Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville Frankel

Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville FrankelOn the Sickle's Edge by Neville Frankel
Format: paperback
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 474
Published by Dialogos on December 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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What we cannot keep. What we cannot lose.
A sweeping masterwork of love and loss, secrets and survival, On the Sickle's Edge is told through the voices of three characters who lay bare their family's saga: the endearing, scrappy South-African born Lena, transported to Latvia and later trapped in the USSR; her granddaughter Darya, a true Communist whose growing disillusionment with Soviet ideology places her family at mortal risk; and Steven, a painter from Boston who inadvertently stumbles into the tangled web of his family's past. Against the roiling backdrop of twentieth-century Russia and Eastern Europe, the novel delivers equal parts historical drama, political thriller and poignant love story.
On the Sickle's Edge takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. Instantly immersed in seven generations of the Shtein family, we witness their exhilarating celebrations and provocative controversies, and gain an intimate understanding of the pivotal events in South Africa, Latvia and the Soviet Union. Neville Frankel's ability to combine historical insight and human passion is spellbinding. I couldn't put it down. --Pamela Katz, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink
In the hands of a masterful storyteller, On the Sickle's Edge pits the weight of an oppressive regime against individual tenacity and profound personal courage. Inspired by Frankel's own family history, this multi-generational epic holds up a mirror to a universal truth: all immigrants face the powerful tension between assimilation and cultural identity. We have--all of us--lived life on the edge of the sickle. --Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs, American Jewish Committee

My Review:

This book is many things, and all of them awesome.

At its heart, if feels like a fictional history of the Soviet Union, but not as is usually done in historical fiction, from the perspective of the movers and shakers. Instead, this feels like a story set among the “groundlings”, as they were called in Shakespeare’s day. Or a “lower-decks” story set on a ship, whether historical or science fictional.

In other words, this is view of life in the Soviet Union from the Revolution to Glasnost, as seen through the eyes of the people it was supposed to benefit, and so obviously in this case, didn’t. It’s not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

And as people say about life during the Depression, the average person didn’t really see themselves as deprived. They knew things were awful, that was kind of hard to miss. And everyone was afraid all the time, afraid of being watched, afraid of their neighbors, afraid of their thoughts, afraid of the “Organs” of state.

But it was all they knew, and it was all they were allowed to know.

The story in On the Sickle’s Edge has another side to it. In the case of Lena and her family, in addition to all of the things that everyday Russians were afraid of, they were afraid of the exposure of their big secret.

When the family entered Moscow during the chaos of the Revolution, they entered under forged papers. Those papers stated that the family were Russian peasants, displaced from their farm by the Revolution, but that was a lie. A big one. Instead, they were displaced Jews expelled from Latvia. In an act of intelligence and courage, mixed with a bit of perhaps cowardice, but mostly pragmatism, Lena’s stepmother Esther decreed that because everything terrible that had happened to them, and it was terrible, had happened because they were Jews, they would take this equally terrible opportunity to reinvent themselves as non-Jews.

In an act of self-effacement and self-abnegation, they did. Conditions in post-Revolutionary Moscow were bad for everyone, but worse for the Jews. If things are bad in general, they are always worse for the Jews in particular. Esther’s act saved her family, especially her children and step-children, at least for a while.

So Lena keeps the secret. Along the way, she loses her husband and her half-sister to the insanity of Stalin’s purges, and late in life finds herself raising her daughter’s child, Darya. And she survives. Lena always survives.

Escape Rating A: I finished this at 3 am. It started out well, but somewhere around the 20% mark it completely grabbed me and didn’t let go until the end. Possibly after the end. I’m still thinking about this one. And probably will for a while.

Although Lena is not the only narrator, it was her story that sucked me in. And that is fitting, as the story is told at least in part as her memoir. A clue to her ultimate survival that the reader completely loses track of in the midst of events. I wanted her to make it out, but there were points where I feared it would not be so, even knowing that it was.

Her story, from a briefly happy childhood in South Africa to the family’s return to Latvia, to being trapped inside Russia as the walls closed down paints a compelling picture. We are there with her through all the long years as conditions go from bad to worse to unsustainable, and yet we also see what sustains her, and how she survives those long years.

Some of the story is her granddaughter Darya’s, as Darya learns the secret yet continues to wear the mask of the Communist Party poster girl, complete with marriage to a party official. Like so many young women who think they are in love, Darya doesn’t listen to her grandmother’s instincts that her husband is a monster. But he is.

(Something in the description of Darya’s husband reminded me of Vladimir Putin. I don’t know whether that was intentional or not, but it certainly added to the chill factor)

This was a wonderfully absorbing story, and there is so much more to it that I’m tempted to get into, but will reach much too far into spoiler territory. For me, On the Sickle’s Edge also contained an element of “there but for the grace of G-d”. My mother’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Western Russia probably around the time that Lena was born. They got out just in time. But this story could have been theirs, with all the calamities that followed.

And the echoes to current events absolutely chill me to the bone.

TLC
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Review: Leonard by William Shatner with David Fisher

Review: Leonard by William Shatner with David FisherLeonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man by William Shatner, David Fisher
Format: audiobook, ebook, hardcover
Source: publisher, purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography
Pages: 278
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on February 16th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner first crossed paths as actors on the set of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Little did they know that their next roles, in a new science-fiction television series, would shape their lives in ways no one could have anticipated. In seventy-nine television episodes and six feature films, they grew to know each other more than most friends could ever imagine.
Over the course of half a century, Shatner and Nimoy saw each other through personal and professional highs and lows. In this powerfully emotional book, Shatner tells the story of a man who was his friend for five decades, recounting anecdotes and untold stories of their lives on and off set, as well as gathering stories from others who knew Nimoy well, to present a full picture of a rich life.
As much a biography of Nimoy as a story of their friendship, Leonard is a uniquely heartfelt book written by one legendary actor in celebration of another.

