Review: The Story of Mina Lee – The Monotony of the Great American Dream


Title: The Last Story of Mina Lee
Author:
Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Publisher:
Park Row Books

Genre(s): Fiction, Historical Fiction
Subject(s)/Themes(s): Asian-American immigrants
Representation: Korean MCs (ownvoices)

Release Date: September 1st, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)
Rating: 4.0/10

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Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, isn’t returning her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, LA, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother.

Interwoven with Margot’s present-day search is Mina’s story of her first year in Los Angeles as she navigates the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. While she’s barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a series of events that have consequences for years to come, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death.

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What traits do we inherit from our culture’s history?

That’s something I think about on occasion. Like, how a good chunk of our personality might be determined by something that some random person in our country did decades or centuries before we were born. One action that branched into another and another, until an entire cataclysmic event sprouted and fell with a ricochet that would be felt generations later.

Maybe it’s pride that we inherited. Maybe it’s something more sinister – bitterness, fear, hate, a defensiveness that comes from trying to squash down the knee-jerk bitterness, fear, and hate. Maybe such cultural traumas are always inevitably passed down, zero chance of escape, and the best we can do is understand and navigate them.

That’s more or less the lane of thought The Last Story of Mina Lee ventures into. And when it comes to the topic of personal traumas wrapped in cultural traumas and one’s disassociative response to them, this book nails it. Does it so well, in fact, that I felt disassociated from the narrative itself.

Boredom, meet book. The only reason I didn’t scribble it down as a DNF was because I wanted to know the real reason behind Mina’s death. Surely all this slow burn was leading up to some sort of payoff? Disappointment, meet Kathy.

The prose is a head-scratcher. The writing is technically good, descriptive and occasionally florid, and yet so dry that you can scrape splinters with it. The book is meant to be a slow-paced slice-of-life story strung together by small and intimate moments, but everything felt so strangely devoid of real emotions and it was like I was seeing things happen through multiple sheets of glass. Any emotional connection I formed with these characters were annoyingly casual and brief.

I found Margot’s chapters especially trying. A lot of dull spoon-feeding of exposition and musings and an endless list of questions. That last one drove me insane. Asking rhetorical questions every other paragraph doesn’t make a scene any more poignant or mysterious, and at some point it just becomes silly and reads like a weird third-person diary.

Still, Margot does offer some memorable moments of clarity and reflections regarding immigrant life and culture (if not a better insight into her own personality beyond “young Asian-American woman who has a prickly relationship with her mom”):

“How much language itself was a home, a shelter, as well as a way of navigating the larger world. And perhaps that was why Margot never put much effort into learning Korean. She hadn’t been able to stand to be under the same roof as her mom.”

Mina’s chapters are slightly better. They follow her as she tries to adjust to a new life in L.A. Koreatown in the wake of her family’s death. It’s a look into the life of an immigrant who arrived with nothing but the clothes on her back, hoping to escape into a better future – or, at the very least, a different one. It’s utterly, distinctly unromantic, which is both a positive and a negative. Mina’s day-to-day drudgery at her supermarket job is only punctuated by the occasional conversations with her neighbour and coworker, and it’s clear that this is a woman who’s stuck in a rut, going through the motions of life.

Is it a realistic portrayal of someone who’s in her position? Whittled down by recent tragedies, compounded by her memories of the Korean War, further compounded by her struggles as an undocumented immigrant? Absolutely. Does it make for an engaging read? No. Especially not when her conclusion feels so rushed and empty, like a book with the endpages ripped out.

And, at the end of it, I’m not quite sure what audience the book is meant to satisfy. Is it a mystery? If you squint really hard, yes. Is it a mother-daughter family drama? In a very one-sided, perfunctory way, sure. Are there other Asian-American stories that handle this theme of cultural displacement with more conviction? Definitely.

See – I too can ask many questions and give not-quite-satisfying answers.

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Thank you to the publisher for having me on the blog tour!

I’m now off to knock on the WordPress gates and have some words with whoever designed this new interface and grumble at the fact that we’re being forced to use it. WHY.

