“Flame Tree Road” by Shona Patel

Flame Tree Road was recommended to me by my husband’s grandmother, and I immediately put it on my wishlist because I was interested in reading Indian historical fiction. I was pretty excited to receive it recently as part of LibraryThing’s secret Santa book exchange.

The protagonist of Flame Tree Road is Biren, a boy from a small Indian village in the 1870s who grows up to be a Cambridge educated lawyer crusading for women’s rights in India. There isn’t really much of a plot, the book is just a series of vignettes from his life and the lives of people he knows, told from an omniscient perspective. We follow him from childhood to his eighties, although the bulk of the book takes place when he is a young man.

I enjoyed how atmospheric this book was, it really drew you into the sights, sounds, and smells of its setting. You feel like you’re actually there with the characters. However, the book took the same poetic tone towards descriptions of people, though, and I didn’t like that as much, it was a little bit too romantic for me.

Biren was a good character, but he didn’t seem to have any flaws. There are even multiple scenes from the viewpoint of people that meet him whose entire point is how impressed they are by Biren. Secondary characters are not very fleshed out – they’re only described in how they relate to Biren, and don’t seem like real people. Not every book needs to have strong characters, but since this one didn’t have much of a plot, I was hoping for some character growth or change. This especially frustrated me in regards to the events at the end of the book – given how perfect Biren seemed to be, I didn’t really buy some of the events that happened to him, they seem like they could have been preventable. And if they weren’t, there needed to be some flaw in Biren’s character to explain why he wasn’t able or willing to take action.

Overall, it was pretty light reading, and it was different from the kinds of book I usually read, so I enjoyed it.


Flame Tree Road by Shona Patel
MIRA Books, 2015 | Buy the book


Reread: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

secret gardenI’ve been in a big reading slump lately, but I recently went to see a stage production of The Secret Garden, and it inspired me to reread the book. I used to read this book a lot as a kid; I bought it a library sale at my school. I had never heard of it before, but the title immediately intrigued me. I hadn’t read it for about ten years though, so I was wondering how it would hold up.

Before I talk about the book, a quick review of the play. The Oberlin Summer Theater Festival produced it, and as usual, the sets, direction and acting were all top-notch (although adult actors playing ten year old characters was a bit jarring). I thought the adaptation into a play could have been better though; it was vastly simplified (the characters were all one-dimensional) and some of the events didn’t quite follow. I didn’t remember it being that way in the book, so that’s partly what prompted the reread.

I ended up enjoying the book a lot. Burnett has an engaging writing style, and even though her exposition can be a bit preachy, it rings true enough to be entertaining. The characters are (mostly) pretty complex, except for Dickon who’s basically magical, but that’s okay. Mary and Colin’s friendship made me smile – they’re both lonely, selfish and spoiled, but paradoxically they’re the only people that can help each other become a better person. Everyone else is just too normal.

I definitely picked up on a lot more of the subtle characterisation now that I’m older. The characters are all products of their experiences – Mrs. Medlock seems unsympathetic at first, but she’s just used to minding her own business, Dr. Craven is not terribly invested in his patient’s recovery, but he still holds to his Hippocratic Oath pretty strongly. I’d forgotten about the wonderful character of Mrs. Sowerby, who is responsible for everything sensible that happens in the book (the play omitted her entirely!)

The book is not without its flaws, some due to its time (I winced at the description of native Indians as “not real people”, although Mary was being particularly bratty at the time). Sometimes Burnett is pretty moralistic, and the serendipitous Magic that everything good is blamed on seems a bit hokey to me (but these days, everyone is taught to take charge of their own life and make stuff happen themselves, not depend on the universe’s goodwill – another sign of the cultural shift since the book was written). It is a book with ten year old protagonists, though, and I can distinctly remember being in awe of the wonders of the world then, so maybe I shouldn’t fault it.

My favourite Burnett book when I was younger was Little Lord Fauntleroy; I think I’m going to reread that next.