My Review:

Yesterday was NASA’s Day of Remembrance, in honor of all those who lost their lives in the quest for space, particularly the tragic losses of Apollo I and the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

Because so many people have entered the space program and the aerospace industry because they fell in love with the idea of space travel while watching Star Trek, William Shatner’s semi-biographical, semi-autobiographical book about his friendship with the late and very much lamented Leonard Nimoy seemed like an appropriate book for this week.

shatner nimoy youngTo this reader, it felt as if the book, while purporting to tell the story of Leonard Nimoy’s life, ends up combining autobiography with biography. These two men knew each other very well for a very long time, came from somewhat similar backgrounds, and found themselves yoked together, whether they liked it or not (and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t) by their performances in what everyone expected would be a short-lived TV program.

Instead, Star Trek became a phenomenon and none of the lives that it touched were ever the same. Particularly theirs.

Because Star Trek altered the trajectory of both their lives in ways that were both bizarre and profound, this book also serves as a personal recollection of the production of the original series. While many of these stories have been told before, it is still interesting to hear them again from someone who lived through those events.

A group which gets smaller and smaller every year. Dammit.

The other story that is told here is that of the life and occasionally hard times of a working actor in what is now considered the “Golden Age” of television. There is never a good time to be an actor. It’s a lot of tiny parts, short run work, and cab driving (in Nimoy’s case) or waiting tables or some other job that can be dropped and picked up on the whim of a casting director.

And even though these stories are now more than 50 years in the past, that struggle still resonates. The reader can see how those years formed the characters of the men who performed those iconic characters, and how much those characters both represented pieces of their core selves, and how much those characters influenced who they became.

For a fan, this is a fascinating story, all the more so because it rings so true in the author’s voice.

Escape Rating B+: Sometimes I talk about what I think about a book, sometimes I talk about what I feel. Fair warning, this is one of those “feelie” reviews.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the end of the original series. I watched some of those early episodes with my dad, so there are a lot of memories tied up in this for me. Also, the stories that Shatner tells at the very beginning of the book, about his and Nimoy’s shared background as first-generation Americans (or Canadians) in Jewish immigrant families is also the story of my parents’ generation. With very little alteration, my mother could tell similar stories.

As a fan, I read a lot of the “making of Star Trek” books that came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the stories that Shatner relates were also a part of those books, but they are told slightly differently from one participant’s perspective than they were in those more “reporting style” books. Different both in the sense that we all remember things differently, and that it seems as if Shatner glosses over some of his behavior that drove his colleagues crazy at the time, and for years later. Some of the more contentious incidents seem to have faded from memory a bit.

We are all the stars of our own stories, possibly in this case more literally than for the rest of us.

This was a book where I both read the book in ebook, looked at the pictures in the hardcover, and listened to the audio. I would have the audio on in the car, and then pick up with the book at lunch and after I got home. One of the things that comes through on the audio is that the author often sounds tired. He frequently ran out of breath on the longer sentences. I kept wanting to tell him to take a breath in the middle, or grab a glass of water. I wanted to be there as he told his story.

shatner nimoy laughing lateIn the end, this is a book for the fans.It is way more about the history of Star Trek than any other single topic. As a fan, I found the story interesting and often charming. Perhaps I should say “fascinating” as Spock often did.

For readers who are not fans, or for later readers who are looking to find out what all the fuss was about, this is not a book that analyzes the influence of Star Trek or its characters on pop culture and the explosion of science fiction into movies, TV and mainstream literature. That’s a book for someone else at some other time.

But for those of us who loved those men and the show that they created, and which created them, this book is a marvelous way to remember them both.

As his most famous saying goes, Leonard Nimoy lived long and prospered. And he is missed.

Review: Love, Literary Style by Karin Gillespie + Giveaway

Review: Love, Literary Style by Karin Gillespie + GiveawayLove Literary Style by Karin Gillespie
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 280
Published by Henery Press on November 8th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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They say opposites attract, and what could be more opposite than a stuffy literary writer falling in love with a self-published romance writer?Meet novelist Aaron Mite. He lives in a flea-infested rented alcove, and his girlfriend Emma, a combative bookstore owner, has just dumped him. He meets Laurie Lee at a writers’ colony and mistakenly believes her to be a renowned writer of important fiction. When he discovers she’s a self-published romance author, he’s already fallen in love with her.
Aaron thinks genre fiction is an affront to the fiction-writing craft. He likes to quotes the essayist, Arthur Krystal who claims literary fiction “melts the frozen sea inside of us.” Ironically Aaron doesn’t seem to realize that, despite his lofty literary aspirations, he’s emotionally frozen, due, in part, to a childhood tragedy. The vivacious Laurie, lover of flamingo-patterned attire and all things hot pink, is the one person who might be capable of melting him.
Their relationship is initially made in literary heaven but when Aaron loses his contract with a prestigious press, and Laurie’s novel is optioned by a major film studio, the differences in their literary sensibilities and temperaments drive them apart.
In a clumsy attempt to win Laurie back, Aaron employs the tropes of romance novels. Too late. She’s already taken up with Ross, a prolific author of Nicholas Sparks-like love stories. Initially Laurie is more comfortable with the slick and superficial Ross, but circumstances force her to go deeper with her writing and confront a painful past. Maybe Aaron and Laurie have more in common than they imagined.In the tradition of the Rosie Project, Love Literary Style is a sparkling romantic comedy which pokes fun at the divide between so-called low and high brow fiction.

My Review:

This was a very interesting story. Not just the romance, but the way that it was written. I’m still thinking about that part.

