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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Book Review: Fellside, M.R. Carey (2016)

Friday, April 8th, 2016

Disappointing

three out of five stars

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

Jess Moulton wakes up in a hospital bed with few memories of the previous eight months. A heroin addict, she and her boyfriend John Street shot up in her flat; when a fire broke out later that night (started, according to the police, by Jess herself), John was able to escape with third degree burns on his hands and arms, but Jess wasn’t so lucky. Passed out cold, the fire melted half her face before first responders pulled her from the inferno. Alex Beech, the little boy who lived in the upstairs apartment, wasn’t so lucky; left home alone that night by his parents, Alex died of smoke inhalation.

After multiple skin grafts and extensive cosmetic surgery to repair her face, Jess is swiftly tried and convicted of murder. The Crown insists that Jess set the fire on purpose, to kill John and herself; the fact that someone else died instead does not manslaughter make. Left with no memories of the event – and a pretty low opinion of herself, college dropout and relapsed “junkie” – Jess does little to assist in her own defense. After the verdict comes down, she’s sent to Fellside, a women’s prison near the Yorkshire Moors. Convinced that she is indeed a “murderess,” Jess tries to kill herself by the only means at her disposal – a hunger strike.

Just as she’s on the precipice, Jess is visited by the ghost of Alex Beech – who enlists her help in finding the real killer. Fellside is fraught with danger: a drug smuggling ring led by Harriet Grace of “State of Grace” fame; corrupt wardens; incompetent management; damaged women with little left to lose – yet the greatest risk lies in that other world, the spirit world inhabited by dreamers and ghosts. A world that Jess has been able to traverse since she was a child.

Spooky, right?

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Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway (Every Heart A Doorway #1), Seanan McGuire (2016)

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Wonderfully Weird & Achingly Beautiful (But I Want More!)

four out of five stars

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

“Going back” had two distinct meanings at the school, depending on how it was said. It was the best thing in the world. It was also the worst thing that could happen to anybody. It was returning to a place that understood you so well that it had reached across realities to find you, claiming you as its own and only; it was being sent to a family that wanted to love you, wanted to keep you safe and sound, but didn’t know you well enough to do anything but hurt you. The duality of the phrase was like the duality of the doors: they changed lives, and they destroyed them, all with the same, simple invitation. Come through, and see.

She was a story, not an epilogue.

Have you ever wondered what happens once the story ends and the fantasy is over? After Will seals up the last window, only to return to a life of drudgery and anonymity in Oxford – without Lyra? Or when Alice, having barely escaped Wonderland with her head intact, has to face a “real” world that misinterprets her trauma as psychosis? Once the door has slammed shut and you’re not quite sure you ended up on the right side of it?

In Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire explores this unusual concept to great effect. Seventeen-year-old Nancy Whitman returned from the Halls of the Dead two months ago. To her parents, she was missing for six months. But time passed differently for Nancy, and she spent years serving the Lord of the Dead and the Lady of Shadows. She lived in shades of black and white and pomegranate, and moved with the stillness of a statue. Unlike many of her fellow refugees, Nancy wasn’t cast out, not exactly; the Lord sent her back so that she could be sure that she wanted to stay there forever. Only now she can’t find the doorway back, and this life – fast, colorful, frenetic – is slowly killing her.

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Book Review: The Girl from Everywhere, Heidi Heilig (2016)

Monday, February 15th, 2016

[Insert Fangirling Gif Here]

five out of five stars

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

Nix’s life began in Honolulu in 1868. Since then she has traveled to mythic Scandinavia, a land from the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, modern-day New York City, and many more places both real and imagined. As long as he has a map, Nix’s father can sail his ship, The Temptation, to any place, any time. But now he’s uncovered the one map he’s always sought—1868 Honolulu, before Nix’s mother died in childbirth. Nix’s life—her entire existence—is at stake. No one knows what will happen if her father changes the past. It could erase Nix’s future, her dreams, her adventures . . . her connection with the charming Persian thief, Kash, who’s been part of their crew for two years. If Nix helps her father reunite with the love of his life, it will cost her her own.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

Heidi Heilig’s debut novel (dear gods, can this really be her first novel? it’s so damn shiny!) The Girl from Everywhere is the sort of book that makes me wish I was a more eloquent writer – if only so I could craft a review that does it justice. As it is, I’m fighting the urge to post a whole slew of my favorite Firefly gifs and call it a day.

