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Book Review: An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows (Series, #1)

26225506Summary:
When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.

There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.

Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.

Can one girl – an accidental worldwalker – really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?

Review:
A fantasy written from a queer, female perspective that explores race and social justice featuring the common trope of multiple parallel worlds.

The basic plot is an intertwining of two common to fantasy: 1) there’s multiple parallel worlds 2) political intrigue warring societies etc… These are both done to a level I appreciate. They make sense without overwhelming me with world building and pages of explanations of how a society that doesn’t really exist works.

Both of these basic plots are used to explore queer viewpoints, feminism, and race, all through the lens of social justice. How much you’ll enjoy this lens depends upon the reader. I think the queer part is fairly well-done with a broad representation including: bisexual (by name!), lesbian, trans*, and polyamory. I’m not big on polyamory plots but I thought its inclusion in a parallel world made sense and was clearly not written from a perspective intended to purely titillate, rather, the emotional aspects of these relationships was explored. I do think the explorations of race lacked some of the subtlety present in the explorations of queerness. The white Australian girl being thrust into a parallel world where the majority race is black who is guided by another “worldwalker” who similarly fell through but decided to stay because she’s black and this world is better than Thatcher’s England struck me as a bit heavy-handed and overly simplistic. I’m also not sure how I felt about the black character being put into a secondary role as guide. I kept finding myself thinking how I would have preferred to have read her story. (You quickly find out she stayed in the world, gained some power, joined a polyamorous marriage, had a child, and more! What an interesting life!)

All of that said, I don’t often enjoy traditional style non-urban fantasy, and this one did keep me reading and interested. It’s fun to read a book about political intrigue and multiple worlds dominated by women, touched by dragons, and with no male gaze. I doubt I will seek out the second entry in the series, though, because I feel I’ve already got everything out of the story I’m going to get.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Dinosaur Tales by Ray Bradbury

March 15, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: Dinosaur Tales by Ray BradburySummary:
Dinosaur Tales is a Magnificent Collection of Famous Tales by RAY BRADBURY, One of America’s Best-Loved and Best-Selling Authors. In This Elegantly Designed and Illustrated Book, Bradbury Presents All of His Dinosaur Stories in One Volume! “I have an idea that Bradbury’s work would have given Edgar Allan Poe a peculiar satisfaction to have written them himself.” -Somerset Maugham

Review:
Ray Bradbury clearly loves dinosaurs. This collection of short stories just about dinosaurs was obviously a labor of love. The introduction to the book where Bradbury discusses at length his deep love of dinosaurs and complete disbelief that anyone could possibly not love them is one of the best parts of the book and totally sets the tone. Heck, I love dinosaurs myself but even I found his tone infectious and sent my own love soaring higher than I thought possible.

The collection consists of 5 short stories and a poem. The short stories range from a little boy who wants to be a dinosaur when he grows up to a time-traveling business that obviously goes awry to a lonely sea monster who mistakes a lighthouse for a friend. They alternate between hilarity and bitter-sweet, all touched with pure Americana. In news that surprises no one, the poem was my least favorite but I didn’t hate it (and that’s strong praise for a poem). All of the stories (and poem) are lovingly illustrated by a team of illustrators, with each one receiving its own unique style. It’s definitely a book that I think is well worth owning in print, and it’s taken up residence on my shelf as a reminder that I don’t always dislike short stories. They’ve just gotta be the right ones.

Recommended to dinosaur fans, and to quote Bradbury, who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Book Review: Watership Down by Douglas Adams

Book Review: Watership Down by Douglas AdamsSummary:
When a rabbit low on the totem pole has a bad premonition, he and some friends run from their warren just before man intrudes wreaking havoc on their once-home. What follows is an adventure of evading predators and foes and looking for a new home.

Review:
Let me preface my review by saying that I know a lot of people either: A) love this book or B) find this book to be very traumatic. My experience was neither of these. The fact that this was not my experience does not negate yours. But neither does your love or traumatizing by this book mean that I felt the same way about it.

One of the risks of reading a book that is widely-known and loved (or remembered as traumatic) is that you have a pre-existing notion of just what that experience might mean for you. I came at this book with some trepidation and excitement because I absolutely love bunnies and I also love semi-realistic depictions of wild animals. Those that are accurate about scientific information but also personify them somewhat. I wound up being greatly disappointed because it gave me neither a world of bunnies to get lost in nor an experience of great trauma and drama. What I wanted was a highly emotional experience, and instead I got a bit of boredom and my main emotion being disappointment.

