Book Review: Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 edited by B. Morris Allen (2017)

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

They’re Good Stories, Brent.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through NetGalley.)

I hate to think how things would have been if that dog had gone to a shelter. I wonder what the workers and volunteers would have done when the little guy started to expand like unspooling Christmas lights, impossibly bright, tangled in the shape of dog. It hurts my heart to picture that loving collection of cosmic bodies crouching in a kennel.

(“My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major” by Jarod K. Anderson)

Trans-human. That’s what I’m called, somehow. The word never felt right though, then least of all. Trans is too high, too grand for someone so cobbled together. So is human, I suppose. If I get hurt, I’m as like to spill oil as blood. That’s why the witch didn’t see me. She didn’t see a person, she just saw parts.

(“Strix Antiqua” by Hamilton Perez)

When I spotted this anthology of “vegan” science fiction and fantasy stories on NetGalley, I knew I had to have it. Though I love both genres, the animal exploitation that seems ubiquitous in each makes active compartmentalization while reading a must. (Though you could say the same of all literature, fwiw.) Vegan SF/F? Sign me up!

Alas, Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 isn’t quite what I envisioned. Instead of, say, stories featuring vegan protagonists, plots that involve daring animal rescues, or narratives that hinge on animal sentience or human/nonhuman kinship, the stories contained within these pages are “vegan” more for what you don’t see than the things you do. There are no scenes of animal cruelty, exploitation, or speciesism here. Often there aren’t any animals at all!

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing! On the contrary, some of the stories are downright magical. To no one’s surprise, my favorite was the sole story that did center a nonhuman in its narrative. In “My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major,” the narrator inherits a dog from his eccentric yet beloved grandmother; a creature who literally shines with love, and one the grieving guardian must ultimately set free.

I also adored Hamilton Perez’s “Strix Antiqua,” in which speciesism (automatonophobia? robophobia? technophobia?) proves to be the evil witch’s downfall. You might look at “Strix Antiqua” as vegan in the larger sense, e.g., in that it promotes compassion and respect for all animals, including those of the human variety. (Or, to expand the circle even further, all sentient beings, including those that are non-organic.) Likewise, “Closed Circuit” has a bit of a social justice bent, as the settlers of an abandoned mining colony fight for their freedom on a hostile planet/in a hostile world.

“Murder on the Adriana” is also worth a mention, if only because it brought to mind one of my favorite shows, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. (That one episode with Mal and Zoey’s war buddy Tracey in particular, which has forever earned a special place in my heart.)

The book ends on almost as strong a note as it begins, with Kelly Sandoval’s “Small Magics” – a twist on the trope of a gifted child leaving home to save the world. A mother’s love means knowing when to hold tight to your magical little munchkin…and when it’s time to send him out into the world to forge his own path.

Overall, this is a satisfying (if short!) collection of SF/F stories that won’t make animal lovers cringe with horror (or even just disapproval). Animals aren’t always introduced into the stories – but when they are, it’s with kindness and respect.

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Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager (2017)

Monday, July 10th, 2017

Enjoy with a slice of red velvet cake.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and suicide.)

While there were other multiple homicides during those years, none quite got the nation’s attention like ours. We were, for whatever reason, the lucky ones who survived when no one else had. Pretty girls covered in blood. As such, we were each in turn treated like something rare and exotic. A beautiful bird that spreads its bright wings only once a decade. Or that flower that stinks like rotting meat whenever it decides to bloom.

I understand that urge for more information, that longing for details. But in this case, I’m fine without them. I know what happened at Pine Cottage. I don’t need to remember exactly how it happened.

Quincy Carpenter: marketing grunt, food blog maven, massacre survivor.

Quincy was just a sophomore in college when it happened. She and her five best friends – boyfriend Craig, BFF Janelle, and friends Betz, Amy, and Rodney; collectively known as the East Hall Crew – were renting a cabin in the Poconos, celebrating Janelle’s birthday, when Joe Hannen stumbled into their lives. Janelle, being the wild and carefree member of the group, invited him to stay for dinner. Since she was the birthday girl, she got to call the shots.

You kind of wonder whether things would have went down differently had they known that Joe wasn’t a stranded motorist, but rather a recent escapee from the nearby Blackthorn Psychiatric asylum. (This sounds hella ableist, and there’s certainly that potential; but the many plot twists don’t necessarily play into the stereotype that mentally ill people are inherently violent, and vice versa.)

By the end of the night, everyone would be dead, save for Quincy. Almost before the blood could dry, the media nicknamed Quincy the Final Girl – one of three, at least in recent memory. Though Quincy had no desire to be defined by tragedy, she would forever be lumped in with fellow survivors: the reclusive Samantha Boyd (Nightlight Inn), and do-gooder Lisa Milner before her (a sorority house in Indiana).

