Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Tyburn by Jessica Cale - for those who are sick of A Christmas Carol!

Greetings, commies!
As we swing into December, there will be no shortage of references to A Christmas Carol, the kind of sugary, "uplifting" holiday staple I'm sick of. If you hate that cheesy, preachy holiday vibe as much as I do, here is a novel worth checking out. It's set in England, albeit during the Stuart era, not Victorian. Yes, it deals with social inequality, but without Dickens' ... life-affirming message. Raw, unapologetic and politically incorrect, Tyburn is a treat for every Grinch out there.
Caught between a new love and an old need for revenge, notorious harlot Sally Green fights for survival in Restoration London. A sinister nobleman, a tutor with a secret, danger around every corner, and unbridled passion … Jessica Cale is pleased to present Tyburn, Book 1 of her new historical romance series, The Southwark Saga.
My thoughts:
Jessica Cale had a very challenging task ahead of her: reinventing and reassembling common archetypes. The whore with a heart of gold has been done to death. So has the teacher/highwayman. She manages to take those stock images, shake them up and flesh them out in brilliant new light. Even though marketed as a traditional romance, "Tyburn" is a gritty, realistic, multi-level novel with distinct noir twist. Set in England during the reign of the Stuart dynasty, the novel tells the story of a French born waif who manages to maintain her sense of humor, compassion and determination to survive. She is stripped of squeamishness and prudishness but not of dignity in the higher sense. She sells her body, but she doesn't agonize over it. Influential patrons bid for exclusivity. Not all of them repulsive. Some are actually tolerable. I am thankful to the author for not painting all men who paid for prostitutes' time with the same brush, for not making them equally filthy pigs. I am also thankful that she did not throw a token orphan. It seems like no sympathetic prostitute is complete without a love child (I am looking at you, Fantine from "Les Mis"). Blessedly, there are no cute prepubescent street children lurking in the background (die, Gavroche, die!) Sally refers to herself nonchalantly as "a barren whore". Kudos to the author for portraying a sexually promiscuous heroine without judgment or melodrama. You don't find edgy content like that in most romance novels, where the heroine is expected to be chaste, or at least reluctant and contrite, if she is sexually active. Even after all her traumatic experiences, Sally manages to separate business from pleasure. Even after being raped, beaten, forced to cater to the most exotic sexual whims of her clients, she retains her ability to fall in love, proving that humanity and purity can be found in the filthiest of places. Her tender camaraderie with her fellow prostitute, a cross-dressing male who styles himself Bettie, is probably the most moving relationships in the novel. There are so many things to respect about this marvelous debut.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Avelynn: the Edge of Faith - a historical romance by Marissa Campbell

It's been two weeks since the election, and I am back to reviewing literature. Political alliances, plots, shifting of allegiance are timeless topics. Today's book is Avelynn: the Edge of Faith, Marissa Campbell's standalone historical/military romance set in the Dark Ages. 

It's the year 871. Charges of treason, murder, and witchcraft follow Avelynn into exile as she flees England with Alrik. Arriving in Wales, they find refuge among Alrik's friends in the Welsh nobility. Cast out by his half-brothers, Alrik seeks to regain his honor and earn favor with the gods. When war threatens, Alrik embraces gold and the opportunity for his crew to become mercenaries, aiding the Southern Welsh kings in their fight against Rhodri the Great.

Desperate to return home, Avelynn seeks to find a way to prove her innocence, but she is pitted against Alrik as their desires for the future clash. With battle looming, Avelynn's faith in their relationship is further tested through a bitter struggle with Marared, a jealous lover from Alrik's past. Marared's threats turn deadly, and Avelynn runs afoul of magic and sorcery, causing her to question her beliefs and role as priestess.

When Avelynn and Alrik are betrayed, Avelynn is captured and Alrik is charged with regicide. The two become separated, a chasm of greed, deceit, and ambition driving them apart. In an act of harrowing faith, Avelynn will stop at nothing to find her way back to Alrik and break them both free from Wales's bloodthirsty grasp.

My thoughts:
I am very finicky about larger-than-life female characters being used as vehicles for advancing feminist agenda. There are so many historical/speculative novels out there featuring pagan warrior princesses, who are nothing more than talking heads spouting cliche anachronisms. Luckily for me, AVELYNN: THE EDGE OF FAITH is not one of those novels. It's a skillfully balanced, multifaceted, genre-defying work of fiction that combines the graphic historical grit with magical realism.

Campbell's religiously ambivalent Avelynn treads a fine line between an iconic Dark Ages high-born damsel (think Guinevere in the more orthodox interpretations of the King Arthur legend) and Xena the Warrior Princess, who dismembers her foes with one flick of her wrist. Blessedly, the author does not lapse into any of those extremes or rely on staple cliches. Avelynn is someone who can handle weapon and deflect unwelcome sexual advances. At the same time, she does not engage in lengthy tirades about gender equality. Her integration into the world dominated by warriors of various heritages - Celtic, Saxon, Viking - is effortless. Her relationship with her Viking lover Alrik is charged with raw, nonchalant sensuality, free from inhibitions and prejudices. At the same time, they discuss matters of life and death as equals. After torrid love scenes, they discuss politics and alliances. 

