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AUTHOR SEARCH lists all authors reviewed on this Blog. CREATURE SEARCH groups all of the titles/series by their creature types. The RATINGS page explains the violence, sensuality, and humor (V-S-H) ratings codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their Ratings. The PLOT TYPES page explains the SMR-UF-CH-HIS codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their plot types. On this Blog, when you see a title, an author's name, or a word or phrase in pink type, this is a link. Just click on the pink to go to more information about that topic.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

UPDATE! Terry Spear's HEART OF THE WOLF SERIES (SEAL WOLF)

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post Terry Spear's HEART OF THE WOLF SERIES by adding a review of SEAL Wolf Undercover, the 21st novel in the full series (and the fifth SEAL WOLF novel).

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Friday, September 22, 2017

UPDATE! Ilona Andrews: HIDDEN LEGACY TRILOGY

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post for Ilona Andrews' HIDDEN LEGACY TRILOGY by adding a review of Wildfire, the third and FINAL novel in the series. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

UPDATE! Kalayna Price: ALEX CRAFT SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post for Kalayna Price's ALEX CRAFT SERIES by adding a review of Grave Ransom, the fifth novel. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

UPDATE! Kevin Hearne's IRON DRUID CHRONICLES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post for Kevin Hearne's IRON DRUID CHRONICLES by adding a review of Besieged, a collection of stories narrated by Atticus and other characters from the series.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

NEW SERIES: Kerrelyn Sparks: EMBRACED SERIES

Author:  Kerrelyn Sparks
Series:  EMBRACED
Plot Type:  Soul Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor—2-3
Publisher and Titles:  St. Martin's Press
       1   How to Tame a Beast in Seven Days (3/2017)
       2   So I Married a Sorcerer (8/2017)
       3   Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon (8/2018)

This post contains an overview of the series world-building, a full review of novel 1, and the cover art and publisher's blurbs for novels 2 and 3. I will not be reviewing any more of the books in this series, but I will continue to add the publisher's blurbs and cover art for new books as they are published. 

                         WORLD-BUILDING                         

     On her web site, Sparks introduces her new series with this description: "The Embraced is a new paranormal/fantasy romance series that is best described as Game of Thrones meets The Princess BrideThis world has two moons, and twice a year they eclipse (or embrace). A child born on the night the moons embrace will be gifted with a supernatural power. They are called the Embraced. Each of the five heroines is Embraced, so they all have a different kind of power. Of course, the heroes also have some awesome powers! So what can you expect? Action, adventure, suspense, spooky stuff, shifters, dragons, elves, witches, lots of laughs, and of course, plenty of romance!"


MAP OF AERTHLAN
Sorry about the line down the middle of the map. I couldn't 
prevent it because the map covers two pages of the book.
    Sparks sets up the series mythology in the Prologue to novel 1 and repeats it in similar form in the ensuing novels. In each novel, she includes a map of Aerthlan, the fantasy empire in which the series is set. 

The series heroines are all young and beautiful women who have been raised by the nuns who run the Convent of Two Moons on the Isle of Moon. Their religious beliefs are centered on Aerthlan's two moons, as are those of the fishermen and their families who live on the neighboring Isle of Mist.

     Each hero is a handsome, brave young man who grew up in one of the countries on the mainland: Eberon, Tourin, Norveshka, or Woodwyn. The countries are ruled by kings who are constantly at war with one another. On the mainland, the kings are too macho to worship a female god, so they worship the sun, a male god. There is also Rupert's Island, which is ruled by the pirate and sorcerer, Rupert, who is the hero of the second book.


     Twice a year, the two moons align (or embrace) and if a child is born that night, he or she receives some sort of supernatural power. These gifted children are called the Embraced. The power-mad kings do not want anyone to have special powers that they don't have, so in their four countries, the Embraced are considered to be abominations who are immediately killed by the kings' assassins. A few parents have been able to send their Embraced children to safety to the convent on the Isle of Moon, where they are raised with no knowledge of or contact with their families. The families pretend that the children died at birth so that they are not punished by the kings. This series tells the stories of five of the Embraced young women, one novel at a time: Luciana, Brigitta, Gwennore, Sorcha, and Maeve.


     In the first novel we get clues as to the homelands of the five girls: the family of Luciana (book 1 heroine) is from Eberon. 
Brigitta (book 2 heroine) looks like the people from the kingdom of Tourin. Gwennore (book 3 heroine) has the lavender-blue eyes and pointed ears of the elves of Woodwyn. Sorcha, with her fiery red hair, probably came from Norveshka.  That leaves Maeve, who (based on some not-so-subtle clues in novel 1) probably has relatives on the Isle of Mist. 

