Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was my Classic Read for the month of February.

This was an interesting examination of the role of women both as wives or mothers, in the early Victorian era. Written in an epistolary format, it also details extramarital affairs, alcoholism and the all too often false conception of a good woman reforming a bad man. Considered shocking in its day, present-day readers are likely to be more shocked by the fact that Anne's sister Charlotte (Jane Eyre, Villette) prevented this book's publication in new editions after Anne's death at age 29. The reasons for Charlotte's dislike for this novel were complex but the decision greatly impaired Anne Brontë's reputation as a writer and appreciation of her work.

Written some fifty-one years before The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which is widely considered a landmark of early feminist writing, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in its now fully restored version (vide infra) is considered to be one of the earliest feminist novels, especially in the context of a woman refusing to conform with social expectations of her lot after a bad marriage. It was shocking in its day because Helen Huntingdon slams her bedroom door and locks her drunken, unfaithful and abusive husband out of her bedroom and subsequently, leaves him, taking their young son, and hides in a country house owned by her brother, making a humble living as an artist. The latter was considered illegal in an era where women, their children, and all their assets were considered their husband's property. Before 1870 and passage of the Women's Marriage Property Act, women had no legal existence separate from their husband, were unable to own property, control custody of their children or control their lives by suing for divorce. The former act, of excluding a husband from her bedroom, was considered scandalous since wives were expected do their sexual marital duty no matter what their husband dished out at them. Anne's depiction of this rebellion did not occur in a vacuum. In fact, her progressive parson father reportedly advised a parishioner who was being abused by a drunken husband to leave him and make a new life for herself and her children. The lady actually took his advice and was much happier thereafter, returning to tell Patrick Brontë of her change of fortune in life. (Reference the OUP edition of the novel mentioned below.)

While the religious overlay of Helen's life and character gets a bit tiresome (Anne was, after all, the daughter of a clergyman), the actual plot points of the story are quite notable for an understanding of early Victorian family culture. Detailing the immense pressure placed on women to get married, whether the marriage had the potential for happiness or not, in order to remove the financial burden placed on their parents and relatives, we also see how the pressure to accede or resist is proffered in sibling relationships. Older sisters who are stranded in sad circumstances are seen to advise younger sisters to take caution in accepting a proposal of marriage. Helen's aunt, Mrs. Maxwell, cautions Helen repeatedly about taking care to choose a good husband and is beside herself when Helen wishes to accept Arthur Huntingdon's proposal. Brontë's account of dissolute behavior of many upper social class young men was likely informed by the life of her brother, Branwell, who engaged in an affair with a married lady and died of tuberculosis aggravated by his alcoholism and laudanum addiction, and that of his friends. This painful connection may have formed part of Charlotte's resistance to the novel, as it echoed their family's shame in their brother's life and demise. Reportedly Charlotte also felt that the novel's frank and detailed depictions of unhappy marriage and infidelities were unseemly for the image of the virtuous Brontë sisters that Charlotte tried to curate. How could shy and retiring Anne, a spinster, come to have known these terrible things? Critics of the day thought Acton Bell (the male pseudonym under which this novel was published) had witnessed shocking strife and that young ladies should be "protected" from reading this biased book. It is due to the poet Algernon Charles  Swinburne that we owe the book's resurgence in the 1880's. He commended it in an essay about Emily Brontë, saying it was more realistic than anything Jane or Emily ever wrote and making the direct connection to Branwell's life and fate. (Swinburne, Algernon Charles (June 16, 1883), "Emily Brontë". The Athenaeum. John Francis, 2903.)

Readers should be aware that Charlotte's publisher issued a bizarrely edited edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall around the time of Charlotte's death and that edition excised many passages and shifted chapters around to compensate for this desecration. Not labeled an abridgment, this bowdlerized edition of the novel is still in circulation. Readers wishing to read the full and correct, original version of Anne Brontë's opus should look for the Oxford University Press, Clarendon edition of the novel. Likewise, those seeking an audio edition should make sure the narration is from the OUP edition of the book.

