Book reviews, LGBT Books

Book Review | A Little Life

a little life book review

I’ve been sitting on my feelings about this book for about a week now, and I don’t think I made much progress untangling them. I enjoyed reading this book, not because it was a pleasant read, it wasn’t, but because I was so invested in Jude and his well-being. It’s been a while since I read a book with such a compelling, and complicated, protagonist — that means this book did at least one thing right. And being a big fan of character driven narratives, that’s a big one in my book. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have issues with it, because I did, and there’s one thing in particular I’m still trying to wrap my mind around, and I hope some of you who have read this book can help me make sense of it. This review will have spoilers, so it’s best not to keep reading if you plan on reading this book.

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When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever. 

TW: paedophilia, rape, sex-trafficking, forced prostitution,  graphic depictions of self-harm, suicidal ideation , suicide, depression,  drug use, drug addiction, domestic violence, physical violence, ableism, medical amputation, semi-graphic descriptions of open wounds (I hope I’m not forgetting anything).

— by Hanya Hanagihara. I actually talked myself into finally reading this book, after having it sit on my shelf for years, by reading the plot summary on wikipedia and spoiling it, it was a way of telling myself I could handle all the hard themes to come. And it worked. This is literary fiction, and more like a character study than anything else, so the plot is really bare bones. You basically follow the lives of four friends from their twenties to their fifties, with the focus being on Jude and his traumatic past as a victim of paedophilia, sex-trafficking and forced child prostitution.

My fears that the sexual abuse would be somehow depicted in a voyeuristic way didn’t materialise, which I’m very glad for. The accounts weren’t graphic, despite all the trigger warnings related to sex crimes this doesn’t feel like a sexually explicit book at all — which I think was the right call when dealing with such delicate subject matter. The focus was often on Jude’s feelings of despair and worthlessness, and how the abuse he suffered when he was a child impacted the rest of his life. They were still hard to read and I often found myself skimming those sections (which weren’t necessarily flashbacks but were peppered through the present-day segments as they related to Jude’s current state).

Jude’s self-harm on the other hand was depicted in a much more graphic way, as were all the recurring leg wounds he developed as a result of a spinal injury he suffered after being run over by one of his abusers when he was 15. His emotional lows were really low and harrowing, and I think it’s best if people going through depression or struggling with their own suicidal thoughts avoid this book. Jude also struggles a lot with internalised ableism, it’s a big part of his character, and he never quite overcomes it. Although things get much better towards the end of the book.

I know I’m painting a really bleak picture, but there were moments of real happiness in Jude’s life and he had a circle of people around him who loved and respected him, that stopped this book from feeling gratuitously miserable to me, and more like an account of a very hard life, sometimes excruciating, that was nevertheless still worth living. That he commits suicide after the death of the love of his life seems more like a manifestation of  the profound grief of someone who hates loneliness, and who can’t imagine life after losing the man he saw as his soulmate. It felt removed from his past depression and from his trauma. In a way, grief killed him, and that happens to people who didn’t go through what Jude did as a child too.

This isn’t a happy book, and no one gets a happy ending. I was okay with that, mostly because I knew not to expect one, and to appreciate and treasure all the happiness Jude did find, which was something he did as well.

However, Yanagihara made some puzzling narrative decisions that threw me out of the novel and made me wonder what was she trying to get at.

Let’s start with the easy stuff: this book isn’t as smart as it pretends to be. People call this a modern classic, and while the writing is good (not beautiful, which would be too much considering the topics, nor overly dry), to the point and poignant is how I would describe it, the author tells instead of showing almost everything that would require more than a superficial amount of research.

In one of the few moments she actually shows a character doing their job, and behaving in a way a highly respected professional should, she fumbles her hand. Harold, Jude’s  adoptive father, and a highly respected law professor is giving a lecture (in some or other Ivy, I’m not american I don’t remember their names), he gives this speech which is supposed to sound deep and meaningful but it’s really just a run through of the social contract  — which of course wows and amazes his students. The problem is the social contract is one of the most basic philosophy concepts of all, and something all portuguese students learn in 10th grade philosophy class (which is mandatory). What this great law professor said amounts to “we live in a society, and we give up certain freedoms for the privilege” — yeah no shit.

I have no idea why Yanagihara thought this sounded smart, specially since she didn’t do anything with the concept. She could have used it to tie in with the idea that Jude feels like he doesn’t fit in, that he has to behave a certain way to be accepted and loved. This could have been foreshadowing, or called back to, later in the book, but no, it only serves to awake in Jude a passion for the law.

This isn’t a recurring problem though, because like I said Yanagihara tells almost everything, and we are shown very little: We are told Jude is an amazing fierce lawyer who everyone dreads meeting in court (we don’t see a single of his trials), we are told Willem is an extraordinary actor (we don’t see him act, outside of a play where he decided his character would have the nervous tic of peeling back wallpaper — which is probably the single most pretentious thing I’ve read in my life), Malcom is an amazing architect (he doesn’t really do much either, but at least we see him talk over his plans for Jude’s house, which at least convinced me he was competent) and JB is an amazing artist, (we are told plenty about how amazing his paintings are, shown very little of him actually painting them). JB was particularly annoying to me, because while I realise he was supposed to come off as pretentious and abrasive, all the descriptions of his art sounded so bland and uninspired I found it hard to believe he was ever critically acclaimed — either that or the NY art scene has lower standards than I thought.

I would be way more annoyed with the telling instead of showing if this was a fantasy book or a sci-fi book, and not the literary character study it is. And while Yanagihara was great at conveying emotions and mental states she was less great at convincing me these characters had real lives beyond their emotional turmoil. That’s where showing them being good at their jobs instead of merely telling the reader they were, would have come in handy — it would have fleshed out their character, and helped them not to be so insufferably pretentious at times. Even Jude suffered from this.

My biggest issue with this book comes with something that happens after Jude and Willem get together, though. Jude is very secretive about his sexual abuse and hasn’t told any of his friends or adoptive parents. Jude is also very sex-repulsed, but he wants a romantic relationship. After Willem confesses his feelings he and Jude enter into one, and Jude is very happy but he tells Willem he isn’t ready for sex and that they’ll have to wait, Willem is fine with this. He’s less fine with it (???) when it’s been more than six months and nothing has happened yet, but still he waits. They finally have sex, Jude hoped it would be different with someone he truly loves, but it isn’t, he still hates sex as much as always. They then proceed to have sex for 18 months, a period during which Jude’s cutting gets worse than ever for obvious reasons. Jude eventually tells Willem the truth, they stop having sex, but their relationship continues as usual and things are fine after that.

But holy shit, I can’t wrap my mind around how Willem, who isn’t described as an idiot, didn’t realise that Jude’s mental state was deteriorating because they were having sex. Everything was not perfect, but going well, and Jude was cutting a lot less, and then they start having sex and Jude gets worse — I WONDER WHAT COULD HAVE CAUSED THAT! At one point a few weeks after they start having sex Willem asks Jude if he enjoys sex, Jude of course lies and says yes (because he feared the relationship would end if he said no), and he goes through the motions of pretending to enjoy it and even initiates it sometimes, to better convince Willem he likes having sex with him. But again, Willem isn’t an idiot, he knows of Jude’s past relationship that ended with him being a victim of pretty gruesome domestic violence, and he has at least an inkling that Jude’s past trauma might have something to do with sexual abuse, so what is stopping him from putting two and two together?

That’s one of Yanagihara’s most puzzling writing decisions in my opinion, I really don’t understand what she was trying to say with this? That even the best of men (and Willem is great to Jude in every way, and clearly loves him), will put their sexual needs before the well-being of their partner? It just seems to go against Willem’s character who has always been protective of Jude, and put him before his own career and well-being.

This ended up being one of the most upsetting parts of the novel for me, the idea that to find happiness Jude would have to endure even more unwanted sexual attention, this time from the man he loves is sickening. Was this supposed to be a commentary on our sex-obsessed society? Because there’s nothing wrong with consensual sex. And while it’s natural that Willem would be sexually attracted to Jude it’s incongruous that he would be wilfully blind to his discomfort.