Instead of the usual review, allow me to bullet point this bad girl. (The bullet points keep me on point and spoiler-free.) Here are twelve reasons why you should read The Girl from Everywhere, like, yesterday.

1. The seamless blend of reality and fantasy.

The Girl from Everywhere is nothing if not an epic mashup of genres – and some of my favorites, to boot. Time travel screams SF to me, and yet Slate’s ability to Navigate is also wonderfully fantastical. We have historical fiction and even some travel writing in the Hawaiian backdrop, and along with more mundane settings, like contemporary New York City, The Temptation also visits places that only exist in myth.

Though Slate is the one able to break through the Margins of a map, to reach a different time and place, it’s Nix’s knowledge of history and mythology that truly steers the ship. Many of The Temptation’s voyages are in pursuit of the 1868 Honolulu map – or rather, in search of items that might make their quest more fruitful and convenient: a never-ending pitcher of wine from Greece, a bottomless bag from 1600s Wales, an army of terra cotta warriors from the Qin dynasty.

So very much to savor and explore after the story’s over and the wait for the sequel is driving you bonkers!

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

Friday, February 12th, 2016

The Unfinished World: Sorrowful to the End

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: City of Blades (The Divine Cities #2), Robert Jackson Bennett (2016)

Friday, February 5th, 2016

A Satisfying Follow-Up to City of Stairs

four out of five stars

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

People often ask me what I see when I look at the world. My answer is simple, and true. Possibilities. I see possibilities. —letter from Vallaicha Thinadeshi, 1649

More boos and catcalls. Mulaghesh thins her eyes as she watches the tribal leaders. They are all skinny, haggard things, dressed in robes and furs, their necks brightly tattooed and covered with curious patterns. Some are women, she sees, which surprises her: Bulikov strictly forbade women from doing anything more than firing out children as quickly and efficiently as possible. But then, she thinks, Voortya probably wouldn’t have tolerated that bullshit.

Five years have passed since the Battle of Bulikov, and its heroes are all scattered around the globe. Former ministry agent Shara Komayd now runs the whole damn thing – but her progressive, pro-Continent policies have proven unpopular in Saypur, and it’s unlikely that her stint as Prime Minister will endure long enough for Shara to see them through. Meanwhile, Shara’s muscle Sigrud has reconnected with his estranged family, helped to found the new democracy The United Dreyling States … and been nudged into political office by his wife, Hild. (“Chancellor” is a safer occupation than “pirate hunter” or “assassin” – or so one would think.)

As for General Turyin Mulaghesh, she’s done what Sigrud can only dream of: disavowed herself of politics altogether. After Bulikov, Mulaghesh was promoted to vice-chairman of the Saypuri Military Council: a promotion that did not sit well with this soldier. Haunted by her past and frustrated by a bureaucratic post that prevented her from actively atoning for her sins, Mulaghesh abruptly retired to the resort island of Javrat. Now she spends her days drinking, scrapping with the locals, and being an all-around curmudgeon.

Until the day PM Komayd pulls her back in, that is.

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DNF Review: Revenge and the Wild, Michelle Modesto (2016)

Monday, February 1st, 2016

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

The two-bit town of Rogue City is a lawless place, full of dark magic and saloon brawls, monsters and six-shooters. But it’s perfect for seventeen-year-old Westie, the notorious adopted daughter of local inventor Nigel Butler.

Westie was only a child when she lost her arm and her family to cannibals on the wagon trail. Nine years later, Westie may seem fearsome with her foul-mouthed tough exterior and the powerful mechanical arm built for her by Nigel, but the memory of her past still haunts her. She’s determined to make the killers pay for their crimes—and there’s nothing to stop her except her own reckless ways.

