Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children, #2)Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book so much, I went back to reread Every Heart a Doorway so I could meet Jack and Jill again, and better understand their choices in the context of where they'd come from. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel that gives a lot of strong hints about who they become in Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. I suggest reading them in order of publication.

Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott are twins born to parents who had no business having children. The chaos of childhood and figuring out who you are in the world has no place in Serena and Chester Wolcott's well-ordered life. They initially foist the children off on their grandmother, but, on the girls' fifth birthday, the parents send the grandmother away without even giving her a chance to say goodbye. Jillian, the more rough-and-tumble of the two, is assigned the role of tomboy, while Jacqueline is dressed up in frilly, pretty dresses and admonished to keep herself clean.

Then, when the girls are twelve, they open a trunk their grandmother left behind to find not dress-up clothes, but a stairway going down into unknown depths. From there, they wind up on the Moors, where they're free to choose their own paths for the first time in their lives. Jill (which her parents always balked at calling her) chooses to become the coddled pet of a vampire, who dresses her up in pretty clothes and keeps her well-fed on an iron-rich diet. Jack chooses to apprentice to a mad scientist, where she eschews skirts and learns how to keep immaculately clean without running water, among other useful skills.

Jack and Jill each find love, out there on the Moors, but it's their love for each other that ties this story together. The book captures the double-edged nature of sibling love well. The girls know each other so well, which means they know exactly how to hurt one another.

This is a well-crafted tale, dark and poetic and utterly tragic. It's a novella, but there's a lot in there. I read most of it waiting in a hot car with the windows cracked. It was startling, emerging from that dark, cool world into the blazing heat, sticky and dying of thirst.

Be sure you want to know what made the twins who they are in Every Heart a Doorway. Be sure you want to go into the Moors with them. Be sure you want to know the consequences of the first choices Jack and Jill make.

Be sure.

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Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Final GirlsFinal Girls by Riley Sager
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I won this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway, which comes with the expectation that I'll review the book. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

I'm usually wary of debut novels. There's something of the unpolished about them, some unrealized potential. I should've read more closely. This is the writer's first book under this name. He honed his craft on his murder mystery series set closer to home.

The Final Girl is a horror movie trope, where the good girl who kept away from the sex and drugs that got her friends killed becomes the last one left, and has to confront the killer to make it out alive. Quincy Carpenter has lived through that reality, emerging as the sole survivor in a stabbing spree at Pine Cottage deep in the woods of Pennsylvania. She's blocked out the memory of that horrific time, from the moment where she watched her best friend bleed out to her timely rescue. People have tried to help her remember, but it's stayed locked away for ten years.

Then Lisa Milner, another Final Girl who survived a similar horror, turns up dead, her wrists slashed in her bathtub. Soon after, Samantha Boyd, the most reclusive of the Final Girls, shows up at Quincy's Manhattan apartment. As relieved as Quincy is to have a friend she shares a big part of herself with, she quickly finds plenty of reasons to question Sam's motives in tracking her down. Sam wants Quincy to remember Pine Cottage, but why?

I had an inkling of where the book was going within the first few pages, but I managed to discard my theories and just go along for the ride. Two women bonding over similar trauma might not sound like a fun read, but the plotting and tension kept me flipping pages. I was delighted to be right, in the end, but I'd nearly forgotten my initial suspicion by then.

There's a lot to this book: trauma, survivor's guilt, mental illness, trust, sensationalism, resilience, strength, anger, growth through pain, friendship, denial, labels, and survival. The book sidesteps easy answers, handling the complexity of Quincy's perspective with nuance. Quincy is a multilayered, flawed character. She works so hard at being the person she believes she is that the real Quincy can only come out in exaggerated bursts. She makes her life even harder than it has to be, but you can see exactly why she does, because she isn't even equipped to imagine the alternatives. I would've hated her as a person, but, as a character, she's perfect.

If you like your thrillers raw and bloody and heavy on the psychological, I strongly recommend you give this book a try. I was thoroughly engrossed by Final Girls, and fully invested in Quincy's story. I'm interested to see what else the pseudonymous Riley Sager comes out with, and I may even give Todd Ritter's mysteries a chance.

Maybe I'll skip the first one.

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: Here, the World Entire by Anwen Hayward

Here, The World EntireHere, The World Entire by Anwen Kya Hayward
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was written by someone I follow on Tumblr. She had hilarious stories about her cat on her blog, interspersed with Greek mythology. She actually posted a shorter version of this story before she turned it into a novella. So, I was very interested in reading the expanded version.

