Review: Bent Heavens – Horrific, Depressing, and Super Compelling

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Title: Bent Heavens
Author:
Daniel Kraus
Publisher:
Henry Holt and Co.

Genre(s): “YA” Horror, Contemporary
Subject(s): Alien abduction, torture

Release Date:
Feb 25th, 2020
Page Count: 304 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.

But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.

Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.

CW: Depictions of physical torture, mutilation, (spoiler: human experimentation, body horror)

 

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Okay, listen.

This isn’t a nice book.

In fact, it’s a pretty damn depressing book.

It’s a book that roams the dark and shadowy place that Mufasa warns about. Nothing good can come of chasing it but death and singing hyenas.

Which is why I’m here, on my knees, asking you to chase read it.

Contradiction, thy name is Bent Heavens.

This is my third Daniel Kraus read (well, two and three-quarters–I still have to finish Zebulon Finch) and here’s what I’ve gathered about the guy so far: when you leaf through the pages of Dictionary: Daniel Kraus Edition, you’d find burnt holes under the entries “comfortable,” “pleasant,” and “simple.” Kraus doesn’t do soft. He doesn’t do pretty. Interpersonal horrors and intimate darkness–darkness made almost beautiful by its closeness–are spaces in which he thrives (which is why he works well with Guillermo del Toro, I suppose). He has a knack for taking discomfort and instinctual revulsion and turning them into compelling art.

Calling this book “art” might be an arguable point for some, but it is definitely compelling.

The first half is pretty slow, focused on the psychological ramifications of having a father who went missing and returned, telling everyone he’d been taken and experimented on by aliens, and then promptly disappeared again. It’s a stripped-down, realistic take of your typical abduction plotline; less of flashing lights and crop circles, and more of the abductee’s obsessions and fears and the toll they have on his family. It sets up the lonely and insulated environment for the main character quite well.

The second half is where things get truly heavy.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this story has alien torture. Not as graphic as I’d thought it would be, but still pretty graphic. One of the characters quotes and takes inspiration from George W. Bush’s policies on torture of al Qaeda prisoners, and they become the springboard for everything that follows. And there’s a lot that follows: an exploration of prisoner/prison guard psychology; the ease with which people dehumanize and justify their dehumanization. What happens when tragedy meets anger in an echo chamber, Kraus asks, and then proceeds to muddy waters by slipping weariness into the mix. And more so than the anger, the latter is what really stuck with me. Atrocities you commit because you’ve been ground down and you’re exhausted and it’s easier to let someone else’s rage fuel you than to scrounge up your own and realize you’re not that angry–at least, not enough to brutalize. No. Much easier to give someone else the reins and follow.

I think passivity is a difficult trait to portray, as you’re fighting against reader expectations of what a protagonist should be, with popular media teaching us to love active characters and scoff at the inactive ones, but the author does a brilliant job of it. There are scenes that ride the edge of suffocation and frustration, and I would’ve hated them if they weren’t written so honestly. At the same time, I hated them because they were written so honestly.

The prose is the biggest complaint I have. I wish Kraus had used the first-person POV; it’s where he works best, and it would fits the narrative better, making the introspective scenes more, well, introspective. But maybe that’s exactly why he didn’t use it. Because he wanted a buffer between the readers and everything that happens with the characters. A deep dive into Liv’s emotions might have been too raw. Regardless, the third person POV combined with Kraus’ style–surplus descriptions and use of adjectives–has the unfortunate side effect of making things comically overdramatic at the wrong moments. And while the dialogue is mostly fine, sometimes it gets a little cringey:

“You’re a barrel of monkeys today.”
“I didn’t ask for this ride.”
“Will you take ten chill pills?”

My second complaint isn’t really a complaint, just another rendition of Why the Hell Is This Marketed As YA. I’ve looked at Kraus’s books in the past and thought, “I’m not sure what age group this belongs to,” and that feeling is doubled here. It’s very mature, despite the high school characters, and the themes would feel more at home in an adult horror/thriller.

If nothing else, though, I recommend it for the ending because it’s probably the most bonkers thing I’ve read in a while. I’d call it entertaining if I didn’t feel bad about finding it entertaining. Horrifically delightful? Delightfully horrific? It’s like watching a train plummet straight into a ravine, and then seeing a land kraken erupt out of nowhere and bash the locomotive to pieces. And you can only laugh at the chaos inbetween whispers of “What the fuck.”

