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fall 2005 nars.
Welcome to Fashionista Piranha Book Blog, where a good book is always your best accessory!  Life is too short to waste reading bad literature, especially when there's so many good books out there. If I can keep you from reading one atrocious novel, I've done my job. But if I help you find something you'll enjoy, even better. I've achieved my goal.

I have been reading, writing and reviewing since 2008, so there's a lot to see here.  To read the latest reviews, simply scroll down; in the sidebar to the left I also have the reviews grouped chronologically.  If there's a specific title or series you have in mind, I also have the reviews indexed by the author:

Book Reviews by Author, A-H
Book Reviews by Author, I-P
Book Reviews by Author, Q-Z

Sometimes I will wander off-topic and talk about theater productions I've seen.  Usually - but not always - it'll be Shakespeare-related (most commonly the plays from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) or a stage adaptation of a classic book.  But if I see a show and I'm super-excited about it, odds are that it'll show up on Fashionista Piranha.  Less frequently, movie adaptations of books will make a similar appearance.

I always enjoy hearing from visitors to the blog, so please feel free to leave comments or email me at fashion_piranha @  This includes you, publishers and authors!  I am always happy to discuss your projects with you; feel free to check out my review policies here and drop me a line.
Thanks for stopping by!
Suzi the Fashion Piranha
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fall 2005 nars.
The Supermodel and the Brillo Box
by Don Thompson

The exclusive world of the high-end art market is inscrutable for many. What makes one contemporary artist’s work sell for millions of dollars at auction while another artist with great talent struggles to get his paintings into galleries? Following up on an earlier book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, Don Thompson returns to the economics of the art world, studying the impact of the 2008 economic crash on the market and finding out who buys the art, and how, and why.

If you want a book about the aesthetics of contemporary art, something that explains why a pile of individually-wrapped candies is considered “art” but a Thomas Kinkade painting is not…well, keep looking. This is a book about money, and economics, and marketing. It’s all business here. Now, one can argue (and Thompson does, quite successfully) that it is the branding and the economic investment of key interested parties that determines which art ends up in museums and in art histories, but my point is that this isn’t really a book that explains art, per se. It explains the art market.

And it turns out that the art market is a lot more screwed up than an art history major devoted to the memory of Michelangelo and Caravaggio would like to believe. A painting by a certain artist goes to auction at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. Based on previous auctions, an estimate is made for the value of the art. When the bidding begins, the winner is often already known. Straw bids by the auctioneer inflate the price past any reserve. Should a piece threaten to sell for too little, other collectors may jump in on the auction not because they want this piece, but to protect the value of other paintings they may have by this same artist – after all, a low auction price will damage future estimates for their collection. It’s all a money game, an alternative form of investing that only the top 0.000001% can play.

But it’s fascinating. Don Thompson explores not just the world of the auction house, but the super-elite art dealers who help make artists into household names. He reveals that some of the biggest spenders are emerging art markets in the Middle East and China, and revels in their plans for the massive art collections acquired. He explores art world failures, too – why the upper-end art market hasn’t successfully made the move to the Internet, despite multiple attempts over the years, or how many of the smaller galleries are being shut down, unable to compete with the superpowers.

There are some dry passages that I found difficult to get through. A list of the twenty-five biggest art collectors? No doubt that’s interesting if you’re looking to sell some Warhols or Hirsts, but to me it’s just a list of people with far too much money to play with. But reading about the ways this handful of people sustain something as bizarre as the contemporary art market is so interesting that it easily makes up for the occasional dull moment.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Supermodel and the Brillo Box, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza
2012: Otomen Vol. 1 by Aya Kanno
2011: Ghost Radio by Leopold Gout
2010: Off to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival!
2009: Beautiful as Yesterday by Fan Wu
2008: Dragon Road by Laurence Yep
pearly whites.
Judge Bao & The Jade Phoenix
by Patrick Marty & Chongrui Nie

First volume in the Judge Bao series

A legendary figure in Chinese history, Lord Bao Zheng was renowned for his strong sense of fairness and dedication to bringing justice to all Chinese, no matter their social status. He has been charged with ferreting out corruption and restoring the dignity of the Chinese government under the Emperor Ren Zong. With a loyal bodyguard, a page, and his secretary, Judge Bao travels the great Chinese empire, uncovering scandals and solving mysteries. In the case of the Jade Phoenix, Judge Bao meets a dying widow who begs him to save her son, falsely imprisoned for a murder he did not commit.

The art in this graphic novel is beautiful. It looks as if each panel was etched on scratchboard, giving each scene a delicate handling of light and shadow. Clearly, the artist knew what he was doing, because the figures also retain a strong sense of weight and mass, and the faces are expressive. I can’t help but be impressed. It makes the panels seem old, and the scratchy edges remind me that the Judge Bao legend began long ago, and has been passed through many hands, like the worn surface of a family heirloom.

