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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Mini Reviews (and a Reading Woe): The Shadows by Alex North & Red Heir by Lisa Henry

How does one…read a book?

If anyone has suggestions, please feel free to mail out a note to my brain detailing step-by-step instructions, as the poor thing has clearly forgotten. Which, turns out, is a bit of an inconvenience when you’re trying to run a book blog.

It’s not that I don’t have the time – quite the opposite, really. It’s not that I don’t have a good selection of books to read, or that I’m not excited to get to them – because I have and I do. It’s just that I open a book, read the first couple of chapters, and then think, “Oh look, squirrel!” and proceed to chase the squirrel instead. And in this case the squirrel is a text message or a cute YouTube video or a dark blotch on my ceiling that I swear is a spider. I feel like, at this point, if I were stuck in a 10 ft x 10 ft room with nothing but the clothes on my back, some water, and a Kindle on my lap, I would still manage to find an excuse to NOT read.

Sigh. It’s a maddening puzzle, my friends. But one I’m determined to crack this month. There are so many incredible-sounding books coming out in the next couple of months, and I do not want to miss them.

In the meantime, here are a few mini reviews that I’ve been procrastinating on!

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Title:
The Shadows
Author:
Alex North
Publisher:
Celadon Books

Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller
Subject(s)/Themes(s): Childhood, Dreams
Representation: N/A

Release Date: July 7th, 2020
Page Count: 326 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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You knew a teenager like Charlie Crabtree. A dark imagination, a sinister smile–always on the outside of the group. Some part of you suspected he might be capable of doing something awful. Twenty-five years ago, Crabtree did just that, committing a murder so shocking that it’s attracted that strange kind of infamy that only exists on the darkest corners of the internet–and inspired more than one copycat.

Paul Adams remembers the case all too well: Crabtree–and his victim–were Paul’s friends. Paul has slowly put his life back together. But now his mother, old and suffering from dementia, has taken a turn for the worse. Though every inch of him resists, it is time to come home.

It’s not long before things start to go wrong. Paul learns that Detective Amanda Beck is investigating another copycat that has struck in the nearby town of Featherbank. His mother is distressed, insistent that there’s something in the house. And someone is following him. Which reminds him of the most unsettling thing about that awful day twenty-five years ago.

It wasn’t just the murder.

It was the fact that afterward, Charlie Crabtree was never seen again…

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The Shadows is less of a thriller-horror than what the blurb suggests, and a more reflective story of a man who returns home to reconcile with a traumatic past. It’s got the tone of rifling through a box of old photographs, with all the tension and melancholia that accompanies it, which I absolutely vibe with – sad trips into the fictional past are my jam – but it wasn’t quite the skin-crawling experience I was hoping for.

It is, however, still a solid atmosphere-driven tale and, in a weird way, there’s this magical lustre to it. Maybe it’s just that my brain has a tendency to categorize all stories involving dreams as fantasy-adjacent, but this feels like it exists in that grey narrative space between reality and not-quite. It’s in the way that the characters long for things they know they can’t have, and long for them hard enough to stitch their own world, their own stories, into existence. And I love it when stories do that – grounded in the real world but still dangling a thread of “But what if?”

Aside from the main character, the rest of the cast kind of fade into the background. I understand why the author chose to alternate Paul’s chapters with Amanda’s. His narration is so entrenched in old memories and biases, and the detective offers a more outside-in look into everything with better objectivity (the thriller/mystery aspect definitely becomes sharper with her chapters). But I couldn’t help but feel that she’s mostly there to serve as a mirror for all the strangeness that’s going on, and not so much as a fleshed-out character. A narrative device, really, albeit an effective one.

Creepy handprints on the cover notwithstanding, I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone looking for a high-octane horror story. It’s the quiet exploration of childhood traumas and our compartmentalization of them that truly shines throughout.

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


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Title:
Red Heir
Author:
Lisa Henry and Sarah Honey
Publisher:
Self-published

Genre(s): Fantasy, Romance
Subject(s)/Themes(s): Fake royal, Road trip
Representation: Gay MC and side characters

Release Date: July 28th, 2020
Page Count: 234 (ebook)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Imprisoned pickpocket Loth isn’t sure why a bunch of idiots just broke into his cell claiming they’re here to rescue the lost prince of Aguillon, and he doesn’t really care. They’re looking for a redheaded prince, and he’s more than happy to play along if it means freedom. Then his cranky cellmate Grub complicates things by claiming to be the prince as well.

Now they’re fleeing across the country and Loth’s stuck sharing a horse and a bedroll with Grub while imitating royalty, eating eel porridge, and dodging swamp monsters and bandits.