The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frederick A. Stokes, 1911 | Buy the book


“Dangerous Women” edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

076533206X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_I was really excited about this anthology! I love anthologies, I love kickass women, and the Martin-Dozois anthologies attract the best fantasy writers. I’ve read and liked one of their anthologies (Songs of Love and Death) before, but this one blew it out of the park!

Dangerous Women doesn’t just feature sci-fi/fantasy stories; there are a variety of genres represented. This makes the collection have an incredibly broad range. The eponymous dangerous women are all pretty different too – physically or magically powerful women, women who flourish despite their circumstances, femme fatales, vengeful ghosts, and more. Sometimes they drive the plot, sometimes they’re the protagonist, and sometimes they’re both.

I enjoyed some stories more than others, but unusually, I didn’t think any fell flat. Some were disturbing or implausible, but I think they still made good additions to the anthology. I’m not going to review every story, but I’ll talk a bit about some standouts.

The Hands That Are Not There by Melinda Snodgrass

This story takes place in the same universe as one of my favourites from Songs of Love and Death, and I was immediately pulled into this universe again. Unfortunately there aren’t any full-length books in this universe, but I’m hoping there will be soon! It involves an extraordinary story told in a bar, which if were true, would have incredible repercussions.

Shadows For Silence in the Forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson

I don’t really like the title of the story, but the story itself was fantastic. It’s set in Sanderson’s Cosmere (although I don’t know what planet) and features a terrifying world and a resourceful woman who makes it a little safer. I’m probably biased by my indefatigable love for Sanderson, but I loved this story.

Bombshells by Jim Butcher

I’ve only read the first book of the Dresden Files, but this story made me really want to catch up with it (it also contains major spoilers for the direction of the series, but I didn’t mind that). It features Molly, Harry Dresden’s apprentice and some other Dresdenverse women on a mission. Molly gets some great character development, and there’s a lot of gratuitous ass-kicking. Some of it was a little cliched, but it was so much fun that I didn’t mind.

A Queen in Exile by Sharon Kay Penman and Nora’s Song by Cecelia Holland

Both of these stories were historical fiction and featured women figuring out how to become dangerous in a male-dominated world. Other than that, they were fairly different – in the former, Constance, future Queen of Sicily, takes charge of her unhappy life and in the latter, a young Eleanor of England, Queen of Castile learns how to get her way. I found both fascinating, and I really need to read more historical fiction.

My Heart Is Either Broken by Megan Abbott

I don’t want to say very much about this heartbreaking story, but it examines the emotional consequences of knowing a truly dangerous woman. Or thinking you do.

Lies My Mother Told Me by Caroline Spector

This story is set in the shared Wild Cards universe, and involves a superhero that goes from having dangerous powers to being truly dangerous even without her powers. I found it very poignant.

I could keep going, but I’ll just say that I also loved Some Desperado by Joe Abercrombie (I can’t wait to see more of Shy in his latest book, Red Country), The Girl in the Mirror by Lev Grossman, Name The Beast by Sam Sykes, and Raisa Stepanova by Carrie Vaughn (I haven’t read anything by Vaughn that I haven’t loved). The Princess and the Queen by George R.R. Martin read like the dry medieval telling that it was meant to be, but was strangely fascinating.

The stories I wasn’t as thrilled about:

I Know How to Pick ‘Em by Lawrence Block

This is an extremely well-written story, but it left me feeling unclean just having read it (which seems intentional). It definitely adds to the diversity of the anthology, but I wish I hadn’t read it. It probably didn’t help that I was envisioning Tricia Helfer as the “dangerous woman” in the story.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly by Nancy Krees

The idea behind this story was fascinating (discovering beauty in an ugly world), and I was somewhat touched by the ending, but I was distracted by finding the worldbuilding implausible – 99% of women are sterile, and civilisation totally breaks down. I can see how women’s place in society would change significantly, but I don’t think cities and technology would be completely destroyed. I didn’t even mind the world, but the cause of it seemed forced.