I don’t know if this particular tale is based on an existing Judge Bao legend, or if Patrick Marty created the mystery wholecloth, but it’s quite good. The Judge and his traveling companions are introduced quickly, and the reader easily gets a sense of their personalities. The mystery builds quickly, keeping the suspense taut, and there’s plenty of action and fighting (and even a sexy break or two). By the end of the first graphic novel, I was more than ready to keep going.

This is where we run into a problem. The story cuts off very abruptly, and the final page promises that the adventures will continue in “Judge Bao & The King of Children”. Unfortunately, this next installment has not been published in the United States, and the publisher has not announced an estimate for when it may appear on bookstore shelves. I do hope that Archaia will eventually get the next Judge Bao out, because this wasn’t written to be a standalone graphic novel and I want to finish the story!

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about Judge Bao & The Jade Phoenix, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Blood & Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant
2012: The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels and Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond
2011: The King’s Witch by Cecelia Holland
2010: Off to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival!
2009: Best Intentions by Emily Listfield
2008: The Treasure of Montsegur by Sophy Burnham
the red queen.
Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls
by David Sedaris

In his latest collection of essays, David Sedaris combs his childhood for more appalling stories about his family, from his father's refusal to wear pants at the dinner table to his penchant for adopting wild animals as pets and killing them off with his child's ignorance about how to care for them. Sedaris also dives into the present, chronicling his obsessive diary-writing, his quest to find a taxidermy owl for his boyfriend's Valentine's Day present (and his near-purchase of a Pygmy skeleton along the way), and collecting odd little trinkets like condoms or hotel shampoo bottles to give away at book signings. In the final section, he writes several short fiction pieces for students participating in Forensics, short monologues recited aloud at competitions.

I have enjoyed David Sedaris' past books, always in audio format because half the humor is in the man's delivery of his own essays. He reads his stories with such careful precision, that perfect mix of self-deprecation and deadpan delivery, that lines which might only earn a smile in print will set me cracking up until I'm bent over, gasping like a fish out of water. Many of the essays here are Sedaris in fine form. One of my favorite essays this time around was “Rubbish”, in which he describes the new country cottage he and Hugh (his long-time partner) purchase in the English countryside, and his quest to keep his new home garbage-free, a problem because people driving down the road in front of it seem hellbent on chucking crisp bags and soda bottles out the window. The frustration he feels and the pathos of the situation is very real, but it's so funny when he describes what, in another writer's words, would be a very uninteresting, even boring story.

As always, there's at least one story focused on his father, Lou Sedaris. This time, in “Memory Laps”, Sedaris recalls his childhood swim meets, where his father when inevitably end up cheering and praising one of the other swimmers instead of his own son. In another essay, his father constantly badgers him to get a colonoscopy, not out of paternal concern but out of a more sinister desire to watch his son suffer, Lou's desire akin to rubbernecking at a train wreck.

So these essays are very much in the style of Sedaris' earlier books, and if you like his particular style of narcissistic wit, go to it.

Where the book started flailing and ultimately failed for me was in the short fiction pieces toward the end. Here, Sedaris seemed to turn the pen over to his most petty and catty impulses, and the result is a series of shrill whining as he imagines the point of view of a Britain-obsessed teenage girl, conservative middle-aged woman, and other small-minded people filled with bitterness and bile. My husband was simply gobsmacked; only a few essays before this started he'd been praising Sedaris for finding humor without resorting to time-sensitive or political humor. It was a very disappointing end to the first collection of essays Sedaris has put out in five years.

3 out of 5 stars

To read more about Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: The Twice Lost (Lost Voices #3) by Sarah Porter
2012: Flower in a Storm Vol. 2 by Shigeyoshi Takagi
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while...
2010: News: Book 'Ark' at the V&A
2009: Tattoo Machine by Jeff Johnson
2008: Women of the Bible: Jael's Story by Ann Burton
fall 2005 nars.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
by Karen Foxlee

A retelling of the Snow Queen with a scientifically-minded, asthmatic heroine, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy stars a young girl who recently lost her mother. Her father buries himself in his work and refuses to speak of his wife; Alice, her sister, sinks into a depression that lessens only when the family arrives in a new city where their father is staging an exhibition of swords for the local museum. The beautiful curator, Miss Kaminski, captivates Alice and as she teaches the teenager about fashion and make-up, her grief is forgotten. Only Ophelia knows the truth, thanks to a boy imprisoned in one of the museum’s forgotten gallery: Miss Kaminski is the wicked Snow Queen, and if Ophelia doesn’t find a way to save them the world will be plummeted into eternal winter.