Let me start with what I think was well done. Adams clearly paid a lot of attention to the real science of how wild bunnies live and function, and I appreciated that. I also like the allusions to mythology. But there’s lots of reviews that talk about why they love this book, so let’s get down to why I didn’t.

1) I found it to be way too wordy.
I want cuteness and bunnies and plot not overly long descriptions of fields. This is a really thick book (my copy was 479 pages) and just…not that much actually happens. I don’t like to feel like a book is wasting my time, and I felt that a lot with this one. You could argue that it just felt long because I didn’t emotionally connect to it, but I think part of my lack of emotional connection was because of the lengthy descriptive passages.

2) I was expecting a great mythos of a story, and what I got was WWII with bunnies.
I love WWII. Do not get me wrong. I did an entire course for my History BA in just WWII. But I don’t think bunnies particularly pair well with WWII. A large overarching mythos? Sure. Basically the Battle of the Bulge with rabbits? Not so much. I don’t want my bunnies acting like British colonels and their optimistic soldiers, and I certainly don’t want an evil bunny who is basically Hitler coming into the story. (I mean…who makes the enemy another bunny who is basically Hitler? ? What? Why??)

3)It just isn’t all that tragic (sorry guys).
*spoiler warning*
I thought that basically the bunnies fight to survive all book and then all die at the end. Of the core group of rabbits, only ONE dies. There are many epic battles but just no true peril except for the warren that the rabbits leave at the beginning of the book. They are, true, pretty brutally killed by the farmer, but the problem is we never had a chance to get to know them, and we hear the story of the killing from someone who saw it. We don’t see it first-hand. It’s all very distanced and just not that tragic. This would obviously bother me less if I wasn’t expecting a tragedy from everyone saying how sad Watership Down is. But honestly to this day I don’t get why everyone is so sad. The rabbits get a new warren. They successfully find female bunnies and make more bunnies. One main character dies. That is it. I just. What. Why does this traumatize you people?
*end spoilers*

So, if you are a person who doesn’t mind WWII told through rabbits, quite long passages of description, and will welcome a tale lacking in great tragedies, you might have a better experience with the book than I did. Lord knows many people the world-over have loved it. But for those who come to it expecting to find a great tragedy or a fast-moving tale or warm and cuddly rabbits be warned that it’s not what you’ve heard about it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love by Christine Frost

October 19, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula's Lost Love by Christine FrostSummary:
Vlad the Impaler, a Wallachian prince, inspired the story of Dracula with his bloodthirsty, iron-handed ruling.  This, though, is the story of his long-time consort, Ecaterina Floari, mother one of his sons and a daughter.  She loves him deeply but is haunted by his ruling style, as well as spirits in a helmet he brings into their home from one of his battles.

Review:
I picked this up during the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale years ago but it took a while for my mood to be just right to read it.  It is a historic piece set in 1400s with splashes of the fantastic, and I tended to be in the mood for one or the other but not both.  Finally in the heat of the summer, I was ready for a dark historic fantasy that would take me away to heavy gowns and ancient rulers.  I was surprised by the level of historic research and detail in the book, as well as the tie-in to the Dracula story, making it a marriage of two genres.

This is a long book with a lot of rich setting detail.  That doesn’t tend to be my style but it works with the feel the book is going for, and many readers will enjoy the pace at which the book moves.  The dark fantasy elements take time to set up, but when they get into motion they really add to the story.  The story strikes a nice balance of Ecaterina working with the culture of her time-period and being bothered by certain things Vlad does.  For instance, it bothers her that he has mistresses, but she comes to accept it as is expected of her in the time-period.  This trajectory acknowledges the feelings the modern reader may have about the situation but also lets the character be true to her time-period.

The author toes a finely-held line of showing Vlad’s cruelty but also keeping him human and not demonizing him.  He was a cruel ruler but he wasn’t a monster.  Similarly, although Ecaterina loves him she is still disturbed by his actions when ruling.  This lends both characters depth they would not have if Ecaterina’s love was blind or Vlad was monstrous.

In spite of appreciating the historic fiction plot covering many decades, I did sometimes feel that the plot meandered a bit too much.  I also felt that sometimes the book told too much instead of showing.  Similarly, there were a few too many typos and grammatical errors for a book that is in its final version.  It was not enough to make me stop reading but it was enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.

I appreciated how much of the book is from women’s perspectives.  Not just Ecaterina’s but her mother’s, servants, and other consorts and even a spy are featured.  The female cast is strong, and that would be easy for a less thoughtful writer to pass over in favor of showcasing the men history chose to record more thoroughly.

