Author: Alexandra Honigsberg

Reviews: “Crazy in the Blood” and “Fangtabulous”

A nutty-crunchy cult, a human-gorgon PI, a family fit for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, hot god guys (not a metaphor), Federal spooks, zombie minions, and a dreamy Italian detective… welcome to San Francisco and Lucienne Diver’s second installment of her Latter-Day Olympians series, Crazy in the Blood, which delivers all that and a gaggle of ghouls (Samhain, $15 trade, July 2013). The story picks up at its usual breakneck pace soon after the events of the first installment and Hell (literally) hath no fury like a pissed-off mom—putting the whole earth and human race in danger in this family feud between god parental units with Dionysus, maenads, and health food in the mix for good measure. Shredded dead bodies are showing up and Uncle Christos has disappeared and his fav niece, part-gorgon PI Tori Karacis, is determined to find him and discover the links, if any, even addicted to ambrosia and…well…Apollo (blond, bad-boy god) vs. her Detective Armani.

Conflicted romance! Dark and light hot dudes! What’s a gal to do?

But Tori is not alone—BFF blonde starlet Christie won’t let her go alone and Hollywood’s made her tougher than she looks. Grandma Yiayia plays air traffic control—she never appears in the novels, so far, save for on the phone. Fabulous office assistant Jesus is the…well…fabulous assistance. Hermes wants a front row seat to the chaos, of course.  And then Thanatos, the Grim Reaper, shows up on papa Hades’ orders, slashing his scythe like the boss that he is. But there is a bit of anti-deus-ex-machina when the Three Fates step in and twist the threads of the plot even twistier. Demeter is the eternally spurned mom. Hades can’t get along with the mother-in-law, and he and Persephone have their marital problems. Bring in Dr. Drew or Phil or…nope.  Bring in the gods and the spooks and Tori’s Scooby gang. There is a fair dose of Buffyverse flavor here, still—hey, learn from the best!—which makes it fun and familiar even for those who’re new to the Blood series. The Romance tropes’re still there, all adult-like, so those fans will stay happy, but this is a cross-genre work that many can enjoy at almost any over-13 or so age. Let the party begin!

And speaking of parties… we find Gina, Bobby, Marcy, Brent, and the rest of the vampi-nista gang in Salem, Massachusetts (y’know, home of the witch hysteria and trials of old made famous in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) on the run from the Feds who want them as experimental weapons, battling the Salem Strangler, in Fangtabulous (flux, $9.99 trade/$11.50 Canadian, 2013) #4 in the Vamped series. And it’s all about the magic…from the stage magician to the haunted tours of Salem to the Goths to…the real Big Bads. This volume has all the fun you’d expect from Diver and her gang, but a bit more grit and angst and a dialogue on racism, government corruption, and child abuse that is present but not so heavy-handed as to spoil the fun for younger readers, but surely to be noticed by most readers with a clue. This is not a bad thing, but it does lend the tale a more serious tone amongst the mayhem and quips that are this series’ hallmarks. This is definitely PG-13, with genuine gore and violence, but not gratuitous…no Tarrantino-ing here. And if you know Salem you’ll have the extra bonus of the veracity of the setting. I enjoyed this, in a thoughtful kind of way. The characters growing up. It’s cool. I won’t say more as to keep this a spoiler-free zone.

Review: Rebel Angels

Rebel-AngelsThe Lady Lazarus saga’s final chapter for the tale that is, of the three, the most humanRebel Angels (Tor Books, Hardcover, $26.99, March, 2013). It’s October, 1939 and our heroine Magda is saying goodbye to her little sister Gisele, sending her off with spymaster Knox to be protected by Churchill in the UK whilst Magda and her fallen angel-man Raziel sallie forth to Baku, Afghanistan to find a way to bring down the Asmodel-possessed Hitler and prevent the wholesale slaughter of millions that Gisele has foreseen. To do this, Magda seeks the primordial magic even more potent than the Book of Raziel, the Lazarus women’s legacy—the Heaven Sapphire. And the last time it was used, all Hell broke loose. The gem is its own creature, not to be summoned by mere words, not even by a Lazarus, the ancient line of witches who can come back from the dead via a deal with the Witch of Ein Dor of the Bible. Everyone is after it and she has to get there first, no matter the cost. And so she has to announce to Vampire Count Gabor Bathory that she is quitting his employ and leaving Budapest once again to try to stop this war—and get his blessing on her clandestine marriage to the man who’d given up Heaven to be with her.  What does Bathory do?  The only thing a Vampire Count can do for the closest thing he has to a daughter in the face of war—he allows her to escape by throwing the most lavish vampire party ever and invites all magicals, under a truce, to celebrate with him! Even her beloved Eva, now in deep-cover as the SS Werewolf leader Szalasi’s paramour, attends. All the players are on stage for the grand finale in contexts at once perplexing, astonishing, and satisfying.

