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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Audiobook Review: A Fierce and Subtle Poison, Samantha Mabry (2016)

Friday, July 1st, 2016

Awful narrator is awful.

three out of five stars

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

— 2.5 stars —

In theory (on paper? hardee har har!), A Fierce and Subtle Poison has the bones of a great story – or at least one I’m all but guaranteed to love. A mad scientist. A cursed house (not to mention a haunted hotel and beach). A witch with green skin, hair made of grass, and a belly full of poison. A setting with a nonwhite majority, and a diverse cast of characters to match. Star-crossed lovers … maybe. More than one pair, perhaps. A tragic ending.

And yet this book never really took off for me. There are a ton of little details that vexed me, but ultimately what it comes down to is the narrator: Lucas Knight is irritating as fuck, and not in an enjoyable, Gone Girl, love-to-hate-him kind of way.

The son of an American real estate developer, Lucas is both aware of and repulsed by his father’s bigotry and arrogance, as well as the privilege that being rich and white affords them both. The senior Michael Knight is pretentious, overbearing, and casually racist. Sure he married an “island girl,” but that doesn’t mean that he has any respect for her culture, land, or people. (See, e.g., the “I have a black friend argument.”) He constantly refers to Puerto Ricans as backwards and ignorant. Likewise, he treats “the help” – those islanders who work at his hotels, washing his clothes, cooking and serving his meals, and cleaning his rooms – like you’d expect: as part of the background scenery, at best. Whereas Lucas cherishes the wild, unspoiled nature of the island, Michael looks at a pristine beach and sees only shiny new hotels (and the cash monies they’re sure to bring). Even the historic St. Lucia doesn’t get a pass.

Michael reserves the worst of his loathing for the island women, especially the ‘bitter harpy’ – I’m paraphrasing, but not by much – Detective Mara Lopez, who’s ‘out to get’ Lucas and his dad because she’s ‘jealous of their wealth.’ Displaced feelings much, hmmm? Why don’t you tell Lucas what you really think of his mother?

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Mini-Review: The Mermaid Girl: A Story, Erika Swyler (2016)

Friday, May 27th, 2016

A short prequel story to The Book of Speculation.

four out of five stars

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

The problem with stealing the magician’s assistant from a carnival was that you were always waiting for her to disappear. […]

The problem with marrying the mermaid girl from the carnival was knowing that one day she’d swim away.

— 3.5 stars —

Simon and his younger sister Enola were just kids when their mother drowned. A former circus performer – a mermaid, in fact – Paulina bid her children farewell one day, walked the steps from their crumbling, 1700s colonial house down to the beach, and continued right on into the Atlantic Ocean.

Years later, Simon – now a librarian at Napawset library – comes into possession of a mysterious ledger dating back to the 1700s. His grandmother’s name, written all the way in the back, sets him on a journey through his family’s past – seemingly set on a collision course with Enola’s future. Simon makes a sinister discovery: all of the women in his matrilineal line die. They die young, but not before having a daughter; they die of drowning, even though all are mermaids; and they die of apparent suicides, even where no clear history of mental illness exists. Most shockingly of all, they all perish in the same way on the same day: July 24th.

The story begins in late June, and Enola has just announced that she’s returning home after a six-year absence.

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Book Review: The Wolf in the Attic, Paul Kearney (2016)

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

An Egyptian Werewolf in Oxford

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment/assault and allusions to rape.)

I understand now all the fairy tales, those that talk of the dangers of the deep forest, and the beasts that lurk there. All those fears were true. I know them now. I am in the middle of one such story, and all I want is out of it.

— 3.5 stars —

It’s 1929, and another year is drawing to a close in Oxford. Eleven-year-old (almost twelve!) Anna Francis hates it, all of it: the cold, dreary weather. The short days and unforgiving nights. The drafty house and her empty belly. Her father’s sadness, so often drowned in a bottle of Scotch. The isolation and loneliness and profound sense of alienation.