                 NOVEL 1:  How to Tame a Beast in Seven Days
                 

PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     As one of the Embraced―one born with magical powers―the beautiful, innocent Luciana escaped certain death after her father hid her away on the Isle of Moon. Now, nineteen years later, her father has returned with a frightening request. He will be executed unless Luciana returns to the mainland and marries a man feared throughout the land: a terrifying brute known as the Beast.

     Luciana accepts her fate and agrees to wed the Beast―Lord Leo―in order to save her father. Soon she learns that her betrothed is also one of the Embraced. With the ability to wield lightning, Leo’s immense power strikes fear into the hearts of men. . .and his mere touch can put an end to a woman’s life. But Luciana cannot deny the passion that burns between them. How can she resist the man who scorches her soul and makes her feel intoxicated with desire―even if surrendering to him could destroy them both?

MY REVIEW:  
    The first novel (as you can tell from the title) has a Beauty and the Beast story line. The beauty is Luciana, an Embraced with the ability to see and communicate with the ghosts of the dead. She also has some seer power. As the story opens, Luciana's father, Lucas, Duke of Vintello, arrives at the Convent to take her home to Eberon. This is upsetting to Luciana for a number of reasons, foremost of which is the fact that she thought that she was an orphan and is furious that her father dumped her at the convent and never contacted her again. She calms down when she learns that he did it to save her life, but she still doesn't want to leave her friends at the Convent. Then she gets some more mind-blowing information―that she is a twin and that her twin sister, Tatiana, just died and will be buried in the Convent graveyard under a gravestone marked "Luciana." Luciana will then become Tatiana. 

     Lucas explains to Luciana that he has a huge problem. King Frederick, the sociopathic madman who rules Eberon, has decreed that Tatiana must marry his nephew Leofric (Leo) of Benwick, Protector of the Realm within two months. Frederick has long been itching to get his hands on the rich vineyards of Vindalyn, and he figures that if he marries Lucas's heir off to his nephew, he can then have both her and her father assassinated, leaving Vintello in the hands of his nephew, who will be next on the assassination list. If the marriage does not take place by the two-month deadline, the King has threatened to execute Lucas and take over his lands. It's a no-win situation for Lucas and Luciana.

     The titular beast is Leo, who is also Embraced. Unfortunately, Leo's superpower is so frightening that everyone is terrified of him. No one has been able to kill him because his power is too great and they are too frightened to get close to him. Beginning when he was five years old, Leo became a magnet for lightning, which he absorbs and stores as energy within his body. Then, he uses that energy as a weapon against his enemies, frying them like steak on a hot grill until they char and turn to ash. Leo always wears full body armor and heavy gloves so they he doesn't accidentally brush up against someone and burn them.

     Needless to say, not many people mess with Leo. But Leo's electrical storage capability means that he can never touch or be touched skin-to-skin by another person. He learned that the hard way during that first experience with lightning when his nanny tried to save him and was burned to death. Ever since then, everyone has called him the Beast and they fall back in fear when he comes anywhere near them. Many rumors have sprung up over the years, including one that he burned his mother to death (not true, and this cruel gossip is very painful to Leo when he learns about it).

     The primary villain is King Frederick, a clichéd, one-dimensional, power-mad sociopath who adds absolutely nothing to the value of the story. He has either killed or banished all of his relatives because he fears that they might try to take the throne away from him. At a certain point in the story, Leo becomes Frederick's immediate successor. Leo has absolutely no interest in the throne, but Frederick doesn't believe that. Frederick can't imagine anyone not wanting to be the supreme ruler of Eberon so he keeps coming up with new ways to get rid of Leo. Frederick had hoped that as Lord Protector of the Realm, Leo would be killed in battle like his father was, but so far that hasn't happened. 