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Review: Burn by Patrick Ness – Dragons, Prophecies, and the Cycle of Violence

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Title: Burn
Author:
Patrick Ness
Publisher:
Quill Tree Books

Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subject(s)/Themes(s): War, Discrimination, Dragons
Representation: Biracial MC, Gay MC

Release Date: June 2nd, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957, Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm…

Sarah Dewhurst and her father, outcasts in their little town of Frome, Washington, are forced to hire a dragon to work their farm, something only the poorest of the poor ever have to resort to.

The dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye, though. Sarah can’t help but be curious about him, an animal who supposedly doesn’t have a soul but who is seemingly intent on keeping her safe.

Because the dragon knows something she doesn’t. He has arrived at the farm with a prophecy on his mind. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents in hot pursuit—and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself. 

CW: racism, homophobia, graphic violence, near-assault

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Ah, Patrick Ness. He never goes for the boring, does he? I so admire his drive to create stories that count for something–narratives that serve as pointed commentary on an aspect of society or of human nature, sometimes via non-human characters (he forever has my respect for choosing to tackle an inverted version of Moby Dick from the PoV of whales)–and willingness to branch out into wild genres and concepts. His ideas are like a mystery parfait. A delicious delight to spoon through.

Burn is unlike any of his previous books, yet so entirely like all of his previous books. Bold and imaginative and doesn’t shy away when faced with tough questions, it comes out on the other side with a strong thematic core, even if it does sacrifice a few things along the way.

It’s 1957 and dragons exist in this alternate world, distrusted and looked down on by human society. There have been major conflicts waged between the two groups across history, but all of that is done and out of the way now, with a peace treaty placing the parties in a cold but slightly less hostile relationship.

There is also a Canadian cult that worships said dragons, but not the dragons directly. They instead choose to worship a human proxy who represents the dragon divinity–never mind the fact that the dragons don’t give a toss about humans, cultists or otherwise, and have no voice in electing this pope figure for their own fan club. Then there’s an end-of-the-world prophecy revolving around the protagonist Sarah (it tickles me that the idea of dragons is shrug-worthy in this world, but prophecies and clairvoyance are considered nonsense. I love an alt-fantasy setting with strict rules and boundaries); a sheltered gay assassin named Malcolm who is determined to stop her at any cost; two FBI agents hot on his trail; one red dragon with sandpaper-dry snark; and an examination of inherited hatred, violence, and the human propensity to hurl ourselves into mutual destruction.

And they all work.

Well, mostly.

Most definitely in the first half, which is a stretch of perfect pacing, great character introductions, and a flurry of events that devolve into heartbreak and anger.

I quite loved the main cast of characters–Sarah’s frustration and empathy, her father’s dilemma, Kazimir’s sass, Malcolm’s innocence warring with his cold violence–even though some we don’t see too much of. I found it particularly poignant how Sarah and Malcolm’s storylines are near-mirrors of each other. How both childhoods were shaped by authorities dictating the paths their lives must take, and the boundaries that can’t be crossed, based on what they are and what they are not. And when it comes to good people doing terrible things, morally grey people doing terrible things, and terrible people doing terrible things, the book knows to make you understand what the differences are.

The second half dives deeper into the major themes, and character work takes a backseat as all the plot threads are gathered into one clear moral lesson: that we must be vigilant of how hatred, including self-hatred, curdles and spreads and ricochets across space and time until we can’t even tell where it ends and where it begins. That’s something you can count on with Ness; things like plot and character might skew sideways, but the point of the story never gets lost.

I do think Burn works better if you look at it as a long parable as opposed as your normal YA fiction. There are definitely questions left unanswered by the end, and the characters brush off traumatic events with concerning ease, giving it the feel of a folktale in which things happen and you just have to accept that they do, even though you’re not exactly sure why.

While it’s not favourite story of his, it’s still a strong, memorable entry into his bibliography that had me ruminating for a while after.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher. All opinions are my own.

