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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.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 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 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 reviews, LGBT Books

Book Review | Autoboyography & Summer of Salt

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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

Book reviews, Horror, Lgbt Characters, Thriller

Book Review | Into the Drowning Deep

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by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) — This book did not work for me as a horror book, while atmospheric it simply wasn’t scary enough. That being said, it did work as a sci-fi/fantasy thriller about the kind of mermaids Disney would frown at (for more reasons than one!)

“Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.

Now, a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.

Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves. But the secrets of the deep come with a price.”

This had a strong environmentalist message for the first half. There was talk of the consequences of climate change, and as it was set in the near future, 2022, things were (even) worse. That really worked for me, I deeply enjoyed the environmental panic as a backdrop for a siren fuelled carnage, it was poetic in a way, righteous almost, and if the book had gone down that road I would have loved it — especially considering the Melusine and its scientists were being funded by a shady and trashy cable network. However, it kind of vanished a little over the second half, where there were scientists actively encouraging the extermination of the sirens. I realise they were eating them, but that seems like an overreaction. Hear me out: they really should have left when the first person died and they had definite proof sirens were real, and instead stayed because they were greedy and wanted to be famous. How’s the siren’s fault they were idiots? What species deserves to disappear because of human stupidity?

I’m maybe blowing it out of proportion it was really two people who were okay with the knowledge the american army would (potentially) nuke the sirens, and destroy entire ecosystems. But man, did reading that piss me off. Most of the characters really only wanted to survive. And there were a lot of characters in this book, it made sense there would be, but this was written in third person omniscient (hurray for third, sad kazoo for omniscient my least favourite pov) and the head-hoping was a bit much at times. It wasn’t badly done, it just felt like knowing that specific character’s thoughts at that point didn’t add anything to the story. That being said I appreciated that many characters weren’t likeable, I mean, there was the couple of hunters who were purposefully written to be despicable (and they were), but others fell into more morally grey areas. Dr. Toth (and what an unfortunate name) and her husband for example. I sympathised with them at times, but by the end of the book I was sure I didn’t like either of them.

There’s a tiny bit of romance in this, believe it or not, between Victoria and Olivia. I went into this book knowing that and was kind of curious to know if it would make sense considering the setting, but it does. They weren’t really throwing down love declarations, it was just a case of two girls who’d lost someone trying to comfort each other and it worked. It helped that they were both adorable and really likeable. Olivia is on the autistic spectrum and she makes a really interesting observation about the tendency of parents of autistic children to infantilise them, and never see them as fully rounded humans who will one day have partners and careers. There were little musings like that sprinkled throughout the book, a few memorable ones from the deaf twin sisters Heather and Holly and their translator and hearing sister Hallie (I want to kill someone because of these names, the cute factor isn’t worth my headache, I wish authors would realise how dumb it is to have characters with such similar names).

Language played a big role in this book, and I loved the use to ASL to attempt to communicate with the sirens. Paired with the casual observations the twins made about their deafness and how it was so natural and comfortable for them and they were only ever made to feel different when confronted with people who could hear and the odd ways they reacted to them. There was one weird scene were a character isn’t aware that there isn’t a single Sign Language and in fact every country has their own, sometimes more than one. That broke my suspension of disbelief, I find it hard to believe that anyone isn’t aware of that.

There was a lot of scientific talk in this book, finding the sirens was above all a scientific endeavour and I loved that aspect of it. I loved every part where the characters tried to figure out how the sirens “worked”, how they could have evolved. It was all written in very simple layman terms, which I’m sure many people will be glad for, and it makes total sense considering the sci-fi element is secondary to the horror/thriller (this book compares well to the likes of Jurassic Park, the movies at least). I wished Grant would have gone full academic on the science, because it was by far my favourite part of this book. I could have read an entire encyclopaedia about these sirens. They were really fascinating, everything about them was. By the end of the book they were, collectively, my second favourite character.

The ending felt a bit abrupt, and the least said about the “reveal” about the siren’s social hierarchy the better. I expected something a lot more interesting than what we got, I’ll just say that.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, it did as all thrillers are supposed to and made it very hard for me to put it down. I read it in two days, and was at no point bored with the story. I feel a little disappointed because I feel this could have been great, a few tweaks here and there and this would have been a solid four, hell maybe even a five. There was really a lot to like here, and I actually recommend this book wholeheartedly, I think most people will get something out of it: be it for the science-y bits, the thrilling bits, or even the horror if they are luckier than me.