And that’s what makes this work, even when I can barely suspend disbelief – as with the literal flying carpets of the women of Helena. The human merchant Ziyad is just that in his air of passion in the real sense of the word—to suffer as a mensch, an Aristotelian man, and not merely a human animal. The over-arching emotions and dilemmas in this climax are elevated to what is best and worst in humans, so that infernal and divine are one and meet—as above, so below, the divine reaching down toward humanity and humanity reaching up toward the divine, by either good or evil means, by true hearts of compassion or bloated egos. And the means makes all the difference, so that evil might not triumph over the face of God’s creation, via the human spirit in all of them, even the once-divine. This concluding chapter is not so much an ethical book (that was more for book II), but a passionate one, one that faces despair head-on and says, like Gandalf to the Balrog, “You shall not pass!”

Lang’s prose here is her most calculated—book I is still the book of my heart. But she pulls off things here that made me doubt and yet made them somehow plausible. She’s honest enough that not all of your favourites will survive, but none will be forgotten, and thus stays true to the Jewish concept of yizkor that propels this story: remember so that none truly die forever. There are awww moments that remind you that Lang is also a romance writer, without sending you for the insulin shots.  She does not flinch from torturing her characters—see the dungeons of the Baku Institute where the mad scientist Prof. Roskonikoff conducts operations that resemble crude, early frontal lobotomies. This is not a book to be handed to young women without adult supervision. Finally, I will say that, in the end, somehow, a spark of love triumphs and there is, indeed, life out of death.  And you can’t help but love that and smile.

Lady Lazarus (Tor, trade Sept. 2010 $14.99, mass market June 2011 $7.99)

Dark Victory (Tor, March ’13, hardcover $25.99, Kindle $9.99)

Reviews: “Fangtastic” and “Bad Blood” by Lucienne Diver

Summer’s singing its last karaoke and the flash mobs of Gangnam Style have come and gone for the nonce. But back-to-school, be ye student or mentor, doesn’t have to mean the fun’s over—just shifting gears. So let’s go to Tampa with Gina, BF Bobby, and her vamped-up posse for adventure #3 in Lucienne Diver’s [[[Fangtastic]]] (Flux, trade paperback, $9.95/$11.50 Canada, $3.44 Kindle, ages 12 & up, Jan. 2012). Wassup? A lot. Heat, humidity, steampunk geeks, government spooks gone…well…even more spooky, death, mayhem—and vampires, of course! Pretty much Buffy on X—so Diver maintains her signature style. The first in the series is still my fav, and I’m not feeling that Tampa plays a crucial role in this story (could be any hot city), but those are minor points in what is otherwise another successful outing full of chic twists and turns that keep things entertaining. I may not always agree on a few details of how she gets there, but I like where she’s taking the series. The focus here is the steampunk club scene full of wannabe vamps and the Feds assign Gina and her crew to infiltrate the true vamps who run the clubs behind-the-scenes so she can investigate a string of club kids murders—but who’re the real big bads? Gina’s really beginning to wonder and doesn’t like what she finds out along the way and she does something about it. This is Gina coming more into her vampy own and raising the stakes (pun sort of unintended…wink) and Diver doing some deeper world building with lots of bells-n-whistles, new minions, and the addition of some surprise superpowers—with which I’m not yet entirely on-board, but I’ll roll with it through next book. There is enough grit and wit in this installment to keep adults engaged, as well as plugged-in co-eds. So take a fabulous spin. And stay tuned for book #4, Fangtabulous, come January, just in time for winter break.