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Book Review: Feminist Fables for the Twenty-First Century: The F Word Project by Maureen Burdock (2015)

Friday, June 30th, 2017

To quote Trina Robbins in the Forward: Let’s start a movement!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, McFarland. Trigger warning for violence against girls and women, including rape.)

— 4.5 stars —

There are so many words that come to mind when I think of Maureen Burdock’s Feminist Fables for the Twenty-First Century – and, yes, many of them are f-words: Fierce, fiery, and fun. Fabulous. Force, as in one to be reckoned with. Feminist, naturally. But also intersectional and inclusive. In the spirit of solidarity and sisterhood. With music in the cafés at night/And revolution in the air. (Borrowing from yet another folk singer.)

Beginning with the Author’s Note, Feminist Fables sent chills dancing up and down my arms.

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The five stories contained within its pages show women – of all ages, ethnicities, religions, sizes, and classes – working to combat misogyny in their communities and make the world a better place. In “Marta & the Missing,” a karate instructor named Marta decides to do what the police (including her own father) will not: hunt down the perpetrators of femicide in Juárez.

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“Maisa & the Most Daring Muslim Women” features a djinn who uses her culinary skills to save her daughter Lale from an honor killing. But once the young woman is made invisible, Maisa faces a new challenge: how to help her daughter be seen again.

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The heroine of “Mona and the Little Smile” is just a child – one who uses her art to transform her reality, and those of other children like her: namely, victims of rape.

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Meanwhile, Mumbi trains her literal butt off in order to score an upset at the Berlin marathon in “Mumbi & the Long Run.” Not for fame or glory, but for the cash prize – which she hopes will save her cousin Esther from female genital mutilation/cutting.

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The collection ends with a personal story written by Halima Mohamed Abdel Rahman, a woman who was subjected to FGM at the age of six – and went on to attend college and become a freelance journalist and activist.

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Book Review: Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book by Jomny Sun (2017)

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

So much more than “a book”; a new way of looking at the world.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a physical ARC for review through Goodreads and an electronic galley through Edelweiss.)

Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book fell into my life just when I needed it. I recently lost someone very close to me, and Jomny Sun’s adorable illustrations, juxtaposed with his insightful AF observations, brought me not just momentary distraction from my grief, but also a much-needed laugh (or two or twenty) and, best of all, a small but very palpable sense of hope for the future. I’ve read it at least half a dozen times in the past six weeks, and find something new to hold tight and cherish each time.

Is Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too silly? You betcha. From the moment Jomny’s alien shipmates abandon him on earth, you just know that the story is going to be weird and irreverent and not a little preposterous. But things escalate quickly, and we go from goofy to trenchant in the space of just four pages (I feel you, little snail).

In his travels, Jomny meets and befriends a wide range of earthlings – lonely trees, lovestruck bees, industrious beavers (but no humans, who Jomny was really sent to study) – who teach him all sorts of Very Important Life Lessons. About self identity and reinvention; prejudice; work and leisure; the fleetingness of life – and love; acceptance and friendship; and, of course, the nature of nothing. For a book wherein a talking bear pairs off with what looks to be an alien yeti, this is one existential and angst-filled narrative.

Another Goodreads reviewer said simply, “reading Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Ablien Too made me a better person.” That just about sums it up.

I could quote the book for days on end, but here are just seven of my favorite scenes. (This was so hard to narrow down, you guys. YOU HAVE NO IDEA.)

(Click on the image to embiggen.)

 

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Book Review: Lessons from Shadow: My Life Lessons for Boys and Girls by Shadow Bregman (2017)

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

All I Need to Know about Life I Learned from Dogs

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Shadow Bregman has been through a lot in her short twelve years. She was rescued from an abusive home; pushed around by her older adopted sister, Betsy; and braved the loss of both her mother and sister. She’s got a life’s worth of wisdom to impart to her young readers, but the task requires an astute translator: Shadow is a black Lab, you see! Luckily, her Daddy Walter is more than happy to help.

Lessons from Shadow is a sweet and heartfelt book. Using anecdotes about Shadow’s life as a jumping-off point, Bregman addresses tough topics like bullying, depression, and loneliness in a unique and accessible way. The chapter on sadness hit me especially hard, since I’m grappling with similar issues in my own life:

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Now, it’s just Daddy and me. We lost Mommy and we lost Betsy and now it’s just the two of us together trying not to be sad all the time. It’s getting a little better I guess now that it’s been quite a while. But, you can never forget the wonderful people you knew and the great times you had, and you never should. Always keep them in your heart. Just try and get on with your life and be as good a person as the people you lost were.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the intended audience, though; while the tone seems aimed at younger readers, this is really more of a short chapter book than a picture book. Each lesson is told via one to three pages of twelve-point, single-spaced type. Parents and caregivers should probably expect to read this one to/with their younger bookworms and animal lovers.