Rating: ★★★½
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Orbit

Book reviews, Fantasy, LGBT Books

Book Review | Godsgrave

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by Jay Kristoff — This book actually fixed the few minor complaints I had with Nevernight but then went around and introduced a few new ones. It’s still an incredible book that I had a lot of fun with, and I can’t wait for Darkdown, but it’s still that half star shy of perfection.

“Assassin Mia Corvere has found her place among the Blades of Our Lady of Blessed Murder, but many in the Red Church ministry think she’s far from earned it. Plying her bloody trade in a backwater of the Republic, she’s no closer to ending Consul Scaeva and Cardinal Duomo, or avenging her familia. And after a deadly confrontation with an old enemy, Mia begins to suspect the motives of the Red Church itself.

When it’s announced that Scaeva and Duomo will be making a rare public appearance at the conclusion of the grand games in Godsgrave, Mia defies the Church and sells herself to a gladiatorial collegium for a chance to finally end them. Upon the sands of the arena, Mia finds new allies, bitter rivals, and more questions about her strange affinity for the shadows. But as conspiracies unfold within the collegium walls, and the body count rises, Mia will be forced to choose between loyalty and revenge, and uncover a secret that could change the very face of her world.”

As you can see from the graphic (I can’t stick to a single style, I apologise), this book is all about gladiator fights — the more over the top the better. Unfortunately I really don’t care about them. I loved the tv show Spartacus, but it had enough blood and sand to last me a lifetime. It’s just a setting I have no interesting in revisiting. Speaking of setting, the Roman Empire influences are a lot more explicit in this book than in the previous one. Inescapably present, really. Mia spends most of the book training to be a gladiator, so it’s sort of hard to miss. And that’s it for complaints!

Despite my initial trepidation I still managed to enjoy some of the fights, and I did care about their outcome, the stakes were high enough to keep my attention. One fight in particular was actually pretty exciting, probably because it was against a monster and not people. The highlight were Mia’s fellow gladiators, though. In the previous book I complained that some side-characters felt a little underdeveloped, there’s no such thing here. All of them had clear personalities and voices, and even motivations that went against Mia’s plans. With the exception of Furian, (who fell a little flat for me, and annoyed me to no end), all the characters introduced in Godsgrave were welcome additions, and in a few cases sad departures when they met their grisly end. Sid in particular was a delight, he starts out as sort of a slimeball, but he redeems himself and becomes one of the most endearing characters in the whole book pretty fast.

The romance! I loved, loved it. Unlike Mia’s previous romance with he-who-shall-remain-nameless (because it’s a spoiler) where I felt like the relationship made them worse characters, as in: less interesting, boring to read about, and their romantic moments were overall dull. Mia’s relationship with this girl was completely different. I liked how they worked together, how they became a strong unit moving towards a common goal. I liked how they became better people together. I really hope to see their relationship develop even more in the next book, because I just love their dynamic and think it shows a lot of promise.

The ending was somewhat predictable, not nearly as shocking as Nevernight’s. That isn’t a bad thing, though. It felt predictable in that it unfolded in a way that was supported by previous events in the book, nothing felt like it was coming out of the blue for the sake of being another plot twist. There was one thing I definitely didn’t see coming. I don’t usually like it when characters come back from the dead, and it doesn’t look like the Nevernight series is going to make me change my tune– that’s all I’ll say about it. Eldritch abominations are cool, though.

The characters making a comeback were all welcome sights. And while I was expecting to keep closer tabs on the Red Church this book did a good job of making me happy to see the back of them. It also addressed the matter of slavery, which was sort of glossed over in Nevernight, but plays a huge role in Godsgrave. There’s a scene in the end that is particularly satisfying, when some people get a great comeuppance, and one gets away far too lightly. I hope that proves a mistake Mia grows to regret in the next book. I love consequences. Which is an ironic thing to say considering my second favourite character keeps getting away with murder. But I’m allowed my biases. Which Jay Kristoff seems to share.