Overall, readers seeking to learn something about the 1400s in Romania will be pleased by how much they will learn reading this book.  Those who come to it due to the Dracula connection will enjoy the fantastical elements toward the end in particular.  Recommended to readers of historic fiction and fantasy who do not mind a long book with a slow burn.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Smashwords

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Book Review: Fated by S.G. Browne

July 17, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: Fated by S.G. BrowneSummary:
Fabio is not a fan of his job as Fate.  He never gets to actually influence the idiotic humans in his charge (everyone off the path of Destiny).  He just gets to show up at the moment of their fateful decisions.  Falling in love with a human (who just so happens to be on the path of Destiny) breaks rule #1, and once you break one rule, you may as well break others…. Soon, Fabio is interfering in his charges’ fateful decisions, but just how long can he do this without causing havoc and escaping Jerry’s (God’s) notice?

Review:
I remember I first acquired this because I really enjoyed Browne’s other novel, Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament (review).  Although this book uses a similar irreverent tune, it just doesn’t work out as well given the content.  Add in a few writing quirks and an ending that made me simultaneously scratch my head and go ewww, this just didn’t work for me.

The first thing that bothered me about the book is a quirk Fabio (our narrator) has to describe each and every character we encounter in the following way: “The thing about [name] is, s/he is [character flaw].”  It’s cutesie the first few times.  By the twentieth time it’s irritating and by the thirtieth you’re kind of wondering what the heck is wrong with Fabio that he’s been alive for this many thousands of years and still can’t seem to come up with a more creative way to talk.

The book’s mythology firmly asserts that Christianity is right.  Although there’s a mysterious aside about how the Greek/Roman mythological gods and goddesses did exist but stopped being important once people stopped believing in them.  So, in spite of Jerry and all of his servants all asserting that Jesus is the Son of God and Christianity is right, there’s also this idea that something else once existed when people believed in it.  There is also an immortal character of Karma, who we are told exists mostly because of the many people in India who believe in him.  You can probably spot the problem with these co-existing ideas.  If immortal ideas/people exist because of belief, why would the only ones in existence be the Christian God and Karma, currently?  There are clearly other religions in the world that people currently believe in, so…….My issue isn’t with the author choosing to assert that the Christian God is the one that is true in this world (although some readers might be bothered by it).  My issue is that the book simultaneously does this and says that other gods/ideas can exist with belief, but then limits these to only ancient Greek/Roman gods and goddesses and modern-day Karma. This doesn’t work within the logic of the world that the author set up.  It really bugged me.

There is also the problem that the immortal characters (well, and the human ones, but let’s focus on the immortal ones) are divided up in a very gender normative way.  Destiny, Lust, and Lady Luck, Secrecy, and Honesty are all women.  Sloth, Gluttony, Death, Fate, Karma, oh yeah and GOD are all men.  Lust is an overwrought caricature of the evil temptress woman.  Honesty is basically the most feminine innocent woman you could meet.  It’s the classic virgin/whore dichotomy (oh and don’t forget the Virgin Mary, who’s also obviously mentioned quite a bit).  It’s not exactly better for the men, being stuck with either being a lazy slob, someone who violently kills everyone, or Fate himself.  Even if the reader is personally ok with gender normativity, this collection of characters is just expected and dull.  There’s nothing that really throws the reader a curveball or strikes as creative.  Right down to God going by the name Jerry and having a bureaucratic office in the sky.

Then we have the human who Fabio falls in love with, who is basically the manic pixie dream girl (a female character who exists only to show up and show a depressed male character the meaning of life.  Full exploration of this trope), which I’ve talked about before in other reviews (not surprisingly in books by men set in fantastical settings and that are supposed to be funny, but I digress).  Just like with gender normativity, this trope is just lazy.  The only motivator to the male character (who is first person and depressed and dull) is for a magical woman to show up and fix his life (often while her own gets ruined).  There’s no real characterization of the female character, and frankly it undersells the male character too.  This book takes it a whole step further.  The spoiler paragraph below goes into more depth about the problematic treatment of women in the book.