The story is a romance between an aspiring literary novelist and an aspiring romance novelist. She finds his litfic dreary, and he thinks her romance is purely drivel. Of course, they are both wrong.

As the book begins we are following the literary fiction author, the unfortunately named Aaron Mite. Because frankly, his ego, his confidence and his spirit are all about the size of mite. Awfully tiny.

Aaron’s part of the story also reads like the worst conventions of literary fiction. The hero is a hapless, hopeless everyman, his life is going nowhere, his dreams are dying, and his life story seems formless, vague and plotless. Also pointless, except where it heaps more angst upon him through the agencies of his equally abusive father and girlfriend.

But when Aaron takes himself to a literary authors’ retreat outside the city, he finds himself falling into a romantic comedy that he never even thought of.

Laurie Lee is an aspiring romance writer with a couple of self-published books under her belt. She is astonished to receive a scholarship to the elite writers retreat, but vows to make use of the time on her next novel.

Laurie and Aaron are occupying opposite sides of a duplex at the retreat. Laurie thinks Aaron is kind of cute in a bookish sort of way, and she is in the market for a fling after a long and sad dry spell. But it takes a lot of effort for her to get Aaron to respond to her, because he’s not just painfully withdrawn, but also simply can’t believe that a famous novelist would possibly even want to talk to him.

Laurie is at the retreat as the beneficiary of a case of mistaken identity. The retreat intended to invite award winning author Laura Leer, but instead sent the acceptance to Laurie Lee. Laurie is determined to make lemonade out of the lemons, but Aaron begins looking down on her from that moment forward.

In spite of the fact that they have been spending most of the retreat together, having the best sex that either of them has ever had.

Even though their mistaken identity meet cute still manages to lead to real romance, it always seems like the HEA that Laurie longs for is always just a bit out of reach. Aaron’s attitude towards her writing is pretty obvious, and even more so after her next book is picked up by a big name actress and a Hollywood studio.

Their break up seems inevitable. Their getting back together seems impossible, especially with fate conspiring with his old girlfriend and Hollywood to keep them apart. But an assist from a couple of very surprising guardian angels gives them one more chance at happiness.

Because Aaron and Laurie’s story has changed from dreary litfic to HEA rom com!

Escape Rating B: As someone who has occasionally been forced to read literary fiction, generally at gunpoint, the commentary about the publishing business in general and literary fiction conventions in particular was always spot on.

Which doesn’t stop Aaron’s sections from being a bit dreary to read, because Aaron has been leading a very dreary life. The point of the story is to inject some romance, some comedy, and some just plain life into that otherwise angsty story. It’s fun watching things turn around.

A comparison has been made between Laurie Lee and the heroine of Legally Blond. Laurie is a character who doesn’t even realize that her incredible good looks often get her much further ahead than her brains, although she has plenty of those, too. She’s also a bit of a pollyanna, always seeing the best of things and people.

The tragedy in her background doesn’t seem to have gotten her down one little bit. But the revelation that the Hollywood studio has bought her story for the plot she contrived and not for her mediocre writing skills is a blow. But she gets right up again and goes after what she wants, which is to be a real writer and not just a name on the cover.

That Aaron’s rather Scrooge-like father becomes her mentor and guardian angel in her quest to improve her writing seems like a surprising twist, but is also adds a lovely redemption arc to the book.

In the end, the story comes to its inevitable HEA, but does so in a way that feels fresh. And at the same time, firmly in the rom-com “tradition”.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Love, Literary Style to one lucky US/CAN commenter.

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Review: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines Hellions & Heretics by Jason Porath

Review: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines Hellions & Heretics by Jason PorathRejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: history, women's history
Pages: 384
Published by Dey Street Books on October 25th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Blending the iconoclastic feminism of The Notorious RBG and the confident irreverence of Go the F**ck to Sleep, a brazen and empowering illustrated collection that celebrates inspirational badass women throughout history, based on the popular Tumblr blog.
Well-behaved women seldom make history. Good thing these women are far from well behaved . . .
Illustrated in a contemporary animation style, Rejected Princesses turns the ubiquitous "pretty pink princess" stereotype portrayed in movies, and on endless toys, books, and tutus on its head, paying homage instead to an awesome collection of strong, fierce, and yes, sometimes weird, women: warrior queens, soldiers, villains, spies, revolutionaries, and more who refused to behave and meekly accept their place.
An entertaining mix of biography, imagery, and humor written in a fresh, young, and riotous voice, this thoroughly researched exploration salutes these awesome women drawn from both historical and fantastical realms, including real life, literature, mythology, and folklore. Each profile features an eye-catching image of both heroic and villainous women in command from across history and around the world, from a princess-cum-pirate in fifth century Denmark, to a rebel preacher in 1630s Boston, to a bloodthirsty Hungarian countess, and a former prostitute who commanded a fleet of more than 70,000 men on China’s seas.

My Review:

Think of this as the ultimate collection of fractured fairy tales, because this collection is fractured on a number of different axes, all of them worth thinking about.

Also, the whole thing is a terrific hoot. So if you are looking for a slightly ironic and occasionally a bit pained laugh, this book is well worth dipping into. Often.

Many of these stories are based on history, some a bit more loosely than others. And the rest are based in myths that are well-known but have been ignored by Western culture. Why, you ask? Because all of the stories in this collection feature women who acted in various ways outside of the norms that Western history wants to impose upon women.

Every one of the women in these stories lives up to the saying, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” None of these women behaved well, and all of them made history. Even if, or especially because, it’s a history that the entrenched patriarchy wants to bury. After burning.

