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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.0/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they all work.

Well, mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Review: 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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Review: The Unspoken Name – A Saga of Badass Lesbian Orc and Wonder Bread Boy

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Title: The Unspoken Name
Author:
A.K. Larkwood
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Portal Fantasy
Subject(s): Gods, Coming-of-Age, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
Feb 11th, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

 

 

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does. She will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice. On the day of her foretold death, however, a powerful mage offers her a new fate.

Csorwe leaves her home, her destiny, and her god to become the wizard’s loyal sword-hand — stealing, spying, and killing to help him reclaim his seat of power in the homeland from which he was exiled.

But Csorwe and the wizard will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

 

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Turns out I have a few things to say about this book, so to keep everything organized we’re doing sections today. Huzzah!

 

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Unconventional But Likeable Protagonist

Csorwe is a female orc and also a fighter who’s pretty laid back–almost humble–about being a well-oiled sword swinging machine. That makes her a bit of a unicorn in a genre that lauds its “badass” female human characters. She’s skilled and pragmatic and levelheaded, which is a super underrated character trait, and just plain readable. And the contrast between her calm and Tal’s anxiety-ridden disorder is a joy to behold.

 

  Fun and Genuine Character Interactions

The dialogue is pitch-perfect and arguably the shining point of the whole thing. From scenes of vulnerability to wry sarcasm to fuck-it anarchy (mostly on Tal’s part), they do much to convey the characters’ personalities and their relationships. Csorwe and Tal’s dynamic is pure schoolyard antagonism and entertaining as hell to see played out. Though I’m hoping the sequel adds a few more layers to them because the 24/7 sniping (and nothing else) is going to get old pretty quick.

The slow-burn romance between Csorwe and Shuthmili is also one of the highest points of the story. I mean, Shuthmili is a great character to begin with–her surface coldness a product of a life that’s always been about fearing and being feared for her powers–and her journey of learning to see choices beyond ones that have been spoonfed to her is a nice parallel to Csorwe’s own journey of independence (and I would say better written than Csorwe’s).

The two together are cute and sweet and make me smile–what more can you ask for?

 

Cool Worldbuilding Setup

Dying worlds and broken gods and airships. It’s like the book knows me. Oh, and any author who includes a sentient and intelligent serpent race in their story has my eternal love.

 

 


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Picturing this World in My Head is Like Walking to the Grocery Store Without My Contacts On

You can have an interesting broad scheme for your worldbuilding but drop the ball on the details. And that’s the case here.

This is a story that hops through different worlds, but if you ask me to sketch out what each of them looks or feels like, I’d shrug at you from across a blank page. At best I’d call the settings minimalist–and nothing wrong with that, no one needs a two-page description of the texture of a tavern wall–but mostly they’re a frustrating landscape of vague shapes and smells. It’s like squinting though a mist while a tour guide yammers at your ear about how wonderful the place looks and how rich the culture is–all well and good except you can’t see any of it.

The snake world near the beginning is pretty interesting, but that’s the only one that left a solid impression. The rest are an absolute blur, to the point where I felt disoriented. I’m assuming this was a stylistic decision on the author’s part, but it makes the story resemble too much of an elongated dream sequence. And with an epic portal fantasy, it just feels like a lost opportunity.

 

Sethennai the Wonder Bread Boy

Speaking of blurs! Let’s talk about Belthandros Sethennai. Oh, Sethennai. Sethennai the poster boy for not living up to a badass name.

You know when your friend tells you about their celebrity crush and the person in question turns out to be a bland white dude whose appeal is completely lost on you, and you can’t even differentiate him from the previous bland white dude they were crushing on, so you’re just sitting there thinking, “This is the greatest mystery of my life”? Well, that’s Sethennai. Minus the white bit.

The book tries to make me believe that most everything in its narrative orbits this man. He’s the “kindly” mentor/savior figure who rescues Csorwe. His quest for the reliquary is what propels the storyline forward. Women swoon over him. His mentees fall over themselves to try to please him. It’s devotion at its finest, and all I want to know is WHY. Just why. What makes him so special? From Csorwe’s point of view, I kind of understand; he pulled her out from a horrific fate and I imagine a life debt makes for some thick rose-tinted glasses. But what about everyone else?