I could write more about this particular topic, but this review is already overwhelmingly long as it is. And honestly my issue just boils down to the fact that I don’t understand what Yanagihara was trying to say, I don’t think she’s a bad writer so she must have been trying to say something. It’s also worth noting that she’s never heard of the words bisexual or asexual in her life. Willem is described as straight, even though he’s had sex with men and then falls in love with Jude, which is puzzling to say the least. Then,  at one point Willem remembers him and their friends discussing Jude and wondering if he might be asexual (he clearly is), Willem is sure he isn’t, but he has the time to wonder if that isn’t wishful thinking on his part (it is). Again: what. does. that. mean.

How am I supposed to feel about Willem? About men in general? I think Yanagihara was trying to make some sort of statement, but I’m not sure she succeeded. A Little Life is a character study, as I said, and maybe it isn’t meant to say anything about society as a whole, just about this cast of characters and people like them. I’m not sure. And that’s why ultimately I still have no idea how to rate this book. Maybe the point is to be left wondering about human nature, and how cruel and alienating loneliness is, and how different people find different ways to deal with it. Maybe that’s it. I still don’t know. And I think this is one of those books where everyone who reads it is going to come away from it with something different.

Ultimately, I would only recommend this book to someone who knows they can handle the subject matter, and who wants to figure out for themselves what the point of it all is. Maybe you’ll do a better job than me. I can’t say I regret reading it, I love Jude as a character and all his moments of happiness were precious and felt personal to me in a way that I’ll remember for a long time. I just wish I didn’t have such conflicting thoughts about the rest of the book.

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Book lists, Book Memes, LGBT Books, Lgbt Characters

October Wrap Up

october wrap

I read eight books this month, which feels like a lot for me. At some point I want to be able to read 10 books a month, but for now this feels like a victory. As to ratings that’s more of a mixed bag. I only really loved two of the books I read this month, which are both, not surprisingly, fantasy books with f/f romances — if books were comfort food that would be mine.

  • I read 6 adult books, and 2 young adult.
  • 4 Horror books.
  • 2 Fantasy books.
  • 1 Contemporary 
  • 1 Literary Fiction

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Kill Creek by Scott Thomas — I gave this 2.5 stars. I just didn’t think much of it at all. Which is a shame because I had pretty high expectations going in. I have a complete review here

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon — I gave this book 1 star and absolutely loathed it. I don’t even want to think about it, it was such a huge waste of my time, I wish I had just DNFed it before it got egregiously bad. Full review here

The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé — This is one of the two YA books I read and the horror book I enjoyed the most this month, I gave it 3.5 stars. It’s a quiet understated horror story about depression with  that is more effective because it doesn’t ham up the supernatural elements. I also enjoyed the f/f romance which is more of a side-plot but still really engaging. Full review here.

The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera — I loved this book, but I haven’t reviewed it yet because I have an ARC for the sequel and plan on doing a joint review. This is a 5 star read, not only because it’s a slow paced character driven fantasy novel, which I always enjoy, but because it still delivers compelling world-building and interesting side-characters despite the focus being on the two protagonists (and really, character driven stories are no excuse for poor world-building, especially in genre fiction). This also involves a monster/human f/f romance which is my favourite thing ever. The romance in general was magnificent, it falls under the “fated lovers” or “meant to be” trope which is one of my favourite tropes, and  that always gives stories a mythological feeling I love. The protagonists and their relationships reminded me of Achilles and Patroclus although the stories couldn’t be any more different. Achilles wished all Greeks would die so he and Patroclus could conquer Troy alone, and Shefali and Shizuka are a lot like that, they want to save the world, but mostly for each other, and because they believe they are living gods. I for one couldn’t love it more. If you enjoy that kind of world-defying romance, I think you’ll enjoy this book.

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Sometime after Midnight by L Philips — This is the other YA book I read and it’s a Cinderella retelling with a m/m romance. I haven’t reviewed this either but it’s a 3 star read, which is a shame because it had great potential, but ultimately I don’t think I’m the right audience for it. The romance was cute, and for the first half of the book I was actually very invested because it was an enemies to lovers situation that made for a great dynamic. But things get somewhat resolved halfway through and the story loses some of the interest, although it picks up towards the end. Another thing I didn’t like, was that one of the characters is a millionaire, or rather his father is, it makes sense considering this is a Cinderella retelling, but I can’t really see that type of characters as heroic in contemporary fiction (it’s why I’ll never read Crazy Rich Asians) — however I realise how a “me” thing that is, and can see numerous people having zero issue with it, so I still recommend this book and think plenty of people will enjoy it.

Lostboy: The true story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry — This was the last horror book I read this month and a huge disappointment despite being a 3 star read overall, which for me is more mediocre to okay, than disappointing. The problem with this one was that I was enjoying the book thoroughly until a certain plot-twist. I was initially excited about it because I thought it opened up the possibility for discussion of gender in the context of the Lost Boys eternal childhood — that didn’t happen the plot-twist only served to introduce an unnecessary romance (???), and I guess pull an even more unnecessary no-homo, on a book where all characters are physically children age 5-12. The romance was pointless it felt forced and contrived,my eyes were rolling as it was happening and ended up only serving as fuel for Jamie’s angst.

In the Vanishers Palace by Aliette de Bodard  — This is another retelling, this time of Beauty and the Beast, where the beast is a dragon (and remains one) and the romance happens between two women. The more sketchy parts of the original tale are also fixed, which is great because Beauty and the Beast is my least favourite fairytale. This is another example of f/f romance between human and monster, and it was just as great, despite not being as cosmically significant. It was still a 5 star read and I wrote a full review here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara — I technically finished this book in November, just a couple of days ago, but I started it in October so I’m still counting it. This was one of the books in my books I’m afraid of list, and while I’m glad one of my biggest fears concerning it, that the depictions of sexual abuse would be written in a voyeuristic or overtly graphic way, didn’t materialise, I’m still not sure how to feel about it and how to rate it. Objectively, I enjoyed reading it, I loved Jude, the protagonist, and was compelled to read because I wanted to reach a section of the story where he was happy, and I read those segments with genuine joy (even if happiness is a fraught thing for Jude, I was still relieved). The only way I can describe this book is as if I was holding my breath through all the sections where Jude’s past abuse was being recounted or where he was suffering in the present, and could finally breathe when something good happened to him. I worried this book would be overtly bleak, and feel hopeless in some manipulative way, but I didn’t think it was hopeless, good things happened to Jude, he has people who love and respect him. Jude’s one romantic relationship was wonderful in many ways, but there’s one aspect of it that baffles me, because I have no idea what the author was going for with it. There’s something about her portrayal of men that doesn’t sit well with me. I can’t put my finger on it, but while this wasn’t the gratuitously traumatic read I envisioned there’s still something disconcerting about it. I’m going to write an in-depth review about it soon, that will probably contain spoilers because there’s just no way for me to discuss this book honestly while avoiding them. For now it will remain unrated.

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Currently Reading

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I’m halfway through Beartown by Frederik Backman and couldn’t be loving it more. It’s kind of a slow start, I’d say the first 30% feel like exposition, but the story picks up after that and it’s worth it. That initial exposition is also necessary because this book is about an entire town, and it’s important to know the people who live in it, because after a prominent hockey player rapes a girl the people of hockey-crazy Beartown are going to be divided like never before. There’s a vast cast of characters that all feel unique and complex in their own way, all their voices feel very clear and distinct.

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Book lists, Book Memes, LGBT Books

Down the TBR Hole #1

down tbr

Down the TBR hole is a meme created by Lia from Lost In Story, and the whole point is to clean out and organise your TBR. I have a tendency to add books to my TBR with minimal knowledge of what the plot is. If they fit into the genres I read, and have LGBT characters, chances are good I’ll just blindly add them to my Goodreads Want to Read pile. What that means is that I sometimes look at my TBR and forget why I even picked those books in the first place. I’m hoping this will help me at least keep track of the books I want to read, and more importantly why, and hopefully get rid of the ones I’m not that into, after all.

down the tbr

The Miniaturist — Historical fiction set in 17th century Netherlands. An 18-year-old girl travels to the city to the house of her new husband, who is kind but distant. And keeps herself occupied with a miniature replica of their home, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. I don’t think this book is for me, I heard good things about it, but I’m horribly picky with historical fiction these days and the setting just doesn’t seem all that exciting. So this one is a pass.

The Last Sun — This is urban fantasy, set in an island-city which pretty much amounts to New Atlantis. The protagonist is hired to search for a missing person but he ends up finding more than he expected to, including a legendary creature. I’m actually more interested now, the summary doesn’t give a lot away, but it says enough to leave me wanting more. The idea of Atlantis is exciting enough, I’m keeping this one.