Anna and her father are refugees; the last surviving members of the Sphrantzes clan. Once they lived in Smyrna, a Turkish city on the Aegean Sea, like their ancestors before them. But the end of the Great War gave birth to the Greco-Turkish War – after which most of the Christians remaining in Smyrna were forced to leave. When their community was sacked, Anna and Georgio wound up on a ship bound for England. Anna’s mother wasn’t as lucky; along with many pretty young girls and women, she was kidnapped by Turkish forces. Nor do they know the fate of Nikos, Anna’s older brother and a member of the army deployed to fight the Turkish forces. Her trusty doll Penelope – named after Odysseos’s wife, Pie for short – is all she has left of him.

Though Anna and Georgio live in a ginormous house, just the two of them, Anna has trouble finding time for herself. During the day, she’s hounded by the strict Miss Hawcross and her menacing ruler; and at night, her father frequently hosts Committee meetings, such that her house is teeming with strangers. So she sneaks out to roam the streets of Oxford, and explores the upper floors of the house, long since closed off and forbidden to her, in search of adventure. This is how she meets the strange boy, with dark hair and skin like hers: but eyes that glow in a way that no human’s should.

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Book Review: The Accident Season, Moïra Fowley-Doyle (2015)

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Superb idea, so-so execution…

three out of five stars

(Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, and rape. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

It’s the accident season, the same time every year. Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom. Years ago my mother tried to lock us all up, pad the hard edges of things with foam and gauze, cover us in layers of sweaters and gloves, ban sharp objects and open flames. We camped out together in the living room for eight days, until the carefully ordered takeout food—delivered on the doorstep and furtively retrieved by my mother, who hadn’t thought how she would cook meals without the help of our gas oven—gave us all food poisoning and we spent the next twenty-four hours in the hospital. Now every autumn we stock up on bandages and painkillers; we buckle up, we batten down. We never leave the house without at least three protective layers. We’re afraid of the accident season. We’re afraid of how easily accidents turn into tragedies. We have had too many of those already.

So let’s raise our glasses to the accident season,
To the river beneath us where we sink our souls,
To the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling,
One more drink for the watery road.

— 3.5 stars —

I can’t remember the last time I had such mixed feelings about a novel.

On the one hand, the story’s premise – every October the Morris-Fagan family is beset by a series of seemingly random accidents, from cuts and bruises to more serious calamities, like car accidents and drownings – is fabulous. The invention of a so-called “accident season” is creative and compelling and provides so many potential avenues of exploration. Are the accidents merely coincidence? Bad luck given meaning by a family who sees what it wants to see? (We humans have a way of forming patterns out of randomness.) A self-fulfilling prophecy? (The worst.) Or perhaps the accidents are the work of a sinister force, either supernatural or more worldly? (Not all monsters are nonhuman, you know.)

The plot gets even weirder than the synopsis hints at with the introduction of Elsie, a plain Jane, mousey girl who mysteriously appears in all of Cara’s photographs – even those taken on a family vacation on the Mediterranean. As the accident season of her junior year draws to a close, the narrator Cara; her older sister Alice; their ex-step-brother Sam; and Cara’s best friend Bea scramble to find Elsie, who’s suddenly gone missing from school and whose presence/absence seems somehow connected to the family’s ill fortunes.

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Book Review: Down With the Shine, Kate Karyus Quinn (2016)

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

“May all your wishes come true, or at least just this one!”

five out of five stars

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

“Lennie, you do know what your uncles and I do for a living, right?”

I laugh more out of nervousness than anything else. “You sell moonshine and it’s illegal. And I know it was bad to take it to the party.”

Uncle Jet looks angry now, but thankfully his stare isn’t directed at me. He’s pointing a finger at Uncle Dune. “I thought you talked to her. What was it . . . three or four years ago? You drew the short straw and then a few days later said you and Lennie had a good talk.”

“I was gonna!” Uncle Dune roars. “But then you had to stick your nose in and tell her first!”

“I sure as shit didn’t!” Uncle Jet shoots back. “Who told ya I did?”

“Well, Lennie …” Uncle Dune’s voice trails off and once again the focus is on me. Worse, Uncle Dune is looking at me with a look reminiscent of Bambi after his mother got shot. “Lennie … you lied to me?”

I gulp. “A little lie. I thought you were trying to give me the sex talk.”

