Archive for July, 2012

Linnea Sinclair’s “An Accidental Goddess” — A Fun, Fast, Deeply Romantic SF Read

Linnea Sinclair’s AN ACCIDENTAL GODDESS is a science fiction romance (with some fantasy elements) about two appealing characters, Rahieran Captain Gillaine (“Gillie”) Davré and Khalaran Admiral Rynan (“Mack” or “Make it Right”) Makarian.  Gillie is a highly accomplished woman in her mid-thirties, who was originally sent to the Khalaran Empire by the Raheira as a technical advisor three hundred years prior to the start of this novel.  However, a wormhole opened during a deep space battle with the Fav’lhir, a nasty bunch of psychics who believe “might makes right” and takes for granted anyone without psychic ability; races like the Khalarans are called “Impure,” thus are cattle for the slaughter.  These nasty aliens attacked the Khalarans, but the Khalarans had no defense besides Gillie due to her own strong psychic abilities; that, and her crystal ship, destroyed many of the Fav’lhir, but she ended up getting thrown three hundred years into the future due to the battle.

To Gillie’s horror, when she wakes up in the sickbay of space station Cirrus One, her sentient nanoessence Simon — think “advanced computer AI” and you’re not far wrong, except Simon is not necessarily incorporeal and enjoys cracking wise at Gillie’s expense — tells her that during the intervening three hundred years, the Khalarans have made her a Goddess.  This is because the Khalarans didn’t understand what happened during that space battle; how could they?  And because they thought Gillie had defended them to the death, they’ve called what happened “(her) Day of Sacred Sacrifice.”

This, of course, is a major breach of protocol at absolute best.  Yet the Rahiera have done nothing in the intervening three hundred years to correct this error.  This means Gillie must either let this mistake stand, or possibly find a way to correct it herself.  (And yes, she figures all of this out as she’s waking up in sickbay, which I found a particularly nice touch.)

Then, as she continues to wake up, she meets Admiral Makarian, a dark-haired, dark-eyed man in his early forties.  Mack has all sorts of command ability, as he’s risen to become the youngest Fleet Admiral in the Khalaran Empire’s history.  And along with his command ability, Mack has charisma, drive, focus, and smarts — all of which he needs, as he’s been relegated to Cirrus One because of his reputation of being able to turn sows’ ears into silk purses (thus his “Make it Right” nickname).  Cirrus One is your basic backwater space station at the start of this book, but Mack knows that he somehow must get the station up to spec sooner rather than later.  And, of course, he doesn’t think much of Gillie when he meets her either, aside from noticing that she’s blonde, like Lady Kiasidira, and has unusual eyes (green with flecks of lavender).  But there are many blonde women in the universe, which is why despite some passing resemblance to Lady Kiasidira, it goes unremarked.

Gillie, of course, doesn’t admit she’s Lady Kiasidira when she talks with Admiral Mack.  Instead, she calls herself a freighter captain; since Simon runs her ship (in many ways, he is the ship), he’s able to project an extremely realistic illusion.  After she throws Mack off the track, she starts figuring out whether or not Simon can be repaired (as Simon is a Raptor-class crystal ship, if Simon hadn’t quickly cloaked the ship in an illusion, the game would’ve been up right away; also, even though the Khalarans have obviously progressed, technologically, in the intervening three hundred years, there is absolutely no way they could fix a crystal ship).  This, along with the feelings Mack can’t help but engender in her (as she admires competence, and has much in common with him), keeps her busy for the first one-third of this novel.

The next complication is Magefather Rigo, who believes himself to be the Lady Kiasidira’s Divine Consort (all in capital letters, even).  Of course, the fact that Kiasidira is a title — it means, more or less, High Priestess — has gone completely by the boards in three hundred years.  And three hundred years ago, there certainly were no Magefathers, either.  

Because of some rather strange things Rigo does, Gillie starts to wonder why Rigo is even on Cirrus One.  She’s right to wonder, as it turns out Rigo may well be allied with the Fav’lhir (who, of course, are still around).  And while Mack believes her when she says something’s wrong, because she can’t admit who and what she is, she doesn’t have enough evidence to prove that Rigo is up to no good.

See, Cirrus One is a crisis point; because it’s not fully up to spec, and the Fav’lhir know it, they want to take advantage.  The Fav’lhir don’t believe in diplomacy, especially when it comes to the “Impure” Khalarans, who mostly lack psychic ability — and even if they did, the Fav’lhir are still mad about what happened three hundred years ago, so they’d not pursue it anyway.