The Iron Council — This is actually the third book in a series, but it’s the one I keep being recommended. It’s set after the events of the previous two books so I think that’s why it doesn’t matter if I read it first. I’m actually really interested in this book, it’s a sci-fi book often labelled as weird fiction, and it has a strong political tone. I like it when sci-fi lays it on thick with the real-world politics and this books seems like it will be right up my alley. I’m keeping it.

Girls Made of Snow of Glass — The tagline describes this as “Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy reimagining of the Snow White fairytale.” The Goodreads summary goes into far more detail, which makes it sound much more interesting than that description makes it out to be. Plus, I heard really good things about it so I’m keeping it.

Amberlough — I know a lot about this book and I’m super excited to read it, it’s an adult fantasy novel heavily inspired by the rise of the Nazi party in previously decadent and tolerant Berlin. I’ve heard some people complain that it’s too on the nose, and it might as well just be set in real life Germany, I for one I’m glad it isn’t. I don’t have much patience for Historical fiction set during WWII so the fantasy setting is perfect for me, definitely keeping it.

down the tbr2

Sawkill Girls — I was super excited to read this book, because I heard great things, but now that I actually have it it’s like the wind went out of my sails. I’m still really excited to read it, and pretty sure I’ll like it, but it doesn’t feel as urgent anymore. Which figures, either way I’m keeping it.

The Nowhere Girls — This book is about a group of girls coming together to avenge a girl who accused popular guys at her school of gang rape, and instead of justice was run out of town. The reviews are great and this seems like a book with the kind of messages I appreciate. I’m keeping it.

Truly Devious — A true-crime aficionado is set to start her first year at a famous private Academy where one of America’s greatest unsolved crimes happened, decades ago. That alone is enough to pique my interest, but the goodreads summary goes into more detail about the school that make it sound even more exciting. Keeping it.

Her Body and Other Parties — This is a collection of feminist short stories, that span a myriad of genres, including horror. I’m curious about it, but at the same time I have a hard a time making it through short stories. So I’m indecisive about this one, because while the theme really interests me, the format might not be for me.

Running with Lions — A group of friends attends a summer soccer camp, the protagonist re-unites with an estranged childhood friend. I actually gave the first chapter of this book a try recently and I think the writing is not for me, so I’m going to have to pass.

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  • Books kept: 7/10
  • Books removed: 2/10
  • Unsure: 1/10

I can’t say this went the way I expected it to, I actually thought I would end up passing on a lot more books, but I’m very excited to read every book I kept, so I guess that’s a good thing too. I’d love to hear from anyone who has read some of these books, especially if you think I’m making a mistaking by passing on one of those two books, or to help me make up my mind about the one I’m on the fence.

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Book reviews, Fantasy, LGBT Books

Book Review | In the Vanishers’ Palace

in the vanishers palace

I loved this book so much, and I really need to thank Acqua for making me aware of it, which made me request it. I saw the title on Netgalley multiple times but the cover led me to believe this was a middle grade book for some reason — when it’s actually an adult retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in a Vietnamese inspired fantasy world and with an f/f romance.

41729893When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.

But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…

I was actually convinced retellings weren’t something I was that interested in until I read this, suffice it to say it changed my mind. This is a novella but the world-building is amazing, it isn’t spoon-fed to the reader or overly explained, and it only added to the feeling of eerie wrongness of Yên’s village, and Vu Côn’s palace. The world was broken by extraordinarily powerful creatures, called Vanishers, who did as they pleased with humanity and spirits alike, and then simply vanished leaving behind a world that was a husk of its former self. Society struggles, the poor suffer the most, people are seen in terms of how “useful” they can be to their community —  and disposed of when they overstay their welcome.

It’s a short book but it has the time to examine several themes, like the complexities of human relationships, and the kind of connections people form — how social hierarchies shape communities and destroy them, how people are capable of putting their own well-being aside in the name of what’s right. I enjoyed all those reflections, which were subtle and weaved through with the plot and tied to character development, and thankfully not a stream of consciousness info-dump. But what I liked the most was the theme of nature vs nurture when it came to Vu Côn’s children. I can’t get into too much detail because it gets into spoiler territory, but it was a great part of the book, and I loved Thông and Liên as characters.

I also appreciated seeing characters who used gender neutral pronouns like Thông and Elder Giang represented, and the little ways the world-building addressed that. They lived in a society who accepted them and that was reflected in things like clothing, forms of address, and myths and legends. It added extra immersion, and made the world feel even more real and dynamic, to the point it’s hard to believe this book doesn’t even have 200 pages.

I loved the romance too, Vu Côn and Yên are very different but equally compelling characters, and I loved the changes to the original tale. Vu Côn is a Beast with far more selfless motivations, albeit just as short and gruff at times. She also doesn’t feel like a prisoner in her own castle as much as prisoner of the Vanisher’s legacy, which is a more compelling narrative than “cursed by a witch”. I’ve never liked The Beauty and the Beast in part because the Beast always felt vaguely pathetic to me. Vu Côn is nothing like that, she’s strong and powerful and you never once doubt her abilities, she also doesn’t fly into rages which was much appreciated.

Vu Côn also stays a monster, which I absolutely loved. I should clarify that she is a spirit, and thus has both a dragon form and a human form, which she can change and meld together at will. Her regaining full human form is never a plot point and the book is all the better for it, because I for one love monsters, and I love romances that involve them. I’m actually determined to read as many LGBT books with monster/human romances as I can. I hope it becomes a trend. I want to personally thank Guillermo del Toro, and now Venom, for being pioneers, and bringing this genre to the masses.

Anyway.

The writing was delicious, it gave a real sense of setting and contributed much to the world-building. I loved all the descriptions of the Vanishers’ palace which is this mind-bending, physics defying ever-changing construction, that is dangerous to (almost) everyone who walks its halls and many rooms. It was such a fascinating place, and I could spend much more time there. The palace and all the constructs, inside and outside, were also great contributors to the sense of unease and foreboding. Even in absence the Vanishers’ presence hung like an oily film over everything.

My only complaint is that I wish this book were longer, and perhaps even a series, because I loved the world so much and would like nothing more than to return to it. That being said, I was still completely satisfied with the story as it was, and everything was perfectly resolved. I just want more because I’m greedy.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency

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Book reviews, Horror, LGBT Books, Lgbt Characters, Young Adult

Triple Book Review| The Real Horror was Reading Two of These Books

the dark beneath the ice kill creek winter people book review

I’ve had the worst luck with horror books lately. I read three very different horror books recently, and had different expectations for each of them, and in one way or another none of them managed to live up to them. At this point I’m going to stop expecting horror books to scare me, and just focus on whether the story is interesting or not. In that sense, and perhaps ironically, the book I liked the most was the one where the horror elements were most vague.

The Winter People

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West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter.

Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that has weighty consequences when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished. In her search for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked into the historical mystery, she discovers that she’s not the only person looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.

Where to even start with this book? Nothing really worked, it wasn’t scary, even though it included paranormal elements that sort of, tentatively, inched ever that way. It was atmospheric, and eerie, and it was set in a frozen winter landscape, which I always appreciate in horror books, and in every kind of book if I’m being completely honest. It was told from four different points of view, two in the past and two in the present. The past segments were far more interesting than the present, but also where my biggest issue with this book lay — it was straight up racist.

Spoilers ahead, but this is a 1 star review, so I’m not recommending this book anyway, but if you plan on reading it despite my warning maybe skip ahead a few paragraphs.

Sara, whose daughter’s death is the catalyst for this whole novel, was raised by Auntie, a Native American woman, and her father’s partner for many years. Auntie was portrayed as a stern woman, who was sometimes brusque with Sara, but clearly loved her despite her gruff exterior. There’s really nothing out of the ordinary about Auntie’s characterisation up to this point, other than she seems to have an “ancient knowledge” of how to bring people back from the dead (which…I mean, native people and black people having some sort of mystical power in an otherwise magic-less world is already pretty sketchy, but this book was about to surprise me). Anyway, one of the mysteries of the book is how Sara’s daughter died, for most of it we are lead to believe it was either by Sara’s own hand or her husband’s. Until we learn of the events leading up to Auntie’s “death”.