     The plot includes several story lines: 
The Romance: In the primary story line, the slowly blooming romance between Luciana and Leo bumps along painfully at first but then picks up speed in the second half of the book. One of their main problems, of course, is that Leo is afraid to touch Luciana for fear that he will kill her with his electricity. (The resolution of that problem is predictable from the very beginning of their relationship.)
The Twin Sister: Luciana can see and talk with her dead twin, Tatiana, who turns out to be a spoiled brat who (at first) makes fun of Luciana and has no interest at all in helping her adjust to life on the mainland. Fortunately, Tatiana eventually has a change of heart and the two become friends.
Leo and Luciana's Family Histories: Both grew up without a mother (and Luciana had no parents at all during her childhood). Luciana manages to make contact with her mother's ghost and get the whole story on what happened when she was born. There are a number of angst-filled scenes involving flashbacks to Leo's early years.
Leo's Friends: They play different roles in his life and one has a special gift that he keeps secret from everyone but Leo. I'm guessing that at least one of them will be the hero of a future book. The interactions among these friends are the source of lots of sarcastic "bro" humor.
The Assassination Attempts: At a certain point in the story, the King begins to send assassins to kill Luciana, so Leo has to come up with inventive ways to protect her and outwit the killers.
     Based on my enjoyment of Sparks's terrific LOVE At STAKE series, I had high hopes for this new series, but I'm sorry to say that I didn't enjoy this novel very much. The characters are so flat and bland that I couldn't make myself care much about their trials and tribulations. The plot lacked any true suspense and had no inventive twists to perk up my interest. I'm guessing that the remaining novels will follow the same formula, so I've decided not to read and review them. I will, however, continue to add the publisher's blurbs and cover art to this review post as each one becomes available. 

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from How to Tame a Beast in Seven Days on its Amazon.com page. Just click on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio. If you haven't read the sixteen LOVE AT STAKE novels, you should give them a try. Click HERE to read my reviews. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of How to Tame a Beast in Seven Days is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own. 

                         NOVEL 2:  So I Married a Sorcerer                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Growing up on the Isle of Moon, Brigitta knew that she was born with the magical powers of the Embraced―even if she did not know how to wield them. But she has finally learned the truth: Brigitta is the lost princess of the kingdom of Tourin. She was sent into hiding as an infant to escape the wrath of her half-brother, the king. And now he knows just where to find her.

    Rupert is a notorious pirate and sorcerer. He’s spent most of his life plotting revenge on the evil king―and Rupert believes that Brigitta could be the key to finally destroying his enemy. But what begins as a kidnapping of the innocent beauty escalates into something deeper, and more passionate, than either captor or captive could have imagined. Rupert soon vows to protect Brigitta against the king―but will they survive long enough to find their happily-ever-after. . .or does fate have something else in store?

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from So I Married a Sorcerer on its Amazon.com page. Just click on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

                  NOVEL 3:  Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon                  
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Gwennore has a talent. An Elf able to track down the cause of an illness and heal it, she’s a valuable asset to her people. But when the kidnapping of a young girl thrusts Gwennore into the very heart of the realm of the dragons, she discovers not only a place of power and magic, but also a haunted land, plagued by an ancient curse that all but ensures extinction to the royal family. But when she meets the smoldering General Silas Dravenko, they strike a bargain—save the country from its cursed illness, and he will return the kidnapped girl. She’s been raised never to trust a dragon, but never did making a deal with the devil feel so good.

     Silas has no way of curing the family he’s loyally served for years. But when a beautiful elf, long considered the enemy of the dragons, comes bursting into his world, Silas is awakened to passion and desire in a way he’s never felt before. But can he trust a sworn enemy to save the very existence he holds dear? And can their love survive those that threaten to tear them apart?
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Thursday, August 31, 2017

NEW SERIES: Carrie Vaughn: THE BANNERLESS SAGA

Author:  Carrie Vaughn
Series:  THE BANNERLESS SAGA 
Genre:  Ecotopian; Cli Fi; Post-Apocalyptic
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality3; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
     Bannerless (e-book, paperback, audiobook7/2017)
     The Wild Dead (8/20180)

     I wasn't sure just how to categorize the genre for this series, so I went with a combination of ecotopian, cli fi, and post-apocalyptic because the series has elements of all three. Ecotopian fiction and cli fi (aka climate fiction) deal with the effects of man-made climate change, while post-apocalyptic fiction is set in the aftermath of a world-changing/world-destroying event or series of events.   

     The BANNERLESS world is set about a century after the Fall—which comprised a series of disease pandemics and climate disasters (mostly flooding)—that nearly destroyed the world, killing off the majority of its people and leaving the physical structure of their civilizations rotting away into dust or skeletal metal ruins, depending upon how buildings were constructed. In the small towns, "The shadow of that world still remained, the streets in the same places and the foundations of buildings still visible. But a new skin had been put over it." For the most part, the pandemics have ceased and the oceans remain stable at their highest levels, but gigantic, destructive, hurricane-strength storms still sweep across the land at frequent intervals.

