Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bitterblue – Kristin Cashore

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The Queen of Monsea is eighteen years old and she has been trying to sort truth from lies since she was thrust onto the throne at age ten. Lies are the currency of her kingdom, a blighted, twisted, shifting land tortured into madness by her father, a man with a horrible gift for controlling people’s minds.

Bitterblue is the eponymous heroine of Kristin Cashore’s latest volume in the Graceling series. Bitterblue tells the story of her desperate attempts to sort truth from treachery, friend from foe, wisdom from the insanity that grips her kingdom. Closest to her daily and least explicable are her advisors, a small group of men who keep her plied with paperwork and never have a direct answer for any of her questions. Her true friends, gracelings who each have an odd and powerful talent, come and go, offering comfort and counsel, fighting for the rights of people in corrupt kingdoms, removing evil monarchs in the seven kingdoms from their thrones, and guarding Bitterblue from the deadly assaults that dog her every move.

She sneaks out of the castle at night, disguising herself to roam the city and discover what kind of people she rules. In her travels, she is nearly discovered, often endangered and falls in with some clandestine printers, a rakish Robin Hood, and a surreptitious literacy teacher. Some force is keeping the population in the kingdom illiterate and uneducated, although her advisors tell her the castle and kingdom is 90 percent literate. Someone else is killing the truthseekers, the people who search for what really happened during the murdered king’s reign of terror and collect evidence for remuneration and reparation.

Bitterblue’s inner circle, courts, guards and nearly everyone she deals with are not to be trusted and many are actively working to undermine her. The book is dizzy with uncertainty for as long as it takes Blue to begin sorting through the lies, half-truths and rewritten history. It is disorienting to read—the experience of the heroine is the reader’s as well. And the dawning clarity, even as it comes as a relief, reveals the perverse horrors of the real history of Monsea under Bitterblue’s vile father. Even the palace friend who helped Blue and her mother to escape the king before he could practice his sick atrocities on the child has layers of guilt and loathsome memories that devour him.

Blue deciphers a bewilderinging code her mother has embroidered into bed linens and carved into a keepsake chest. The disjointed information the messages impart can never be clarified–her mother was killed by her father as she sacrificed herself so that Blue could escape. But Blue’s persistence and her friends help her to dig for the truth, an unlikely friendship begun in deception evolves through betrayal into a lasting bond. There is not a boring passage in the book.

Bitterblue is a YA fantasy but I begin to think that is a convenience of marketing and shelving. A really good fantasy is suitable for adults and teens—it’s a story that engages and entertains and shouldn’t be pigeonholed. I like Cashore’s work and her worlds. Bitterblue is a strong story to match the others in the series. With any luck, Cashore will continue it.

Bitterblue (Graceling)   Kristin Cashore | Dial Books   2012

The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul – Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

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Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a teacher in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Sufi Order and the author of several books on global consciousness and the concept of oneness. The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul is a collection of talks and teachings that expound on his thinking. I picked it up after hearing him speak in a conference with the shaman Sandra Ingerman. It’s unusual to hear a spiritual teacher so wholly committed to the concept that the patriarchal repression for millennia of matriarchal or feminine energy got us into this planetary mess we experience today. Vaughan-Lee believes we must rediscover and honor the feminine if the world is to heal itself and we are to survive.

He makes a compelling argument that the deep knowledge of creation is embodied in woman and that energy is the key to transforming our existence. His beliefs imbue the planet with a life and consciousness and he invokes teachings about the anima mundi or world soul and the lumen dei or divine light and how the material presence of the one is not inferior to the transcendence of the other.

It’s very interesting and might read at first as complicated to an initiate. But the chapters explain and revisit Vaughan-Lee’s arguments so you can grasp his meaning from various perspectives. This is both a strength and a failing of the book. I would recommend reading it over time rather than in one big gulp. Read in a single setting, it feels unnecessarily repetitive. Contemplated in a more leisurely study, The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul, is a lucid primer to another way of looking at the problems we have created on this planet and the ways in which we might fix them.