The characters tell you that he’s charming and suave and convincing. Whether or not he actually is any of those things is very much the greatest fucking mystery of my life, because at the end of the day, I don’t know who Sethennai is. He’s clear paint smeared atop a clear canvas and just about as exciting and remarkable.

And his weak characterization affects other major aspects of the story, like his quest for the Reliquary. In order for me to have cared about this plotline at least one of the following had to be true:

(1) I’m interested in the premise of the quest itself
(2) I think Sethennai is an interesting person
(3) I care that Csorwe cares about Sethennai

And…yeah. None of those were happening.

 

Lackluster Character Development

This also leads back to good ol’ Belthandros! (He’s out here just ruining everyone’s day, isn’t he?) The other reason why Sethennai had to be a solid character is that both Tal and Csorwe’s storylines lead back to him. So the fact that he isn’t makes Csorwe’s journey of self-discovery, and kicking herself out of the nest, so to speak, less impactful than it should have been. And Tal’s journey is even more underwhelming. If I have zero impressions–good or otherwise–about the man they’ve had this complicated and mostly-one-sided relationship with, then I can’t be expected to feel much for a series of character developments that directly depend on the guy being at least somewhat complex.

Also, there’s a big gap in Csorwe’s development from Csorwe the Chosen Bride and Csorwe Thereafter. From 14 years of living in a convent and being slated for death to being told you’re now a free agent with a future, and the transition between the two is basically non-existent. No exploration of how she’s had to adjust, or how her world views have changed, just a “Okay, I was living in Point A, now I’m living in Point B. The end.”

 


Okay, I know, that seems like a lot of ranting. But I did mostly like the book! On the surface it’s an enjoyable story with great potential, and it’s got a set of main characters (minus He Who I Shall No Longer Name) that interest me enough to keep going. But things start fraying when you try to delve deeper, and I just wish it ended up being more than what it turned out to be.

 

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

 

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Review: The Infinite Noise – Fine with a Dash of Soft & Sweet and a Landing that Doesn’t Stick

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Title: The Infinite Noise
Author: Lauren Shippen
Publisher: TorTeen
Release Date: September 24th 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Mental Health, Superpowers
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

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Caleb Michaels is a sixteen-year-old champion running back. Other than that his life is pretty normal. But when Caleb starts experiencing mood swings that are out of the ordinary for even a teenager, his life moves beyond “typical.”

Caleb is an Atypical, an individual with enhanced abilities. Which sounds pretty cool except Caleb’s ability is extreme empathy―he feels the emotions of everyone around him. Being an empath in high school would be hard enough, but Caleb’s life becomes even more complicated when he keeps getting pulled into the emotional orbit of one of his classmates, Adam. Adam’s feelings are big and all-consuming, but they fit together with Caleb’s feelings in a way that he can’t quite understand.

Caleb’s therapist, Dr. Bright, encourages Caleb to explore this connection by befriending Adam. As he and Adam grow closer, Caleb learns more about his ability, himself, his therapist―who seems to know a lot more than she lets on―and just how dangerous being an Atypical can be.

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First of all, if you haven’t check out the The Bright Sessions podcast, please please please do so. From a bird’s eye view, it’s a story about superpowered people attending therapy, but really it’s so much more than that.

Second of all, I highly, highly recommend listening to the audiobook for this (narrated by the VA’s who play Caleb and Adam in the podcast). That might be presumptuous, seeing as how I haven’t even tried the audiobook version yet, but…. *whispering* Shippen’s prose just isn’t as engaging in print form as it is in audio form (TBS fans can skewer me for that). I mean, it’s fine–very casual and conversational, which fits her teenage characters–but it’s also kind of plain, and I had a hard time differentiating between Caleb and Adam’s narration. And a multi first-person POV book in which the narrators blend together is Kiss of Death territory for me.

Well, at least it would be if it weren’t for the fact that (1) this is a Bright Sessions story, and (2) this is a Bright Sessions story. And TBS at its core has always been about the power of empathy and human connections, which remains very true in this adaptation.

Caleb is the jockish empath with the heart of gold, kind in a way that obliterates the typical jockish stereotype (I would go to war for him), and Adam is the quiet bookish boy who’s dealing with more mundane but still very real demons of his own. It was nice to see a more in-depth look at their relationship that we don’t get in the podcast. Shippen nails the messiness of being a teenager, psychic or otherwise, and her descriptions of anxiety and depression are some of the best I’ve seen.

