is a mystery, the solution to which makes an interesting if grim variation on the familiar science fiction parallel universes convention. As far as the characters we focus on are concerned the ending is happy, but how happy on the large scale it is would make a very interesting discussion.

In case I didn’t make it clear, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. 

 - Norm

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The House Between Tides by Sarah Maine

From the publisher: Kate Morton meets Daphne du Maurier in this atmospheric debut novel about a woman who discovers the century-old remains of a murder victim on her family’s Scottish estate, plunging her into an investigation of its mysterious former occupants.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sarah Maine’s debut novel The House Between Tides. In 2010, Hetty Deveraux contemplates turning the massive house that she has inherited on a remote Scottish island into an upscale hotel. She meets resistance from the cordial but cool locals, who have just found the remains of a body in the decaying home as Hetty arrives to examine the property. Her pushy boyfriend Giles and the two shallow agents he has employed consider the hotel a done deal, but Hetty is not so sure.

The narrative flashes back and forth between 2010 and 1910, when young Beatrice arrives on the island as a new bride with her much older husband, artist Theo Blake. Woven throughout the story are works of art, loves lost, family mysteries, and wild birds.

The descriptions of the island in the Hebrides are very evocative. The author also captures the mansion in its glory in 1910 and in its moldering state in 2010. As a bird lover, I was interested in the thread about the irony of birdwatchers of the past shooting birds and collecting their eggs, no matter how rare or endangered. I was reminded of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black because the house can only be reached when the tide is out, but otherwise they are quite different books. (However, if you liked The Woman in Black you will probably enjoy this book also.)

The House Between Tides is not a perfect book. It takes Hetty too long to grow a spine, and the “bad guy” boyfriend and agents are stereotypical with no depth. Some of the family mysteries are obvious from the start, and I guessed the identification of the body long before the end. Still, I stayed up late finishing The House Between Tides, something I don’t do that often anymore. I also love the cover!

I recommend The House Between Tides to lovers of romantic gothic fiction and mysteries. I read an advance reader copy. It will be published in August 2016 and will be available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an ebook.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Tale of Shikanoko: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

From the publisher: In the first book of the four-volume Tale of Shikanoko, an epic adventure begins in the mythical, medieval Japan of Lian Hearn's imagination: a world of warriors and warlords, of fallen emperors, lost princesses, and demonic assassins; a world bound by tradition and colored by unpredictable magic. All four volumes of the Tale of Shikanoko will be published in 2016. 

Emperor of the Eight Islands is an amazing story. I felt fully immersed in the author's mythical Japan of the past. Shikanoko's father is killed in a game of Go with clever and cruel mountain goblins. His uncle promises to bring him up as his own child, but soon the uncle wants his nephew's title and estates. Shikanoko accompanies his uncle on a hunting trip and knows he is not expected to survive the trip and return. When his uncle aims an arrow at him, the uncle hits a stag instead. Shikanoko tumbles down a cliff with the dying animal and is presumed killed. He takes the deer's antlers and assumes a new identity, the deer's child, under the influence of a sorcerer.

And thus we are pulled into a magical world. The flow of the plot, the character development, the mysticism, and the action is amazing. I've never read anything by the author before but am impressed.

I did have problems keeping the characters straight, as I am not knowledgeable about Japanese names and many of them sounded quite similar to me. It didn't help that many of the characters have nicknames, and the names of places often sounded similar to the names of people. I think anyone who enjoys mythology, especially lovers of Japanese mythology and culture, will be intrigued by Emperor of the Eight Islands.

I read an advance reader copy of Emperor of the Eight Islands. It will be published on April 16 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library.