I borrowed the book from the library but it will go on my acquisitions list because I think I’ll want to revisit it more than once. I’m always resistant to male explanations of why women have the responsibility to repair the damage, but Vaughan-Lee’s writing does seem reasoned and sincere and there is a wisdom to be gained from it. The Return of the Feminine…is a book to underline and to work with. Many of the passages are powerful and beautiful and I will use them to inspire my intuitive inclusion of these ideas in my own fiction.

The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul   Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee | The Golden Sufi Center   2009

La Historia de los Colores – Subcomandante Marcos

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I bought the t-shirt in Palenque. The market there had all the typicos that catch tourists’ eyes but I spied a souvenir shirt with a black and white photograph of a masked guerrilla fighter on it and the caption Subcomandante Marcos. I knew who he was—at least I knew what could be known about him. Marcos was a legendary insurgent leader who might have been a college professor or a university grad student or some other lettered and middle class Mexican. But he had gone underground, taken to the wilderness in the mountains of Chiapas and become the spokesman for the Zapatista guerrilla forces against the Mexican government in the cause of rights for the indigenous people.

Very romantic story but the issues were real and the lives of the people in Chiapas could have used some economic and social justice. I hiked through the jungle for hours with a Lacandon boy as guide to visit the remarkable murals in the ruins of Bonampak. I wandered over the beautiful feminine ruins at Palenque and shared some local rice and beans and brew with fellow travelers. I got shin splints, mosquito bites, astonishing views and great photographs—all research for a novel and soul food for my adventurer’s heart. And when I got home to Manhattan, I wore the t-shirt.

I wore it for a few years; it complemented my pinko hippie credentials nicely. I stopped wearing it after 9-11 when I got funny looks and realized that the masked photograph looked a little bit like Bin Laden. But by then I had unearthed La Historia de los Colores at the Strand bookstore and I read it to my very young kid in Spanish. The book, by Subcomandante Marcos, is a bilingual retelling of a Mayan legend about how colors came to be in a black and white and gray world. The Story of Colors has lush art by Domitila Dominguez on thick coated stock—it’s a pleasure to handle. Today, I re-read it in English.

Probably just as well I read the Spanish to the four-year-old as the legend is very Mayan—the gods are constantly picking fights and bitching about things when they aren’t discovering red in the color of blood and making love so they could become tired and fall asleep. Once they’ve found enough colors, they have a sort of paintball fight at the top of a ceiba tree and get colors all over everything. Boys. In the end, after an interesting evolution of the handful of colors the gods turn up, they grab a macaw and stretch its skimpy gray feathers long enough to hold all the hues and entrust the colors to the bird for safekeeping.

So that’s how the macaw turned into a crayon box and how the world came alive in reds, greens, blues and yellows. For fun, my copy has an errata sheet tucked into it that explains that the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew committed funding for the book. Was the funding failure due to the bad-boy author or the copulation of the colors to give us all those rainbow shades? Congressional pressure, no doubt. Uptight idiots—who elects these people? Not me. I just keep subversive literature around my house where even children can find it. <G> Good book.

The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores: A Bilingual Folktale from the Jungles of Chiapas (English and Spanish Edition)    Subcomandante Marcos | Cinco Puntos Press   1996

Cain His Brother – Anne Perry

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William Monk has been busted out of the police force in Victorian London and, with no other skills but detective work, set himself up as a private eye. When Genevieve Stonefield comes to him with a desperate tale of a missing husband, he suspects a fiscal or romantic entanglement. But Angus, the missing man, seems to have been a model of rectitude and there is no mistaking his wife’s distress. She believes he went to the Limehouse section of town where his wastrel twin brother Caleb haunts the docks and alleys, a fearsome murderous criminal.

As Monk sets off to find Caleb and determine if and how Angus has met with foul play, typhoid fever sweeps through the slums and Hester Latterly and several wealthy patrons convert an old warehouse into a makeshift hospital. Hester and Monk have some history but it is as much antagonism as attraction and they spend this book sparring relentlessly. Monk has reasons to visit the typhoid shelter and Heather has emergency nursing duties for one of her helpers who succumbs to the fever. The woman is the wife of Lord Rathbone, Angus and Caleb Stonefield’s childhood guardian—the plot thickens.

