Carols and Chaos

By Cindy Anstey

Carols_and_ChaosSince Rebecca is still catching up on reviewing holiday reading, I figure I can, too. I thought this would be a fun cozy mystery/romance for the holidays, and it could have been…if only it had been written a little better. Anstey has real promise as an author, but the writing needs more polish. We’ve found on this blog that while it is easy to review books we either loved or hated, it is really difficult to write about books that are just mediocre.

On the one hand, I liked the details of life “downstairs” as the central romance and mystery centers around a lady’s maid and a footman attached to two different households visiting for the holidays. (I’ve gotten more into books centering servants or other lower/middle class characters, and Rebecca and I were pondering whether that’s gotten more popular in general as our society loses patience with the wealthy.)

On the other hand, all the descriptions felt a bit like just throwing a bunch of adjectives at a paragraph to see what sticks:

“The driver was not Mr. Niven; he was a young man with broad, muscled shoulders, freckled cheeks, and a Grecian nose. Kate watched as his thin lips curled up in a sardonic smile, and then he dropped the reins and jumped over the bench and off the back of the bouncing wagon. He landed hard, spilling onto the road, and knocked his tartan cap off. A shock of red hair was exposed, looking bright against the fallen snow.”

Between the descriptions of shoulders, cheeks, nose, lips, hat, and hair, it all started to remind me of my favorite Mitch Hedberg bits, and this sort of writing made it difficult to picture the characters and events, much less empathize. The mystery itself got a bit lost in all the descriptions, too, so that it was difficult to piece together exactly what were important clues and what were added just for ‘color’.

I realized afterwards that the book is considered young adult, which explains both the glossary of period-specific terms in the back and the occasional diversion in the text to randomly explaining historical details. Perhaps this would have been a fun new series of books for me 30 years ago.

Adult Fantasy Books Not By Straight White Men

Witchmark

By CL Polk

WitchmarkWitchmark is the first of the many library holds I put on books recommended by the Tumblr’s Adult fantasy books not by straight white men! and I’m so glad that it was the first one I read!

It is a little hard to review because it is just satisfying across the board. It has a lot of the elements of a comfort read: a common-man protagonist who must rely on his hidden magic in the face of adversity, a light romance with a charming but mysterious stranger, and a truly shocking conspiracy by a shadowy society that must be revealed to the world.

Set in fictional world, it is heavily based on post-WWI London. The metropolitan has recently been wired with new fangled electricity, and a treaty has finally brought the end to a brutal war between nations. Soldiers are returning home in mass, where our protagonist Miles does his best to hide his healing magic and personal history while working at an understaffed and underfunded veterans hospital.

The book starts off as a murder mystery, with a fatally ill man being brought to Miles by his own request, and insisting to him that he has been murdered just before he dies. This probably would have been enough to hook me, but the fantasy and romance elements are woven in so deftly that it became this wonderful amalgam of genres that made me want to read the sequel immediately (unfortunately not due out for a couple of months).

Amberlough

By Lara Elena Donnelly

AmberloughAmberlough cut a bit close to our current state of affairs, honestly. Set in a fictional world inspired by 1930s Germany, Cyril DePaul is a secret agent assigned to uncover why an extremely conservative party is winning elections despite low popularity in polls. Collusion and extortion is suspected (sound familiar?), but before he can discover anything Cyril is quickly uncovered by the wealthy industrialists that make up the party leadership, and strong-armed into betraying his employer and government.

Though I was sympathetic to his plight, Cyril is cowardly and too easily compromised. His lover, Aristide, the emcee of a popular cabaret, is vicious and self-serving, using Cyril for access to state secrets that could inform his side business smuggling. The central dancer at the cabaret, Cordelia, is drawn into their schemes, and is vapid…until she isn’t.

Which is when the book shifted for me, finally becoming more about schemes and espionage than characterizations of unpleasant people. Unfortunately, this happens almost 200 pages into the book, so it was a slow start, to say the least. And then, 100 pages later, everything goes to shit, perhaps accurate of 1930s Berlin and dare I say our current news cycle, and it becomes especially unpleasant reading.

It reminded me a fair bit of Jo Walton’s Small Change series, but even grimmer and joyless. Amberlough is well thought out and extremely well written, but I hated reading just about all of it, and felt entirely depleted after finishing it.

Halloween reading

Hallowe’en Party

By Agatha Christie

Halloween_PartyWe don’t manage it every year, but we like to read seasonal books when we can, especially spooky Halloween stories. Not especially spooky, but I was thrilled that Agatha Christie had a Halloween novel! Hercule Poirot is summoned by a friend to a small village after a young girl is found drowned in the apple bobbing bucket at the end of the village’s halloween party. This probably wouldn’t have been an intriguing enough mystery for Poirot to expend his energy in retirement on, but the drowned girl had been insisting earlier in the party that she had witnessed a murder. A known liar, no one had believed her, so it seemed somewhat reckless for the murderer to then do away with her and give her words more importance.

