Book Review: The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon (2016)

Friday, November 4th, 2016

A raw, unflinching, powerful, and very necessary book.

five out of five stars

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

I find my notebook and pencil and I start to write. The letters flow from deep inside me without even a pause to worry about which way is which and where to put what. And my head fills with memories and stories from so long ago that fences weren’t even invented yet. Stories that haven’t even happened yet. Stories that the world won’t see for years and years. All those stories swirl through my head, but I suck them all in and tell them to wait. Because first I have to write the most important story of them all. The story which isn’t even a story. The story that has to be told, no matter how hard it is to tell.

Ten-year-old Subhi was born in an Australian detention center. Originally from Burma (Myanmar), his Maá and older sister Queeny (Noor) were forcibly removed by soldiers, put on a boat and compelled to set sail at gunpoint. His ba, a poet, was imprisoned by the government.

Their offense? Subhi and his family are Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority living in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. In the Author’s Note, Fraillon explains that “the United Nations and Amnesty International have declared the Rohingya to be one of the most persecuted people on earth, and a recent investigation by Al Jazeera News suggested that the government of Myanmar is committing genocide in its treatment of the Rohingya. The Rohingya are being hunted into extinction.”

For the past decade, they’ve been in limbo: unable to return to their native country, but unwelcome where they washed up. Like the United States, Australia has a policy of mandatory detention; refugees are treated much like criminals.

In order to keep his mind from turning to “mush,” Subhi clings to stories – the familiar, well-worn tales of his family, and new ones belonging to the nine hundred other refugees who live in the detention center alongside him. Especially cherished are those stories dreamed up by his ba; stories of the Night Sea, which sometimes washes over Subhi’s camp as he dreams, leaving cryptic treasures in its wake: A small statue of a knight. A little blue toy car. A sketch of a thousand birds in flight. A green coin rimmed with black smudges. Subhi believes that these are messages, sent by his ba – and that, one day, he’ll come in person to rescue them from this non-existence.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation, Miles Hyman (2016)

Monday, October 31st, 2016

2016-10-06 - Shirley Jackson's The Lottery - 0003 [flickr]

Chilling; Hyman masterfully channels the spirit of the original.

four out of five stars

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

No point in changing things now, is there?

First published in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” has held up remarkably well over time; it’s still as chilling and relevant today as it was seven decades ago.

Set in Any Town, USA, the story opens on a sunny June day, as the bustling townspeople prepare for the annual lottery. The very word evokes feelings of hope and luck, piles of money and all the good things the winner might do with her prize. Yet this lottery is much darker and more sinister than all that; entrants don’t sacrifice a dollar to the kitty, but rather their very lives. And, until a revolution overthrows the barbaric, antiquated system, everyone is forced to participate – whether they want to or not.

2016-10-06 - Shirley Jackson's The Lottery - 0007 [flickr]

I didn’t realize it at first, but this graphic novel adaptation was written by one of Shirley Jackson’s descendants – her grandson, Miles Hyman, who has previously written and illustrated several French-language graphic novels. The result is both skillful and strangely touching; I say “strangely” because, well, it’s a bleak and brutal story.

Yet Hyman masterfully channels the spirit of the original story. The artwork is lovely, yet almost doggedly plain and drab – much like the town, which sees fit to murder one of its own in hopes of a bountiful harvest. There’s a real Leave it to Beaver quality to the story, but with a dash of noir to spice things up. As with the original, the plainness of the setting only heightens the horror that’s to come.

2016-10-06 - Shirley Jackson's The Lottery - 0008 [flickr]

The story is faithful to the original, though Hyman does add some new scenes to flesh out the history of the Lottery and its mythic box, supposedly built from remains of the very first one. Much of the dialogue is lifted right from the source material, word for word.

But this isn’t to suggest that Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ is unnecessary or redundant; quite the opposite. It introduces the story to a whole new audience, while adding to the mythos of the original.

2016-10-06 - Shirley Jackson's The Lottery - 0009 [flickr]

If nothing else, Jackson fans should read it for the preface, in which Hyman shares a family ritual involving an ornate Victorian music box, and a childhood spent among artistic luminaries. These memories, told with obvious care and love, made me see the story in a new (dare I say gentler? nostalgic, even?) light.