So, we have Cain and Abel—er, Caleb and Angus—plenty of excuses for Monk’s and Hester’s paths to cross on a regular basis, a seedy waterfront setting and a hunt for a missing identical twin. Alas, I figured out a major, major plot point before the fever had even taken hold in the filthy back alleys of London. But Anne Perry pulls out her usual bag of tricks and surprises in Cain His Brother and suspecting what really happens does not dim the pleasure in tracking what is happening. Monk is framed by a beautiful woman who accuses him publicly of attacking her, a charge that will ruin him and make it impossible for him to work. Certain society matrons have rather colorful and extremely veiled pedigrees. Perry throws in her version of the movie car chase—a wild hunt for a vicious perp on and along the Thames, on foot and on barges.

The William Monk mysteries are reliably satisfying. The sights and sounds of Victorian London, especially its seedier environs, are vivid and convincing. Hester and Monk’s wary circling is acerbic and fun to watch. I ran out of hours trying to keep up with overscheduled life and a seriously long YA book that is also a very good read, so I jumped into the polluted Thames with Monk, who can always be counted on for a thrill ride and a complex, twisted plot. Even knowing the key to the riddle of the disappearance didn’t help me to unravel all of it. I did, however, slide into the last chapter well before midnight. Murder mysteries will probably get me through the year.

Cain His Brother: A William Monk Novel (Mortalis)   Anne Perry | Ballantine Books  2010

Blue Asylum – Kathy Hepinstall

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Blue Asylum has the clarity of perfectly clean water, pale blue and clear to the sandy bottom, so empty that you can see the markings on the shells there. The water off Florida’s Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico, setting for the lunatic asylum that swallows Iris Dunleavy just after the Civil War, used to be that blue and translucent. The beaches were thick with prized shells and sea turtles covered the sand above the tideline with their nests each summer and their hatchlings in the height of hurricane season. I don’t know if there was ever a mental hospital on the island, back in the late 1800s, but Blue Asylum is a credible approximation of what one would have been.

Iris is delivered to the private human warehouse by cattle boat after her plantation owner husband has her declared insane and committed. Her crime is to have been too dreamy a girl, marrying a brute who considered his slaves to be disposable property, refusing to celebrate the bloody whippings for minor, or imagined, infractions, plotting a disastrous escape and insisting on her own autonomy, integrity and sanity in a sadistic patriarchal society.

The asylum is full of rich characters—the woman who believes her adored husband of forty years is still alive and dances with her on the beach, the seemingly sane woman who swallows things that are not meant to be swallowed, the Confederate soldier who slips into a screaming frenzy at any trigger for the nightmares that grip his memory and his mind. The psychiatrist is as obstinate and obtuse as the sentencing judge—Iris must be mad, else why would she be in his establishment? The matron is a malicious beast who sets Iris up for the horrifying water cure, a torture the doctor has developed to treat resistant cases.

Wendell, the shrink’s thirteen-year-old son, is going mad himself, isolated on the mosquito- and alligator-infested barrier island. He harbors terrible guilt and crushing grief for the suicide of a girl he befriended before Iris arrived. Wendell is a great character—the most empathetic and evolved person in the story. He worries about Iris as she falls in love with a dangerous patient.

What happens when truth is corrosive enough to eat through the lies wrecks the comfortable assumptions that order this mad world. The personal horrors that the main players harbor are revealed slowly but evidence of them is there from the first. Terrific book but hard to read because it made me so furious at the way human connection and the intrinsic worth of women, children, slaves and the spiritually wounded were casually and relentlessly discounted.

Confronting reality comes at a cost. People do change in the course of the novel and some are lost. That kid Wendell is a prize. Good read, if at times blood-pressure-raising. Blue Asylum is a story well-told.

Blue Asylum   Kathy Hepinstall | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

A River in the Sky – Elizabeth Peters

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The Emerson family, the brightest and bossiest collection of human beings to grace early 1900s archaeology, has been unleashed on another artifact-rich region. This time the delightful and troublesome Ramses is a young man—he’s an admirable young man but I love him as the hell-on-wheels six-year-old in older Egyptian adventures—and there is an adopted daughter, Nefret, whose acquisition must have been the fascinating topic of another book.