*spoilers*
Sara, the manic pixie dream girl, shows up and Fabio falls in love with her.  She falls in love with him too.  Fabio reveals to her who he is.  She loves him anyway.  They’re very happy together.  Fabio finds out that Sara is on the path of Destiny because she’s supposed to be the mother of the second Son of God. So God is going to show up and bang his girlfriend at some point.  He is very upset about this.  God finds out about Fabio both telling a human who he is and interfering with human fates and punishes him by both turning him mortal and wiping him from Sara’s memory.  Sara believes that Fabio was a one-night stand.  Fabio proceeds to stalk her, forcing her to get a restraining order, which he then violates.  It’s unclear if this is supposed to be seen as romantic, exactly, but it is clear that the reader is supposed to empathize with Fabio.  Sara wouldn’t really want him to stay away from her if she just understood, which is problematic because of how it mirrors the logic of many stalkers.  It gets worse though.  Fabio in despair throws himself off a bridge, committing suicide.  He then comes to realizing that he has been reformed as the fetus inside Sara’s uterus–the result of the one-night stand between her and God. He is the second Son of God.  And he’s ok with this because he at least gets to be close to Sara.  So Sara doesn’t just exist purely as a prop for Fabio’s character development, she’s also the woman who is banged once and thrown away by God to be forced to bring his second Son into the world who also just so happens to be the same dude as her ex-lover she has the restraining order against.  It’s just so many levels of denying women any agency or rights or treating women as anything but passive vessels to be used by men and male gods however they want that it just made my head explode with rage when I read it.  Most of this what the fuckery occurs in the last couple of chapters.
*end spoilers*

This is a book whose idea I felt had promise but the directions the author chose to take it just ruined it for me.  Readers who won’t be bothered by a book with logical inconsistencies, gender normative representations of immortals, and the problematic characterizations and plots for women may enjoy the book for its irreverent humor about fate and destiny.  Any readers who would be bothered by those things, though, should steer clear.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Julia Whelan)

July 14, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Julia Whelan)Summary:
Pen’s life was destroyed when an Earthshaker took away her family (even their dog) and destroyed the Los Angeles she once knew.  She’s now on a quest to save them from the monstrous giants that rose up after (or with?) the Earthshaker.  Along the way she finds other teens who’ve miraculously survived, each with secrets and talents of their own.

Review:
This book left me completely torn.  I loved, oh how I loved, the representation of both bisexual (Pen) and trans (Hex, her boyfriend) teens. But the story to go with these teens failed to live up to both these wonderful characters and the beautiful title.

Let’s talk about the good first, because I don’t want it to be overshadowed by what didn’t work.  Pen is a bookish teenager who generally prefers to stay in reading the Encyclopedia or The Odyssey to going out to parties. But she still has two close friends. She’s not a loner.  She’s brave, open, loving, and sometimes makes rather short-sighted decisions.  And it is gradually revealed throughout the book that she is also bisexual.  The scenes exploring Pen’s bisexuality, and how it’s hard for her to be out about it, in spite of being completely comfortable with herself, are wonderfully done.  Pen acknowledges that even though her parents have always told her that it doesn’t matter a whit if she is straight, lesbian, bisexual, or trans, that the world at large doesn’t always think that, and that’s part of what makes being out hard for her.  The world is not always the welcoming place her family is.

The book early on establishes that Pen currently has a crush on a boy, so the reader may perhaps be surprised when she reminisces about an earlier crush on a girl, and how she first realized she liked girls too.

Thinking of how I once kissed Moira on the lips. We were drunk and dancing, and our lips just brushed for that electroshock nanosecond, and then she smiled at some boys who were watching us, laughed, and danced away from me like it was a joke.  But I’d had an epiphany, even though I hadn’t fully accepted it at the time. I wanted to kiss girls. And it was no joke. (loc 2:14:53)

Similarly, Pen struggles with self-editing her past when telling Hex about her life before the Earthshaker.  She is not sure if he’ll understand or accept the fact that she’s perfectly capable of having crushes on girls as well as boys like himself, so she edits herself when speaking to him.  She’s telling him a story about a party she didn’t go to, and the picture that her friends sent her of a boy with her friend, Moira:

I went to sleep staring at the last image wondering not what his mouth tasted like but hers. This part, this last, I don’t tell Hex, although I trust him enough to tell him anything. Don’t I? So I’m not sure why I don’t. Because I don’t want him to know I had a crush on a girl? Or because I have a crush on him. (loc 1:39:44)

It’s rare to see a book explore so eloquently what it is to be bisexual, and these feelings Pen has while not universal still explore the difficulty of coming out and being out as a bisexual person, and they were so wonderful to see in a book that I had to restrain myself from jumping up and shouting “Yes!” when they showed up on my audiobook on the bus.

