The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, by Jennifer Laam (Plus Giveaway)

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar

by Jennifer Laam

“A compelling alternate history of the Romanov family in which a secret fifth daughter—smuggled out of Russia before the revolution—continues the royal lineage to dramatic consequences.

In her riveting debut novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her. Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra.  After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie. Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy. Then as Veronica’s passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is thrilling from its first intense moments until its final, unexpected conclusion.” (via Goodreads)

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The Secret Daughter of the Tsar isn’t my typical reading fare–it’s not fantasy, sci-fi, or YA, which I’ll admit have made up most of my library lately. But then, I’m also hard-pressed to figure out exactly which category it falls into. Parts are historical, parts are contemporary; there’s some mystery and some thriller in there too, and also some romance. Plus, it’s technically an alternate-history novel, so you could also call it speculative fiction. I can’t help but be interested in books that fall between the borders of genre, so this one tickled my brain a while after I finished it.

There are three main timelines following three characters: Veronica, Charlotte, and Lena. Their stories are clearly delineated, although it’s not until the end that their threads become obviously interwoven. I found Veronica’s and Lena’s stories most compelling. Veronica is a wonderful contemporary protagonist; she’s smart but full of self-doubt, but she also doesn’t hesitate to communicate her wants in a relationship or ask for space if she needs it. Despite her doubts, she’s got strength, and it’s wonderful to read about an interesting, nuanced Chicana heroine! There are also some funny moments that–hand to heart–made me cackle aloud:

Except she had no clue how to signal what she wanted. A hand on his knee? A sly wink? She wanted to feel sexy and wild. If only she had something sexy and wild to say. “Where’s your bathroom?” she asked.

Lena’s story is also engaging. She’s a genuine, brave woman, and I enjoyed her relationships with the empress and her mother-in-law, as well as her chemistry with Paul, the Black American guard at the palace. There’s so much warmth and well-meaning in her friendship with Alexandra that I didn’t want anything bad to happen to either of them (poor hopes for a Romanov storyline, I kn0w).

I found the beginning of the book slightly uneven, but in the thick of things, the pacing is good, and the plot skips along. The stories switch back and forth at tense moments that made me want to keep reading long past the end of my lunch break (and the beginning of my bedtime–I ended up having to set it aside because it was too exciting for pre-sleep reading! Got my adrenaline all pumping and stuff.)

While I enjoyed Charlotte’s storyline too, anything involving Nazis makes me kind of anxious, so I was basically reading with my eyes half-covered. I didn’t quite get as strong a sense of the danger that Veronica experiences later in her storyline; the drama was there, but the threat didn’t feel as immediate or as possible as it did for Charlotte. Veronica’s villains are a little exaggerated, although I got notes of nuance that kept them from being complete Snidely Whiplashes. I also didn’t feel Veronica’s chemistry with Michael as strongly as I did Lena’s chemistry with Paul, but I appreciated Michael for the role he played, and I did feel things come together a little more at the end. (Which is not to say that their smooching scenes weren’t well-written. Get it, Veronica!)

I’ve seen that some other reviewers had a different experience than I did, but I absolutely did not see the ending coming until it was practically on top of me. I’ll keep this review spoiler-free, but suffice to say that I was surprised–not in a bad way, but just in an oh, DUH sort of way that actually made me happy that I didn’t figure things out earlier.

Overall: It’s a tightly-written, interesting story with great female characters and relationships, and I’d absolutely read a sequel. There’s so much more to hear about Veronica!

Full Disclosure: The author is a friend and former coworker of mine. Nevertheless, I paid for my copy of the book with my own money, and I told her in advance that I’d be objective in my review.

Now, here’s the GIVEAWAY part: leave a comment (with a valid email address attached–US entrants only, please!) by 11:59 pm on Monday, November 25th, and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of The Secret Daughter of the Tsar. The winner will be randomly selected and announced on November 26th. Good luck!

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Link Roundup 1/9/13

cover
image by Aimee Fleck

The slow death of Barnes & Noble.

A double-punch from The Awl: Twilight fanfiction (bear with me here), and young adult novelists talking about the first thing they shoplifted. (Best answer by Justine Larbalestier, obviously.)

Problems with food in 50 Shades of Gray.

The Bicholim Conflict and other Wikipedia-based hoaxes. Don’t use it to do your homework, kids! We know you do.

The Whole Story, a DRM-free collection of digital comics by Ryan Andrews, KC Green, Ryan Estrada, and Jang Young for as little as $1. I know what I’m doing with my milk money.

I fangirled over comicker and art student Aimee Fleck at Reading in Skirts today. Go read her comic Tomorrow! (No, don’t read it tomorrow, read it today.)