It’s not dark, it’s…the absence of light. Like some sort of void. It doesn’t weigh down on me, suffocate me. It’s empty–just total nothingness. But it’s sucking me in and I feel like if I go inside of it I’ll stop existing entirely, and that scares me but at the same time it would be a relief. 

The Infinite Noise talks about feelings–their shape, their depth, their colour–probably more than any other speculative book I’ve read. And I so, so appreciate that, not only because rifling through emotions and assigning imagery to them is something I always do (because that makes it easier for me to process them), but also because it goes such a long way towards normalizing vulnerable masculinity in media.

So the majority of the story is slow-burn relationship building with bits of sci-fi elements, which is good. The last 10% or so is really where things fall apart for me. And most of that has to do with the structure of the podcast, and how some of it doesn’t translate to a two-POV book environment. Sequences that are interesting and well-paced in the podcast come across as incredibly abrupt and jarring here, and…I don’t know, I just think the book could have benefited from an extra 40-50 pages to flesh things out.

Overall, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It was nice to revisit these characters in novel form, but I don’t think if it brought anything majorly new and exciting to the table that the podcast didn’t. That being said, I…still recommend checking it out. I think it’s a fine intro to the TBS universe for newcomers, and the way I see it, any story that champions kindness and empathy is worth at least a quick browse.

 

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

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: SFF Music Mania

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Hmm? What’s that noise, you ask?

Well, that’s the sound of a dead meme rising from the ashes. Diversity Spotlight Thursday is back, baby.

So this is a weekly meme that was created by Aimal from Bookshelves & Paperbacks (though she’s not hosting it anymore), and the idea is that each week you come up with three books for three different categories: a diverse book you’ve read and want to recommend; a diverse book that’s already been released and is in your TBR; and a diverse book that hasn’t been released yet. And the topics–if you want to have them–are yours to choose.

This time, though, I’m gonna change the rules a bit and expand the categories to include all fictional media, not just books. And my chosen theme for this week is SFF stories that revolve around music.

Also, I feel like I’ve been kind of absent in terms of posting and replying and blog hopping, so I’m hoping to catch up and kick myself back into gear in the next couple of weeks.

 


What I Recommend

 

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Dane, a spun-out musician spending the winter in Cleveland, Ohio, has two main goals: keeping his job at the Pepper Heights Zoo and trying not to waste all his time on Grindr. What he doesn’t expect is to get swept into a story about dreams, about forevers, about flickering lights, about unexplained deaths, about relentless change, and about the parts of ourselves that we wish other people knew to look for. Oh, and also a murderous zebra.

Reps: gay mc, queer side characters

Dreamboy is a fairly new fiction podcast (just started late last year as part of the Nightvale Presents group) and it is an atmospheric, psychedelic, sensual wonder of an experience unlike anything else I’ve listened to. And Dane Terry, the co-creator of the show, is a goddamn Renaissance man. He composes the score, writes the scripts, voices the main character, and he does it all with such skill that would almost make you angry if it weren’t for the fact that he’s also funny and charming and just an all-around genuine person.

The story itself is super weird (and, in that sense, definitely deserves the Nightvale badge) but it’s also one with a lot of heart and poetry. And the music, guys. The music is fucking everything–just as much of a character in the story as the actual characters.

It’s also very NSFW, so I don’t recommend blasting it on speakers at full volume during your next family gathering.

 


 

Released But Have Yet to Try

 

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In the Before, when the government didn’t prohibit large public gatherings, Luce Cannon was on top of the world. One of her songs had just taken off and she was on her way to becoming a star. Now, in the After, terror attacks and deadly viruses have led the government to ban concerts, and Luce’s connection to the world–her music, her purpose–is closed off forever. She does what she has to do: she performs in illegal concerts to a small but passionate community, always evading the law.

Rosemary Laws barely remembers the Before times. She spends her days in Hoodspace, helping customers order all of their goods online for drone delivery–no physical contact with humans needed. By lucky chance, she finds a new job and a new calling: discover amazing musicians and bring their concerts to everyone via virtual reality. The only catch is that she’ll have to do something she’s never done before and go out in public. Find the illegal concerts and bring musicians into the limelight they deserve. But when she sees how the world could actually be, that won’t be enough.