In case you can’t tell, reading this collection will definitely get your feminist dander way, way up. And that’s a good thing. These stories all need to be told. Because if we want girls to believe that they can be anything they set their minds and hearts to, we need to show them that it is possible to be more than just the few options that all of the media messaging tells them are available to girls and women.

The tone of Rejected Princesses is tongue-very-firmly-in-cheek. Although it reminds me of last year’s marvelous Cranky Ladies of History, the scope is much broader and the stories are much, much shorter, to the point of being vignettes rather than stories. But the Cranky Ladies had an observable bias towards stories with which most of us in Western societies, notably America, are already familiar with.

Porath’s scope is deliberately broader. The intent seems to be to illuminate all of the dusty and forgotten corners of history and legend that are occupied by women, from every continent and every time period. There are stories that feature women in ancient legends from the Norwegian fairy tale Tatterhood to the Brazilian legend of Iara to Xtabay from Mesoamerican mythology.

The historical figures are equally far ranging, from familiar names like Harriet Tubman and Anne Hutchinson in the US and Tomoe Gozen in 12th century China to Andamana in the 14th century Canary Islands and Alfhild in 5th century Denmark. The author has attempted to show the wide and varied range of women in history, from the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the 20th century around the globe.

If you are looking for a female historical figure relevant to any culture, any continent, any race and any era, she’s probably in here someplace, along with her sisters. I think that anyone could find a woman to identify with who relates directly to herself in some or many ways.

Not all of the women are heroes, either. The infamous Elizabeth Bathory is not the only villain featured between these pages. But the focus of the collection is to show the wide range of women in history, from heroes to villains, from slaves to owners, from commoners to queens. We’ve done it all. We just don’t get to see it all reflected in the history books.

Escape Rating B+: This collection is not intended to be definitive. And it is definitely not intended to be an authoritative historical treatise. That tongue-in-cheek style lends itself to a lot of humorous asides and more than a bit of breaking the fourth wall, where the author talks directly to the reader and not necessarily about the subject in hand.

One of the terrific things that the author has added to the collection is an attempt to provide trigger warnings and guide parents to stories that are or are not suitable to a particular child at a specific maturity level. Many of these stories, Elizabeth Bathory just keeps coming to mind, are not for the faint of heart (or stomach) or for a very young audience. An unfortunate number of famous women rose to fame or infamy after an awful lot of abuse of one kind or another, which may make their stories not exactly suitable for toddlers. When the author calls someone’s ex-husband “a crap sandwich” it’s not surprising that the story is not for the youngest audiences.

Based on the story, calling this particular ex “a crap sandwich” may possibly have been an insult to both crap and sandwiches.

But it is incredibly fun. If you are looking for something to whet your own on someone else’s appetite for diving into more women’s history, this is a great place to start. One final note to prospective readers; the illustrations in Rejected Princesses are terrific and often relevant to the story. Not historically accurate, but always interesting. Because of the illustrations, this is one book that is MUCH better read in print. Which also makes it easier to skim, a temptation that is nearly impossible to resist.

Guest Review: Documenting Light by EE Ottoman

Guest Review:  Documenting Light by EE OttomanDocumenting Light by EE Ottoman
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 150
Published by Brain Mill Press LLC on August 31, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

If you look for yourself in the past and see nothing, how do you know who you are? How do you know that you are supposed to be here?

When Wyatt brings an unidentified photograph to the local historical society, he hopes staff historian Grayson will tell him more about the people in the picture. The subjects in the mysterious photograph sit side by side, their hands close but not touching. One is dark, the other fair. Both wear men’s suits.

Were they friends? Lovers? Business partners? Curiosity drives Grayson and Wyatt to dig deep for information, and the more they learn, the more they begin to wonder — about the photograph, and about themselves.

Guest Review by Amy:

Wyatt is moving his mother into an apartment, as her Alzheimer’s has made it difficult for her to continue running the family farm. While putting some of her things in the attic, he finds an old photograph of two men, and it makes him curious…

Grayson works at the local county historical society, and enjoys the puzzle Wyatt has brought to him. In researching the photograph, the two people learn more about each other–and themselves–than they bargained for.

When Marlene gave me this book for my attention, I was immediately interested; as a transgender woman myself, I can attest that well-crafted stories with transgender characters are a bit scarce. So as I started reading, I was unsurprised to see which of our characters is a transman–Grayson, with his dapper suit and bowtie, fits the bill quite nicely. Wyatt…now, here’s where it gets tricky, so stick with me a moment. For the first part of the book, Wyatt is referred to as “he”, but they’re hiding something from their family and friends–they’re transgender, too, a feminine-expressing genderqueer person who prefers they/them pronouns. Once this is revealed, Ottoman uniformly refers to Wyatt using those pronouns, and their gender identity is not ever at issue after that.

The two people go on a date, after finding out some significant facts about the photograph. The first date doesn’t go well, as both are somewhat afraid of being out with their partner, and have had bad experiences. There’s some internal back-and-forth, and they give it another shot…and what follows is, in this reviewer’s eyes, a truly, truly beautiful thing. The growing relationship between Wyatt and Grayson proceeds very naturally, with the only hiccup being that Wyatt’s family still thinks of him as a gay man, and Grayson’s family is mostly not talking to him at all.  Ottoman, who is themself a student of history as well as an accomplished author, speaks to us through Grayson about the erasure of non-heterosexual, non-gender-binary people in history–how, so often, we must see solid evidence before we can accept anything but the default cisgendered, heterosexual identity.

Grayson is speaking of the study of history, particularly through photographs and other non-textual evidence, but it raises the question, for me, if the same could be said for literary works. In my previous read, The Heart Of Aces, one of the short stories, “Out of the Dead Land,” alludes to this, as one of the characters asserts in an academic paper that a character from a classic film is asexual. Allowing for non-default gender identities and sexualities, when it is not directly referenced in the story, allows for a much broader interpretation of characters and stories. It’s truly complicated, but it’s something I’m going to think about in my own reading moving forward.