     On her blog, Vaughn discusses the first novel of the series: "Bannerless is a more subversive, relevant novel than it was when I wrote it a year ago. In it, I posit a cascading failure for civilization. As more and more infrastructure and support gets knocked out, disasters like storms and epidemics become more difficult to recover from, until recovery is impossible. (For example, imagine Hurricane Harvey happening in conjunction with an epidemic on par with the Spanish flu of 1918…)."


     The life style of the descendants of the original survivors is reminiscent of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, but with the addition of some of the knowledge and technology of the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, the people make heavy use of solar panels to heat their homes and also use sun energy to power a handful of cars. Fishermen go out to sea in fiberglass boats dating back to pre-Fall days—patched up over and over again to keep them afloat. Medics use a combination of old and new drug formulas to produce antibiotics and other medications to fight off epidemics. During the Fall, the survivors had to choose what to save. If a product or idea did not directly contribute to survival in this new world, it was tossed aside and forgotten, so there are no video games, televisions, diet Cokes, Pringles chips, or any other frivolity—not even computers. ("Mysterious plastic boxes with slots and wires and dead lights. Screens that stayed dark. Mysterious and a little bit sad.") This generation knows about these unnecessary things only from reading about them in old books or, in the case of computers, seeing them stacked on dusty shelves.

     The survivors also learned some lessons from the past about the perils of overusing natural resources, the evils of hoarding, and the horrific effects of overpopulation (i.e., famine and starvation). They have books and hand-written diaries from before and during the fall in which they read about the famines that swept across the globe when resources were depleted, partly due to natural disasters but also because of greedy hoarding by the rich. They are determined to avoid taking that pathway, which would inevitably lead them to a second Fall.

     In the section of the country seen in this series (at least in the first novel), people live in households, which combine to make up villages, which are run by elected committees. The villages lie along the Coast Road, which borders the ocean (probably the Pacific). The series heroine is Enid, of Serenity household, which is part of the town of Haven. Almost everyone belongs to a household, and the ones who do not are viewed suspiciously as untrustworthy outsiders. Every person in a household is required to pull his or her own weight, doing whatever tasks he or she is capable of doing. Those who don't work are thrown out of the household and are unlikely to be welcomed in any other household. 


     Two major edicts are of utmost importance in the laws of this society, and both are enforced by Investigators (of which Enid is one). 


&>1. Preventing Overpopulation: A man and woman are not allowed to produce a child until they set up a productive household and prove that they can feed and care for the child properly. If their petition to the town's Committee is approved, they are issued a banner"a piece of woven cloth, a foot square...a red-and-green-checked-pattern for blood and life"which they proudly display in their home. Both men and women are free to choose the parent of their child after each receives a banner. Usually they do not marry, but they frequently live together in the same household along with several other adults and children. Each female of childbearing age receives a birth-control implant in her upper arm that cannot be legally removed until she earns her banner.  "This was one of the bits of technology they'd worked hard to save after the Fall. Because if you could manage birthrate, you could manage anything, and they had the statistics to prove it." If a bannerless pregnancy occurs (either by accident or by illegal intent), the Investigators must determine what action is required to settle the case. Banners are the rewards that every household strives to receive.

>2. Maintaining Quality of Life While Conserving Resources: Each household has a quota that it is required to meet in terms of crop production, woodworking, blacksmithing, or any other helpful product that is necessary for the prosperous existence of the village. The goal is to hit the quota squarely—not over and not under. Although exceptions are made for accidental or unavoidable divergences from the mandatory quotas, punishment is swift if Investigators suspect fraud in any form. For example, if a household plants a secret field of wheat or corn so that the harvest can be hoarded away from the other households, members of that household (and anyone in the village who assists them) will pay severe consequences. This quota system keeps natural resources from being used up too quickly and is based on a long-term outlook that allows fields to lie fallow for alternate seasons and for trees to be cut down only when absolutely necessary. On her blog, Vaughn sums up the economic system this way: "Bannerless depicts a society where economic strength is measured by whether or not everyone is healthy and taken care of, not by how much profit is accumulated."

     Punishment for law-breaking does not rely on a prison system, which the people have learned through their reading didn't work back before the Fall. Instead, they rely on either shunning people who commit crimes (i.e., making each one a persona non grata within the town and up and down the Coast Road) or by breaking up the household and scattering its members far and wide to other households. A shunned person or household also loses any hope of ever again receiving a banner, which is a highly motivational tool that generally keeps people on the right side of the law. "Being bannerless meant a person lacked protection. Lacked a home and safety."