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Review + Giveaway (US): They Went Left – Beautifully Written But Incomplete

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Title:
They Went Left
Author:
Monica Hesse
Publisher:
Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Genre(s): YA Historical Fiction
Subject(s): WW2, Holocaust, Mental Health, Siblings

Release Date:
April 7th, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 


 

I admit, I’m not exactly in the right mood for Holocaust fiction at this point in 2020, but I went into this book for a specific reason: I wanted something hopeful. Something about finding light at the end of a tunnel and holding onto it, despite how much easier it might be to turn and walk right back in. Nothing blindingly happy. Just reaffirming.

And that’s what I got. A story set right after the end of WW2, during its first few months of tentative chaos, with people trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. It’s not a healing story, exactly, but it is a story about healing and the complications that come with such a journey. Zofia’s mental state–her looping thoughts and fears, her gaps in memory, her disassociation– are presented with such great care and lyricism. There just aren’t a lot of WW2 stories out there that focus on camp survivors who were just recently liberated, and I really appreciate Hesse for shining a light on the topic. Because while there’s strength in surviving, I think there’s even greater strength in living. In moving forward with your life, carrying all the horrors you’ve experienced, and choosing to embrace love and laughter in spite of the pain. It’s a kind of courage that deserves to be highlighted more in narratives.

 

“Today I am choosing to love the person in front of me. Do you understand? Because he’s here, I’m here, and we’re ready to not be lonely together.”

 

I was also anticipating a good mystery, though (I mean, the blurbs and synopsis lean heavily on it) but that I didn’t get at all. What little mystery there is predictable and rushed and its conclusion left me feeling underwhelmed. And “rushed” is more or less my biggest complaint about the whole thing. The story throws a handful of plot threads at you–a slice-of-life angle focusing on the refugees in the displaced person camp; a romantic subplot between Zofia and Josef; a search for Zofia’s brother–and while their skeletal structure is interesting, the execution needs a lot more fleshing out. More development of the characters at the camp, better exploration of the romance.

Right now it feels more like an abridged book, and while I really liked the prose and the themes presented, I can only dream longingly for the unabridged version that never existed.

 

 

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Synopsis

Germany, 1945. The soldiers who liberated the Gross-Rosen concentration camp said the war was over, but nothing feels over to eighteen-year-old Zofia Lederman. Her body has barely begun to heal; her mind feels broken. And her life is completely shattered: Three years ago, she and her younger brother, Abek, were the only members of their family to be sent to the right, away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Everyone else–her parents, her grandmother, radiant Aunt Maja–they went left.

Zofia’s last words to her brother were a promise: Abek to Zofia, A to Z. When I find you again, we will fill our alphabet. Now her journey to fulfill that vow takes her through Poland and Germany, and into a displaced persons camp where everyone she meets is trying to piece together a future from a painful past: Miriam, desperately searching for the twin she was separated from after they survived medical experimentation. Breine, a former heiress, who now longs only for a simple wedding with her new fiancé. And Josef, who guards his past behind a wall of secrets, and is beautiful and strange and magnetic all at once.

But the deeper Zofia digs, the more impossible her search seems. How can she find one boy in a sea of the missing? In the rubble of a broken continent, Zofia must delve into a mystery whose answers could break her–or help her rebuild her world.

 

 

About the Author

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Monica Hesse is the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in the Blue Coat, American Fire, and The War Outside, as well as a columnist at The Washington Post writing about gender and its impact on society. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and their dog.

 

Tour Schedule

You can check out all the other stops on the tour HERE!

 

Giveaway (U.S.)

Two lucky U.S. residents have a chance to win a physical copy of They Went Left! ENTER HERE.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review

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Mini Reviews: Untamed Shore & Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – A Shark and a Wolf Walk(?) into a Bar

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Publisher: Agora Books
Genre(s):
Historical Fiction, Crime
Release Date: February 21st, 2020
Page Count: 339 (hardback)

Rating: 6.5/10

This is an odd one. One of those books that send your brain into a bit of a lull. And I enjoyed it (with a faint question mark attached). But I think I enjoyed it as I’d enjoy sitting on a boat in the middle of a lake for five hours, fishing line cast out, the sun dipping in and out, and catching a single minnow at the end of it all. I can’t decide whether it was meditative or just plain dull, but then I remember that it was a nice day and the birds were singing, so I decide on the former. I probably wouldn’t try it again, but I appreciate the one experience.