Here, The World Entire is a retelling of the Perseus myth, the part where he's tasked with retrieving Medusa's head. It's told from Medusa's perspective. Maybe that's been done before, but I've never come across it. I sincerely doubt it was so artfully done.

Medusa had a life before she became the snake-headed woman of legend, so ugly she turned men to stone. At least, in many versions of the myth, she does. This story goes with that interpretation, of the woman sworn to Athena, then betrayed by her goddess because Poseidon takes an interest in her.

And then it goes deeper. It posits that Medusa's exile is self-inflicted, because she can't stand turning people to stone. She warns people away, begs them not to look at her, and is heartbroken when they succumb to her curse. This Medusa is no monster, bent on revenge against all men for what one god did to her. She's a human, cursed by the goddess who was supposed to protect her.

The story gets into a lot of what mythology won't tell you. Myths don't depict the human view toward the gods, that they didn't worship them as all-knowing, benevolent entities. The Greek gods were viewed with dread, too, and derision. They were just as flawed as the people who worshiped them. They were just as subject to whims, or prejudices. We want to see Athena nowadays as a feminist icon, but, in the world that built her up, they assumed she hated women as much as they did. Medusa understands that, in this novella, but not until it's too late.

As much as I have a soft spot for mythology retellings, this one is beautifully done. It adds a lot to the Medusa myth, without taking away from what's already out there. I highly recommend it.

Unfortunately, you will not find this book at most retailers. You'll need to order it online if you want to read it. You really should.

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Review: Magic for Nothing (InCryptid #6) by Seanan McGuire

Magic for Nothing (InCryptid, #6)Magic for Nothing by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who's talked to me about books for more than 30 seconds knows I adore Seanan McGuire's books. I fell behind with this one, though. It's been out for over 2 1/2 months, but I'm just getting to my review? Past Me is so disappointed in Present Me.

This book introduces the perspective of Antimony ("Annie") Price, the youngest of the three siblings, and the one kept closest to home. She's both been protected against and held back from the spotlight all her life, because her siblings were allowed to pursue her passions, and one more Price out there in the world is too much for her parents' blood pressure. She has her interests outside the family profession, of course: TV and comic books and roller derby are her lifeblood, with a particular affinity for the X-Men.

Of course, this wouldn't be a book if she got to go on this way forever. Because of events in previous installments, Antimony has to infiltrate the English chapter of the Covenant of St. George, the people her family has been hiding from for centuries. The ones who want to exterminate all cryptids, believing them to be evil and against the natural order. And, just when she's starting to settle into that role, the Covenant decides to test her cover story by sending her into an American carnival to root out the cryptid or cryptids responsible for the disappearance of three teenagers in the carnival's proximity.

Of the three siblings, Antimony quickly became my favorite perspective character. She's snarky, well aware of her limitations, and she balances out the sense of awe with which people treat her older sister and brother. She reminds the reader that the Price family is still human, still vulnerable, and still a pain in her ass. For all her flippancy, Antimony is well aware of the danger she's walking into, and the stakes if she fails.

Antimony is also given the hardest task of any of her siblings. She isn't just getting to the bottom of a cryptid mystery; no, she's also balancing two levels of secret ID, trying not to piss off the grandmother of the (cryptid) boy she likes, trying to spy on the Covenant, and trying to protect her new friends from that very same Covenant. And she's working with far fewer resources, because reaching out to the family could expose them all.

One of the things accomplished in this book is to give the Covenant a human face. We meet the person running the Great Britain arm, and the next generation, sort of the Price sibling analogues. While it's harder to relish the idea of the Prices crushing an organization made up of thinking, feeling people, it also underscores their commitment to stop any sentient being from harming others. They've been shown, so far, to give all sorts of creatures the chance to show themselves capable of living peacefully. I wonder if the Covenant merits the same treatment. And if anyone in the Covenant is worthy of that chance.

In the end, everything wraps up in a satisfying yet intriguing way, which is how a volume in a series with more to come should end. There's a lot more for Antimony and the rest of her family to take care of before their story is done.

As always, looking forward to the next installment.

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's SorryMy Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a delightful surprise. My sister sent it to me on audio, because she thought I'd like it. She knows my reading tastes well, apparently.

Elsa is seven years old, going on 8. Her best friend (and only friend) is her grandmother, 77 and going on 78. The book opens with Elsa and her grandmother at the police station, after the grandmother distracts Elsa from having been bullied at school by breaking into the monkey enclosure at the zoo and throwing clods of dirt (declaring they're monkey poo) at the security guard.

Not your ordinary grandmother, in other words.