(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: The Family Plot, Cherie Priest (2016)

Friday, October 28th, 2016

A Creepy HGTV/CW Crossover

four out of five stars

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

In all the years she’d been talking to houses, the houses had never talked back.

“We can’t salvage ghosts. They don’t sell for shit.”

Music City Salvage is struggling: several of their clients stiffed them on pretty hefty bills, and their warehouse of stale stock just isn’t moving. So when old money Augusta Withrow approaches them about buying the salvage rights to her family estate, owner Chuck Dutton jumps at the maybe-too-good-to-be-true chance. At forty grand, it’s a gamble: that’s more cash than they’ve got in the bank, but the payoff could be huge. Or the deal just might bankrupt the family-owned company.

Chuck’s daughter Dahlia heads up the salvage team. Also on board: her cousin Bobby, with whom she hasn’t been on the best of terms lately, not since he sided with her ex-husband Andy in the divorce; Bobby’s son, Gabe; and resident nerd Brad, a salvage virgin. The quartet has a week to travel the two hours from Nashville to Chattanooga, strip the mansion and numerous outbuildings clean, and pack it all up before the wrecking crew arrives to do its worst.

It should be easy peasy, except that the estate is situated at the base of Lookout Mountain, and there’s a storm a-brewing, threatening to wash them all away. And Bobby is an alcoholic, and Dahl might be headed down that path too, and they kind of hate each others’ guts. Oh, and the estate is haunted. By no fewer than four ghosts. What could possibly go wrong?

(More below the fold…)

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.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt (2016)

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Near perfection (~90%).

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Edelweiss/Library Thing. Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence.)

Once again, Iris thought, here she was, undone by love and mad with grief because of it. She had seen that poster in Lucy’s room, that ridiculous sentiment that you don’t belong to me, and I don’t belong to you, but if we find each other, it’s beautiful. What a stupid thing to say! Of course people belonged to each other. Love owned you. It kept you captive.

At sixty-seven, Iris Gold had long since given up on having children. She and her late husband Doug were never quite able; and, when she broached the idea of adopting, he insisted that he didn’t want to raise children who weren’t his own, biologically speaking.

But after a long and loving – if unconventional – marriage, Doug passed away in his sixties, felled in his beloved garden by a heart attack. Initially grief-stricken, Iris finally decided to carry on, as she always had done. Iris is nothing if not a survivor – a “tough old bird” – and this would hardly be the first time she’d had to fend for herself (the scandal!). So she decided to use the money Doug left her to travel to all the places she’d dreamed of, but had never been able to go: Paris. Spain. Istanbul.: “The whole world was opening for her.”

Days before she was to depart for her new life, an unexpected phone call threw Iris Gold one more curve ball – and not the last. A man from Iris’s long-buried past had died suddenly; he and his wife perished in a club fire, leaving their two little girls orphaned. Five-year-old Lucy and six-year-old Charlotte had no other relatives. Reluctantly, Iris canceled her plans and took the girls in. In her golden years, Iris finally got the life she’d always wanted; or almost, anyway. She fell in love quickly and deeply, as did Lucy; Charlotte was a little slower to come around, but come around she did.

Now it’s eleven years later; Lucy is a sophomore in high school, and Charlotte will be headed off to college in a few short months. But Iris’s life is upended again, when Lucy disappears on the last day of school. Though Iris doesn’t know it yet – won’t, for many months – Lucy ran off to the Pennsylvania wilderness to be with her thirty-year-old English teacher, William Lallo. In her wake, Lucy leaves behind a cryptic note assuring Iris and Charlotte of her safety – and a family that’s tattered and struggling, but surviving as best it can.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party, Skila Brown (2016)

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

“The men think they’re following a trail … But I know.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for cannibalism and domestic violence.)

There’s only a little gap between rain and snow,
an open window of sunshine to go,
it all must be timed just right
or it will go all wrong,
like a cup of tea that slips
from too hot to too cold
without leaving enough time
in between to drink it.

Imagine.
He almost shot Charles,
thinking he was food.