Pronouncing Doom by S.M. Stirling

I got the gist of this story, but was thoroughly confused by the world. American society is now heavily influenced by ancient Scottish/Irish tradition, and this all happens within a few years? I found out that this is set in the “Emberverse”, but I don’t think there’s enough of an introduction to this universe for people not already familiar with it.

That ended up being much longer than I anticipated. Summary: this is one of the best anthologies I’ve ever read. Buy it!


Dangerous Women by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Yseult” by Ruth Nestvold

Yseult coverI won a PDF of Yseult: A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur in the LibraryThing member giveaway a couple of weeks ago. After finishing White Planet, it occurred to me that I had another e-book to read and review, so I opened up Yseult to flip through it and see what kind of a book it was. I’m usually not the biggest fan of romance, even though I love fantasy and historical books, so I wasn’t really expecting to get sucked into this book like I was. I started reading, and couldn’t stop.

Yseult is a retelling/interpretation/whatever-you-want-to-call-it of the classic Tristan and Isolde story. I was vaguely familiar with the story (“basically Romeo and Juliet”), but only to the extent that I recognise some characters and plot elements. I didn’t even know that Tristan was one of Arthur’s knights

The book is much more than a love story. It is truly an epic, exploring the conflicts between paganism and Christianity, political maneuvering between the various kings of Britain and Ireland, the wars between themselves and with the Saxons, and a lot more. It reminded me a bit of The Mists of Avalon, although Yseult was much more fun to read.

Anyway, onto an actual description of the book. Yseult the Fair is an Irish (“Erainn”) princess descended from the Feadh Ree, the original race of Ireland.  She grows up in a time where Christianity is trying to make inroads into Ireland, and has already taken over much of Britain. The Feadh Ree, who were once universally respected, are even being attacked by some Gaul kings. War is everywhere, and any available peace seems to be temporary. Yseult tries to make the best of her situation, defending her home when necessary. Along the way, she meets Drystan, and falls in love with him. However, for political and personal reasons, she agrees to be married to his father Marcus, one of the Kings of Dummonia. She can never forget Drystan though, and he cannot forget her, either.

Both Yseult and Drystan are well-rounded and utterly likeable characters. I couldn’t help but root for them, even as they spiraled into the unavoidable tragedy that is their story, and made decisions that I knew were going to end badly. I never doubted the intensity of their love, even though I(and they) recognised that it was a terrible idea. I’m generally pretty unromantic, and even I felt this way.

But as I said above, Yseult isn’t just a love story. It’s the story of Yseult the Fair, which includes a love story, but also includes all the stories of all the other people in her and Drystan’s life – an amazing supporting cast, including Arthur and a few people associated with his story, Patriac (who I didn’t realise was St. Patrick until I read another review of this book), Yseult the Wise, Cador, and of course, Kurvenal and Brangwyn. All of them change and grow extremely believably.  The religious conflicts are very well-portrayed and almost unbiased, demonstrating the inevitability of change and the futility of fighting against it. It was also very interesting to  read about the political side of things, shifting loyalties, values or lack thereof and the kinds of risks taken. Yseult also sounds pretty historically accurate, and it was pretty fun to read about fifth century British and Irish civilisation and traditions.

Oh, and why is this a fantasy, and not just historical? The Feadh Ree and their descendants have one or more of three magical powers, the power of knowing, the power of calling, and the power of changing. These magical abilities do not dictate the course of the story, they just help enhance it.

This book is only available in English on Kindle right now (for the very reasonable price of $4.95), and I urge you to read it! The author says that she has plans to release it in paperback, and I’m definitely going to buy myself a copy when she does.

Amazon US: Yseult: A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur
Author Blog: http://ruthnestvold.wordpress.com/
Author Website: http://www.ruthnestvold.com/


Yseult by Ruth Nestvold (The Pendragon Chronicles, #1)
Red Dragon Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.