For next month's Classic Read, I'll be reading a classic science fiction novel, Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Review: Tess of the Road

Tess of the Road Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I tried to like this book. I really did. It's the first that I've read by bestselling author Hartman and sad to say, it might have poisoned the well for me. First, I was surprised to find that the Seraphina of the bestselling duology was actually not a dragon dragon but a cryptid half-dragon called an ityasaari, child of a full dragon that can take human form (Linn, a saarantras). No problem, since I read (and enjoy) an entire series based on the idea of cryptid animals and there are shape changing cryptids in that, too. But since Seraphina is only on the fringes of this story, here's no great dragon in this book, despite its beautiful cover. We do have Pathka, a sex-changing quigutl which is like a small, human-sized dragon that seems sort of like a large bipedal worm, and their child, Kikiu. But beyond these interesting creatures, the setting of the story- a medieval fantasy world in which religiosity seems to plague Tessie's family and penance involves the frequent beatings of children- didn't appeal to me. Added to this, Tess felt was almost contrived in her bullishness and bad behavior, driving corporal punishment from her mother. Tess has an interest in dragons and a curious mindset but I just didn't like her much. Tess runs away to find herself and a new life, like Viola in Twelfth Night, finding her safety in pretending to be a male. She sees many things on her journey, and some of them are awful or surprisingly undeveloped. I just couldn't relate to her much. In fact, I didn't feel an attachment to any of the characters, which posed a problem for me, especially since the book is 360 pages long.

I think one could have lively debates about some aspects of this book for a YA novel. Drinking, unwed motherhood, sexual assault, prostitution, and running away are all things that are real issues in young adult life. On the other hand, the way we discuss these things in a book are part of what differentiates the book from an adult fiction to a young adult fiction novel. I'd have to say that one of the reasons I enjoy YA fiction is that the impact of things like sexual assault or unwed parenting is not just glossed over as mere events but are rendered three-dimensional with emotions and... impact. The way some of these things (little exploration of say, sexual exploitation of servants) are handled in this book makes it feel more adult in tone. "Yes, these things happen. Oh, well..." I still might have stuck with it if I felt that Tessie's journey of finding herself didn't feel like it dragged on, if it gave us a more likable, relatable central character and secondary characters along the way. Alas, that didn't happen for me.

I received a Digital Review Copy from Net Galley and a paper review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, February 26, 2018

Review: My Name Is Venus Black: A Novel

My Name Is Venus Black: A Novel My Name Is Venus Black: A Novel by Heather Lloyd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's taken a bit to formulate my thoughts about My Name is Venus Black. This is a wonderful book with a truly memorable central character in Venus Black and I know that someone is going to snap up the film rights to it in no time. While formulating my review, I looked up the literal meaning of bildungsroman because I wasn't sure I could rightly apply it to a novel in which not just the protagonist but literally everyone in her sphere undergoes significant psychological and spiritual growth. It's a coming of age story in which adults grow up, too. The children of the story, from Piper to Tessa to Leo to Venus herself, are all so well developed, with the real quirkiness of childhood that any parent can appreciate, and they mature into wonderful people.

We first meet Venus Black when she is a scared, angry thirteen-year-old girl in police custody for having committed a (truly) shocking crime. She has just urinated on herself and as the kind policewoman gives her a change of clothes and a series of detectives, attorneys and therapists try to help her, she remains angrily silent and uncooperative. All she knows is that her mother Inez has failed her in every respect and her unrelenting anger and justifiable outrage burns intensely. However, Venus also worries constantly about what will become of her autistic younger half-sibling, Leo, the one person that she loves without reservation. Her fears become heightened when, while in police detention and awaiting trial for the awful thing she did, Leo disappears. Inez, her flawed-to-her-marrow mother, blames Venus for that, too. This early section of the book is utterly heartbreaking, especially to anyone who has worked with children in the juvenile justice system and knows that things really can play out like they do for Venus. (In my own state, she'd have been tried as an adult.) But hang in there. This is a story not just of redemption but of quiet human triumph.

When we next meet Venus she is nineteen years old, newly released from probably the nicest juvenile prison center ever, and now going by the name Annette in order to try to forge a new life for herself without all the baggage that comes with being Venus Black. As "Annette" builds a new life in Washington, we also keep pace with Leo, whose own story has developed along a parallel timeframe with Venus's in California.

Venus's spiritual evolution, from overcoming her anger and guilt to coming to a place of forgiveness of her mother's immense failures forms the core of this story. But there is similar growth in the secondary characters, as well. From the watershed moment when Inez faces her failures, to balancing Tessa and Tony's warm and loving enrichment of Leo's life with the human costs of their decisions, to Danny's written revelation, we root for these characters and for a happy resolution.

This is a triumphant debut novel by an author I look forward to reading more from in the future.

