Book Review: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Expanded Edition, edited by Hope Nicholson (2016)

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

A Love Letter to Geek Girls, Young and Old

four out of five stars

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

You know where God lives and God is in paint and ink and pencil and the page: you fell in love and became that love. Transformed, like in a fairy tale. A girl who became a wolf, focused and hungry for only one thing: story.

You never stopped hunting stories. Little wolf, persistent but timid, prowling shelves and stacks; anywhere there were books, that was the forest you claimed. You found a frontier in your school library, rushing inside every morning with exquisite relief because books were home, books were where you were most alive, books were places you could pretend you were brave. Books were walls against everything that frightened you.

– “Ghost,” Marjorie Liu

The Brontë sisters had such lady boners for the Duke of Wellington that they wrote hundreds of pages of fanfiction about the guy.

– “How Fanfiction Made Me Gay,” J. M. Frey

Any project with Margaret Atwood’s name attached is an instabuy for me, so there was no doubt that I’d preorder a copy of the new and expanded edition of The Secret Loves of Geek Girls. (My only question is, where the heck was I when the Kickstarter was open?)

While Atwood’s quartet of four-panel comics is cute and super-relatable, it’s actually not the highlight of the anthology (surprise!). Nope, that honor would have to go to Marjorie Liu’s essay “Ghost,” which is simply breathtaking, threatening to unspool your soul till its innermost bits are laid bare – and then stitch and crimp you back together, stronger and bolder than before. (And all in the space of four and a half pages, at that.) Of course, being a sucker for pop culture criticism, Laura Neubert’s “They Bury You in White” and Megan Kearney’s “Regards to the Golbin King” are close ties for second place.

A mix of short nonfiction and comics (“They Bury You in White” and “Regards to the Golbin King” both fall into this category), the many and varied contributions to The Secret Loves of Geek Girls tackle a wide range of topics, from falling in love with fictional characters to navigating the perils and pitfalls of dating, both on- and offline; exploring and defining one’s sexuality in the pre- and post-digital age; surviving and thriving after a divorce; bonding over shared passions; and the perks of platonic relationships and girly gossip.

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Book Review: Wintersong, S. Jae-Jones (2017)

Monday, February 6th, 2017

“Such sensuous enjoyment.”

four out of five stars

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

I surveyed my kingdom. Chaos. Cruelty. Abandon. I had always been holding back. Always been restrained. I wanted to be bigger, brighter, better; I wanted to be capricious, malicious, sly. Until now, I had not known the intoxicating sweetness of attention. In the world above, it had always been Käthe or Josef who captivated people’s eyes and hearts—Käthe with her beauty, Josef with his talent. I was forgotten, overlooked, ignored—the plain, drab, practical, talentless sister. But here in the Underground, I was the sun around which their world spun, the axis around which their maelstrom twirled. Liesl the girl had been dull, drab, and obedient; Elisabeth the woman was a queen.

“I may be just a maiden, mein Herr,” I whispered. “But I am a brave maiden.”

When Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is claimed by the Goblin King and kidnapped to the Underground, it’s up to Liesl to rescue her. After all, it’s Liesl and her mother who keep the family together and the inn running. Plain, drab, boring Liesl, who lacks Käthe’s voluptuous beauty, or her brother Josef’s virtuosity with the violin. Liesl, who composes her wild and untamed music only under the cloak of night; the music Josef polishes and performs to accolades, but for which Liesl seeks neither praise nor recognition. Like legions of unremarkable girls before her, Liesl labors in the background, her accomplishments usurped or denigrated by the men around her, depending on the circumstances.

Yet the Goblin King – Der Erlkönig, Lord of Mischief – sees Liesl for who she truly is: a unique talent, full of beauty and grace. A soul brimming with passion and wonder – and, yes, even anger and lust. A worthy opponent. The girl with whom he once sang and danced in Goblin Grove, all those years ago. The girl who forgot him – and her promise to him – once she traded in their silly childhood games for a mop and bucket and likely spinsterhood.

Liesl descends into the Underground on a sacrifice of sheet music, only to find that her mission to rescue Käthe is just the opening round of her game with Der Erlkönig. Once a mortal man, the Goblin King sacrificed his soul to bring peace to the world above. Now he is forever confined to the Underground, where he rules over the goblins and fae who once wreaked havoc on earth. But in order to turn the seasons, he requires a spark. Passion. A wife. Yet Der Erlkönig’s brave maidens do not survive long in the Underground – and, should Liesl succeed in freeing Käthe, he will need a replacement if spring is to come.