This is when the usual complications of a military science fiction nature start to creep in.  As we all know, the Fav’lhir must be driven off, yet there are political considerations with regards to the various Khalaran Empire higher-ups  that need to be taken into consideration.  That the higher-ups have completely forgotten just how nasty the Fav’lhir can be, partly because they believe that Gillie killed their “mageline” — that is, all their psychics — three hundred years ago, definitely doesn’t help the situation.  And under all this strain, Gillie and Mack are still getting to know each other, which isn’t at all as small of a plot point as it might seem as their mutual knowledge of each other might end up being the very thing that saves the Khalaran Empire from oblivion.

During all that happens, Gillie realizes that she’s eventually going to have to come clean regarding who and what she is.  But will this wreck their relationship?  (Especially considering how often Mack, himself, prays to Lady Kiasidira?)  What will happen to the Khalarans, who don’t seem to understand exactly how nasty the Fav’lhir still are, and keep giving Mack the wrong orders?  And finally, what will Simon the nanoessence think of it all?  (Especially as he has all the best lines in the book?)

This is a fast, fun, and deeply romantic read about two highly intelligent, spirited, and capable people that gets everything right.  There’s humor, high drama, romance, pathos, military intrigue and suspense, and more romance, so yes, the plot has a lot to it.  But it’s so skillfully written that most readers won’t notice how densely-packed this plot is until the last page has been turned; it’s also such a great read that many people will do exactly what I did the first time I read AN ACCIDENTAL GODDESS and immediately turn back to page one to read it all over again.

Really, if you want an excellent read of military science fiction with romance and some fantasy elements, you should look no further than Linnea Sinclair’s AN ACCIDENTAL GODDESS.  So if you haven’t read it already, what’s stopping you?  (Especially as it’s available in paperback.)

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Osborn’s “Displaced Detective,” Book 3 — The Cosmos In Danger

Stephanie Osborn’s Displaced Detective series is about Sherlock Holmes as transported to the modern day via the hyperspatial physics of Dr. Skye Chadwick.  In books 1 and 2 of this series, Holmes and Chadwick solved some mysteries, then fell in love.  (These books were reviewed here.)  So what happened next?

Lucky for us, Ms. Osborn’s third novel in this series has just been released by Twilight Times Books; it’s called THE CASE OF THE COSMOLOGICAL KILLER: THE RENDELSHAM INCIDENT.  Here, we have a possible UFO, another mystery — was a local farmer killed by the UFO, or not?  And if not, who killed him, and for what purpose? — and we also have more romance between Holmes and Chadwick, along with a new threat to the entire cosmos, which only Dr. Chadwick may be able to solve.

THE RENDELSHAM INCIDENT (for short), is packed with action and plot, but it may not seem that way at first.  After a jam-packed introduction, the book quiets down to show more of Holmes and Chadwick’s romance — something I found very welcome — but this isn’t as idyllic as it seems, either.  This is because Holmes’s subconscious is working overtime; he keeps dreaming that he and Chadwick are separated by a thin barrier, and he doesn’t know why. 

This important plot point is disguised because Holmes and Chadwick are about to make their romance official as they’re about to get married.  While these two intensely private people want a very small service, their friends of course all want to be there, so there’s some minor conflict there (which ends up getting resolved favorably); then, the newlyweds retire to England to deal with the latest incident at Rendelsham — the possible UFO that’s been sighted there — while Holmes tries to figure out why farmer James McFarlane is dead.  (Was it the UFO?  And if not, what else could possibly have happened?)

In similar fashion to some of the mysteries in book 1 of this series, THE ARRIVAL, anything Holmes turns up regarding the death of McFarlane only leads to more questions.  (My guess is that most of these additional questions will be answered in book 4 of this series, THE CASE OF THE COSMOLOGICAL KILLER: ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS, which is due in 2013.)

But there’s an additional problem; as Holmes and Chadwick dig deeper into this “UFO” that everyone is worried about, Chadwick gets contacted by her “other self” — that is, a Dr. Skye Chadwick from a different dimension.  That Dr. Chadwick also invented the Tesseract, and also “imported” Sherlock Holmes before he could get killed on the rocks of Reichenbach Falls — but that Chadwick and Holmes did not have a lengthy romance, much less get married.  Worse, the incident in THE ARRIVAL that killed one of our Chadwick’s team ended up killing most of the other-Chadwick’s team, including Chadwick’s best friend in any dimension, Caitlin Hughes, which has had a terrible effect on other-Chadwick’s morale.