Along the way, Loth discovers that there’s more to Grub than meets the eye. Under the dirt and bad attitude, Grub’s not completely awful. He might even be attractive. In fact, Loth has a terrible suspicion that he’s developing feelings, and he’s not sure what to do about that. He’d probably have more luck figuring it out if people would just stop trying to kill them.

Still, at least they’ve got a dragon, right?

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A dwarf, an elf, a human, and an orc crash into a prison where two redheads await. One of them is the lost prince, you see, and these unlikely band of rescuers are determined to snatch him away to safety and earn all the glory. A case of mistaken identity, however, lands the wrong guy as the prince and his cellmate as his grumpy tagalong. Cue adventure.

This was….okay, in every sense of the word. It’s a simple story; it doesn’t do anything particularly new or exciting with the imposter royal trope, the worldbuilding is sparse, and the side characters are cute and provide some extra banter. In terms of queer fantasy adventures, it’s nowhere near the kind of funny that Lightning Struck Heart is, but it definitely has its witty moments.

I was just rather bored with it. I mean, the book knows what it’s about – it’s not meant to be a sprawling fantasy epic – but everything from the characters to the relationship to the plot felt surface-level and derivative compared to other stories that tackle this premise in a more interesting way. It plays safe and doesn’t attempt to be anything it’s not, but damn, I sure wish it’d at least tried.

But if you’re looking for quick and light-hearted fantasy that you want to squeeze inbetween heavier reads, or you just really love red-haired protagonists, then this might be one for you.

Thank you to Gay Romance Reviews and the authors for providing the review copy

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Review: Docile – Important and Poignant Enough to Write a Poem For (Which I Did)

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Title: Docile
Author:
K.M. Szpara
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Speculative Fiction
Subject(s): Consent, BDSM, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
March 3rd, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10

 

 

 

To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents’ debts and buy your childrens’ future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.

 

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I tried writing a long review for this. I really did. On my first attempt I stared at the screen for a few hours and wrote a poem about it instead. On my second attempt I wrote a rambly essay that got way too personal and I figured I should just save that for therapy.

This is a book I feel deserves a long review, but well–sometimes my brain says, “I don’t think so.” And who knows? Maybe it’s right.

My favourite formula for storytelling is “Present it big, but tell it small.” As in, I love stories that offer a grand concept, but instead of focusing on the big pieces, it goes through the intimate details–the minutiae of everyday life. That’s one of the main reasons why I love this book so much. Because Docile commentates on a broken system that feels too-adjacent to our own–a Black Mirror-ish look at class divides and capitalism–but it does it through a story about healing and self-discovery, and a relationship that was built terribly wrong and brittle but nonetheless became real.

The other reason is Elisha.

It’s funny, because I don’t really know who Elisha as a person. He’s not as present or as bold as Alex is on the page. Which is, to be fair, kind of the point, as he spends most of the book getting scrubbed away, and the rest trying to figure out who he is as an individual. But a blank slate is a blank slate, so there’s really no reason for me to be attached to him, or relate to him. Except I am and I do. It’s his journey that I looked at and said, “Oh, this rings a bell.” Not the rape and the mindfuck, thankfully, but the aftermath and the healing process. The pain of being lost and looking over your emotions and feeling like you can’t trust any of them. And the use of bondage and power play to help reclaim his sense of control and autonomy (seeing BDSM in a therapeutic context in fiction makes me a happy otter). This was a case of the journey shaping the character, rather than the character shaping the character. If that makes sense.

I broke for him. And I was proud for him.

“I’m still in here.” I curl my finger against my sternum. “I need help. I need someone to love me and be patient with me.”

The thing with stories about sexual servitude is that there’s a very fine line that you need to toe, otherwise the whole thing devolves into an uncomfortable cousin of torture porn, and the point you’re trying to raise about consent–if that was even a point you set out to make–becomes moot (Bliss by Lisa Henry and Heidi Belleau is one example).

Docile toes that line decked out in Wes Anderson pastels and vintage floral prints.

It heats things up, but never condones. It presents you with kindness and care and love, and then asks how much they’re worth when, at the end of the day, your body isn’t yours and your mouth is sewn and there is never an option to say “No.”

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review

 

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OMG That Song Tag

Welcome to

Aurora tagged me for this a lifetime ago (thank you!) and it’s been two lifetimes since I’ve posted a tag, so I figured this would be a good place to start!

 

[MY JAM]

A song you have to listen to no matter how many times you’ve heard it

Rachel Platten’s Stand by You because it is THE anthem for love and I get misty-eyed every time I listen to it.