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Book Review: The You I’ve Never Known, Ellen Hopkins (2017)

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

A complex, nuanced, and heart-rending coming-of-age story.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, rape, and racist/sexist/homophobic language.)

Home
Four letters,
one silent. A single syllable
pregnant with meaning.

I’m getting married. That should have an exclamation mark, shouldn’t it? I guess a small part of me is excited to leave my current existence behind in favor of something brand-new. But the closer I get to the appointed time, the more I think I might’ve made an awful mistake.

My childhood is a jigsaw puzzle,
with chewed and misplaced
pieces. I’ve always known that.
What I didn’t realize
is that even if every correct piece
was fitted perfectly into place,
the resulting picture would’ve been
interpretive art.

When she was just a toddler, Ariel’s father Mark kidnapped her. Of course, she doesn’t know this – yet. Raised on a steady diet of her father’s lies, Ariel thinks her mother Jenny ran off and abandoned the family to be with another woman. The duo has spent the last decade and half moving from town to town, state to state, mooching off her father’s latest conquests when possible, shoplifting and sleeping in the car when not.

After years of bouncing around, Ariel and Mark have finally settled in Sonora, California – which is to say, they’ve managed to stay in one place for a whopping fifteen months. Ariel was able to attend a whole year of high school uninterrupted, joined the basketball team, and even made two friends: teammates and fellow “freaks” Monica and Syrah. Mark’s in a somewhat stable relationship with a woman named Zelda, and things are looking … good. That is, if you don’t look too hard.

Mark is … a piece of work. Actually, that’s an understatement: the man’s a full-on sociopath. Kidnapping isn’t the worst of his offenses. He’s emotionally and physically abusive, treats his daughter like a possession, and demands total obedience at all costs. He has a laundry list of rules that Ariel must follow; some, like leaving her shoes at the front door and not bringing any stray animals home, go to his rigid nature, while others only make sense when Ariel discovers the truth about herself. Unlike other parents, Mark isn’t keen on the idea of letting his seventeen-year-old daughter get a driver’s license (never mind a car!) or a part-time job, even though both would make his life infinitely easier. Nor is he thrilled when she saves the life of local VIP girl Hillary Grantham, thus attracting the attention of the media.

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Book Review: The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg (2016)

Friday, January 20th, 2017

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016-12-28 - 100 Nights of Hero - 0004 [flickr]

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

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Book Review: History Is All You Left Me, Adam Silvera (2017)

Monday, January 16th, 2017

“history is how we get to keep him.”

four out of five stars

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

You’re still alive in alternate universes, Theo, but I live in the real world, where this morning you’re having an open-casket funeral. I know you’re out there, listening. And you should know I’m really pissed because you swore you would never die and yet here we are. It hurts even more because this isn’t the first promise you’ve broken.

I’m a seventeen-year-old grieving his favorite person.

We first meet Griffin Jennings on Monday, November 20th, 2016. It’s been exactly one week since his best friend and ex-boyfriend Theo McIntyre died: drowned in the Pacific Ocean while his new love, Jackson Wright, watched helplessly from the shore. Now Theo’s East Coast/West Coast lives are about to collide – over his casket, no less – as Jackson and Griffin meet for the first time at his funeral. Only things don’t play out exactly how you’d think.

Theo was most of Griffin’s firsts: first date, first kiss, first time, first love. Childhood friends, they came out to each on the L train; weeks later, they came out to their parents, together. (This was a happy scene, the sort of which all LGBTQ kids deserve.) Griffin always knew that he’d have to say goodbye to Theo, who’s one year older/ahead of him in high school – but his early admission to the animation program at Santa Monica College sure upended the timeline. Griff broke up with Theo the day before he left, thinking he’d spare himself the pain of eventually becoming the dumpee – and, just two months later, Theo began seeing Jackson. Drama, heartbreak, passive-aggressive sniping, and betrayal ensue.

We’ve all been there before. Except Theo ups and dies before any of it can be resolved, and Griffin and Jackson (not to mention Wade, the third member of the Manhattan squad) are left to sort through the detritus of a life too shortly lived.

