Friday, April 25, 2014

The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid by John A. Aragon & Mary W. Walters

Today we revisit the old west as it never was, or as it may once have been in the cinematic universe. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid by indie authors John A. Aragon & Mary W. Walters is a bold, romantic journey into New Mexico, ca. 1922.

The West will never be the same . . . .

New Mexico, 1922.

The orphaned eighteen-year-old stablehand Rosalind Grundy is seduced by a married woman, and faces a lynching after the pair is surprised in flagrante delicto. But she manages to escape with the aid of a strange and aristocratic old man who calls himself Don Valiente.

Don Valiente, having read too many dime westerns, has come to believe that he is a famous gunfighter. He thinks Roz is a young man named Ross, and he takes her under his wing, intending to teach her and to revive "The Code Of The Caballeros."

Don Valiente and Roz embark on a series of comic adventures. But when they come upon a grisly murder scene and the trail of three escaped-convict killers, Roz realizes that her only chance to survive the imminent showdown and to reunite with her true love lies in her ability to separate Don Valiente's madness from the eternal truths in his teaching.

“The western dime novel meets Don Quixote and goes digital in this mash-up of hair-raising tales. It’s a bold and sexy chase from end to end.” — Fred Stenson, author of The Trade, Lightning, and The Great Karoo

Let me just say I fell in love with Don Valiente the moment he began speaking! He is wild, wise and completely committed to living The Code of the Caballeros. In one very moving scene, after Roz has been forced to kill a man, she sheds tears for her vanquished foe, wondering why he had to go and put himself in the position where she had to shoot him in self-defense. Don Valiente tells her that the path of the Caballero is full of compassion for the misguided souls he must usher into the next world. "Do you not think that the executioner does not recognise that even those who must pay for their bad deeds with their lives are also human beings, like him, who live, love, and know the beauty of creation?"

The wisdom Don Valiente imparts to Roz over the course of the tale is beautiful and moving. His spirituality is deep and is such a part of him that he has an enormous influence on his young apprentice. I myself have taken much of it to heart! His truths are universal, and as she begins to understand what he is trying to teach her, Roz begins to know who she is, and to be comfortable in her own skin.

Roz is young, beautifully human and is just a girl who is caught up in something that is so much larger than she is. Her motives are simple and honest. In reading this book, I felt every one of of Roz's trials and sorrows as if they were my own. She's an unlikely hero, but she is the sort of hero that made the legends of the old west come to life.

The bad-guys are awesome, in part because they aren't all men. Leta, Kruger and the Beast have few redeeming qualities, and they are quite frightening. I never knew what they would do next. They are as nasty and evil as any villains I've ever met.

This tale has everything--Romance, danger, spirituality and great well-drawn characters, both good and bad, that leap off the page. The scenery is gorgeous and the atmosphere is moody and mysterious. I liked this book so much I bought the paperback as well as the Kindle version.

I have read everything both Mary W. Walters and John A. Aragon have written in their separate careers, and think their considerable skills are magnified in this tale of good and evil. The story haunted my dreams the night I finished reading it, and that is the mark of an awesome book!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Stardust, Neil Gaiman

I don't know why, but I have always been under the impression that I had read Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. I had seen the film, but for some reason it didn't seem like the book I remembered.

There are 2 reasons for that -- first, I had never actually read the book, and second, the film bears only a passing resemblance to the book. (No cross-dressing pirate, a lot more colorful characters...a much better get the drift.)

First published in 1998, Stardust is a beautiful, lyrical and sometimes violent journey into fairyland.

The Blurb:
Young Tristran Thorn will do anything to win the cold heart of beautiful Victoria—even fetch her the star they watch fall from the night sky. But to do so, he must enter the unexplored lands on the other side of the ancient wall that gives their tiny village its name. Beyond that old stone wall, Tristran learns, lies Faerie—where nothing, not even a fallen star, is what he imagined.

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman comes a remarkable quest into the dark and miraculous—in pursuit of love and the utterly impossible.

My Review:

First off let me just say I loved this book.  Tristran is naive yet brave, and obsessed with the notion of true love. Victoria is snobbish and not really worthy of him.  Yvaine has all the best qualities of a true star--she is coldly, amazingly beautiful, and childish.

The Lord of Stormhold and his heirs are awesome characters. They are not evil, but they are not good (good people don't kill each other as they scrap their way to the throne.)

There are 3 evil characters in this tale (though one is not a character, it's more of a doom): The obviously evil Morwanneg who wants to cut out the heart of the star so she and her sister will regain eternal youth, Madame Semele who is just plain greedy and who holds Tristran's mother captive, and the overhanging evil of what will happen to Yvaine if Tristran succeeds in taking her back to Victoria.

Each and every sentence of this book is beautiful. I fell into the prose and the dream that the tale evokes and didn't want to emerge even for food. This ability to draw a scene and set it with both mystery and clarity is why Gaiman is one of my favorite authors.

If you have seen the movie, and think you know the story, you couldn't be more wrong. The book holds more magic, love, epic adventure and sheer fairy tale inventiveness than the movie ever could. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sinners of Magic, by Lynette Creswell

Periodically I like to check out the Young Adult and Teen books available out on the indie market, as I have grandchildren and like to be able to recommend a good read for them. Sinners of Magic, by Lynette Creswell is a YA fantasy book, suitable for readers age 12 and up. 