And hey, if your wings are broken
Please take mine ’til yours can open too
‘Cause I’m gonna stand by you

I’m 80% convinced Rachel is an actual angel.

 

A book that you’ll never get sick of

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Really, the entirety of the Realm of the Elderlings series, but this one in particular. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this in the past 3 years, but I think it’s at 6 or 7? And a lot of that has to do with the snowy setting. I don’t know what it is about expeditions into icy wastes that I find so irresistible, but I do. Give me books about characters trudging through snow, sharing blankets and fire, and telling stories to stave off the cold, and I’ll be a fan for life.

 

[THROWBACK]

A song that reminds you of the cringiest time in your life

So my current playlist? 😀

Well, my teenage years were disappointingly and unhelpfully bland. Age 18 to 21, on the other hand? Total train wreck.

I came across Poets of the Fall in 2012 thanks to the Alan Wake video game. But contrary to 2012 Kathy, there’s nothing cringey about this Finnish band. The lead singer’s voice is molten honey and sex combined and their lyrics are heartstopping poetry.

 

A book you read that you wouldn’t like now

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I read The Mists of Avalon when I was 15 and it blew. my. mind. This was the feminist Arthurian retelling I never knew I needed. And I could overlook some of the more questionable scenes because I thought the heart of the story was in a good place. Well, turns out it wasn’t in a good place because years later the abuse allegations against Bradley came out, and that was that.

Sometimes I can separate a creator from the creator’s work. This probably isn’t one of those times.

 

[REPLAY]

A recent song that you have on repeat

“Broken & Beautiful” by Kelly Clarkson. Because I mean:

I’m tired
Can I just be tired?
Without piling on all sad and scared and out of time

I need–NEED–Kelly and P!nk to do a live duet of this.

 

A recent favorite book

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No words. A once-in-a-lifetime-experience. A gorgeous fae prince/princess would have to ride their griffin down from the sky and whisk me away to their forest kingdom for me to even consider knocking The Mortal Sleep out of the Favourite of 2019 position. (You can read my review here)

 

[GETS ME]

A song that’s literally me

“Miracle” by The Score. The band wrote it as a way of expressing their anxieties about song-writing and being in the music industry, but I choose to interpret it as a general “I’m going through some shit in my life” song.

It’s not just a phase
Now let me explain
I’m working through some shit
Sometimes I’m medicated

 

A book that is me in book form

The Light Between Worlds

See “A recent favorite book.”

But also The Light Between Worlds. Because one of its main characters reminded me of myself in the most uncomfortable way. The mental health stuff, that is. Not the “got ported to a magical forest ruled by a talking stag” bit.

 

[WUT]

A weird song that you liked anyways

To be fair, this isn’t a hard song to love at all. Tierra Whack’s debut album Whack World is nothing short of brilliant–a treasure trove 15 songs (all of which are 1 minute long) that brim with experimental whimsy. With “Fruit Salad” Tierra sings about eating vegetables (yes), lowering cholesterol (really), and not caring about what other people thinks about her body. How she makes that sound so good and addictive I have no idea.

 

A unique book that stuck out to you for some reason

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Memory lane time! When I was a teen I went through a delusional phase where I decided I would go through the entirety of my library’s YA section from A to Z. It lasted for only about 5 months and I ended up skipping through the alphabet, but I did get a chance to pick up some of the more…bizarre titles I wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. Madapple is one of them. It’s one of those contemporary books that feels more like a fairy tale because of how surreal and ethereal everything is. There’s virgin birth involved. And child abuse. And court drama. And incestuous romance!

Terrible girl-in-a-bad-wig cover aside, I really really liked it at the time, and I haven’t read anything quite like it since.

 

[LET’S GO]

Your best pump up song

Maybe not the best, but the most recent. Within Temptation is baaaack and they’re apparently leading a space opera revolution to take back Mars. I’m SO in.

 

A book that inspires you

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I live and die on the altar of Markus Zusak and not (only) because he replied to the letter I wrote when I was 13, telling me it was beautiful (you probably say that to every kid, sir). But because The Book Thief pretty much molded the way I approach writing and other creative endeavours, and just…life in general.

I read it around the same time that I watched Pan’s Labyrinth, and they both taught me not to be afraid of rawness and creating raw and dark things, and not to be shameful about finding beauty in them.

 

[CHILL]

Your best chill or relaxing song

Sleeping At Last is an international treasure and Saturn is my favourite from their Atlas album.

