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?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Librarything Member Giveaway Review: Singer

Author: Brigid Collins
Genre: Fantasy/Sci-fi/YA
Pagecount: 204
Warnings: Death
Rating: 4/5

I'm so pleased with how this story came together, especially the last third of the book!

"Singer" by Brigid Collins starts out as the adventure of the eponymous character, a woman who would be mute if she couldn't sing the most beautiful wordless melodies. Singer teams up with a ragtag group of adventurers on their way to plunder the mysterious depths of the bluntly named "Nameless City", to which she is inexplicably drawn. As they travel through a place so old that everyone who has ever lived there is dead with their bones turned to dust, it becomes clear it's every bit as dangerous as predicted. And the storytelling and imagery remains excellent right up to the finale.

Admittedly the action starts slowly, and during the first few chapters I didn't quite know why I kept reading. However it was easy prose, well worth continuing, as my empathy towards the characters grew organically as a result of the pacing. By the time the threats start showing up deep inside the Nameless City you're invested in everybody, so I would say the pacing works out well enough. Besides which I want to give credit where credit is due and recognize that the monsters were fuck-off scary and I feared for character's lives, so good job there. I'm hesitant to spoil anything, so it the most vague terms I'll say my personal experience as a computer programmer was irked by a plot point. It was bad, but it wasn't "Hackers" bad.

Ah, seriously. All you really need to know is that Collins spun a good tale. You know how sometimes, after reading a book, you just sit back with a sigh of contentment and think "that went exactly how it should have gone"? Fairy tales in particular often end with the reader content that all the foreshadowed events happened and all the seemingly disparate threads have been tied together? That's how this book left me, and I loved it.

Actually I was a little panicked as I neared the end; I firmly believe Singer's world should be way better explored, but I hear there is a sequel, so that solves that!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Request for stories with non-binary gender or sex

I have a request! I read primarily fantasy and science fiction with a strong preference for speculative works, and I'm regularly frustrated by the paucity of diversity in gender and sex representation. It's a little nonsensical, since both are already complicated for humans and other animals. It's especially irksome when you consider fiction often restructures social and physical norms, sometimes wildly. How is it authors can imagine entire economies based around dragon flight but not women who don't like cooking and dresses? Or a more complex set of sexes than the two-sizes-fits-all model to which most stories default? Okay, slight exaggeration, but seriously, how are dragons more plausible than a different set of clothing division?

I admit this is more rant than request so far, so let me take a moment to try and flesh put what I'm looking for; book recommendations that include non-binary genders or sexes. Examples would be a culture or species that has more (or less) than two distinct sexes that are male/female, or gender roles that vary wildly from "boys like math, girls like feelings" stuff. I would enjoy books that focus on this, but I'm primarily looking for stories where this is just part of the world.

For reference, the following media are the sort of thing I'm looking for:
Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler
The Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie
The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley
Knights Errant by Jenn Doyle (webcomic)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold (I would count the men of Athos as being a non-traditional society in terms of gender)

Plesse, let me know what you've seen! I know this is oddly specific, but it's become a pet peeve of mine after noticing speculative fiction stories always default to the traditional, reductive binary for sex and gender. I think it would be nice to read novels with an understanding that things are more complicated than that, and especially an exploration of how complex they could be.

(crossposted at Librarything)

Monday, March 28, 2016

LibraryThing Review: Seer's Blood

Author: Doranna Durgin
Genre: YA
Pages: 310
Warnings: Death, torture
Rating: 3/5

Doranna Durgin's novel "Seer's Blood" follows feisty mountaineering outcast Blaine who follows enigmatic newcomer Dacey on a daring coming of age journey to save her family and her home. Blaine has been haunted by troubling dreams when she sees a large group of strangers camping out near her family's homestead. Not too long after a curious man, Dacey, brings warning of an ancient enemy. Blaine, armed with the incomplete knowledge of the long-lost seers, eventually allies with Dacey and his frankly awesome dogs, they learn, grow, rally their strength and lead an epic ass-kicking charge.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. It had a shadowy, possibly novel magic system, a straight up awesome villain, a solid heroine and a good dynamic between the two main characters. It had dogs, written well! So much potential, and instead of doing anything revolutionary Durgin meandered through the plot. Which is to say the climax was well done, but I was a little upset because it could have been so much more expansive in scope.

