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 One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg (2016)

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Quite possibly the most beautiful graphic novel I’ve ever read. ALL THE STARS AND MOONS.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for threats of rape.)

They luxuriated sinfully in that most beautiful of all things: The written word.

All those stories you have told, all those wonderful stories…
They are nothing to OUR STORY. People will tell it in years to come…
And they will say, that was a story about Love.
And about two brave girls who wouldn’t take shit from anyone.

Lesson: Men are false. And they can get away with it.
Also, don’t murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important.

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, in a land called Early Earth, there lived two star-crossed lovers: Cherry, a fair and lovely young woman from the Empire of Migdal Bavel, and her maid, Hero.

Despite her vaguely masculine name, Hero was a young woman as well – and a servant and runaway, at that – both conditions which conspired against their love. Cherry’s father insisted she marry a man who could provide for her; and so, after dodging his demands for one blissful summer (spent in the arms of Hero, of course), Cherry finally acquiesced. Luckily, Hero was able to accompany Cherry to the castle of her new husband, Jerome, where she stayed on as Cherry’s maid – and her secret lover. Like many of the men in Migdal Bavel, Jerome was a rather dim-witted and arrogant misogynist, you see, so Hero and Cherry were able to outwit him with minimal effort.

And then one day Jerome made a foolish bet with his friend Manfred, a man a little less stupid but a whole lot crueler than himself.

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If Manfred could seduce his ‘obedient and faithful’ (*snort!*) wife Cherry, then Manfred would win Jerome’s castle. If not, Manfred’s castle would become Jerome’s. Jerome would feign a business trip, giving Manfred a full one hundred days to execute his fiendish plot.

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Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden (2017)

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

four out of five stars

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

“What happened?” she asked.

“My fish are gone! Some durak from the village must have come and …”

But Vasya was not listening. She had run to the very brink of the river.

“It’s not yours!” she shouted. “Give it back!” Kolya thought he heard an odd note in the splash of the water, as though it was making a reply. Vasya stamped her foot. “Now!” she yelled. “Catch your own fish!” A deep groan came up from the depths, as of rocks grinding together, and then the basket came flying out of nowhere to hit Vasya in the chest and knock her backward. Instinctively, she clutched it, and turned a grin on her brother.

“A prophecy then, sea-maiden.”

“Why do you call me that?” she whispered.

The bannik drifted up to the bench beside her. His beard was the curling steam. “Because you have your great-grandfather’s eyes. Now hear me. You will ride to where earth meets sky. You will be born three times: once of illusions, once of flesh, and once of spirit. You will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, weep for a nightingale, and die by your own choosing.”

Marina, thought Pyotr. You left me this mad girl, and I love her well. She is braver and wilder than any of my sons. But what good is that in a woman? I swore I’d keep her safe, but how can I save her from herself?

Vasilisa Petrovna is born to a lord and a princess, on the edge of the Russian wilderness, many centuries ago. She comes on the tail of the first howling winds of November, and her mother Marina leaves the earth shortly thereafter. Vasya is raised by her four older siblings – Kolya, Sasha, Olga, and Alyosha – and her mother’s aging nurse, Dunya. And, to a lesser extent, her father Pyotr Vladimirovich: every time Pyotr looks into the face of his screeching child, he sees the ghost of his dead wife. So mostly he avoids dealing with her too much.

With time, Vasya grows wild and bold, just like Marina intended. She can see creatures that others cannot, the chyerty of the old religion: The domovoi, household-spirits who guard the home; the vodianoy in the river and the twig-man in the trees; the vazila, who are one with the horses; the rusalka, the polevik, and the dvornik. Vasya feeds them with bread and friendship; she fortifies their strength and, in return, they teach her their secrets: how to talk to animals, swim like a fish, and climb trees like no human child should be able to.

Marina’s mother, you see, had the gift of second sight. While Marina had only a little of her mother’s gifts, she knew that Vasya would have even more. Much more. A prophecy told her as much. Yet in a Rus’ caught between the old religion and Christianity, Vasya’s neighbors whisper that she’s a witch who cavorts with demons. The arrival of Father Konstantin only deepens the rift between worlds, as do the snow, fire, and famine that follow swiftly on his heels. Though she just wants to keep her family and her village safe, Vasya will soon find herself caught in the middle of a struggle between two ancient forces.