Escape Rating: A+:  I could gush on and on and on about this story, seriously. Ottoman has given us two protagonists who are very “real;” we’re firmly entrenched in their heads, and can see the world through their eyes. The internal cringe and stress that Grayson feels when he is misgendered by his boss is almost palpable, as is Wyatt’s discomfort at their mother’s deteriorating mental state, and the fact that their family does not know about their being genderqueer.  Scenery and problems are detailed enough so that we know what the problem-to-overcome is about, without burdening the point needlessly. We know, very quickly, what our character’s stressors are, and the puzzle of the photograph keeps us interested, as a common thread that binds the discoveries together.

One of the high-water marks for me in this tale is when, on a road trip out of town, our newfound friends end up sharing a motel room. They did it for purely pragmatic reasons–neither of them has much money, really, another factor that plays heavily into the path this story takes–so it only makes sense. But the romantic tension has been building for a while, and what happens, happens. It’s a little bit of a predictable moment, but I shan’t complain, and here’s why:

I’ve found that, way too often, scenes depicting queer sexualities come off as…well, smutty, and othering, like it’s something really titillating that they’re different. This is off-putting to me in a lot of ways, as it’s quite inconsistent with my own experiences as a transwoman. Grayson cannot afford surgery–we’re not told if he’s even on hormones yet!–and early in the book grouses to himself about his D-cup breasts being hard to hide. Knowing my own dysphoric experiences during that time in my transition, I can grasp a bit what he is going through. Wyatt, for their part, seems happy enough in their skin; the disconnect for them is that they express as feminine, and aren’t out to much of anyone except Grayson.

Sex, for people who are not conforming to gender binaries, is a tricky business; there are all kinds of possibilities for hangups and traumas and things that just don’t feel good. But our two lovers do what has to be done to make it work–they communicate. The communication, while brief, tells them–and us–what will and won’t work, and expresses enthusiastic consent. The two scenes in this book that are shown are explicit, but not at all smutty. Quite the contrary: you have two beautiful, complicated people loving each other, and enjoying it.

By the end of the book, it’s obvious that Grayson and Wyatt are loving each other both in and out of bed. There are problems yet to overcome, but they’ve committed to dealing with them together. And that, my friend, is what romance is all about, to this reviewer.  I give this book the strongest possible recommendation.

Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Binti by Nnedi OkoraforBinti (Binti, #1) by Nnedi Okorafor
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Binti #1
Pages: 96
Published by Tor.com on September 22nd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.
Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti's stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.
If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself - but first she has to make it there, alive.

My Review:

I was intending to review The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin today, but I spent too much time wading through A Hundred Thousand Worlds for a review over at The Book Pushers, and ran out of time. So I decided to review a different (and much shorter) book that is also among this year’s Hugo nominees. I’ll set get around to The Fifth Season before Hugo voting is final.

Let me say this up front, I loved Binti.

Binti is a story in the classic SF coming-of-age-by-leaving-your-home-planet tradition, given a fresh twist by its Afropolitan heroine. The freshness comes from both aspects of that description. Females are much less often featured in this trope, where the protagonist leaves their home planet driven by a desire to be more than what home has to offer. Also, the heroine of Binti is unmistakably African, and in a future world where she faces similar types of prejudice to today, but in ways and for ostensible reasons that make more sense in this future. Although there are multiple shout outs to the present day “can I touch your hair?” issue.

Ultimately, this is a story about healing and survival. It’s about finding commonalities between people who have always seen each other as deadly enemies, to the point where both sides shoot first and ask questions never.

And this is a story about cultural misappropriation gone terribly, terribly wrong in the name of profit and fame.

At the same time, Binti is an everyteenager, leaving her family, her home and her predictable but probably excellent future for the great unknown. She is compelled and propelled by the desire to grow beyond the place where she was planted. But this is done in the story in such a way that nothing and no one is demonized. She’s not leaving because things are bad in any way at all. Only that her family desires to see her continue in the place and life they have planned for her, and view her desire for something different as both wrong and selfish.

In the end, she becomes far more than she, or anyone, ever dreamed. But she also becomes a different person than the one who left. As she strides off into her very brave new future, she is forced to wonder whether the price is a complete unmooring from her past.

And to know it was worth it.

Escape Rating A+: Binti changes the course of the galaxy, not because it wants to change, but because she feels compelled to change it. And because making things change is the only way for her to survive.

Binti has, along with its coming of age story, the feeling of a first contact story. Although this isn’t the first time the Meduse and the humans have crossed paths, it does seem to be the first time that they have had a reliable method of communication.

As Binti postulates in the story, it is a lot harder to kill someone after you have learned their name and had lots of conversations with them. It still isn’t impossible, as Earth’s history all too clearly shows, but it is harder once there has been some tentative steps toward understanding.

Especially when Binti’s ability to “harmonize” different things and different people through very, very high-level mathemagic allows the Meduse to finally see her, and eventually other humans, as an intelligent species, however different, like themselves.

But in the story, we see Binti’s hopes and desperate fears as she tries to find a solution that will allow them all to live. She seems to go through those seven stages of grief over and over as she is constantly sure that the Meduse will kill her as they did the rest of the passengers on the ship. Her breakthrough is almost as frightening as her initial capture, and equally unlikely of success.

In conclusion, Binti is a beautiful story. And even though it is short, it manages to both feel complete and leave the reader wanting more. I can’t wait for the sequel to come out in January.

Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Review: Neverwhere by Neil GaimanNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Format: audiobook, ebook, paperback
Source: publisher, purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Pages: 336
Published by William Morrow on July 7th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author’s ultimate edition of his wildly successful first novel featuring his “preferred text”—and including the special Neverwhere tale, How the Marquis Got His Coat Back.
Published in 1997, Neil Gaiman’s darkly hypnotic first novel, Neverwhere, heralded the arrival of this major talent and became a touchstone of urban fantasy. Over the years, a number of versions were produced both in the U.S. and the U.K. Now, this author’s preferred edition of his classic novel reconciles these versions and reinstates a number of scenes cut from the original published books.
Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young London businessman with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he is plunged through the cracks of reality into a world of shadows and darkness—the Neverwhere. If he is ever to return to the London Above, Richard must join the battle to save this strange underworld kingdom from the malevolence that means to destroy it

My Review:

neverwhere dvdI’m not sure whether I first went to Neverwhere by reading the book or watching the TV miniseries. Needless to say, even though the TV series actually came first, the book is better. And I was thrilled to have the opportunity to reread it for this tour.

Neverwhere is one of those stories that stuck with me long after I read it. I’ve even written about it before. There’s something about Neverwhere, with its concept of London Below, that has always reminded me of Simon R. Green’s Nightside, which also creates an otherworldly version of London that exists alongside and underneath the great city.

But Neverwhere is a different kind of story. It doesn’t have to be set in London Below, although the setting does give its some of its resonance and charm as well as its flights of fancy. Who would have thought there would actually be an Earl at Earl’s Court? On the other hand, why isn’t there? And what if there was?

Neverwhere is the story of what happens to someone who takes the red pill, although in this case it’s not that our hero Richard Mayhew sees the painful truth of reality so much as that he sees that there is a deeper reality lying underneath our own. The humdrum world he comes from is just as real as London Below, but without that red pill, he can’t see it. And unlike takers of the blue pill in The Matrix, when Richard comes back, he still remembers everything. Only to discover that, as Mr. Spock once said, “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” At the end of his harrowing adventure, Richard Mayhew wants his safe, normal world back. Only to discover that he has changed too much to fit back into the life he once found so satisfying.

The story of Neverwhere is relatively straightforward in its plot, but complex in its setting. Richard Mayhew, a young and somewhat insecure securities analyst in London, rescues a young woman he finds bruised and bleeding on the streets of London.

By rescuing Door, he finds himself outside the life of the normal world, and an unwitting denizen of “London Below”. He is lost and confused and completely out of his depth. All that he knows is that if he is to get his own life back, he must find Door in the confusing maze of the world he never knew was under London, and travel with her, like the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tinman, until he reaches the wizard, in this case the Angel Islington, and he can finally go home.

Just like the journey through Oz, Richard and Door face trials and monsters, and also as in Dorothy’s journey, the angel, just like the wizard, is not what he appears to be. But in this case what they find is not a benign trickster – the angel is the greatest monster of them all. And nothing in the journey turns out to have been quite what it appeared to be.

After passing all his tests, Richard is able to receive what he thinks is the greatest wish of his heart. Only to discover that he has grown too much or too big to be contained in his old life.

Escape Rating A+: The story of Neverwhere was just as magical upon re-reading as it was the first time around. Or even the second, which I think was viewing the TV series. And even though the special effects are often laughable, and some of the horror is reduced by the necessity of filming things that are best left in the imagination, the TV show holds up too.

view from the cheap seats by neil gaimanThis time, I listened to parts of Neverwhere from an unabridged audiobook recorded by the author. And unlike many authors who read their own works, Gaiman does an excellent job voicing all the characters, to the point where I was still hearing his voice in my head a couple of weeks ago when I was reading The View from the Cheap Seats.

The story here is of a mythic journey, and there are lots of parallels to The Wizard of Oz, a fact which does get lampshaded in Neverwhere. While Richard is journeying to find his way home, he is also taking a trip through a long, dark night of the soul. And as a result, he becomes more than he was.

So many of the characters he meets seem more than a bit odd on first meeting. The Marquis de Carabas is a trickster. He always has his eye on the main chance, and does not suffer fools or incompetents within his orbit. He does not seem to ever warm up to Richard, who he always sees as the ultimate babe in the very deadly woods. But in the end he always keeps his word. And he always collects his debts.

The villains of this piece are Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and while they often sound incredibly campy, the more they appear in the story the easier it is to see them as creatures that would make the monsters under the bed and in the closet run for cover. (But their scariness works better in print than on the screen, where the reader is able to feel the creepiness rather than see the joke.)

Neverwhere is one of the ultimate urban fantasy wild rides. If you have ever dreamed that there is a beautiful, terrible, magical world existing just out of reach, take your own journey to London Below. And always remember to “mind the gap”.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth StroutMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 193
Published by Random House on January 12th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, including Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all—the one between mother and daughter.   Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.

My Review:

My Name is Lucy Barton is literary fiction. Which means that not much happens. So fair warning, this is going to be one of those reviews where I end up talking a lot about how the book made me feel, rather than what the book was about.

Because I’m not quite sure what this book was about, at least in the sense of what the plot might have been. Or even if there is one.

Instead, this is a novel about relationships. And it is also very much a story about secrets, especially the ones where the need for secrecy becomes so ingrained, that we no longer even tell them to ourselves.

The ostensible story is about Lucy’s unexpected extended hospital stay, but it is clearly told from a point much later in her life. And as her thoughts roam over the whole of her life, she hints at memories from her childhood and adolescence.

It’s clear that there was a lot wrong in the Barton household while Lucy was growing up. The family was poverty-stricken, but that wasn’t either the real or the whole of the problem. Sparked by an extremely unexpected visit from the mother she hasn’t seen for years, in the quiet of her own mind Lucy hints at the things that went wrong. But she never speaks of them, not even to herself, at least not in detail.