The museum in which the story takes place is a complete and total hodgepodge. It’s very much a creation of a child’s mind, the fantasy museum where anything can be displayed and anything can happen. Very Night at the Museum. It’s a suitable abode for the Snow Queen, for what other institution is so dedicated to stopping time and freezing the natural processes of decay and decomposition? The devotion to preservation of relics and treasures are a perfect trait for a modern-day Snow Queen.

The biggest problem is that the Marvelous Boy, whom we never learn another name for, isn’t very interesting. Constantly being told “The Marvelous Boy did this” and “The Marvelous Boy did that” builds up certain expectations, and the fact that he never manages to develop a personality and spends most of the time giving Ophelia tasks that set her scrambling all over the museum means that this boy really isn’t marvelous. He tells some stories about his magical adventures, but the mythology is vague and weak, and it’s hard to reconcile this adventurer in the tales with the personality-free mannequin narrating them.

Ophelia is an interesting little heroine. She doesn’t believe in magic at all, finding comfort in dinosaur skeletons and the scientific method. With her constant puffing on her asthma inhaler, she doesn’t sound like a typical hero, but as she scampers through the labyrinthine museum you root for her to succeed.

Yet every time the story tries to shift focus back to the Marvelous Boy, I grew bored. His narrations truly weaken the story, slowing it to a crawl and meandering around predictable fantasy tropes. I really could have done without him.

2 out of 5 stars

To read more about Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Stardust by Neil Gaiman
2012: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: Dolis by Maki Kusumoto
2009: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
2008: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Review: The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

new romantic.
The Shadow Queen
by Sandra Gulland

After wandering the French countryside with her family for years, Claudette, her mother and her brother settle in Paris. Her mother becomes one of the great stars of the stage while her two children work behind the scenes. Still, money is always tight, so when Claudette catches the attention of the beautiful Athénaïs, mistress to the King of France, she agrees to perform certain tasks for her. Whisked into the glamour and glitter of court life, Claudette soon finds that beneath its facade of beauty the world of the King can be as dark and disreputable as that of the stage.

First of all, let’s establish what this novel is not. It is not a novel about Athénaïs, the mistress of Louis XIV and “Shadow Queen” of France, even if she’s the title character. No, Athénaïs is a shadowy background character who only occasionally makes her way into the main narrative. Readers looking to learn more about her will be sadly disappointed.

But if you’re curious about the 17th century theatre world in France, this book is for you. I knew going into the book that actors were not accorded the same respect as other professions, but it’s shocking to hear just how outcast they were from regular society. Specifically, I was horrified by how actors were treated by the Church. It was considered such a great sin that actors and actresses had to renounce the stage on their deathbeds, or they would be denied a burial place in the churchyard proper and cast into Hell for eternity. It seems more than a little Janus-faced to deny actors heaven because of their trade when monarchs and the public eagerly attend the plays, especially since the writers who create the plays go unpenalized.

Claudette’s fascination with Athénaïs seems an unrequited romance. Or am I the only one reading a lesbian subtext to Claudette’s obsession with the marquise de Montespan? Certainly, Claudette is bewitched, so again and again she aids Athénaïs by hiding her lover, procuring love potions, and even bedding the king when Athénaïs commands it. But there’s no passion in the story. Even though the reader is in Claudette’s head, descriptions are often clinical or vague. Years roll by, with Athénaïs fading in and out of the picture and not much happening when she isn’t around.

The story also ends suddenly, abruptly. Claudette is accused of a monstrous crime, and while she is set free she is exiled from court. This is true to history. But by removing her from Athénaïs’ fall from favor, the story is robbed of its dramatic conclusion. We never learn what happens after Claudette leaves the main scene of action. The book thus feels unfinished and wanting.

2 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Shadow Queen, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: The Eternity Cure (Blood of Eden #2) by Julie Kagawa
2012: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain
2009: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
2008: Eclipse (Twilight #3) by Stephenie Meyer
take the red eye.
Wars of the Roses: Stormbird
by Conn Iggulden

First book in Iggulden’s War of the Roses series

Gentle and pious, King Henry VI of England has the mild manner and desire for justice that ought to make him a good king. But he is born into a time of constant sparring with France. His father was the warrior Henry V who took great swathes of French land for the Crown, but instead of following in his footsteps the son negotiates a secret truce for peace. In exchange for marrying Margaret of Anjou and returning land to the French, Henry VI ends the constant fighting abroad only to stir up revolt on his own shores as his now-homeless subjects are forced to return to England after cultivating the fields of English-controlled France. As rebellion swirls amongst the peasants and rival claimants to the throne plot amongst the nobility, Henry slips into illness, plunging the kingdom into chaos and civil war.