Similarly, Hex, Pen’s love interest and eventual boyfriend (this is not a spoiler, when Hex shows up he may as well have a giant neon “future boyfriend” sign over his head), is a FTM transman.  Hex is just as nervous about being out to Pen and their other travel companions as Pen is about being out to him, probably more.  Being cis myself, I can’t say as definitively about the quality of FTM representation as I could about bisexuality, however, the author certainly tries to broach topics that I believe would be of interest to a trans YA reader reading this book: acceptance (or not) by family members and impact on romantic relationships with other teens.  Hex comes out to Pen as a transman only because she has fallen for him, and he wants her to know precisely who he is before anything more *ahem* romantic happens.  Pen immediately accepts him and tells him he is clearly a boy to her, and this changes nothing about how she feels about him.  They then have to navigate their sex life.  Hex, like many trans people, is uncomfortable with his body.  He would rather touch Pen than allow Pen to touch him.  Eventually, they reach an arrangement that both supports and asserts Hex’s maleness and allows Pen to give the pleasure back to him that she wants to.  I was glad to see a YA book “go there.”  I frankly haven’t seen much of that even in adult literature including a trans person.  It both addresses the “how do they….” question some YA readers would certainly have after learning about Hex and also serves a purpose in the story to demonstrate a mature, healthy, loving relationship between the two characters.

In addition to Hex and Pen, they also wind up with two male travel companions who become a couple.  The characters themselves point out at one point how odd it is that the minority before the Earthshakers is now the majority (none of them are straight AND cis).  I was glad the author acknowledged the quirk and had the characters process why that may be.  The answer they decide upon is a positive one, rather than the potentially negative one of punishment.

So now let’s talk about what didn’t work.  The plot and the setting.  The book is meant to be a magical realism style story told in a non-linear way.  This could have worked if in the end the overarching plot, when reassessed by the reader from beginning to end, made sense.  But it doesn’t.  For most of the book, Pen refers to everything in fantastical ways, such as saying “Earthshaker” for what appears to the reader to be an earthquake.  Why is she saying “Earthshaker”? Was there something different about it?  Does she just like prettying up her language? What is going on with that?  Later it is revealed that an earthquake seems to have happened when some genetically engineered giants escaped (showed up? were released?).  The whole world basically goes to shit overnight, though, and it just doesn’t seem logical that that would happen from just a few giants escaping.  Similarly, there are other fantastical creatures who are never explained.

Similarly, although it is indicated early on that this is a modern retelling of The Odyssey, it doesn’t line up well with the original.  In the original, Odysseus is trying to come home after a war and keeps getting swept into side-quests.  In this book, Pen starts out at home and then quests away from home.  It would have made more sense for Pen to be somewhere away from home (maybe on a school trip or something), have the disaster occur, and then have her have to find her way home encountering fantastical things along the way.  Starting her at home just doesn’t work.

Several elements feel like they are just thrown in because they look pretty or work with the scene even though they don’t work with the book as a whole.  For instance, butterflies appearing around people who can be trusted pops up in the middle of the book, but isn’t particularly present at the beginning or the end.  Similarly, some characters are revealed to have magical powers toward the end of the book, with no foreshadowing about that, only to have them….not use them much beyond the scene where it’s revealed.

Also, I’m sorry, but the whole some evil scientist genetically engineered giants to be his children and now the giants are out to destroy us but also the whole world inexplicably now resembles a myth just really doesn’t work.  First, it makes no sense why a scientist would even want to engineer a giant.  To be his children? Really? Why would anyone want giant children?  Second, to give the mystical elements that started this whole thing a scientific explanation but then leave the rest fantastical doesn’t work.  Either they’re all explained by science or they’re all fantastical.  I really felt the book went way downhill for me when there was suddenly a “scientific” explanation for the giants. But just the giants and nothing else.

Finally, we need to talk about the name of the book.  It’s a beautiful title but it’s really wasted on this book.  First, global warming doesn’t come into play in the book at all, so why is it mentioned in the title?  Second, it’s clearly a send-up to Love in the Time of Cholera, but it has nothing in common with that book save both having elements of magical realism in them.  It feels as if the author came up with a title that sounded pretty and couldn’t bring herself to let go of it in spite of it not fitting the book she actually wrote.

Overall, this is a short read featuring four well-rounded and written teen characters on the LGBTQ spectrum.  YA readers looking for positive representations of bisexual and trans characters, in particular, and who don’t mind some inexplicable fantasy elements will enjoy this quick read.  Readers who will easily be bothered by the title not matching the content, a mixture of magical realism and scientific explanations for things, and/or nonlinear plots that when told linearly don’t make sense should probably look elsewhere, in spite of the positive representations of underrepresented letters in the LGBTQ spectrum.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Everlasting: Da Eb’Bulastin by Rasheedah Prioleau

July 11, 2015 4 comments

cover_everlastingSummary:
Aiyana Gamelle has been sleepwalking, waking up on the beach of the half Gullah, half Native American Sa’Fyre Island off the coast of South Carolina.  But she knows she’ll soon be transitioning to being Queen of the Gullah half of the island, due to being directly descended from both the founders and a mysterious African goddess, so she brushes it off and focuses on the festival she’s organized on the island to bring in more revenue.  But when an important island guest is murdered and her grandmother passes away before the official crowning ceremony, an unwanted family curse is slowly revealed.