The book has a decidedly homemade, DIY vibe to it – which isn’t a bad thing!; I’d love to have similar keepsakes for my own rescue dogs (seven and counting). That said, I think it could have benefited from a more heavy-handed editor. Granted, the story is told in Shadow’s voice and aimed at a younger audience, which speaks to the tone. Yet I noticed several obvious errors (e.g., capitalization), not to mention the many long and meandering sentences.

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The illustrations by Fatima Stamato are charming, and the format is nicely done as well; it has the feeling of a scrapbook. I also love that Bergman has promised to donate the proceeds to Best Friends, of which his late wife Robbie was an ardent supporter.

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The afterward even includes an invitation to email the author herself, which is hecka awesome and makes me even more envious. I know I’d get a kick out of reading letters addressed to my forever dog, Kaylee; Ralphie the one-eyed wiener dog; or little Noodle Mags. When they’re gone, our loved ones live on in our hearts and memories; in the stories they inspire, and the good deeds we carry out in their names. Shadow Bregman is one lucky little girl.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt by Ben Clanton (2017)

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Super-fied!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Earlier Reviewers program.)

In the second installment of Ben Clanton’s Narwhal and Jelly series, our favorite unicorn of the sea has been bitten by the superhero bug. Narwhal has decided that he, too, wants to be a superhero. He’s got a superhero name (Super Narwhal), a flashy costume (yellow cape), a sidekick (Jelly Jolt), and a secret identity (Clark Parker Wayne) … but no superpowers to speak of. Or so he thinks.

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Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt features the same adorable and irreverent artwork as its predecessor – and yes, there are waffles.

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I actually liked Volume 2 a smidgen more than the first; while both books center the importance of empathy and friendship, Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt goes a step further, teaching kids that we all have a superpower that can change the world for the better. Most of us just need to dig (dive?) a little deeper within ourselves to find it.

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Also neat: the educational interlude about real-life superpowered sea creatures.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Lady Mechanika, Volume 3: The Lost Boys of West Abbey by M.M. Chen and Joe Benítez (2017)

Friday, June 16th, 2017

Lovely Artwork, Okay Story

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads Giveaways.)

— 3.5 stars —

So, full disclosure: I’m new to the Lady Mechanika series and wasn’t sure how it would go, diving in in the middle like I did. But the cover caught my eye, so I entered (and won!) a copy through Goodreads, and here we are.

The copy on the back promises that Volume 3 is “a perfect entry point for readers,” and so it is! Aside from a passing reference to “Pappy’s discovery in Africa,” the plot is pretty self-contained, and Lady Mechanika’s backstory, easy enough to infer.

In this steampunk version of Victorian England called Mechanika City, a gruesome discovery has been made: in the basement of an abandoned building, the bodies of five young orphans. Bound to operating tables, runes drawn on their skin in blood (not theirs), surrounded by curious clockwork toys. While the brass isn’t terribly interested in a bunch of dead street urchins, Inspector Singh – himself a former orphan and petty thief from Kolkata – has taken a special shining to the case. As has investigator/cyborg Lady Mechanika, who hopes it might shed some light on her own stolen past.

The art’s generally pretty great: the clockwork toys are rad, Lady Mechanika is fierce (though I’d love to see more of her mechanical limbs), and the colors are perfectly dark and gloomy. The plot’s pretty basic, but engaging; if anything, it made me want to pick up the first two volumes in the series, if only to learn more about the titular hero. (And with a series runner called The Mystery of the Mechanical Corpse, can you really blame me?) I guess my only complaint is that the dialogue sometimes felt a little stilted and unbelievable? Though this could just be the convention of the genre; idk, sadly I don’t read a whole lot of steampunk. (So many books, so little time.)

And Winifred! How cute is she, with those oversized glasses? She’s like a cooler (read: 1880s, not 1980s) version of myself at that age.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Taki Soma, & Valentine De Landro

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

“Lean in, can you hear it?”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic galley for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for plot points involving rape, misogyny, and transphobia.)

About a month ago Goodreads started sending me emails every time I marked a book read: “You finished Heart-Shaped Box. What’s next?” Usually I just send them to the trash without a second thought; just another gimmick to increase engagement, you know? But the one for Bitch Planet? Kind of gave me pause.