Godsgrave is a great sequel,  one that lives up to its predecessor. Expands on some world-building, patches some holes, and opens new ones, just to keep things exciting. It’s not without its flaws but that doesn’t make it any less charming and fun. The change of scenery, so to speak, could give some readers pause, but I can also see it being a highlight for others. Either way, another great book in a series I can’t wait to read more of.

Rating: ★★★★½
Author: Jay Kristoff
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press

Book reviews, Fantasy, Lgbt Characters

Book Review | Red Sister

red sister review

by Mark Lawrence — I loved this book. There wasn’t a single thing I didn’t enjoy about it. The characters were a delight, from the lovable to the despicable, they were all unique and their voices unmistakable. The world was fascinating, and so gripping that I swear I could hear the Corridor wind whistling in my ears, rustling my hair. I didn’t want to leave, and I put off finishing this book for a long time — for me that’s the highest form of praise. The books I speed by are entertaining, and fun, but the ones I take my time with are truly special.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…”

Nona is a fantastic protagonist, you just want to peel all the layers that make up her personality and get to the heart of her. She’s as outwardly cold as the frozen world of Abeth, beaten down by the harsh weather and an even harsher life, but that outward layer is like a warm cloak that protects her from the elements – and her rage is hot and incandescent, a glorious thing to watch – that hides the lonely 11 year-old girl who is so desperate for companionship, for friendship, that she won’t think twice about laying down her life for a friend. She might be a nun in training, learning under the blessing of the Ancestor, but friendship is Nona’s religion, and loyalty her prayer. I felt her struggles keenly, I wanted her to succeed at all costs, even as she was hot-headed and impulsive, risking her life but always mindful of the dangers to her friends’.

I loved Nona, she is the perfect protagonist, in my opinion. But the title of most fascinating character definitely goes to Abbess Glass who is everything J.K. Rowling wishes Albus Dumbledore was – I’m at once compelled to trust her, trust that her student’s well-being is a priority to her, but I’m also suspicious of her motivations. She is a master manipulator, and she uses everything and everyone to her advantage, to protect the convent and its students, sure, but you’re always left wondering how far is she willing to go, and is there even a limit if the end result is the greater good? Her voice is at once maternal and ruthless, it’s such a hard line to walk but Mark Lawrence does it beautifully.

This is grimdark fantasy, and while the students are 10-12 years-old they don’t sound like it. They live in an extremely unforgiving planet, with only the warmth of the “focus moon” to melt a thin corridor of liveable land around Abeth’s equator. The harsh realities of life don’t leave much room for carefree childhoods, but some of the natural innocence of children still shines through in some moments — few and far between, but that only makes them more poignant. That being said, the Convent of Sweet Mercy is still a comforting space, in the way all magical schools should be, even with danger lurking in every corner. The classes and the magic system were a highlight for me, even as many of the powers Nona, and a few others display, are still unpredictable. Walking the Path especially was very engrossing, and very easy to visualise, which speaks well of Mark Lawrence’s wonderful writing.

The only real complain I have about this book is that while Mark Lawrence is amazing at writing women, really from the despicable to the sweet they are all fascinating, he isn’t nearly as good at writing men. The few men that show up in Red Sister are rather one dimensional, and while one antagonist is appropriately menacing, that’s all there is to him. The other male antagonist, and Nona’s nemesis…I don’t think I remember a word he said. I sincerely hope that if there’s going to be any romance in future books (besides the side romance between two adult nuns at the Convent) it remains between the female cast, because the men in this world aren’t at all memorable. And again it speaks volumes about how great this book is, that it didn’t detract in the least from my enjoyment.

I still haven’t managed to talk about how beautiful the prose in this book is. Red Sister has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in grimdark fantasy. It’s lyrical without being purple. Some turns of phrase were so stunning that they stayed with me long after I’d read them. There really isn’t enough I can say to express how delightful this was to read. If the grimdark label doesn’t give you pause (and trigger warnings for violence/abuse against children) do yourself a favour and pick up this book.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher:  Ace

Book reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

Book Review | Nevernight

nevernight book review

by Jay Kristoff — I don’t have any witty remarks to start this review off, this was just a solid fantasy book that I enjoyed immensely. Compelling and believable world-building, solid characters, and a strong, if commonplace, plot that carried its weight all through the book. That’s it really.

“Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.”