When you’re done clubbing with the kids in Tampa, how about a romantic trip to the beach, the spa—the police station with hot Detective Armani!—with a few gods and goddesses in LA? This is where Diver’s adult urban fantasy romance based upon mythical characters comes to life in [[[Bad Blood]]] (Samhain, $14 trade paperback, $7.96 Kindle, June 2012). And her typically sharp and snarky voice is in full evidence here, but darker than in her Vamped series and with a bit more romantic spice, and appropriately so for the mature audience this is aimed at—right between the eyes. Here we’ve got a freakshow family that is, literally, part circus and part PIs, and the newest working gal, since her Uncle Christos’ disappearance, Tori Karacis, is up to her eyeballs in murder, gore, silicon starlets, Circe, Apollo, Hermes, Hephaestus, mermen, perhaps even Zeus and Poseidon, and a whole lotta WTF?! It is Hollyweird, after all. Blood is thicker than muck, so it seems. And, of course, the bad guys cheat!  But I won’t serve up any spoilers save that this all adds up to impending California style DOOM! Let’s just say that the tale contains the typically hot tidbits of the tough gal’s softer side and her having to choose between two impossibly hot men who totally want her, of course (I did say fantasy) and who are competitive with each other, plus wacky grandma Yiayia over the phone—the only family member who actually makes a sort-of appearance besides quirky quotes at the head of each chapter, which is sort of disappointing. And you don’t really see much of Tori’s circus skills—hope that’s remedied in subsequent books in the series. Those complaints aside, it’s an amusing ride with all the romance tropes to keep those genre fans happy, enough who-done-it on the frothy side to keep the mystery fans engaged, and of course there are the supernaturals to hook the fantasy crowd – everyone’s invited to the party and the Tarrantino-level fantabulous ending! The entertainment? It’s all in the blood, natch! Crazy in the Blood ($4.24 Kindle…in print 2013)…next in the series.

Review: Kyotofu – Japan in NYC

So you want a light bite, some coffee or tea or sake, healthy food, atmosphere cozy and unpretentious, but sophisticated, even romantic? Search no further than Hell’s Kitchen for the Japanese dessert bar Kyotofu (705 Ninth Ave. bet. W. 47th & W. 48th Sts.). Originally from Kyoto and other Japanese locations, you can also find a spot in Seoul, South Korea, plus the products are sold at Dean & Deluca and served on eastbound ANA flights from the US. Opened in 2006 here, they’ve been New York Magazine’s cupcake champs since ’10. And it’s all based upon the humble soybean. You’d never know it by the universal raves they receive and the always-happily occupied seats in the bar and dining areas.

The staff is mostly Japanese and totally knowledgeable about the authentic modern Japanese fusion menu (on my four dinner, sake, and dessert visits with a single gentleman friend on various weeknights), and the crowd is mixed but heavily Asian. This is the real deal, not an otaku novelty hang-out— beautiful, modern, clean-white décor, soft indirect lighting, fresh, like all the food and drink they serve. My in-house dinner favorites include the cha soba noodles or the curry rice (kurobuta sausage added) and warm sweet potato cake for dessert. My go-to sake there is the Ginjo Dewazakura “Oka” Yamagata with its light and delicate taste and aroma of cherry blossoms. (starters: $7-$12, sides: $4-$6, “comfort mains”: $10-$16, prix fixe sampler of starter + bento: $24, desserts: $8-$12, prix fixe sampler for 2 of 3-course dessert chef’s selection: $28).