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What comes next after that dope ass ending? I NEED TO KNOW! As for ideas on what we can do in the meantime? I’m down (though I somehow doubt that, say, volunteering as a clinic escort or showing up to your state capitol building in full Handmaid regalia will make Goodreads’ top ten suggestions).

So I really dug the first volume, Extraordinary Machine, when it came out in October 2015. I think I even pre-ordered it, something I rarely do, on the strength of DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly (which was released earlier that year, and I cannot recommend strongly enough). It was smart and unapologetic and feminist as fuck, with a diverse and believable cast of characters. (Black women are incarcerated at four times the rate of white women – a disparity that’s only like to worsen under the Protectorate.)

When I reread Extraordinary Machine prior to diving into the second volume, my love for it only grew*: in today’s political climate, wherein nearly 63 million of my fellow citizens voted a reality tv buffoon and admitted sexual assailant into the White House (due in no small part to a backlash against the first black President in addition to sexism and misogyny), dystopias like Bitch Planet seem more trenchant than ever.

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And President Bitch? Well, it’s even better than its predecessor. (With a name like that, was there any doubt?) Fittingly, the volume starts off with fallen hero Meiko’s backstory – which spans a full issue and includes a prominent trigger warning for rape. Equal parts heart-rending and amazing, it left me in awe of the entire Maki clan – father Makoto in particular.

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The narrative then picks up more or less where Extraordinary Machine left off, only shit doesn’t go down quite how you’d expect. Kam finds who/what she’s looking for (how did I miss that foreshadowing in Volume 1!?), the N.C.s realize they’re not the only “auxiliary compliance outpost” on their ship, and we meet President Bitch – a black woman who’s been labeled a terrorist by the (largely white, all-male) Protectorate. Naturally.

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Things go sideways before you can say “Illegitimi non carborundum,” and Volume 2 ends with a challenge, and a promise: as long as the women of earth and space have each other’s backs, the resistance lives. All hail President Bitch!

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Book Review: Final Girls by Mira Grant (2017)

Monday, May 1st, 2017

“THE WOOD is dark and the wood is deep…”

four out of five stars

“…and the trees claw at the sky with branches like bones, ripping holes in the canopy of clouds, revealing glimpses of a distant, rotting moon the color of dead flesh.”

Esther Hoffman is a popular science writer who’s spent most of her career debunking pseudoscience. After all, she owes it to her dad, a widower who was falsely accused of kidnapping and child abuse when she was just fifteen. Benjamin was eventually exonerated, but not before he was murdered in prison.

Esther’s latest target is Dr. Jennifer Webb, founder of the Webb Virtual Therapy Institute and all-around mad scientist. Her proprietary technology – which includes virtual reality pods, a potent cocktail of mind-altering drugs, and computer simulations pulled straight from the brain of Stephen King – is being marketed as a new and radical form of therapy. Siblings who don’t very much care for each other can run through Webb’s B-movie gauntlet and emerge on the other side closer than ever, with a bond newly forged on the conquered remains of slashers or zombies or witches – take your pick!

Esther sees this as nothing more than a high tech version of regression therapy – the source of those so-called “repressed memories” that destroyed her father – but Dr. Webb disagrees. And what better way to legitimize her work than by winning over her harshest critic?

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Book Review: Waking Gods (Themis Files #2) by Sylvain Neuvel (2017)

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

A satisfying follow-up to Sleeping Giants.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

If I grab a bunch of matter, anywhere, and I organize it in exactly the same way, I get … you. You, my friend, are a very complex, awe-inspiring configuration of matter. What you’re made of isn’t really important. Everything in the universe is made of the same thing. You’re a configuration. Your essence, as you call it, is information. It doesn’t matter where the material comes from. Do you think it matters when it comes from?

—Do you really wanna grow old with just grumpy old me?
—No offense, Kara, but I don’t think either of us will get to grow old, especially if we’re together. The only question is: Do I wanna die young with anyone else?

Now the world is ending and somehow I’ve managed to make that about me too.

— 4.5 stars —

It’s ten years after the events in Sleeping Giants – Sylvain Neuvel’s AMAZING debut novel – give or take, and the aliens have finally returned to Earth to reclaim their war bot, Themis. Army pilot Kara Resnick and Canadian linguist Vincent Couture are still at Themis’s helm, but after the show of force in Korea, their role has been more benign: touring the world, speaking to schoolkids, and doing PR for the Earth Defense Corps. In between celeb sightings and autograph signings, the squints in the basement are still studying Themis, trying to figure out what else she can do, but their progress has more or less slowed. It doesn’t help that head scientist and the first person to discover Themis – or her hand, anyway – Rose Franklin hasn’t really had her head in the game. Not since she was brought back from the dead.

