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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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: Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (2017)

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Stories about survival; stories we need now more than ever.

five out of five stars

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

There once was a man. There is always some man.

You too have always been popular. I have seen the evidence in your childhood bedroom, meticulously preserved by your mother. Even now, you have packs of men following you, willing to make you their strange god. That is the only thing about you that scares me.

“I want a boy who will bring me a baby arm.”

“Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

Difficult Women brings together twenty-one short stories by Roxane Gay, all of which have previously been published elsewhere (or multiple elsewheres), most in slightly different forms and some under different titles. (I included the TOC at the bottom of this review; alternate titles are listed last, in parentheses.) However, the publications are so varied that it’s unlikely that you’ve seen, read, and/or own them all.

This is actually rather surprising to me, since the stories – published over a span of ~5 years – gel so well together. It really feels like each one was written specifically with this anthology in mind. The collection’s namesake, “Difficult Women,” perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole. Like the short story, this is book about loose women and frigid women; difficult women and crazy women; mothers and wives, daughters and dead girls. Women who have faced the unspeakable – rape and sexual assault; miscarriages or the death of a child; abuse and self-harm; alcoholism and alienation – and come out the other side. Not unscathed, but alive. These are stories of survival.

Usually I find anthologies to be somewhat uneven, but not so here. Every story grabs you by the heart and threatens to squeeze until it pops, right there in your chest cavity. Gay’s writing is raw and naked; grim, yet somehow, impossibly, imbued with hope. While some are straight-up contemporary, other tales are a strange, surreal mix of the real and unreal: In “I Am a Knife,” a woman fantasizes about cutting her twin’s fetus out of her body and transferring it to her own, the way she once did with the heart of a drunk driver who collided with their car, nearly killing her sister.

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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: Heartless, Marissa Meyer (2016)

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Whimsical and tragic, an inspired origin story for the Queen of Hearts.

five out of five stars

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

She would be queen, and queens … queens did not open bakeries with their best friends. Queens did not gossip with half-invisible cats. Queens did not have dreams of yellow-eyed boys and wake up with lemon trees over their beds.

The Fox folded her hands and recited,
One to be a murderer, the other to be martyred,
One to be a monarch, the other to go mad.

Was he mad already? She couldn’t help inspecting him, newly speculative and curious. He didn’t seem mad. No more mad than anyone else she knew. No more mad than she was herself. They were all a little mad, if one was to be forthright.

Lady Catherine Pinkerton is in love … with baked goods.

The kitchen is her sanctuary: a refuge from a hyper-critical, socially ambitious mother; a meek father; and all the expectations that come with her social status – learning embroidery, attending balls, hanging out with the haughty best friend she can hardly stand. There’s nothing she enjoys more than dusting powdered sugar on a recently cooled lemon tart, or kneading bread dough until she’s ready to drop. She loves eating sweets, and sharing them with others: what quicker way to a stranger’s heart than through her stomach?

Cath dreams of opening a bakery with her best friend/family servant (one of several), Mary Anne. Mr. Caterpillar the cobbler is set to retire, leaving his storefront vacant, and its busy location would make the perfect home for SWEETS AND TARTS: THE MOST WONDROUS BAKERY IN ALL OF HEARTS.

Though her dream is almost adorable in its simplicity, the obstacles that stand in Cath’s way are anything but. As the only daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove, Cath is its sole heir. Baking is considered unladylike – at least for ladies belonging to the royal class – and besides, she’s expected to marry and have children. In fact, her scheming mother has one particularly illustrious suitor in mind: the King of Hearts. He’s a nice enough guy, but fifteen years Cath’s senior, rather silly and daft – and baby-crazy, to boot.