I’ve read a lot of books set during the Wars of the Roses, so I’ve got the period and its major players down pretty well. If Conn Iggulden’s series is to be your first foray into the chaos, be prepared: it’s going to be pretty darn confusing. Apparently there were only a few names to choose from, so the story is peppered with Thomases, Edwards, Richards, Williams and Henrys. I didn’t think it was too bad in this first volume, but in subsequent books many of the great families will have children and grandchildren who share these names, and it will be a challenge to keep track of them all. Luckily, there are several family trees printed at the beginning of the book to help readers sort it all out.

Iggulden’s approach to the War of the Roses is a bit different from the other books I’ve read. This is the rare book that starts at the beginning of the action with Henry VI – every other book I’ve picked up set in this period begins story after Edward IV has become a serious rival. Edward isn’t even in this book – instead, it is his father upholding the name of York and accruing power unto his family. It’s also unusual in that Margaret of Anjou is a sympathetic, likeable character. Knowing that she would later be known as the “She-Wolf of France”, most writers tend to make her ferocious and ambitious. Perhaps one day she will evolve into that role, but at least in these early years, Iggulden paints her as kind and affectionate with her unstable husband.

Another thing that’s really fun about this series is that it showcases peasants nearly as often as it does the royal court. Thomas Woodchurch and Jack Cade, displaced peasants who lead a rebellion, are constantly in danger from French and English soldiers. Woodchurch is engaging because his reasons for fighting are universal: to protect his family, who lost their home in France because their king bargained away the land they lived on. Cade is a loudspoken and violent drunk who leads his men by brute force. It’s almost a pity, for Cade is the real historical figure and Woodchurch the fictional one – one wishes that Cade could be as well-rounded as his companion, but perhaps Iggulden wasn’t comfortable taking license with his personality.

As is the fashion with many writers of historical fiction, Iggulden plays fast and loose with historical events, bringing dead men to life and omitting others from key scenes. In a Historical Note at the end of the book, he explains the rationale behind many of his decisions. For a reader looking for a fast-paced adventure focused on the “men’s world” of war and fighting, the choices work very well.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about War of the Roses: Stormbird, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Chew Vol. 1 by John Layman and Rob Guillory
2012: Sailor Moon Vol. 4 by Naoko Takeuchi
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: Discussion Question: Favorite Book of 2010 (so far!)
2009: Discussion Question: Eating and Reading
2008: The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
fall 2005 nars.
Reading Rainbow flies past Kickstarter goal; ends at $5.4 million

On July 2nd, the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign ended with more backers than any previous project on the crowdfunding website. The campaign went viral within minutes of its initial launch, and blew past the initial goal of $1,000,000 in eleven hours.

Upon seeing the positive reaction from backers, many of whom grew up watching the show in the 1980s and 90s, LeVar Burton and the staff at Reading Rainbow created a stretch goal of $5,000,000. If achieved, it would allow the team to do the following:

  • Enable more platforms to access to the Reading Rainbow service, which originally was only available in an iPad app, including a web version and apps for Android, Xbox, Playstation, and set-top boxes

  • Provide free year-long subscriptions to 13,000 underfunded schools and libraries

  • Continue developing new content for the Reading Rainbow subscription service

Many celebrities got involved with the campaign. Several of Burton’s former Star Trek castmates agreed to participate in special live events while Seth MacFarlane pledged to match up to $1, 000,000. At the end of the campaign, Kickstarter backers had pledged $5,408,916 while an additional $70,000 was donated outside of the site. Combined with MacFarlane’s donation, Reading Rainbow ultimately ended with $6,478,916. Several of Kickstarter’s most successful past campaigns also contributed rewards for backers, including Pebble smart watches and Ouya game consoles.

Of course, a good chunk of that money will go to paying for the many backer rewards. A wide variety of goods were available: shirts, stickers, mugs, tote bags, picnic blankets, calendars, DVDs of “classic” Reading Rainbow episodes, headshots of LeVar Burton, and more. Many of the rewards were Star Trek themed, while others tapped into Burton’s celebrity by offering dinners and picnics with the Reading Rainbow host or visits to the set of his current TV show, Perception. My favorite reward (which I sadly couldn’t afford to select) offered backers the chance to “adopt” a local school, gifting them with Reading Rainbow classroom subscriptions and school assemblies.

Still, even after paying out Kickstarter’s fee and the cost of backer rewards, Reading Rainbow succeeded in raising more money than I think anyone expected. I’m looking forward to hearing more about what the team at Reading Rainbow has planned in the next few months.