When you picture the Donner Party, of course cannibalism is the first thing to come to mind. OF COURSE. After all, it’s THE reason this ill-fated expedition made it into the history books: the gruesome lengths that many of the surviving members had to go to to stay alive. And yet murder and cannibalism isn’t where their stories begin, or end. There’s also romance, adventure, and optimism. A can-do spirit and the pursuit of the American Dream. Even if this dream is built on the backs of those who lived here before us.

(Several times, the caravan’s livestock is freed/stolen by “Indians” – who I couldn’t help but root for – and Brown briefly mentions the indigenous populations in the Author’s Note. When the killing starts, it’s the group’s Native American guides who are the first to go.)

In To Stay Alive, Skila Brown reconstructs these events through the eyes of Mary Ann Graves, who was nineteen when she and her family set out from their home in Lacon, Illinois to make a new life California. The already-arduous journey turned deadly when the Donner-Reed Party, as it came to be known, found themselves snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-47, just a hundred-odd miles shy of their destination. While the majority of the party made camp next to Truckee Lake in anticipation of the spring thaw, supplies quickly dwindled, and so a small group set out on foot to find help. When they ran out food, they were forced to eat the dead to survive – first those felled by starvation and hypothermia, and then those murdered for food. (I’m not sure how closely To Stay Alive reflects reality, but the whole murdering-people-for-food thing seems a little more controversial IRL.)

To Stay Alive is particularly noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it’s a novel written in verse and 2) its intended audience, which is middle grade readers.

(More below the fold…)

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.

(More below the fold…)

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.

(More below the fold…)

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?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Spare and Found Parts, Sarah Maria Griffin (2016)

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

“From my heart and from my hand and / Why don’t people understand my intention?”

three out of five stars

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

There are three rules:
1. The sick in the Pale, the healed in the Pasture.
2. Contribute, at all cost.
3. All code is blasphemy.

It came together at her will, and a cocktail of delight and pride swelled inside her. She would hold this hand. She would be held by this hand.

“I am your maker,” you say. I open my eyes again and … love. Yes, this is love. Your hand is wrapped around mine. This is what it is to be alive.

— 3.5 stars —

Nell Crane’s life is tick-tick-ticking away around her. There is the audible, literal tick: the sound of her robotic heart beating. The sound that sustains her life – at least for now – but also sets her apart from her peers. Though almost all of the residents of the Pale are missing limbs, Nell is the only one whose deformity is hidden on the inside. And, unlike the biomechanical prostheses worn by her peers, the failure of Nell’s augmentation could mean her death.

There’s also the metaphorical tick of time, spelled out in painful detail for Nell by her once-beloved (now insufferable) Nan. All citizens of Black Water City are expected to contribute to the city’s progress in some way. Instead of traditional schooling, kids take on apprenticeships; by their late teen years, they’re expected present a contribution to the city council; marry a compatible someone and help with his or her project; move out to the Pasture; or do manual labor on Kate, the city’s answer to the Statue of Liberty. Contributions run the gamut, from nightclubs and bakeries to boost morale, to more practical projects, like health care and scientific advancements.

Nell’s parents did both: Kate is her late mother’s baby, Nell’s other sister; and Dr. Julius Crane invented the prosthetic limbs that everyone so proudly wears today. Their legacy is the albatross wrapped tightly around Nell’s neck, slowly but surely strangling her. How can she – a cranky, moody loner – possibly live up to the Sterling-Crane family name?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Last Seen Leaving, Caleb Roehrig (2016)

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

What happened to January Beth McConville?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and rape. This review contains a spoiler in the form of Flynn’s secret – but it’s revealed so early on that it’s not much of a spoiler, imho.)

“I won’t be your safeguard or your excuse or your problem anymore,” she spat suddenly, venomously. “Either admit the truth, or find a new place to hide, because I’m done!”

Her feet pounded across the shadowy hayloft, then descended the ladder, and then crossed the barn underneath me. I heard the door creak open, and caught a glimpse of her glowing blond hair as she jogged from the barn back into the trees, heading toward the meadow.

It was the last time I saw her. Those were the last words she spoke to me.