So yeah. Not a nice book.

It’s twisted and claustrophobic and heartbreaking and–

And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So, come on, Simba. Take a walk on the dark side.

 

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

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Reviews: Contagion & Immunity by Erin Bowman – Biological Space Horror and Maple Walnut Ice Cream

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Title: Contagion (Contagion 1)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 432 (hardback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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After receiving a distress call from a drill team on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is sent into deep space to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

When they arrive, they find the planet littered with the remains of the project—including its members’ dead bodies. As they try to piece together what could have possibly decimated an entire project, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

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This is one of those “I liked it! The end!” books, so the review is going to be obscenely short.

Contagion offers something I desperately want to see more of in sci-fi: biological space horror. Bowman combines the fear of outer space with that of alien biological entities–all the more scary because they’re microscopic–and creates a entertaining, claustrophobic tale with breakneck pacing and moments that are genuinely creepy.

It also boasts a fairly large cast and multiple PoVs, with an intern named Thea being the central character. I loved the fact that Thea’s not a leader–not your typical confident SFF hero with a smart tongue. She’s introverted yet resourceful and, being the youngest of the crew, feels she has something to prove. Some of the other characters aren’t as developed as she is, but Bowman gives you just enough information to keep you interested in their well-being (or demise).

I do wish the effect of the contagion was less…mundane than what it turned out to be. Something a little more visceral and insidious. Because after the reveal of the “monsters” (space zombies, essentially) a lot of the initial horror was lost. But I enjoyed the atmosphere and tension leading up to that moment so much that I’m mostly willing to forgive it.

And…that’s all you need to know, really. Go read it. You’ll have fun.

And, hey, Netflix? Get on it. I needed a movie adaptation yesterday.

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Title:
Immunity (Contagion 2)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 2nd, 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Thea, Coen, and Nova have escaped from Achlys, only to find themselves imprisoned on a ship they thought was their ticket to safety. Now the nightmare they thought they’d left behind is about to be unleashed as an act of political warfare, putting the entire galaxy at risk.

To prevent an interstellar catastrophe, they’ll have to harness the evil of the deadly Achlys contagion and deploy the only weapons they have left: themselves.

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Immunity is a completely different beast to Contagion in terms of genre and plot focus. So much that I got mental whiplash reading them back-to-back.

Here, the biological horror slips away into space politics and human-on-human horror. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was hoping we’d get to explore more of the contagion, and instead it’s relegated to the role of a side charactera chess piece in the conflict between the Radicals and the Union–and in the process some of what made Contagion interesting.

I don’t want to rag on an author for choosing to take a story in a completely different direction from what I was expecting because it’s ultimately their creative vision, but I can’t say I’m not nursing a spot of disappointment. It’s like going to an ice cream shop and asking for Strawberry Cheesecake but getting Maple Walnut instead. I have nothing against Maple Walnut; it’s still a great flavour and life is too short to be prejudiced against any flavour of ice cream (except Bubblegum which is a devil’s concoction and not in a sinfully good way). But it’s no Strawberry Cheesecake, is it?

That being said, I still had fun with it. The characters are bigger focus in this sequel and we get to learn more about the three characters and see their relationship develop into something more solid. A new member also joins the cast: a medic-in-training named Amber who surprised me in the best way. Give me all the soft characters who seem meek at first glance but reveal themselves to have nerves of steel. And there’s no denying Bowman is a great storyteller. She knows how to balance action with intrigue and quiet character moments, and the ending wraps everything up neatly.

Overall, this is a fun, addictive duology that I recommend to anyone with an interest in microbiology and space thriller/horror, and doesn’t mind a bit of genre-swapping.

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Thank you to Wunderkind PR for providing the review copies. 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

Add to goodreads

 

 

 

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.

September 2018 “TBR” – Procrastination, Witches, and Hard Choices

“Kathy.”

“Mm?”

“We’re pretty much in the middle of September right now.”

“Yep, I can see that. I have a tear-away calendar thingy on my desk.”

“Well, one generally writes a TBR post at the beginning of the month.”