When a second robot materializes in the heart of London, earth’s tenuous peace is disrupted in a matter of hours, with some pushing for a first strike and others wanting to approach their alien overlords/benefactors in the spirit of love and cooperation. Considering the synopsis, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that things go sideways but fast. Themis can maybe take on one robot, but thirteen? Who are Themis’s creators, and what do they want from us? And how do Rose and Eva factor into their plans? Perhaps most importantly, what does it take to get someone to kick mad scientist/medical rapist Alyssa Papantoniou in her stupid smug face?

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Book Review: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Expanded Edition, edited by Hope Nicholson (2016)

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

A Love Letter to Geek Girls, Young and Old

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape.)

You know where God lives and God is in paint and ink and pencil and the page: you fell in love and became that love. Transformed, like in a fairy tale. A girl who became a wolf, focused and hungry for only one thing: story.

You never stopped hunting stories. Little wolf, persistent but timid, prowling shelves and stacks; anywhere there were books, that was the forest you claimed. You found a frontier in your school library, rushing inside every morning with exquisite relief because books were home, books were where you were most alive, books were places you could pretend you were brave. Books were walls against everything that frightened you.

– “Ghost,” Marjorie Liu

The Brontë sisters had such lady boners for the Duke of Wellington that they wrote hundreds of pages of fanfiction about the guy.

– “How Fanfiction Made Me Gay,” J. M. Frey

Any project with Margaret Atwood’s name attached is an instabuy for me, so there was no doubt that I’d preorder a copy of the new and expanded edition of The Secret Loves of Geek Girls. (My only question is, where the heck was I when the Kickstarter was open?)

While Atwood’s quartet of four-panel comics is cute and super-relatable, it’s actually not the highlight of the anthology (surprise!). Nope, that honor would have to go to Marjorie Liu’s essay “Ghost,” which is simply breathtaking, threatening to unspool your soul till its innermost bits are laid bare – and then stitch and crimp you back together, stronger and bolder than before. (And all in the space of four and a half pages, at that.) Of course, being a sucker for pop culture criticism, Laura Neubert’s “They Bury You in White” and Megan Kearney’s “Regards to the Golbin King” are close ties for second place.

A mix of short nonfiction and comics (“They Bury You in White” and “Regards to the Golbin King” both fall into this category), the many and varied contributions to The Secret Loves of Geek Girls tackle a wide range of topics, from falling in love with fictional characters to navigating the perils and pitfalls of dating, both on- and offline; exploring and defining one’s sexuality in the pre- and post-digital age; surviving and thriving after a divorce; bonding over shared passions; and the perks of platonic relationships and girly gossip.

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Book Review: A Crown of Wishes (The Star-Touched Queen #2) by Roshani Chokshi (2017)

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

This story left me heartbroken, but for all the wrong reasons…

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

“Find the one who glows, with blood on the lips and fangs in the heart.”

DNF at 60%.

When we first revisit Gauri, the Princess of Bharata – and the scrappy, story-hungry younger sister of Maya, the Star-Touched Queen of the series’ title – it’s from behind the bars of a dark, dank dungeon. Jealous of the devotion Gauri inspires in their people (and no doubt smarting from an assassination plot), her older brother Skanda arranged for her execution at enemy hands. Lucky for her (or is it really? Gauri is no distressed damsel), the Fox Prince needs Gauri alive.

The adopted only son of the the Emperor Pururavas, Vikram’s pending power is in name only: The Council of Ujijain refuses to let an orphan of common blood rule their land. Announcing Gauri’s execution is to be his first official act. But to kill the Jewel of Bharata is to turn his back on his one chance at true power. Vikram’s invitation to compete in the mythical Tournament Of Wishes is for two: himself and a partner who glows. And when he first sets his eyes on Gauri, she is positively luminescent.

With a little persuading – after what happened to Maya, Gauri wants nothing to do with magic – the two set off for the Otherworld, in pursuit of victory … and their most treasured wishes.

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Book Review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan Perabo (2017)

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

An insightful and sometimes uncanny story about relationships, trauma, and the darkest corners of our secret selves.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

There were still little green ribbons covering Lisa’s locker, but every morning some would have fallen down overnight, scattered like tiny leaves, and she would pick them up and toss them into the bottom of her own locker. How long would they let that locker, 64C, sit there, unused? How long did missing-person ribbons stay up? Was there an expiration date, some point where they officially became irrelevant, a day when the fall of Lisa Bellow became the winter of someone else, as Evan had predicted from the start?