The Blurb:
Crystal is no ordinary sixteen year old girl. Ever since she was a small child she's been able to sense things, feel when danger approaches and now she's gone one step further and saved a boy’s life by summoning a supernatural being.

Little does she know it but her natural parents are powerful immortals. Secret lovers in a magical land where procreation outside of their own realms is forbidden, the Elders punish Amella and Bridgemear by banishing their new born child to the world of mere mortals.

Years have passed and dark times have descended upon the Elf Realm. Crystal is visited by a shape-changer and tricked into believing if she returns to the Kingdom of Nine Winters, she will find the answers regarding her newly revealed birth right.

Soon she is caught up in dangers greater than anything she could have ever imagined while those who fight at her side, battle to protect her from a wicked sorcerer gone insane and one who is willing to take her to the very edge of destruction...

This is an excellent novel for teens. The characters are compelling, and the storyline is a good play on the traditional switched-at-birth theme. If at times the dialogue is a little stilted, over all this book was an enjoyable read. Crystal is a kind, rather cocky and headstrong girl. She is somewhat confrontational, but it seems to be her nature.  Matt, whom she meets on Earth and whose life she saved is also a well-drawn, three-dimensional character.

Bridgemear is hard to like, but he is Crystal’s birth-father and a powerful magician, and Amella is a strong, usually likeable character. I like the way their relationship was handled.

Tremlon, the shape-changer  and King's envoy, has a major role in this tale, and his burden of guilt and responsibility is handled well.  At the end, I was left wondering about Amadeus, a strong, loyal and brave elf warrior who struggles with many issues. I’m definitely curious to see where that thread leads in the next book.

I did find the wood sprite, Bracken, to be quite hilarious, and I enjoyed Nekton, the innkeeper of Fortune's End, who longs for a real adventure. There is great atmosphere in this tale, and great adventure.

As in all good tales, bad things happen to good people, and worse things happen to the bad people. I liked the way the evil King Forusian, who kidnaps Crystal with lustful intentions, was dealt with.

I’d gladly recommend this book to any young teen, and give it four full stars for inventiveness and a good, immersive story. The narrative may be a little too young for some adults, but I found it to be an excellent afternoon of reading.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird – A Novel by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird – A Novel by Helen Oyeyemi -- I was lured to this book by false advertising--the publisher is billing it as a fantasy. It is not, but it is a good read, and despite the bait-and-switch by the publisher, I am glad I read it.

The Blurb:
From the prizewinning author of Mr. Fox, the Snow White fairy tale brilliantly recast as a story of family secrets, race, beauty, and vanity.

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

My Review:
This is a book that is hard to categorize. It is a fantasy in some ways, and in others, it is a period piece chronicling the era of the 1950s through the 1970s. The novel spans two generations of women but unbeknownst to them, their lives are molded by the choices made by the grandparents.

The tale is told in the first person, from the point of view of two women, Boy and Bird. Boy is a girl who is hardened by her childhood. Her father is a cold, vicious man, who catches rats for a living. In all her life, she never thinks of him as ‘Father’ or Daddy’—only as the rat catcher. His cruelties eventually drive Boy to take some money and run away. She is blonde, so blonde that with her quiet reserve and inability to express love, she is frequently compared to the snow queen. All her life, she notices that at times she has no reflection in mirrors.

She ends up in a small New England town where the people are artists and craftsmen. She finds a landlady who rents to single women, and makes friends. She gets a job in a bookstore, and marries Arturo, a wealthy widower with a daughter named Snow. Snow is as pale and blonde as Boy, and her new in-laws frequently mention how she is the image of her late mother, who was a noted beauty.

At first her relationship with Snow is good. Boy loves Snow, and Snow is happier than she can ever remember being. Boy is a good stepmother, and despite her terrible childhood, she is determined to provide the sort of home she never had. For a time, all goes well.

However, with the birth of Bird, Boy and Arturo’s daughter, the first family secret comes out—Bird is obviously black, or colored as they referred to it in that era. Arturo and his entire wealthy family are light-skinned Negroes passing for white. Suffering from post-partum depression, Boy sends Snow away to live with Arturo’s dark-skinned older sister. At this point, Bird takes up the narrative.

I enjoyed this story, despite the fact it is not really a fantasy as it was billed. While it is a bit disjointed at times, it has a mystique. Three women whose reflections occasionally do not appear in mirrors and the obvious parallels to various fairytales make this urban tale unique.

Oyeyemi’s prose is literary, and her characters are well drawn with an economy of words. The atmosphere of the Boy’s world is clearly drawn. The rat catcher is evil; the town of Flax Hill is mysterious and magical in a way. I must say that this is not the sort of book I normally read, as despite the magical atmosphere of Flax Hill, reflections not appearing in mirrors, and the parallels to fairytales, it is most definitely NOT a fantasy—it is literary fiction.

I give it four stars because Oyeyemi’s prose and character building more than make up for the somewhat disjointed narrative. This is a compelling book, and if you are in the mood for literary fiction, I recommend waiting and buying the paperback, as the Kindle book is price outrageously at $11.99.