Mia, the protagonist, is a really likeable character. I have a fondness for outwardly cold female characters that use their prickly exterior as a shield to hide not only their past hurts, but a soft mushy middle built on loyalty and kindness. Sometimes you have to dig to find that mushy middle, but that’s half the fun. Sometimes that mushy middle can coexist with utter ruthlessness, and that’s even better.

Some of the side characters weren’t as well-rounded as her unfortunately. There was a secondary antagonist whose personality, besides being a thorn on Mia’s side, was non-existent. A teacher who hated her for a flimsy reason, there’s always one of these in any fantasy school worth its salt, though, so it didn’t bother me too much, cliché as it was. Some tropes just come with the field. It also didn’t bother me that there were a few characters whose arcs didn’t seem to go anywhere, since this is a series and I’m hoping they’ll be more fleshed-out in the next books. I’m particularly curious about Hush.

I wasn’t a big fan of the romance either. I can see some people loving Mia’s love interest in this book though, he just didn’t do it for me. They had some fun banter but most of their romantic interactions felt more plot-convenient than heartfelt. I can say though, the resolution of this particular plot-thread had me grinning ear to ear, I’m probably in the minority here, but I was smiling down at the words as I read them, feeling smug and a little evil as I thought to myself,”Good.”

Knowing he ended up in that situation due to Mia’s actions was particularly delicious. I don’t know if that was what Jay Kristoff was going for, but it was definitely a highlight for me.

When it comes to highlights though none shines brighter than the world and its tree suns. Fantasy is my favourite genre because I love fantasy worlds and magic, simple as that. So, getting to read about a new and fascinating world is always a treat. Nevernight has it all: a complex religion with a mythology that didn’t seem lifted from any of the usual sources (Itreya is inspired by the late Roman Empire, but it doesn’t beat you up the head with it, mercifully — and interestingly, the main religion is a form of monolatrism which we don’t get to see very often in fantasy). A magic system that explained the reach and limitations of some of its components (I can’t get the weavers out of my head), while leaving others in the dark (Mia’s darkin abilities), without it feeling like its rules could change whenever convenient to the plot. And a political system that while not the focus of the book is the corrupt machine that keeps this fascinating, but often disgusting, world turning.

The use of footnotes for the info-dumps was brilliant, because they didn’t feel like info-dumps at all. And I often found myself looking forward to reading the next one. The narration should be credited for that. As of now the identity of the narrator is still a mystery (although I have my theories) but their voice is delightful to read, with a particular brand of dark humour that really suits the mood of the book.

This book is shelved as Young Adult on Goodreads, and although there’s definitely elements of that, it felt a lot grittier than most YA Fantasy, in a really good way. Sometimes YA books, regardless of genre, tend to be just a love-story masquerading as something else. This isn’t that, not by a long shot. And despite my misgivings about it the romance really doesn’t take up more room than it should, nor does it slow down the action. Besides, I would be lying if I said I would be opposed to seeing a romance involving Mia and someone I like better…

Overall, I really recommend this book, my complaints are very minor and by no means did they reduce my enjoyment while reading this. Funny enough, I started reading this book right as I was almost finishing Red Sister (because I was loving it so much and didn’t want it to end), and I was surprised to realise just how much the two books have in common. Although Red Sister is Adult Fiction, and grimdark to the more humorous grit of Nevernight they both happened to share a lot of superficial details, and hit on a lot of the same notes that made them both such stand out reads for me. If you’ve read Red Sister I definitely think you should give Nevernight a shot, it’s lighter, but not light, and Mia shares some of the traits that make Nona such a lovable protagonist, the supporting cast is not as strong but there’s a few gems.

I just checked back on Goodreads and a lot of the top reviews complain about the prose. The title of this book might have clued you in on that, but I vastly prefer books written in third person (I struggle to read first person more often than not), so this book already has that going for it, but I also consider the writing style to be a big plus. There were second person asides but they were barely noticeable. It’s simile heavy, some of them are wonderful, some are inconsequential, but none weigh the story down in my opinion. I wouldn’t call the prose lyrical or flowery but there is a melodic cadence to it. I really liked it, it’s what I’m saying. People who prefer cut and dry writing might not. That being said, I don’t think it’s complicated or hard to follow, at all.