Release date: September 10th, 2019
Reps: a full queer cast

I’ve been slowly reading through Sarah Pinsker’s short story collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the See, and I’ve been loving it, so I’m hoping her first novel will be just as good, if not more. I was planning on getting to it last month but life had different ideas, so fingers crossed for September!

 


 

Not Yet Released

 

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After a surprising upheaval, the nation of Tamryllin has a new ruler: Elissan Diar, who proclaims himself the first Poet King. Not all in court is happy with this regime change, as Rianna secretly schemes against him while she investigates a mysterious weapon he hides in the bowels of the palace.

Meanwhile, a civil war rages in a distant land, and former Court Poet Lin Amaristoth gathers allies old and new to return to Tamryllin in time to stop the coronation. For the Poet King’s ascension is connected with a darker, more sinister prophecy which threatens to unleash a battle out of legend unless Lin and her friends can stop it.

Release Date: March 24th, 2020
Reps: queer side characters

I have the motherlode of TBRs this month and I’m deliriously excited for so many on the list, but The Poet King in particular is special (“excited” doesn’t even begin to cover it). It’s one of my most anticipated releases of 2020, and it’s the conclusion to a fantasy trilogy that has skyrocketed to being one of my all-time favourites, and Ilana to an autobuy author. These books are steeped in music and artistry and the power of them, and they mean so much to me. Pre-reading offerings are probably in order.

 

 

DNF Review: The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep – Wrong Character as the Narrator

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Title: The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep
Author: H.G. Parry
Publisher: Redhook
Release Date: July 23rd, 2019
Genre(s): Contemporary Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Stories about Stories, Siblings
Page Count: 465 (hardback)

Rating: DNF @ ~40%

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For his entire life, Charley Sutherland has concealed a magical ability he can’t quite control: he can bring characters from books into the real world. His older brother, Rob — a young lawyer with a normal house, a normal fiancee, and an utterly normal life — hopes that this strange family secret will disappear with disuse, and he will be discharged from his life’s duty of protecting Charley and the real world from each other. But then, literary characters start causing trouble in their city, making threats about destroying the world… and for once, it isn’t Charley’s doing.

There’s someone else who shares his powers. It’s up to Charley and a reluctant Rob to stop them, and hopefully before anyone gets to The End.

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This is another case of me DNFing a book not because it’s bad, but because I was bored (yes, there’s a difference). And I mostly blame it on Rob, the main character. He’s the less extraordinary of the two brothers–no magical abilities and a very “straight man” vibe–and I found his narration dry and ill-fitting. I mean, this is a story about literary characters coming to life and mingling with modern society. A story about the complexity of stories. And I figure such a story should be told from the POV of a character who exudes a bit more passion, and less blandness, than Rob Sutherland.

Like his brother, Charley.

See, there’s this one little section that utterly blew me away. It’s an excerpt from Charley’s notebook, so it’s written entirely from his POV and it lasts a only handful of pages, and reading it was like stepping up to the gates of heaven and watching it open. I mean that with zero hyperbole.

There are three things that this section accomplishes:

1) It puts us in the head of Charley–this beautiful, sensitive person–and we get a glimpse of the way he views the world. The things he value and how he approaches his power. It’s the most concise snapshot of a character I’ve come across this year.

2) It neatly explains the ins-and-outs of Charley’s power.

3) It describes, with aching clarity and lyricism, the act of reading. How we process a story, and how that processing affects every part of us, and how fucking magical that is. It’s beautifully introspective and so, so on-point. I mean, look at this:

“So I”ll be drifting in words, absorbing, and the words I absorb will be racing through my bloodstream. Every nerve, every neuron will be sparking and catching fire, and my heart will be quickening to carry it through faster, and my eyes will be tearing ahead to take in more and more.

This isn’t magic yet, or whatever the word is…This is just reading a book.”

I realize I’m using most of the review to gush about six pages worth of words, but that’s how good it is. It’s also relevant because that was the moment I realized that I’m stuck with the wrong brother as the narrator. Charley’s words are emotional and raw and relatable in a way that Rob’s aren’t, and I’ll bet my right arm that I would have loved the book if it’d been told from Charley’s POV. It just feels like a lost opportunity.