     The only people who do not follow these laws are the outliers who barely maintain a hardscrabble existence in the ruins of the pre-Fall cities. No one from the villages ever visits the ruins. The townsfolk are content with their lives and happy to have had strong ancestors who survived the Fall, and they strongly believe in learning from their ancestors' bitter experiences.

PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice Investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.

   Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.

     Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?


     In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.


MY REVIEW: 
    Vaughn alternates the chapters from present (odd-numbered) to past (even-numbered—fifteen years earlier). The odd-numbered chapters form the core of the novel's plot in which Enid and her partner Tomas investigate a suspicious death in the town of Pasadan, a several-days walk from Haven. The even-numbered chapters provide a view of Enid's childhood and her romantic road-trip adventures with Dak, a traveling musician with whom she hooks up when she is just a teenager. These flashback chapters provide invaluable character development for both Enid and Dak, which serves the story well when Dak turns up in Pasadan while Enid is in the midst of her investigation.

     Sero, the Pasadan victim, is rumored to have been a bannerless man. He lived alone by choice and was known by the townsfolk to be quiet and standoffish. Sero's body was found on the floor of his immaculately kept wood shop with a gash on the back of his head. To Enid and Tomas, it is immediately obvious that the three Committee members are in major disagreement about having Investigators in their town. The eldest, Philos, insists that Sero's death was obviously an accident, while Ariana (who called in the Investigators) appears to be holding back information. 

     Pasadan reminded me of David Lynch's fictional town of Lumberton, the setting for his iconic film, Blue Velvet. (Click HERE to watch BV's opening sequence, Lynch's snapshot of perfect small-town life that almost immediately begins to disintegrate.) Both towns have the outward appearance of honesty, wholesomeness, and pride, but both have an undercurrent of danger and death. Like Lumberton, Pasadan—with its sturdy buildings, neatly gridded streets, whitewashed fences, perfectly squared fields, and green pastures—is attractive on the outside, but beneath its wholesome surface is the stench of betrayal and duplicity. Both Investigators immediately pick up on the uneasiness of many of the townsfolk and their unwillingness to answer questions in a straightforward manner. Hidden secrets must be pried out and pulled into the open, and Enid is just the person for the job.

     Enid has been an Investigator for just three years, but this is her first time as Lead Investigator in a murder case, so she is a bit nervous. She and Tomas look over the crime scene, interview the villagers, and consign poor Sero to his funeral pyre (which is the means by which bodies are disposed of in this world). As clues begin to surface, it soon becomes obvious that Sero's death was no accident. Someone slammed his head into a beam, killing him almost instantly. Who is the murderer? (There are several suspects and motives.) Is this case more complex than it seems? Is there another crime the Investigators need to solve?

     Complicating Enid's investigation is the fact that her former lover Dak (from the even-numbered chapters) is currently a member of Ariana's household. Even though Enid is happily settled into Serenity household with Sam, the man she loves, old emotions surface and must be dealt with. Plus...Enid knows Dak well enough to suspect that he knows much more than he's telling her about what is going on in Pasadan. Could he be the killer?

     Interestingly, the arts have value in this world. Before Enid’s former lover, Dak, settled down in Pasadan, he earned his keep by walking the length of the Coast Road singing songs for the townsfolk and teaching their children to play his guitar. In the even-numbered chapters, if you look carefully at the subjects of some of Dak's songs, you might recognize them. In one, "the chorus was about dust in the wind, and how everything would eventually blow away and come to naught." Dak explains that he learned it from an old man who said that it "came from a place called Kansas." This is a marvelous example of the informational twists that occur as songs (and stories) are handed down generation to generation, and the song itself is a terrific metaphor for this series. (If you don't get the joke, click HERE.) Another of Dak's songs is "about lemon trees and love gone wrong." (Click HERE to hear a performance of this one.)


     I have always enjoyed Carrie Vaughn's novels, and this one adds another winner to my Vaughn list. Enid is a fascinating young woman living in a seemingly simple society that is—at the same time—quite complex and layered. I love this mythology, which Vaughn says that she created more than a year ago. On her blog, Vaughn talks about the new relevancy of the BANNERLESS world, "now [that] we have an administration that has proposed cutting, if not eliminating, so many of the support structures that are specifically designed to help our society survive and recover from disasters." As I write this review, Houston is just beginning to recover from the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey, yet the U.S. has pulled its support from the international coalition of countries trying to solve our world's worsening climate problems (which include an ever-increasing number of severe storms and a relentless rise in sea levels). 