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Book Review: Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing, Lauren Beukes (2016)

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

four out of five stars

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

a is for algebra

“It’s all equations,” she says. “It’s all explainable.” Like we could break down the whole universe into factors and exponents and multiples of x. Like there is no mystery to anything at all.

“Okay, what about love?” I shoot back, irritated at her practicality.

And she ripostes with: “Fine. xx + xy = xxx.”

She has to explain the bit about chromosomes. This is her idea of a dirty joke. Later, I wonder if this was also her idea of a come-on.

(“Alegbra”)

Don’t worry, she repeats, her back to him, laying out things with serrated edges and conducting pads and blunt wrenching teeth. You can’t dehumanize something that isn’t human.

(“Unaccounted”)

Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.

(“Slipping”)

I love Lauren Beukes, and I generally dig short stories – especially those belonging to the SF/dystopia genre. So I was pretty psyched to get my hands on an early copy of Slipping, Beukes’s very first collection of short fiction and non-fiction essays. (There’s also 2014’s Pop Tarts and Other Stories, which I’m not counting since it’s comprised of just three short stories – all of which appear here.)

Slipping starts off a little meh; not meh-bad, but meh-disappointing for a writer of this caliber. The titular “Slipping,” told from the POV of a sixteen-year-old girl who was recruited by investors and remade into a bio-engineered athlete after losing both legs in an accident, boasts some wonderful world-building – but the story’s religious aspects ultimately turned me off. Much to my relief, things start to pick up with the fourth story, “Branded” (corporate-sponsored nanotech) and mostly just get better from there.

The fiction generally has a science fiction/dystopian bent, with a few fantasy and contemporary pieces mixed in. There’s even a fairy tale of sorts: a modern-day retelling of “The Princess of the Pea” that’s both a critique of celebrity culture and an ode to female masturbation that (spoiler alert!) is all kinds of awesome. While all are unique and imaginative, a few themes are common across many of the stories: transhumanism, e.g. through technological advancements in prosthetics, nanotech, neuroanatomy, etc.; an erosion of privacy/the rise in the surveillance state; and a rise in corporate control, most notably over our bodies and selves.

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Book Review: Snow White: A Graphic Novel, Matt Phelan (2016)

Monday, November 14th, 2016

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Dark and gritty; a unique spin on the original Snow White tale.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, Candlewick.)

My name is Snow White, but my mother didn’t call me that to be funny.
She would say that the snow covers everything and makes the entire world beautiful.

* tick * tick * tick * KILL

I love a good fairy tale retelling, and this one is truly unique. Set in 1920s New York City, Matt Phelan’s Snow White is a gritty comic book adaptation with a decidedly noir spin.

Samantha White is just a child when her mother dies; the two are traipsing through a city landscape blanketed with snow when Mom doubles over coughing. On her kerchief are specks of blood. The year is 1918, and little Snow White is about to lose her mother to the “Spanish Flu.”

Fast-forward ten years. The widower Mr. White, a wealthy stockbroker, is instantly smitten with the newest It Girl, the star of Broadway, the Queen of Follies. They wed, Snow White is shipped off to boarding school, and the family somehow – magically – survives the stock market crash of 1929, which leaves so many of their peers destitute. Everything is okay-ish; that is, until our wicked stepmother receives ominous messages from her husband’s stock market ticker. Before long, Samantha’s father is dead and she’s on the run.

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From the glamour of Broadway to the shanties of Hooverville, Phelan makes excellent use of the setting. Much of the artwork is rendered in shades of black, white, and tan, accentuating the story’s gritty atmosphere and noir influence. Little pops of color, particularly red – the bright, spotty blood on Mom’s handkerchief; the blush on Snow’s cheeks; the drugged apple she accepts from an elderly sidewalk vendor – call attention to important panels and props. The artwork has a rough quality, much like the streets Snow wanders when she is cast out of her childhood home.