As with all of Christie’s mysteries, this was excellently plotted and I had only the faintest guess as to the conclusion shortly before it was revealed. Despite this, Hallowe’en Party is not one of my favorites of hers. Published in 1969 towards the end of her life, I couldn’t help but wonder she was getting cranky in an “old man yells at cloud” kind of way. There is a fairly heavy-handed theme of the degeneracy of the younger generation, with at least half a dozen of Poirot’s contemporaries mentioning the rising crime rate among youths and the misguided mercy of showing them any leniency in the justice system. Which does not read very well in today’s climate of harsh and obviously biased policing. I was concerned that the entire plot would serve as a platform for this philosophy, but fortunately, Christie was too canny of an author to fall into that obvious indulgence.

Pumpkin Heads

By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

PumpkinheadsI was a little hesitant about reading this since Eleanor and Park broke me a little bit, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for any more of Rowell’s type of coming-of-age story, but this is much more light hearted! Deja and Josiah are best friends who work together at the world’s greatest pumpkin patch – I mean, there are pumpkins, of course, but there’s bumper cars, mini golf, s’mores bonfires, petting zoo animals, pony rides, corn maze, and every possible fall-season snack you can think of (and a few more)! (In the afterward, Rowell says she was inspired by some of Omaha’s excellent pumpkin patches, but that she and Hicks created their fantasy patch.)

Anyway, Deja and Josiah have worked together at the Succotash Hut (perhaps the one stop that I wouldn’t have been super excited about) for the last four years, but they are graduating high school, and going on to college, so this is their last year. In fact, this story is the last day of their last year, and Deja is determined that shy Josiah will actually talk to the girl that works at the fudge shop (yum!) that he’s been pining over from afar for the entire time.

This leads them all over the park, into and out of various hijinx, and of course they learn important things about life and themselves along the way, but with a light touch that mostly just celebrates everything fall, holidays, and friendship. Rowell’s writing is so funny and empathetic, Hicks’ art is lovely and really brought this dream park to life, and the whole thing left me feeling very warm hearted!

ComicFest_2019Also, this is your annual reminder that today is Halloween ComicFest, so if that’s your thing, see if one of your local comic shops is hosting an event here. We stopped by two of our local shops, and picked up an excess of kid-friendly comics, since we’ve found them to be even more popular with trick-or-treaters than candy.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

By Joan Lindsay

Picnic_at_Hanging_RockI took a rather winding road to get this book: Nicole Cliffe, who’s newsletter I’ve recommended before, linked to a 2018 list of the 100 most influential horror movie scenes. For the longest time, I thought I didn’t like horror, since I don’t particularly like the slasher movies that were the fad when I was a teen. However, I love both old-school Hitchcock suspense and our current heyday of psychological horror, and I found the evolution of the horror genre in the article fascinating.

Anyway, the description for the film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock made me laugh: “notable for the absence of violence or even a conventionally advancing narrative.” As my friends and family can attest, I have seen (and imposed on other people) my fair share of movies lacking “conventionally advancing narrative.” I don’t have as much patience for them as I used to, so wasn’t super interested in seeing this movie, but when Bookbub recommended the novel to me the next day, it felt like fate.

And I absolutely loved it! Four schoolgirls wander off from a picnic party to get a closer look at the titular Hanging Rock, and only one returns, hysterical and incommunicative. The impressive thing is that we, the reader, are with them the whole time, too (or at least with the returning fourth girl). We ‘see’ the three girls walk deeper into the rock of their own volition, while the fourth seems to just freak herself out and run away from them. She can’t describe what happened because nothing did happen, and that’s what’s so unnerving!

There is no act of violence or even maliciousness. For a novel about the disappearance of schoolgirls, it is almost unbelievably serene. After the build up to the disappearance and then the subsequent panic of the search, the novel deals almost entirely with the ripple effects, both good and bad, this one event has on the details of daily life for the surrounding characters. It reminded me quite a bit of On The Beach, another Australian novel I loved and that focuses entirely on mundane details during a cataclysmic event.

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods_of_Jade_and_ShadowOoh, this book is so good (and how gorgeous is that cover)! It really does stand as uniquely its own, but all the descriptors I can think of are derivative of other books: it’s like American Gods but gentler, funnier, and somehow just more feminine; it’s got elements of both The Last Unicorn and The Labyrinth, a couple of my favorite pieces of media. Basically, they all have common motifs of mortals discovering the unexpected power they have to either help or resist immortals.

Set in 1920s Mexico, Casiopea is the poor relation in a wealthy family, in her own words: treated like Cinderella, but without the sweetness of character that earns Cinderella her eventual reward. She instead balances duty and resentment in a very recognizable way and chafes at her endless days of drudgery until she accidentally releases a God of Death from imprisonment. At which point, she is basically conscripted in his search for vengeance against those that imprisoned him, leading her from her small town, where her family at least was a large fish in a little pond, into progressively larger cities and exposing her to an array of beings, both natural and supernatural.