“Eh, that’s debatable. There’s no Blog Police skulking around checking for these things, ready to clap you in handcuffs (and not the fuzzy ones). So you can technically write a TBR whenever. Hell, you can even write them at the end of the month and be like, ‘Here are all the books I thought I was going to read this month…and here’s what I actually read.’ Do whatever you want, you know? The world is your oyster. Break free from the shackles of conformity.”

“I mean, sure, shackles and oysters. But this one’s just a case of you being a lazy procrastinator.”

“Oh my god, you are ruining my brand. Why are you even here?”

“Well, I’m you. And you’re me. And this is an overlong conversation you’re having with yourself. And I feel like we should just get to the post before we scare off the readers. What’s left of them, anyway.”

“But I’m not the one who started–UGH. Fine.”

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Right, so here we have the latest TBR post I’ve done to date! It’s a badly stitched-up mix of “TBR” and “What Did I Just Finish Reading?” and “What Am I Reading Now?” and “Hey, You Like Voting For Things, Right? (‘No,’ Said 50% of America) Well, Here’s A Thing You Can Vote For!”

It’s awkward, kind of ugly, and suffers from a heavy case of identity crisis.

My own little Frankenstein’s monster. Please treat it kindly. ❤

(Fun fact: that above conversation was originally twice as long and included a side-argument about adjectives. No, I don’t know what’s wrong with me either.)

 

Recently Finished

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Bloody Rose (The Band 2) by Nicolas Eames:
Great sequel to a great debut. Review here.

Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton:
Oh boy. I have a lot of thoughts on this one and I’m in the process of trying to sort them out. Review to come.

The Deepest Roots by Miranda Asebedo:
A YA contemporary/fantasy/mystery/paranormal story that didn’t really work for me. Review to come.

 

READING NOW

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Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon:
McCammon wrote one of the my favourite books of all time–Boy’s Life–and I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while now. It’s a doorstopper historical mystery (at nearly 800 pages) that centers around a witch trial and I’m loving it so far. McCammon’s gift for creating atmosphere and interesting characters really shines in this one.

Los Nefilim by T. Frohock:
A historical gothic fantasy (aka my favourite subgenre) about angels and daimons. I’ve had the book for a couple of years now and I figured now is a good time to get started on it, seeing as how the sequel’s dropping in a few months.

Equal Rites (Discworld 3) by Terry Pratchett:
I’m reading this as part of the Discworld Readathon and very much liking it so far!

 

YET TO READ

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Nightingale by Amy Lukavics
YA historical horror set in an asylum and featuring an unreliable narrator. It’s also been blurbed by Paul Tremblay so I’m rather quite curious.

The Nine (Thieves of Fate 1) by Tracy Townsend:
Another book that’s been milling around on my shelves for a year. It’s about a mysterious, magical book and it’s set in a secondary world that’s kind of similar to our own…but not really? I don’t know. The blurb gives you a lot without really giving you anything.

The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang:
This one will probably/maybe/hopefully be a buddy read with Justine from Milkz Bookshelf!

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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar:
A historical fantasy (yay!) about a (dead?) mermaid set in 18th century England. I’ve been hearing amazing things about this one and I can’t wait to dive in!

The Tower of Living and Dying (Empires of Dust 2) by Anna Smith Spark:
Sequel to one of my favourite books of last year. I’m hoping it’s be as brutal and bloody and beautiful as the first.

 

Undecided (aka Oh God Choices are Hard Help Me)

Both of these are ARCs I want to knock out before October, but I have no idea which one to tackle first. So if you’d like to relieve me of my choice paralysis, vote for one and tell me in the comments below!

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Time’s Children (The Islevale Cycle 1) by D.B. Jackson
A blend of high fantasy and scifi in which a 15-year old boy is sent back in time to prevent a war and finds himself in an adult body. I did say I was going to take a break from scifi for a bit, but the premise for this one is just too interesting to pass up.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
Sequel to Lee’s Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue in which the former protagonist’s sister is the new protagonist. It’s got adventures and pirates and well, petticoats, presumably. Should be good fun!

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And there you go! See any that catches your eye? What are some books you’re excited to get to this month?

Top 5 Wednesday – Favourite Summer Reads

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“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes, where you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic. This week’s theme is: favourite summer reads.