 

A book you’d curl up with on a rainy day

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Mix together hope, goodness, whimsy, and small wisdoms in a bowl, pour them into tiny bottles and string them up around your walls like Christmas lights, look at it for one hour or five, and that’s what reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is like.

 

[ADDICTING]

A guilty pleasure song

I…don’t really have one??? But I guess this is the closest? I mean, I don’t feel at all guilty about listening to it, but I would feel a tad guilty about singing it in polite company because the lyrics are pretty explicit. And only Damien Rice can make them sound like absolute poetry.

 

A light, trashy read you can’t help but love

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Okay, this isn’t really light (I don’t know if any story involving Henry VIII could be light) and “love” is a strong word, but I did find it an addictive read.

 

[Nostalgia]

A throwback song you look back on fondly

So for the longest time–like, eight years–I’d thought this song was about the bittersweetness of growing up and watching your friends drift away, and I loved that because at the wise old age of 14 I thought, “Man, all the golden years are behind me.”

And then I finally watched the music video and saw a kid George W. Bush pushing around toy soldiers and tanks and was like, “Oh, right. This is Rise Against.” But I love it now even more because it’s such a chameleon of a song and it can absolutely be interpreted both ways.

 

A book you read and loved when you were young

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I read first read The Little Prince when I was…6? And it’s the first book that I could describe as being poignant. Or whatever a 6 year-old’s version of “poignant” was.

 

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Tagging (because I’m very curious about your music tastes. I mean, I could just ASK but where’s the fun in that???)

Amanda @ MetalPhantasm Reads
Gerry @ BookNook UK
Kristina @ Books and Dachshunds
Lisa @ Way Too Fantasy
Nicole @ Thoughts Stained with Ink

And anyone else who wants to give it a go!

Top 5 Wednesday – Favourite Hopepunk Books of 2018

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes in which you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic.

This week’s a freebie so I made up my own prompt: Favourite hopepunk books of 2018.

And I kind of chose it to showcase books that I didn’t include in my Best of 2018 list (which is coming, I swear!) So think of it as a Special Mentions list.

Now, the term “hopepunk” was coined by SFF author Alexandra Rowland via Tumblr. You can read the entirety of her glorious post here, but the gist of it is that hopepunk is the antithesis of grimdark. A celebration of human resilience and empathy and love in the face of darkness. Giving apathy the middle finger as you ride off in your beat-up car bedecked with rainbows and protest stickers.

Because life is fhard and scary and lonely. And we need more reminders that, yes, it’s worth it.

(You can click on the titles for the full reviews. The ones that have them, anyway.)

 

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few

I’d never been more engaged with a book that has so little plot and external conflict as I did with Chambers’ third Wayfarers book. I call it This is Us crossed with Mass Effect. It’s got the alien interactions and the cultural exchanges, but it’s also got the cozy, small-scale family stories and conflicts. Really, the story is just about a group of people who are trying to live their lives as best as they can through uncertainties and horrific tragedies. Human connections are at the heart of this book and Chambers shows so beautifully how they can bring a community together.

 

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe

This contemporary, maybe-speculative-maybe-not YA follows Cliff Hubbard, resident loner of Happy Valley High, as he tries to deal with the aftermath of his brother’s suicide. He’s joined by Aaron, resident cool kid, who went into a brief coma and got a personal mission from God (allegedly): make Happy Valley High more kind and, well, happy. And he can’t do it without Cliff’s help.

It’s ridiculous, it’s hilarious, and most of all, it’s such a heartfelt love letter to all the good we’re capable of doing–the changes we can make, the lives we can touch.

The last 40 pages is basically just a long rib-crushing hug (a Krogan hug, for you Mass Effect fans), and there’s this one particular passage that I want to bottle up and string around my heart like Christmas lights. Here’s a snippet:

“I’m not going to sugarcoat the situation. High school is messed up. Life is messed up. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it. And even WHEN you can’t, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Always try. Because the alternative is a world where people don’t. A world where people see no good, and they have no hope. They exist because that is the default state of life, and then they die because that’s what happens next. All the while, they let the world rot and fall apart around them.

But life is more than just existing. And its more than just a door with death and nothingness on the other side. Life is a series of doors. Every moment, every decision, is a door. And by opening them and stepping into the unknown, we are expanding and illuminating a world that we never knew existed. But if we don’t open those doors? If we stay put? We’ll be living in a world of walls.

Don’t you want to know what’s on the other side?”

Yeah. Just…yeah.

 

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

How to Stop Time

How to Stop Time is a lovely, introspective story about a man with a medical condition that allows him to live for a very long time (we’re talking many centuries here). And there are many like him in the world–collectively they’re called the Albatross Society. And the First rule of Albatross Society? Don’t fall in love.