     Don't get me wrong, Vaughn's novel is by no means a screed against climate change. It is a riveting story about a society that remakes itself on the ashes of the society in which we are living right now—a cautionary tale with wonderful characters, a suspenseful story line, and just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing all the way to the end.

     Vaughn includes some interesting sections in which Enid muses about the stories she heard during her childhood from Auntie Kath, one of the last survivors of the Fall. Kath told her listeners that back then, people "didn't know what they needed to save. They couldn't save it all, so they had to choose. How later she wished there were things people in the early days of Haven had saved." Kath regaled the townsfolk with memories of objects like cameras and latex glovesthings that the people of Haven can't even imagine. Enid and Tomas chuckle over Kath's description of plastic wrap, which "had been an obsession with Auntie Kath, who insisted the item had a million uses, and she brought it up every time one of those uses occurred to her. No one had ever really understood what she was talking about." 

     If our world were to collapse as this one did, what would our descendants make of a fidget spinner or a piece of dead electronic wizardry (like a cell phone or a Fitbit)? Will all of our scientific knowledge be locked into unreadable files on dead computers? Will paperback romance novels be the only books available for our descendants to study the history of the 21st century? (That last one makes me smile!)


     Click HERE to go to this novel's Amazon.com page to read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Bannerless is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.


BONUS: Here is a preview of the second novel, which has a publication date of 7/17/2018:

                         NOVEL 2: The Wild Dead                          
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Decades after environmental and economic collapse, pockets of settlements struggle to maintain a much-reduced civilization by strictly rationing resources—including the ability to have children. Enid of Haven, an investigator in this community, travels to a far-flung village with her new, inexperienced partner to settle a minor resource dispute. But while there, the murder of an outsider demands her attention, and leads to explosive secrets.
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Monday, August 28, 2017

NEW NOVEL: Victor Lavalle's "The Changeling"

Author:   Victor LaValle
Title:  The Changeling 
Genre:  Dark Fairy Tale/Fantasy
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (an imprint of Random House) 
Publication Date: 6/13/2017

                         PUBLISHER'S BLURB                          
    When Apollo Kagwa’s father disappeared, all he left his son were strange recurring dreams and a box of books stamped with the word IMPROBABILIA. Now Apollo is a father himself—and as he and his wife, Emma, are settling into their new lives as parents, exhaustion and anxiety start to take their toll. Apollo’s old dreams return and Emma begins acting odd. Irritable and disconnected from their new baby boy, at first Emma seems to be exhibiting signs of postpartum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go even deeper. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air.

     Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood, to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest, which begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts, takes him to a forgotten island, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever.

    This captivating retelling of a classic fairy tale imaginatively explores parental obsession, spousal love, and the secrets that make strangers out of the people we love the most. It’s a thrilling and emotionally devastating journey through the gruesome legacies that threaten to devour us and the homely, messy magic that saves us, if we’re lucky. 

                         MY REVIEW                          
     There is so much I love about this book, but I don't want to spoil the reading experience for you by revealing too much, so if this review seems a bit disjointed, it's because I wanted to point out the best bits without including spoilers.

     In the preface to an LA Times interview with the author, Nichole Perkins summarizes the plot of The Changeling, as "a horrifying fairy tale about the maze of parenthood, shrouded by the shadows of our own upbringing. The award-winning author blends literary allusions, horror and social commentary to create a riveting piece of work that will have readers examining their own views about parenthood while worrying if they’ll ever sleep again.”

     Although the title of LaValle's novel takes its name from the changelings of ancient folk and fairy tales, the story itself is a changeling of a different sort, beginning as a family saga set in the reality of 21st century New York City—specifically, Queens—and then slipping into a horrific, dark world of betrayal and abandonment, drowning and burning, and—eventually—monsters and witches and things that go bump in the night. So...don't be deceived by the early chapters that lay out Apollo's family history like an Ancestry.com summary of a typical American immigration experience. If you read carefully, you'll recognize the dark seeds that LaValle has planted throughout the story—seeds that will sprout and blossom and then, just as quickly, wither and die.

     LaValle divides the 103 short chapters into eight sections, the titles of which give you an outline of its early lightness followed by its delirious descent into madness and horror. The first three sections (30 chapters) introduce Apollo; Lillian, his mother; Brian, his long-absent father; Emma, his wife; Brian, their baby; and Patrice, Apollo's best friend and fellow book seller.  Those titles are: 1. "First Comes Love"; 2. "Then Comes Marriage"; 3. "Then Comes Baby in a Baby Carriage." But then, we come to Section 4, (which, here, includes a lot of dashes to mask the profanity): "Sh-t, D-mn, Motherf----r," and you know immediately that this family's story has jack-knifed into a very dark and scary place.