I ran into a bit of a roadblock with this one because I wasn’t exactly sure what books my brain categorizes as “summer reads.” Are they books that are set during summer, or are they ones that you just feel like reading during summer? And if the latter, I can’t be the only one who feels like reading cold, dark, moody stuff during these months. I mean, what better way to combat the sweltering heat than with a book about an Antarctic expedition? Or one about a haunted doll?

I couldn’t decide so I divided my list into books that are fun light-hearted romps; books that send chills down your spine–thus saving you on air conditioning bills; and one book that just needs to be read during the summer.

1. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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I read this in the summer of last year so I may be biased, but Gentleman’s Guide is a fun, uncomplicated story in which young lord Henry and his companions embark on a tour of Europe that soon gets sidetracked into something rather unexpected and harrowing. It’s not quite the rollicking adventure the blurb had me believe, but it’s got a sweet romance, a mystery, and pirates–and that combo just screams “summer” to me.

2. Kings of  the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

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Kings of the Wyld is such a ridiculously fun read. Set in a medieval fantasy world where adventuring bands are like the rock bands of today (they have band names, they go on tours, their weapons correlate to various instruments, and so forth), it’s a story that’s exciting and funny but also strangely heartwarming–it had me chuckling to sniffling in a matter of paragraphs. And most of all, it’s such a smack on the lips to lovers of fantasy RPGs. So spice up your summer with this pulse-pounding adventure!

3. Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxI never really got scared reading horror books as I did watching horror movies (something about the lack of sound and strong visuals). But then Bird Box came along. Its characters are blindfolded for the majority of the story and the horrors that haunt them are unknown and unseen. Malerman masterfully–and evilly–uses your imagination against you and leaves you chilled and shaking for hours after you finish. I read most of it in bed at night in the dark, which turned out to be a terrible, terrible idea, because I couldn’t fall sleep or even get out of bed to turn the lights on.

4. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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Rooted in Russian folktales, much of The Bear and the Nightingale is set in winter and Katherine Arden does such a fantastic job bringing the season to life. She’ll make you feel the inhuman cold racing through your body and smell and taste the freshly fallen snow. Perfect for those hot, stuffy nights.

5. On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

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On the Jellicoe Road isn’t light-hearted or fun, but its setting–a small Australian town–just begs you to read it while surrounded by warmth and rustling summer trees. If you’re reading this masterpiece for the first time, I highly recommend that you do it (if you can) outside on a sunny day, in a secluded area and surrounded by nature. It just enhances the atmosphere of the story and creates this intimate bubble in which friendship is indeed magic and the past and the present merge. And if all of that sounds super vague, just go read the book. It’ll be one of the best decisions you make this summer.

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And that’s it from me! Tell me some of your favourite summer reads and if any of the above books are on your list!

Top 5 Wednesday – Favourite Mentors/Teachers in Books

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes, where you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic. This week’s theme is: favourite mentors/teachers.

I had a lot going on this past week, so this was compiled kind of at the last minute. Which means it’s slightly less wordy than usual (yay!) Also, my first version of the list got scrapped because I wrote it and then promptly realized what a sausage fest it was. So I replaced a couple of dudes with women (sorry, Gandalf). Maybe my memory is just wacked, but why are there so few notable female mentor figures in fiction? For every eight men, I could think of maybe one woman.

Anyhow, here are the five!

1. Elodin (The Kingkiller Chronicle)

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Ah, Elodin. He’s just slightly ahead of Auri as my favourite character in the series. Genius. Kinda crazy. Mysterious. Tragic. The Master Namer is one of those profs that you constantly complain about at the beginning of the semester, because the lectures are so weird and unorthodox and there’s no sense to the grading system, but by the end you’re calling their lessons the most transcendent experience you’ve ever had in your academic life. Plus, he’s also one of the few people who’s able to ground Kvothe in humility.

“Re’lar Kvoteh, he said seriously. “I am trying to wake your sleeping mind to the subtle language the world is whispering. I am trying to seduce you into understanding. I am trying to teach you.” He leaned forward until his face was almost touching mine. “Quit grabbing at my tits.”

2. Jasnah Kholin (The Stormlight Archive)

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One thing that is most definitely, sorely, lacking in fantasy is master-apprentice relationships between two female characters. But Brandon Sanderson does his best to remedy that with Jasnah and her ward, Shallan. Jasnah is a scholar and a self-proclaimed atheist. She doesn’t doesn’t suffer fools but is patient with her teachings. Serious, but possesses a wry sense of humour. Her discussions of philosophy with Shallan are some of the best scenes in the first book.