But I know the book is, and will be, a hit with a lot of people. It’s got all the right ingredients: a very solid, very flowy style of writing; a plot that’s unique and attention-grabbing; fairly interesting side characters; and a sibling relationship at the heart of the story, which is always welcome.

 

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

Monday Chatter: Why Plagiarizing Reviews is Bad (Because Apparently it Needs to Be Said)

Happy Monday, everyone!

Originally I wasn’t going to write an entire post about this because I don’t like voluntarily courting drama (unless it involves someone coming after a person I care about. Then I start sharpening knives), but the more I thought about it, the more irritated I got. So I’m just gonna get it all out into the open.

I was browsing through my feed early last week and clicked on a Wilder Girls review from a relatively new blogger I’ve been following. At first I thought it to be a really well-written post, and I was nodding along with a lot of their points.

But then I came cross a passage that looked eerily familiar:

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See, here’s what I wrote in my Wilder Girls review:

The main characters are a bit of a hit and miss. Power describes the girls’ relationships beautifully, and I really appreciate that she took the time to explore intense friendships and romantic love and the idea that there’s room for both in your life. I also love the fact that all of these characters are allowed to be selfish and mean–not because they’re terrible people but because their circumstances aren’t kind and there’s only so much kindness you can dredge up when it feels like your life is teetering on a knife’s edge. Forever give me all the flawed female characters who aren’t always nice.

 

Huh. Okay. So they took my sentence and reworded it slightly. Kind of sucks, but it’s nothing to lose my head over.

And then came this paragraph:

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And here’s my corresponding one:

…And I really wish I can end this review here. I really do.

But I got to talk about that ending.

This is where things go off the rails for me. And I’m trying to purge it from my brain because just thinking about it ruins the experience I had with the rest of the book. From Hetty’s actions and how it wraps things up with the other characters, to the very sudden, very shoddy explanation for the Tox, the ending is the equivalent of strolling along a creek, tripping on a rock, twisting my ankle, and landing face-first into water that’s filled with piranhas–painfully unexpected, makes zero sense (because piranhas in Canada, what?) and puts an abrupt end to what was turning out to be a nice afternoon walk. It tried to go with a scientific route, in which case the explanation should have been doled out in small pieces over the course of the story instead of just dumping it onto your lap at the end. It’s almost as if the author wasn’t sure how to close things off, so she just went with an explanation that’s popular and topical (spoiler: climate change), and it feels so incredibly tacked-on. I’d rather have had no explanation than the ones we got. As for the ending it gives to the characters, it’s one with zero emotional payoff.

Oh boy.

What really gets me is that they took my dumb little scenario of falling into a piranha-infested creek and changed it to crocodiles. It’s just so ridiculously blatant.

So I wrote them a comment, talking about how their plagiarism is kind of hurtful, and could they remove the passages in question, please and thank you. In response, they got rid of the crocodile sentence, left everything else intact, and deleted my comment, all the while holding radio silence.

Which made me feel really fucking great.

I don’t mind people using my reviews as a kind of a guideline for what they should talk about in their own posts. But this? This is straight up copy-pasting. And aside from the obvious “plagiarizing other people’s content is a breach of ethics” issue, it also calls into question the originality of all their past and future reviews.

I guess one could make the argument that ultimately it’s just a book review. But I could also take that sentiment and lob it back, ask why you’d go to the trouble of making someone feel shitty just for the sake of a book review. I don’t think my blog posts are deserving of literary awards (hell, I don’t even like my reviews half the time), but they’re still mine, and I hold a modicum of pride for them.

So I’m not writing this to be all, “How DARE they steal and tarnish this masterpiece.” I’m writing it because most of the time this community is wonderful and supportive, and we as a bloggers do a lot of work for very little, and all we ask from each other in return is at least a semblance of respect. I don’t think that’s that difficult of a bar to reach. And yet.

Your reviews don’t have to be the best (because what does that even mean?) They don’t have to be funny. They don’t have to be inspiring. They just have to be yours.

So. Plagiarism.

Don’t do it.

 

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Well, enough of that. Moving onto more fun things!

 

Etsy Store

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about my plans for selling This is How You Lose the Time War prints, because the authors and a couple of other people have been asking about them (which is incredible and humbling).