The arrival of the King’s new Joker – on the night he’s set to propose to Cath, nonetheless – only complicates matters further. A mysterious man who makes the impossible possible, with eyes the “color of sunflowers and butterscotch and lemons hanging heavy on their boughs” and dark, curly hair, Jest is the man of Cath’s dreams. Literally: she was chasing him the night her dreams grew a lemon tree over her bed. The very same tree that bore the lemons she used to make the tarts she baked for her King/future husband. (Maybe.) Oh, what a fantastic mess!

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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: Pretty Deadly, Volume 2: The Bear, Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Ríos (2016)

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Gorgeous artwork & solid storytelling (though not quite as epic as that in The Shrike).

four out of five stars

I am not a bee, but I am small.
I like to see small things win.

There’s never been a war like him before.

The story arc in Pretty Deadly, Volume 2: The Bear isn’t nearly as epic as that in The Shrike, and I prefer the Wild West setting to WWI. But the storytelling is still pretty solid and, as always, the artwork is some of the loveliest I’ve ever seen in a graphic novel.

The Bear takes place several decades after The Shrike, and Sarah Fields – the BAMF gunslinger whose tears gave life to the savior of humanity – lay in bed dying. Who better to reap her than her old flame Fox? But daughter Verine isn’t ready to let Sarah go yet – not until her brother Cyrus returns home to say his final goodbyes. He’s got until the next full moon; can he make it back from the battlefields of France in time?

Meanwhile, Death’s got a lot on her plate. The Reaper of War’s gone rogue, sending ten thousand people her way every. single. day. The cycle of life and death makes the world go ‘round, but this is out of hand! Sissy sends Deathface Ginny and Big Alice to the Western Front to bring an end to the conflict – by any means necessary.

Like I said, the story is engaging, but a bit of a letdown in comparison to Sissy’s origin story in Volume 1. But it was great to see old friends: Sissy, who’s been tending the garden for several decades and is now a young woman; a (slightly) warmer and fuzzier Fox; Sarah, who lived a long and fruitful life, as evidenced by all the people – “whole damn family and half the territory” – who have gathered at her bedside; Johnny Coyote and Molly Raven; and our unflinchingly creepy narrators/observers, bunny and butterfly.

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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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Book Review: Cold-Forged Flame (Ree Varekai #1), Marie Brennan (2016)

Monday, October 17th, 2016

“The more you remember … the more you might end up losing.”

four out of five stars

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

The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need. And so, in reply, there is a woman.

Who has she been, that she recalls so many revolutions?

A woman wakes on a slab of stone, surrounded by the strangers who summoned her. She has no memories, no sense of self, no compass pointing her home … assuming she has one to go to. What she does posses are quick reflexes, a warrior’s instinct, and a healthy distrust of those who bound her to their will, brought her into being to serve as a tool, or a slave.

Her task: retrieve a vial of blood from the cauldron of the Lhian. If she succeeds, she will earn her freedom. Failure means death.

Lhian’s cauldron is located in a cave, in a mountain, on an island. But this is no ordinary island; rather, it’s a place where the landscape shifts and changes, sabers are made of moonlight, and dreams turned sour manifest as physical beasts that can fell a flesh and blood human. The island may or may not be a sentient being, testing those who dare set foot upon it. Either way, the forest has eyes. Yet the narrator’s greatest obstacle may very well be herself – the self she doesn’t know, cannot grasp, isn’t sure she even wants to.

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Book Review: Yesternight, Cat Winters (2016)

Friday, October 14th, 2016

Supernatural horror + timeless misogyny = a compelling creepshow.

four out of five stars

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

Dreamt I to-day the dream of yesternight,
Sleep ever feigning one evolving theme,
— Of my two lives which should I call the dream?

—George Santayana, “Sonnet V,” 1896

Alice Lind,
Alice Lind,
Took a stick and beat her friend.
Should she die?
Should she live?
How many beatings did she give?

If I hadn’t been a psychologist—if I didn’t find the idea of reincarnation so absurd—I would have wanted Violet Sunday to exist.

A female mathematical genius.

A Victorian female mathematical genius.