The people of Sara’s village didn’t approve of Auntie’s relationship with Sara’s father. Eventually the public scorn got to be too much for him, and he broke things off with Auntie. And then things got batshit insane. Because Auntie reacted to that by murdering and stringing up Sara’s brother, who adored Auntie and really looked up to her. Sara tells her father this, and the two of them go to Auntie’s cottage in the woods to confront her, I don’t remember if Sara’s dad actively set fire to the cottage, or if a fire broke out. Anyway, the house burns down, Sara never sees Auntie again and assumes she died in the fire.

You can already see where this is going. It turns out Auntie survived, and after years away returned to the village and murdered Sara’s daughter to get back at her, for telling her father what she’d done to her brother. It was completely bizarre, and completely out of left field, I couldn’t figure out what the author intended with any of this, besides straight up racism. Why does the only native american character in the whole novel, react to the very unfair discrimination of an entire community by murdering a child who loved her? Why does she then get revenge by murdering another child? What is the moral of all of this? Horror novels usually have one of those.

I considered the possibility of the author wanting to portray Auntie as being justified in her revenge, but it just doesn’t seem likely, her actions aren’t meant to be sympathetic — murdering children hardly ever is — nor are Sara and her husband portrayed as villainous or unsympathetic. So, the portrayal of Auntie just seems like a deranged caricature and for absolutely no good reason! She could have been a white woman the village disapproved of because she wasn’t married to Sara’s father, it would still make her actions irrational, contrived, and bad story-telling all together but hey, at least it wouldn’t have been racist!

The present segments weren’t very memorable, and the characters made a slew of bad decisions because the plot required them to. Overall, I had a miserable experience with this book, and don’t recommend it to anyone, unless you either like racist depictions of Native Americans, or to spend money on books only to get angry at racist depictions of Native Americans.

Rating: ★
Author: Jennifer McMahon
Publisher: Doubleday

Kill Creek

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At the end of a dark prairie road, nearly forgotten in the Kansas countryside, lies the Finch House. For years it has perched empty, abandoned, and overgrown–but soon the door will be opened for the first time in many decades. But something waits, lurking in the shadows, anxious to meet its new guests.


When best-selling horror author Sam McGarver is invited to spend Halloween night in one of the country’s most infamous haunted houses, he reluctantly agrees. At least he won’t be alone; joining him are three other masters of the macabre, writers who have helped shape modern horror. But what begins as a simple publicity stunt soon becomes a fight for survival–the entity they have awakened will follow them, torment them, threatening to make them part of the bloody legacy of Kill Creek.

This book had so much promise. The fact that it tells the story of four horror writers who are talked into spending a night in a supposed haunted house by this obnoxious internet millionaire was such an original premise, and it stood out as something I wanted to read immediately. Unfortunately, it never managed to live up that initial thrill.

I liked the characters, for the most part. The author is a man and you can tell, the female characters are described in an often eye-rolling way most of the time. And I have to give special attention to TC Moore. She comes across as very unsympathetic initially, and I was afraid she was meant to be a caricature of a “shrill feminist” who thinks everyone is out to get her. But she made some really great points, which made me think the author probably agreed with her, and she mellows out towards the other characters, which led me to realise her prickly exterior was probably a defence mechanism — the reveal of her backstory sort of confirms this. I’m of two minds about her, she’s a character I liked, but I’m not sure I like how the author went about her characterisation, although I don’t think he did this with bad intentions, just in a clumsy way. If her interactions with de facto protagonist, and somewhat transparent author expy Sam McGarver, are anything to go by the author is attracted to women like her, and that’s where the awkward characterisation probably comes from.

My favourite character is without a doubt Sebastian Cole, who is the old-school horror master, and also gay. He’s the one character I wanted to be following when I was stuck with Sam’s angst, but what can you do. He’s also the one character who has a somewhat “positive” experience with the house. The writers spend two days in the house and then leave, but are continuously haunted even back in their own homes. Initially I liked this, but eventually I came to wish they’d just spend the entire book at the Finch house, because the novelty of having the house haunting them even when they weren’t there wore thin. Some Spoilers ahead: I mention Sebastian’s “positive” experience, because he very selflessly sacrifices himself, even if he was technically the character with the least motives to, besides being old and lonely — I would be more annoyed with a gay character sacrificing himself to save heterosexual people if this wasn’t a horror book where most people ended up dead.

I’ll also mention the one black character is the first to die by the house’s actions, in a way that feels almost like fridging. Her death seems to not serve much purpose besides causing her boyfriend grief, and the same can be said about the death of one character related to one of the writers. Again, I won’t pick to much at that, because this is a horror book, and death is sort of to be expected. But the fact that the most boring, most white bread character suffers the least was something digging at the back of my mind.

My biggest issue, though,wasn’t with the characters, but 100% with the plot, because the author tried so much to be original and inventive that the ending ended up being anti-climatic and honestly, sort of silly. I was telling my girlfriend about this book, and she was laughing at most of what I was describing. It was very convoluted, in a way that tried to be frightening but was honestly pathetic if you didn’t find any of the events all that scary. I guess that’s what my feelings about this book boil down to: it tried so hard to scare me, by god it tried, and the more it tried and failed the angrier I got. It might have been a case of me just not being in the mood for it, I admit, and I can see a lot of people not only being scared by, but enjoying, this book thoroughly.

Rating: ★★½
Author: Scott Thomas
Publisher: Inkshares

The Dark Beneath the Ice

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Something is wrong with Marianne.

It’s not just that her parents have split up, or that life hasn’t been the same since she quit dancing. Or even that her mother has checked herself into the hospital.

She’s losing time. Doing things she would never do. And objects around her seem to break whenever she comes close.

Something is after her. But a first attempt at an exorcism calls down the full force of the thing’s rage. It demands Marianne give back what she stole. And Marianne must uncover the truth that lies beneath it all before the nightmare can take what it think it’s owed, leaving Marianne trapped in the darkness of the other side.

This is the book I liked the most, I wasn’t sure what to expect considering I’ve never read  YA horror before, but I didn’t expect it to be all that scary. And while it wasn’t, out of the three books I read it was the one that used psychological terror in the most effective way. It was also the only one that remembered that horror needs to uphold some moral maxim (kill creek recognises this in the actual text, but then doesn’t follow through), maybe that’s old-fashioned of me, to expect that, but I honestly enjoy that aspect of horror, when it’s well done — for a bad maxim see all the horror movies where the maxim is: be a good virgin girl and you’ll survive; for a good maxim see the Babadook: family that stays together overcomes hardship / difference is neither scary nor bad.

The Dark Beneath the Ice works like an extended analysis of the deep isolation, insecurity, and misery caused by depression. And you’re aware of this almost from the beginning without the word ever being mentioned. It was suffocating and stiffing, and I felt as uncomfortable as the protagonist. I was aware that no one would believe what was happening to her, and so I worried for her well-being, I was extremely relieved when she found someone who did. In that sense the book was very effective at making me experience the protagonist’s pain, in a way that none of the other two books managed. And Marianne is a very sympathetic protagonist, even if at times she seems paralysed by what’s happening to her.

Which isn’t to say she doesn’t take action. She does, but in a way it doesn’t seem enough, everything is so fraught that every bit of progress seems to happen out of sheer luck rather than because of her agency. It’s a good thing that she has Rhiannon, who is not only Marianne’s love interest but also the first person to believe what’s happening to her and the character who takes charge and tries to come up with solutions. Rhiannon is also the person that leads to things getting worse before they get better, which is a nice nod towards Marianne’s journey towards self-acceptance, which doesn’t take centre stage, but is one of the factors contributing to her declining mental health.

Another complaint I have with this book is that it was very meandering at times, the story didn’t seem to be advancing, a lot of things were happening but they didn’t lead anywhere until later, they just worked as an escalation of the danger but nothing came of it. This was a fast read, but for some reason I’m left with the feeling that not enough happened. I still enjoyed myself, I enjoyed the relationship between Marianne and Rhiannon, and watching it develop from a tentative friendship between two girls who couldn’t seem more different.

I also absolutely love the depiction of the crushing realisation you are not as good at something as you thought you were — and the painful process of falling out of love with it, and giving up on it, because a perfectionist nature doesn’t allow you to enjoy things for fun. That hit very close to home. Once upon a time I was a Fine Arts student, and I understand full well what Marianne went through.