For special occasions or just everyday opulence, they put together these lovely and abundantly filled gift assortment boxes that ship easily and safely ($14-$48). They are beautiful in their subtle and elegant attention to detail (e.g., hand-tied double ribbons to seal the box) and inside are neatly-sealed packages nicely shareable by 2 or just fine for tea for one.  There was nothing in their limited edition Valentine’s Day assortments (that can be purchased in other gift boxes year-round) that I didn’t like. The valrhona miso chocolate brownies are rich, soft, gooey—outstanding! My favs were anything with strawberry—cupcakes or little flower-shaped financiers that pop in your mouth and fill it with flavor that is like a soft fragrance—they tasted of freshly picked strawberries dancing on your tongue! The shortbread cookies did not taste like they were missing any butter (brown rice, black sesame, green tea, and my favorite – citrus) and were both a great balance of savory and sweet. The bite-sized cupcakes have lush and giant flavor and you cannot help but smile when you eat them.

Well worth the special trip that people tweet about and come from out of town to experience. Besides the restaurant, there’s online sales and a bakery for take-home delights. Let Date Night, Fun Night, Anything-Night Begin!

REVIEW: “Dark Victory” (Lady Lazurus #2)

What began as intimate, largely internal, spiritual conflict in Michele Lang’s historical urban romantic dark fantasy series with Lady Lazarus explodes onto the mind’s screen with the second installment, Dark Victory (Tor, Jan. ’12, hardcover $25.99, Kindle $9.99, release party at Book Review in Huntington, Jan. 22nd 4-6 p.m.), with new spiritual-ethical dilemmas of how far is too far to go to save a soul, a person, a whole people?—to make your head spin as only Lang knows how.

It picks up where we left off: August 30th, 1939 on the almost-eve of Hilter’s invasion of Poland. Magda is back in Hungary and has captured the dark angel Asmodel, demon-brother of her beloved and once-archangel Raziel (he gave up his immortality to join her fight against the Nazis and make a difference, instead of being a spectator…shades of the Watchmen ethical dilemma of To Do or Not To Do?) She’s pulling out all the stops so that everyone can join forces and maybe, just maybe, thwart her powerful-but-fragile sister Gisele’s dire prophecy of blood and doom for her Jewish people and certain, final death for all, including herself (able to return from the dead, but at terrible cost and with severe limitations). Whatever happens, Magda has to try to protect her precious friends and all she loves, even if it means her own, ultimate damnation (shades of Bleach’s Ichigo, and you can also hear Scarlett O’Hara saying, “I don’t care what it takes…if I have to lie, cheat, steal, or even murder…as God is my witness…”)

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REVIEW: Kamala Sankaram’s “Miranda”

What do you get when you take a dystopian who-done-it, three suspects, a composer-soprano-instrumentalist-victim, set it to music that is part Baroque opera, tango, Hindustani classical, and hip-hop, add multimedia elements (including a projected big, singing head and funky fake commercials for deadly fashion accessories and wacked-out news broadcasts), dress it all up in steampunk sensibilities reminiscent of Watchmen, include a bailiff ringmaster of a TV show (The Whole Truth) that would make Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter proud, add Rocky Horror-like audience participation, a libretto written by the composer with director Rob Reese, and swirl in six avant-garde new music veteran musicians-singers-actors a la the most recently retooled Sweeney Todd?

This is the hybrid lovely beast that is Kamala Sankaram’s Miranda, which opened in preview (tickets $20, 9 p.m.) on Thurs. Jan. 12th, opened on Friday the 13th, and makes its final performance on the 21st as part of HERE’s 3-year composer-development HARP (HERE Artists Residency) Program. Grandly ironic sensibilities. And it lived up to all its promises despite a few technical nits.

Jerry Miller as the Bailiff plays it larger than life—he sells it, with power, and controls the audience with aplomb: a bravura performance. Sankaram is a soprano worthy of Puccini, in demeanor and vocal timber and skill, plus able to carry her ethnic classical tropes with equal grace, yet still be convincing in the more contemporary milieu of the infectiously heavy hip-hop grooves of the show’s theme she writes for her mini-orchestra (guitar, cello, violin, tenor sax/clarinet, bari sax/bass clarinet, accordion—it needs a viola to round out the dark tones and support the violin and guitar—but I am a violist). Sankaram’s writing is lush, inventive, and dramatic, seamlessly slipping between the genres, and the staging, choreography, and projected imagery do it justice in the appropriately dark and industrial HERE main theatre (holds 100, capacity crowd). Her portrayal of the poor-little-rich girl is at once ditzy (when she speaks) and noble (when she sings), highlighting the dichotomies of her character and her struggles, once she discovers a wrong that shatters her protective bubble, to Do The Right Thing. She and Miller are the stand-outs of this production, along with the behind-the-scenes artists. The other voices: Muchmore’s reedy tenor, Fand’s mezzo, Fleming’s baritone, and those of the supporting cast sung by the multi-winds, were serviceable and had moments.