Michaela leaps, like her insane love for Todd is some kind of superpower, and lands with her body spread over Todd. Protecting him. Absorbing Zinkowski’s fall. Making sure that Zinkowski’s fingertips do not connect with Todd. That they find her instead.

Michaela shimmers and glows orange. That lasts only for an instant, and then all three of them disappear in a sudden and explosive burst of orange cheese.

Smith and I instinctively fall back, pulling our shirts up to cover our mouths and noses from the noxious smell.

I wish I was making that up. I wish I was making all of this up.

Tired of always playing it safe, Lennie Cash is determined to kick off her senior year with a bang. Armed with a case of her uncle’s infamous moonshine (“Hinkton Family Moonshine: Brewing It in Bathtubs and Selling It Out of the Living Room Since 1923”), Lennie plans to bribe her way into Michaela Gordon’s annual Labor Day party – and not only avoid an unceremonious bounce, but own that bad girl.

It’s what her best friend Dylan would have wanted. Dyl, who loved her no matter what everyone else said about her criminal father, her sketchy uncles, or her low social standing. Dyl, who seized life by the balls and refused to let go. Dyl, who – just like Lennie – yearned for escape. Dyl, whose dismembered remains were found stuffed in a suitcase last April. Dylan with the hot twin, who now blames Lennie for his sister’s death.

What Lennie doesn’t realize is that the Hinkton family moonshine isn’t just special – it’s downright magical. Her uncles Jet, Rod, and Dune have the power to grant wishes, and that’s what they’re really selling to the people who crowd their living room couch. As Lennie plays bartender for her classmates, making a show of repeating her uncles’ ritual, she unwittingly grants a whole slew of ill-conceived wishes, all of which will come true by sunup the next morning: Class predator W2 gets balls of steel. Little Seanie O’Hara is a little bit taller (and a baller), while emo Devon Stringer wakes up with a shiny new pair of bat wings. And (my personal favorite) stoner Zinkowski wishes for the Midas touch – but with Cheetos instead of gold. (CHEETOS ARE PEOPLE!)

Worst of all, someone wishes for the party to never end, so all these newborn freaks are trapped together in the chaos of Michaela’s mansion until Lennie can find a way to undo the chaos she caused. All while being pursued by her sociopath of a father – and stuck, hand-in-hand, with Dylan’s grieving brother Smith.

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Book Review: The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi (2016)

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Oh my stars!

five out of five stars

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

Staring at the sky in Bharata was like exchanging a secret. It felt private, like I had peered through the veil of a hundred worlds. When I looked up, I could imagine—for a moment—what the sky hid from everyone else. I could see where the winds yawned with silver lips and curled themselves to sleep. I could glimpse the moon folding herself into crescents and half-smiles. When I looked up, I could imagine an existence as vast as the sky. Just as infinite. Just as unknown.

“I want your perspective and honesty,” he said, before adding in a softer voice, “I want to be humbled by you.”

Heat flared in my cheeks. I paused, the stick in my hand falling a fraction. Perspective and honesty? Humbled by me? Rajas never asked for anything other than sons from their consorts.

“My kingdom needs a queen,” he said. “It needs someone with fury in her heart and shadows in her smile. It needs someone restless and clever. It needs you.”

“You know nothing about me.”

“I know your soul. Everything else is an ornament.”

In the kingdom of Bharata, seventeen-year-old Mayavati is known as “the one with the horoscope” – cursed by cold, distant stars that promise a marriage of Death and Destruction. Maya is something of an outcast; though her father the Raj doesn’t place any credence in such superstitions, the Raj’s harem and the larger realm believe that one’s horoscope speaks the truth, if only we mortals deign to listen. And so Maya is scorned, treated like an outcast and a pariah, and blamed for the realm’s misfortunes, large and small.

Yet her morbid horoscope also promises Maya a life of (relative) freedom: unlike her many half-sisters, Maya is not expected to marry. Instead, she delves into academia, burying her nose in the kingdom’s dusty archives and delighting in chasing away a series of stuffy old tutors. She looks forward to becoming a “scholarly old maid” – better than being sold into a marriage of political convenience, just one of many wives left to beg scraps of attention from a near-stranger, no?

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