Elsa and her grandmother share a series of fairy tales about The Land of Almost-Awake, and the Kingdom of Miamus within that land. In Miamus, Elsa and her grandmother are knights, and, though granny's adventures are behind her, she fills Elsa's ears with all her tales, and spurs her on her own adventures.

But the grandmother hasn't told Elsa she's dying of cancer. Elsa only finds out just before her granny succumbs. But then, a quest arrives from the grandmother, asking Elsa to deliver a letter telling someone she's sorry. Delivering the letter successfully continues the quest.

The characterization in this book is beautiful. Everyone is filtered through Elsa's perspective, and yet we see the whole picture of everyone. There are villains in the story, but they're still people, human and flawed and loved by someone. Those Elsa cares about, she's always finding a reason to love them, or at least admire them.

Despite the protagonist's age, this is not a YA or kids' book. People swear, and there are concepts such as war, substance abuse, tragedy, grief, and domestic abuse, which could be difficult for young readers to parse. Elsa is precocious, reads about anything she doesn't know about on Wikipedia, and has no tolerance for being talked down to. Her grandmother's fairy tales help her grasp some of the concepts in the book, but her exposure is often frightening or upsetting to her.

And yet, despite the dark themes within this book, the overwhelming feeling when it ends is warm and fuzzy. Elsa insists throughout the story that it has to have a happy ending, and, despite nothing turning out the way she expects, she gets her way, in that.

If you're prone to emotional responses to books, this one is apt to make you burst into tears, probably at several points in the narrative. But I can almost guarantee it will also have you laughing. And you'll almost certainly see stories, or grandmothers, or falling asleep, a little differently.

Give this a read. You'll be glad you did.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Joan Walker. She did a lovely job, both keeping up the fairy-tale kind of tone throughout, and pronouncing a lot of difficult vocabulary created for this book. She had a lot of distinct voices for different characters, and I was never confused who Elsa was talking to in any given moment. Not once did her narration pull me out of the story; it enhanced it, if anything.

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Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect some knowledge of WWII would've served me well, going in to this book. I know the basics, but a greater knowledge would've supplied a lot of context this book lacked. Larson writes with the assumption a person reading his book has already done a lot of reading about pre-WWII. Whereas, I tend to read "human interest" nonfiction for an entry point into history with which I'm unfamiliar.

In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of the Dodd family, from the unlikely selection of William Dodd, history professor, as ambassador to Nazi Germany, to the directions their lives take after he leaves the post. The Dodds start out feeling favorably toward Germany, and William Dodd attributes "the Jewish problem" as being just as much Jewish people's fault as it is the Nazis'. The events that change their minds don't affect them directly, but they still realize a lot sooner than the US government, who's privy to all the same knowledge the Dodds are, with the barrier of an entire ocean between them and the conflict.

If you're looking for a book about the social lives of the major players of the Third Reich, you're in luck. This goes into great detail regarding the parties, who's invited to whose, who's in favor on a particular month in 1933 or '34, and who Martha Dodd is dating (that list is almost as long as the guest lists for exclusive parties the Dodds attend). Martha's sex life, in fact, is a greater plot point than the attacks on US citizens visiting Germany who fail to deliver the Hitler salute appropriately.

What I was looking for in this book was how a country goes from a democracy to a fascist dictatorship. That's in there, too. The book covers the time period when President Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler as Chancellor, dies, and Hitler seizes power. The book also shows how history led up to that point, when normally, a better-balanced successor might have been appointed. It shows how Hitler not only disposed of his political enemies, but how he did it in a way that both silenced any opposition, and won his country's approval. The propaganda machine was already in full swing, at that point, and Hitler and his people knew how to use it.

Though Hitler is a major influence in this narrative, his path intersects with the Dodds' very little. He meets Martha Dodd once, and strikes her as charming and charismatic, but a bit shy. William Dodd also finds him charismatic on their first meeting, but finds a later encounter, where Hitler rants about the abhorrence of Jewish people, rather unsettling.

There's another subplot in this book about Martha's being seduced over to the Communist cause by Russian spies. So much of that narrative is speculative, though, as there's very little official documentation. It explains her disaffection with Nazi Germany, but otherwise doesn't add much, except to explain why she behaves as she does after leaving Germany. I could've done without that section entirely.

Overall, this was an interesting perspective on the Third Reich, pre-WWII. I found the narrative thread lacking, but the tidbits of historical perspective were fascinating. The story made clear that any ambassador would've been over his head, in William Dodd's shoes, but he was uniquely unqualified for the role. I wouldn't recommend this if you don't already have some knowledge about the time period and the people it discusses in great depth, but, if you're looking to round out your WWII history with something lighter, this is just the thing.

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