Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Librarything Giveaway Review: Chronicle of a Last Summer

Author: Yasmine El Rashidi
Genre: Memoir
Pagecount: 232 (epub)
Warning: Death, References to torture, imprisonment, suicide
Rating: 4.5/5

"Chronicle of a Last Summer" records the impressions of the narrator during three pivotal summers in Egypt, 1984 when she is eight years old, 1998 and 2014. The prose captures the fundamental feelings and limits to her expression (especially at eight) without being painful to read. More importantly Rashidi expertly illustrates the interlaced emotional journey of the narrator as her opinions about what loyalty, country and home juxtaposed with a culture that values stability above most everything else.

I loved this book. The language was easy to read, but I think I'll be grappling with it's meaning for years to come. It's a beautiful look into a world I'd never seen before. I encourage you to check it out!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Librarything Member Giveaway: Chaos Season

Author: Sandra Ulbrich Almazan
Genre: Fantasy, YA
Pagecount: 232
Warning: Parental Abuse, Transphobia, Homophobia, Bad Flirting
Rating: 2/5

This is a continuation of the story featuring the newest incarnation of the avatars of the seasonal gods and their never-ending quest to counter the devastating Chaos Seasons and protect the land of Challen. I hadn't read the previous books in the series but this one picks up after the next avatars had struggled to find each other and were now finally able to get down to the momentous task of taking over as Season Avatars from their predecessors, this time with a time traveler who remembers the villain who created the Chaos Season from personal experience.

I want to say I thought this was an okay book story-wise, but I would not recommend it. My opinion isn't because of the premise, which as listed above is appropriately epic. It's not so much because of the characterization of the four main characters and their interactions, which was reasonably good, especially considering I had missed at least one book of backstory. It wasn't even because of the main character, who I could not find a way to like. I will admit to finding the iterations between men and women incredibly hard to follow, but that is unrelated to the majority of my rant.

Reading this book was like pulling fucking teeth for me because of the gender and sex politics implicit throughout it. The book was set in a Victorian Era analog with magic, but the politics were kind of a mash-up of then and some of the crappiest stuff from modern times. I could not handle
that there was very little evidence of overt discrimination, but all of the society was still clearly structured in an extremely sexist, homophobic way. More than that, the existence of trans people was just disappeared. It felt like the worst example of political correctness, like if maybe we didn't talk about bad things happening they don't count.

Rant to follow below the break.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Librarything Member Giveaway: A Natural History of Hell

Author: Jeffrey Ford
Genre: Horror, Supernatural
Pagecount: 281 (ebook)
Warnings: Death, Murder, Violence, Rape, Dismemberment, Domestic Violence, Dolls, Spooky shit, Kitchen Sink
Rating: 4/5

"A Natural History of Hell" is a collection of short stories that span a remarkable range in location, time period, genre and atmosphere. They all have a supernatural theme, but I was genuinely impressed and how wide and varied the flavor of stories spanned. The only consistency is the austere language. The prose was clearly written and easy to read, even when the events of a particular story were on the edge of what I could handle. This kept what could have been wildly divergent moods from giving me emotional whiplash (in other words, I liked it).

This lovely collection of stories are clearly the culmination of many skillful experiments into a multitude of literary traditions that were pleasurable to read with nary a dull moment.

Since I have very little that can be said about the entire collection together aside from how widespread it is, the meat of this review are short opinions on the individual tales.

The Blameless: A surprisingly sweet story of a married couple attending a coming of age ceremony for their neighbor's daughter, specifically her exorcism. An okay short, but interesting to me largely as an example of gendered emotional labor.

Word Doll: Creepy in the way only dolls can be, made of words or otherwise. Reminded me of the midwestern folk horror that the TV show Supernatural does so well. Perhaps my favorite story of the collection.

The Angel Seems: Some truly weird supernatural events, kidnappings, extremely creative deaths and a plethora of (presumed) good old fashioned rape. I have very mixed feelings about this story, because so many ladies get raped that it becomes mundane (that's gross as fuck), but the ending is by far the best ending any story can have. Mixed!

Mount Cherry Galore: This is a coming of age story with some more magical elements included than usual. I admit this one was nice but didn't stand out for me.

A Natural History of Autumn: A young yakuza meets a hostess and has a very trying adventure in the mountains. It was a nice surprise to see a local folk horror story from a completely different tradition. I think my only point of comparison for this was Kwaidan so I can't tell you how faithful it was to Japanese horror, but I definitely had fun reading it.

Blood Drive: By far the scariest story for me, since this year it hits a little too close to home. Think of this as the Handmaiden's Tale but for the NRA instead of evangelical christians.

A Terror: In April of 1862 Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to a friend in which she said "I had a terror since September...". Ford imagines what she experienced. I liked this story because it diverged in tone from the other stories; in deference to Dickinson it was more fantastical and lyrical, which was delightful.

Rocket Ship to Hell: One author relates the strange tale of his trip into space to two of his fellows in a dimly lit bar. This one is a call-back to golden age sci-fi, with all of it's bad science, shady old men and sexism. Hard pass for me.

A Fairy Enterprise: A Victorian entrepreneur hits on a new business venture, and it doesn't go at all to plan. This was a nice palette cleanser for me, a pleasing mix of English fairy tales and Charles Dickens.

The Last Triangle: A down on his luck drifter is welcomed into the life of an older woman with some very dangerous secrets. Another nice story, a little like the John Constantine comics in that all of the characters are both flawed and magical.

Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Heart: The tale of a man with a legendary sword and the badass women in his life. I wish I knew what literary tradition this story was from. I'm leaning towards far east, maybe India, but I couldn't say for sure. I liked the way the story was told, and the main characters were all super cool. I would love to read more like it!