Peeking into the in:
2013: A Game of Thrones (A Song of Fire and Ice #1) by George R. R. Martin
2012: Of Love and Evil (Songs of the Seraphim #2) by Anne Rice
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
2009: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard
2008: The Heartbreak Diet by Thorina Rose

Review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

the red queen.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
by Jung Chang

Selected as an imperial concubine as a teenager, Cixi was initially just another beautiful woman at the court of the Chinese emperor. But when she gave birth to a son, the future heir to the throne, she quickly grew in power and influence. When the Emperor died, and her son was just five years old, Cixi shared the title of Dowager Empress with the wife of her former lord. The two women, Dowager Empress Cixi and Dowager Empress Ci’an, ousted the regents appointed to rule for their son, and in a remarkable partnership the two empresses ruled through the Tongzhi and Guangxu Emperors’ regencies. Dowager Empress Cixi became the dominant political power, and through her new role she confronted the problems posed to China by the increasing political influence of Western powers. Through compromise and careful diplomacy, Cixi worked with diplomats and her vast Chinese bureaucracy to modernize China. During her remarkable forty-seven year reign, Cixi worked tireless to bring her army and navy up to date with current technology, outlawed footbinding, and tried to pave the way toward a constitutional monarchy.

I have previously read a fictional account of the life of Empress Cixi in Pearl Buck's Imperial Woman, which I quite enjoyed. The story introduced me to this extremely unusual, intriguing woman, and I wanted to know how much of the story was true. It seemed impossible that a woman could have really managed the affairs of China for nearly fifty years.

This biography is fascinating. Jung Chang seeks to rehabilitate the Empress past her Western reputation as an aged dragon upon the throne. I mean, she doesn't transform Cixi into a benevolent, enlightened, democratic ruler - nothing crazy like that! - Chang simply provides much of the context that explains how Cixi's worldview was formed and why she made many of the choices that she did. In the process, the book enlightens a great deal about a woman’s world in China during the second half of the 19th century, and while it’s obvious that Cixi had a very exceptional life she was still very much a part of that mindset, and the limitations it set upon her reign make you wonder just what she could have accomplished had she been active just fifteen or twenty years later.

At times, Chang seems to be rooting just a little too enthusiastically about her subject. She’s so excited to overturn ideas that Cixi was a merciless tyrant that she glosses over some of the unpleasant things that Cixi did during her reign or the mistakes made in her name. Likewise, she grants Cixi some extraordinarily progressive ideals towards the end of her reign, positing that if she had lived a few more years China would have had a radically different future under a constitutional monarchy.

The book isn’t just about Cixi, either. As a woman restricted to the Forbidden City, the empress sent Chinese men all over the world to be her eyes and ears, to learn about the Western ways that so threatened China. Reading these men’s impressions of European courts or American cities provide some of the most intriguing and entertaining passages of the book – talk about culture clash! Meanwhile, in China the wives of foreign diplomats occasionally met with Cixi – as a woman she couldn’t meet with the diplomats face-to-face, but she could meet their families – and their accounts of her life and personality provide the most intimate looks into her world.

Cixi was a remarkable woman and it’s well worth taking the time to read about her. I find her inspiring – not because she ruled China, not exactly, but because she was a woman who worked really hard and truly maximized the potential of the opportunities that came her way. To rise from a low-ranking concubine to the power behind the throne and to maintain that control shows that in every way, she was a truly imperial woman.

5 out of 5 stars

To read more about Empress Dowager Cixi, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Shelf Awareness: Katherine Kellgren: Dedicated to Every Word
2012: Theater: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while…
2010: Museums & Children’s Books
2009: Reading Challenge: The Newbery Medal
2008: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

the red queen.
Cruel Beauty
by Rosamund Hodge

Nine hundred years ago, the land of Arcadia was cruelly torn away from the rest of the world by the Gentle Lord, the ruler of demons. In exchange for tribute, he keeps his demons from tormenting humanity into madness. Years ago, a man bargained with the Gentle Lord, begging him for children. The Gentle Lord agreed, taking as his price one of the man’s future daughters in marriage. Twin girls were born, but the man’s wife died in childbirth. The grief-stricken father raised one daughter, Nyx, to avenge her mother by killing her future husband after their wedding, while showering all of his love and affection on the second child. Full of resentment and anger, Nyx hates her sister for being loved and her father for treating her only as a tool of vengeance. Still, she plans to carry out her duty, trapping the Gentle Lord and his demons in his castle and freeing the land of Arcadia from his grasp.

The tale draws inspiration not just from Beauty and the Beast, but from Greek and Roman mythology. Shades of Pandora’s Box, Psyche and Cupid, and the Labyrinth of King Minos make the story much darker than the traditional fairy tale. It creates a very interesting world, for Nyx’s gowns and the descriptions of the Gentle Lord’s castle sound very 17th or 18th century, the height of baroque luxury. The best way that I can think to describe the world is that it is as if Arcadia was sundered from the rest of the world right before the time of Christ, and developed on a parallel path with the rest of history but without the influence of Christianity. Thus, “hedge gods” still flourish amongst the peasants while the wealthy worship the Olympian gods and goddesses.