There’s a monster lurking somewhere in that dim past, but the habit of never revealing that truth, whatever it was, is so ingrained that Lucy doesn’t even let herself think it. Consequently, the reader never does know precisely what happened.

What we do know is that those long ago troubles shaped Lucy’s life, and that her mother’s inability to even touch on those difficulties is part of their estrangement. At the same time, Lucy longs for real connection with her mother. And even though she is terribly grateful that her mother is there for those long, uncertain days in the hospital, Lucy still doesn’t get what she needs.

Escape Rating B-: I finished this, I found it interesting enough to keep turning back to over and over throughout the day, but in the end, it didn’t move me. There was no catharsis, no true ending.

Throughout the story, Lucy hints at terrible secrets, but she never reveals them, even to herself. As a reader, I felt let down at the end. I expected a resolution, or at least a reveal, that never came.

At the same time, part of what kept me coming back was the tenuous relationship between Lucy and her mother, which had some uncomfortable parallels to my own relationship with my mother. And maybe that was the point of the whole story. Not that Lucy tells us what happened to her, but that it makes the reader reach for the resonances in their own story. It’s not what the story gives us, but what we bring to it.

And that’s an uncomfortable thought.

Review: All I Got for Christmas by Genie Davis and Pauline Baird Jones

Review: All I Got for Christmas by Genie Davis and Pauline Baird JonesAll I Got For Christmas by Genie Davis, Pauline Baird Jones
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook
Genres: holiday romance, science fiction romance
Pages: 193
Published by Pauline Baird Jones on November 9th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

My Review:

This is definitely a “mixed-feelings” type of review. And it’s not so much that I have different feelings about the two novellas in this collective as that I have mixed feelings about both of the novellas in this collection.

Let me explain…

There are two stories in this collection, Riding for Christmas by Genie Davis and Up on the House Top by Pauline Baird Jones. While I liked the concept of this joint release, I had some issues with the executions. Completely different issues with each story.

Riding for Christmas felt more like a ghost story than science fiction romance. The time travel element is a bit weirder than normal bit of handwavium, but the science fiction aspects, such as they were, felt like the story would have been better served if they had been fantasy or paranormal elements instead. Considering the setting, the Native American trickster deities, either Coyote or Raven, would have served just as well as the aliens to make this story happen.

In 1885 Sam Harrington is captured by aliens, and put in stasis for a century. Then on a whim, or perhaps a desire to find an excuse to let Sam go, the aliens let Sam out for Christmas, at the site of the old farm he was on his way to visit during that snowstorm that obscured the aliens way back when.

Sam discovers the granddaughter of his old friends, visiting the derelict ranch that she has just inherited. The lives of everyone connected to Sam went badly after his disappearance, and Jane MacKenzie is all that’s left. She’s an orphan whose drunken grandfather didn’t want her, but still left her his broken down ranch.

Sam’s one night of freedom coincides with Jane’s visit to the ranch, where she gets lost in (of course) a snowstorm. She and Sam spend one night together outside of time, where they talk and comfort each other, but share nothing more than a kiss.

The aliens return Sam to his own time, and Sam has the future that he should have had, including marriage and children and grandchildren. That lonely future that Jane Mackenzie was part of never came to be – but it is still the life that Jane remembers. Until she has an encounter with another Sam Harrington, and they swap ghost stories.

The story had a very cute concept, but the characters didn’t speak to me. Or the situation didn’t. Or something I can’t put my finger on. Was it all outside of time? How did the aliens manage to futz with time? And more than once at that. We don’t get quite enough of either character to really feel the story.

And it always felt more like a ghost story than SFR to me. The aliens are as nebulous as that ship they hid in the snow.

Escape Rating for Riding for Christmas: C+

Up on the House Top was a lot funnier than Riding for Christmas. And there is also a lot more heart in the story, or perhaps that’s more meat.

Gini comes back to her mother’s remote cabin in Wyoming for Christmas, with her twin sister’s two recalcitrant step-children in unintended tow. Van and her husband Bif (they’re his kids) had an emergency at work, and never do come to get the terrors. No one can figure out what kind of work emergency they might have at NASA without a ship in space, but Gini does eventually find out.

As much as anyone finds out anything about the real truth in this story.

Because when Gini gets to her mother’s, the love of her life is waiting in the cabin along with mother. But it’s been 20 years since Gini and Dex broke up, Dex is now the County Sherriff and Gini is entertaining a surprise marriage proposal from her rich and chilly boss.

It’s a weird meeting made even weirder by the presence of Gini’s mother Desi, who has always been a bit “out there” and is further out there than normal this Christmas. Things get even crazier the next morning, when Gini and Dex wake up to discover that they have reverted to their 13-year-old selves, at least physically, and that 80+ year old Desi is now about 7. Which seems to be the age at which she was originally captured by the little green men (and possibly one little green woman) who are all over the house.

Gini isn’t sure whether to go with the flow, fear for her sanity, or try to take the house back from the invading forces. Those little green men say that first contact never goes well, but this particular instance is proving to be a humdinger.

By the time the dust settles, the men in black have been foiled by decorating the flying saucer on the roof as an extra terrestrial vehicle for a big green Santa, and life is back to normal. Except that the little green men have taken their little friend Desi away with them, and that Gini’s 13-year-old self finally had the courage, or perhaps the self-centeredness, to ask Dex what went wrong all those years ago.

The story has a lot of things to say about the relationship between adult children and their aging parents. It also manages to get a fair number of licks in about the normal self-centered phase that teenagers go through. And there are plenty of geeky in-jokes to make SF fans laugh and chuckle.