To complicate matters further, Griffin suffers from OCD – mostly manifested in directions (left is good) and numbers (odd is bad) – which is getting progressively worse in Theo’s absence and death.

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Book Review: Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (2017)

Monday, January 9th, 2017

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Review: The Killer in Me, Margot Harrison (2016)

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

Meh.

three out of five stars

Seventeen-year-old Nina Barrows knows all about the Thief. She’s intimately familiar with his hunting methods: how he stalks and kills at random, how he disposes of his victims’ bodies in an abandoned mine in the deepest, most desolate part of a desert.

Now, for the first time, Nina has the chance to do something about the serial killer that no one else knows exists. With the help of her former best friend, Warren, she tracks the Thief two thousand miles, to his home turf—the deserts of New Mexico.

But the man she meets there seems nothing like the brutal sociopath with whom she’s had a disturbing connection her whole life. To anyone else, Dylan Shadwell is exactly what he appears to be: a young veteran committed to his girlfriend and her young daughter. As Nina spends more time with him, she begins to doubt the truth she once held as certain: Dylan Shadwell is the Thief. She even starts to wonder . . . what if there is no Thief?

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

DNF at 64%.

Honestly, I just found this book underwhelming. Perhaps my boredom was mainly due to the curse of misplaced expectations: I pictured an antihero in the vein of Alex Craft, but what we get is an indecisive, somewhat timid, and blandly average teenage girl. You know, except for the serial killer whose mind she shares when dreaming.

Making matters worse is the introduction of Nina’s childhood friend/teenage drug dealer, Warren. The story is told from their alternating perspectives, even though Warren really doesn’t add much to the narrative. He has even less of a personality than Nina, and there’s absolutely zero chemistry between the two (though I assume they hook up by the end of the book).

He’s also the one who tries to rationalize Nina’s visions, leading to scene after tedious scene of self-doubt. This also gives rise to some weird plot stuff; for example, even though there’s never been any question in Nina’s mind that her connection to Dylan only goes one way, she sets up a series of tests to see if she can trick him into acknowledging her existence. Like, why though? They…don’t prove anything?

Anyway, the book isn’t terrible; I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough about anyone to finish it. I think if you shaved 100 pages off you’d have a much more tense and compelling psychological thriller.

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

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Book Review: Everything Belongs to the Future, Laurie Penny (2016)

Monday, December 5th, 2016

Entertaining and thought-provoking, this novella left me wanting more. (Sooooo much more!)

five out of five stars

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

“All I wanted was to make something small and bright and good, something that lasted a little while, a little while longer than I did. All I wanted was to push back against the darkness just a little bit. To live in the cracks in capitalism with the people I care about, just for a little while. But it turns out I can’t even have that. And now I just want to burn shit down.”

It’s the turn of the century – the 21st, to be exact – and humanity has finally discovered the fountain of youth. It comes in the form of a little blue pill that will cost you $200 a pop on the black market; a little less, if you’re one of the lucky few who has insurance. Most don’t, as this “weaponization of time” has only exacerbated class inequality.

Only the wealthiest citizens can afford life-extension drugs; regular folks deemed “important to society” – scientists, artists, musicians, the occasional writer – may receive a sponsorship to continue their work, but ultimately they live and age and die at the whim of those more powerful than they. Show a modicum of concern for the working class, and you just might find your sponsorship revoked.

Alex, Nina, Margo, Fidget, and Jasper are a group of artist/activists living in a dilapidated, mouse- and mold-infested flat in the underside of Oxford city. They work day jobs where they can find them, but their real passion is playing at Robin Hood. A few times a week, they load up their food truck with cheese sammies or mystery stews made of reclaimed food, and distribute free meals to Oxford’s neediest citizens. At the bottom of each foodstuff is a happy meal surprise: a little blue pill, most likely stolen. One per person, no second helpings.

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

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

four out of five stars

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

a is for algebra

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

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

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

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

(“Alegbra”)

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

(“Unaccounted”)

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

(“Slipping”)

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

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

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

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Book Review: Heartless, Marissa Meyer (2016)

Monday, November 21st, 2016

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

Lady Catherine Pinkerton is in love … with baked goods.

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: 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: 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.

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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!)

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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.

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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: 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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Book Review: In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life, Soraya Roberts (2016)

Friday, August 5th, 2016

“Red is the color of revolution.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from ECW Press.)