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Review: “Lady Lazarus”

It has been documented that the first word a child learns to utter is, most commonly, “no”. Michele Lang’s historical urban dark fantasy, Lady Lazarus (Tor, trade Sept. 2010 $14.99, mass market June 2011 $7.99), and her heroine Magda make a fine art of “no” that turns into a resounding “yes” on the eve of WWII (up to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Sept. 1st, 1933 and the Hitler-Stalin pact), from the cafes of Buda-Pest through Austria, Germany, and Paris, to the booksellers and brothels of Amsterdam and back again. The first installment of the story, this book is as good as it gets. You cannot guess where she will take you, even in the historical bits but, once Lang gets there, it is perfectly logical and believable, even at its most outrageous.

Why? Because Lang has done her history, theology, and Bible homework and Knows her Kabbalah in a way that even some whiskery old masters do not. And she makes you believe. Even her undead, demonic, and angelic characters are utterly human and thus you are compelled to watch this tragic train-wreck of a story (after all, we know the atrocities of WWII) that is not without the insanity of hope. Her prose sings—even in her English translations the music of the German, Hungarian, Hebrew, and Aramaic remains. Amidst all the darkness, the light shines, even in some romance with an angel, Raziel (Secrets of God), whose description really is like that of a Greek god (trust me, I know one…wink).  But no clichés, here, and no punches pulled, ever—no flinching. People suffer exquisitely for what they believe in, to save their way of life, their people (Jews, witches, vampires, demonesses). Lang tortures her characters in ways unimagined by those not acquainted with the depths of the mystical lore in all its facets, beautiful and horrifying. All to a purpose.

Imagine a world where the daughters of men perpetuate their legacy since primordial times, since Eve, where angels fall for their beliefs, and a line of daughters can return from the dead and work great magics, but always at a great price (and Lang’s word painting is worthy of renderings in movies and graphic novels)? Can you stop a war? Can you stand back and not even try—hide or run? The entire story hinges on the last two lines of the book: “Who do you love? Do you seek the darkness or the light?” Only, once you read this, and I dare you to be unaffected by it, your definitions of dark and light may not remain so neat and tidy. Sweet dreams. Call on your guardian angels. They will come. They are real.

Review: Action Philosophers! The Play

In our era of Existential angst, ain’t it time that we make time to laugh at our messy human selves? If you’re ready for a good dose of some of that and just in time for New York Comic Con this weekend, join the folks at the much-lauded Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with the award-winning Impetuous Theater Group’s production of Crystal Skillman’s [[[Action Philosophers!]]], directed by John Hurley, based upon the comic books of the same name written by Fred Van Lente (married to the playwright) and illustrated by Ryan Dunlavey (reviewed here plus interview with Fred last year). First mounted for the Comic Book Theater Festival in June, this retooled upgrade has 50% new cast.

You’d think that turning a truly comic book into a comedy would be a piece of cake! Wrong-o-roonie! As the dynamic duo of Skillman & Hurley discovered, it’s a challenge. But they kept this Philosophy professor very happy (they could pass my mid-term!). The result: it’s philosophical history a la Monty Python on Crack. Fasten your safety belts and keep your arms in the ride at all times.

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Review: “Vamped” and “ReVamped”

Summer will be here before we know it. That means vacation and beach reading time! And what summer would be complete without a vampire to cozy up with? (We remind you that [[[True Blood]]] season 4 premieres on HBO June 26th.)

This summer, let me recommend that you bring along installments 1 & 2 of Lucienne Diver’s Vamped series (Vamped, [[[ReVamped]]]; installment #3, [[[Fangtastic]]], comes in January, but watch for her urban adult fantasy Bad Blood out June 28th). They’re upper-level Young Adult novels, but I say, why should the kids get all the goodies? And these vamps do not sparkle, as if, thank-you-very-much! These books are the paperback equivalent of umbrella drinks – sweet, tasty, gone before you know it, go to your head, and can’t drink just one!