The Thyme Fiend: After a young man discovers a body in a well, he can't stop seeing the ghost of Jimmy Tooth unless he drinks thyme tea. There were some very dreamlike aspects to this story and I couldn't help falling into them. I found it deeply engaging, would recommend.

The Prelate's Commission: A talented young artist is commissioned by the local prelate to paint a true picture of the devil. While I usually delight in religious iconography, this was one missed the mark. I got the impression it could have been fleshed out into a full length novel, since this version was a bit rushed.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Librarything Member Giveaway: Eye of the North Wind

Author: B. Y. Yan
Genre: (High) Fantasy
Pagecount: 391
Warnings: Quality Snark, Mutilation, Death
Rating: 3.5/5

"Eye of the North Wind" is the story of several entertaining characters living in the land of Immortal Linberry. You start off following Sir Boors, the steward of the kingdom, who seems to stumble from one scheme to the next while always just barely keeping his head above water. However the bulk of the action takes place while you follow Sangor, a canny sword-for-hire  past his prime who is making his last attempt to enter the elite Yulin Hundred by going on a quest of great import.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about this novel is that it's broken into two pieces stylistically. The first portion, in which Sir Boors is the primary character, is about the surprisingly competent administrator, despite him being outwitted by several other characters. He is a charming combination of weaknesses to bribes, pomp and an unapologetic acceptance of his limitations. I didn't laugh out loud while reading this portion of the book, but I alternated between a grin and a smirk almost the entire time, a little like "A Confederacy of Dunces".

The second portion followed Sangor, wherein we made the transition from moderately sardonic social commentary on bureaucracy to a fairly standard medieval romance. Which means, of course, that there is a Quest, a Fair Maid and no small amount of Villainy to Defeat. This section I also enjoyed as its own story, because does a good job hitting the traditional elements for medieval romance classics. Again I found myself amused by the schemes of the nominal hero of our story, and how well Sangor managed to keep said hero from getting his butt kicked.

My gripe with this book is not when but how the transition between styles happens. I was settling down to a pleasing book within the city of Immortal Linberry when suddenly I found the novel following a different character introduced in passing while Sir Boors was in charge. It wasn't jarring so much as I was sent a little adrift while the switch happened, which took some time to recover from. In addition some of the characters that wind up being very important are thrown in at the end when they could have been introduced more fully into the Boors-led introductory portion.

Overall I liked this story, but I'm sure it's for everyone. I loved that Yan skillfully tells a story and lets his readers in on the joke; that is, the absurdity of medieval romances. He clearly loves these types of stories but also knows how silly they look from the outside. However not everyone likes this deliciously tongue-in-cheek tone, and the less skillful combination of genres will frustrate some readers.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Librarything Member Giveaway Review: Gaslight Grimoire

Author: K. C. Finn
Genre: Steampunk
Pagecount: 176
Warnings: Death, Enslavement, Violence, Racism, Sexism
Rating: 3/5

"Gaslight Grimoire" by K.C. Finn is a collection of short stories that effortlessly combine elements of steampunk and dark fantasy in a wide variety of settings and circumstances throughout the late 19th century. The premise of each story is unique while maintaining a misty, clanking atmosphere.

There are a total of twelve stories, and while I enjoyed all of them, there were two that stood out as my favorites, "Master Mind" and "Mira and the Maw". The thread that links them is what links almost all of these stories: a fantastic premise and a good atmosphere. "Master Mind" is centered around a historical machine called the Turk, with an ending that I refuse to ruin but fit perfectly. "Mira and the Maw" on the other hand centers around Mira, a 'steampunk zombie hunter' as referenced in the foreword, who is basically Girl Genius (and also an actual girl genius). It's one of the slower builds in the collection, which gives us time to look past the flashy aspects of the story and take in the characters, so when the tale concludes you're invested in Mira surviving and possibly outshining Buffy.

As far as a general opinion of the collection I'm of two minds. As I said, I think the strongest aspect of the anthology is it's atmosphere. All of the stories have a similar feel, which does a great job using the outlandish premises and varied locales of steampunk and combining them with the equally fantastic premises and bleak morality of dark fantasy. It can be a bit much for someone who doesn't like one of these genres a great deal, but if you're willing to go along on some truly weird adventures it's a wonderful read. Settle down on a rainy day and gobble these twisted fairy tails up!

However be warned, the characterization in these stories is definitely a weaker aspect. I liked a few characters, like Mira from "Mira and the Maw" and Galileo from "Galileo's Mistake", but during most stories I wasn't attached to anyone. That's hardly surprising, it's damned difficult to get invested in a character when you have maybe 10 pages with total. In any individual short story I don't mind that much either, as they don't last long. But for me it was a consistent problem, that when I peered behind the flashy scenes I found... one dimensional people.

Now for the a more general nit-pick: I try not to do this with every book because it's exhausting, but while I was reading I started noticing the cast list was a looking a bit sausage-y. How sausage-y you ask? By my count 23% of the narrators and 25% of the speaking characters are women, which can't be good for a species that pair-bonds. In addition about 10% of the speaking characters are POC, which would be reasonable for the UK in 1900, but not for 2016. I don't mean to notice it, but once I know a book's cast skews that white and dudely for no reason it takes away from my enjoyment of a book a bit. I start wondering what happened to Victorian steampunk world that they have such a shortage of women. How will the human race repopulate? Why is no one talking about the obvious racial apocalypse? And if this was just oversight on the author's part, why are fairies and steam-powered hearts okay but altering the racial and gender politics of the 1900's isn't?