One crisp October afternoon, fifteen-year-old Flynn Doherty returns home after school, only to find a cop car parked conspicuously outside. Flynn’s girlfriend January McConville has been missing for nearly a week, and Flynn may have been the last person to see her. As if that fact isn’t damning enough, Flynn claims not to have known about January’s disappearance: since her mother and stepfather forcibly transferred her to Dumas, a private school for rich kids located on the other side of town, they’d been growing apart. In fact, January broke up with him right before she vanished. (Strike three!)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Women in the Walls, Amy Lukavics (2016)

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

The Women in the Walls are no Devilish Daughters

three out of five stars

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

Lucy Acosta’s mother died when she was three. Growing up in a Victorian mansion in the middle of the woods with her cold, distant father, she explored the dark hallways of the estate with her cousin, Margaret. They’re inseparable—a family.

When her aunt Penelope, the only mother she’s ever known, tragically disappears while walking in the woods surrounding their estate, Lucy finds herself devastated and alone. Margaret has been spending a lot of time in the attic. She claims she can hear her dead mother’s voice whispering from the walls. Emotionally shut out by her father, Lucy watches helplessly as her cousin’s sanity slowly unravels. But when she begins hearing voices herself, Lucy finds herself confronting an ancient and deadly legacy that has marked the women in her family for generations.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

So ever since I found Walter dead, I’ve been acting as if nothing happened, even though on the inside I’m beginning to unravel, slowly, like a thread being pulled painstakingly from its spool. Something isn’t right in this house.

So I saw that one early reviewer read Daughters Unto Devils and The Women in the Walls back-to-back, and thought it a pretty swell idea; after all, Daughters has been in my TBR pile for going on a year now, and what better time to read it than an Amy Lukavics binge? Now that I’ve finished, I’m not entirely sure it was the best move. I really enjoyed Daughters, and Women was a bit of a letdown by comparison; but, had I read Women first, it’s quite likely that Daughters would have taken a drastic hit in priority. So it’s a bit of a toss-up.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Daughters Unto Devils, Amy Lukavics (2015)

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Psychological Tension Like Whoah

four out of five stars

When sixteen-year-old Amanda Verner’s family decides to move from their small mountain cabin to the vast prairie, she hopes it is her chance for a fresh start. She can leave behind the memory of the past winter; of her sickly ma giving birth to a baby sister who cries endlessly; of the terrifying visions she saw as her sanity began to slip, the victim of cabin fever; and most of all, the memories of the boy she has been secretly meeting with as a distraction from her pain. The boy whose baby she now carries.

When the Verners arrive at their new home, a large cabin abandoned by its previous owners, they discover the inside covered in blood. And as the days pass, it is obvious to Amanda that something isn’t right on the prairie. She’s heard stories of lands being tainted by evil, of men losing their minds and killing their families, and there is something strange about the doctor and his son who live in the woods on the edge of the prairie. But with the guilt and shame of her sins weighing on her, Amanda can’t be sure if the true evil lies in the land, or deep within her soul.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

— 4.5 stars —

The Lord works in mysterious ways, all right. Wish a baby dead, get another one in return as punishment. This is my reckoning.

Cat Winters nails it in the cover blurb: Daughters Unto Devils is what Stephen King’s take on Little House on the Prairie might look like. Faced with the prospect of riding out yet another harsh winter in their tiny, remote mountain cabin, the Verner family – Susan and Edmund (Ma and pa), and their children Hannah, Joanna, Charles, Emily, and Amanda – decide to strike out for the prairie. (Actually it’s less of a collective decision than a mandate from the patriarch, but wev.) Rumor has it that there a bunch of abandoned homesteads ripe for the picking. Recovering from a mental breakdown/possible demonic possession and newly pregnant thanks to an illicit affair with the postal boy, eldest child Amanda welcomes the fresh start. But it seems that the devil has followed their humble little caravan….either that, or the prairie is home to its own breed of evil.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Children of the New World: Stories, Alexander Weinstein (2016)

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

“a comeback story without a comeback”

five out of five stars

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

We were like babies. Like Adam and Eve, some said. We reached out toward one another to see how skin felt; we let our neighbors’ hands run across our arms. In this world, we seemed to understand, we were free to experience a physical connection that we’d always longed for in the real world but had never been able to achieve. Who can blame us for being reckless?

(“Children of the New World”)

Publicly, we sold memories under Quimbly, Barrett & Woods, but when it was just the three of us, working late into the night, we thought of ourselves as mapmakers. […] Here was the ocean, here the ships, here the hotel, here the path that led to town, here the street vendors, here the memories of children we never had and parents much better than the ones we did. And far out there was the edge of the world.