Through a time-hopping narrative Haig reminds you that yes, the world can be foreign and frightening, but at the same time he dares you–very gently–to take a chance and rise above that fear and see what wonders you can accomplish.

And, just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battles would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve?

How, in short, would you live?

 

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

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The only non-2018 book on the list, In Other Lands is part subversive portal fantasy and part coming-of-age tale starring a teenage boy named Elliot. And Elliot happens to be one of the most brilliant YA protagonists I’ve come across in the last handful of years–awkward, lonely and decidedly unhappy, but trying to hide all of that under a prickly exterior. And for most of the book, nothing’s really easy for him. On one side of this magical border is a world he never felt he belonged to, and on the other is one that seems hell-bent on perpetuating war and animosity. And on top of that, he’s having dealing with all the messy complications of relationships, romantic or otherwise.

But things do get better, if not easier. And I found his journey, of finding peace and belonging in a world that’s so often confusing and hostile, to be such a rewarding one.

 

A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland

A Conspiracy of Truths

Oh heeeeey, Alexandra. Fancy seeing you here!

A Conspiracy of Truths is a brilliant fantasy about a grumpy old storyteller who finds himself accused of various crimes (witchcraft and treason to name a few) and has to rely on his storytelling abilities to free himself. There’s politics, sweet lovestruck apprentices, and female characters who mean business. Ultimately, though, it’s about the power of stories to change worlds–like dismantling governments and getting to know another person better (and both are equally important)–and I can’t think of anything more hopepunk-y than that.

“People are not the same everywhere. They are astoundingly, elaborately, gloriously different.”

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What are some of your favourite hopepunk books you read in the past year?

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.

DNF Review: Here and Now and Then – Your Name Is What Now?

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Title: Here and Now and Then
Author: Mike Chen
Publisher: MIRA
Release Date: January 29th, 2019
Genre(s): Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: Time Travel, Families
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: DNF @ 37%

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Kin Stewart is an everyday family man: working in IT, trying to keep the spark in his marriage, struggling to connect with his teenage daughter, Miranda. But his current life is a far cry from his previous career…as a time-traveling secret agent from 2142.

Stranded in suburban San Francisco since the 1990s after a botched mission, Kin has kept his past hidden from everyone around him, despite the increasing blackouts and memory loss affecting his time-traveler’s brain. Until one afternoon, his “rescue” team arrives—eighteen years too late.

Their mission: return Kin to 2142, where he’s only been gone weeks, not years, and where another family is waiting for him. A family he can’t remember.

Torn between two lives, Kin is desperate for a way to stay connected to both. But when his best efforts threaten to destroy the agency and even history itself, his daughter’s very existence is at risk. It’ll take one final trip across time to save Miranda—even if it means breaking all the rules of time travel in the process

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So this wasn’t exactly the feel-good time travel drama that I’d had in mind.

And I’m starting to think that I’m setting too-high standards for these time travel stories because I haven’t been impressed with the majority of the ones I read in the past year.

Long story short, while I liked how readable and snappy the writing is, I felt the story lacked in-depth exploration into not only the future world and the time travel agency, but also the characters and their relationships.

There are too many details that I found silly and/or scientifically wobbly, like the invention of a metabolizer that increases human life span by a whopping 200 years that will come about in 100 years from now, which seems far too soon; the concept that our brains can’t handle memories of two time periods and no real explanation as to why; the fact that our protagonist’s full name is Quinoa due to a food-name fad that happens sometime in the future; the notion that this big important agency doesn’t have set protocols for when an agent gets stuck in a timeline; and the idea that the U.S. in the future is doing secret collaborative time travel projects with Australia of all countries (nothing against Aussies! It’s just not very plausible). It’s all just so…arbitrary and quirky for the sake of being quirky–like something out of a children’s cartoon.

Okay, so this is one of those goofy light-scifi stories. Not what I expected, but fair enough. At least the characters are interesting, right?

Well, I thought the characters’ actions were baffling and nonsensical so I guess technically that could be construed as “interesting.”

For example, there’s a scene near the beginning where Kin is worried that the agency will terminate his 1996 family and he has a lightbulb moment where he decides he’s going to run away alone, which makes absolutely no sense considering how the agency already knows where they live and can take them as hostages to lure him back.

Moreover, there’s little chemistry between Kin and his wife and daughter, and this takes the emotional impact out of some of the later events.