It is also a world in which good and evil is fluid. At first, the Gentle Lord seems a cruel tyrant, but as Nyx gets to know her husband Ignifex – not his real name, but more personal than “Gentle Lord” – she realizes that his humor and temperament matches her own, and that the victims of his “cruel bargains” are guilty of pride and selfishness, and bear as much responsibility for their misfortunes as the demon lord. Ignifex’s servant and shadow, Shade, initially appears to be a good man imprisoned by the Gentle Lord, but the more time Nyx spends with him the more darkness she sees.

Likewise, Nyx’s own character is mirrored in her twin sister, Astraia. At the beginning of the book, Astraia seems all goodness: sweet, cheerful, beloved. Nyx hates that her sister can be so carefree and innocent. But as Nyx softens in the castle under the influence of Ignifex and Shade, Astraia hardens as hatred for the man who took her sister away, and her rage that her sister never once asked her for help, so that by the time the twins meet again their personalities have almost completely switched.

Throughout the book, references are made to hermetic magic, which Nyx spent years practicing with her father. It’s mentioned again and again. We know that Nyx enjoys learning her hermetic workings and that it can be used to power lamps and, in time, to bring the Gentle Lord down…but how this magic works is never adequately explained.

Ultimately, the story has a lot of interesting points – I love the mythology/fairy tale fusion – but certain elements never quite pan out. The hermetic workings are muddled, and the romantic love triangle is resolved in such a way that Nyx both has her cake and eats it, too. It’s a fun, quick summer read, but one that will leave the reader scratching her head afterward.

3 out of 5 stars

To read more about Cruel Beauty, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Happy Fourth of July!
2012: Theater: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
2009: Reading Challenge: The Newbery Medal
2008: Ruby Slippers by Jonalyn Grace Fincher
fall 2005 nars.
World Book Night to Suspend Operations

WBN-logo-no-dateWorld Book Night U. S. announced yesterday morning that they would be closing down operations due to a lack of funding. Carl Lennertz, the executive director, explained that without outside funding, the cost of the program was too high to maintain, even with the generous donations of time, energy, and materials from writers, booksellers, librarians and publishers.

Although World Book Night, active for three years in the United States, was popular – in 2014 about 500,000 books were given away on April 23rd – the impact of the promotion on book sales was difficult to measure. After attempts to obtain grants from organizations outside of the publishing world proved futile, it was decided to close up shop. The staff will continue to maintain social media sites through the end of summer on a volunteer basis.

I only actively participated in the event once, in 2013, and it was a really cool experience. I had a lot of fun sharing a book that I’d enjoyed (The Hunger Games) with strangers on the street. But did the event bring in a lot of new readers? It’s hard to say. I remember several people who took a copy knew about the Hunger Games movie, which had been released the month before, but didn’t realize there was a book. But there were also a lot of people who considered themselves dedicated readers picking up copies, too. Later, I remember seeing people trading copies and trying to assemble a complete set of World Book Night titles, which seemed rather against the spirit of the evening, although it still brought a lot of attention to books and the pleasure of reading them.

As a fan of World Book Night, I hope that this won’t be the last we hear of it. Perhaps someone will reintroduce the event on a smaller scale, or a campaign to fund it will be organized on sites like Indiegogo or Kickstarter.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Born of Illusion by Teri Brown
2012: News: Your eBook is Reading You (WSJ)
2011: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus for a while…
2010: Opinion: “Read” that classic novel by listening to it
2009: Contest #8 Winner
2008: I, robot by Howard S. Smith

Review: The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

fall 2005 nars.
The Sea House
by Elisabeth Gifford

As Ruth and Michael struggle to convert a weathered old house on the remote Scottish island of Harris into a bed and breakfast, they stumble across the shocking remains of a child buried beneath the house. The bones are misshapen, legs fused together so that the skeleton resembles an infant mermaid. As Ruth puzzles over the origin of the child, the narrative flies back a century to the days when a recently ordained vicar arrives on the island to preach to his isolated flock and to pursue his interest in the folklore of selkies and other seafolk. In parallel quests to understand history and their place in the world, Ruth and Alexander must face the demons of their past before finding peace and healing in the present.