Rating: ★★★½
Author: Amelinda Bérubé
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

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Book lists, Book Memes

Top Five Tuesday | Books that didn’t Live Up to the Hype

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Top Five Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Shanah @ the Bionic Book Worm and this week’s theme is overhyped books. I give in to the hype often, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If lots of people are enjoying something, chances are that you’ll enjoy it too. There’s logic in that kind of behaviour, and it’s the whole reason things become popular in the first place. It doesn’t always work out, though. This is a list of a few of the books that either utterly disappointed me or just left me feeling kind of “meh”.

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the seven deaths of evelyn hardcastle

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle — This was actually the first book I reviewed on this blog. I was so excited to start reading it, I’d heard only good things, and I love a good murder mystery — this one was supposed to blow my socks off, so expectations were through the roof. It turned out to be insufferable; the protagonist was as compelling as a piece of soggy bread, the villain was made entirely out of cardboard, and the helpful side character should just have been named “pointless plot-twist with zero emotional weight, because the reader can’t care about characters they haven’t met yet, and when will authors understand this?” I know it’s a bit of a mouthful, but some parents have weird taste. Ironically, that name would be the least contrived thing about this book.

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simon and the homo sapiens agendaSimon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda — This is an example of a book I liked, but that the hype led me to believe I would love. This is a solidly “ok” read for me. There were parts of it I enjoyed, parts that made me roll my eyes. If not for the movie I would have forgotten most of it. The romance is so odd, I respect that it can work for some people, but I can’t be invested in a relationship when I don’t even know who one of the characters is! Maybe that’s on me, but personally I didn’t care for it, the reveal at least didn’t try to be surprising, which in this case is a relief. Oddly, this worked even worse in the movie in my opinion, with Blue’s voice changing each time Simon thought he knew who he was the character grew even more flimsy and distant. But the romance is only a small part of the book, and as Simon’s coming out journey I think it works, and I liked it well enough. It was a short, fast-paced read, that could do with less pop culture references, other than that I enjoyed myself.

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the martianThe Martian — I read this in preparation for the movie, which I was expecting to love, since I love near-future sci-fi set in space something fierce. I ended up being disappointed by both. I hate the protagonist’s voice. I just hate him. I don’t even remember his name, but he rubbed me the wrong way since the first sentence. Me and books written in first person don’t always see eye to eye, and this book is a glaring example of why. When it works, the protagonist’s voice is either non-intrusive or even welcome, but when you absolutely hate them it’s like nails on a chalkboard and there’s no escape. Reading this book felt like being trapped in space with that guy in every college class who keeps interrupting the professor to add his unasked for opinion, or who disagrees with everything you say, by saying exactly the same thing only phrased a different way. I only kept reading because I hoped he’d die. That’s a thing that sometimes happens with “stranded” narratives, so I was holding out for what was supposed to be a tragic ending but would instead be a balm for my frayed nerves and rampant bloodlust. It never came. And somehow the movie made it even worse. The fact that the movie ended up being nominated for the Oscars with masterpieces like Mad Max, Room, and Carol only adds insult to injury.

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lord of the ringsLord of the Rings — I don’t know what it is but this book felt so generic. I liked the movies well enough, but I wasn’t a huge fan (I usually never like fantasy movies or shows, it’s a genre that works best in book format, for me), and while I appreciate Tolkien’s gigantic contribution to fantasy, I also can’t ignore that he is the father of  “inspired by Europe and set in Europe” fantasy — and that it felt stale by the time I got to him. I can’t really tell myself “but he’s the one who started it all”, and make myself enjoy the book. I also prefer character driven stories to plot driven ones. I prefer it when fantasy spends equal time developing characters as well as the world. Lord of the Rings is all about the plot, though, at least that makes it a fast read, right? No, it’s glacial. Because while Tolkien couldn’t be bothered to flesh out most of his characters beyond what we today consider traditional fantasy archetypes, he sure could describe every corner of the world and all its mechanics. Even when they didn’t matter at all, especially when they didn’t matter at all! Reading classics is tricky, and very hit-or-miss for the most part, so I knew there was a chance I was setting myself up for disappointment. Being right isn’t always great.

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6949905The Hypnotist — I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world, but Swedish thrillers are super popular in Portugal. You can’t go to any bookstore without finding at least a shelf of nothing but Swedish thrillers. Lars Kepler was a name that kept popping up, often under bestsellers. I decided to start with the first in the Joona Linna series, and boy was I in for a ride. The tone in this is just appalling, it’s written like a grocery list, completely monotone, with dialogue that feels like white-noise, characters that are so paper-thin you can see through them most of the time. Motivations so flimsy and contrived, that you can see the authors picking up their characters winding them up and watching them go do whatever the plot needed them to. To make matters worse, this has the world’s worst plot-twist half-way through, that completely changes the course of the narrative, in a very jarring way, for no good reason besides shock value. People love a teenage serial killer, right? Half of it felt impossible and contrived, unless the Swedish police all become officers by winning some sort of scratch lottery.

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These are just a few examples of books where the hype led me astray, it happens more often than I would like, but not enough to make me stop paying attention to what’s got everyone talking, altogether. I think the most important thing is learning to distinguish between a hyped book you might enjoy from one that just isn’t for you, no matter how much other people might love it. It’s a skill that takes some fine-tuning and years of practice, but that’s half the fun of reading — finding out what kind of reader you are.

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Book lists, Book Memes

Top Five Tuesday | Tropes I Hate + How to Fix Them

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Top Five Tuesday is a weekly meme started by the Bionic Book Worm, this week’s theme is five most hated tropes. But because I realise that criticism is more productive when it’s explained and when it comes with suggestions, I decided to go with that. All of these can actually work in the right context, so I have a few examples of books (and a TV show) that got it right. These are in no particular order, and I dislike them all equally.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl

This is all John Green, I know, and I haven’t actually read an Abundance of Katherines, but I’ve heard it’s par for the course with Green’s usual female protagonists. Which are all quirky, unique, “not like other girls”, and will make some bland boy’s life finally exciting. I know, technically, John Green “deconstructs” this trope, by having the female protagonist tell whatever guy has spent an entire book waxing pretentious and overly verbose poetic about her, that she is her own person and doesn’t exist for his own enjoyment. Which is all very good and dandy, except it happens in the last twenty pages of all of his books, which means that I spent an entire book reading about a boy chasing his manic pixie dream girl. And honestly how many times can you “deconstruct” a trope before you just admit that you like writing about manic pixie dream girls?

Now, for a book that actually deconstructs not only this trope, but every trope where a man projects his own wish-fulfilment ideals onto a woman, we have Gone Girl. That is what a good trope deconstruction looks like, that’s a female character with agency, and whose vengeance is almost cosmic. I don’t think all “bad trope” deconstructions need to be done in this way, but notice how Amy didn’t spend the entire book acting like Nick’s perfect little wife and dream woman, only to reveal her true nature in the last twenty pages.

Pop-Culture Overload

This could be all John Green again. I think I have some type of knee-jerk response associated with him, because at the height of his popularity I couldn’t tell anyone I liked reading, without being recommended one of his books, and that must have left some type of psychological scar. Anyway, back to this trope; it just fills me with second-hand embarrassment, something about it is so try-hard, I can’t help thinking of that “How do you do fellow kids” gif. It makes my skin crawl, and there’s the chance the references will be used in the wrong way or be nonsensical. It also dates the book, and I don’t think every book should be timeless, but if a book relies too much on referencing popular slang, and cultural phenomenons typical of the year it was written (imagine reading a book today with a character that won’t shut up about Harambe), it will be virtually unreadable in the next five years or so. It will become an interesting linguistic relic, and an object of sociological study 30 years in the future, though! It’s also lazy, there are plenty of ways to evoke the pop culture movements prevalent in a year or time period without naming every single one of them — the aesthetic and social mores inherent to them are more exciting than the thing itself.

If used sparsely, they can actually be very evocative, if used in an unexpected way they can be downright great. The best example I can come up with is one scene where Elliot, the protagonist of the fantastic show Mr. Robot, is lamenting not having spent more time with his quasi-girlfriend. As Elliot narrates all the things he wishes he had done we see a montage of him and Sheila actually doing these things. At one point he says “I wish we had gone to see those Marvel movies she liked so much”. That was like a punch in the gut to me, because it tells you something about Elliot’s feelings for Sheila. He is extremely depressed, and a staunch anti-capitalist who will never find any enjoyment in watching a Marvel movie, but he wishes he had done it, for Sheila, because her happiness is important to him, because whether he realises it or not, he was in love with her. That’s an amazing use of a pop culture reference — when it tells you something about the character.