And speaking of later events…

SPOILERS:

Kin ends up returning to his original timeline but then finds out that his wife dies just a few months after his departure. So he decides to retroactively send an email to his daughter (dated one day after his wife’s death) which begins with this line:

“First off, I am so incredibly sorry about what has happened to Mom and that you are suffering alone.”

That is a letter you might send to a coworker or an acquaintance when they’re in a rough spot (in fact, an acquaintance did send me a similar e-mail after I was in the hospital for suicidal reasons and that had ten times the emotion of Kin’s version). And even then the “first off” makes it sound flippant–like you have more important topics to get to. It’s definitely not the letter a grieving man would (or should) write to his grieving daughter that he unwittingly abandoned.

It’s a detail that just really bothered me and it underscores the feeling that these characters don’t behave as normal humans would.

I think I’m in the minority of opinions, though. So if you crave soap opera-y family dramas with light sci-fi elements then you might want to give this one a try. It wasn’t to be for me, unfortunately.

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

Review: Alice Isn’t Dead (A Novel) – A Road Trip Like No Other

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Title: Alice Isn’t Dead: A Novel
Author: Joseph Fink
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Release Date: October 30th, 2018
Genre(s): Horror, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Road Trip, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

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Keisha Taylor lived a quiet life with her wife, Alice, until the day that Alice disappeared. After months of searching, presuming she was dead, Keisha held a funeral, mourned, and gradually tried to get on with her life. But that was before Keisha started to see her wife, again and again, in the background of news reports from all over America. Alice isn’t dead, and she is showing up at every major tragedy and accident in the country.

Following a line of clues, Keisha takes a job as a long-haul truck driver and begins searching for Alice. She eventually stumbles on an otherworldly conflict being waged in the quiet corners of our nation’s highway system—uncovering a conspiracy that goes way beyond one missing woman.

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“This isn’t a story. It’s a road trip.”

For those who don’t know, the original Alice Isn’t Dead is a three-part narrative podcast created by Joseph Fink–one of the brains behind Welcome to Night Vale–that follows a truck driver named Keisha in her search for her not-dead wife. While Fink calls the novel a “complete reimagining,” the two are actually pretty much identical–same characters, same plot, same weirdness. The only main difference is that the novel is told in third person, losing the intimacy of the podcast but gaining extra details.

Alice Isn’t Dead is surreal horror (there’s people-eating non-people, government secrets, cryptic people being cryptic) with its atmosphere driven almost entirely by the U.S. landscape. I mean, road trips have something of a surreal and fantastical quality to them. Like the wall of billboards and power lines that seem to stretch on forever. Like the small abandoned towns you pass through at night and you swear you see something dark and unreal from the corner of your eye. Fink captures that feeling perfectly and with such brevity.

Fink has a very distinct writing voice that’s hard to describe. In short it’s weird. But it’s a comfortable kind of weird. You get the sense that he’s not saying these things for the sake of being weird, but because his mind occupies this space between the dream world and the waking world and he just needs to let it all out.

It’s also an inclusive kind of weird. The writing isn’t someone boasting about how deep and unique their imagination is, but an eager kid tugging at your hand and whispering, “Come on. I want to show you something.”

Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because the dead return, because light reverses, because the sky is a gap, because it’s a shout, because light reverses, because the dead return, because footsteps in the basement, because footsteps on the roof, because the sky is a shout, because it’s a gap, because the grass doesn’t grow, or grows too much, or grows wrong, because the dead return, because the dead return.

While Fink excels with the strange and the occult, I think his biggest strength lies in capturing the minute complexities of people and their relationships–in this case, that of a married couple. While the first half is focused on the mysteries of cross-country serial murders, the latter half is dedicated to Keisha and Alice and untangling the whole “you made me think you were dead” knot. It’s wonderful stuff.

I did find the structure of the story a little too rigid, though. One chapter corresponds to one episode, and so each chapter feels very self-contained and the transition between one to the next kind of choppy. It reads very much like a podcast-to-book adaptation, and if you’re looking for that, then great. I personally wanted something more loose and…novel-y.

If this is your first foray into the mind of Joseph Fink, then welcome. Buckle in. Half the time you’ll be sitting there thinking “WTF,” and the other half you’ll be sitting there thinking “WTF” with a huge grin on your face.

(Oh, and go listen to the podcast)

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

October 2018 Wrap-Up – Book Things & Art as a Double-Edged Sword

It’s the middle of the month…and you know what that means! 😀

So, I was going to include mini reviews for some of the games I played in the past month because Nicole @ Thoughts Stained With Ink was like, “Heck yeah! You should totally do that!” But the post was getting kinda long and there’s this one game that I absolutely need to GUSH about, so I’m shuffling those to separate posts.