“You’re popular,” Jules said. “I can’t believe it. Of all of us, I didn’t think it would be you first.”

Maybe they were all bitches, Claire thought. Maybe that was all there was to be in eighth grade. Maybe you didn’t have any choice. Maybe your only choice was figuring out what kind of bitch you wanted to be.

One crisp October afternoon, thirteen-year-old Meredith Oliver stops by the Deli Barn on the way home from school, to treat herself to a root beer soda for a job well done on her algebra test. Ahead of her in line stands her arch nemesis, Parkway North Middle School’s resident Mean Girl, Lisa Bellow. Her presence so unnerves Meredith that she almost turned tail and ran – that is, until Lisa caught her eye through the door. She couldn’t show Lisa any weakness, not with so much at stake.

As the sandwich farmer* is taking Lisa’s order (overly complicated, natch), a masked man strides in and robs the cashier at gunpoint. He forces Meredith and Lisa to lay down on the sticky floor of the restaurant while he walks the cashier to the back of the store, in search of a safe that doesn’t exist. When he comes back – alone – he forces Lisa to her feet and leaves with her. Traumatized, Meredith stays on the floor for another eleven minutes (“eleven glorious minutes”), until another customer walks in and find her. Even then, it takes a group of paramedics and “a needle full of Thorazine to peel her from her cherished spot.”

The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a strange and wonderful book. It’s about how Meredith copes with the trauma of the robbery and kidnapping, yes; but hers is not the only trauma we bear witness to. Meredith’s mother, Claire; her seventeen-year-old brother Ethan; Lisa’s mother Colleen; and Lisa’s friends Becca, Abby, and Amanda – all of them are working through their own “stuff,” not all of it related to Lisa’s disappearance. Yet the ripples of her kidnapping and likely murder reverberate through all their lives.

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Mini-Review: Nightlights, Lorena Alvarez (2017)

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Lorena Alvarez’s Artwork Positively Shines!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

Atoms are the smallest building blocks of matter. We are not able to see them with the naked eye … but everything that surrounds up is made of atoms. The stars … our bodies … the entire universe. They combine in millions of ways to create all the things we see and touch … and all the things we haven’t seen yet.

— 4.5 stars —

Every night when she closes her eyes, shiny little bubbles (stars? bursts of light and energy and joy?) appear over Sandy’s bed. When she catches them, she’s transported to another place: one filled with vibrant colors; giant, wide-eyed creatures; and funky plants of every shade and hue. In the morning, she fills her room with drawings of these other worlds (occasionally neglecting her homework to do so. Oops!)

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One day Sandy meets a mysterious new girl in the schoolyard: tale, pale to the point of translucence, with light purple hair. (Surely the nuns would have something to say about that?) Morfie is at first a welcome distraction; whereas the other kids think Sandy’s kind of weird, Morfie fawns over her artwork. But things take a sinister turn when Morfie begins to visit Sandy at inopportune times, and a nefarious, razor-toothed demon-child haunts Sandy’s dream-world.

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This sounds maybe a little scarier than it actually is. While Lorena Alvarez’s illustrations do pack a bit of a bite, they’re also lovely and whimsical and full of color and life. The target audience for Nightlights is ages nine and up, but adults are sure to be won over by the artwork. Some of the pages are suitable for framing, okay.

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As for the moral of the story, I’m not entirely sure I got it. In Morfie, I think there’s a message about following your passion because you love it, and not for the praise and awards and external feedback you hope to get from others. Staying true to yourself, because yours is the opinion that counts. It’s also important to strike a balance between work and play, responsibilities and extracurricular activities, science and the arts. And if you know why things are, it only makes them more wondrous.

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I also love the diversity here: from the students to the parents to the nuns/teachers, there are girls and women of all skin tones, shapes, and sizes. Lorena Alvarez was born in Bogotá, and the story definitely feels like it could be set in Columbia.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! See my review for more.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

Book Review: The Beast Is an Animal, Peternelle van Arsdale (2017)

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Dark and beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, miscarriage, and misogyny.)

It would have been better not to have any babies at all than to give birth to two girls. Some even said it was an act of spite on the mother’s part. Only a truly disobedient woman would do such a thing.

She couldn’t get away from the monster. She was the monster.

— 3.5 stars —

Once upon a time, in a village near the forest in the land of Byd, two babies were born. They came into the world a mere two minutes apart, after their mother had labored for days. They were girls in a world that considered female children useless and unlucky; identical twins in a land ruled by superstition and mistrust. Mirror twins, at that: each a reflection of her sister, her other half.