Since I compared Nevernight to Red Sister, I can’t help but compare ratings too. And while I loved Nevernight I didn’t love it as much as Red Sister (it feels weird that I’m not posting that review first, but oh well), therefore:

Rating: ★★★★½
Author: Jay Kristoff
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press

Book reviews, LGBT Books, Murder mystery

Book Review | Instinct (Murder Games)

instinct book review

by Howard Roughan and James Patterson — This book was the literary equivalent of being told to enjoy the view while travelling on the Shinkansen — a pointless and nausea inducing effort.

“Dr. Dylan Reinhart wrote the book on criminal behavior. Literally–he’s a renowned, bestselling Ivy League expert on the subject. When a copy of his book turns up at a gruesome murder scene–along with a threatening message from the killer–it looks like someone has been taking notes.

Elizabeth Needham is the headstrong and brilliant NYPD Detective in charge of the case who recruits Dylan to help investigate another souvenir left at the scene–a playing card. Another murder, another card–and now Dylan suspects that the cards aren’t a signature, they’re a deadly hint–pointing directly toward the next victim.

As tabloid headlines about the killer known as “The Dealer” scream from newstands, New York City descends into panic. With the cops at a loss, it’s up to Dylan to hunt down a serial killer unlike any the city has ever seen. Only someone with Dylan’s expertise can hope to go inside the mind of a criminal and convince The Dealer to lay down his cards. But after thinking like a criminal–could Dylan become one?”

If perhaps you are under the impression that the “nausea” has anything to do with grisly murders and gore a-plenty, I’m sorry do disappoint. I mean literal motion-sickness nausea, because this book doesn’t know when to take a breath. It’s so fast paced that absolutely no part of the plot has any chance to leave a lasting impression. The characters are like socks in a washing machine, powerless to do anything against the whirlwind that rinses and spins them (gently, though, because nothing of consequence ever happens to a main character in this kind of pulpy crime fiction).

I picked up this book by the graces of the Goodreads’ algorithm that analysed my twin interests in both murder mysteries and LGBT books, and spit out this: Instinct by James Patterson and Howard Roughan (Murder Games, in previous editions). Credit where credit is due, the book belongs to both of those categories, it just isn’t any good.

The protagonist, Dylan Reinhart is a wisecracking criminal behaviour expert. Riveting. The put upon detective who has to deal with said wisecracks  is Elizabeth Needham who is “headstrong and brilliant” and all too happy to play second fiddle in her own investigation, for no discernible reason. They are both terribly bland, I finished this book yesterday and I remember almost nothing about either of them.

Dylan has a husband, we find out his name through the most pointless, self-indulgent, “ain’t we funny”, scene I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading. Dylan’s husband’s name is Tracy, and we find that out through the contrived actions of a disgruntled adoption agency representative, being confronted with the supposedly female name on her case file and the man in front of her. It was insufferable to read. It’s a lucky thing you can’t dislocate eyes, because I was rolling mine so hard it was a real concern at points. Ironically, the thing I liked best about this book was the representation. Cheesy scene aside — which I’m willing to attribute to a generational gap, older people might call it funny, anyone under 30 will call it cringy — I thought it was fine. There wasn’t much detail about Dylan and Tracy’s life, but they seemed believable enough. Tracy was a little thin at times, but all characters besides Dylan and Elizabeth (and even her…) were less developed.

By far my biggest gripe with this book was the pacing. Every chapter was at best 3 pages long, and each chapter ended either in a cliffhanger (the insufferable mid-dialogue kind, in which the conversation continues in the next chapter with absolutely no change of setting or tone) or with a witty one-liner that was reminiscent of early 00’s cartoons reminding you to tune in next week.

Most of the pertinent information Dylan and Elizabeth discover is the kind they have a hunch on, or some witness says something that lights the proverbial light bulb over their heads. What this means is that the reader has very little hope of figuring the mystery for themselves, because there aren’t any clues in the actual text, as a consequence the characters seem a lot more clever than they are. The ending does tie things up in a bow and call back to previous events, which makes it marginally more satisfying than the entire book up until then.

I finished this book before having time to digest half the things that were happening. It’s completely unremarkable and I’m fairly sure I’ll have forgotten everything about it by next week. I recommend it to everyone who is about to embark on a long-haul flight, because the break-neck pace is sure to make it go by faster.

Rating: 2 stars
Authors: Howard Roughan and James Patterson
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company