 

Shallan: You killed four men.
Jasnah: Four men who were planning to beat, rob, kill and possibly rape us.
Shallan: You tempted them into coming for us!
Jasnah: DId I force them to commit any crimes?
Shallan: You showed off your gemstones.
Jasnah: Can a woman not walk with her possessions down the street of a city?
Shallan: At night? Through a rough area? Displaying wealth? You all but asked for what happened!
Jasnah: Does that make it right? […] Am I a monster or am I a hero? Did I just slaughter four men, or did I stop four murderers from walking the streets? Does one deserve to have evil done to her by consequence of putting herself where evil can reach her? Did I have a right to defend myself? Or was I just looking for an excuse to end lives?

3. Chade Fallstar (Realm of the Elderlings)

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As the series progresses, we see Chade in many roles–assassin, spymaster, a secret relative, chief diplomat–but he was, and always will be, our protagonist’s first teacher. Chade enters Fitz’s life and imparts all sorts of higher learning–history, language, politics, comprehension and observational skills, herbery– alongside, of course, ways with which to kill. He teaches Fitz not to be a mindless killer but a scholar with a penchant for the deadly arts. His first and most valuable lesson, though? Your thoughts and opinions are valuable and it’s okay to express them.

“Learning is never wrong. Even learning to kill isn’t wrong.”

 

4. Helen Justineau (The Girl with All the Gifts)

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I don’t want to say too much about this one because spoilers, but Miss Justineau is our protagonist’s most favourite teacher. And for good reason. She truly cares about her students and exhibits compassion and understanding in a world where such things are deemed weaknesses. The relationship between Justineau and Melanie is one of the most heartwarming things I’ve encountered in recent memory.

 

 

5. John Keating (Dead Poets Society)

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Is this cheating? Probably. But, then again, there is actually a book adaptation of the movie, so it totally counts. When I was in middleschool/highschool I always felt that this was the one movie they should show to all teachers at the beginning of each year. Mr. Keating shows that being a teacher isn’t just about teaching a subject. It’s about nurturing talents, broadening worldviews, encouraging students to carve out their own path in life, no matter how ludicrous others may view it.

 

He (and Robin Williams) will forever be “Oh Captain, My Captain.”

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

And there you have it! Feel free to tell me some of your favourite mentors/teachers in books!

 

“Champions of the Genre” – Explanation and Examples

As I write more and more reviews on this blog, you’ll see a small notation/badge (that I’ve yet to design) sometimes appear beside the review score: “Champions of the Genre.” You’ll also notice an identically-named shelf on my Goodreads page. It’s a designation plagiarized from inspired by video game critic Jim Sterling from the Jimquisition. And it means what it sounds like it means: the best of the best.

Many books feature beautiful prose, complex characters, dazzling worldbuilding, and deep exploration of human issues. But only a few among them shatter barriers with the violence to make the sky tremble and take notice. The barrier around the pre-conceived limit of a genre. The barriers of pre-packaged societal constructs. The barrier to the core of your heart.

These are books that I (read: subjective. Don’t send me angry messages) believe represent the best of what a genre can do.

They are the pathfinders. Ones that elevate the field to heights previously unimagined.

They are the defiant. Ones that look at all the injustice in the world and respond with simmering anger and purpose.

They are the clingers. Ones that tear through to the center of your being, latches on and stares into you, daring you to pull it away.

They are books you would buy multiple copies of without a single look of remorse for your weeping wallet. One to read to tatters. Two to read sparingly. Another to just lounge on your shelf looking pretty and pristine. And let’s not forget all the different editions. Before you know it, your shelf has become a shrine.

And today I present to you ten nine and a half examples of such stories.

~.~.~

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The first time I read this, I nearly stopped after the first three chapters. Everything was vague and strange and confusing. But I’d bought it with what measly pocket money I had as a 15-year old, so, swallowing buyer’s remorse, I forced myself to continue. One of the best book-related decisions I would ever make, it turns out.