And I’m happy to announce that my Etsy store is LIVE and you can order your very own time traveling gay birds!

http://www.etsy.com/listing/714417854/this-is-how-you-lose-the-time-war

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Books to Read (feat. cover porn)

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I haven’t had a lot of time for reading this past week, and I’m still chugging away at Crier’s War and The Ventriloquists.

I’ve also started The Ten Thousand Doors of January and All the Bad Apples (about a girl who goes searching for her missing older sister). And so far I’m utterly charmed by the prose of TTTDOI as I am by its cover.

 

Five Reasons Why You Need to Read Desdemona and the Deep

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Title: Desdemona and the Deep
Author: C.S.E. Cooney
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: July 23rd, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fae, LGBTQIAP+ (lesbian mc, trans side character)
Page Count: 224 (ebook)

Rating: 9.5/10

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In Desdemona and the Deep, the spoiled daughter of a rich mining family must retrieve the tithe of men her father promised to the world below. On the surface, her world is rife with industrial pollution that ruins the health of poor factory workers while the idle rich indulge themselves in unheard-of luxury. Below are goblins, mysterious kingdoms, and an entirely different hierarchy.

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My god, what an absolute treasure trove this book is.

I’m a little review-weary at the moment and don’t feel like doing elaborate paragraph transitions, so I’ve made this into a “X Reasons Why” post!

 

1. The Prose

The prose, guys. The prose. If you want to see blushing described as “double roses of reverence and rapacious cupidity,” then you’re in for a treat because that’s the whole book. Rich, charismatic, whimsical, and the very definition of purple, the words melt hot in your brain and on your tongue. It’s been a while since I had this much fun with language.

 

2. A Larger-than-Life Protagonist

Desdemona is one of my favourite characters I’ve encountered this year, and hands-down my favourite female protagonist of 2019.

The thing is, she starts out as a pretty shitty person–rich and spoiled, with a dismissive let-them-eat-cake attitude. My definitive “Oh, I really don’t like you” moment was when she mentioned how she enjoys collecting art and artists, not because she cares for them, but because they make her feel prestigious and wanted.

But she grows over the course of the story, as did my opinion of her. Because despite being a prissy heiress, she’s also fun, and stubborn as heck, and her relationship with her best friend Chaz is endearing from the start (they are a magnificent duo). And she’s not some hapless heroine who inadvertently stumbles into another world. Oh no no, Desdemona will march up to the threshold of worlds and obnoxiously demand that they let her in.

There’s really no box you can shove her into, and I love that so much.

 

3. The Worldbuilding

Three worlds exist in this story. Athe for mortals; Valwode for the gentry (a mishmash of fae-adjacent creatures); and Bana, the kingdom of goblins.

If I were to sit here and write out everything I love about the worldbuilding, I’d be siting here typing out the entire book for you. So trust me when I say that it’s incredible. There are details that left me grinning and wanting to roll around in its richness. Like the notion that the fae are as affected by human art as humans are by fae magic. So things like poetry become a weapon and a shield in Valwode.

But my favourite part? How, despite all the beauty, the story doesn’t let you forget that magic has fangs. That these worlds aren’t just about glitter and gold, and their brutality goes hand in hand with beauty. There’s an almost alien quality to it that you don’t fully understand, but one you’re drawn to regardless. And those are the fae stories I want.

 

4. Themes of Justice and Art Prevailing in Darkness

This is a story about a mortal who ventures into another realm for a rescue mission. And usually, with those types of stories, the object of said rescue is a loved one–a spouse, a sibling, a child. Here, it’s not a rescue mission for the heart, but a mission to right a wrong. Because Desdemona was party to an injustice she initially ignored, and she wants to fix that. That to me is incredibly refreshing.

And from there we see the class struggles of the mortal realm (a kind of an alternate early 19th century Europe) being echoed in the magical realms, the idea that compromises exist, and Desdemona giving life back to the women who had it taken from them.

 

5. Just the Utter Joy of It All

Everything about this story, from the language to the characters to the worldbuilding is gaudy in the best way. It’s ostentatious, it’s heartfelt, it’s beautiful, and most importantly, it’s entertaining. You turn your head and you find something new and even more wondrous and strange than the last.

This book made me incredibly happy during a time when I desperately needed to feel happy, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

So, please, PLEASE. Give your brain a treat it sorely deserves. Go pick this up.

 

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

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

Rating: DNF @ ~50%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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