It’s an atmosphere-driven book first, character second, and plot third. Moreno-Garcia shows why she’s one of the best when it comes to immersive settings. Baja California is a slow and stifling shoreside town and you can practically feel the heat emanating through the pages as you read. It’s no big city offering glitzy displays of culture, but small places can have just as much character and magnetism, and this story shows that. And Viridiana is a realistic, if unlikable, product of such a place: a little impulsive, a little adventurous, and teeth-grindingly naive. The book definitely works better as her coming-of-age story than a thrilling crime novel because the latter aspects, with the American tourists and their secret troubles, rather underwhelming and a side attraction to the Viridiana Show.

Overall, it’s a lazy immersive sprawl of a story that was worth the read but nothing that really stayed with me afterwards. A brief, quiet fling.

 

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Series: Big Bad Wolf 4
Publisher:
Carina Press
Genre(s):
Paranormal, LGBTQ Romance
Release Date: March 2nd, 2020
Page Count: 268 (paperback)

Rating: 7.5/10

Two of my most pressing questions in the last few years (pre-COVIDapocalypse): 1) When will Blackpink get the respect they’re due from their company? and 2) When will Charlie Adhara release a mediocre book?

The answer is probably the same for both.

We are sitting at book 4 in the Big Bad Wolf series, and I continue to be impressed and delighted by Adhara’s ability to write consistently at the top of the game. She dives into the shapeshifter trope with fresh eyes, creating characters who feel like real people navigating traumas and insecurities, not cardboard cutouts doling out conflict for conflict’s sake, and each book adds new lines and shading to the image that is Park and Cooper. And that continues here. An undercover mission to a couples resort. Murder upon murders. Cooper figuring out that there are so many layers to a relationship, and huh, isn’t that a scary thing, but also a massively wonderful thing?

It wasn’t the strongest of the series in terms of plot and secondary characters, but “not my favourite” for a BBW story equals “really friggin good” for most other paranormal romances. Overall, a solid, solid entry to the next chapter of Cooper’s life.

Expect an overdue Why You Need to Read this Series post in the next week or so!

 

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Review & Paint: Dark and Deepest Red – Beautiful But Flawed

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Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore


Genre(s):
YA Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Magical Realism
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Release Date:
Jan 14th, 2020
Page Count: 320 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

 

What I Liked

 

🌹  The subject of learning to navigate life with an identity that people might not accept or understand. That you might not fully accept or understand.

🌹  The Strausbourg storyline about the Romani and the dancing plague was something I wasn’t familiar with; it’s interesting and educational and I wanted more of it. And I seriously love the author’s decision to tell the 1518 chapters in present tense and the modern chapters in past tense.

🌹  The description of forests. And nature in general. Just…UGH, my heart. I’m convinced Anna-Marie was a magical woodland creature in a previous life. “They’re one body…Something can be one tree, and a whole wood.”

🌹  McLemore has a way of taking small moments–small, seemingly inconsequential moments–and giving them incredible significance and texture. Nothing is without meaning. Even when there’s not much happening with the plot, you still feel like you’re being pulled into the extraordinary.

I read the book a few weeks ago, and there are parts of it I don’t really remember, but I do have a very vivid memory of red shoes dancing along a reservoir edge; wolves slipping past trees; Alifair stripping off his shirt and daring Lala to deny who he is; and so forth. Flashes of images that burn into your mind. And that, my friends, is pure magic.

 

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“We’re aspen trees, you and I”

 

What I Didn’t Like

 

🌹  I was never super invested in Rosella and Emil’s storyline. Partly because the 1518 setting was more interesting, but mostly because I didn’t think too much of Rosella and Emil as characters. I loved some of their scenes, which are gorgeous and awash with colour and imagery, and I could appreciate and relate to a lot of their struggles (trying to fit in with your community, deliberately ignoring your family history). But as characters they felt kind of bland. And, I don’t know, I just wanted an entire book of Lala and Alifair.

