Dragon Springs Road

By Janie Chang
Reviewed by SA

A few months ago, I jot the January Muse Monthly box, and the French postal system was having nothing of it. The box made a few loops around the world before this book landed at my doorstep, at which point I was far too excited about the book within and dying to drink the tea.

Faithful readers of this blog might notice that this is not a genre I usually read – I’m more of a scifi, fantasy type of gal – but I have a fascination with any historical fiction novel set outside of Europe. Double points if the main character is a girl. Triple points if she’s also biracial. And if you throw in some magic, I’m not going to be disappointed. And Dragon Springs Road is all of the above.

Summary29938354

That night I dreamed that I had wandered out to Dragon Springs Road all on my own, when a dreadful knowledge seized me that my mother had gone away never to return . . .

In 1908, Jialing is only seven years old when she is abandoned in the courtyard of a once-lavish estate outside Shanghai. Jialing is zazhong—Eurasian—and faces a lifetime of contempt from both Chinese and Europeans. Until now she’s led a secluded life behind courtyard walls, but without her mother’s protection, she can survive only if the estate’s new owners, the Yang family, agree to take her in.

Jialing finds allies in Anjuin, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the courtyard for centuries. But Jialing’s life as the Yangs’ bondservant changes unexpectedly when she befriends a young English girl who then mysteriously vanishes.

Murder, political intrigue, jealousy, forbidden love … Jialing confronts them all as she grows into womanhood during the tumultuous early years of the Chinese republic, always hopeful of finding her long-lost mother. Through every turn she is guided, both by Fox and by her own strength of spirit, away from the shadows of her past toward a very different fate, if she has the courage to accept it.

Twenty years in the life of a young biracial girl in China, at the turn of the century. A country in political turmoil, with old ways fading into new. An orphaned girl trying to make a way for herself in a world that will not accept her, aided by a fox spirit who knows more than she lets on.

This novel was simply captivating. It drew me in with lyrical prose, beautiful description, astounding storytelling. At times, it unfolds like a fairy tail, while in others it reads like a dickens novel. We follow Jialing, the daughter of a prostitute, as she grows from girl to young woman, her word expanding, just as the country itself starts shifting its customs. Still, not enough to make life easy for an orphaned “zazhong” (cruel name for mixed race). The characters are complex and have depth, many interconnected in ways you don’t realize until later.

While many events seem improbable, too coincidentally perfect to make sense, the author washes away those worries by putting the blame on Fox, a spirit who cares for young Jialing. The fact that yangs take her in, or how the missionary ladies want to make sure she can go to school and get an education, could only happen if there was a push from our caring friend.

Fox might have been the most fascinating of them all, and now I sort of wish there was a novel about her very long life. She waits at Dragon Springs Road for a door to the immortal realm, where she was finally be reunited with the humans she loves. The burdens of immortality. She was such a fascinating character: at times, I wondered if she was just a figment of Jialing’s imagination, but the world was much more magical with her in it.

While the ending felt a little melodramatic, as if the author wanted us to have more conflict in such a short amount of time, I quite loved this book. I mean, how can I not? It’s just so beautiful!

Advertisements

The Other Einstein + GIVEAWAY

by Marie Benedict
Reviewed by SA

Finally, a book about Mileva Marić! I knew so little about her, though I have been dying to know more: what kind of woman could court, marry, love one of the greatest minds of our time? Who was the woman who stood by his side as he made some of the greatest discoveries of science, revolutionizing how we saw the world? But I should have been asking myself something entirely different: who was this Serbian woman who fought to get into university and learn physics, forging a path for women like me?

Summary

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

Unfortunately, like “The Stargazer’s Sister” (Carrie Brown), this version of events is heavy fictionalized. While the key points of Mileva’s life are there, such as when she met went into university, when she met Albert, when they got married, etc, the author filled in the gap with historical fiction. Very good fiction, I have to say: It was fascinating to see Albert Einstein as a romantic figure, to consider what a relationship between two scientists would have been like at the turn of the century. I’m just disappointed that it’s not all true: I’m not exactly sure which parts are fact, and which parts are fiction. Oh well.

While sometimes I found the style of prose to drag a little bit, or the pacing to be a little slow, I was completely engrossed by Mileva’s character. Honestly, it’s perhaps more interesting to view this book as a novel about a woman scientist fighting to break society’s norms so she can study physics at the end of the 19th century, rather than the novel about ‘just’ Einstein’s wife. As a physics student myself, I fell in love with her. I can’t imagine not studying physics, and to think that if I had been born a hundred years earlier, I would have had to fight tooth and nail for my education? Mileva is a brilliant mind, a brilliant person, just wanting to learn.

The fictionalized account of their relationship is interesting and definitely worth a read. It gives a new perspective on the life of Albert Einstein, and introduces you to a brilliant woman. Well worth the read.

The publisher is kindly running an amazing giveaway! Want to win copies of this fantastic book? Follow this LINK to the rafflecopter!