This is the main reason why other-Chadwick has contacted our Chadwick-Holmes; other-Chadwick needs help to figure out why the multiverse seems to be on the verge of imploding or exploding.  (This isn’t exactly what’s happening; the universes being in danger — the cosmos, in short — has something to do with the use of the Tesseract device.  By the time other-Chadwick comes to our Chadwick-Holmes, things have rapidly worsened.  Thus other-Chadwick’s solution.)  And because both universes that contain a version of Chadwick and Holmes are fairly close, if our Chadwick-Holmes cannot help other-Chadwick, it’s possible that these two universes will end up disappearing — and taking much, if not all, of the rest of the multiverse out with it.

Once this happens, Chadwick-Holmes starts to work feverishly, something that disturbs her new husband Sherlock Holmes something fierce.  They have a small argument or two (neither have the temperament to get extremely irate, which is probably just as well), mostly because Holmes doesn’t understand why his wife is working so hard.  He believes our Chadwick-Holmes should be able to take more rest, preferably with him, and continue working on their marriage — but the sense of urgency is real.  (Note that Holmes isn’t being obnoxious here; it’s part of the plot that the various universes have to synch up by time — that is, because the universes can look “forward” and “backward” in time, universes must pick whatever time they look into another universe, so other-Chadwick and other-Holmes are able to give our Chadwick and Holmes some extra time to solve this problem.  But as our Chadwick explains via mathematics and logic, the other-Chadwick/other-Holmes can only give them a certain amount of extra time.)

So, what happens next?  We get a cliffhanger, that’s what, though it’s not packaged as a “usual” cliffhanger due to the gentle nature of how THE RENDELSHAM INCIDENT ends.  (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

Overall, the romance in THE RENDELSHAM INCIDENT is superb, especially when contrasted against the failed romance of other-Chadwick and other-Holmes.  The physics, once again, are rock solid, yet understandable for the intelligent layman.  And the underlying mystery as to what happened to farmer McFarlane, much less how Holmes gets to the bottom of the various layers of this newest case, is extremely interesting.

Thus far, Ms. Osborn’s writing quality has continued at a very high level.  Which is why despite the quiet section that lasted nearly 75 pages (yet contained very many plot points that were vital to understand what happened for the remaining 200+ pages of the book), THE RENDELSHAM INCIDENT held my interest from beginning to end.

Bottom line: THE RENDELSHAM INCIDENT is a fine addition to the Displaced Detective series and does not disappoint.  (Can’t wait for book 4.  Write fast, Ms. Osborn!)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: Stephanie Osborn’s “Displaced Detective” Series, Books 1 and 2

Stephanie Osborn’s Displaced Detective series is about Sherlock Holmes as brought into the modern era by a well-trained team of scientists led by hyperspatial physicist Skye Chadwick.  The first two books in Osborn’s series are THE CASE OF THE DISPLACED DETECTIVE: THE ARRIVAL and THE CASE OF THE DISPLACED DETECTIVE: AT SPEED.

The first novel, THE ARRIVAL (for short), is about Holmes’s first experiences in the modern era.  He was brought to our world because Chadwick’s team was tuned in on him as he went over the Reichenbach Falls.  While the team was only supposed to observe, Chadwick couldn’t help but intervene; she’d been trained in the past to help others as a reserve police officer, and due to that training, she couldn’t just let Holmes die.  But lest you think Holmes is coming into a world where no one knows him, think again; Chadwick’s Earth realizes that Holmes, in our world, is fictional, but believes that Robert A. Heinlein’s “World as Myth” concept was on to something.  That’s why they went looking for a universe where Holmes was real in the first place.