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (A More Diverse Universe)

Like a couple of others, I decided to (re)read Wild Seed for Aarti & Co’s More Diverse Universe Blog Tour. Any regular reader of NBP knows that diverse reading is important to me, so signing up for the tour was a no-brainer. The real question was what to read. I have several SF&F books written by POC that have been on my TBR for a while (A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Who Fears Death, etc), but I’ve been meaning to reread Wild Seed for years so that I could continue on with the rest of the Patternmaster series which I haven’t read. Since it’s been on my TBR list for the longest, Wild Seed won.

Anyway, tl;dr for why I chose Wild Seed. Onto the book itself!

From Amazon (that link is to just Wild Seed, but I would recommend, if you are interested, in instead getting Seed to Harvest, the compilation of the four Patternmaster books): “Doro is an entity who changes bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflex — or design. He fears no one — until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss…and savage anyone who threatens those she loves. She fears no one — until she meets Doro. From African jungles to the colonies of America, Doro and Anyanwu weave together a pattern of destiny that not even immortals can imagine.”

The good: I love this book. It explores many of the same themes of other Butler novels: race, gender, sex, power. Butler also explores what it means to be truly immortal, in Doro’s case, or effectively immortal, in Anyanwu’s case. She explores the loneliness that each experience and their differing ways of dealing with it. She explores the relationship between morality and mortality. Wild Seed is about the relationship between Doro and Anyanwu, and is really a prequel to the rest of the series, so there isn’t an arcing plot. I’m fine with that, enjoy it even, but beware if you’re the type of reader who wants a big bad to fight or whatever. I should perhaps mention here that the next section will have spoilers, but given the not-so-plotful nature of the book, I don’t think it will ruin your experience. Still, don’t read the next section if you hate spoilers!

The rough: Many (most? all?) of Butler’s novels have an at least partially uncomfortable sexual and/or romantic relationship and this is no exception. Anyanwu and Doro are very different people and, truthfully, the one thing that keeps them together is that they are the only two immortal people they know of in the world. Doro’s lack of empathy, his obsession with his breeding program, and his ultimate power mean that he uses people, including Anyanwu, in very gross ways. I don’t blame Anyanwu for growing to hate him, and I don’t judge her for growing close to him again, in the end. If I was immortal in a world where almost everybody and everything is mortal, I don’t know that I could forever stay away from another immortal person. Anyanwu realizes this for herself and realizes that her only real choice is to either let herself die (which she can do, and which Doro cannot) or live with him. She chooses the latter and I refuse to belittle her choice. And I strongly disagree with Fangs for the Fantasy that that choice makes Anyanwu a long-suffering mammy. (I also disagree that Anyanwu and Doro’s ability to change sex, whilst still retaining their gender, and having relationships with women and men respectively is in any way excluding LGBT experiences and, in fact, is inclusive of trans* experiences. I do think Fangs for the Fantasy makes an important point about Anyanwu’s healing and what the books says about disability and the problems therein, but I do not think there is as much erasure/negativity as they are saying. I will have to think more on it. Anyway, head on over and see what they had to say!)

The bad/overall: For me, there is nothing, really, to say here. If you like book plots to have a distinct arc, you may have trouble. If you are sensitive to or triggered by race/gender/sex issues, I would recommend it only with extreme caution. Otherwise, I highly recommend it to everyone. If you haven’t read any Butler at all, you are seriously missing out! Get thee to the library/bookstore!

The Einstein Intersection, by Samuel R. Delany (A More Diverse Universe)

The Einstein Intersection

by Samuel R. Delany

“The Einstein Intersection won the Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of 1967. The surface story tells of the problems a member of an alien race, Lo Lobey, has assimilating the mythology of earth, where his kind have settled among the leftover artifacts of humanity. The deeper tale concerns, however, the way those who are “different” must deal with the dominant cultural ideology. The tale follows Lobey’s mythic quest for his lost love, Friza. In luminous and hallucinated language, it explores what new myths might emerge from the detritus of the human world as those who are “different” try to seize history and the day.” (via Amazon)

Good Things: As I’m sure other reviewers of this book have said before me, The Einstein Intersection (or, if you want to call it by its intended title, A Fabulous, Formless Darkness) is a tough book to talk about. It’s short, clocking in at around 150 pages, but it’s not a breezy read. Samuel Delany wrote it in his early twenties, and the book’s sections of narrative are interspersed with short journal entries that Delany jotted down while writing the book during a trip around Greece. That’s not a surprise, because The Einstein Intersection is dense with mythological references to the Minotaur, to Orpheus, to Phaedra, and many more besides that I’m sure went over my head. The main characters are all aliens who have come to Earth and inhabited the planet long after humanity has ceased to exist, and have taken human form for reasons never fully explicated. The main character, Lobey, describes himself as an oddly-shaped 23-year-old brown person with a bottom half larger than his top half, with hand-like feet and a great love of music. In this world, many people are born deformed, terminally disabled, or otherwise “different,” and Lobey begins to learn that he himself is “different” in a way that could endanger his life. When the also-“different” girl he loves, Friza, is killed, he sets out to find her killer and deal with him himself.