 

A Study in Scarlet Women

by Sherry Thomas
Reviewed by SA

I absolutely love the character of Sherlock Holmes. I grew up reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, watching the shows and movies that were inspired by the character, ever pretending I could solve a mystery like him, too. So when I got a hold of this new series, I was skeptical: I have read many ‘female Sherlock’ stories, and almost all of them disappointed me. But this time, I think we have a winner: because this Charlotte Holmes manages to take the Sherlock trope and somehow make it entirely new again. I loved the book, and I loved her.

Summary28588390

With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society.  But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London.
 
When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her. But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind.

Let me dismiss a few expectations right now: no, this is NOT a rehash of Study in Scarlet. Watson is not looking for a roommate and stumbling upon a genius detective and a case that needs cracking. This story is completely different, and completely new. The similarities are in some parts in name only, or incredibly subtle. In fact, if this book wasn’t being advertised as being Lady Sherlock, you wouldn’t see it all at once.  Right then, let’s move on!

The story opens with Charlotte Holmes being publicly humiliated, caught in the bed of a married man. Hello! She only intended to make herself ineligible for marriage, to force her family to pay for an education she could not be able to afford otherwise. But with the public shame, she’s now an outcast and a social pariah. If she wants to make her way as in independent woman in victorian London, she’s going to have to find herself a source of income, and fast. But with her genius mind, that shouldn’t be too difficult, right?

There seemed to be many stories going on here at once: the murders, which have left the inspectors baffled, and the story of Charlotte, a young woman trying to make her way in a world where women must know their place. I was fascinated by the steps she had to take, first to distance herself from the institution of marriage, and then just to get a job. It made me very glad to be living in the 21st century, where I can go to university to study physics and entirely fund my own education. And wear pants.

The mystery itself was a little slow paced, but I loved Charlotte’s insight as Sherlock. With the help Mrs. Watson, they establish a little scheme to allow Charlotte to take on cases while pretending her ‘brother’ Sherlock was ill. Every little deduction is incredibly clever, though required thinking as a victorian. In the end, the resolution of the crime came tumbling all at once, but it all made incredible sense, and tied in neatly with the ‘original’ Study in Scarlet. It was so clever!

While I loved Charlotte, I had to say that at times her character was a little inconsistent. She’s a genius, and yet doesn’t always see very far ahead. She’s a little stubborn and headstrong, rushing into some actions without thinking them through. And yet, she’s so relatable. Her love of food echoed my own.

So if you want historical fiction that will have you feeling like you’ve been plunged into the period, and a fantastic lady protagonist with genius intelligence, while at the same time a tribute to Sherlock Holmes? Then you’re going to want to read this book.

Only downside: we’re going to have to wait quite a while for the sequel to come out! Curses!

I received an Advance copy of this novel from Berkley Publishing. Thank you, BerkleyPub! 

Side Note: Charlotte’s story made me think a lot about The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Fowles), only with Sarah had been a little more proactive. 

Iron Cast

by Destiny Soria
Reviewed by SA

One look. That’s all it took. One look at the cover, and it was love at first sight. I picked up this book and devoured it excitedly. Oh, my gosh. It’s so good. Not only is it diverse, but it has an iron tight female friendship, beautiful prose, and it combines all the best genres. It’s at the same time YA, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy, with mad scientists, secret clubs, gangs, and superpowers. All of that on the eve of prohibition. What’s not to love?

Summary28818313

It’s Boston, 1919, and the Cast Iron club is packed. On stage, hemopaths—whose “afflicted” blood gives them the ability to create illusions through art—captivate their audience. Corinne and Ada have been best friends ever since infamous gangster Johnny Dervish recruited them into his circle. By night they perform for Johnny’s crowds, and by day they con Boston’s elite. When a job goes wrong and Ada is imprisoned, they realize how precarious their position is. After she escapes, two of the Cast Iron’s hires are shot, and Johnny disappears. With the law closing in, Corinne and Ada are forced to hunt for answers, even as betrayal faces them at every turn.

Ada and Corinne are hemopaths, able to manipulate people with their dangerous abilities. Ada charms your emotions to her will through her violin. Corinne can weave illusions with poetry. Together, they work for the Cast Iron, a nightclub which secretly holds illegal hemopath performances… and is the front for Jonny Dervish to run his hemopath cons from. After one con gets too big and goes bad, Ada is imprisoned in Haversham Asylum, a place designed to ‘rehabilitate’ hemopaths, and it’s up to Corinne to get her out.

I feel like the summary doesn’t do this book justice, because that’s where we actually start the novel: with a daring escape in the dead of night. Ada and Corinne make it back to the Cast Iron, their safe haven, only to learn that everything is now falling apart. More heists going wrong, fears of a mole, and now Jonny’s missing  and Ada’s still a wanted prisoner. And, to make matters worse, Corinne’s rich brother is marrying the daughter of the man who owns the hemopath institution she just broke Ada out of.