Now, you might be wondering, how did Chadwick manage to grab hold of Holmes despite being in a different universe altogether?  She did so through the top-secret Tesseract device, which is how her group of scientists can safely observe multiple universes.  Before Chadwick grabbed Holmes, no one was quite sure what would happen if a modern-day person transferred — briefly or otherwise — into a universe that wasn’t his or her own.  Obviously, since Chadwick and Holmes both survived going to a different universe than the one he or she was born, this can’t help but cause some major plot complications down the road — interesting ones, that rely as much on science as they do on the knowledge of Holmes as the world’s detective par excellence

So, we have multiple universes.  We have a fictional character, Holmes, who’s been given a thorough and realistic grounding in a non-fictional universe due to the “World as Myth” concept (Osborn references Heinlein exactly, though the concept itself is probably much older).  We have a very competent hyperspatial physicist in Chadwick, who becomes Holmes’s best friend and confidante in fairly short order, and does so in a thoroughly logical fashion.  Yet because Chadwick is still a reasonably young woman (in her late thirties, as is Holmes), and because she’s extremely bright and appreciates Holmes for his mind as well as his body, it’s obvious a romance is possible between the two whether Holmes realizes it at first or not.

And, as if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s a very nifty mystery at the heart of the story, to wit: why, after Holmes is brought forward in time and across universes, is it that the Tesseract Project runs into serious distress?  Is this because there’s a group out there who wants the technology for itself?  And if so, why cause this specific sort of trouble at all?

These questions will be answered, thoroughly and enjoyably, but as in most Holmesian mysteries, they only lead to more and broader questions.  And while logic chain follows logic chain amidst Holmes getting up to speed with our modern-day language, culture, idioms, etc.,  the deepening friendship between Chadwick and Holmes helps to keep the reader focused while giving Holmes an understandable motivation to fully integrate himself into our present-day reality.

And there’s a good reason why Holmes needs to do this; if he goes back to his own time and universe, he could potentially cause all sorts of problems with that universe.  Yet even the smartest and best-prepared man in the world — or of all the multiverse — has to feel melancholy from time to time considering he’s away from everything he knew.  All the people.  All the settings.  Everything.  Which is why Holmes’s ruminations matter, even though there aren’t many of them; they help remind the reader that Holmes is real, as real as Chadwick, and has just as many things to worry about as anyone else.  (If not more so.)

Osborne’s next book in the series is AT SPEED (in the short form), where Holmes and Chadwick must figure out what the bad guys who caused the Tesseract Project to stall out are actually doing.  These bad guys have a funny tendency of coming up dead in ways that seem beyond prediction; it’s elementary, my dear reader, that the world’s greatest detective is both needed and necessary to solve this mystery.  Because before Holmes and Chadwick can stop the bad guys, they first have to understand what they’re all about or they haven’t a prayer.

Of course, by this time, Holmes and Chadwick have become extremely close.  This is a good thing, as the bad guys have caused them to go “on the run” (if you can call being in a first class hotel such) and to stay hidden; they’re thrown together, and of course their relationship both deepens and runs into some rough spots.  This is because Holmes is in love with Chadwick, yet isn’t easy on himself as he believes for the most part that physical love is exalted way too much, while being companions and friends is not.  And Chadwick’s had her own share of problems in the past, mostly because she’s a brilliant woman who hasn’t been able to find a man who’s up to her weight, intellectually speaking, so the fact that their relationship has turned sexual means there are realistic complications aplenty.

One thing to keep in mind here; the first book is closer to a “normal” Sherlock Holmes mystery in that there’s little sex (though there is love of the agape sort) and it’s closer to a traditional action-adventure plot.  Here, there’s still action and adventure, but the romance is a big part of the plotline, so you must be aware of it or you won’t appreciate what happens even though it makes perfect sense.

Now, is this “explicit” sex, as one Amazon reviewer put it?  I don’t think so.  This is PG-13 sex, not R or X-rated stuff; this is what you’d see out of any committed couple who cares about each other, nothing more and nothing less.   So don’t let it put you off.

Getting back to the mystery, of course Holmes ends up having to go back to his own continuum as that’s where the clues are.  But he can’t stay long due to the fact he really should’ve died (and would’ve, had Chadwick not grabbed him); what will he do in his universe?  How will what he does synch up with Arthur Conan Doyle’s “resurrection story” (i.e., the last story of Sherlock Holmes)?  And what will happen to Chadwick after she sees it all?

Ultimately, the mystery is solved with a traditional Holmesian explanation at the end as to why the bad guys were doing what, and what Holmes believed they were planning to get out of it.  (Chadwick puts in the traditional Watson parts, albeit with a flair all her own.)  And the only remaining mystery is, will Holmes stay with Chadwick, or not?  (Hint, hint: feel free to expect a happy ending.)