But Westie’s search ceases when a wealthy family comes to town looking to invest in Nigel’s latest invention, a machine that can harvest magic from gold—which Rogue City desperately needs as the magic wards that surround the city start to fail. There’s only one problem: the investors look exactly like the family who murdered Westie’s kin. With the help of Nigel’s handsome but scarred young assistant, Alistair, Westie sets out to prove their guilt. But if she’s not careful, her desire for revenge could cost her the family she has now.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

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Book Review: The Merman, Carl-Johan Vallgren (2015)

Monday, December 7th, 2015

“Fairy tales with tragic endings.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including bullying, sexual violence, and animal abuse, as well as offensive language.)

There is no beginning, and no ending. I know that now. For others, perhaps, there are stories that lead somewhere, but not for me. It’s like they go round in circles, and sometimes not even that: they just stand still in one place. And I wonder: what are you supposed to do with a story that repeats itself?

“There’s not much that’s been written about mermaids, you see. Mainly fairy tales with tragic endings.”

Petronella’s life is a lot like a fairy tale. Not the ending, when the lowly peasant girl has found her prince, the heroine has slayed the dragon, and everyone is free to live happily ever after for the rest of their days. Rather, Nella is the beginning; the nightmare that comes before the daydream. The raw truth that lurks under the Disneyfied facade, fangs and claws bared.

Nella’s is a family of three, occasionally four. She and her younger brother Robert live with their mother Marika in a maisonette (apartment) on Liljevägen in Falkenberg, Sweden; her housing is largely regarded as “a sort of slum where social service cases live.” An unemployed alcoholic, Marika is a neglectful mother at best. Her mom is more likely to spend the family’s public assistance funds on booze than food, forcing Nella into shoplifting to make up the difference. Sometimes the free lunch at school is the only meal Nella and Robert will see in a day; oftentimes it’s the one and only reason they bother to show up at all. That, and to get out of the house: no matter how much Nella tidies up, it’s not long before hurricane Marika sweeps through, leaving mess of dishes and vomit in her wake.

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DNF Book Review: The Girl with Ghost Eyes, M. H. Boroson (2015)

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

 

It’s the end of the nineteenth century in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and ghost hunters from the Maoshan traditions of Daoism keep malevolent spiritual forces at bay. Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist, is a young widow burdened with yin eyes—the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring great shame to Li-lin and her father—and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford.

When a sorcerer cripples her father, terrible plans are set in motion, and only Li-lin can stop them. To aid her are her martial arts and a peachwood sword, her burning paper talismans, and a wisecracking spirit in the form of a human eyeball tucked away in her pocket. Navigating the dangerous alleys and backrooms of a male-dominated Chinatown, Li-lin must confront evil spirits, gangsters, and soulstealers before the sorcerer’s ritual summons an ancient evil that could burn Chinatown to the ground.

With a rich and inventive historical setting, nonstop martial arts action, authentic Chinese magic, and bizarre monsters from Asian folklore, The Girl with Ghost Eyes is also the poignant story of a young immigrant searching to find her place beside the long shadow of a demanding father and the stigma of widowhood. In a Chinatown caught between tradition and modernity, one woman may be the key to holding everything together.

(summary via Goodreads)

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Book Review: Menagerie, Rachel Vincent (2015)

Monday, September 28th, 2015

“I deal in morality, not in law.”

five out of five stars

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

“She won’t serve her dish cold,” the oracle mumbled, almost giddy with joy as chill bumps rose all over her skin. “And two graves won’t be near enough…”

What was I, if I had no name, no friends, no family, no job, no home, no belongings, and no authority over my own body? What could I be?

In a sudden surreal moment of epiphany, I realized I was incubating not a child, but a cause.