And that means I’ve finally decided to do semi-regular posts about video games (with a heavy focus on indies because while I love AAA titles, it’s the indies that make my heart sing). Will anyone read them? Who knows!

As for books, October was an okay month. I read 9 in total, most of which I enjoyed:

⚔️= Fantasy; 🚀= Scifi; 👻= Paranormal; 🔍= Mystery; 🌺= Contemporary; 🗝️= Historical; 🌈= LGBTQIAP+; Horror= 👁️

The Brilliant

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The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth ⚔️🗝️:
If I were a cat, this book would have killed me nine times over. Thank you for breaking me in the best way, Laura.  [Review]

A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland ⚔️🌈:
This was such a clever and entertaining story about, well, stories and their power to change the fabric of the world. And its protagonist is an elderly man in his 70’s which you don’t see everyday in fantasy. [Review]

 

The Great

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Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink 👁️🌈:
I really liked it. I think it works perfectly as a companion to the podcast. But I don’t know if it’s something that can hold up on its own? I’ll talk more about it in the actual review.

Sadie by Courtney Summers 🔍🌺:
Yet another review I have to finish writing! “Enjoyable” is probably the wrong word to describe the story, but it is a compelling one and I can’t say enough good things about the audiobook. Massive kudos to all the voice actors.

Mort by Terry Pratchett ⚔️:
Read this as part of our Discworld Readathon! I’ve heard people talk about it like it’s the second coming of Christ, and to my surprise, it was actually really good. [Review]

 

The Good/Okay

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The Better to Kiss You With by Michelle Osgood 👻🌈:
Gerry (Book Nook UK) remarked about the prevalence of male werewolves in stories, and this is one of the few books I’ve read with a female werewolf love interest! Overall, a fun, sexy F/F story about werewolves, MMORPGs, and harassment culture. Plus, the author’s a local!

Time’s Children by D.B. Jackson ⚔️🚀: A mashup of time travel and epic fantasy! I guess “pleasant” would be the best wor? Nothing amazing but I did enjoy it for the most part. [Review]

 

The Bad

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The Phoenix Empress (Their Bright Ascendancy 2) by K. Arsenault Rivera ⚔️🌈:
Yeah, this was not a good one. The cultural issues aside, I found the pacing to be glacial, the character development lacking, and worldbuilding more or less nonexistent. [Review]

Mage Against the Machine by Shaun Barger ⚔️🚀🌈: I noped out of this one halfway through and my tablet is so, so grateful. [Review]

 

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So in this second half of the wrap-up I’m going to ramble about art and my decision to return to it after so long.

And it begins with a little story, so gather around!

Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a bit of an eclectic family. In terms of profession, anyway. On one half there was a seafood restaurant owner, a spicy chicken restaurant owner, movie producer, teacher, pastor, dentist, investment banker….and the other half were just artists and writers.

So the girl grew up with a brilliantly artistic mother and a brilliantly artistic grandfather, and some years later she met a brilliantly artistic young girl who would become one of her best friends. And it was really, really hard for the girl not to feel dull and dim in comparison. Like a ragged baby bird that may grow up to be large and healthy and magnificent, but most likely won’t.

The girl loved photography, writing, and drawing, and it was this last one that she felt the most insecure about. Insecurity turned to shame and shame turned to cold dejection and she decided one day that she would quit–because she wasn’t any good, so what was the point? (And when the girl looks back on it years later, she’ll recognize that it was partly an act of self harm–this denying herself of something she so loved)

But then 8 years later, thanks to a book, the girl’s returned to the world of drawing (because books are amazing and can literally change lives), and she’s been loving it–absolutely loving it. But on the heels of that love came doubt and heartache.

(And here I switch back to first person because talking about myself in third person is getting on my nerves)

So it’s been four months since my “return” and I’ve been spiraling into that oh-so familiar mindset of “I’m fucking terrible at this,” with my brain constantly yapping in the background, “Hey, remember how you quit all those years ago? Yeah, this is why.”

It’s hard to look at a finished work and not see a road map of all my flaws. Not just flaws of the drawing–though they’re obviously the first ones I see–but all of my flaws. Like, as a person. Because that’s how my brain operates.

And it is exhausting.

Turns out comeback stories are more fun to read/watch/play than to actually experience.

But one thing’s for sure: I’m not quitting again. Because once was enough for me to realize that it’s a shitty, shitty place to be in–no wi-fi, no heating, 1/5 on Yelp.

