Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: The Rending and the Nest

The Rending and the Nest The Rending and the Nest by Kaethe Schwehn
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

This was an interesting, well-written book with an unusual post-apocalyptic, dystopian plot. Following a mysterious apocalyptic event termed The Rending, in a world with a vastly reduced population, Mira, the central character, lives in a community called Zion. Her days are spent sorting through the Piles, quite literally piles of debris left by The Rending, finding objects that might be put to use. Her friend Lana sometimes accompanies her but is primarily working as a prostitute in the community. Lana, and then ultimately the other fertile women of Zion, become pregnant and mysteriously give birth to objects. An interloper in the community, Michael, wields a cult-leader-like power and destabilizes the bonds between members of the community including Mira and Lana. Mira builds nests for the Babies. The original central members of Mira's group push back against Michael.

The plot setup is well executed but I found myself puzzling over the underlying premise. The Rending itself is never really explained. It wasn't a Rapture event (I was worried about that prospect from some elements of Mira's family life) and it wasn't a comet hitting the earth. It isn't a zombie apocalypse story, although I felt that there were similarities to the communities seen in stories like The Walking Dead with abusive or cultish leaders. Are those who survived just lucky? Are they the cursed few? The enigmatic nature of the story left me wanting a reader's guide or an explanation from the author about what she was going for here. I felt a bit deflated by the ending in which I felt had no greater insight than I had at the start.

Schwehn is a polished writer with an interesting premise. I just wish she'd given us more insight into The Rending and its survivors' purpose.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

On ARC Disappointment

That old saw "you can't judge a book by its cover" remains a painful truism.  As a reviewer, I've been put off by covers (please don't even get me started about authors Ilona Andrews Hidden Legacy series covers, which have almost nothing to do with the central story in their excellent books and give me yet another reason to be glad I read a lot on the Kindle). I've been sucked in by covers (witness the spectacular Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert) and endured subsequent labor to finish a book that had such promise entailed in that cover.

The worst of thing that can happen when you're reviewing is to get sucked in by an interesting or beautiful cover only to find the book is just not for you. Sometimes, by lucky happenstance, the book is a publisher giveaway from someplace like Goodreads. They want you to say something about it but it's not like a big commitment. They can't even verify you received the book, for instance. But what to do when the book is from a site like NetGalley or Edelweiss, where you download a digital review copy and make a commitment to review the book? It's very difficult to DNF on these sites because you have to write a review or the book will count against your completion percentage. (And as I've mentioned before, those metrics really do impact your chances of getting the ARCs you want.) So what do you do? Reader, the struggle is real.

This is an issue that I have often discussed with my friend Alex (of Alex Can Read). When you're a newbie reviewer, you don't want to burn your bridges with a publisher by accepting and then not reviewing their books. You have to say something. You can avoid a bit of trouble by looking at early reviews of books on offer, and if you have trusted reviewers you follow who review it for significant outlets like Kirkus Reviews, etc., you can get a feel for whether it's a book you want to request. But still, sometimes it's a brand new author, and no one has reviewed it yet and the cover and synopsis appeal to you and... before you know it, yikes. That's happened more than once to me lately. There's another aspect of the bad ARC situation- the impact on a new writer.

Last year, because my kitty Pushkin got sick, I wasn't able to attend a session on Book Blogs that took place at WorldCon 75. The rather ominous abstract was "Blogging/vlogging about books has caused some recent controversy. Some authors have claimed bad reviews in book blogs have resulted in poor sales. Book bloggers and authors discuss the importance and power of book bloggers/vloggers." That's right, reviews can be controversial and make authors blame the reviewer for their lack of success.* And I have to say... in some respects it's true. You become really aware if you follow enough reviews, of the power of a negative review, which is actually in some instances stronger even than the power of a good review. This fact can make me cringe when it comes to reviewing ARCs of new authors. Back before I had the blog and was trying to be all fancy and professional about reading, I used to just drop books I didn't enjoy all the time, with no notation of DNF on Goodreads. I'd often return it on Kindle if I disliked it and knew I'd never finish reading it. Now I do list books I don't finish, but I try to be quiet about it if it's a book by a new author. I'm a firm believer that the more an author writes, the more likely they are to get better at writing. Look at Alice Hoffman or Kristin Hannah, each of whom gets better with each book. They weren't as fabulous as they are now, early on in their writing careers. So, in the spirit of second chances and not crushing dreams, some books that I've been listing on my Goodreads Currently Reading shelf have quietly been tucked away onto the Did Not Finish Shelf. It's important to realize that it doesn't always mean it was a bad book. But it might not have been the book for me, or because I wasn't in a situation where I'd made a commitment to review it, I wasn't going to slug it out to the end and tell you all about what was wrong with it. In any case, if I said I was reading something, and it disappears, and you never see a review go up, go check out the DNF shelf. If you want to know what happened, message me and I'll be happy to tell you why.