Mindful of their neighbors’ intolerance, the woman and her husband kept the children at home, hidden from prying eyes. At least as long as they were able. This grew increasingly necessary, as the village was wracked by drought and famine, year after year. But one fateful day a visitor selling eggs caught sight of three-year-old Angelica and Benedicta; and by nightfall, an angry mob had gathered outside the family’s door. Determined to be a witch and the offspring of her coupling with the Beast, respectively, the mother and her twins were banished to the forest upon threat of death.

The girls grew wild and feral while their mother withered and faded away. Eventually they became orphans, alone save for each other – and the bitterness eating away at their hearts. The resulting hole could only be filled with the fear and hatred of others; of people like the ones who created them.

Once upon another time, also in the village of Gwenith, there lived a precocious seven-year-old girl whose brain wandered at night. One fateful evening her feet and legs followed. Though Alys’s parents cautioned her to never go out at night, lest she encounter the much-feared soul eaters – or, worse still, their master, The Beast – she disobeyed. By morning, every adult in Gwenith would be dead. Killed by the soul eaters, who Alys encountered in the pastures during her midnight stroll. She failed to sound the alarm. She was as bad as the soul eaters. She killed them all.

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Book Review: The Roanoke Girls, Amy Engel (2017)

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Not for the faint of heart.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and violence against women, including rape, as well as suicide. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to keep it as vague as possible.)

“Roanoke girls never last long around here.” She skipped along the hall, her voice growing fainter as she moved, like we were standing at opposite ends of a tunnel. “In the end, we either run or we die.”

My feelings for Allegra were never complicated. It didn’t matter if she acted crazy or made me angry or smothered me with devotion. In my whole life, she was the only person I simply loved. And I left her anyway.

THEN

Camilla Roanoke’s suicide doesn’t come as a surprise to her fifteen-year-old daughter Lane. For as long as she can remember, her mother has struggled with depression – not to mention alcoholism, mood swings, and blinding bouts of rage. Some days the tears come so fast and thick that they threaten to drown them both. So when she’s found dead in their NYC bathroom, bathrobe belt wrapped around her neck, Lane is more or less numb. Yet the cryptic note Camilla left behind – I tried to wait. I’m sorry. – puzzles Lane. The news that she has family – her mother’s parents, Yates and Lillian Roanoke – who aren’t merely willing to take Lane, but actually want her? Well, that’s the biggest shock of all.

Camilla rarely spoke of her life on the family estate, Roanoke, situated among the prairies and wheat fields of Osage Flats, Kansas. And there’s a damn good reason for it – one that Lane will discover during summer she turns sixteen. One hundred days of being a “Roanoke Girl” was all she could take before she fled Kansas – hopefully for good.

NOW

Eleven years later, a late-night phone call from her grandfather summons Lane back to Roanoke. Back home. Her cousin Allegra is missing, and Lane is determined to find out what happened. It’s the least she can do, for leaving Allegra behind all those years ago.

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Book Review: The Impossible Fortress, Jason Rekulak (2017)

Monday, February 27th, 2017

Heck no to the plot twist.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains spoilers.)

A dazzling debut novel—at once a charming romance and a moving coming-of-age story—about what happens when a fourteen-year old boy pretends to seduce a girl to steal a copy of Playboy but then discovers she is his computer-loving soulmate.

Billy Marvin’s first love was a computer. Then he met Mary Zelinsky.

Do you remember your first love?

The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine…The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys—Billy, Alf, and Clark—who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.

The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan—they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.

(Synopsis via Goodreads)

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Mini-Review: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker (2017)

Monday, February 13th, 2017

“It’s mostly about machine tits”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

This is for all the grown women out there
Whose countries hate them and their brothers
Who carry knives in their purses down the street
Maybe they will not get out alive
Maybe they will turn into air or news or brown flower petals
There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé:
Lavender, education, becoming other people,
The fucking sky

(“Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé)”)

I don’t read a ton of poetry, since it mostly tends to go over my head. There are the rare exceptions, of course: stories written in verse, and the occasional feminist title; see, e.g. The Princess Saves Herself in this One. But mostly I shy away from it, since it makes me feel … not the sharpest tool in the shed.

That said, between the title and the cover, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé proved pretty much impossible to pass up. While I’m sure I missed out on many of the cultural references – I’m white, and this is a collection of poetry about black womanhood – and didn’t pick up all the varied and more veiled messages that Parker was putting down, I enjoyed it all the same. I read it cover-to-cover three times in two days, and with each successive reading, discovered something new. Parker’s poetry sparkles and shines and cuts more deeply, the more time you spend with it.