What an absolutely delicious idea.

A school psychologist, Alice Lind spends her days traversing the western United States, administering psychological and intelligence tests to children and advising the Department of Education how it can better help students who are being under-served in their communities. While the work certainly goes to Alice’s desire to help kids – especially troubled ones like her younger self – too often she feels trapped, suffocated, and bored.

After obtaining her Master’s degree, Alice applied to multiple doctoral programs, with the hope of one day studying human memory – and its malleability and resilience, particularly where repressed memories are concerned. Despite her obvious skill and passion, Alice was rebuffed at every turn, only to watch her less qualified peers move on to bigger and better things. The year is 1925, you see, a time when higher education for women was considered a quirky anomaly at best – and a sinful rejection of one’s “God given” role as a woman at worst.

Our first glimpse of Miss Lind comes as she steps off the train and into her latest two-week placement at Gordon Bay, Oregon – by the special request of the schoolteacher, Miss Simpkin. Among her pupils is a precocious seven-year-old named Janie O’Daire (to whom Miss Simpkin is also known as “Aunt Tillie”), an exceptionally bright student and apparent math prodigy, who seems to experience memories of another life. A past life.

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Book Review: The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, Megan Shepherd (2016)

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

“But there must be more out there. There must be brighter things.”

four out of five stars

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

When the princess had this place built, did she imagine that one day children would die here, crying so loud you could hear it even over a screaming kettle? Did she think, while she threw open the doors and let music pour onto the back lawn, that one day a black winged horse would circle around and around the roof, tirelessly, always on the hunt?

I eye him sideways. He doesn’t look like the type to fatten children for witches, but who does?

Young Emmaline is one of twenty-odd patients at Briar Hill hospital in Shropshire, a sort of emergency quarantine hospital for children suffering from tuberculosis – or “stillwaters,” as Em calls it. Their only companions are Sisters Constance and Mary Grace, who run the show; Thomas, the one-armed caretaker; Dr. Turner, who visits once a week to dispense medication; and the many animals who live on the estate: Bog the dog, the sheep and chickens – and the magical winged horses who live in the mirrors.

Emmaline is the only one who can see those last, of course. Mostly the horses ignore her and go about their business on the other side of the mirror. That is, until one winter day when she finds a winged horse in the sundial garden, injured and stranded. The mystery deepens when Emmaline begins receiving letters from the Horse Lord imploring her to keep Foxfire safe. She is being pursued by the Black Horse, who hunts by moonlight and has but one weakness: color. Emmaline must surround Foxfire with all the colors of the rainbow. But where can she find color – vibrant, lively colors – in her dreary world, ravaged by sickness and war?

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Book Review: A Song to Take the World Apart, Zan Romanoff (2016)

Monday, September 12th, 2016

A book about first loves, female power, and consent (spoiler alert: there is none in love spells).

three out of five stars

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

No one remembers when it was that our ancestors first found their way out of the sea. It seems now that all human life might have begun there, and that makes sense to me: that the womb of the world is water and salt. But I am speaking more specifically about a kind of ancestor that not everyone on this earth shares. And of course that makes sense to me too. How could a world so vast produce only one kind of human being?

Lorelei didn’t know whether she liked the boy or the guitar more.

— 3.5 stars —

Lorelei Felson is a second-generation German immigrant – although, with her long, blonde hair, wispy figure, and perfect English, she’s really just another pretty face in LA. Her family – mother Petra, father Henry, and Oma Silke – came to the United States eighteen years ago, when Petra was just seventeen and already pregnant with the twins, Lorelei’s older brothers Nik and Jens. Lorelei always assumed that Petra fled from shame – of being an unwed teenage mother in a small coastal town – yet details are difficult to come by in their stern, quiet household. The true circumstances of their exile are much weirder and more mythical than Lorelei could ever imagine – and they’re all bound up in her grandmother’s longstanding prohibition on singing.