Ultimately, both of the first two books in the Displaced Detective series are faithful to the Sherlock Holmes milieu and mythos.  Holmes acts like himself, albeit with a bit more heart than head; the romance between Holmes and Chadwick makes perfect sense in context, and the mysteries being solved are appropriately complex.  That’s why they’re such a pleasure to read.

Bottom line: buy these books, whether you love science fiction, Sherlock Holmes, realistic romance, or just enjoy cracking good yarns.  (You’ll be glad you did.)

Grades:  THE ARRIVAL — A-plus; AT SPEED — A.

— reviewed by Barb


One further note:  Osborn’s next novel in this series, THE CASE OF THE COSMOLOGICAL KILLER: THE RENDELSHAM INCIDENT, will be reviewed next week here at Shiny Book Review.

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Alethea Kontis’s “Enchanted:” A New Take on an Old Myth

Alethea Kontis’s ENCHANTED is a book about Sunday Woodcutter, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, and Rumbold, the Crown Prince of Arilland.  Sunday meets Rumbold after he’s been turned into a frog — a very traditional opening, that — and starts to tell him about her family from the stories she’s written in her notebook.  These are all true stories, true past stories to be exact, and don’t seem all that magical to the reader.  But it’s how Sunday tells the story that counts — she’s straightforward, yet has verve and charm.  This is probably why Rumbold (called “Grumble” as a frog) is completely captivated by Sunday, though the fact that he doesn’t remember being a human being probably also has something to do with it.

At any rate, there’s a major problem standing between Rumbold and Sunday’s love.  It has nothing to do with the fact that Rumbold met Sunday as a frog, nor does it have much to do with the fact that Sunday is a “seventh of a seventh,” meaning she’ll be an extremely powerful magician even if, as of yet, she’s both untrained and unaware of this.  Nope.  It’s that Rumbold’s father did something to Sunday’s elder brother, Jack, years ago, something that angered Sunday’s whole family as Jack’s never been seen since.  Because of this, once Rumbold has regained his humanity and realized Sunday is related to Jack Woodcutter and understands this problem, it seems as if there’s no way in the world these two will ever be able to get together.

Of course, Sunday is blissfully ignorant of most of what’s been going on in the kingdom of Arilland.  She knows her father is a hardworking wood cutter (thus the family name).  She knows her mother is kind, but rarely says anything she doesn’t mean due to her mother’s unusual magic.  Her six sisters all have (or had) various magical talents (one is dead, but the other five remain), though both Sunday and her elder sister Saturday are unaware of what their particular talents are for the majority of ENCHANTED.

As the story moves along, Rumbold realizes that his father, the King, has been held for quite some time under an evil enchantment of his own, one unrelated to Sunday or her immediate family, but that has ramifications for them due to the type of power they all have.  Rumbold vows to find a way to break that power for many reasons, most importantly because as the next King, he can choose his own mate — and we all know he’s going to choose Sunday.

So what happens next?  A grand ball, what else?  (Shades of the traditional Cinderella epics, there.)  This gives Sunday’s sister Friday a chance to show off her big talents — the making of ball gowns and other wearable fabric art — and of course leads to a few more plot complications, all of which you’ll immediately recognize if you’ve ever read any fairy tales whatsoever, but that are told with such charm that you just can’t help but enjoy the story all over again.  (Since this book partly is a romance, well . . . let’s just say that a happy ending is likely and leave it at that.)

The one potential downside here is this: the plot of ENCHANTED is a great deal like Orson Scott Card’s The Tales of Alvin Maker series (minus the fact that it’s not set in an alternate America, of course), especially when it comes to the special power of the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter.  (In Card’s series, Alvin Maker is the seventh son of a seventh son, and can do all sorts of interesting things because of that fact.)  ENCHANTED is also highly reminiscent of Patricia C. Wrede’s stories, most particularly the chronicles of the Enchanted Forest, mostly because Sunday is resilient, honest to a fault, and doesn’t really know what she’s doing (much like Daystar, hero of Wrede’s TALKING TO DRAGONS).  So it’s obvious that originality, per se, is not what Kontis was getting at.

However, ENCHANTED is like these other novels in a good way, not a bad one; it’s as if Kontis distilled the essence of what makes both Card’s and Wrede’s books so interesting, and managed to come up with her own spin on the subject.  One that reads as a fairy tale and as a credible fantasy-romance; one that certainly references those writers who’ve come before her and have done so well in the genre; one that kept me reading until the end of ENCHANTED, only to turn back to page one and start the book again.