The language of The Einstein Intersection is often beautiful and fits the dreamlike structure of the story. I felt the atmosphere quite vividly the whole time I was reading, and there are certain scenes that will probably occupy my brain for quite a while. There are also moments of surprising humor that make me smile and which help define Lobey’s character and the world around him:

I began to learn what I was doing when about twenty dragons got stuck in a mintbog (a slushy quicksand bog covered with huge bushes of windy mint, right? Mintbog). (p. 68-69)

There are interesting explorations of gender and able-bodied-ness and able-minded-ness that are often ignored in science-fiction; it’s a very thoughtful, cerebral book that wanders through mythology, genetics, history, music, and death, touching on all and asking questions that it doesn’t necessarily answer.

Bad Things: All that meandering, that dreamscape quality, that obliqueness of the text? Is probably frustrating for some readers. It’s not a book that makes itself easily accessible to a lot of people. Do you know how it is when you get the feeling that the book you’re reading is probably smarter than you are? That’s sort of what reading The Einstein Intersection feels like. I felt a little lost at times when I didn’t get the mythological references or the talk about parthenogenesis and haploids, and I think some readers might end up feeling left out and quit reading partway through. I don’t believe it’s something Delany does on purpose; he was and is a brilliant man, and his books definitely go through cycles of being more or less accessible to a wide audience. The Einstein Intersection in and of itself feels less like a straightforward novel and more like an exploration of the themes mentioned earlier, hung on a fictional frame. The ideas explored don’t always come to a satisfactory conclusion–for me, particularly the parts regarding ableism and gender could have been taken farther and to more interesting places (why do the androgynes make Lobey so uncomfortable? difference and the true meaning of “functional” are discussed, but why is it okay to stick the severely non-functional disabled in “kages” and treat them as not-people?) .

I also felt a little sad that, of the few female (and neither-male-nor-female) characters in the story, none of them had much in the way of agency; La Dire exists to give Lobey direction and set him on his journey, Friza and Dorik die early on, and Dove is used by–who?–at Branning-at-sea to keep genetic lines from becoming too inbred.

Overall: Not easy reading, and may turn some readers off with its oblique references and shaky plot. Interesting and thoughtful, though, and a clear beginning of some of the ideas that Delany explores more thoroughly in later books. For more casual readers looking for more developed ideas and a stronger plot in POC-centered science-fiction, I’d suggest Nova, Babel-17 (reviewed at chasing bawa and to-be-reviewed at Necromancy Never Pays on Thursday), or Trouble on Triton over The Einstein Intersection, but it’s still nothing to sneeze at. Plus, the current edition available at Amazon has a foreword by Neil Gaiman! And who doesn’t like Gaiman, huh? (Don’t answer that.)

Traveling on Tuesday — Laos

Laos (officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic)
Population: appr. 6,500,000
Biggest City: Vientiane (appr. 754,000)

Ever since Jessica’s last Traveling on Tuesday post, I’ve been thinking about doing my own ToT and have been trying to decide which country to choose. Well, as it so happens, Jessica and I have a good friend who recently was awarded a fellowship grant to go do research in Laos over the summer, and I thought I would use her hard work as inspiration! I previously had very little knowledge of Lao literature or even non-Lao literature pertaining to Laos*, so this was a good experience for me as well, even if the results are somewhat bare-bones.

Outhine Bounyavong (1942-2000, name sometimes romanized as ‘Uthin Bunny¯avong) continues to be one of the most well-known authors of Lao contemporary fiction; a collection of his stories about life in Laos has been translated into English as Mother’s Beloved. You can read some of his short stories here for free, thanks to the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University.

Douangdeuane Viravongs (b. 1947, name sometimes romanized as Duangdeuan Viravong), alias Dok Ket (sometimes romanized as Dok Ked), is a prominent female author of Lao contemporary fiction, and is Outhine Bounyavong’s widow. Unfortunately, none of her work appears to be available in English.

Further-unfortunately, while the literary scene in Laos appears to be thriving, especially as a political vehicle, very little native work has been translated into English. There are a small number of Laotian-American and Hmong-American writers such as Bryan Thao Worra and Kao Kalia Yang whose works are gaining recognition, and while their memoirs, poetry, and other published pieces are not quite what I’m looking for here, I’m hopeful that increased exposure of American-published works relating to Laos and other Southeast Asian countries will lead to greater translation and distribution of native literature from those countries. Perhaps in the future–hopefully sooner rather than later–we will be able to read novels by Theap Vongpakay, Chanthy Deuansavanh, or Khamlieng Phonsena in English.