Imagine for a moment that you’re walking through the woods. Not quite lost, but just drifting…exploring. You let the world fall away from you until all you see and hear is the pulse of the moment. The moment where the past, the present, and future tangle all about you in a flurry of warmth
and then
just

stops.
And time settles around you in quiet repose. And in that moment you feel such a oneness with the world it’s enough to make you weep and laugh aloud at once.

Melina Marchetta takes that feeling and weaves it into an entire novel.

I disagree with Printz award selections more often than not. But On the Jellicoe Road deserves every accolade and more.

~.~.~

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Warchild takes your classic space opera plot–a war between the aliens and the humans, with pirates muddling things up in between–and swivels the focus onto the foremost victims of any war–the children. It can be read as a story about a young boy who gets trained to be a soldier and a spy. And it can be read as a story about child soldiers and the traumas of war and how they linger with deadly tenacity in someone so young. Karin Lowachee juggles many difficult subject matters and pulls them off with astounding realism. Her characters are compelling and multi-faceted, all of them being so much more than what they first seem. I absolutely adore it when a book makes me do a complete 180 on my feelings towards a character, and Warchild had two such moments.

Brutal. Heartbreaking. And necessary.

~.~.~

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At Swim, Two Boys is one of those books that makes you think, No human could have written this. And, Only a human could have written this. It’s probably the most beautifully-crafted piece of work I have ever read. O’Neil manipulates the English language with the finesse of a god and the pathos of a mortal. He has been (rightly) compared to James Joyce, but I find his work much more accessible than the latter (though no less groundbreaking). Because although story is a historical one–one that slides a lens over the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland–at it’s core, it’s a story of the endurance of love, friendship, and youth amidst violence and hatred. And anyone, regardless of sexuality, nationality, age, or gender, can relate to that.

~.~.~

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In the latest 10th anniversary edition of The Name of the Wind, there’s a blurb by Lin-Manuel Miranda saying, “No one writes like Pat Rothfuss.” And I’m inclined to agree. The Kingkiller Chronicles isn’t perfect by any means. I have issues with Kvothe and some of the side characters, as well as the pacing. But, my god, the writing. NotW opened my eyes to the fact that beautiful, just-the-right-side-of-purple, prose has a place in epic fantasy. And not just any epic fantasy–one about a magic school. It was completely mind-blowing to me at the time, and Pat’s work has since become a big inspiration to myself and countless writers.

~.~.~

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Boy’s Life stands as the prime example of what a coming-of-age novel should be. It reaches into the heart of childhood and draws out the magic that lies entwined with the reality of growing up. The author understands so, so well that being a child is not all carefree happiness and sunshine. That there are pains and fears and uncertainties mixed in with the joy and wonder. McCammon transcribes all of that through gorgeous prose and a vivid setting that you swear you can just reach out and touch.

~.~.~

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The Traitor Baru Cormorant is many things. Less a fantasy and more of a political thriller set in a secondary world, it’s one of the few economic-centric stories that didn’t make me want to stick a poker through my eye–that made me actually invested (ha!) in the nitty-gritty details of how the flow of money controls an entire country. Its main character, Baru, is one of the most complicated protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting–ruthless, clever, and often unlikable, but so determined to set the world right. It’s also one of only two book I’ve read (the second being The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue) that gives you a map with notations made by the main character. (I’m baffled as to why it’s not done more often. A notated map can show something–however small– about a character in a way that you can’t do in the actual story.)

But what really makes it an entry on this list is how masterfully the author uses the readers’ expectations against them. You think you know what’s happening and you cling hard to that belief. And then the book blindsides you. I was left physically shaking and rummaging through the pieces of my heart by the end.

~.~.~

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This book shifted the foundation of my world. It was the first time I saw words being used to create something so wholly different and yet so honest. A WW2 book like no other, it touts a weary Death as a narrator who tells the story of a young orphan girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Using a kaleidoscope of beautiful imagery, the writing juxtaposes the brutality of the time period with the beauty of kindness and underscores the power inherent in language, both written and spoken. I read it, cried a year’s worth of tears, and read it again…and again. And reread it at least twice a year for five more years. The Book Thief became the foremost inspiration for my own writing style, and a copy of the rambling letter I’d sent to Marcus Zusak, and the reply I got, is still stuck up on my wall.