🌹  The connection between the 1518 storyline and the modern day storyline felt clunky, especially at the end. And the last few legs of the story’s journey didn’t feel very satisfying.

🌹  Emil/Rosella’s chapters end up explaining the message of Lala’s story near the end, which veers too close to spoonfeeding and takes away some of the depth of the ending.

Overall, it’s a beautifully flawed story about self-acceptance and coming to terms with your cultural roots, and the special kind of freedom and power that they offer. It’s my first experience with Anna-Marie McLemore, and though I doubt this is the book that people would recommend from their bibliography, I got a good taste of their style and…I’m a big fan.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)


 

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Guest Post (The Vine Witch): A History of Witches in France | Feat. Giveaway (US)

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I’m so excited to bring you this (belated) guest post today about the history of witches in France, written by author Luanne G. Smith whose debut was released recently on October 1st–a story about witches, revenge, French vineyards, and vine magic (which sounds like the coolest thing). The book is giving me seductive looks from my TBR pile right now, so I’m hoping to get to it soon.

Hope you enjoy this little piece! (I definitely did)

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It’s always an interesting question to consider the witch trials of the past. One thing that’s always struck me as a rather obvious notion is that none of the people executed for sorcery, in France or elsewhere, were actually witches. They were invariably mortal men and women (and France was less gender-biased in the persecution of “witches” than other nations) who perhaps dabbled in herbs and fortunetelling on the side, but that was fairly common stuff in certain circles. France, in particular, has had a reputation for being obsessed with the occult for centuries, going back to the days of Louis XIV and the Affair of the Poisons. If you’ve never heard about Catherine Deshayes Monvoison, aka La Voisin, and the things she was up to, you’re in for a ghastly read. But in general, the accusations of witchcraft against citizens often served more than merely appeasing moral righteousness and saving the world from the Devil’s influence. They were often acts of retaliation or outright villainy by aggrieved neighbors who used the law to disguise their motives. I mean, if you think about it, a real witch ought to have had the cunning and skill to escape a hapless group of pitchfork-wielding mortals.

From what I was able to discern, the last person to be burned for the crime of witchcraft in France occurred in 1745. That’s why, in The Vine Witch, the laws for witches are referred to as the 1745 Covenants. I was playing off the premise that mortals and witches were forced to come together as a matter of necessity in that year. Too many mortals had been executed as witches, and too many witches had been getting away with harming mortals. So, the two sides drew up the Covenant Law agreements and each, from then on out, left the other alone. Mostly. Which is my interpretation for why there’s no more mention of witches being executed in the public record after that date. Doesn’t mean witches went away. Or mortals stopped being afraid of witches and their powers. Or that everyone obeyed the laws. After all, stories aren’t written about the law-abiders.

 

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About the Book

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The Vine Witch (Vine Witch #1)

Author: Luanne G. Smith
Publisher: 47North
Release Date: October 1, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction

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About the Author

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Luanne G. Smith is the author of THE VINE WITCH, a fantasy novel about witches, wine, and revenge set in early 20th century France, and the forthcoming second book in the series, THE GLAMOURIST. She’s lucky enough to live in Colorado at the base of the beautiful Rocky Mountains, where she enjoys reading, gardening, hiking, a glass of wine at the end of the day, and finding the magic in everyday life.

 

 

Giveaway (US Only)

One finished copy of The Vine Witch is up for grabs! ENTER HERE

 

Tour Schedule

You can go check out the other stops on the tour HERE!

 

Blog Tour Review: Rotherweird – Plenty of Weird, Not a Lot of Enjoyment

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Title: Rotherweird
Author: Andrew Caldecott
Publisher: Quercus (US)
Release Date: June 9th, 2019
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Alternate History
Page Count: 456 (hardback)

Rating: DNF @ ~50%

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1558: Twelve children, gifted far beyond their years, are banished by their Tudor queen to the town of Rotherweird. Some say they are the golden generation; some say the devil’s spawn. But everyone knows they are something to be revered – and feared. Four and a half centuries on, cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I and still bound by its ancient laws, Rotherweird’s independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history. Then an Outsider arrives, a man of unparallelled wealth and power, enough to buy the whole of Rotherweird – deeply buried secrets and all . . . Welcome to Rotherweird.