Love Triangles

I have yet to meet the person who likes love triangles, I know people who don’t mind them, but hardly anyone who actively seeks them out. They are just so overplayed and overdone, there’s nothing exciting about the dynamic. But credit where credit is due, I have been seeing them less and less, so yay. These also only really happen in YA, they are a very rare sight in Adult fiction regardless of genre, but would probably be even more annoying there.

One way to make the love triangle more exciting, or at least less mind-numbingly boring, is to have the two “competitors” realise their love interest is stringing them along, bond over how hurtful that is, and then fall in love with each other. Another way to do it is to have all the people enter into a mutually loving polyamorous relationship where they’re all in love with each other. I have yet to see a love triangle where everyone is the same gender, so that would be novel at first, but I think it would end up annoying me anyway, unless it ended in one of the scenarios I mentioned.

Bury your Gays

There is obviously nothing to like about this trope. There’s always some sort of intent surrounding the death of these gay characters: either their death is a punishment for their queerness, or a “brave sacrifice” to save the heterosexual characters the author actually cares about. Stephen King just has a particular way of writing gay characters that makes my stomach turn, and I know it’s partly due to the time period the books were written in, but I hate his tone, I hate it. I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters of IT because two gay men are immediately victims of a hate crime, and more egregious, they aren’t even portrayed that sympathetically. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In Insurgent if I’m not mistaken, a character announces she is gay while in her death throes…which is….really something.

There’s also a lot of confusion surrounding this trope: obviously gay characters shouldn’t have some type of plot-armour by virtue of being gay, the stakes should apply to them the same as to any straight character. But if gay characters die at a disproportionate rate compared to straight ones, then it’s a case of this trope being in play. If you introduce gay characters only with the purpose of killing them not long after, then it’s bury your gays. If your gay characters have achieved happiness only to die right after, it’s also bury your gays. This excludes books like The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, where the point of the book is to highlight how cruel and unfair the things happening to gay characters (and everyone else dehumanised by the system) are, and obviously plenty of awful stuff also happens to straight people, and the heroes try to overcome and face their oppressors which helps it not feel like some sort of misery-porn, and like the cautionary tale it is supposed to be. Ownvoices authors are also exempt from this trope, because they are often trying to convey their own reality, or a reality they fear. Which is why someone should tell Stephen King he is not Chuck Palahniuk.

Happily Married Parents Finale

This one I can actually see a lot of people enjoying, and I understand why. I just personally find it very aggravating, there’s something unpleasantly heteronormative about it.  And my distaste for this kind of ending can all be blamed on Harry Potter, which has probably the worst ending of anything I’ve ever read, let alone something I loved so loyally for so many years (turns out it was foreshadowing things to come from J.K. Rowling). Not everyone needs to be paired off, that doesn’t make any sense. This is especially common in large series, where the author feels like “oh there’s that one character people like, better give them a love interest to show their fans they found happiness”, really? How about they become a cabbage farmer in Iceland, instead? That sounds equally fulfilling to me. Iceland is beautiful I’m sure they’ll be very happy there, good job author. My problem with The Hunger Games is more that I think the ending was tonally wrong, overall this an example of a trilogy I actually enjoyed having tropes I hated.

I don’t have any specific good example, because there are various. Any ending where the entire cast doesn’t end up married to each other and with kids is good in my book. Also, not everyone will be happy, that’s impossible, and also okay from a narrative standpoint. I don’t mind if things are tied-up in a bow at the end of a series. If all the existent romantic relationships are still together and the evil is defeated, but if new ones are invented just to drive home the point of how happy everyone is, then we have a problem.


And those are some of the tropes I hate with a passion. What about you? Do you dislike any of these? Actually enjoy some? Let me know, because I love talking tropes.

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Book reviews, Fantasy, LGBT Books

Book Review | Bloody Rose

bloody rose reviewI don’t know how to describe this book without just gushing meaningless praise, after meaningless praise. It was such an enjoyable, engaging, fun read, with plenty of humour that somehow lulled me into a false sense of security and then ripped my heart out with the ending (it was the good kind of pain).

35052265Tam Hashford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown.

When the biggest mercenary band of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard. It’s adventure she wants – and adventure she gets as the crew embark on a quest that will end in one of two ways: glory or death.

You know how there are a lot of books that you finish reading and think to yourself: “that would make a great movie”. Bloody Rose would make a perfect RPG, I’m salivating just imagining it. I’ve never actually read a book that reads so much like a game, and I mean that in the best way possible. The band is your traditional party: with spell-casters summoners, rogues, tanks etc. The enemies are “monsters” all different, and with varying degrees of sentience, which leads into the vast array of possible moral choices, do you go for glory or peace? Spectacle or Clemency? The adventure of the wyld or the comfort of home? The book raises all these questions, and the characters even find answers for some of them. But I can’t help being greedy and wishing I could get to play some more in Eames’ wonderful, fascinating, world and its really compelling lore. Ok, I’ll stop.

But to any game devs reading this, please make it happen.

Anyway, back to the story. It’s full of heart and humour for one. Some fantasy takes itself so seriously that it’s honestly a chore to get through, others are so superficial, so devoid of any deeper understanding of the world and its inner workings that it feels like the author wanted the trappings of fantasy but none of the work that comes with it. Bloody Rose offers a completely fleshed-out world, with politics and conflicts that are at once petty and urgent depending on which characters you ask, and where every character, no matter how minor, has their own unique voice, and their own part to play in the plot. Nothing is wasted, every scene is meaningful and hurtles towards a clear-cut objective and most importantly — conflict resolution. Yet this book feels indulgent, with plenty of quiet moments of introspection and camaraderie, where the chaos and urgency peels back and we can take a peek at the tender humanity that ties it all together.

Speaking of which. Tam is a wonderful protagonist, she is so likeable, and while psychologically flawed in the sense that she’s at once extremely insecure and a glory hound (maybe adventure hound is more appropriate, but she does bask and preen a little) I really appreciate that she’s physically flawed as well. You see, she joins the mercenary band Fable as a bard, a role that, unlike in video games and DnD, doesn’t come with any special skills beyond being able to play and write songs. She’s a competent archer and half-way through the books gets some more weapons training, but that’s about it. She tries to help her bandmates, and sometimes she succeeds, and sometimes she accidentally hits them with her arrows. She’s great, they like her anyway.

Tam is also a lesbian, something she tells you within the first chapter. Watching her flirt is adorable and hilarious at the same time, it works out in the end because no woman can resist her wide-eyed earnestness. She develops a romantic relationship with one of her bandmates, and it’s just so good. Their personalities are diametrically opposed, and there’s even a little bit of friction in the beginning, and it’s delightful to see the feelings grow between them. Don’t worry though, this isn’t a romance masquerading as fantasy, the romance is very much a B-plot to the central conflict, and it works well that way.

Every single one of Fable’s members has their own internal conflict and we learn about their motivations as they tie seamlessly into the main plot, just like all good side-quests should. Besides Tam, my favourites were Brune and Cura. Finding out Brune’s backstory was such a memorable part of the book. I loved how being a shaman was such a delicate balancing act between the human and animal side, and how “repression” featured into it. It elevated something that could be “wow cool power” into a deeper analysis of character. Cura literally summoning her demons to fight for her was also poignant in a very understated way.

In a way Rose was the character I felt the most distanced from. Which I wouldn’t say is a bad thing, she is meant to be this larger than life legend, and the figurehead of Fable, her character arc deals with exactly that. Wanting that fame and recognition, and once having it, realising that it strips her of personhood just as much as living under her father’s shadow did. Her relationship with motherhood is very interesting and honest. She loves her daughter, but being a mother isn’t a role she’s sure suits her. She’s a fascinating character, but her at once mythological existence and the narrative acknowledgement of her broken pedestal, makes it hard to see her in the same human light as the other characters. Which I say isn’t a bad thing because I think that was exactly the author’s intention.