I received a Digital Review Copy from Net Galley and a paper review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Craft Sequence Buddy Read: Book 2, Two Serpents Rise- Review, Discussion Part 2 and a Giveaway!

This post is part of an ongoing Buddy Read, with Alex of Alex Can Read and our friend Jenni, of The Craft Sequence. (You can find our two-part discussion of the first book in the series, Three Parts Dead, here and here.) Refreshing the reader's sense of what this marvelous series is about, here's the series summary from the publisher:

"Set in a phenomenally built world in which lawyers ride lightning bolts, souls are currency, and cities are powered by the remains of fallen gods, Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence introduces readers to a modern fantasy landscape and an epic struggle to build a just society."

As part of our celebration of this great series, we want to share it! We're offering a giveaway of the six book Kindle bundle. Hang in there to the end of this post for a Rafflecopter giveaway!

Before we get to the second part of the Buddy Read, here's my review, both from 2017, when I read the book because the entire series was nominated for a Hugo Award, and my recent update. Unlike the Buddy Read discussion, my review has few, if any, spoilers.

Two Serpents Rise
Two Serpents Rise
by Max Gladstone

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

From my original review in June 2017:

The second Craft Sequence book takes us to a different place and time in the Craft World. Leaving Alt Coulomb, the setting for the first book, we arrive in Dresdiel Lex, with a burgeoning population of 17 million people, struggling to survive on rapidly diminishing resources. The methods of their short term survival are secured by truly abominable means. The protagonist of this volume, Caleb Altemoc, struggles with the realities of this world and with his painful family history. Caleb is the fulcrum for change but how that change can be safely and morally achieved is the unsettling question he wrestles with throughout this book.

Gladstone has built a complex and impressive world in these books. Magic comes with contractual boundaries and obligations in the Craft world. Rules and reciprocity dictate almost everything.

One of the things I like best about Gladstone's protagonists is that they always seem to end up in an "outside the box" resolution. The depth of motivation for some of the other central characters is a cautionary tale, however.

As to my overall feelings about this book, I like Caleb (and Teo) but I do miss Tara!

February 2018 Thoughts:

On second reading, what strikes me most about Two Serpents Rise is more than just the furthering of The Craft Sequence world. In this entry we see the sophisticated way that Gladstone has woven the anti-globalization narrative (and some of its failings) into the story. Published in 2013, on the heels of the Occupy Wall Street movement and more than a decade after the anti-globalization movement became a force in Seattle in 1999, Two Serpents Rise is just as fresh and relevant five years later. Once again Gladstone has taken real aspects of our own world and embedded them into his fantasy world in order to discuss the weakness of movements that rigidly proscribe things like global corporate development and the equally dubious prospect of the annihilation of culture without a genuine goal. The dialogues between Caleb and Mal are so well done, so pointed in their lack of resolution to problems that have no easy, and certainly no all-or-nothing, answers. Playing Red King Consolidated's power with an eye toward globalization versus loss of Quechal cultural heritage and unstemmed migration to massive urban centers is a storyline that could be ripped from any Asian modern history book.

I'm also struck in this readthrough by the father and son relationship between Caleb and Temoc. Caleb cuts his own path and for most of this book, Temoc is a seemingly ideal father who allows his son to find that path, which is so different from his own. This difficult relationship, due to their personal life choices, is handled with such finesse. You feel the love (especially Temoc's) and wariness they feel for each other and that's a tough balance to convey. It's masterfully written here.

I appreciated Caleb more on this reading, though his naiveté with respect to Mal still bothers me a bit. Perhaps it's a feature of his character that we should like, though. Caleb has a good heart and wants to be a force for change and for good. The fact that he, like Tara Abernathy in Three Parts Dead, wants to forge a new career path provides a satisfying outcome.

Please remember that our discussion below will not be spoiler-free!

Alex, Jenni and Marzie's Buddy Read Discussion of Two Serpents Rise

Just in case you landed here first, you can find Part 1 of our discussion over on Alex's blog. Without further delay, let's pick up Part Two, of the Buddy Read Discussion:

Jenni: I wanted to return briefly to the character of the Red King. I thought it was remarkable that a character that was initially set up to be a villain actually cared deeply for the city, in his own twisted way, and wound up being open to new ways of doing things and working with Caleb to try and secure the long-term good of Dresediel Lex, rather than just maximizing his power.