The novel explores the timeless subject of vindictive, vengeful ex-lovers. Marared, Avelynn's arch-rival for the affections of Alrik, is one of the most memorable female antagonists I have encountered in historical fiction. The infamous "psycho ex-girlfriend" is an eternal archetype. Physically and intellectually inferior to Avelynn, Marared relies on more traditional feminine tricks like fabricating pregnancy stories and threatening her rival with curses and spells. Despite her hatred for the protagonist, Marared is a sympathetic villain. She is a pawn in a much larger political scheme. Her rage is that of a discarded woman. Her heart is filled with fury, but at least she still has a heart - unlike her mother Sigy.

White magic is benign and useless, more of a placebo. Dark magic renders violent short-term effects but is sure to backfire. Ultimately, her heroine must rely on her own intellect and physical endurance as well as her ability to build alliances in order to triumph over her numerous ill-wishers. The author does not abuse the deus ex machina gimmick to advance the plot. Even though spirituality and magic play a major part in the novel, in the end, it is a combination of brain, muscle and iron that win.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Let me turn your phony liberal tears to pearls: Connecticut Commie speaks

Greetings, commies!

I usually don't get this personal on my literary blog, but in light of massive political masturbation on Facebook following the surprising election results, with oceans of bodily fluids streaming, I felt compelled to lift my skirt and show a little cheek. Disclaimer: I am commenting on my own personal experience, not generalizing by any means. Although, I suspect, many of you have similar experiences. I promise, tomorrow I'll get back to reviewing books and interviewing authors.  

In case you didn't know, I graduated from Stamford High School in 1996. I am friends with many of my former classmates on Facebook and even attended a reunion, just for the heck of it. Most of these people were not my friends in real life. In fact, they made my life rather unpleasant, deliberately or not. My social status during my high-school years would be best described as that of a token "freak" - a political refugee from Eastern Europe, with frizzy hair, a deviated septum, a bone marrow disorder and a vague Eurotrashy accent that has since been erased. It was perfectly acceptable for them to make me the subject of pranks and countless lame Cold War era jokes. Russians, Ukrainians and Poles are an easy target. You can bully them without being accused of racism, and people from those countries are not inclined to any kind of organized activism. They just suck it up and soldier on. And that's just what I did. I kept up with the honors program, staying in the top 5% of the class, combating intense anxiety by cutting my forearms and throwing up in the bathroom.

Fast forward twenty years. November, 2016. Donald Trump has just won the election. Many of my former tormentors have been expressing distress over the election of a candidate described as "racist, homophobic and bigoted", among other things. They demonstratively wring their hands and express concern for their "black, Muslim, gay, transgender, Hispanic, etc." friends. I find it fascinating that the same people who ridiculed, taunted, bullied, insulted and ostracized me throughout high-school are suddenly so concerned for the emotional well-being of their "minority" friends. Dear Class of 1996. I don't believe that for a second that you are concerned about anyone or anything beyond your own privileged butts. You don't have any minority friends, or if you do, by some miracle, then only as a fashion statement. You only surround yourself with Beautiful People, whose speech is littered with exclamations like "Awesome!" and "Amazing!"

Please, do not tell me how heartbroken and worried you are about your imaginary black, purple, Reformed Zoroastrian, Martian, trans-species imaginary friends. You are the same self-centered, hypocritical, prejudiced posers you were in high-school.

Deplorably yours,
Connecticut Commie

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Blue of Her Hair, the Gold of Her Eyes - another sci-fi gem from John B. Rosenman

Greetings, commies!
Another great short story from John B. Rosenman. Interestingly enough, October was a breast cancer awareness month. And that's exactly the diagnosis the heroine of his short story is hoping for. But the news she receives is infinitely worse. As a cancer patient, she could at least expect compassion and support. In her case, the prognosis is quite grim.

Rachel's mysterious disease causes everyone, including her husband, to fear and reject her. Then her body starts to change in amazing ways. What will she ultimately become, and can she survive and find a new sense of identity amid the terror of her transformation?

My thoughts
Set in a near future, The Blue of Her Hair, The Gold of Her Eyes is written in a very accessible, skillfully understated style, without any excessive drama. This short story is loaded with symbolism, built in metaphors and powerful messages that encourage the reader to think critically, explore his/her own beliefs about medical ethics and human rights. There are so many universal topics explored, from mass paranoia, to social ostracism, to pressure to give up the fight.

Americans like to think of themselves as humane, tolerant and compassionate, but when a mysterious illness, reportedly worse than cancer or AIDS, spreads through the community, everyone's tolerance is tested. The main character is one of the highlights in the story. Rachel, a social worker who dedicated her lie to helping others, finds herself discarded after receiving a devastating and mystifying diagnosis. She encounters rejection and companionship in most unexpected places. What really endears her to me is her refusal to beat her chest in self-pity. Her philosophical disposition and willingness to accept her fate give her an advantage over other patients stricken by the same disease. But I won't ruin the story for you. Pick it up and read it yourself!