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Oh boy. I tried really hard with this because I’d never DNFed a blog tour book before and the idea made me feel incredibly guilty. So I pushed myself to the halfway mark before throwing in the towel. Here’s the way I’m trying to look at it. The book clearly isn’t for me, and an extra 200+ pages probably isn’t going to change that. And if I keep reading, it’ll forever be embedded in my brain as not only “that book I disliked,” but also, “that book I disliked and was forced to finish.” And that’s a badge of resentment I don’t think the book deserves.

Well, enough assuaging my conscience. Let’s get to why Rotherweird didn’t work.

I think you’ll have to enjoy a particular writing style to get into the book–scholarly, with dense descriptions that are far too dry for my tastes. There are definitely sections where the story benefits from the prose, adding to the richness of Rotherweird and its inhabitants, but for the most part they pile up into a thick wall of Too Much, and I found myself glazing over a lot of it.

As for the characters, they’re varied and quirky but in a very distant, sterile kind of way. There are also far too many of them, and none are distinct enough for me to become invested in their story.

The plot has to be my biggest gripe, though. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m just an idiot. But when it comes to books that have complex, criss-crossing plotlines, I prefer the ones that are more…accessible. The ones that cordially invite you to partake in their mystery. Because that’s what stories are–a conversation between the reader and the writer. But when a plot becomes too convoluted, too inaccessible, and you lose the readers in the process, the story starts morphing into a monologue, and no one wants that. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens here.

Overall, the premise of the book is fantastic and it’s got individual elements here and there that I liked, but none of that gelled together into a story that I could enjoy.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Mini Review: The Wolf and the Watchman – The Literary Equivalent of Repeatedly Punching a Wall (AKA Not fun)

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Title: The Wolf and the Watchman
Author: Niklas Natt och Dag
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: March 5th, 2019
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Crime
Page Count: 384 (paperback)

Rating: 5.0/10

Add to goodreads

 

 

 

It is 1793. Four years after the storming of the Bastille in France and more than a year after the death of King Gustav III of Sweden, paranoia and whispered conspiracies are Stockholm’s daily bread. A promise of violence crackles in the air as ordinary citizens feel increasingly vulnerable to the whims of those in power.

When Mickel Cardell, a crippled ex-solider and former night watchman, finds a mutilated body floating in the city’s malodorous lake, he feels compelled to give the unidentifiable man a proper burial. For Cecil Winge, a brilliant lawyer turned consulting detective to the Stockholm police, a body with no arms, legs, or eyes is a formidable puzzle and one last chance to set things right before he loses his battle to consumption. Together, Winge and Cardell scour Stockholm to discover the body’s identity, encountering the sordid underbelly of the city’s elite.

Meanwhile, Kristofer Blix—the handsome son of a farmer—leaves rural life for the alluring charms of the capital and ambitions of becoming a doctor. His letters to his sister chronicle his wild good times and terrible misfortunes, which lead him down a treacherous path.

In another corner of the city, a young woman—Anna-Stina—is consigned to the workhouse after she upsets her parish priest. Her unlikely escape plan takes on new urgency when a sadistic guard marks her as his next victim.

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This was definitely a case of “it’s not you, it’s me,” because if you break down the book’s individual elements–setting, character, plot–what you get isn’t anything bad. Far from it, really. Eighteenth century Stockholm was fascinating to read about, the characters were peripherally interesting, and while the mystery took some time to get going (part two especially makes things confusing) it kept my interest for the most part.

My problem lies with just how utterly grey, dour, and joyless the whole experience was. The two main characters are a well-written but unlikable bunch: Winge is the genius not-quite-detective who suffers from a case of consumption and a cold, manipulative personality, and Cardell is the embittered war-vet-turned-watchman who suffers from anger management issues. It’s reminiscent of True Detective S1–all the dour grimness and a slew of underlying thematic messages, but minus the chemistry between the lead characters which would have made the story more bearable.