Alex: Oh goodness I love the King in Red. He’s so complex! On the one hand, he’s almost comical, being a walking skeleton flamboyantly dressed in red all the time. On the other hand, he’s a LITERAL WALKING TALKING SKELETON - TERRIFYING. I loved that he was motivated by the loss of his lover Timas and literally moved heaven and earth in revenge.

Marzie: Must we? He’s such a terrible-wonderful-awful person. Please, someone, tell me that Elayne isn’t going to end up like The King in Red? Please? And, okay, the Timas storyline was quite poignant. It left him more deeply scarred than anything Temoc did to Caleb.

Jenni: Oh, those instant reactions! See, that’s what I loved about him. He was so…rich and multi-faceted.

Marzie: You know, I never actually perceived him as a villain? Just creepy and as much a fanatic for his cause as Temoc is. But he never seemed villainous.

Alex: I think Temoc and Alaxic would disagree with you that he’s not a villain. Though I saw him more as an antagonist to the plot, but one with layers.

Jenni: I guess I was predisposed to see him as a villain, after the senior Craftspeople in the first book. And then the way Caleb hid in his office to avoid having to interact with him...

(After the fact Marzie rereads this and feels dismay at the idea of anyone thinking Elayne is villainous...)

Alex: What, you’ve never hidden in your office when the CEO is coming down the hall because you just weren’t emotionally prepared to see the leader of your company first thing in the morning? I sure have.

Marzie: I relate to that. Strongly. “Just not up to you right now...”

Jenni: Sadly, I only have a cube, not an office, lol. And the dear leader likes to keep it real, so although he has an office, he mostly occupies a cube two rows over!

Alex: The leadership at my company is very friendly, but I’ve still changed directions to avoid them in the hallway.

Marzie: When you see a Craftsman as powerful as the Red King, don’t they approach god-like status, which is so laden in irony…

Jenni: I thought the end solution that Caleb came up with was particularly ironic, and elevated the Red King nearly to the godhood he had sought to destroy.

Alex: It was an elegant solution. Max balances irony with seriousness and humor in such an inventive way. He essentially made it so that the King in Red had to take a leap of faith.

Marzie: Hahaha, after all the ones Caleb had to take (literally, figuratively) that is rather amusing.

Alex: I think ultimately Two Serpents Rise is a fantastical interrogation of the interplay between globalization, sustainability, and faith.

Marzie: I think that’s true. I don’t really hold much with the faith aspect in my updated review; I guess because I see it as diminishing in the Craft world. But it’s still there, and a potent risk to the hold the Craftsmen have over their populations.

Jenni: Caleb wanted to find a way to let people keep their religion without letting it harm the world. Sort give them a pressure valve, so they don’t revolt.

Marzie: That’s what brings me back to my perception that he still loves his father, even if he viscerally disagrees with him on a moral and pragmatic level. There is still space in Caleb’s worldview for those of faith.

Jenni: As long as they’re not killing people in sacrifice.

Alex: Yes, I think Caleb’s whole thing is you can keep your religion and you can keep doing what you need to as long as you’re not inflicting it upon others. In this application, we’re talking about literally sacrificing others. But in our own world, there’s a lot of pushing faith on others.

Marzie: We need a heaping share of that in this country. The idea that your faith cannot be inflicted upon others or dictate their freedoms is sorely challenged at present.

Alex: Okay, any final thoughts?

Marzie: As I said at the beginning, I loved it more the second time around. I found the book much more complex, and deeper in meaning, than when I first read it, when I was still feeling like I was Tara, only slightly less recently kicked out of the Hidden Schools. LOL

Alex: I also loved it more the second time around, especially with the additional layers of context later books have given me.

Jenni: Having only read it the once (so far), I can’t join the chorus. ;-)

Marzie: I can definitely say that this is one of those books you ENJOY reading the second time around. There are some out there that are a grind to reread for a series, but this is a good book to reread and enjoy.

Alex: YES! This is a series I’m consciously making space for on my shelf because rereading it is just a joy.

Marzie: I’m so happy that you’re reading with us, Jenni. I feel like I get to look at the books with fresh eyes, through your comments. Thanks so much for sharing with us!

Jenni: Thanks so much for having me! Discussing this series with you all is a pleasure, on top of the pleasure of discovering wonderful new stories.

This concludes our discussion of Two Serpents Rise. We look forward to your joining us in March, when we discuss Full Fathom Five.

We now have discussion space available both on Facebook and our buddy reads book club at Book Movement. If you sign up at Book Movement you can join our discussion for this book here. You can also create your own topics for discussion and recommend books to us.