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? – Jeremy Bentham

I have a curious affinity for circus stories: tales that unfold under the Big Top, or books starring carnival performers. Thus far 2015 has been a great year to be a fan of such stories. Kirsty Logan imagines a world vastly transformed by climate change in The Gracekeepers. After her parents were mauled to death by the captive bear featured in their act, North was forced to take up their show, alone – save for the bear’s cub, North’s only companion. Two orphans, traveling the world with the floating circus troupe known as Excalibur. Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels follows Coney Island sideshow performer Odile Church as she travels to Manhattan in search of her sister, who fled The Church of Marvels when it burned to the ground, taking the sisters’ mother – and their livelihood – with them. In The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler weaves an imaginative tale about a librarian named Simon who comes into possession of an old book – a circus ledger dating back to the 1700s. Only by unraveling its secrets can he lift the curse that’s plagued his family for generations. And then there’s Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers – which I’m currently a quarter of the way into – a retelling of Romeo & Juliet featuring two rival families of performers, the Palomas (mermaids) and Corbeaus (tightrope walkers/tree climbers). There’s also The Wanderers, by Kate Ormand, which I didn’t enjoy nearly as much (I DNF’ed at 41%), but I’ll get to that one in a moment.

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Book Review: The Weight of Feathers, Anna-Marie McLemore (2015)

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

A magical retelling of Romeo & Juliet – and with a much more satisfying ending, at that!

four out of five stars

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

The rain on her dress and his shirt would stick them to each other, dissolve the skin between them, until their veins tangled like roots, and they breathed together, one scaled and dark-feathered thing.

Lace’s first encounter with Cluck is in the parking lot of a convenience store located on the outskirts of Almendro, California, a sleepy little town. Three of her cousins are attacking Cluck, pummeling him with their fists and feet, for no reason other than his perceived difference. Well-versed in the art of taking a beating – thanks to his older brother Dax – Cluck just lies there, taking it, hoping that his lack of participation will sap some of the fun out of their “game.” Lace chases his attackers away, and then offers Cluck ice cubes wrapped in her scarf to sooth his cuts and bruises. Both mistake the other for a local – when, in fact, they are members of two rival families of traveling performers.

The Palomas and Corbeaus travel all across North America, but always cross paths in Almendro; the crowd drawn there by the annual Blackberry Festival is just too good to pass up. For years, they were simply rivals, showpeople competing over the same sets of eyeballs. But one flooded lake and two dead performers – one from each family – turned them to enemies. Each blames the other for the “natural disaster,” with the stories and superstitions becoming more outlandish year after year. Each family can agree on one thing, however: the only acceptable way to touch a Paloma (or Corbeau) is in the pursuit of violence.

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DNF Book Review: The Wanderers, Kate Ormand (2015)

Monday, September 7th, 2015

 

A Unique Twist on Shape-Shifters with Fast-Paced Action, Thrilling Adventure, Mystery, and a Bit of Romance

Flo lives an eccentric life—she travels with a popular circus in which the main acts star orphaned children with secret shape-shifting abilities. Once Flo turns sixteen, she must perform, but she’s not ready. While practicing jumping a flaming hurdle in a clearing beside the circus, she spots a dark figure in the trees and fears he saw her shift. The news sends the circus into a panic.

In Flo’s world, shifters are unknown to humans with the exception of a secret organization—the EOS, referred to as “hunters.” Hunters capture and kill. They send some shifters to labs for observation and testing—testing they don’t often survive—and deem others useless, a danger to society, and eliminate them. To avoid discovery, shifters travel in packs, constantly moving and keeping themselves hidden. Up until now, the circus was the perfect disguise.

Believing she has brought attention to the group, Flo feels dread and anxiety, causing her to make a mistake during her performance in front of the audience—a mistake that triggers a violent attack from the hunters.

Flo manages to flee the torched circus grounds with Jett, the bear shifter who loves her; the annoying elephant triplets; and a bratty tiger named Pru. Together they begin a new journey, alone in a world they don’t understand and don’t know how to navigate. On the run, they unravel secrets and lies that surround the circus and their lives—secrets and lies that all point to the unthinkable: Have they been betrayed by the people they trusted most?

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

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