Alexander Ferguson, the 19th century vicar, was raised with a family legend that his family descended from seal men. It is this that motivates his quest to uncover new stories, hoping to solve the mystery of mermaids. An amateur evolutionary scientist, Ferguson tries to tackle the problem as a proper scholar would, but the ridicule he endures from contemporaries makes him reluctant to share his ideas. Ferguson’s distraction with selkies and devotion to being a good pastor makes him oblivious to the problems of the villagers around him, many of whom are being forcefully evicted by the lord who owns the island. He’s far from perfect, this Ferguson. His maid Moira is devoted to him, but were it not for the chapters told from her perspective you’d think everything was hunky-dory on Harris Island because all Ferguson takes note of is the pretty daughter of the Lord Marstone, his obsession with mermaids, and atmospheric passages filled with rich descriptions of the island’s natural beauty.

Still, Ferguson’s pursuit of an explanation for the selkie legend is interesting, and Moira’s observations help round out the world and create a breathtaking view of 19th century life on an isolated Scottish island. If only the 20th century story could be as bewitching.

Ruth is a troubled woman, making her narration somewhat unreliable. Throughout the book she hints at a terrible secret from her childhood, a traumatic event on which she blames all her problems. She is such a soup of misery and self-centered drama that it’s hard to spend long periods of time in her head. As a result of her often obsessive self-focus, Ruth doesn’t describe her husband or her friends very well, and they often seem like flat, weakly-realized shadows of real people.

I’m glad that I read the book, which so beautifully evokes the 19th century and the natural beauty of the Outer Hebrides, but I’m afraid the weakness of Ruth’s story sometimes soured the experience for me.

3 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Sea House, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Narcoleptic Sunday by Jeremy Haun and Brian Koschak
2012: The Queen’s Vows by C. W. Gortner
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: The Queen’s Lover by Vanora Bennett
2009: Contest #8: Diggin’ Up New Reading Winner
2008: New Moon (Twilight #2) by Stephenie Meyer

Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

the red queen.
Mambo in Chinatown
by Jean Kwok

Charlie Wong works as a dishwasher with her father, a noodle-maker, in New York City’s Chinatown. The family is poor, but every time Charlie attempts to take up a new job she’s let go in a few weeks because of her poor reading and writing skills. Her sister Lisa convinces her to apply for a receptionist position at a dance studio, and even though she’s not the most qualified Charlie is hired. She proves to be just as disastrous as she feared, but Charlie soon discovers a new talent: her natural balance and rhythm, inherited from ballerina mother, and cheerful, patient disposition make her an ideal teacher for beginning dance students. As Charlie becomes absorbed in this new world, finding success with her students and joining the ranks of professional dancers, her life in Chinatown seems on the verge of collapse as her sister Lisa suffers from an unknown affliction and her father refuses to allow her to be treated by Western doctors.

I really liked Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in Translation, so I was happy to see another one of her books had been published. In many ways, the book is similar to her previous novel. Both novels focus on a poor Chinese-American girl who discovers she excels at a particular thing and uses it to break free of her poverty. In both books, there is a wealthier relative who creates problems for the protagonist and her family, but the family remains beholden to them.

Charlie is an interesting character. Although she’s an ABC (American Born Chinese), she was raised in the insular environment of Chinatown so many aspects of American culture haven’t reached her. Defying a popular Asian stereotype, she was also a dreadful student - one of the dancers she works with at the studio speculates that she suffers from dyslexia - and since she grew up without a computer or a smartphone, the Internet and its culture are barely on her radar. There’s a lot to admire about Charlie, though. She isn’t afraid of hard work; although she tries many times to move on to a white collar job, when it inevitably goes wrong she doesn’t sit around complaining, but rolls up her sleeves and returns to washing dishes. She’s focused and determined, as her rapid dance improvement showcases. She loves her family, and she wants to give her sister Lisa every opportunity. Charlie may be only 22, but her maturity is far beyond that of most of her peers. I liked her and rooted for her, which made it easier to swallow the practically overnight rise of her dancing career.

Kwok’s writing is direct and clear, leading the reader as smoothly as a practiced dance instructor. This book is a joy to read, and I flew through it.

5 out of 5 stars

To read more about Mambo in Chinatown, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Waking Storms (Lost Voices #2) by Sarah Porter
2012: As Simple As Snow by Greg Galloway
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while…
2010: 29: A Novel by Adena Halpern
2009: An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
2008: The Venetian Mask by Rosalind Laker

Review: China Dolls by Lisa See

fall 2005 nars.
China Dolls
by Lisa See

Three young women become best friends after meeting by chance at auditions for the Forbidden City nightclub. Pretty Grace is an unparalleled dancer who fled an abusive father to make it big in San Francisco. Dutiful Helen is the daughter of a conservative, well-to-do Chinese family, and her traditional father would be outraged at her defiant decision to work at a nightclub if the wages weren’t so much greater than what Helen can earn elsewhere. The most flamboyant member of the trio, Ruby Tom, wants to be famous, and she doesn’t care what she has to do to make it happen. Together, the three Chinese-American girls are ready to rise to the top, but in the shocking aftermath of Pearl Harbor a shocking betrayal threatens to tear the bonds of friendship to shreds.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another work of fiction that deals with Asian-Americans in show business in the 1930s and 1940s. Lisa See clearly did a lot of research as she worked on this novel, and I loved reading about the “chop suey circuit” where Asian-American acts performed vaudeville, comedy routines, and danced for their largely-white audiences. It’s such a fascinating period anyway, and by placing her three women right in the thick of things See creates an energetic story full of drama and heart.