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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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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: The Philosopher's Flight

The Philosopher's Flight The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Author Tom Miller's debut novel The Philosopher's Flight is a genre-bending steampunk wild ride. In this world, witches or wizards are philosophers and all the best ones are female. In spite of their amazing prowess in military campaigns, philosophers are feared. Trenchers, a sort of evangelical set comprised largely of men who fear and despise these powerful women, continually oppose and threaten the philosophers in ways both physical and legal. The harrowing opening passages evoke lynchings and the witch trials, while throughout the book we see Trenchers attack these women for everything from their use of birth control to their refusal to bow to the patriarchy. (We also see that these women are vulnerable to mistreatment by a military that quite literally exploits them.)

Set during World War I, the story follows a rare male philosopher, Robert Weekes, as he is taken on as a contingency student at Radcliffe College, one of only a few token men training with women. Most of the men are merely theoretical philosophers, but Robert, or Boober, as his Montana family lovingly calls him, is an empirical philosopher, raised to fly. Encouraged and cajoled into his skills by his mother and older sisters, he is a truly unusual man and not just because he's an expert sigilist.

Giving us the experience of role reversal, with a sole male prodigy among women encountering the derision, discrimination, and abuse that was usually heaped on women entering largely male educational settings during this era and too long after, Miller offers an accessible story about gender constraints perceived about talent and wrongly placed on education.

All of that sounds almost preachy and this book was anything but that- it was great fun to read. We have a wonderful set of secondary characters and a lot of humor to soften the blows of Robert's progress in the philosophical ranks. A renaissance man himself, Tom Miller is a practicing ER doctor with an MFA in writing. He's also going at the top of my Campbell Award nominations next year. A wonderful new voice.

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Review: Folk

Folk Folk by Zoe Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A haunting series of interrelated short stories tells the reader the history of the small village of Neverness and its inhabitants who experience superstition, magic, love, and sorrow. The book begins and closes with a village tradition that is their own version of Beltane, a gorse-maze, and girls who shoot arrows into the maze for the young men of the village to find and be matched for a kiss or more. As the book opens, we meet the ill-fated Crab Skerry and at its close see the fate of the girl he had wanted to kiss, Madden, whose soul is woven by a spell with that of a soaring kite.

These are folktales about island folk, mixing classic British Isle fae entities like the water bull, similar to a kelpie, luring young women to a watery death, and simple people with their everyday lives on their farms and in a fishing community. Beyond the elements of familiar folklore, Gilbert has given us truly poignant characters with heartbreaking stories. Ervet and her beloved mawkins, Verlyn, a man with a wing, and his unrequited love for a girl named after a bird, Linnet. There are also images of memorable power like that of a boy named Finch, arms outstretched, covered in bees, green sap emerging from a scratch on his neck.

This is a rich an beautiful series of stories that read like a novel. Blending folklore and magical realism, it's a unique book to be savored.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Review: The Book of Pearl

The Book of Pearl The Book of Pearl by Timothée de Fombelle
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

The Book of Pearl is an intricate story of worlds within worlds by French playwright and prize-winning author Timothée de Fombelle, author of Toby Alone and Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. By intricate, I am not kidding. Three interwoven storylines exist- that of Joshua Pearl, an exiled man who appears suddenly in our world and is taken in by marshmallow confectioners; Prince Ilian, a man who only wanted to be free to love a fairy named Olia; and a fourteen-year-old boy who narrates the story in a bookended fashion. With the shifting perspectives from the first person to third person narratives, the book can become confusing to settle into at the beginning and a bit disorienting when the first person narrator reappears.

De Fombelle's lush prose seems to have been translated with sensitivity to the flow of language, though some of the spelling/typeset variations in my ARC copy left me puzzled for pronunciation of translations from what would be presumed to be French names (use of the Nordic language å, pronounced similar to ō, for instance, in the names Oliå and Iliån). Nevertheless, it is easy to get lost in de Fombelle's truly dreamy writing. I can dream of blackberry marshmallows or fairies who give up their wings only to find their loves for whom this sacrifice was given missing, lost, exiled, or of lost princes who forget themselves, but not their loves, and who dream of returning to their true love and finding that love unchanged. There are some beautiful ideas here but like a dream, there is not always clarity in the narrative structure. That made reading the book somewhat frustrating at times for me. Who are we? Where are we? Why are we here? I've learned to be cautious when dealing with books that have been translated into English, as there are both linguistic and cultural issues that may be lost on the English reader. At least getting lost in the world of Pearl finds the reader exploring a beautiful place.