     The Changeling is a cautionary tale for modern parents who deluge their Facebook and Instagram accounts with dozens of pictures of their beautiful, talented children doing all sorts of cute things. The lesson to be learned about social media is verbalized by one of the villains in this story when he warns Apollo, "There are no secrets anymore. Vampires can't come into your house unless you invite them. Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can enter." Apollo certainly opens that door, snapping photo after photo of Brian, sending them to Emma, and sharing them with friends and family on social media. But then Emma begins to receive photos of Brian that don't come from Apollo, and when she pulls out her phone to show him, the photos are always gone—as if they were never there. Apollo tells Emma that she is overtired and is just imagining things, but she is certain that those pictures were there. If Apollo is right, is Emma suffering from fatigue and postpartum depression? If Emma is right, then who is spying on them? And why? By this point, I was riveted to the page, dying to know what was going on and what would happen next. That feeling never left me. In fact, it was almost impossible for me to put the book down, even for a moment.

     Along with the social media warning flags, LaValle stirs in elements of an old fairy tale—not a Disney fairy princess story, but a dark, violent, scary story with roots in the original 19th century Grimm Brothers' tales that were meant not to entertain children but to frighten them into behaving properly. If you have never read any of those unsanitized original fairy tales, you can click HERE for more background on the changeling legend in folklore. You can also find a more modern version in Maurice Sendak's book entitled Outside Over There, which features prominently in Apollo's childhood because it was the book that his father read to him over and over again before he disappeared. Apollo still knows the book by heart and flashes back to it many times during the darkest parts of the novel. This part of the story, of course, plays on the ultimate fear of all parents: the fear of losing their child. At the core of the story is the need of parents everywhere to be good parents, to do the right thing, and to protect their child at all cost. 

     One of the ongoing themes of the novel is the lies people tell themselves in order to justify their own behavior. At one point, Apollo muses about a time when he was impatient with and cruel to Emma. "[H]ow had he justified it to himself? He was trying to focus on Brian to be the kind of father he'd never had. What lengths will people stretch to believe they're still good?" Many of the people in the book, including Apollo's own mother, keep secrets and tell lies because they believe that they are doing the right thing, only to realize the damage that such secrets and beliefs cause in other's lives. They tell themselves that they are good people while committing unforgivable emotional and physical acts against their loved ones.

     Another theme running through the story relates to living happily ever after—that HEA ending of modern fairy tales (and all paranormal romances)—which we all wish for ourselves and our loved ones. But Apollo learns early that although periods of happiness are certainly possible, it's the "ever after" that is the problem. Early on, Apollo finds a rare, signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird at an estate sale and happily dreams of how the money he will receive for it will change the lives of his young son and his beautiful wife. But he soon learns that the particular happiness of that moment will never happen. As events in Apollo's life take him into dark, violent places, he learns that happiness must be taken as it comes and that there is no guarantee that it will even last the day, much less for ever after. 

     LaValle uses Harper Lee's opposing portrayals of Atticus Finch (in Mockingbird and in Go Set a Watchman) to reinforce the duality of most people's personalities and the masks they use to put their "good" side forward. In signing the rare Mockingbird first edition, Lee has written "Here is the daddy of our dreams," as if she knew very well that her readers would prefer the perfect Atticus—the dream daddy—in Mockingbird over the racist version of the same man in Watchman. In an interview, LaValle states, "It’s interesting to me, as I became a father and in thinking about my own missing father, to understand how much power we give to the idea of the father and how much many people need to believe in the idea of a good and beneficent father." 

     There are times in the later chapters when it seems almost certain that Apollo will never have another moment of true happiness, but as dark as Apollo's situation becomes, LaValle—masterful writer that he is—slips in unexpected jolts of dark, dry humor. In a scene between Apollo and the most evil man in the book, the old man—a Scandinavian immigrant—riffs on the HEA ending. "Do you know how much harm 'happily ever after' has done to mankind? I wish they said something else at the end of those stories instead. 'They tried to be happy.' Or "Eternal happiness is a fruitless pursuit.' What do you think?" Apollo stares at him and deadpans, "You're definitely Norwegian." I laughed out loud at that line, but maybe you have to be a Garrison Keillor fan to really appreciate the dry humor in Apollo's succinct, poker-faced response. 