This is where it gets tricky. Our heroine is human in the most empathetic way, trying to do what is right while struggling with all the human weaknesses of anger and anxiety, while the god is charming in his own aloof, uncompromising way. The two are supernaturally connected for the duration of this quest, to the peril of both. There is a predominate theme, similar to in The Last Unicorn, of how lengthy exposure to mortals and the mortal world weakens/tarnishes immortals so that they are never as pure as they were to begin with, and that is very effective suspense for me.

A serious trigger warning, however: this is a God of Death we are talking about here, so there is plenty of death abounding, including animal sacrifice and suicide. Now both of those are things that I’m pretty sensitive to, and I was able to read it without trouble because they happen quickly and matter-of-factly instead of really delving into the gritty details, but take care.

While I was reading this, Rebecca sent me a link to a Tumblr post, which gives a variety of excellent recommendations for “Adult fantasy books not by straight white men!” The poster organized it by general tone, which is so, so useful. Under “Urban Fantasy,” one of my favorite sub-genres, she recommends a vampire noir in Mexico City by Moreno-Garcia, so that’s definitely on my to-read list!

Similarly, Rebecca then also sent me a list to “Become Very Well-Read Without Reading Anything by a Man” where you can see how many well-known (not necessarily classics) books by female authors you’ve read, and I love an opportunity to show off my reading! This was not that opportunity because I’d only read 36 out of the 250 books, but it did give me a lot of additional recommendations to look forward to!

— Anna

My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen

By David Clawson

My-Fairy-GodmotherThis showed up on my daily Bookbub email, and I was curious enough to read the excerpted section on Amazon, and that first chapter impressed me. For a modern, queer retelling of Cinderella, the author does a good job of characterizing a stepmother and stepsiblings who are self-centered and incompetent but not wicked, and a protagonist who is enough of an introverted neatnik to fall into a Cinderella role when the family runs into hard times.

Unfortunately, chapter 2 opens with meeting the fairy godmother drag queen, and while the actual sequence of events is clever, I’m not sure David Clawson actually knows any drag queens, and I’m almost positive he doesn’t have any black friends. I’m saying it gets real awkward real fast.

I really wanted to find excuses, so I spent far too much time thinking, oh, the protagonist is just so young and naïve, and perhaps this is just showing his own ignorance before he grows as a person, until I just couldn’t fool myself anymore. The titular drag queen and her friends are the broadest caricatures, vaudevillian even. Which could almost (but not quite) be waved away with the self-aware camp-ness that is built into drag, but meeting the man outside drag was too much. We’re talking 90s-sitcom-level portrayal of a “slightly thuggish-looking black guy in oversized hip-hop clothes” (direct quote from the book, and it gets worse from there).

Finally, just to add insult to injury, in Chapter 3 we meet Prince Charming, who is “the ridiculously handsome, brown-haired, brown-eyed, square-jawed, cleft chinned J. J. Kennerly, the only child of the closest thing America has to royalty,” and I wanted to vomit. While I appreciate the almost-ligature of the r and l, the Kennedy’s are so overblown in my opinion that any attempt to make them (or a facsimile of them) into a romantic lead loses me completely.

So, I was already predisposed to dislike Kennerly when he “ironically” said something incredibly homophobic to the drag queen to shock her for mistaking (?) him for a bigot. So, I’m left side-eying the protagonist, embarrassed by the fairy godmother, and contemptuous of the prince, which is not what I was hoping to get out of a fluffy bit of summer reading.

The 1619 Project

I wasn’t planning to borrow from Kinsey’s occasional tendency of reviewing something that everyone has already read and talked about, but Rebecca assured me that it hadn’t crossed her path until I told her about it.

So…the 1619 Project:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

The more I read as an adult, the more I realize just how sanitized the history I was taught was, and most particularly when it comes to slavery. This project is a collection of writing looking at the history of slavery, how it has roots in every sector of our country, and the ongoing harm it does today. It includes over a dozen pieces – mostly written essays but also poems, short works of fiction, and photo essays. It is large in scope, both in size and range of topics, and it is a daunting read that I honestly wasn’t sure I could manage.*

Then I started seeing some of the buckwild responses from conservatives who very clearly had not read any of it, and decided that I had to read it, out of spite if nothing else (for proof of what I’ll read out of spite, see Atlas Shrugged). And no lie, it is a hard read, though I suspect less difficult for black readers, who may mostly feel relieved to see published acknowledgement of what they already knew. I’ve set myself to read just one of the entries each day, so I’m only four in at the point of this review, but I feel like every sentence hits me like a ton of bricks:

This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin.

— from “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” by Nikole Hannah-Jones

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