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Like the artwork, the dialogue is rather minimalist; yet if you are familiar with the story (and what American isn’t?), you should have no trouble following along. All of the various components – setting, plot, atmosphere, illustrations, and dialogue – work in harmony to deliver a Snow White that’s darker and more firmly rooted in reality than the original. The huntsman is a hired gun; the seven “dwarfs,” a group of homeless street kids. Yet there’s a touch of magical realism in the form of the Queen, linking this tale to its predecessors.

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Book Review: Little Nothing, Marisa Silver (2016)

Monday, November 7th, 2016

If you can embrace the weird, this is one lovely and amazing story.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including child abuse and rape.)

Pavla revels in her name because she knows that if nothing is little, then it must be something indeed.

“You’re the one who said all time exists,” Danilo says. “The past exists. The future exists.”

It’s true. She did say this. And she does somehow believe that what has happened to her and what will happen to her exist simultaneously, that the story is already written but not yet told. She must be like someone in one of her mother’s stories who has existed for centuries of telling and will exist even after her mother is gone. How else to explain her life? As something random?

“I’m sorry it has taken so long for us to come,” he hears himself say.

Pavla Janáček is born at the turn of the century in a rural village located in a small, unnamed (but likely Slavic) country. She arrives in the twilight of her parents’ lives: after much trying and four miscarriages, mother Agáta finally enlisted the help a “gypsy.” She believes that Pavla’s “condition” is a punishment from God for her blasphemy. Pavla is born a dwarf, with a head that’s too large for her torso and arms and legs that are disproportionately short.

The chilly reception Pavla initially receives from Agáta gradually warms and deepens, as mother and daughter are forced into close proximity by the harsh winter weather. With spring comes love; Pavla is the child Agáta and Václav have always wanted. She ages, but grows precious little; she continues to sleep in her crib for the next fourteen years. She’s a precocious child and a fast learner; she teaches herself to count using the slats on her crib and, when she turns seven, Václav takes her on as his assistant at his plumbing business. She starts school a year later, where her cunning eventually wins over her classmates.

And then Pavla hits puberty and her parents get the foolish notion to “fix” her: for what will happen to their lovely daughter (and Pavla is indeed a beauty, ‘from the neck up’) when they’re gone? They begin dragging her from doctor to doctor, hoping for a miracle cure, until they wind up in the office of the biggest charlatan of them all: Dr. Ignác Smetanka, whose outlandish and cruel “treatments” leaved Pavla scarred, traumatized – and bearing the countenance of a wolf, seemingly overnight. But the transformation from dwarf to (average-sized) wolf-girl won’t be the only metamorphosis Pavla experiences before her story’s ended.

Pavla’s strange journey intersects at multiple points and in unexpected ways with that of Dr. Smetanka’s young assistant Danilo – the clever boy who built the rack that once again made Pavla an object of shame and terror.

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Book Review: When the Moon Was Ours, Anna-Marie McLemore (2016)

Monday, October 24th, 2016

“And she told me a story yesterday/About the sweet love between the moon and the deep blue sea”

four out of five stars

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

Someday, he and Miel would be nothing but a fairy tale. When they were gone from this town, no one would remember the exact brown of Miel’s eyes, or the way she spiced recado rojo with cloves, or even that Sam and his mother were Pakistani. At best, they would remember a dark-eyed girl, and a boy whose family had come from somewhere else. They would remember only that Miel and Sam had been called Honey and Moon, a girl and a boy woven into the folklore of this place.

The closer she got to him, the more she felt it in her roses, like a moon pulling on a sea.

Miel and Samir are the odd ones out in their small town. In a sea of white faces, their brown skin marks them as different (she, Latina; he, Pakistani); and in this tight-knit community, their outsider status is only compounded by the fact that they were not born here.

Sam’s story is somewhat mundane, or so he thinks: his mother, Yasmin, arrived in search of work. Miel’s origins are a bit more fantastical and mysterious: as a child, she arrived on a wave of rust-brown water, spit out by the abandoned water tower when it was deemed a safety hazard and finally brought down. Angry and hysterical (and no doubt disoriented), Miel kicked and screamed; something about losing the moon. Just a child himself, Sam was the only one brave enough to approach this dangerous, feral girl. He wrapped her in his jacket, soothed her with her voice, and returned the moon to her, one hand-painted, candle-lit orb at a time.