Every Rose has its thorns though, and as much as I loved this book, I need to mention how much it annoyed me that it kept evading one conversation I very much wanted it to have. The thing with “monsters” in this universe is that they aren’t all mindless killing machines, they also aren’t controlled by a cosmical evil (a la darkspawn from Dragon Age), some of them are sentient, and a lot of them feel like regular “animals” a lot of the time. What this means is that I started feeling a bit uncomfortable with the carnage, and wondering if the book would ever address this. It did! Kinda. The characters talked about it, they expressed remorse sometimes, in one memorable occasion they tried to resolve things peacefully. But it doesn’t really go anywhere from there. At one point it feels like they will have to come to a really hard moral decision, confront the fact that humanity’s cruelty was responsible for the monster’s desperation and their willingness to join someone who promised them freedom from the humans, but a convenient deus ex machina meant they never had to. The decision was literally taken out of their hands!

Maybe this is a theme that will be dealt with in a sequel, that seems likely. After writing two fantastic books I doubt Eames is the kind of author who thinks referencing something is the same as analysing it. So I’m hopeful this won’t be a dropped plot-point and will be picked up in a later book!

All in all, some fantasy books show you an exciting journey, some take you on an exciting journey. Bloody Rose was the latter. And one I will remember for a very long time.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Nicholas Eames
Publisher: Orbit

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Book lists, Book Memes, LGBT Books

Top Five Tuesday + Recs!

top five tuesday

Top Five Tuesday is a Weakly meme hosted by Shanah @ Bionic Bookworm and this week’s theme is favourite tropes. I actually love to talk about tropes since I’m an assiduous reader of TV Tropes and can spend hours browsing the tropes of the media I like, plus, finding new stuff to like based on my favourite tropes. But the tropes over there are a tad too specific at times, so I’m sticking to the broader more well-known tropes. Also, I’ve just realised many of my favourite (specific) tropes are actually more prevalent in video games than books. I’d love to read a book about a glass cannon character as much as I love to play one.

Found Families

I’m pretty sure this is going to be a really common one. There’s just something about a group of characters, all of them battling their own demons, coming together and bonding over their shared struggles, ambitions and ultimately friendship– to form their own little family unit. Willing to kill and die for each other. Proving the old, and often misquoted, saying right: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than water from the womb”

The Raven Cycle — Doesn’t need much introduction. The friendship between the characters is the story, the plot is absolutely secondary to their intricate relationships and devotion to each other. As a big fan of character driven stories I couldn’t love it more.

Bloody Rose — A new favourite but with a band of friends that left a huge mark on me. Just a few pages after meeting them I was already deeply invested in their friendship. The ending broke my heart a little.

Red Sister — I love Nona and all her friends. In the bleak world of Abeth they are the one shining spot. Their genuine friendship and childlike joy in each other’s company is like a balm for the soul. I don’t think I’ve ever read about female friendships I loved this much.

Protective Siblings

As much as I love the families characters make for themselves I also appreciate it when they love the families they were born into — especially their siblings. I’m very close with my brother, and we’ve been best friends since we were children, so I love reading about characters who value their siblings just as much.

The Darkest Part of the Forest — This book is one where the siblings actually have to work through some previous issues and new ones that crop up in order to salvage their relationship. It’s a really worthwhile journey and a big reason why I enjoyed this book so much.

Summer of Salt — I love the relationship between Georgina and Mary. I love that they are such different people but they never mock of belittle one another, and instead are close friends who would go to the ends of the earth for each other.

Dream Thieves — This is really about Ronan and his love for his brother Matthew. It’s ironic considering he and Declan hate each other so much, but Ronan’s immense love for his younger brother, mother, and even his (frankly abusive at times) father just goes to show how Declan is to blame for their strained relationship. I really enjoy how Ronan’s devotion to Matthew pops up all through the series, reminding us that there is nothing he values more than family.

Meant to Be

This is a hard one to describe.  Either the romantic relationship is foretold by prophecy or there are just some elements of it that feel cosmically inevitable in some way. These people aren’t soulmates, or I highly prefer it if the word isn’t used. This is grander than that, almost mythological. The very balance of the world hangs on their relationship, their very lives are dependent on each other. If one dies, so does the other. It’s very dramatic and I’m a sucker for it. There are very few books that do it, but maybe that’s only my perception because this is a trope that I enjoy exclusively with LGBT couples.

The Song of Achilles — These are actual mythological lovers. The nature of Achilles and Patroclus relationship is the stuff of legend. There were fights in ancient Greece over which one of them was the top or the bottom. I think it was Plato that was convinced it was Achilles who bottomed. I love the knowledge that this was a topic of discussion in the symposium and during fancy dinner parties. Their relationship felt appropriately epic, and in keeping with the Greek tradition, tragic.

Fire from Heaven — If it isn’t the story of Alexander the Great and his lover Hephaestion, the man who thought he was Achilles, you’ll never guess who he thought Hephaestion was! This chronicles Alexander’s earlier years before the death of his father. Alexander thought himself a demi-god and so did plenty of other people, he was worshipped in life. in death, but he worshipped only Hephaestion. It’s the second book The Persian Boy, however, that actually drives home the similarities between the two sets of lovers. Since Alexander actually dies of a broken heart, driven mad by grief, shortly after Hephaestion’s death. Uncanny. (Listen, it isn’t a spoiler when it’s about a real person. His wikipedia page will tell you as much)

The Tiger’s Daughter — I’m not finished with this book, I’m not even halfway, but oh boy, do I love the impression I get about Shizuka and Shefali’s relationship. I mean a few pages in there’s talk of a prophecy about their birth, and they are both princesses, and they don’t have that much in common to begin with but they make really big strides to meet each other in the middle, and I’m loving it thus far. Also, they’re both deeply flawed, which I should mention, all the characters in this section are, and  I enjoy it immensely. It’s par for the course with this trope, and one of the reasons’s why I like it so much.

Magical School

This is a really obvious one. There’s a school, people gather there to learn to master whatever magic skills they have.

Nevernight — This doubles as assassin and magic school, although the assassin part takes most of the spotlight, the magic plays a big role though. I especially liked the potions-like class.

Red Sister — Oh man I loved the classes in this, I was actually surprised to learn some people found them boring! They were an absolute highlight for me. I loved Path and Shade most of all.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — I didn’t loooove this book. But I liked it well enough. The “school” aspect was a big part of it. This is also an example that for me to enjoy this trope there doesn’t need to be a formal school or teaching system as such, but unique individuals, brought together under a single roof, where they have to coexist — and the tensions born from that.

Enemies to Friends (to Lovers)

I love when characters initially hate each other, for whatever reason, and then overcome their biases to work together and become allies, friends, and sometimes more! A really common and popular trope that is nevertheless seldom done right.

Proxy — The friendship that grows between Knox and Syd is just…I read this book ages ago but I’ll never forget about it. The character growth Knox goes trough is astonishing, the sacrifice he makes for Syd is heartbreaking. I think their relationship is a big reason why I wasn’t able to enjoy the sequel as much.

Red Sister — I don’t want to spoil anything. But there’s one character that initially feels like she will be a rival of Nona’s. That doesn’t end up happening, they actually become really close friends (there’s a prophecy involving them — remember how much I love those), and the hints of something more make me hope for a deeper relationship when they’re both older. Just, so good.

Godsgrave — This one actually is an example of friends-to-enemies-to-lovers, and there are not enough words to express how much I love that dynamic. I can’t wait to see more of this relationship in the next book!


And that’s it, those are my absolute favourite tropes. I’m not at all surprised to see some books pop up more than once, it makes sense that the books I like the most would have the biggest collections of tropes I love. I haven’t read Grey Sister yet, but if all goes well the Book of the Ancestor trilogy could be going for the gold and hitting all of my favourite tropes. Do you like any of these tropes? Have any recommendations? I’d love to hear them, especially in the “Meant to Be” section since I’m always looking for books with that kind of epic, word-defying type of love.

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Book reviews, LGBT Books

Book Review | Autoboyography & Summer of Salt

doublereview

I’m doing a joint book review because at the end of the day, both of these are YA coming-of age (and coming out) novels, which have nothing in common besides that, but have both left me feeling all warm and cosy inside.

Autoboyography

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“Three years ago, Tanner Scott’s family relocated from California to Utah, a move that nudged the bisexual teen temporarily back into the closet. Now, with one semester of high school to go, and no obstacles between him and out-of-state college freedom, Tanner plans to coast through his remaining classes and clear out of Utah.