“When I think about My So-Called Life,” WB regular Greg Berlanti told Entertainment Weekly, “I think about that line in Star Wars, when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader, ‘If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’ That’s exactly what happened here.”

My So-Called Life hit the airwaves on August 25, 1994 – just weeks before I started my junior year of high school. From the first frame – “Go, now, go!” – I was hooked. I still remember the excitement of watching the pilot, on the ancient, staticky hand-me-down tv propped atop my sister’s dresser. (We shared a room. It was literal hell.) It was like someone had scrabbled through my brain, gathered all the best bits, and stitched them into the unlikeliest script ever. I knew, without a doubt, that I couldn’t be the only kid watching who felt this way. This was something new, something special. Something downright revolutionary. Like, what was ABC thinking?

I wanted to be wild like Rayanne, yet quiet and introspective like Angela. I dyed my hair red and took to toting around a ginormous purse stuffed with all sorts of ephemera and random clutter. I skipped school, drank liquor spiked with Kool-aid, and wore the most outlandish outfits I could come up with: forest green corduroy pants and a vintage mint green polyester top one day; a slip as a skirt or a camisole as a shirt the next. A weird mix of hippie chick and slutty goth. I lusted after Jordan, even though I had my own version (but not, like, really) IRL.

Though it only lasted one season, My So-Called Life stayed with me forever. It’s one of a handful of shows from my childhood that’s held up over time gotten better with age. Now I’m thirty-eight – much closer in age to Patty than Angela – and I think I appreciate it more than ever. Or at least understand it on a different level. The opening credits still make my heart skip a beat, anyway.

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Book Review: The Unseen World, Liz Moore (2016)

Friday, July 29th, 2016

Brilliant, heartfelt, and full of surprises.

five out of five stars

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

The work of the Steiner Lab, in simple terms, was to create more and more sophisticated versions of this kind of language-acquisition software. […]

These applications of the software, however, were only a small part of what interested David, made him stay awake feverishly into the night, designing and testing programs. There was also the art of it, the philosophical questions that this software raised. The essential inquiry was thus: If a machine can convincingly imitate humanity—can persuade a human being of its kinship—then what makes it inhuman? What, after all, is human thought but a series of electrical impulses?

“What can I get you to eat, hon?” asked Liston, and rattled off a list of all the snacks of the 1980s that Ada was never permitted to have: canned pastas by Chef Boyardee, Fluffernutter sandwiches, fluorescent Kraft macaroni and cheese. In truth, Ada had never even heard of some of the food Liston offered her.

I was told to ask you something, said Ada finally.
I know, said ELIXIR. I’ve been waiting.

Ada Sibelius had something of an unconventional upbringing, beginning with her very conception. At the tender age of 45, Dr. David Sibelius – “director of a computer science laboratory at the Boston Institute of Technology, called the Bit, or the Byte if he was feeling funny” – decided that he wanted a child. Ada (named after one of David’s favorite entries in the Encyclopædia Britannica) was born to a surrogate one year later. This was no small thing back then: 1971, to be exact.

In keeping with his eccentric nature, David decided to homeschool his daughter; or rather lab-school her. Ada accompanied David – as she called him – to work every day, where she was immersed in his world, in the language of mathematics, neurology, physics, philosophy, and computer science. In the absence of any biological relatives, David’s colleagues – Charles-Robert, Hayato, Frank Halbert, and Diane Liston – became her extended family; his interests were hers. Ada learned to solve complex equations, decrypt puzzles, and present and defend theories. David filled composition books with the names of books, songs, pieces of artwork, and even wines that she should try one day; a cultured bucket list before its time. In many ways, their relationship was more like that of a teacher and his student than a father and his daughter.

At the Steiner Lab, David and his colleagues studied natural language processing and developed language-acquisition software. Their crowning achievement – David’s second child, if you will – was ELIXIR (mmmm, magic!). Everyone at the lab – including Ada – took turns chatting with ELIXIR, to teach it the words and rules and complexities of language. The program was meant to acquire language the way that humans do, and learn it did. Slowly but surely, ELIXIR grew alongside Ada, evolving from garbled, nonsense text to a semi-eloquent conversationalist (albeit one who reflected the habits and speech patterns of its teachers). For Ada, ELIXIR was a confidant, a non-recoverable diary; she poured her heart and soul into ELIXIR, especially when things got bad.

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