*I do want to say that I take exception to publishers that try to manipulate the review environment by actively trying to prevent negative reviews of books being posted. I've had one instance in the past six months where I was absolutely sure that the publisher was trying to suppress negative reviews of a book I read as an ARC. The book was heavily promoted, and Amazon did not post my negative review (this was not a new author) for several weeks, while the book went on to win a category in Amazon's Goodreads best of 2017.  Amazingly, the book was a finalist before it was even released and had more votes (almost three times more) than it had reviews when the winners were announced. Caveat emptor!

Review: Rosie Colored Glasses

Rosie Colored Glasses Rosie Colored Glasses by Brianna Wolfson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very moving and timely story of a family dealing with the fallout from mental health and addiction issues. The titular Rosie is an ebullient, force of nature with, as we see from the first pages, serious boundary issues. While her life with few rules and much love sees her as a relatively functional single adult, her marriage and parenting are harmed by her choices and behavior. Rex, an uptight, straight-laced and success-driven man falls in love with Rosie only to have her nature, so opposite and foreign to his own, cause chaos in his life. But it's not cute, romantic chaos. Imagine that you finally learn to love and your love unhinges everything, including the lives of your children? As the book opens, Rosie's daughter Willow, who loves her mother with the burning intensity of the sun, is barely on the cusp of understanding the drawbacks of her mother's lifestyle. Her mother represents everything good and freely given, whereas Willow is pained by the difficult relationship she has with a father who struggles to show his love for her. His awkward, laconic demeanor contrasts so strongly with that of his ex-wife's dynamic and effervescent nature. Rex is all structure, rules, and schedules and Rosie has no rules, no structure, and few boundaries. Willow becomes, over the course of the book, increasingly parentified, trying to care for her six-year-old brother Asher whenever they are in their mother's care and the reader senses the oncoming trainwreck that will impact the two children, and their father, who so obviously still loves, but cannot live with, Rosie.

Easy to read and hard to put down, this is a heartbreaking book that nevertheless ends on a positive note.

I received a Digital Review Copy from NetGalley and a paper review copy from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories

Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories by Kelly Barnhill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my introduction to Kelly Barnhill's work. I've been wanting to read The Girl Who Drank the Moon for a while, even more so after my friend Arlene raved about it last fall. Barnhill has created a collection of diverse short stories, a novelette, and the eponymous "story" which is actually like a collection of flash fiction shorts about some very, very dreadful young ladies, all tied together by their focus on female central characters.

From the very first story, Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch, Barnhill had me hooked. Coming on the heels of the popularity of the film The Shape of Water, it's no big stretch, but the charm of Mrs Sorenson, née Dryleesker, rings through every page. Open the Door and the Light Pours Through was an based in part on an epistolary format, something I don't usually enjoy unless very well done, but it is an enjoyable read. Dead Boy's Last Poem is brief but... fiery. The Dreadful Young Ladies of the title are short flash fiction sort of vignettes of young women of varying degrees of dreadfulness but some, like Annabelle, are quite humorous. The Taxidermist's Wife and Elegy to Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores and Righteous Thieves are both beautiful stories, the former with a tinge, at least for me, of growing edginess. Notes on the Death of Ronia Drake dives deep into stepmother horror. The Insect and the Astronomer is a tale of a witty, Latin-speaking shield bug and an astronomer with a collection of automatons named Angel#1- #19. I shed tears at the end of this one. Finally, we have what I estimated to be a novelette length story, The Unlicensed Magician, witty with its series of progressing passages that are successively Now, Now, and Now, yet again, plus an amusing cast of characters (some of the names made me laugh).

All in all, this is a nice collection of the author's shorter works and certainly makes me want to read her novels.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review: The Strange And Deadly Portraits Of Bryony Gray

The Strange And Deadly Portraits Of Bryony Gray The Strange And Deadly Portraits Of Bryony Gray by E. Latimer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book, targeted to the Middle-Grade reader, is an imaginative spin-off from Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray. It's a clever enough idea but research issues and anachronisms kind of tanked my enjoyment of the book. Set around November 1901, (as discerned from a reference to Oscar Wilde's death being almost exactly a year ago, factually November 30th 1900), there are oddities that show a lack of research thoroughness on the part of the author and editor. While I get that children might be less affected by Queen Victoria's death in 1901, the somber tone in England (where they even used black edged stationery for the year following her death in January 1901) isn't captured. Furthermore, there are references to teddy bears, which were not even a thing until 1903, when simultaneously developed in the US and Germany (the latter by Stieff) as a reference to a cartoon image of US President Teddy Roosevelt. Anyway, it's the little things. Sadly this book arrived after my recent reading of Catherynne Valente's meticulously researched Glass Town Game about the Brontës at Haworth and it suffers in comparison. I was also bothered by the sketchiness of Bryony's painting style (excuse the awful pun there) since I paint and it is clear the author doesn't have a feel for painting and various media.

Middle-Grade readers will no doubt not be troubled by a discerning adult reader's concerns about accuracy. They might even be tempted to pick up Wilde's book, which would be a good thing.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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