A River in the Sky tracks Amelia Peabody Emerson, her blustery, adoring and brilliant Egyptologist husband, Nefret and a motley crew of friends, servants and hangers-on to Jerusalem where a bumbling amateur intends to dig for the Ark of the Covenant at one of the holiest sites in Palestine. Ramses is already in Palestine on another dig, getting himself perilously involved in a murderous intrigue. The Germans are planning a railroad and an eventual occupation of the region. Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman Empire don’t bother with niceties when keeping order. Weird characters abound and many of them might be spies or other nefarious villains.

As ever, Amelia is brusque, intelligent, competent, attracted to the most dangerous sites and the possibilities of a dig to clear up some historical mysteries. But this time an added complication is the apparent disappearance of Ramses who has failed to show up as directed and join his parents’ dig. The Crown has set the Emersons loose in Palestine to uncover a plot to destabilize the precarious peace among conflicting religions in the tinderbox of Jerusalem. Much more than the discovery of new artifacts is at stake. Things get complicated before the expedition sets one foot out of England.

Elizabeth Peters delivers her razor-sharp, contentious, funny and historically-lavish typical Amelia Peabody mystery. The repartee between the Emersons is quick and clever. The plots and subplots twist into a satisfying tangle. You can’t entirely guess at the resolution but you are happy to be led to it, enjoying the adventure along the way. There are no false notes in these stories. The times, the trickery and the players all make sense in a believable world. My only regret was the absence of De Cat Bastet and that wicked little boy who bedevils everyone and saves the day hilariously in earlier books.

A River in the Sky: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense   Elizabeth Peters | HarperCollins   2010

The Fire Starter Sessions – Danielle LaPorte

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Danielle LaPorte crams a lot of type into The Fire Starter Sessions—bold black large fonts and tiny san serif and some red, italic and gray here and there for emphasis. It’s as visual as it is legible. The messages are hard to ignore—which is the point. TFSS is a wake-up call from a Type-A, high-enthusiasm, self-help guru who believes that balance is overrated and doing what you say you’re going to do is the secret of success.

LaPorte is pithy, funny, hip, direct and wise. She’s produced a caffeine-jolt of a book that stuffs you in the mouth of the cannon, aims it at a Really Big Goal and lights the fuse. Since death is inevitable, LaPorte writes, your only intelligent choice is to live your passion—and then she tells you how to do it. Part attitude, part tunnel vision and part divine inspiration will start a business, achieve enlightenment, capture the heart of Rhett Butler, sail you through medical school, raise joyful kids, compose a symphony, invent the next technology after Apple.

All the clever turns of phrase, colloquialisms, cussing and conniving keep the pages moving and the message coming. No slacking, no drudgery, no fuzzy thinking, no selling yourself short. First define your self because, like it or not, you are a brand. Know thyself—and really take some time to find out what floats your boat and which is your favorite flavor. Get spiritual—not all tangled up in religion–uncluttered by meditation, yoga, tree-hugging, journal-keeping, making time and room to just be so the creative ideas will arrive in that cleared space.  

TFSS is crammed with suggestions for positive thinking, from post-it notes with one-word reminders to ditching the daily planner and immersing yourself in the flow. Pick your heroes, Gandhi and Lady GaGa, and write down four of their traits you admire—then acquire those traits. Make art that feels good—why would anyone want evidence of your enforced industry? It will have struggle written all over it and you won’t have had any fun. Remember that inevitability thing about death? Don’t waste your life.

Starting fires looks like your best and only choice as you devour big chunks of this book. It is served up in big chunks, so you won’t be perusing it sedately. From the flaming red cover to the pyromaniacal advice inside, The Fire Starter Sessions will incite you to blaze a new trail through the weedy dullness of your days, embrace your most combustible ideas, prioritize what is sacred to you, and shine.

The Fire Starter Sessions: A Soulful + Practical Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms   Danielle LaPorte | Crown  2012