(“The Cartographers”)

It’s not often that I’m so truly and hopelessly blown away by a collection of short stories. Anthologies with multiple contributors are almost always a little choppy, and even those written by a single author tend to be a mixed bag. But Alexander Weinstein? He works some serious magic in Children of the New World.

The thirteen stories found within these pages are beautiful, imaginative, and deeply unsettling. Together, they create a portrait of a future beholden to technology: where consumers willingly and happily abandon memories based on fact in favor kinder, gentler fictions; where humans rarely leave the virtual world, let alone their houses; where people fornicate like mad but reproduce through cloning – and sometimes even programming. Where lovers can peel back all their layers – metaphorically and literally – and grant their partners access to every fleeting thought, emotion, and memory. Where even the apocalypse is powerless to break the hold that mere things – Lego toys and Kitchenaid mixers – exert over us.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Lost and the Found, Cat Clark (2016)

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

On Children Lost and Found – and Overlooked and Forgotten

four out of five stars

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

Chances are, you have seen her. The photo of blond-haired, gap-toothed, polka-dot-dressed, teddy bear–cradling Laurel Logan has surely been printed in almost every newspaper in the world (probably even the Uzbekistan Times, now that I think about it). […]

I was also in the original photo: four years old, cute in the way that all four-year-olds are, but nothing special. Not like her. Frizzy brown hair, beady little eyes, hand-me-down clothes. I was playing in a sandbox in the background, slightly out of focus. That’s how it’s been my whole life: in the background, slightly out of focus. You hardly ever see that version of the photo—the one where I haven’t been cropped out.

I try to put myself in her shoes. Coming back to your family after all that time. You’d want things to be the same as when you left, wouldn’t you? But a lot can change in thirteen years. Your mother can wither away to nothingness, and your dad can get together with a lovely Frenchman, and your little sister can stop building sand castles and start building a wall around herself instead.

For as long as she can remember, seventeen-year-old Faith Logan has lived in her older sister’s shadow. When they were younger, Laurel was everything Faith was not: friendly, outgoing, and beautiful. Whereas Faith inherited their parents’ plain Jane, mousey looks – complete with frizzy brown hair and beady eyes – the adopted Laurel practically shined with her golden blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Laurel was the leader and Faith, her mostly-content follower. That is, until the day that Laurel was kidnapped from their front yard, lured away by a stranger promising ice cream cones.

In the intervening thirteen years, Laurel has overshadowed Faith in a much more tragic and morbid way. Their mother Olivia suffers from chronic depression, a melancholy broken only by the single-minded determination to find her missing daughter. Father John is more or less absent from his remaining daughter’s life; his new boyfriend Michel seems to do a better job of parenting Faith than the two combined. Unwilling to be perpetually cast as “Little Laurel Logan’s” sad and less interesting younger sister, Faith avoids publicity as assiduously as Olivia courts it: both to fund the never ending search for Laurel, and to keep her case alive in the public’s mind. Faith can count her friends on one hand, as too many of her peers seem to want to get close to her so they can be nearer tragedy. Rubberneckers and paparazzi vultures: these are the creatures she’s built up armor against.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Female of the Species, Mindy McGinnis (2016)

Monday, September 19th, 2016

There aren’t enough stars in the universe.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and pedophilia. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

The shelter is running a neuter-and-spay clinic next month. One of my jobs this morning is to get the mail, fighting the urge to throw a rock at a speeding car when the driver wolf-whistles at me. The mailbox is full of applications for the clinic, most of them for dogs but a handful of cats as well. Rhonda, the lady who runs the shelter, has me sort them out, dogs and cats, male and female.

Rhonda snorts when she sees all the male dogs on the roster. “People don’t learn,” she says.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Everyone thinks if you fix a male dog it will lower his aggression, but most of the biters are female. It’s basic instinct to protect their own womb. You see it in all animals—the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

The books didn’t help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own. I am vengeance.