From that point on, they were inseparable, each one half of a whole: Miel and Samir. Honey and Moon. The cursed girl from whose wrist roses grow, and the boy who everyone insists on calling a girl. The girl who’s terrified of pumpkins and water, and the boy who helps pumpkins grow.

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Mini-Review: Baba Yaga, An Leysen (2016)

Saturday, September 17th, 2016

Charming Illustrations and a Story That’s Suitable for Kids

four out of five stars

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

A long time ago, in a land far away, lived a young girl named Olga. Ever since her mother passed away, it’d just been Olga and her father. But he filled her days with games and stories, and they always had food to eat and a place to sleep; things were generally pretty good. That is, until dad remarried.

Olga’s stepmother wasn’t just evil; she was a straight-up witch. Or the sister of one, anyway. Olga’s stepmother fed her scraps and made her do all the chores, all by herself. But Olga never complained, which caused her stepmother to hate her even more. One day, she sent Olga to her sister’s house to fetch a needle and some thread. What might otherwise be a mundane chore was actually a suicide mission: for Olga’s step-aunt was none other than the storied Baba Yaga, child-meat connoisseur. Luckily, Olga didn’t go into battle unarmed: she had a magical doll, gifted her by her late mother, to help guide the way.

I’m not super-familiar with the Baba Yaga fairy tale but, from my limited knowledge, An Leysen’s version seems pretty faithful. All the staples are present and accounted for: a flying cauldron (mortar) steered by a broomstick (pestle); a house that sits on chicken legs; multiple witchy sisters (possibly all named Baba Yaga; we never do learn stepmom’s real name); and the ever-present threat of child cannibalism. Despite these more maudlin plot points, the story is rather tame and suitable for children.

In fact, Baba Yaga looks more like a kindly old grandmother – a babushka or nonna, perhaps – than a mean old witch.

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The artwork is really quite charming, with a textured feeling that resembles oil paints on canvas.

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The colors are rich and vibrant, except when they’re not: some pages are much more muted and somber than others, which makes for a rather interesting contrast. Sometimes a single object is imbued with color, as if to draw attention to its import. Likewise, there are variations in the size and style of the text as well, to emphasize tone and volume.

Olga is adorable as all get-out – but my eye was really drawn to the stepmother who, with her purple, upswept hair and seemingly painted-on mole, bears an uncanny resemblance to Marie Antoinette.

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Between Baba Yaga’s slighted maid, cat, and dog, the story imparts a simple yet important message: always treat others the way you yourself wish to be treated, lest it come back and bite you in the … stomach.

Also, don’t eat children.

(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: Through the Woods, Emily Carroll (2014)

Monday, July 18th, 2016

“That night Bell’s dreams had teeth.”

five out of five stars

But the worst kind of monster was the burrowing kind.

The sort that crawled into you and made a home there.

My stars, what a lush and gorgeous book!

Let’s start with the artwork, which is just exquisite. The illustrations are quite nice, though it’s the vivid, moody colors that really make the panels pop. Each of the five short stories has its own distinct vibe, which is no small feat. Whereas “Our Neighbor’s House” is drawn in grey, dreary shades – offset only by the occasional blood red – “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold” is more visually striking, with deep blues, rich golds, and (of course) complementary reds when the horror is unleashed. While each story looks a little different, the artwork (especially the way the humans are drawn) is still similar enough that there’s a feeling of continuity; clearly these all belong to the same collection.

Of course this is all topped off by the cover. Not only is the illustration wonderful (the front is awesome; the back, even more so, what with its unexpected pop of blue!), but the cover is textured for a rich, luxurious feeling. And when the sun hits it *just right*, the bumps sparkle and dance and glint like a knife.

And the stories! A hybrid of fairy tales and horror stories, they remind me of the spooky picture books I read as a kid. (In a Dark, Dark Room, anyone?) Creepy and weird and just ambiguous to keep your wondering, well into the wee hours of the night.