I absolutely loves Ada and Corinne. Their friendship was #ladygoals. They’re so close, able to tell each other everything and push each other to be better. They love each other in a way that makes you love them even more. And it’s not just them: all the secondary characters, the hemopaths and bodyguards working in the Cast Iron, all seem to form their own little family. They support each other through thick and thin, and it’s cool to see these complex characters working together.

Not only that, but the description of their abilities in use is just… lyrical. It’s beautiful. The author weaves together beautiful prose to tell just how the two women grip their audience. And they grip us, too, in the process. At the same time, we feel their fear of Iron. Hemopaths basically are allergic to it, repulsed by it: it burns their skin, and just being near it can make them feel ill. As a reader, we get both ends of hemopathy: the beautiful illusions and the awful pain.

The pacing of the novel is a little off. It starts out strong, with the break out, but then is a lot more easy going for a while. There’s a lot of mystery going on: there’s this feeling of cold, as everyone is trying to keep on running their own lives as things go south around them. But I almost, almost put this book down halfway through. I’m so glad I stuck through, because that’s when things really hit the fan and it’s gets crazy fast and exciting. So if you’re thinking of putting this book down, don’t! It has one of the most brilliant endings I have ever read!

You’re definitely going to want to read this book, when it comes out on October 11th. Thank you NetGalley and Amulet books for letting me read this amazing novel.

Looking for some Urban Fantasy? My novel Inside Out is available for free – no signup or anything required – for a limited time only. If you like the X-files, you’re going to like this! While supplies last. 

Sounds of War

by Cindy Chen

Reviewed by SA

I love doing Self Published Saturday! I really do! I get the opportunity to read, and share, books I would not have even known about if it wasn’t for the amazing self published community. It’s when reading books like Sounds of War that you really wish the book was a physical copy rather than an epub, so you can shove it into all of your friends hands. I really did not expect this book to be as beautiful as it was, and everyone needs a chance to read it.

Summary

People were dying. Bodies were lying along the streets. Air raid sirens were about to go off at any moment. Nobody was shown any mercy.

For Anna, life had always been about music. An aspiring pianist and composer, she studied at the renowned Leningrad Conservatoire under some of the greatest musicians to ever walk the face of the Earth. Her studies came to a halt, however, when Nazi troops surrounded Leningrad in September, 1941, intending to shell and starve the city into submission. She watched as her once-beautiful city transformed in front of her eyes: people became living skeletons, their only food being a mere 125 grams of ration bread a day; buildings were reduced to rubble, pieces of bricks and broken glass strewn along the streets; cats, dogs, rats, and horses disappeared as people chose to eat them instead. One by one, the citizens of Leningrad were losing hope, and Anna was desperately trying to find a reason to hold on and a way to continue…

What a fantastically beautiful book.

I’m going to say it right now: I’m not into music. GASP. I listen to it, any kind, but it’s usually just something to keep my mind focused on a project or two. Never did I think I would actually GET it. Somehow, through words, by creating sound out of ink and letters, this novel made me suddenly love music. It made me see how powerful a few notes and cords could be. I was transported to a world of sound and song through a novel about war. The trips to the Conservatoire, the piano playing between friends and family, Anna’s dedication to writing music: these moments truly came alive for me, and managed to resonate like real music would.

All this cuts a sharp contrast with the description of wartime Lenningrad. The beauty of the music clashes with the death and despair on the streets of this city, and as a reader, you truly feel the pain and anguish of life there. It’s terrifying: while the music really is beautiful and warm, the description of life in 1941 makes you feel cold inside.

Chen really has a way with words: from creating music out of thin air, to creating sorrow on the next page, you wonder if you’re even reading a book at all anymore. I devoured this book in a one hour bus ride, and was so enthralled I almost missed my stop. Even when I got off the bus, I had five pages left to read, so I sat down at the stop and finished it. I really was transported to wartime Russia. This book is a real gem. Its subject matter is hard, and at every page you turn and think: “Wow, how can their situation get any worse?” – spoiler alert, somehow it does. The author never seems to exaggerate, creating an environment which felt wholly realistic to me.

Anna herself is a great character: she’s realistic, relatable, and determined. You feel her emotions through the pages, you yearn to reach out a hand and pull her out. But when she plays music, you really feel as if you’re seeing the real Anna. She dwindles when she’s away from an instrument for too long.

The relationship that develops between the protagonist and her best friend is just as realistic as the rest. An atmosphere of “Will they, won’t they” sometimes hung in the air, (or in the pages I should say), and I was so pleased it didn’t go the way or the popular historical fiction (I’m trying so hard not to spoil anything). It’s a friendship I envy, one with mutual respect, a shared passion for music, and with honest conversation.

But yes, this book is painful. It’s set during WWII, after all. if there wasn’t the beauty of music to soften it, I would have lost it – which I think is the point! There is death, loss. Pain. Horror. Moments you wish you could put the book down, if it wasn’t so darn addicting. The ending, however, is perfect, and makes all the pain worth the read.

Make sure you pick up this amazing book!