I received a digital review copy of this book from NetGalley as well as a paper review copy.

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Review: The Great Alone

The Great Alone The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

The Great Alone was a compelling read that I could hardly put down. The story of Leni Allbright's coming of age under rugged, almost unimaginably challenging conditions in a remote area of Alaska was often painful to read. Her father Ernt, a Vietnam War veteran who had been held as a prisoner of war, is a deeply broken and violent man. Everything Ernt touches seems to wither and that includes his family relationships. Leni is raised to tread lightly around Ernt and to avoid triggering his episodes of paranoia and violence. Her mother Cora is deeply enmeshed in the violent marital relationship. The book was often excruciating to read given my years of experience in the child welfare sector and looking at how hard it is to get women to leave situations of domestic violence. At one point it looks like Ernt's violence will have stolen everything there is to take from Leni and Cora. The last quarter of the novel was truly harrowing.

This book is a powerful story about overcoming abuse and stunning losses and gives us a heroine that is both brave and loyal. The secondary characters are richly drawn, in particular the ebullient Large Marge. My only quibble with the story was toward the end, with the criminal justice angle of things playing out as it did. I'm not sure I found it believable.

Kristin Hannah has given us another powerful story in which there are few easy answers but powerful women forging their path despite the challenges of their circumstances.

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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Review: Bringing Me Back

Bringing Me Back Bringing Me Back by Beth Vrabel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Author Beth Vrabel has been creating a reputation for writing Middle Grade "message" books about children facing adversity. I first read her work last year with her moving book Caleb and Kit about a young teen fighting cystic fibrosis and dealing with his parents' divorce and his growing friendship with an ungrounded girl suffering parental neglect and mental health issues. Her 2018 entry into the Middle-Grade fiction catalog, Bringing Me Back should be on summer reading lists. It's a story of second chances, true friendship, and redemption.

Noah is a 7th grader who has a lot on his plate. After a moment's bad judgment in a football game in which he injures a developmentally disabled child, Micah, in the last minutes of a game, Noah is instantly rendered a rough kid. The team coach quits due to the backlash, the team is disbanded and even his best friend is taking it out on him. But it's his mother's DUI conviction that has been the hardest thing for him to bear (the irony!) both personally and socially, due to the stigma in their small community. Then he goes and makes things worse with compulsive behavior at the beginning of the book, further branding himself as a "bad kid."

At the start of the new school year, Noah and his classmates see a young bear, wandering dangerously close to their school grounds. Hunting season starts soon and she's too small to be hunted but is seemingly unprotected by a mother bear. She faces many perils but the greatest is that a few weeks later she gets a bucket stuck on her head. The bucket blocks her vision and even after she's managed to poke a hole in it, it's not enough to let her eat or hunt. Noah feels responsible because a lot of buckets have been set out in their community, which is collecting funds to bring back their football team. But he also feels an odd kinship with this beleaguered young bear. Can he help save her? With the support of his legal guardian and de facto father figure Jeff and his good friend Rina, he mounts a campaign to do just that.

Bringing Me Back gives us a wounded child who has been through quite a few hard knocks due to his mother's substance abuse, battling his own rash choices and yet still possessing so much heart and conscience. That's such an important idea for both kids and parents to absorb. Noah has such a good heart and he shouldn't be written off as a troubled child. This is a heartwarming story about redemption that may make kids willing to give a peer branded as a "bad kid" a second chance, as well as making those who are labeled as "troubled kids" feel that they can still forge a new life and reputation for themselves with the right support and kindness in their hearts.

This is a quiet book with big goals. I hope teachers and librarians embrace it.

I received a Digital Review Copy from Edelweiss and a paper review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review: The Night Child

The Night Child The Night Child by Anna Quinn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I cannot review this book properly without a spoiler flag.

A poignant read by an author who spent a decade working on this, her debut. Powerful stuff. I could hardly put it down. An excellent book club read. So many questions to explore.

Spoilers below the cut...

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This is a very poignant story about the terrible damage that child abuse and child sexual abuse can cause. Major trigger warning for those with a history of abuse, though the final moments of this book can only be described as uplifting. As someone who spent years doing work within the child welfare system, I can definitely state that the extreme reaction to the abuse shown in this book is not an exaggeration. Children do what they can to survive their experiences and while what is shown here is a rarer solution, compartmentalization can go this far.

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