It’s hard to play favorites, since each piece has at least one or two especially memorable lines. (To wit: “At school they learned that Black people happened.”) But among the poems that really stood out to me are Hottentot Venus; Beyoncé On The Line for Gaga; Afro; These Are Dangerous Times, Man; RoboBeyoncé; 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl; The Gospel According to Her; The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife; White Beyoncé; What Beyoncé Won’t Say on a Shrink’s Couch; It’s Getting Hot In Here So Take Off All Your Clothes; The Book of Revelation; 99 Problems; and the titular Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé).

There are forty-two poems total, twenty-five of which have previously been published elsewhere. For those keeping count at home, thirteen have Beyoncé in the title. The Beyoncé/Lady Gaga mashups are fun, if only because I enjoy imagining them hanging together – or swapping bodies in a Freaky Friday twist.

I feel like I should say more but idk how to read poetry, let alone review it. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is a fierce, funny, and subversive collection of poetry. You don’t need to be a member of the Bey Hive to love it (but it sure doesn’t hurt). It’s earned a permanent spot on my Kindle so I can return to it as needed over the next four to eight (please dog no) years.

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Mini-Review: The Land of Nod, Robert Louis Stevenson & Robert Hunter (2017)

Friday, February 10th, 2017

An Illustrated Version of the Robert Louis Stevenson Poem

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

The Land of Nod
By Robert Louis Stevenson

From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.

All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.

The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.

Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.

— 3.5 stars —

Robert Hunter’s The Land of Nod is an illustrated children’s book based on the Robert Louis Stevenson poem of the same name; the poem is produced verbatim, and coupled with illustrations to help bring the text to life.

The art is simple yet whimsical, with a dream-like quality. Hunter uses quite a bit of blues and pinks, which is reminiscent of twilight, I guess, but doesn’t always do the poem’s psychedelic potential justice. The palette just feels a little flat for my taste.

Despite the ominous reference to “frightening sights,” the art is very tame and totally suitable for children of all ages.

I especially appreciated the landscape for “Both things to eat and things to see,” which shows a pig happily blowing on a horned instrument in the dreamer’s band, while the leader foists a giant raspberry in the air.

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Pigs are friends, not food! Or BAMF tuba prodigies. Either or.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Wintersong, S. Jae-Jones (2017)

Monday, February 6th, 2017

“Such sensuous enjoyment.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley.)

I surveyed my kingdom. Chaos. Cruelty. Abandon. I had always been holding back. Always been restrained. I wanted to be bigger, brighter, better; I wanted to be capricious, malicious, sly. Until now, I had not known the intoxicating sweetness of attention. In the world above, it had always been Käthe or Josef who captivated people’s eyes and hearts—Käthe with her beauty, Josef with his talent. I was forgotten, overlooked, ignored—the plain, drab, practical, talentless sister. But here in the Underground, I was the sun around which their world spun, the axis around which their maelstrom twirled. Liesl the girl had been dull, drab, and obedient; Elisabeth the woman was a queen.

“I may be just a maiden, mein Herr,” I whispered. “But I am a brave maiden.”

When Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is claimed by the Goblin King and kidnapped to the Underground, it’s up to Liesl to rescue her. After all, it’s Liesl and her mother who keep the family together and the inn running. Plain, drab, boring Liesl, who lacks Käthe’s voluptuous beauty, or her brother Josef’s virtuosity with the violin. Liesl, who composes her wild and untamed music only under the cloak of night; the music Josef polishes and performs to accolades, but for which Liesl seeks neither praise nor recognition. Like legions of unremarkable girls before her, Liesl labors in the background, her accomplishments usurped or denigrated by the men around her, depending on the circumstances.

Yet the Goblin King – Der Erlkönig, Lord of Mischief – sees Liesl for who she truly is: a unique talent, full of beauty and grace. A soul brimming with passion and wonder – and, yes, even anger and lust. A worthy opponent. The girl with whom he once sang and danced in Goblin Grove, all those years ago. The girl who forgot him – and her promise to him – once she traded in their silly childhood games for a mop and bucket and likely spinsterhood.

Liesl descends into the Underground on a sacrifice of sheet music, only to find that her mission to rescue Käthe is just the opening round of her game with Der Erlkönig. Once a mortal man, the Goblin King sacrificed his soul to bring peace to the world above. Now he is forever confined to the Underground, where he rules over the goblins and fae who once wreaked havoc on earth. But in order to turn the seasons, he requires a spark. Passion. A wife. Yet Der Erlkönig’s brave maidens do not survive long in the Underground – and, should Liesl succeed in freeing Käthe, he will need a replacement if spring is to come.

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