~.~.~

The-Fifth-Season-banner2You can always count on N.K. Jemisin to bring something new and/or important to fantasy, whether it’s an Ancient Egyptian inspired setting, a cast that comprises mostly of PoC characters, or bi(pan?)sexual Gods. Though The Broken Earth trilogy is not my favourite of her books (that goes to the Dreamblood duology), I think it’s her most important. It belongs in the “defiant” category– a story of oppression and conquerors and motherhood. And anger. So much righteous anger. The Fifth Season not only introduces a brilliantly clever narrative structure, a unique world, and complex characters, it features diversity of all kinds–sexuality, race, gender. The series is everything that modern fantasy can–and should–be, and it deserves all the awards (Hugo 2018, here we come!)

~.~.~

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And the best for last. Technically, all of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books are Champions of the Genre, but I figure you don’t want to scroll through 16 additional entries, all featuring the same comment: “I will conduct blood sacrifices in Robin Hobb’s name.”

I can say with utter confidence that nothing will top this series for me (I’ve gone into details of what these books mean to me in this post). And my advice to newcomers? Don’t trust the blurbs. They make it sound like any other fantasy story where a young boy trains to become a master assassin. But it’s not.

Why? Because of the characters.

No one, in any genre of literature, writes characters like Robin Hobb does. Her characters feel like people you can pluck out into our world and have conversations with. Their relationships mirror the complexity of our own, spanning years and decades, filled with awkward bumps and painful distances. You will cry and yell and rejoice and despair alongside them. I’d heard someone say that you don’t read a Robin Hobb book, you live it. And that’s exactly it. It’s a long, winding journey through all the strangeness of life (plus magic and dragons and wolf brothers). And you sit there at the end of it a different, better, person.

~.~.~

And because I was short on time, a quick half-mention to The Isle of Blood (The Monstrumologist #3) by Rick Yancey. It’s horror. It’s beautifully philosophical. And it incorporates Nietzsche quotations without reading like a quirky contemporary indie feat. white teens. Read it.

~.~.~

And there you have it! I’ll probably compile a full list on a separate page and add to it as I go along.

Feel free to tell me some of your Champions of the Genre and throw some recommendations!

 

Most Anticipated Mystery, Thriller & Horror: Feb-April 2018

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Here’s the second batch of the “Most Anticipated Feb-April” series! I’ve banished the “alternate book covers left and right” scheme into a deep, lightless pit because it was an absolute pain to format the last time (free wordpress has a terrible html editor, who knew?). Please note: some of theses straddle the line between Mystery/Thriler/Horror and other genres.

Before we start, I just want to call conspiracy. It seems like literally every author of every damn genre has a book being published this April. Publishers, I love you, but you and your authors are all going to get me bankrupt. Because I will buy every one of these books (more or less) and softly weep my way to file the official papers. And still–still–I will be utterly unrepentant.

There’s a quote from The Gentleman by Forrest Leo that sums up my near-future nicely:

‘Do you mean to tell me, Simmons, that we haven’t any money left?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
‘Where on earth has it gone?’
‘I don’t mean to be critical, sir, but you tend toward profligacy.’
‘Nonsense, Simmons. I don’t buy anything except books. You cannot possibly tell me I’ve squandered my fortune upon books.’
‘Squander is not the word I would have used, sir. But it was the books that did it, I believe.’

*casts a pointed look*

FEBRUARY

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed–again. She’s been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden’s only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend–but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

~

For reasons beyond me, the North American edition of this is called The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. That edition will also be releasing on September 1st, but I’m too eager to wait until then. It’s got one of the most original premises I’ve seen amidst all 2018 releases and it’s been described as Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day. If that doesn’t make you excited, I don’t know what will.

Releases February 8th (UK), September 1st (NA)
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MARCH

The Hollow Tree by James Brodgen

The Hollow Tree


After her hand is amputated following a tragic accident, Rachel Cooper suffers vivid nightmares of a woman imprisoned in the trunk of a hollow tree, screaming for help. When she begins to experience phantom sensations of leaves and earth with her missing limb, Rachel is terrified she is going mad… but then another hand takes hers, and the trapped woman is pulled into our world.