Review:
This is one of the six indie books I accepted for review on this blog in 2015.  Everything about it from the title to the description stuck out to me both as something that I hadn’t seen a mainstream publisher get around to trying in many years and also as something that piqued my interest.  An island that’s half Gullah and half Native American? (Never heard of the Gullah? Check out this informative article about them).  A woman inheriting a position of power from another woman? A family curse? Yes please!  I am happy to say that the book more than lived up to my expectations, it also had some unexpected elements that I was delightfully surprised by.

The known history of the island and the Gamelle family is well told early in the book.  It comes through in bits and pieces at just the right times.  There is never an info dump.  Similarly, Aiyana and her siblings are slowly revealed, going from how you may first perceive them to more well-rounded characters throughout the book.  The island and the people on it are incredibly well described.  I had no trouble imagining what this island may be like, despite having never been to the Carolinas myself.

One thing that caught me by surprise in the book and that I think should be promoted more in its promotional materials, as it’s something that is often sought after, is the romance between Aiyana (who is half-Native American and half-Gullah, since her mother dated her Native American father against the wishes of both sides) and one of the Native American men on the island.  It’s an inter-racial relationship….with no white people.  I can’t remember the last time I saw that in a book, frankly, and I was happy to see it.

This is primarily a mystery/horror book though, so let’s talk about the mystery plot.  It takes many twists and turns, none of which I expected but all of which ultimately made sense.  I found it at times grotesque and at other times it kept me on the edge of my seat.  All the time I was always rooting for Aiyana, which is exactly what I generally want out of a mystery.

One negative I would say is that it’s a bit unclear if the book is the first in a series or a standalone.  Amazon mentions it being the first in a series, but neither the GoodReads record nor the page about it on the author’s website mention it being the start of a series.  If it is the start of a series, the book’s slightly abrupt ending works.  If it’s a standalone, then I would want a bit more closure at the end.  If it is the start of a series, then I’d say perhaps a quick “Look for more Sa’Fyre Island adventures coming soon!” at the end would be an excellent addition to help the reader know to expect more and to keep them coming back.

Overall, this is both a fun and a quite different entry into the mystery genre.  A Gullah woman takes the center stage of the mystery, rather than being a prop. The mystery is well crafted and told, and there’s even the bonus of a bit of romance in the book.  Recommended for readers looking for a completely different mystery from what they may be used to reading and who don’t mind a bit of the fantastical showing up in the plot.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King

June 27, 2015 4 comments

Book Review: Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen KingSummary:
Something evil is haunting the small town of Tarker Mills, Maine. Every month another person is found dead, brutally ripped apart.  Can they solve what is haunting their town before the terror consumes them all?

Review:
I picked this up in a used book basement because I’m generally trying to read most everything Stephen King has written, and this particular print book was beautifully illustrated.  Each chapter (or month…or murder) had at least one full-color illustration, and that just spoke to me.  The story itself wound up being rather ho-hum to me, but part of that may be due to the fact that I’m rather hard to shock these days.

My favorite part of the book is that it opens with a note from King stating that astute readers will notice that the full moon couldn’t possibly have fallen on all of the big holidays he has it fall on, but that he’s taken artistic license to make it do so.  The passage reads like it has a wink at the end, and I like that King assertively addresses what could bother some readers or be a controversy and acknowledges that his facts are wrong, but he did it for artistic reasons.  Personally, I’m not a fan of books that take artistic licenses, but if you’re going to, this is the way to do it.  Acknowledge it (don’t hide from it) and move on.

This feels like an early Stephen King book.  The usual small town New England stock characters are there, but they’re not fully fleshed-out.  There’s even a spunky kid in a wheelchair who reminds me of an earlier version of Susannah from The Dark Tower series (the book about Susannah was first published in 2004).  The stock, rather two-dimensional characters work in this book, since the storytelling approach is basically one of folklore.  We don’t need to know much more about these characters than we see on the surface, and that’s fine.

Each chapter is a different month in the year, and they sort of feel like connected short stories.  By the last half of the year, the reader starts to know what’s going on, and the “short stories” become even more connected.