Suitable for kiddos, but parents? You’ll want to keep this book for your own.

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

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Book Review: Wink Poppy Midnight, April Genevieve Tucholke (2016)

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

A Different Kind of Fairy Tale

five out of five stars

There was an evil in me too, a cruel streak. I don’t know where it came from and I didn’t really want it, no more than I’d want big feet or mousy brown hair or a piggish nose. But fuck it. If I’d been born with a piggish nose, then I would own it, like I own the cruel and the mean.

THE FIRST TIME I slept with Poppy, I cried. We were both sixteen, and I’d been in love with her since I was a kid, since I was still reading monster comics and spending too much time practicing sleight-of-hand tricks because I wanted to be a magician. People say you can’t feel real love that young, but I did. For Poppy.

I’d put out a trap in the woods.
I’d caught a wolf.
And now it was screaming.
If Poppy was the Wolf, and Midnight was the Hero . . .
Then who was I?

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Poppy Harvey is as beautiful as she is cruel. You could call her a bully or a mean girl – or even THE Mean Girl – but neither does Poppy justice: she’s more like a cross between Regina George and Dexter Morgan, with the snotty, rich girl attitude of the former and the sociopathic tendencies of the latter. She once chopped off Holly Trueblood’s white-blonde hair at the skull – “all because someone said that Holly’s hair was prettier than her own.” Poppy’s the kind of girl who could grind your face in the dirt and then charge you for the privilege of spending time with her. She is the Queen and the Temptress and the Wolf, all rolled into one.

With silky, golden blonde hair, milky white skin, and a knack for social manipulation, Poppy is loved/adored/worshiped by adults and teenagers alike. All but one: Leaf Bell, the oldest and fiercest of the Orphans. Leaf sees beyond Poppy’s surface beauty, all the way down into the ugly, black rottenness of her heart – and he despises her for it. Naturally, Poppy is hopelessly in love with him.

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Book Review: The Unfinished World: And Other Stories, Amber Sparks (2016)

Friday, February 12th, 2016

The Unfinished World: Sorrowful to the End

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Trigger warning for rape.)

It just goes to show, people said later. It just goes to show how fairy tales always stop too soon in the telling. Others said it was never a fairy tale at all. Anyone could see that. They were all too lovely, too obviously doomed. But the wisest said, that’s exactly what a fairy tale is. The happily-ever-after is just a false front. It hides the hungry darkness inside.

Sometimes he wonders if it would really be so bad, letting people flood into history like a tidal wave and sweep away the worst of it. Sure, the paradoxes would destroy us, but so what? Did a world that let happen the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the Trail of Tears and Stalin and Genghis Khan and Pol Pot deserve to be spared?

Every death is a love story. It’s the goodbye part, but the love is still there, wide as the world.

When I requested a copy of The Unfinished World: And Other Stories on Edelweiss, I thought I was getting the debut effort of io9 editor Charlie Jane Anders. I managed to confuse All the Birds in the Sky and The Unfinished World, probably on account of the covers are vaguely similar and both books come out the same week. But no matter: The Unfinished World was on my wishlist too, and even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting – it’s a little more surreal than SF, time travel notwithstanding – it’s an enchanting collection of stories just the same.

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Mini-Reviews: Glitches and The Queen’s Army, Marissa Meyer (2011/2012)

Friday, October 16th, 2015

four out of five stars

Recently orphaned in a hover accident, we’re introduced to eleven-year-old Cinder as she travels from France to New Beijing. She is accompanied by her adoptive father Garan, a kindly but preoccupied scientist. The surgery that saved her life also left her with two synthetic limbs, and a netscreen where her memories should be. Cinder is a cyborg, in a world that doesn’t think too highly of them. (In a word, cyborgs are considered property.) Shortly after her arrival, Garan falls ill with Letumosis, leaving Cinder in the “care” of her cruel and bitter stepmother Adri, who already has two young daughters to care for.