If you’re craving a gritty and gruesome historical murder mystery and can stomach stark depictions of human depravity, then I’d recommend it. Not to be for me, sadly.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Wolf in the Whale – An Inuk, Three Wolves, and a Viking Walk into an Igloo (And Go On a Soul-Searching Journey)

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Title: The Wolf in the Whale
Author: Jordanna Max Brodsky
Publisher: Redhook
Release Date: January 29th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Inuit Mythology, Norse Mythology
Page Count: 560 (paperback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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Born with the soul of a hunter and the spirit of the Wolf, Omat is destined to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps-invoking the spirits of the land, sea, and sky to protect her people.

But the gods have stopped listening and Omat’s family is starving. Alone at the edge of the world, hope is all they have left.

Desperate to save them, Omat journeys across the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When she meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, they set in motion a conflict that could shatter her world…or save it.

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Note
: the main character Omat was born female and identifies as both a man and a woman, but the author uses she/her pronouns in her endnotes, so that’s what I’m going to use as well.

Trigger Warning: Scenes of rape and discussions of them.

The Wolf in the Whale is a languid, immersive tapestry consisting primarily of Inuit culture and mythology but one that has threads of Norse mythos weaving through it. And the result has a little bit of everything–fantastic character work, slow-burn romance, meddling gods, wolves that are whales that are wolves, battles ranging from small-scale to continent-spanning, and themes of gender roles and identity.

Above all that, though, it’s about changing narratives that others have set up for you. And I think that’s what I loved most about it.

I found the story to be a very spiritual and empowering one as it follows the “Heroine’s Journey” template in a way that’s very reminiscent of Juliet Marillier’s work (I talked a bit about the ins-and-outs of the Heroine’s Journey in this post and why I love it so much).

The TL;DR of Heroine’s Journey and what differentiates it from the Hero’s Journey is that while the latter is very external (big baddie to defeat, world to save, etc), the former is very internal. So the plot follows this trajectory:

Omat starts out with nearly everything she could hope for. She’s an Inuit shaman-in-training who will one day lead her camp, and though born female, she thinks of herself a boy and no one really challenges her on that. So she’s allowed to hunt with the men and do other “male” activities (which she’s very good at). All in all, she’s content with her current role and her future.

And then all of that comes crashing down around her.

What follows is a brutal and lonely journey across the ice that culminates in a quest to rescue her brother. But running parallel to that, and what is ultimately the heart of the story, is a personal quest to find herself in a world where people and gods alike are determined to put her in a labelled box, saying “This is where you belong.”

So the Heroine’s Journey doesn’t really work if the main character doesn’t work. Luckily that’s not a problem here because Omat is utterly fantastic–hard-headed, empathetic, vulnerable. Brodsky takes her sweet time to set her up and people might complain that it makes the beginning too slow and ponderous, but I think a comprehensive foundation for the protagonist is essential with these types of stories.

The main plot you see in the synopsis doesn’t actually appear until about 40% of the way in. Everything before that is dedicated to exploring Omat and her relationship with her family and immersing in Inuit culture and mythos (all very well-researched). And I read it in one sitting which doesn’t happen often these days, so that should tell you how engaging this slow first half is.

My second favourite part about the book? The relationship between Omat and Brandr, a battle-weary Norseman who starts out as her enemy but soon becomes her companion.

This isn’t a one-sided “hotshot hero comes in to rescue the heroine and teach her about love” relationship. These are two fractured people–both nursing pain and loneliness–who are learning to understand each other’s language (literally and metaphorically) and helping each other heal and become stronger.

And Brodansky shows exactly what I want to see in a story about two “enemy” characters from different cultures working together–a sharing of beliefs and faiths and the acknowledgement that yes, the other might be strange and foreign, but the world as a whole is strange and foreign. And there’s always more they could learn from it.

There’s this gorgeously drawn-out scene where they talk about the dead and the possibility of afterlives, and Omat consoles Brandr by saying that the souls of your loved ones are reborn within you when they die. His response is skeptical so she counters with this:

“You don’t seem to believe in a world you cannot see. And yet, if I were you, I wouldn’t believe your stories of deserts and volcanoes and tall buildings of stones. I would say you made them up, since I’ve never seen them. But instead, I trust that there are many things beyond my understanding.”