So, y’see, there’s Gina Covello (Hey! Diver’s Italian from the ‘burbs—she writes what she knows and kicks it—y’got-a-problem-wit-dat?!), the snarky, high school fashionista and, well, she has a bad day and suddenly she is, indeed, a vamp. Now what?! No mirrors—how do you do hair and make-up?! OMG! ‘Cause it is All About Gina—only it’s not. After all, she’s got a posse—and an anti-posse of evil to defeat! She may be snarky, but she’s a righteous chick! And, of course, she’s got a heart-throb BF by the name of Bobby Delvecchio (“of the old ones”…nice pun, that!) and the road to romance and adventure is full of twists and turns and…stakes! ‘Cause who wants to spend eternity being bored?! A whole lotta vampy goodness goin’ on.

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J-Rocktober Asian Invasion! – Lilac’s, VAMPS’, Echostream’s, and Zamza’s Worlds of Awesome!

J-Rocktober Asian Invasion! – Lilac’s, VAMPS’, Echostream’s, and Zamza’s Worlds of Awesome!

Coinciding with NYAF and the various Asian fall harvest festivals, the first 3 weeks of October in NYC were full of Asian rock music events—from Hiroshi Kono’s Mar Creation’s J-Summit showcase at Webster Hall (10/2) featuring Lilac, to supergroup VAMPS appearing at the convention and rockin’ Roseland (10/9), to an Asian street fair (10/9) on the Upper West Side courtesy of Takaaki Ando and his team, to a complete Korea Day in Korea Town (10/9), and another Korea Day on Randall’s Island (10/10), plus XJapan’s first concert ever in the States at Roseland (10/10) after Yoshiki’s press conference at NYAF, and Hayden Brereton’s Superglorious Productions’ Far East to East Showcase (FETES) at Irving Plaza (featuring Puffy AmiYumi, Boom Boom Satellites, Zazen Boys, and Echostream—after their press conference at NYAF), plus extra nights for supergroup Boom Boom Satellites and Hiroshi Kono’s Mar Rock Record’s Zamza (10/20) at the Bowery Poetry Club (with BBS later in the week opening for Gary Numan in Times Square).  Here are my fav picks of the shows I could run to cover.

Our local and inexplicably unsigned guys, Lilac (Toshi, Cha-Cha, and Jun), turned in a sizzlin’ 45-minute set as the featured band on the preview Saturday’s J-Summit. Toshi’s musical sensibilities and stage presence remind me very much of the sensuality of Hyde and L’Arc in all the right ways, meshing well with the exuberant Cha-Cha’s power on drums and Jun (from Gelatin) on bass with his ethereal style. Songs like “Vanity,” “Feel,” and “Realize,” get the crowd (including fixture fangirls) going, and Toshi had some real moments on lead “in the zone,” while I swore that Cha-Cha was going to crack a cymbal or break a head. Their ep, “You Could Be In a Higher Place,” has a very indie sound and a lot going for it, and whilst Toshi’s lyrics do have something to say, I look forward to lyrical growth in upcoming efforts. And a special shout-out to Typherus from Boston who were a great complement on the bill with the amazing Le-ak on both lyrical power and screamo vocals. Hope to see more of them down here. A Lilac/Typherus double bill would definitely rock any veteran or potential J-Rock lover’s world. J-Summit happens approximately monthly and there’s always an eclectic and interesting artist line-up, reasonable bar prices ($3 Asahis), and slim cover ($12 at the door) for up to 7 hours of music.  See you there!

Japan’s nicest bad boys, VAMPS, lived up to their songs “Trouble” and
“Devil Side” —in a good way.  What can I say about them that I haven’t
already said in the preview? When asked what he wanted this new album to
convey at the NYAF press conference, Hyde replied, quietly, like a
mischievous kid, “Awesomeness!”  They lived up to all the hype. ($35
tix, $20 CDs/t-shirts)

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