Despite the oddness of it, Lorelei never questioned Oma’s decree; it was just another rule she was raised to follow, like eat your broccoli or be home by curfew. And so Lorelei’s voice remained silent – or at least shackled – until two fateful events converged to change her world forever: Lorelei fell hard for Chris Paulson, a charming senior and the lead singer for The Trouble; and Oma passed away after suffering a massive stroke. Suddenly Lorelei’s soul is filled with a volatile mix of raw, aching grief and crazy, careless first love that all but demands a musical release.

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Book Review: Summerlong, Peter S. Beagle (2016)

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

But that ending!

three out of five stars

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

He could never have distinguished the rescued young orca of a week before from the rest of the pod, but there was no mistaking the slender figure poised on the slanting bluff that had long since been Joanna’s daffodil bed, before a tremor had sliced it in two. Lioness Lazos was standing there, not at all like a witch, arms raised to order tides and powers to her bidding, but as calmly as the great dorsals themselves: greeting, perhaps, but never commanding, even seeming at one point to wave them diffidently away. And still the orcas danced for her.

I can count the number of childhood favorites that have managed to hold up over time on one hand, and The Last Unicorn is of them. (The book and the animated film, which is a double rarity.) Up until Summerlong, it was also my only experience with Peter S. Beagle. I own several of his titles – The Innkeeper’s Song, The Line Between, Mirror Kingdoms; accumulated at garage and library sales, mostly – but so far they’ve been languishing in the middle of a ginormous TBR pile.

Summerlong is quite evocative of The Last Unicorn, yet still its own beast. It has the same quirky charm and dreamlike quality, but also feels much more adult. (Thanks in no small part to the older protagonists and copious – yet tasteful – sex scenes.) While the story does boast some wonderful elements – not the least of which is Beagle’s distinctive, fanciful writing – overall it fell a little short of my expectations. Which is perhaps a bit unfair: bound up as it is in all sorts of childhood feels and ’80s nostalgia, The Last Unicorn is maybe not the best (or most objective) reference point.

The story begins in February, with the arrival of a beautiful and mysterious stranger on Gardner Island. Lioness Lazos quickly and seamlessly integrates herself into island life, stumbling into a waitressing job at the Skyliner Diner – which is where Abe Aronson and his longtime girlfriend Joanna Delvecchio find her. Before the bill’s been settled, they have offered to let Lioness stay in Abe’s garage, rent-free. Being in close proximity to Lioness does that to a person: makes them take leave of their senses, and gladly so. She is, in a word, enchanting.

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Book Review: Everfair, Nisi Shawl (2016)

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Fascinating Idea, So-So Execution

three out of five stars

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

Ever fair, ever fair my home;
Ever fair land, so sweet—
Ever are you calling home your children;
We hear and answer swiftly as thought, as fleet.
Tyrants and cowards, we fear them no more;
Behold, your power protects us from harm;
We live in freedom by sharing all things equally—
We live in peace within your loving arms.

Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State in Central Africa in 1885. Ostensibly established as a humanitarian and philanthropic venture, Leopold instead exploited the land and people as a personal venture. Indigenous workers were forced to harvest ivory, rubber, and minerals. Failure to meet quotas was punishable by death, so proven by delivery of the offender’s hand – leading to a rash of mutilations, as villages attacked one another to procure limbs in anticipation of not meeting Leopold’s unreasonable demands. Between murder, starvation, disease, and a drastically reduced birth rate, countless indigenous Africans perished under Leopold’s short rule; some estimates put the death rate as high as 50%. Due to international criticism, Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and assumed control of its administration in 1908, after which time it became known as the Belgian Congo.