Currently, the lion’s share of writing on and relating to Laos continues to be nonfiction works written by non-native authors, folk tale collections translated and edited by non-native authors (sometimes with the help of Laotian or Laotian-American writers and translators), and the occasional cookbook.

For more information, please see this helpful Introduction to Lao Literature, or this overview of Lao Literature since 1975. Any errors present in the small amount of information here are my own doing.

If you have any suggestions or requests for future entries in Traveling on Tuesday, please speak up in the comments!

*Other than the excellent book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which details the experiences of a Hmong family living in America with an epileptic child, and which includes a partial history of the Hmong people in Laos and American clandestine involvement in the Laotian Civil War. It departs from the intended area here, as it was written by a white American author and is nonfiction, but it is, I think, a very well-written work that looks at Hmong cultural and spiritual practices from a balanced point of view and which neither patronizes nor romanticizes the non-American side of the story.

Traveling on Tuesday – St. Vincent & the Grenadines

St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Population: 120,000
Biggest City: Kingstown (appr. 25,000)

This is a small country, so there isn’t a wide and varied literature to choose from. Here’s what I could find:

Shake Keane (1927-1997) was a poet and musician from Kingstown. He published five poetry collections from 1950 to 1994 and there is one posthumous collection of his previously unpublished work, published in 2005.

Richard Morris Dey was (is?) another poet. It looks like there are no collections of his still in print, but some of his poems can be found online.

G.C.H. Thomas seems to have published only one book, Ruler in Hiroona, which is out of print, but looks awesome and political. I’ll be keeping my eye out for it!

H. Nigel Thomas is a current (finally!) Vincentian author, though he moved to and still lives in Canada. He has books in print! (Good lord. You don’t know how much time I’ve spent on this dang post.) Okay! Thomas writes about immigrants, mostly, and coming of age. His Return to Arcadia looks most exciting to me, but his other available books are Behind the Face of Winter, Spirits in the Dark (this one is a close second for me, though dang it being out of print!), and a short story collection, Lives: Whole or Otherwise.

Last and least (b/c I’m prioritizing homegrown authors), Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s book, Bodily Harm, takes place on a fictional Caribbean island supposedly based on (and where Atwood spent a few years/months?) Bequia, one of the northern islands of the Grenadines.

And that’s all she wrote. Anybody have stronger Google foo than me? I would love to hear that I missed something!

Combating my Privilege – Challenges

So these challenges are all about keeping myself honest and aware of my privileges – white, able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered, middle class, educated… (For the record, my three biggest non-privileges are that I am a woman, I am fat, and I have experienced mental illness. I’m also an atheist – which sometimes feels like a privilege and sometimes does not.) I do a fair amount of blog and online reading in this vein, but I also want to seek out books that are not about white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied people. So!

The POC Reading Challenge got it’s own post a couple of days ago because I also had a wrap-up to do from last week.


South Asian Reading Challenge 2012 

Yes, I’m doing it again and this year I will succeed, dammit! Going to set a minimum goal of just one book, so that if I fail I can be properly ashamed of myself.

Ideas – Something by Amitav Ghosh (probably Sea of Poppies), Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, something by Salman Rushie (probably Midnight’s Children), The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar


2012 Middle East Reading Challenge 

Along a similar vein, I vow to read, at minimum, one book either set in the Middle East or by a Middle Eastern author. I think I already know the bare minimum one I will read – Mia bought a graphic novel about growing up in Israel at APE last year.

1) Farm 54 by Galit and Gilad Seliktar – This book takes place from the mid? 1970s to the late 1980s and is a semi-autobiographical account of Galit’s growing up in Israel. The main character, Noga, deals with love, sex, a lot of death, and a couple of other themes that I’m having a hard time placing. There’s a strange… Noga doesn’t feel like she has too much agency – perhaps because she is looking back on her life? Maybe because, though she is looking back at her own life, she doesn’t do a lot of introspecting, doesn’t explain why she did what she did. The whole book is very sparse.

I kind of feel like that should only count as half of a book or something – it was so quick, even for a graphic novel. Maybe I will keep my eyes open for another book to add to here.

I haven’t been able to find challenges for the following categories, so I’m just going to set some goals:

1 book from Japan – either Murakami or Ishiguro
1-5 books from the following African regions (one book per): North, South, East, West, and Central – Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okoafor
1 book by or about a transgender person AND/OR 1 book by or about a disabled person –
1 lesbian or gay romance novel –