Fans of an underdog hero will enjoy who ends up battling the werewolf plaguing the town, as will those who enjoy seeing the trope of a trusted citizen being someone who should not be trusted.  (That’s as much as I can say without being too spoilery).

This all sounds rather positive, so why did I feel ho-hum about it?  The tension building didn’t work for me.  Nothing that happened really scared me.  The character in the wheelchair feels like a less bad-ass version of Susannah, and what I would want would be Susannah.  This is perhaps unfair of me to say, since Susannah came about further down the line, but I do think it points to how King’s writing improved with time (as does everyone’s).  I also just found the villain to be rather expected and cliche, although I’m sure it wasn’t when the book first came out.  In general, this book just doesn’t feel like it aged particularly well, especially when compared to other older King books.

Overall, if a reader is looking for a quick, beautifully illustrated folklore style retelling of a werewolf story, they will enjoy this book.  Those looking for high levels of tension or gore or in-depth character development will want to give it a pass.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith, used books basement

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Book Review: Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham et al. (Series, #1) (Graphic Novel)

Book Review: Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham et al. (Series, #1) (Graphic Novel)Summary:
All the characters from the fairy tales we know actually lived in that folklore world but were forced out into exile in modern-day New York thanks to an enemy known only as The Adversary.  Snow White, right-hand to the ruler of Fabletown, seeks to keep everyone in line. But that gets more difficult when her own sister, Rose Red, is murdered.  A reformed Big Bad Wolf, now their sheriff, promises to help her track down his killer.

Review:
Being a long-time fan of The 10th Kingdom, a story about the characters of folklore existing in a parallel universe to our own that some modern-day Americans accidentally visit, I was intrigued by this idea of a similar story in reverse.  Instead of being engaging and a fun escape, though, my experience with it is best summed-up as meh.  It’s a cool idea that is saddled to a ho-hum plot and flat characters, thereby rendering it a mediocre read.

The basic idea is some unseen Adversary has driven the fairy tale folk out of their land and into exile in our own.  In our land, they’ve all agreed to give everyone a clean slate to start over.  So far so good.  From here though things go from interesting and semi-unique to basically a noir plot we’ve all read before wrapped up in 2-dimensional fairy tale characters.  Big Bad Wolf is the hard-boiled detective.  Snow White is his lady assistant.  A noir version of a fairy tale could have been good, but instead the flattest elements of both genres are mashed together, rather than the best of each.  What you end up with is a wolf without his fangs or a hard-boiled detective without his cigarettes and womanizing ways.  The grit is just removed leaving an overly-sanitized world.

I do enjoy a mystery plot but I also expect them to keep me guessing.  I knew the solution long before the end, and I’m guessing most other readers would too.

The art is mostly good, although the depiction of the talking pig gave me goosebumps in a bad way.  He doesn’t really fit in to the feel of the rest of the art.  However, the art is colorful and easy to follow, and made reading the story go quickly.

Overall, if a reader loves fairy tales and graphic novels and likes the idea of seeing fairy tale characters in modern-day New York, they will probably enjoy this book.  Readers looking for an in-depth exploration of a fairy tale character or to see them more well-rounded in a non-fairy tale setting will be disappointed.  Similarly, readers looking for a tough mystery to solve will want to look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: I remember I bought it at a comic book store, but I don’t remember which one.

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Counts For:
Once Upon a Time IX

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Series, #1)

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Series, #1)Summary:
“Lizzie Borden took an axe; gave her mother forty whacks….”
Any New Englander knows the nursery rhyme based on the true crime story of Mr. and Mrs. Borden who were murdered with an axe in 1892.  In spite of being tried and acquitted for the murders, their daughter (in the case of Mrs. Borden, step-daughter), was widely believed to actually be responsible for the murders.  In this book, she definitely was, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
A darkness is trying to take over Fall River, Massachusetts, and Lizzie and her ailing sister Emma are all that might stand between the town and oblivion, with Lizzie’s parents being the first casualties in the battle.

Review:
I grew up chanting the nursery rhyme about Lizzie Borden the first half of which is quoted above (this perhaps says an awful lot about New Englanders, but I digress), and I also love tales from the Lovecraft universe, which also originated in New England.  When I heard about this book that mashed up the two, I put it on my wishlist.  Lo and behold, my future sister-in-law, who had never even seen my wishlist, bought it for me for Christmas last year.  I thought this would be the perfect read for the fantasy challenge, and although it was a bit different than what I was expecting, I still enjoyed the mix of Lovecraft and women’s history that Priest has woven and am eagerly anticipating reading the sequel.