Glitches is a nice way to kill time while you wait not-so-patiently for the next book in the series to come out. While enjoyable, it doesn’t really tell us anything that we don’t already know or can’t otherwise infer from Cinder. For example, I had hoped that we’d get a glimpse of Adri before she turned evil – that smiling, happy woman Cinder marvels over in the family’s early photographs – but not so much. The story gives a little context for Adri’s unhappiness – Garan is frequently absent, frittering time away on useless projects as the family slips further and further into debt – but at the end of the day, she’s still a nasty bigot. Ditto: Pearl, who’s already inherited her mother’s general awfulness.

Though it’s a prequel to Cinder – Book #1 in Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles series – Glitches is probably best read after Cinder.

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

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Book Review: The Wolf Wilder, Katherine Rundell (2015)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

“Stories can start revolutions.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Mild trigger warning for sexual harassment of a minor.)

Humans, on the whole, Feo could take or leave; there was only one person she loved properly, with the sort of fierce pride that gets people into trouble, or prison, or history books.

[A] wolf who cannot howl is like a human who cannot laugh.

Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there lived a dark and stormy girl. She was wild in spirit and loved fiercely; and no wonder, for she was raised in the company not of humans, but of wolves. They were her friends, her teachers, her pupils, her family – her (almost) everything. And, at the tender age of twelve, this girl and her half-tame friends would go on to lead a revolution.

Feodora Petrovich and her mother Marina live in the Russian wilderness, not too far from Saint Petersburg. Though they’re the only humans for miles, they’re hardly alone – not exactly. The Petrovich family has been wilding wolves for centuries – since the days of Peter the Great, in fact.

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Book Review: The Gracekeepers: A Novel, Kirsty Logan (2015)

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Positively Enchanting

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher.)

Alone in their coracle, they were not performers, not burdens, not dangers, not weapons, not food. They were family.

Her whole life she had been afraid of the sea, terrified that it wanted to swallow her whole. And here she was, and it held her.

What’s the use of a clown who doesn’t subvert? What do they bring to the crowd? Everyone has sadness, and rage, and frustration – and so everyone needs a clown.

Callanish Sand will always remember the bear.

She was just a little girl when the Circus Excalibur visited her island, North-East 19 archipelago – home of the sacred World Tree – docking only long enough to put on a night show for the landlockers’ amusement. (And some food and provisions, gods willing.) Everything was going swimmingly (pun intended); the acrobats, fire-breather, and equestrians performed to the audience’s delight. And then the show reached its climax: a veritable bloodbath.

Two adults, a man and a woman, performing a courtship waltz with a giant bear, when something went tragically (yet predictably) awry. Even today, Callanish isn’t exactly sure of the what or the why, shielded as she was from the fray by her mother’s steady arms. Before she was carried away, Callanish saw three fallen bodies: those of the man, the woman, and the eviscerated bear. “And in the center of it all, […] two figures: one draped in white, one furred black; both with eyes open moon-round and empty. A small girl and a small bear, hands and paws still linked.” The children of the dead, left to pick up the pieces.

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Audiobook Review: Stitching Snow, R.C. Lewis (2014)

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

A Futuristic, Sometimes-Sinister Retelling of Snow White

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. This review contains spoilers. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

It took me seventeen seconds to decide Jarom Thacker’s reputation as the sharpest fighter on Thanda had been exaggerated. At twice my size — and age — he was quick, forcing me to move or risk getting pinned against the cage, but he made a rookie mistake. Like everyone else who came through Mining Settlement Forty-Two, he aimed for my gut. So predictable.

Wouldn’t want to botch the pretty girl’s face, right? Idiot.

I blocked him on the left, but sweat stinging my eyes blinded me to his fist slamming into my right side. Pain flared through my ribs. The fire spurred me on, and I slipped Thacker’s grip when he grabbed at my arm.

Unlike him, I had no qualms about uglifying him further.

Princess Snow is missing. Or at least that’s what her father, the cruel and manipulative King Matthias, believes.

After a botched assassination attempt by her stepmother, Queen Olivia, “Snowflake” fled her home planet of Windsong, settling on the remote and icy Thanda. Here, Essie – as she’s now known – makes herself useful by “stitching” code to improve the mine’s conditions; she can often be found in the cage, beating miners twice her size to a bloody pulp for extra cash monies to fund her tinkering. It’s not much of a living, but at least she’s alive. Nearly ten years pass before her relative isolation is shattered by the crash-landing of a rogue, treasure-hunting Garamite boy in her backyard.