Turning her lens on “one of history’s most notorious atrocities,” Nisi Shawl looks at what might have become of the Congo Free State, if white socialists from England and African-American missionaries had united to purchase land from King Leopold II, making it a haven for free blacks, “enlightened” whites, and Chinese and African refugees from Leopold’s reign of terror. Picture an eclectic fusion of Western, Asian, and African cultural practices, politics, and religious beliefs, all made more prosperous – and feasible – through fantastical steampunk technologies: aircanoes capable of transcontinental flight (and easily weaponized); mechanical clockwork prosthetics (also made deadly with the addition of knives, flamethrowers, and poisoned darts); steam-powered bikes; and Victorian-era computers, to name a few.

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Book Review: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (2016)

Friday, August 26th, 2016

Weird, Magical – and Hella Feminist

five out of five stars

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

When were women ever anything but footnotes to men’s tales?

“Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world, and that’s you.”

— 4.5 stars —

When third-year student Clarie Jurat goes missing from Ulthar’s Women’s College, her Mathematics professor Vellitt Boe sets out to retrieve her. Clarie’s father is one of the College’s Trustees, and it’s well within his power to shut the college down in the face of such scandal. This would prove a devastating loss, as the Women’s College – the newest and humblest of the Seven Colleges of Ulthar’s University – is a sanctuary of sorts for “women who don’t fit anywhere else” in the Six Kingdoms.

Vellitt lives in the dream world, a universe crafted from the minds of dreamers in our own world, the waking world. For whatever reason, all of the dreamers seem to be men – and they have dreamed into existence a world that is mostly absent of women, deeply entrenched in sexism, and ruled by gods that are as petty as they are numerous. The Women’s College is a beacon of light in an unkind world – and Vellitt, for one, is determined to keep the flame burning.

In her younger days, Vellitt – then known as Veline – was a far-traveller; she walked the lands of the Six Kingdoms, traversed its seas like her mother the sailor, and fell into and escaped from the under-realms. She has evaded zoogs, battled ghouls, rescued gugs, and marveled at krakens. She’s seen flying cities and passed over vast undersea civilizations. She knows all ninety-seven stars in the dream-realms sky, and can name the six constellations. Now she must call upon these dusty skills – and a few old connections – to find Clarie before she crosses into the waking world with the charismatic dreamer Stephan Heller.

Her quest will take her from the temple at Hatheg-Kla to the distant kingdom of Ilek-Vad; from the caverns carved deep beneath the ruined silver mines of Eight Peaks to a church in Wisconsin, present day. Along the way she’ll learn that Clarie Jurat isn’t who she claims to be – or not just, anyway – and it’s not only the fate of Ulthar’s Women’s College that’s at stake.

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Book Review: Ice Crypt (Mermaids of Eriana Kwai, #2), Tiana Warner (2016)

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

A solid sequel with a thrilling cliffhanger.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains spoilers for ICE MASSACRE, the first book in the series.)

“So you’re willing to send a girl out to fight for our people,” I said, “but you’re not willing to listen to what she has to say?”

“Start a family,” I muttered. “They’ve got a shock coming if that’s what they’re expecting.”

I fell head over heels (tail?) in love with the world and characters and subversive romance Tiana Warner created in Ice Massacre, and have been eagerly awaiting the sequel ever since. (1 year, 9 months, and 8 days, to be precise.) I had nearly given up when Ice Crypt hit my radar.

The story picks up a mere two weeks after the events in Ice Massacre. The crew of the Bloodhound has returned home to Eriana Kwai, battered and bloody and minus many girls – but triumphant, all things considered. (The men don’t typically come back at all.) With Lysi now King Adaro’s captive, Meela is hell-bent on finding the mysterious Host of Eriana. But, instead of turning it over to the power-hungry dictator, Meela plans to double-cross Adaro and maybe harness its power to destroy him? The plan’s pretty sketchy, seeing as she doesn’t know what the Host is or how to find it or whether it even exists.