But when his best friend Autumn dares him to take Provo High’s prestigious Seminar—where honor roll students diligently toil to draft a book in a semester—Tanner can’t resist going against his better judgment and having a go, if only to prove to Autumn how silly the whole thing is. Writing a book in four months sounds simple. Four months is an eternity.

It turns out, Tanner is only partly right: four months is a long time. After all, it takes only one second for him to notice Sebastian Brother, the Mormon prodigy who sold his own Seminar novel the year before and who now mentors the class. And it takes less than a month for Tanner to fall completely in love with him.”

This book managed to do something a lot of its peers (contemporary coming out novels) didn’t, which was telling me a story about LGBT youth, that I, as a gay person, saw a lot of my own thoughts and feelings in. I’m pretty sure that as a teenager I actually said a lot of the same things Tanner did, and shared, and still do, many of his feelings towards religion. It’s so hard to capture that, and a lot of straight people never quite get it, the instinctive flinch that goes through any gay person when someone says they’re religious. To this day my first thought is, “how to end this social interaction as fast as possible and get out of here” when that happens. I’m lucky to have been raised by pretty agnostic parents, in a house completely devoid of religion. You’d think that would make me a lot less prone to experience extreme dread at the mention of any and all religions, but the only thing it did was show me that religion provides the people who hate me and my brothers and sisters convenient and socially acceptable arguments to keep hating us.

I think there are no people braver than LGBT people who voluntarily associate with organised religion, their sheer mental and emotional fortitude is astounding. That will never be me, however. Some wounds never heal. For this wound to have any hope of closing all the religions of the world would need to acknowledge the harm they’ve done to the LGBT community, and that’s something I never see happening. So I’ll keep my safety distance.

Sebastian, is one of those innocent people deeply harmed by religion. He was raised Mormon, and it’s honestly heartbreaking to read about his beliefs, because they are so sincere and beautiful, but as the story progresses we learn the love his religion professes is completely conditional — and so does Sebastian, eventually. More harrowing, is learning that his family’s love is just as conditional. That if he can’t be a perfect Mormon man he can’t be their son either. Coincidentally, that’s where some of my only criticism of this book shows up. I think the author fumbled the ending. Mild spoilers ahead: We know things aren’t completely resolved between Sebastian and his family, but not to what degree. We learn that he is no longer participating in one aspect of the Mormon religion, but we don’t know if he still considers himself Mormon, if he has found a way to be both gay and Mormon. I would have liked to see both these issues addressed clearly, but I can also see plenty of people being more forgiving of this open-ended aspect, considering the relationship side of things got a clear resolution.

Speaking of the relationship — I loved it. In so many YA books I love both characters, but I’m completely uninvested in the relationship, or the book completely fails to make the relationship interesting (see: Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda — Am I supposed to care about Simon’s relationship with a guy whose identity I don’t even know? A relationship that only exists through e-mails???). Not here, the dynamic between Tanner and Sebastian was gripping from their first interaction, and the stakes were very real from the beginning. There were a lot of factors working against them, and it all worked very well to build tension, without ever falling into the cloying clutches of melodrama. The way Tanner’s very tolerant family was against him having a relationship with a Mormon boy, for his own protection, was very interesting, but also very believable. It’s common knowledge that extremely religious parents only want their children to interact with other equally religious kids, but it’s often ignored that non-religious parents aren’t that keen on their kids drinking any sort of religious kool-aid either. I know my mother wasn’t. It’s an interesting discussion, and while not overt the book makes the subtle argument that both sides are wrong.

All I can say is that I loved this book, some passages made me truly emotional, it’s a story that I’ll probably remember for a long time, and one of those books I desperately wish I had when I was younger. I appreciate the message that sexual orientation is a part of  the self and a building block of identity in a way that can’t be removed and put in a box. And the very sound argument that if a god exists their ability to love probably transcends the man-made social limitations of religion.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Summer of Salt

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Georgina Fernweh waits with growing impatience for the tingle of magic in her fingers—magic that has been passed down through every woman in her family. Her twin sister, Mary, already shows an ability to defy gravity. But with their eighteenth birthday looming at the end of this summer, Georgina fears her gift will never come.

An island where strange things happen . . .

No one on the island of By-the-Sea would ever call the Fernwehs what they really are, but if you need the odd bit of help—say, a sleeping aid concocted by moonlight—they are the ones to ask.

No one questions the weather, as moody and erratic as a summer storm.

No one questions the (allegedly) three-hundred-year-old bird who comes to roost on the island every year.

A summer that will become legend . . .

When tragedy strikes, what made the Fernweh women special suddenly casts them in suspicion. Over the course of her last summer on the island—a summer of storms, of love, of salt—Georgina will learn the truth about magic, in all its many forms.

Speaking of books that made me emotional. I swear if I hadn’t read these two weeks apart I’d think I was just going through a sensitive phase or something, because they both left me feeling tender in some long forgotten place. Which I suspect is the part of me that didn’t have any of these books when I was in middle school or high school and instead had to read adult books (often tragic) to get any sort of LGBT rep. Unlike Autoboyography, Summer of Salt isn’t a straight up romance. It’s a magical realism novel about family, friendship and a girl’s relationship to the whimsical island she grew up in, and that she loves, and how that can be suffocating.

The atmosphere of this book is delightful, I wish By-the-Sea was a real place I could visit, because I could almost smell it, it was so vivid, and not because things were overly described, but because Leno is so good at evoking the mood and feeling of the setting. The weather played a big part in the book, and you could feel the way it affected the characters, which was not only apt considering the plot, but helped bring By-the-Sea to life without having to name every rock. I also liked how many of the characters were characterised by the spaces they inhabited, either by seamlessly fitting in or by standing out. The feeling of whimsy and wonder was sustained through pretty much the first half of the book, at which point things slowly start to unravel. And quaint, beautiful By-the-Sea starts fraying at the edges.

I really enjoyed how the island reflected the mental state of the characters. This is a small, close-knit community where everybody knows each other, and while that can be comforting — Georgina is an out lesbian and no one on her little island bats an eyelash — it can become claustrophobic, as soon as the people who’ve known you all your life turn their back on you. This book did a really good job of making this island the kind of place you’d love to visit but would think twice about moving to. It’s so outwardly charming and picturesque, but places like that can be eerie in a way that is hard to describe, Leno managed it. It isn’t that By-the-Sea hides some awful corruption, or inhabitants that are all twisted an evil, it’s a place like many others, where people judge their neighbours too harshly, but at the end of the day they are reasonable people who actively want justice to prevail. It’s just that this sort of picture-perfect, just odd enough to be exciting, type of place can lure you in and never let go. And there’s a whole lot of world out there, especially for an 18-year-old girl.

The family dynamics in this book were phenomenal. Georgina’s relationship with her sister was beautiful and heartwarming, her devotion and unwavering belief in Mary’s innocence was wonderful, and her determination to save and avenge her brought some of the most intense and heartfelt moments in the whole novel. Their mother could at times feel a little distanced from their daughter’s lives, especially considering what happens to Mary in the second half of the book — but this is somewhat mitigated by the magical realism aspect of the story.

I was deeply invested in the romance for the first half of the book, at which point it gets put in the back burner and then develops a lot faster than what I would have liked. That’s why I say this book is not a romance, a romance exists, and it’s adorable, but by no means the linchpin of the book. I still loved to see Georgina’s and this girl’s relationship develop, and how Gerogina’s awkwardness and often clumsy interpretation of social cues only made her more endearing. It was sweet, I would have liked it to be explored more, but the book is ultimately about the relationship between the sisters and the island where they live, and I appreciated that aspect a lot too.

The awful thing that happens to Mary is predictable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a mystery to the reader, only to Georgina, and the people of her little island who would never consider for a moment something like that could happen in their little community.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, there are some slight plot-contrivances, and one character’s constant tiredness that is never explained properly, as well as a few other instances where conflict isn’t totally resolved, but overall those didn’t detract from my enjoyment. This is a book about the strength of the bonds between siblings, between friends, and the ways tragedy doesn’t break us. Maybe things got resolved (in the legal front, at least) a little too cleanly, but I won’t fault a book for imagining a reality better than our own.

Rating: ★★★★
Author: Katrina Leno
Publisher: Harper Teen