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Book Review: And They Lived: A Short Story Anthology Sabrina Zbasnik (2014)

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Love the Feminist Fairy Tale Retellings!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review though Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, minor spoiler alert for the story summaries below. I tried not to include any major reveals, but if you’d rather approach this anthology with fresh eyes, skip the play-by-plays.)

The description for And They Lived – a collection of nine short stories by Sabrina Zbasnik – sucked me in immediately: “And They Lived isn’t just a dark turn and modernization of the fairy tales. It gives power back to the powerless in the classic stories. Women are no longer the victims and their story doesn’t end with true love’s kiss.” Feminist retellings of fairy tale classics? Sign me up!

While the book’s synopsis says that there are eight stories included here, the review copy I received from the author actually contains nine tales:

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Book Review: Ash, Malinda Lo (2009)

Friday, April 25th, 2014

A Magical & Subversive Retelling of ‘Cinderella’

four out of five stars

Twelve-year-old Aisling – Ash for short – is having the worst year imaginable. In midsummer, her beloved mother Elinor died suddenly and mysteriously; and, before the last of autumn’s leaves turned brown and blanketed the ground, her merchant father William had remarried. To give Ash a mother, he said.

To the marriage, Lady Isobel Quinn brings two daughters: twelve-year-old Ana and her ten-year-old sister Clara. From the more “cultured” town of West Riding – located just a stone’s throw from the Royal City – Lady Isobel has grand designs for her daughters: they are to marry well and become gentlewomen like their mother. The wild Ash, with her love of books, fascination with fairy tales and magic, and still-fresh grief for Elinor, isn’t much more than a minor annoyance to her new stepmother. She provides neither comfort nor sympathy to the grieving child.

Shortly after the marriage, William falls sick; rather than allow “superstitious” greenwitch Maire Solanya attend to him, Lady Isobel uproots the family and moves them from Ash’s home in Rook Hill to the Quinn House. William dies just two weeks later, and Lady Isobel wastes little time in claiming Ash as a servant – to pay off her father’s (alleged) debts. (I love how Lady Isobel recounts bitterly to Ash how her father spent Lady Isobel’s money to prop up his failing business, while openly admitting that she married William for his money. Hypocrite much?) From orphan to slave in less than six months.

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Book Review: Burning Girls: A Tor.Com Original, Veronica Schanoes (2013)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Beautifully Conceived and Written

five out of five stars

(Caution: minor spoilers below!)

Born in Bialystok, Poland at the turn of the century, Deborah is possessed of the power like her bubbe. Deborah is a witch, and spends her summers in training with grandmother Hannah: learning to assist in childbirth, cure common ailments, terminate unwanted pregnancies, craft blessings and talismans, and drive away demons. But Deborah’s magic is little help against the growing tide of antisemitism sweeping through Europe; and when the Cossacks lay waste to Hannah’s village, killing Deborah’s beloved grandmother and mentor, it becomes clear to her family that they must escape to America. America, where “they don’t let you burn.”

While the family – mother, father, and sister Shayna – work overtime to save enough money for the trip, Deborah discovers a horrifying secret. There, among grandmother’s sparse belongings, is a mysterious contract: “The ink seemed to be made of blood and vomit. A stench like cowshit rose off the page. My stomach churned every time I unfolded the paper.” When a demon tries to steal her newborn brother Yeshua, Deborah realizes that her grandmother did the unthinkable: traded her daughter’s next child in exchange for the family’s safe passage to America. Though Deborah succeeds in destroying the contract, it’s at great personal cost; and while Deborah and Shayna eventually make it to the New World, they’re ultimately unable to escape the lilit’s clutches.

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Book Review: Stung, Bethany Wiggins (2013)

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

“Sleeping Beauty” Meets “28 Days Later”

three out of five stars

Trigger alert for discussions of rape; also, minor spoilers ahead!