Like I said, there were things I liked a lot. The most fantastic part for me was the realistic portrayal of the rural setting. Durgin wrote about collecting greens several times in this story and the attention to detail (use of an herb garden, references to the greens wilting in less than a day, etc) was excellent. I felt confident that she either knows exactly what she's talking about or has a fine eye for detail. I felt the same way about the characterization of the dogs throughout the book, and especially the mutual affection between Dacey and his pack. It's realistic and adorable. I also liked how the main characters, Dacey and Blaine, built a richer relationship organically over the course of their adventures. I personally struggled a little with the local dialect all the characters spoke in, but I think that worked effectively to make the setting in the story distinct and believable. In fact, most of the character interactions in "Seer's Blood" both felt real and effective in moving forward the plot.

My biggest frustrations with this book were what I saw as missed opportunties. This book has several elements of solid storytelling, and a premise ripe with mystery. There's an extremely non-standard villain type with a novel form of consciousness, for cripe's sake! So, here we have the makings for a truly epic showdown between two ancient powers, like "Return of the Kings" epic. However the finale for this story was (no spoilers provided herein) good, but commensurate with "The Fellowship of the Ring". I read the ending and was so convinced that it was part of a series I googled "Seer's ring trilogy", and only after about the third website confirmed this book was stand-alone did I accept it was true.

Additionally, and I admit this is just me, I wanted to see more made of the villain. The Annektah are a multi-minded being that can exist without physical form, but prefer to override body's consciousness and experience it's host's emotions. I was really hoping that Durgin would take advantage of the opportunity to create a legitimately alien mind, kind of like the Oankali from "Liliths' Brood" (a good round-up of the themes and a description of the Oankali here). Instead the Annektah come off as incomprehensible to humans, not because they have a foreign ethical system, but because their cruelty reaches mustachioed kidnapper levels.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: Threats of Sky and Sea

Author: Jennifer Ellison
Genre: YA
Pages: 263
Warnings: Death, sparkles, tropes
Rating: 3.5/5

"Threats of Sky and Sea" by Jennifer Ellision is about Breena Rose, a secretly talented, feisty and gorgeous young woman on the cusp of adulthood who is being seriously underutilized as a barmaid. She has a run-in with some unsavory folks and discovers her daddy has been hiding her away from the world these last 16 years, and now she is to return to court and learn how to be a lady, kick ass at magic, meet a handsome prince all while trying to free her father. I gotta say, the lady keeps busy!

So before I say anything else, I have to state that I had fun reading this book. It was cute like a little puppy. I am going to see about getting the second one on my own steam.

As I have seen it mentioned, this book hits several YA adult tropes. That's accurate, it's plot points in bullet form read like a lot of other YA fiction. However these are feel-good story elements that are repeated so often because people like them. For example, the young woman in peril who takes charge of her own destiny is a trope I can get behind, no questions asked. Puberty being a time when magic blossoms and destinies are discovered sounds way cooler than the average high school experience. What's more notable to me are the tropes not taken. Ellison slips right around creating a love triangle, which makes me so happy words can not express. She also puts together her own magic system, to which I have a major weakness. Plus she doesn't shy away from killing off a character or two, which is a requirement for me to respect a book.

She also maintains an air of suspense around some of the major plot points. There's a lot left unexplained about the world, the magic system, and (to a lesser extent) Breena's past. It's likely this is a result of this being part of a several book long series, but regardless of the reason it's important to leave readers wanting more in any story. Ellison delivers in this respect. I don't just want to know what happens next, I'm curious about Neridium and the factors that determine one's magical element (crossing my fingers it's like how amphibians determine sex).

I do have a few less than complimentary points I want to raise though. Ellison spends more time explaining things that should be left to the reader to figure out. My impression is that the inexperience of the main character, Breena, is a convenient mechanism to enable explanations about the setting to the readers. It means we get paragraphs describing things like how the magic system works in the abstract in Breena's internal narration, as well as how Breena feels about it. To a lesser degree it means she acts as a stand-in for the audience to express confusion as to why things are the way they are. It makes everything feel a little flatter than it could. I would have liked to see more effort made to teach readers about a world the same way they learned about this one: through context and a certain amount of sassing one's elders. I chalk that one up to Ellison's inexperience as a professional writer, which means I look forward to seeing how her writing will mature.

Like a said, cute like a puppy. It's a nice story with accessible prose and I'm interested in seeing how everything develops.