This woman has no idea who she is, but Rachel can’t help but think of the mystery of Oak Mary, a female corpse found in a hollow tree, and who was never identified. Three urban legends have grown up around the case; was Mary a Nazi spy, a prostitute or a gypsy witch? Rachel is desperate to learn the truth, but darker forces are at work. For a rule has been broken, and Mary is in a world where she doesn’t belong…

~
I wasn’t sure whether to put the book on this list or the Fantasy one, but there’s just something about the cover–I can’t quite put my finger on it– that suggests a lot of lean towards horror. The premise sounds brilliant; I have a soft spot for stories that feature trees, or tree-like creatures, as main characters, and this looks to be a compelling blend of fantasy, horror, and mystery.

Releases March 13th
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The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

The Broken Girls


Vermont, 1950.
There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants–the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming–until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . .

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past–and a voice that won’t be silenced. . . .

~
Mysterious goings-on in an all-girls boarding school? A body of suspicious origin? Possible paranormal activities? And an intrepid female journalist on the case? Sign. Me. Up.

Releases March 20th
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APRIL

The Window by Amelia Brunskill 

The Window


Anna is everything her identical twin is not. Outgoing and athletic, she is the opposite of quiet introvert Jess. The same on the outside, yet so completely different inside–it’s hard to believe the girls are sisters, let alone twins. But they are. And they tell each other everything.

Or so Jess thought.

After Anna falls to her death while sneaking out her bedroom window, Jess’s life begins to unravel. Everyone says it was an accident, but to Jess, that doesn’t add up. Where was Anna going? Who was she meeting? And how long had Anna been lying to her?

~
This book first caught my eye on Twitter. A lovely minimalist cover sandwiching a story that offers an exploration of sibling relationships, and you have a recipe for something I would inhale in a heartbeat.

Releases April 3rd
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Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

UnBury Carol
Carol Evers is a woman with a dark secret. She has died many times . . . but her many deaths are not final: They are comas, a waking slumber indistinguishable from death, each lasting days.

Only two people know of Carol’s eerie condition. One is her husband, Dwight, who married Carol for her fortune, and—when she lapses into another coma—plots to seize it by proclaiming her dead and quickly burying her . . . alive. The other is her lost love, the infamous outlaw James Moxie. When word of Carol’s dreadful fate reaches him, Moxie rides the Trail again to save his beloved from an early, unnatural grave.

And all the while, awake and aware, Carol fights to free herself from the crippling darkness that binds her—summoning her own fierce will to survive. As the players in this drama of life and death fight to decide her fate, Carol must in the end battle to save herself.

~
In 2014, Josh Malerman stormed his way into literary horror with his ridiculously impressive debut, Bird Box, and took no prisoners. It was the first horror book I read that made me stop to peer nervously around the dark corners of my apartment at night. His latest seems like a fascinating meld of Western and gothic horror, and I cannot wait.

Releases April 10th
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The Atrocities by Jeremy C. Shipp

Jeremy Shipp


When Isabella died, her parents were determined to ensure her education wouldn’t suffer.

But Isabella’s parents had not informed her new governess of Isabella’s… condition, and when Ms Valdez arrives at the estate, having forced herself through a surreal nightmare maze of twisted human-like statues, she discovers that there is no girl to tutor.

Or is there…?

~
This is the one novella of the bunch and, once more, a ghost girl seems to be the star of the story. The cover looks wonderfully gothic, and that maze is very, very intriguing.

Releases April 17th
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White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig

White Rabbit


Rufus Holt is having the worst night of his life. It begins with the reappearance of his ex-boyfriend, Sebastian―the guy who stomped his heart out like a spent cigarette. Just as Rufus is getting ready to move on, Sebastian turns up out of the blue, saying they need to “talk.” Things couldn’t get worse, right?

Then Rufus gets a call from his sister April, begging for help. He and Sebastian find her, drenched in blood and holding a knife beside the dead body of her boyfriend, Fox Whitney.

April swears she didn’t kill Fox. Rufus knows her too well to believe she’s telling him the whole truth, but April has something he needs. Her price is his help. Now, with no one to trust but the boy he wants to hate yet can’t stop loving, Rufus has one night to clear his sister’s name . . . or die trying.

~
White Rabbit
is just the fourth (*stares*) April novel in this genre category, and Caleb Roehrig’s second YA mystery, his first being Last Seen Leaving. It promises to be very queer and more macabre than the last one, if the blood spatters on the cover are any indication. What fun! You can sample the first three chapters on Amazon now.

Releases April 24th
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