In an ill-fated attempt to save the world’s endangered bee populations – and prevent the inevitable global famine which would surely follow – the scientists in Bethany Wiggins’s Stung design a new, genetically modified species of “super bees.” Immune to the effects of existing pesticides and fatally aggressive toward their less high-tech honeybee cousins, humanity’s so-called solution causes more problems than it solves: finishing the grim task begun by people, the Frankenbees drive naturally occurring bee species over the brink of extinction. They also turn on their human creators, spreading a deadly “bee flu” that’s ultimately responsible for thousands – if not millions – of human deaths.

After a promising vaccine fails – those given the antivenin develop superhuman strength and go mad – the government falls back on its “last resort”: a new pesticide, specially formulated for use against the GenMod bees. The only downside? It kills pretty much everything in its path: plants, (nonhuman) animals, even some humans.

In the wake of this destruction, the United States dissolves into a collection of city-states. In Denver, Colorado, there is safety behind “the wall” – but only for those citizens privileged enough to buy their way in with money (honey is the prevailing currency) or essential skills. At the age of 15, boys must join the militia, where they are tasked with defending the wall from “beasts” (those who received the vaccine and subsequently turned), “fecs” (refugees living in the sewers, many of them recipients of the vaccine who have yet to turn), and “raiders” (uninfected outlaws who traffic in women and beasts). Girls inside the wall are expected to marry young and have children.

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Book Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, Philip Pullman (2012)

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Come for the fairy tales, stay for the waggish commentary.

four out of five stars

When I first heard that Philip Pullman was to release a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales, I was super-excited. Not Book of Dust excited, but pretty stoked nonetheless. His Dark Materials is easily my favorite series of all time, and I’ll eagerly devour anything by or about Philip Pullman. Plus, fairy tales!

Alas, while I was hoping for a book of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm as reimagined by Philip Pullman (e.g., along the lines of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; the rampant sexism found in so many fairy tales is just screaming out for feminist retellings, don’t you think?), the resulting collection is mostly faithful to the originals. Pullman has tweaked the tales here and there – borrowing pieces from one version to improve upon another, for example, and occasionally correcting inconsistencies and mistakes, such as in “The Three Snake Leaves” (with three whacks, the prince cuts the snake into three pieces, rather than the four dictated by simple math) – but aside from some light housekeeping, the stories are highly reminiscent of those I enjoyed as a child.

Of course, I can’t fault Pullman for failing to live up to my misplaced expectations – and, for what it is, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version is an engaging and nostalgic collection of classic Grimm fairy tales. While you’ll recognize many of the standards – Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretal, and the especially lovely “The Juniper Tree” all make appearances – you may also discover a few new favorites.

I absolutely fell in love with one of the last entries, “The Moon,” a sort of fairy tale-cum-creation myth that tells how the moon came into being. First belonging to a town, then purchased by four brothers who each insisted that their share be buried with them upon death, St. Peter finally retrieved it from the underworld and hung it in the sky where it could shine over all the world’s creatures. Every day, he removes a piece of it to remind humans of their folly, finally restoring it at the end of each month. Hello lunar cycle!

Each of the fifty tales is followed by information about the tale type and source, as well as a paragraph or two – or, if we’re especially lucky, an entire page – of commentary about the preceding fairy tale. Fans of Pullman will love this last bit, as it’s here where his personality and humor shine through. Take, for example, this notation on “The Girl with No Hands”:

“However, the tale itself is disgusting. The most repellent aspect is the cowardice of the miller, which goes quite unpunished. The tone of never-shaken piety is nauseating, and the restoration of the poor woman’s hands is simply preposterous.

“‘But aren’t fairy tales supposed to be full of preposterous things?’

“No. The resurrection of the little boy in ‘The Juniper Tree’, for example, feels truthful and right. This feels merely silly: instead of being struck with wonder, here we laugh. It’s ridiculous. This tale and others like it must have spoken so deeply to many audiences, though, for it to spread so widely, or perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty and sentimental piety.”

Ouch!

Whether you’re a fan of fairy tales or just plain love Philip Pullman, most likely you’ll find something to savor in this collection.

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