Bottom line: ENCHANTED is a good novel for anyone who loves fairy tales, fantasy (particularly female-centered fantasy), or romance.  Yes, it’s an homage to Card, Wrede, the late Grandmaster André Norton, and others — but that’s not a bad thing, in context.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s “A Sense of Direction:” A Modern-Day Pilgrimage Story for Everyone

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s modern-day pilgrimage story, A SENSE OF DIRECTION: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, is one of those books you never want to end.  As this book is a non-fiction account of Lewis-Kraus’s wanderings on three separate pilgrimages (to the most famous pilgrimage of them all, the Camino de Santiago, then to the 88 Temples of Shikoku, and finally to Uman to take in Rosh Hashanah with his father and brother), the obvious narrative is simple: Lewis-Kraus wants to find himself and isn’t quite sure how to do it.  So even though he isn’t all that religious despite being brought up by two Jewish rabbis (or perhaps because of that), he decides to go off on his first pilgrimage, to do “the Camino,” and hopes he’ll gain some illumination along the way that will help him be able to resume his life with greater meaning and purpose.

Yet the obvious narrative isn’t really the point; instead, it’s how Lewis-Kraus describes the journey he and his friend take while they travel along the Camino (and the other trips Lewis-Kraus takes without him), and how insightful his commentary can be along the way.  As Lewis-Kraus puts it on page 53 while talking about the yellow arrows that keep you on the path:

“(They) free you from needing a map or a sense of the terrain.  They’re not symbols of direction; they are directions.  They free you from needing pretty much anything.  You can literally show up and start walking.  You just let yourself be ushered forward by the arrows, and by the third or fourth one it already feels great to make zero decisions about where you’re going or when you’ll get there or what you’ll do when you arrive.”

This is a passage that is deceptively easy to read, but there’s a deeper meaning here.  Most of us blindly stumble through life and have little idea of where we’re going, what we’re going to do when we get there, or what we’ll do when we arrive.  So going on a pilgrimage like this one, where all of the worry about these things is taken away by the yellow arrows, seems to remove these worrisome barriers in order to concentrate on the prosaic — such as Lewis-Kraus’s feet hurting at the end of a twenty-mile hike (and twenty miles is an easy day when you’re hiking the Camino), or worse, how much his friend Tom’s feet hurt after just a few days on the trail.

As neither man is religious, in their conversations they mostly concentrate on the history of the Camino and how going on such pilgrimages used to be the only way for people to get away from their boring, humdrum lives.  This is because if you went on a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages (as Geoffrey Chaucer points out in THE CANTERBURY TALES), it was a way to travel, to meet interesting people, to discuss out-of-the-way experiences, and for mystics was probably the closest they were ever going to get to God (or whatever the Deity is).  Much was forgiven for a person who’d gone on a pilgrimage, too — he or she was seen as holy, or at least more interesting — so overall, it was a desirable way to get away from it all.

Now, of course, walking the Camino is seen more as a poor man’s vacation than as any sort of spiritual exercise because of all the low-cost hostels along the way.  Yet while the religious part of the journey has been de-emphasized, the spiritual aspects of pilgrimage remain constant — that is, a modern-day pilgrimage like this one can transform you, at least for a time, into someone you’d rather be.  Someone more decisive.  Someone who has made common ground with others along the trail from other countries and other social classes, just because you’re all in this together, all suffering the same problems (the heat, the terrain at times, the constant foot problems, the exhaustion).  Someone who’s been clarified into his best self — or at least his most consistent self — due to the pain and privation even an easy trip along the Camino can’t help but bring.  And someone who must come face to face with his biggest inner demons, as along the trail there’s no place left to hide — not even from yourself.

At any rate, Lewis-Kraus and his friend Tom successfully complete the Camino.  But because Lewis-Kraus enjoyed the pilgrimage aspects so much — and because he’d run into some Japanese tourists along the trail who’d told him about the 88 Temples of Shikoku pilgrimage and its circular nature — he decided he must take another trip.  So off he went, this time accompanied by his grandfather Max for the first few temples.

However, the economic differences between Spain and Shikoku, the Japanese island the pilgrimage takes place on, is stark.  Shikoku is desperately poor, the poorest by far of Japan’s four main islands, and many of the shopkeepers seem to want the greater business more American tourists would bring.  This might be one reason why Lewis-Kraus is treated with great respect, though the fact that Lewis-Kraus is walking from temple to temple — something that’s considered especially challenging — also has something to do with it.