The story is told through a combination of first person accounts from Lizzie, Emma, and Nance, diary-style entries by their neighbor doctor, letters, police and fire reports, and first person ramblings of a professor from Miskatonic University (another Lovecraft element).  Some readers may be put off by the combination of first person perspectives, but I’ve always enjoyed this style, particularly when it includes things like letters and police reports.  I felt that it was one of the strengths of the book, and I also particularly enjoyed getting to see both Emma’s and Lizzie’s perspectives, as well as that of Lizzie’s lover, Nance.

The Lovecraft mash-up basically is that some sort of Dark One in the deep is out to turn everyone on the seacoast either into worshippers or victims or literally turn them into monstrous ones who live in the deep.  Emma and Lizzie’s parents were among the first to begin succumbing to this infection and that is why Lizzie had to kill them.  Lizzie and Emma now are conducting research, trying to figure out how to prevent the Dark One from actually rising up.  This is all extremely Lovecraftian, including the fact that some of these developments don’t make a ton of sense, but things just don’t make sense in the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft, so I was ok with that.  Readers new to the world of Lovecraft might be a bit more frustrated by how inexplicable most things to do with the Dark Ones and the deep are, however.

I particularly enjoyed how Priest explores how societal and cultural norms of 1890s New England affects women’s lives.  Emma could be a scientist now that women are being accepted into colleges, but she chooses to instead write her scientific papers under a male pseudonym because she believes she would never garner respect otherwise.  Lizzie and Nance are in love and must hide it, although Lizzie often feels why should she bother when she is already disgraced after the trial.  The clashes between Lizzie and Emma regarding both her affair with Nance and the fact that Lizzie believes in trying out magical and fantastical defenses against the Dark One whereas Emma believes purely in science are interesting reading.  They are two very different people who are thrust together both by virtue of being siblings and by the fact that as women in the 1890s their lives are limited.

On the other hand, in spite of liking the characters of the neighbor doctor and the Miskatonic professor and enjoying the exploration of Lizzie’s and Emma’s relationship and getting to see some of Emma’s character, I couldn’t help but feel that Lizzie didn’t get a chance to be enough in this book.  Lizzie Borden is such a looming large figure in local history, even on the book cover she presents as a bad-ass in a period skirt holding a bloody axe.  In contrast in the book she spends a lot of time dealing with her annoying sister.  Similarly, I’m not a fan of the fact that Lizzie does very little of rescuing herself in this book, which is, I believe, if the historic Lizzie really did kill her parents, what she actually did in real life.  To me Lizzie has always been a woman who said fucking enough and took an axe and dealt violently and finally with her problems.  Whereas in the book, she starts off off-screen that way (we don’t actually see her kill her parents) and she sort of tapers off.  Much as I enjoyed seeing her messed up relationship with Emma, I couldn’t help but feel it would have ended more powerfully if she’d said fucking enough and whacked Emma through the skull for being such an insufferable bitch and in the way all the time.  This was my main issue with the book.

My second, more minor, issue is that I felt the plot takes too long to build up to actual horrifying events and/or murders.  The first murders, as I mentioned before, happened off-screen.  The beginning of the book then is a build-up of a lot of tension with not much actual gore or murder occurring.  I should mention that I was watching “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” on tv at the same time as I was reading this book.  In that show, Lizzie kills at least one person an episode.  Now, some of that gets over the top, but it does get the idea of the pacing one would expect from this type of story right. More mayhem. More murder. More danger. More often.

On a positive note, the scenes between Lizzie and Nance are beautifully done, and while I was frustrated to see Lizzie turn a bit into a lovesick fool, I was very glad it was happening with Nance.  Their relationship and dynamic jumped off the page and really brightened up the book for me.

The set-up at the end of the book for the sequel is well-done, although I’m uncertain how the series can proceed forward so far removed from the actual historical event, I am excited to read it and see what happens.

Overall, this Lovecraft fantastical take on the Lizzie Borden of history and what led to the murders of her parents hits just the right note for Lovecraft fans.  Readers who are new to the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft may be a bit surprised by the slow burn of the horror and how much of it winds up not making much sense, but those readers who can embrace this style of dark fantasy will enjoy it.  Those looking for a bad-ass Lizzie should be aware that this Lizzie only acts when absolutely necessary and then with restraint, and they should perhaps tune into the made for tv movie Lizzie Borden Took An Ax instead.  Recommended to fans of Lovecraft who are interested in getting some local history woven in to the New England settings they are familiar with from the Lovecraft universe.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Counts For:
Once Upon a Time IX