And the Massacre Committee’s no help: in Meela’s month-long absence, her beloved mentor Anyo was ousted – in favor of Dani’s father Mujihi, no less. An abusive bully, it’s plain to see where Dani gets her mean streak. Rather than being jailed for her war crimes, Dani is made an instructor at the training camp. Now she yields power over a hundred girls instead of just twenty, and Dani (and her father) are loathe to give it up by ending the Massacres. Add the island’s speciesism towards the mermaids (“sea rats,” demons, vermin) and their skepticism of once-sacred creation myths to the mix, and the only ones interested in brokering a peace deal with the mermaids are Meela and her friends Tanuu, Annith, and Blacktail. But what match are four teenagers against the world – on land and in the sea?

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Book Review: Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (2016)

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Devastatingly Gorgeous Artwork & Intricate World-Building Make Monstress a Must-Read

five out of five stars

To quote the poets…murder is terribly exhausting.

— 4.5 stars —

I pre-ordered Monstress based on the cover alone; and, the more I learned about it, the more excited I became. A steampunk fantasy set in turn-of-the-century Asia, featuring a diverse cast of mostly-female characters, written and illustrated by two women of color? Sign me up!

As it turns out, Monstress is everything I’d hoped for and then some. The story takes place in 1920s Asia, though you might not know it at first glance: this alternate ‘verse is so very different from our own. Humans are not the only – or even the first – sapients to walk the earth. (To borrow a term from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.) We were preceded by Cats, the children of Ubasti: Multi-tailed, talking creatures, who can wield a weapon as easily as a sarcastic comeback. The immortal Ancients assumed the forms of beasts and, like their Greek cousins, enjoyed toying with humans. It is from such relationships that Arcanic halfbreeds were born: some are human in appearance, while most are not; yet all Arcanics possess great powers, powers which can be extracted from their very bones. Last but not least are the Old Gods, of which precious little is known. Some believe them to be monsters.

While humans and Arcanics coexisted in peace for generations, war broke out for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. An infernal bomb, which rained destruction down upon the city of Constantine, resulted in a stalemate. Now both races live on their respective sides of the wall. Yet the Cumaea – a powerful order of nun-witches that rules the human federation – is intent resurrecting the war and exterminating the Arcanics.

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DNF Review: The Kraken Sea, E. Catherine Tobler (2016)

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

Maybe fans of Jackson’s Unreal Circus will get more out of it?

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

The woman laughed and it was the sound of falling down a rabbit hole and ending up someplace you never expected and didn’t entirely understand.

— 2.5 stars —

DNF at 66%.

Abandoned at a foundling hospital in New York as a newborn, fifteen-year-old Jackson knows little of the world beyond his small slice of it. He’s reasonably well cared for by the nuns – especially Sister Jerome Grace, to whom he’s taken a special liking – yet he’s very much alone, set apart and ostracized because of his differences. Though he tries to hide his true nature, in times of stress Jackson has trouble concealing his scaled skin; the tentacles that wriggle under the surface of human limbs; and the gaping maw that can literally swallow boys his size whole.

No doubt Jackson’s long since given up on ever being adopted – so imagine his surprise when a mysterious woman sends for “a boy like him” all the way from San Francisco. Jackson boards a train for the Pacific and, after a weird and destructive stop at the Chicago World’s Fair (the year being 1893), he joins Macquarie’s, Cressida’s home-slash-mansion-slash-estate-slash-saloon. It’s filled with fantastical creatures like Jackson – human, but also not – as well as intrigue and shifting alliances, which threaten to upend Jackson’s newfound normalcy.

With its carnivalesque vibe, The Kraken Sea seems like a book I should love. And indeed, a few early scenes really piqued my excitement. Chief among them: Jackson’s unplanned stop at a sideshow tent in the White City, where he’s enraged to find a tentacled woman imprisoned in a filthy cage. Cue images of Menagerie’s Delilah Marlow, one of my all-time favorite heroes. There’s a kraken that eats shadows; a fox fur stole that’s actually alive; and stone gargoyles that leap into the air and devour would-be patrons who try to sneak into rival Bell’s without paying.

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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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