The story jumps from one girl to the next, and the reader soon becomes used to the three distinct voices. Likely, everyone will favor one girl over the others, or find one character a bit more grating. For me, Helen proved difficult to handle in large doses. She has a habit of peppering her speech with Chinese proverbs, which makes her sound pompous and holier-than-thou when she talks to her “Americanized” friends. There’s a melancholy darkness that clings to her, and makes her seem stodgy next to her ambitious and spirited friends. By the end of the story, Helen reveals all and the reader can understand why she acts the way that she does, but while I could sympathize with her I still couldn’t like her.

While I don’t think this is See’s strongest work (Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy work together as one masterful novel in scope and emotion) it’s a great story that really showcases the American dream as it was perceived during this period of history, and the difficulties many minorities faced as they pursued it.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about China Dolls, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Discussion Question: Do you read every book in a series?
2012: Mummies in Nineteenth Century America by S. J. Wolfe
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while…
2010: Maiden, Matron, Crone edited by Kerri Huges & Martin H. Greenberg
2009: An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
2008: The Glimmer Palace by Beatrice Colin

Review: The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier

take the red eye.
The Lost Sisterhood
by Anne Fortier

Diana Morgan, an Oxford scholar fascinated by the warrior women described in Greek myths, is offered a tantalizing deal: spend a week doing a little bit of translation work for an enigmatic archaeological foundation in exchange for five thousand dollars and the chance to be associated with archeological proof that the Amazons existed. After some debate, she agrees. Suddenly, Diana is thrust into the adventure of a lifetime as she’s shuttled from one secret location to another, piecing together the fate of the Amazons as rival organizations seek to shut her down. Meanwhile, a parallel story from the distant past follows the path of a girl named Myrina as she leads a group of disenfranchised priestesses – the original Amazons – into the heart of the Trojan War as they search for a place to call home.

A fast-paced adventure that reminds me of the movie National Treasure, Diana’s escapades are exciting and entertaining. Diana is haunted by the memories of her grandmother, who believed she was an Amazon and taught the child Diana some of their traditions but was also institutionalized by Diana’s parents, who believed the old woman to be mad. The brief flashbacks show a once-strong woman reduced to a shadow of her former self because her mind has been chipped away by the treatments meant to cure her, and it’s heartbreaking. When Diana realizes that the inscriptions she’s been hired to translate are written in a dead language that her grandmother used in her diaries – a language long suspected to be one of many fantastic delusions by Diana’s mother and father – the reader will be on tenterhooks, waiting for the modern-day Amazons that must surely appear in the story.

So the mystery and the suspense in the 21st century story are wonderful and entrancing. Personally, I could have done without the occasionally heavy-handed romance, but I know a lot of readers love that sort of thing. It works well enough.

What doesn’t work is the historical story. The beginning is suitable, as a young Myrina flees her home village after her family is accused of witchcraft. She and her sister join a temple and pledge themselves to the Goddess, but after a group of Greeks attack and destroy her new home Myrina is once again on the move. She meets a young Trojan, falls in love, and leaves to join him in the great city of Troy. This is where the story falls apart for me. The young Trojan is Paris, and Myrina takes the place of the famous Helen of Troy, she of the thousand ship-launching face. The entire story of the Trojan War is rewritten so that Myrina features prominently. It struck me as Mary Sue fanfiction for The Iliad (never thought I’d be writing that in a book review!) and not very good. Myrina’s story is also written with a stiff, arch prose that makes conversations sound stilted and false. When the story suddenly cuts off about two-thirds of the way through the book, I was initially relieved, but getting rid of it threw off the balance that had been so carefully crafted between the parallel timestreams.

But it’s still a fantastic story. It’s the book equivalent of the summer blockbuster movie – a beach read, I guess we’d call that? – so just grab the popcorn and settle in for a fun time.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Lost Sisterhood, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: The Lost Prince (Call of the Forgotten #1/ Iron Fey #5) by Julie Kagawa
2012: Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization by Stephen Cave
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while…
2010: The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland
2009: A Lion Among Men (The Wicked Years #3) by Gregory Maguire

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