It was like locking yourself out of your house, throwing the key down a drain, and then just standing there, peering through the window (and there’s a part of you that knows this is your home, it’s always been your home, it could have always been your home, and just what the hell have you done?) And this terrible, aching longing settles inside you, and the more you peer, the more it floods you until you’re no longer a person but just a vessel of regrets and self-inflicted hurt.

I run through my life via two extremes–exaggerated indecisiveness or blind impulsiveness–and I never really know which one I’ll pick in a given situation. With this, though, my brain chose the latter. So deciding to return to art after nearly 10 years of avoidance was like punching through the window (because that key’s lounging at the bottom of the Pacific by now), climbing in and declaring, “Okay, you and me? We have unfinished business.” And the sheer relief I feel in that moment? Indescribable.

But then I realize my hand is all bloody and crusted with glass and I end up hopping around muttering expletives which really just ruins the bravado of it all. (That’s generally how my life goes. I want to think of myself as a protagonist in a Chris Nolan epic, but in reality I’m probably more like the sidekick in an Adam Sandler film–awkward, sad, and the antithesis of good comedy).

I could rant for days and days about how unfair it is that your passion can be this nourishing, too-bright thing that fills up your entire world until it’s not.

Until your fears and insecurities take the reins and turns it into an ugly, shameful blot that you can’t bear looking at so you shove it into the deepest corner of your mind-closet, buried under every rejection and hurt you’ve been collecting since childhood.

Except, as it turns out, not looking at it is equally painful, just in a different flavour.

So that’s where I’m at right now. Fighting myself (which isn’t anything new), a lot of late-night crying (also nothing new) and saying “I’m not letting you take this away from me again,” and my brain–always eager to get in the last word–whispering with smugness and false concern, “I’m only trying to help you.”

On good days I can laugh and give it the finger because, hell, the floodgates are open and I can finally create everything that’s been crowding my brain for years and I’m having fun. On bad days–and those often eclipse the good–I sit down and listen like it’s a sermon worth giving a damn about.

And I just wish it were easy to find a healthy, balanced relationship with our creative endeavours. To be able to hold forgiveness in one hand and critique in the other and navigate the tightrope that life demands that we walk, and achieve a state of…well, not satisfaction–because no creator is ever completely satisfied with their work–but a comfortable awareness.

And this is all just a really dramatic explanation for why my reading/blogging pace has dropped, why I’ve not been blog-hopping as much, why it’s taking me forever to respond to your comments, etc, etc. Because I’m dedicating these last three months to aggressive, aggressive drawing–to try to meet my pains head-on instead of shying away as I’ve done in the past.

Because it’s you or me, brain.

And I plan on winning.

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On that note, I hope all your Octobers went super well! Happy reading!

Top 5 Wednesday – Books I Want to Read Before 2019

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes in which you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic.

This week’s topic is “Books You Want to Read Before 2019.”

Short answer? All of them. But I don’t think a list of five different spreadsheets cataloguing my TBR was quite what you had in mind.

So here’s the abridged version!

(On a separate note, I would like a few words with whoever okay-ed this new editor interface because it is maddening. Why the heck is everything hidden??)

The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington

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A friend recommended this months and months back and I ended up reading 1/4 of it before stopping. Not because it was bad! That just happens to me sometimes; if I take a break in the middle of a book, it’s hard for me to pick it back up again.

The beginning of the story is kind of like Harry Potter but with more stabby action and sketchy treatment of magic users (reminiscent of The Circle in the Dragon Age series). It’s good stuff!

 

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

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My most anticipated read of the year that I said I was going to read as soon as I got my hands on it.

Except I didn’t.

Then I said I was going to read it by the end of October.

Except I didn’t.

And now I’m saying I’ll read it by the end of the year.

…Third time’s the charm, right?

 

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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All the hype around this one has made me keep it at arm’s length, but I have to say, I’m SUPER curious–about the dynamic between Jude and Cardan, in particular. I’ve heard a few people say that the romance is borderline abusive, and I’ve heard others talk about it with starry eyes and hands clutched to their chest.

 

Fallen Princeborn: Stolen by Jean Lee

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In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shapeshifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.

…Welcome to River Vine, a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shifters feed.

The lovely Sarah from Brainfluff raved about this one in her review, and it sounds absolutely brilliant and 100% up my alley. It’s got shifters, fae, troubled protagonists, and a whole lot of dark, rich worldbuilding. Get in my brain!

 

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

I adored Bennett’s The Divine Cities books, and while I understand Foundryside is a more traditional fantasy story, I’m still eager to give it a try. There’s also a sentient key character (as in, a character who is a key), and I’ve heard nothing but praises for it!

What are some books you want to get to before the end of the year?