Like her father before her, who abandoned the family when she was a kid, Alex Craft has violent tendencies. Unlike Daddy Dearest, however, what piques Alex’s rage is injustice: bullying, animal abuse, rape jokes, and violence (particularly that of a sexual nature). If her father had stayed, it’s entirely possible that they would have come to blows, since he sometimes seemed one frayed nerve away from wife beating territory. But Alex saw him as a kindred spirit, and in his absence, she has no one to relate to or confide in. No one to teach her how to channel her rage in a productive way.

Alex’s older sister Anna helped to keep her wolf caged. When Anna was murdered, Alex unlocked the door.

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

Saturday, September 17th, 2016

Charming Illustrations and a Story That’s Suitable for Kids

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, don’t eat children.

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

Book Review: The Conjoined, Jen Sookfong Lee (2016)

Friday, September 16th, 2016

“I come from a family of psychopaths.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and child abuse. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to be as vague as possible.)

She was on the verge of losing her girls, not to a bearded, smelly man in a rusty pick-up truck, but to a phalanx of people who would look at her and see her mistakes, the gaps of time that she had left her daughters alone, the frank conversations she might have started with them but didn’t. She had worried over the wrong threats. […]

Ginny picked up the receiver. She might as well call. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that someone would understand.

It was easy to say My childhood was normal. It was the sort of thing people say when they want to deflect attention, or when it was the most polite way to explain that you grew up with privilege, that your past wasn’t dotted with evictions and coupons and beatings from a father who could never keep a job. It was what Jessica always said, even though she knew this statement couldn’t possibly be true for anyone.

Here are three things you should know about The Conjoined:

1. The book’s Little Red Riding Hood /The Handmaid’s Tale– inspired cover bears little relation to the story.

2. There are no conjoined twins in this book.

3. It’s still a pretty good read anyway, unsatisfying ending excluded.

About a month after losing her mother Donna to cancer, twenty-eight-year-old Jessica Campbell is helping her father Gerry sort through the detritus of their decades-long marriage when they make a truly horrifying discovery. Amid Ziplock bags stuffed with frostbitten bison meat, Gerry finds the bodies of two (very human) girls stashed in his wife’s basement freezers. (I own two chest freezers, and the roomier models are most definitely large enough to accommodate the body of a teenage girl. Don’t worry; you’ll only find homegrown apples and cases of Daiya cheese in my freezers.) The police are summoned straightaway, reopening an investigation into an eighteen-year-old mystery: whatever happened to Jamie and Casey Cheng?

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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: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016)

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Harrowing and heartbreaking — and brimming with humanity.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC though Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including slavery and rape, and offensive language.)

Cora couldn’t pay attention. The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables—this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.

RAN AWAY
from her legal but not rightful master fifteen months past,
a slave girl called CORA;
of ordinary height and dark brown complexion;
has a star-shape mark on her temple from an injury;
possessed of a spirited nature and devious method.
Possibly answering to the name BESSIE.
Last seen in Indiana among the outlaws of John Valentine Farm.
She has stopped running.
Reward remains unclaimed.
SHE WAS NEVER PROPERTY.
December 23

Sixteen-year-old Cora was born on the Randall plantation in Georgia, just like her mother before her. Mabel’s mother, Ajarry, was the first of their line to set foot on American soil. She was kidnapped, separated from her family, and enslaved when she was just a girl. Twice she tried to commit suicide on the long voyage across the Atlantic, to no avail. She married three times and birthed five children; Mabel was the only one to survive into adulthood. Mabel had a little more luck in her escape attempt: when Cora was ten or eleven, she ran away, never to return.

The first time Caesar asked Cora to run away with him, she refused. Three weeks later, she said yes. In the interim, Cora had snapped; just for a second, throwing her body over that of a young boy named Chester to shield him from punishment. A beating with a cane, for the crime of bumping into his owner’s brother, thus spilling a drop of wine on his shirtsleeve. She’d landed on Terrance Randall’s radar; Terrance, who was now poised to assume control of his brother James’s half of the plantation. Terrance, the crueler and more sadistic of the Randall boys.

“She had not been his and now she was his. Or she had always been his and just now knew it.”

So Caesar and Cora make a break for it, with a little help from the famed Underground Railroad. Only here, Whitehead reimagines the UR as an honest-to-goodness, wood and steel train; one that travels through tunnels carved into the rock by black and brown hands. A railroad that runs up and down the East Coast, on an intermittent schedule, with stops closing and rerouting as needed.

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