     One of the joys of the story is the way LaValle portrays Apollo's relationships with his mother, his wife, and his best friend, Patrice—a computer whiz and military vet with PTSD. Early in his life, Apollo started his own used book business selling the worn and well-used books and magazines that his mother begged from various businesses in order to feed his reading habit. By the time he meets Patrice at an estate sale, Apollo, though young, is a veteran in the used book business. He and Patrice become fast friends and their easy back-and-forth dialogue is so natural and real that I wished I could run into them at an estate sale and have a conversation with them about books and life. 

     New York City becomes a major player as Apollo takes off on his quest for the truth about his father, his wife, and his son. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, LaValle explains, “New York City is incredibly well-known, but I still think people don’t know all of these tiny, little weird [places] we have. That kind of magic is here, but it’s far from where people actually want to go to. ... There are hidden islands in the East River … And without giving too much away, there’s actually a really big forest in the middle of New York, not in Manhattan, but it’s an enormous piece of land that could hide some profound, magical secrets. It’s a real place in Queens, my hometown.” (Oddly enough, a few years ago, I read an urban fantasy novel that included a major battle scene that took place on the same East River island that features in The Changeling. I wish I could tell you the title, but it's lost somewhere in my subconscious. Perhaps one of my readers can jog my memory.)

    Lavalle’s observations about race are stinging and humorous at the same time. In a prime example, when he gets stopped by the police shortly after arriving in a white section of Queens, Apollo, who is black, looks impassively at them and says, “That was fast.” (LaValle goes on to use what Apollo receives during that police stop to solve a plot issue a few chapters later, and it all flows along quite naturally.) And here's another example: In an early scene, Apollo convinces a group of black teenagers to block the windows of a stalled subway car in which Emma is giving birth to Brian (on the floor). Luckily, the kids do their job so well that the TV stations have no birth video to show on the 11:00 news. The only cellphone footage available "showed four black kids waving and smiling and looking gleeful, and generally speaking news outlets don't find that sort of thing worth sharing."

     LaValle's imagery is a source of immense satisfaction. My favorite comes when Apollo steps into a brown, shag-carpeted room and feels like he is "inside a Wookiee’s armpit.” In a more violent image, Apollo wakes up to find himself attached to a hot steam pipe with a bike lock. When he pulls his head forward, "the back of his exposed neck touched the steam pipe like a pork cutlet pressed against a hot skillet. He hissed, the same sound as frying meat..." That scene is so real that I felt as if I were a horrified, helpless bystander.

     I highly recommend this novel for the many reasons I have discussed above, particularly its magnificent imagery, beautifully drawn characters, compelling plot, and electrifying suspense. LaValle has created a fresh and inventive hybrid—a mash-up of fairy tales, horror elements, social commentary, and the literalization of myth (in this case, Internet trolls vs. folktale trolls). Although this is the first of LaValle's books that I have read, I now plan to dip into his previous novels and novellas for more of his vibrant, exciting fiction. 

     Here are links to four excellent reviews of The Changeling. I include them so that you can appreciate the wide diversity in the reviewers' perceptions of LaValle's work. Just click on the pink-link titles below to go to the reviews:

> "The Changeling Is Itself, a Changeling of a Book," by Amal el-Mohtar in The Atlantic (6/17/2017).

> "This New York Love Story Subverts Its 'Happily Ever After'," by Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times (7/17/207).

> "In 'The Changeling,' the Dark Fears of Parents, Memorably Etched," by Jennifer Senior in the New York Times (6/20/2017).

> "LaValle's 'The Changeling': A Creepily Good Modern Fairy Tale," by Brian Truitt in USA Today (6/13/2017).

                         ABOUT THE AUTHOR                          
Here is LaValle's biography from his official web site: 

Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, four novels, The EcstaticBig MachineThe Devil in Silver, and The Changeling and two novellas, "Lucretia and the Kroons" and "The Ballad of Black Tom." He is also the creator and writer of a comic book Victor LaValle's DESTROYER.

He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers' Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shirley Jackson Award, an American Book Award, and the key to Southeast Queens.

He was raised in Queens, New York. He now lives in Washington Heights with his wife and kids. He teaches at Columbia University

     Click HERE to go to LaValle's Wikipedia page. Click HERE to read an essay entitled "Finding the Emotional Truth in Horror Writing" that LaValle wrote for The Atlantic (6/13/2017). Click HERE to listen to and read excerpts from an interview LaValle did with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air back in 2012. (Click on the white arrow in the blue circle at top left to access the audio.) 
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