The 88 Temples of Shikoku pilgrimage is different in many aspects for Lewis-Kraus.  This is a circular pilgrimage, instead of being from point to point like the Camino, which of course points out one of the main differences between Eastern and Western thought — in the East, the journey itself is far more interesting than where you’re going, while in the West, most of us journey to get somewhere in order to say we’ve been there.  Lewis-Kraus meditates on this, along with various riffs about the girl he really likes (but who has a boyfriend so isn’t interested), whether this pilgrimage, like the prior one to the Camino, will change his life in any way, and while Max is around, has many interesting conversations that point out how much fun someone’s grandfather (even at the age of eighty-two) can be if you only give him a chance.

Finally, Lewis-Kraus decides to go on a pilgrimage with his brother Micah and his father, an openly gay rabbi.  There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen between Lewis-Kraus and his father (though Lewis-Kraus gets along with his brother just fine, mostly because his brother seems remarkably tolerant); Lewis-Kraus’s subtext adds depth and richness to the problems his father caused when he broke their family apart, came out as a gay man, and started to live a flamboyant lifestyle.

Of course, going to Uman (in the Ukraine) once again points out the different ways people live in other cultures.  But it also points out some sad economic facts: in Uman, people often rent out their houses for the week of the Rosh Hashanah observance to Orthodox Jews because this helps the homeowners pay their bills for the entire rest of the year.  The people of Uman seem bemused by all of the pilgrims to their city, but by gosh and golly, they’re not going to miss out on the chance to make a buck — and indeed, they don’t.

Lewis-Kraus’s father, of course, can’t help but figure out all of the closeted gay men among the Orthodox Jewish community (as the Orthodox believe that being gay and acting on it is a sin), and keeps making comments to his two sons about that.  This mostly points out that human frailty exists even among Orthodox Jews, though all three of the men seem to understand the need for these Orthodox Jews to get away from it all, too.

The pathos of the Orthodox Jewish community (that has only this one safety valve all year long) is explicated admirably by Lewis-Kraus, but of course it’s balanced by the cynical nature of the people of Uman who are beyond tired of these Orthodox Jewish men (all men, always, as they’re the only ones who go on this trip) and just want them to get out of there, soonest.  Their attitude is probably common of tourist traps everywhere: come.  Stay a bit.  Then go — but do leave all your money, because we need it here.  And Lewis-Kraus, being a most observant writer indeed, can’t help but point that out, often in hilarious fashion and sometimes by using his father the openly gay rabbi as a foil.  This works both structurally and as a way for Lewis-Kraus to describe his own “coming of age” narrative, and was a particularly nice touch.

A SENSE OF DIRECTION is a book that fascinates for more than one reason: Lewis-Kraus’s writing is excellent, his descriptive powers are also excellent, and his friendly skewering of the Orthodox Jews at the end of the book is worth the price of admission all by itself.  Lewis-Kraus has a keen eye for hypocrisy, especially when it comes to pointing out his own, and yet sees the value in pilgrimage even in these modern-day times despite the baser aspects of money and how it temporarily alters the city of Uman every time the Orthodox Jews show up for Rosh Hashanah.  This makes for a powerful, yet unsettling, narrative that gathers more steam the longer you read it — and the more often you read it, the more you’ll get out of it.

Simply put: A SENSE OF DIRECTION is a complex, fascinating, and often witty narrative that incorporates history, comparative religions, and an interesting coming of age story and makes it more than the sum of its parts.  Lewis-Kraus’s book is extremely readable, very interesting, highly engrossing, and yet sometimes made me want to throw it across the room (especially when Lewis-Kraus reminded me of how young, chronologically, he actually is by pointing out his romantic difficulties and the like).  A book that can do all that is one that needs to be in your library, which is why I recommend A SENSE OF DIRECTION without reservation.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: Kowal’s Alternate Regency Fantasies — Fun, Fast Reads

As promised — it’s July 5, 2012, and Shiny Book Review is back.  Now, on to tonight’s reviews, this time for Mary Robinette Kowal’s two alternate Regency fantasies, SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, and GLAMOUR IN GLASS.  Both novels are about Jane Ellsworth and the people around her, particularly her love interest, Mr. Vincent, and her sister, Melody, who plays a substantial role in the first book.  The structure of SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is very like that of Jane Austen’s novels (in particular, referencing PRIDE AND PREJUDICE); the main difference is with regards to the fantasy element, something called glamour that seems very like artwork and painting, except with the aether.

When SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY starts, we find out that Jane feels like she is plain despite her strong talents with glamour.  Jane’s talent is like a breath of fresh air, and she’s so good with her glamour that people with sense believe she’s an artist of a certain kind — or at least that she could be, with the right training because she has much talent.  But her family doesn’t have the money to send her for advanced training; instead, they mostly seem to be trying to marry both her and her much prettier, younger (yet talentless) sister, Melody, off.

In comes Mr. Ellsworth, a potential suitor; he also has a younger sister, Beth, who is attached to a military man, Captain Livingston (read: Mr. Wickham from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE).  But, of course, the good Captain is not just double-timing Beth; no, that would be too easy.  Instead, he’s triple-timing her with Jane’s sister and another, much wealthier woman — which causes many complexities, plot-wise, for Jane, her sister, and of course for the hapless Beth as well.  (All I’ll say about Melody is this: she doesn’t find her soul mate in either novel, though according to the end of SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, Melody will eventually find the right man and marry.)

Along the way, Jane meets Mr. Vincent, who has been properly trained in glamour and is the equivalent of a Rembrandt or possibly even a Leonardo da Vinci in how inventive and fresh his glamourized art can be.  But, of course, they don’t take to one another right off (shades of Mr. Darcy in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, though the analogy only holds so far), and Vincent tends to keep putting his foot in his mouth whenever it comes to Jane . . . so whatever will happen?  (Hint, hint: if you’ve read any of the Austen canon, you know full well what’s about to transpire.)

SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is at its best when Jane and Vincent are fully on stage, mostly because their dialogue is witty and sprightly.  The fantasy element of glamour helps to keep the romance going, even though I called every single plot twist early on, mostly because I’ve read my Austen thoroughly.  That’s not a weakness here, as this is definitely a novel that’s all about Jane’s journey from mild-mannered “plain” Jane to a young woman who’s actualized her entire self, from realizing her love for the difficult Vincent to accepting that her talent for glamour is strong enough for her to consider herself an artist — or at least consider the possibility that she may become an artist down the road if she sticks with Vincent and follows her heart.

GLAMOUR IN GLASS opens after Jane has married Mr. Vincent.  They’ve now become attached to Prince George of England, as their talents for glamour are so strong that royalty has taken an interest.  However, the war with Napoleon, which had temporarily abated after Napoleon had been sent to Elba, has resumed after Napoleon’s daring escape; despite that, Jane and Vincent set off for Belgium on their honeymoon.  And as you might expect, they end up plunged into intrigue from the get-go.  (If I say much about the intrigue, I’ll give the plot away, so I’ll stop there.)

However, there’s a bit of a problem along the way; it seems that Jane is pregnant, which keeps her from using her talents for glamour as that’s known to harm the unborn child.  Yet Vincent ends up overtaxed and in great distress; whatever will Jane do?  And once she’s done it, what will she end up thinking about it?

The main difference between SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY and GLAMOUR IN GLASS is this: the latter book is much more of an action-adventure story (granted, an action-adventure story written in the way Jane Austen might have written it, with period dialect and mores intact).  That keeps GLAMOUR IN GLASS moving along nicely.  Of course, as this is an alternate Regency, that means Napoleon’s fate isn’t exactly the same in GLAMOUR IN GLASS as it was in our world, but I enjoyed the different spin Kowal put on it and believed that it made sense in the context of her novel.

Overall, both books read well and quickly, especially if you’ve read any Jane Austen before or have read any of the Austen pastiches (including Sarah A. Hoyt and Sofie Skapski’s excellent A TOUCH OF NIGHT).  Kowal’s writing skills are superb and she understands the Regency milieu well, which is why both books were a pleasure to read.

Bottom line:  if you love Jane Austen, alternate Regencies (such as the André Norton/Rosemary Edghill CAROLUS REX series), or just plain good writing, you should buy both of these books as soon as you can.  Because they really are fantastic.




— reviewed by Barb

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Happy Fourth of July! SBR Returns July 5th

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

We at Shiny Book Review wish everyone a fun, yet safe Fourth of July holiday, and will return on July 5, 2012, with more book reviews, more contests, and more SBR-induced fun for everyone (OK, we made that last part up).

See you all July 5.

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