But the story lurches from one crazy incident to another, and at points it feels more like an excuse for those in jokes than an actual story. And this reader never did figure out exactly what purpose those two real kids served in the plot. The girl was not just selfish, but completely unlikeable from beginning to end.

And there’s an “it was all a dream” ending. The question left in the reader’s mind is which parts?

Escape Rating for Up on the House Top: B-

open with care by genie davis and pauline baird jones alternate cover for all i got for christmasReviewer’s Note: It’s been a few weeks since I reviewed this book at  Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly. In those intervening weeks, it appears that there might have been a title and cover change. Some references to this title at the etailers are now calling it  Open With Care: Beware of Aliens Bearing Gifts

SFRQ-button-vsmallThis review was originally published at Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly

 

Review: Battlestorm by Susan Krinard

Review: Battlestorm by Susan KrinardBattlestorm (Midgard, #3) by Susan Krinard
Format: print ARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: portal fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Midgard #3
Pages: 480
Published by Tor Books on March 29th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The third installment in New York Times bestselling author Susan Krinard’s first urban fantasy series...
Centuries ago, the Norse gods and goddesses fought their Last Battle with the trickster god Loki and his frost giants. All were believed lost, except for a few survivors…including the Valkyrie Mist, forgotten daughter of the goddess Freya.
But the battle isn’t over, and Mist—living a mortal life in San Francisco—is at the center of a new war, with the fate of earth hanging in the balance. As old enemies and allies reappear around the city, Mist must determine who to trust, all while learning to control her own growing power.
It will take all of Mist’s courage, determination, and newfound magical abilities to stop Loki before history repeats itself.

My Review:

This is one of those stories where it isn’t so much that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” or even “the enemy of my enemy is my ally” but rather “the enemy of my enemy is someone else I can betray sooner or later, probably sooner.”

It feels like Battlestorm is the bastard child of American Gods and Babylon 5, and I’m still not sure whether I mean that in a good way or not.

Just as in American Gods, the primary movers and shakers of the story are gods from the Norse pantheon, Odin, Loki, and for added spice and betrayal, Freya. This is also as complex and dense a story as American Gods, without having any of its lighter moments. Battlestorm is Ragnarök moved to Midgard, meaning our present-day Earth, with all the possibilities for the end of the world as we know it that the idea of Ragnarök implies.

American Gods was much lighter in comparison, and that’s saying something.

Mist by Susan KrinardLike the long story arc of Babylon 5, the story began in Mist and continued in Black Ice has the feel of a long-anticipated and often repeated battle between Good and Evil. However, just as in Babylon 5, now that the forces of Good have revealed themselves in Odin, the contest is nowhere near that clear cut. Instead, we have a battle between the forces of Order and Chaos. Loki represents the forces of Chaos, and he desires a world where all law and order is eliminated, and only the strongest and most ruthless survive. On that infamous other hand, Odin represents Order. But Order with a capital O is not necessarily good. Odin is a force for the tyranny of order, a world where he will be the absolute ruler and utter dictator, and humanity can only exist in a state of blind obedience.

Poor Mist is caught in the middle. She wants to protect the people of Midgard, among whom she has lived for centuries. She believes that humanity should be left to determine its own path, without interference from her gods. But as a Valkyrie, Odin commands her obedience. And Loki holds those she loves captive.

Mist is going to have to betray someone in order to protect those she holds dear. Including the entire human race.

Escape Rating C+: If the concept of the Norse gods coming to contemporary earth to enact their final battle, or anything else, appeals to you, start this series at the beginning, with Mist. The three book series, Mist, Black Ice and now Battlestorm, is one long saga (how fitting!) and must be read in order to make any sense at all.

That being said, I personally think the whole thing probably works better if you can manage to read the whole thing not just in order but also close together. There are so many players in this story, so many wheels within wheels, that it feels impossible to remember who is betraying whom, and why, a year after the previous book. For those readers who, like me, read the books as they came out, I sincerely hope that the finished copy includes a synopsis of previous events. The ARC I read did not, and I really needed one.

A primer on the Norse pantheon probably wouldn’t hurt either, particularly focused on who is related to whom. Loki had a surprising number of powerful and interesting children, who all have agendas of their own, and do not always obey their father. But then, Odin has that problem with his kids as well. In Battlestorm, Loki’s personality and his relationship with his father feel like they owe a lot to Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I found Battlestorm to be dense. It took me twice as long to read it as I expected, because I kept needing to step away and digest what had just happened – meaning what had just gone wrong. Mist never catches a break. She also seems to always be the last person in the universe to find out or be told information that is crucial to her fight and even to her very existence. There are a few too many instances where someone is just about to tell her something she desperately needs to know – only to be interrupted and the opportunity disappear for days and pages. For the daughter of a goddess, Mist seems woefully, or deliberately, misinformed about damn near everything all of the time.

This is the part that reminded me most of American Gods. Not just the Norse pantheon, but Mist’s position is a lot like Shadow’s. She has been created for a purpose that she has no clues about, but is led around by the nose by beings who are much better informed than she is and who are deliberately keeping her in the dark. And in the end, very little is as it originally seemed, to her or to the reader. Also like Shadow.

black ice by susan krinardFor anyone who has read my reviews of Mist and Black Ice, I was dead wrong about Orn’s identity. The true identity of the parrot becomes totally clear very early in Battlestorm. Just call him Mr. Wednesday.

If some of the description of and comments about Battlestorm appeal, try American Gods. It is positively awesome, where Battlestorm has both its moments and its moments of frustration. If the idea of evil being good and good being evil sounds interesting, try Banewreacker and Godslayer by Jacqueline Carey, which explore the same themes.

In the end, I was glad I finished Battlestorm and saw the story begun in Mist and Black Ice come to at least some resolution.