It’s a quiet, introspective scene that does nothing to further the plot and everything to further the characters, and I love it so damn much. There are many like it and they show that, beyond the meshing of mythologies, this is the area Brodsky truly excels at.

Speaking of which…to cap all this praise off, you also get Norse gods clashing with Inuit spirits and the result is exactly what I’d hoped for–exhilarating, educational and, again, highlighting parallels between the two cultures.

That being said, I did have issues with the pacing in the latter third of the book. I think the events leading up to the ending could have been a lot shorter, or if not shorter, then had more of an in-depth exploration into Freydis, the woman who’s leading the Norsemen. She’s a fascinating character and I wish I could have gotten a bit more from her.

I also have a niggling issue with the fact that Omat only becomes comfortable with her female body the moment she starts getting sexually involved with Brandr. It obviously wasn’t the author’s intent to be like, “Hey, kids, you only need to meet the right man to make you feel comfortable in your own skin!” But that’s kind of what it comes across as.

Overall, this is a wonderful standalone mashup of history and fantasy, and one that celebrates a culture that isn’t often explored in mainstream fiction.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: Once Upon A River – A Non-Magical Magical Delight

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Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: December 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Subjects and Themes: Stories about stories
Page Count: 421 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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On a dark, misty night in the small English village of Radcot, locals gather at the Swan Inn to cap their day with drinks and lore. The 600-year-old pub is a famed hub for storytellers, but the patrons cannot know that their evening will be stranger than any tale they could weave. Into the inn bursts a mysterious man, sopping and bloodied and carrying an unconscious four-year-old girl. But before he can explain who he and the child are, and how they came to be injured, he collapses.

Upriver, two families are searching desperately for their missing daughters. Alice Armstrong has been missing for twenty-four hours, ever since her mother’s suicide. And Amelia Vaughan vanished without a trace two years prior. When the families learn of the lost little girl at the Swan Inn, each wonders if their child has at last been found. But identifying the child may not be as easy as it seems.

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So, I’d staunchly avoided Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale when it first came out. The NYT bestseller stamp and the heaps of praise it was getting made me think it was one of those bland mainstream hits.

In other news, I’m a shallow idiot. Because if Once Upon A River is any indication of Setterfield’s talents, I have been missing out on some incredible storytelling.

Once Upon a River is an absolutely delightful, charming, whimsical tale. Take every word in every language that describes the experience of sitting around an open fire swaddled in blankets and listening to a veteran storyteller work their magic, dump them into a pot, stir for a minute or two, and you’ll have Once Upon a River.

And it’s a book I recommend to everyone whether you’re a fan of historical mystery or not, and for several reasons.

1) It’s one of those stories that straddle multiple genres and flirts with the possibility of speculative. So there’s kind of something for everyone.

2) For all you fantasy readers, this is a fantasy that’s not actually a fantasy.

No no no, hear me out. While there are no actual fantastical happenings, the fantasy is in the atmosphere it creates, in its exploration of the unknown and the unexplained. The way that the river seems to be its own character with its own whims. The utter embrace of the magic and the power of stories. It’s got the heart and the soul of what makes a good fantasy a good fantasy.

3) This book is an absolutely unabashed love letter to stories and I don’t know how anyone can say “no” to that.

As we flit through the lives of the colourful characters that inhabit this book, we explore the beauty of the human mind to be able create different stories out of the same event. And how those stories can be controlled but only to a certain extent, after which they take a life of their own and speed off in wild directions.

The book also does a wonderful job exploring the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves for darker purposes. Stories that we create to mask our guilt and pain and sorrow. Lies, if you will. But not really. More like…picking worlds that we can bear living in.

Basically, if you like books, you should read this. And if you don’t like books, then let this be my attempt to convert you to the dark side, because Once Upon a River is a perfect winter read that will make you fall in love with stories–for the first time or for the billionth.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.