Strange Practice

61KZB80mVgLAnyone who spends ten minutes reading this blog would be able to tell pretty quickly that Strange Practice was going to be right up my alley. This initial entry in a series of magical mystery stories by Vivian Shaw follows Greta Helsing (yes, yes, her family dropped the van some time ago), a London physician dedicated to treating the city’s magical inhabitants. Mummies with feet problems? Vampire anemia? Ghouls who need psychiatric assistance? She herself may be human, but she has a calling to provide health care for mystical creatures likely to have issues accessing the NHS. There is an actual mystery here (crazy monks are murdering people, there’s a sort of nameless power from the dawn of time, etc.) but the real draw of this book is the assortment of characters that end up surrounding Greta. Some of the magical creatures she knows fit better into the modern world than others, but they all have to work together to save London and protect the secrets of its less-well known inhabitants.

This is Shaw’s first novel and the writing isn’t always effortless–there were definitely times when it felt like she was trying too hard to be clever and was getting in her own way. And I found that the point of view switched around too much for me to ever really feel settled into the story. Greta is nominally the main character and she is definitely the reader’s entry point into this world, but other characters (vampires, humans, demons, the villains of the story) also get so many chapters told from their perspectives that the ratio felt off to me. I’m hopeful that Shaw was trying to cram as many cool ideas and cool characters as she could into this first book, but that as she goes along she’ll start letting things breathe a little more.

But despite those quibbles about some elements of execution, I really enjoyed the book. The overall world created here was fascinating and very specific. I was left with the impression that this version of London has many more creatures with complex lives ad backstories that need Greta’s help, and that the group of vampires, demons, and humans that circles around her is well on the way to be becoming an odd little family. My Kindle version of this book included a teaser for the next one in the series, so it looks like I’ll have the chance to see what Greta and her team are up to next.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Entertaining urban fantasy

You might also like: Anything by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews–I think the official Biblio-therapy position is that we are strongly in favor of those series. But Ben Aaronovitch’s supernatural mysteries, also set in London, would be good companions to this.

The Essex Serpent

61U76uN5PHLI was in London earlier this summer and the book of the moment, the book piled up in store displays and advertised in posters around town, was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I was worried that this would be another of those Kinsey Tells You About an Already Wildly Popular thing entries, but I haven’t heard much about The Essex Serpent here in the U.S., which is a shame, because it’s really quite a good book.

I suppose you could call this a neo-Victorian novel–it’s set in England in late 1800s, and focuses on a woman named Cora. Her husband has just died–not a terribly sad occasion for her–and being a widow has allowed her the freedom to start walking the marshes and looking fossils and getting muddy and generally ignoring nice society. In the course of all this she meets the vicar of a small town on the English coast and they strike up a friendship, which is at least partly based on Cora’s interest in rumors of a sea monster (the Essex Serpent) that has been plaguing the town. What will this relationship bring? Will they ever find the serpent?

This description makes it sound like plot-driven, exciting tale! But it’s not, really–it’s not a romance, and it’s not a supernatural mystery/adventure. The basic plot description doesn’t account for how the story’s point of view moves from character to character, not only Cora and the vicar, but also their children, the vicar’s wife, and a doctor friend of Cora’s, among others. The book is really a character study, illuminating the inner lives of a variety of people that, for various reasons (gender, class, intelligence), are marginalized or limited within society.  Plus, the tiny villages and marshes of English seaside basically serve as one of the characters, giving the whole book a sort of damp, salty feeling to it. All this makes it seem odd, honestly that this is such a book of the moment in England–it’s about as far from The Girl on the Train as you could get, but it’s a lovely book and I’m glad it’s gotten so much attention. The cover is also just gorgeous.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Atmospheric Victorian tale

You might also like: The Historian or The Thirteenth Tale; or Kate Morton’s books, including The House at Riverton; or Sarah Waters’s books, especially Fingersmith.

Six of Crows

Six of crowsIf I told you that a book was like a YA Game of Thrones crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, would I even need to say anything else?

I haven’t been reading a lot lately–due to a combination of work and personal events, I’ve been so busy and distracted and stressed that I haven’t been able to concentrate enough to read much beyond Twitter. Which is unusual for me, but it does mean than when a book manages to break through the fog, it’s something to note. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is actually the first in a set of two books (and it’s basically just one big story, so you might as well go ahead and get Crooked Kingdom at the same time, because you’re going to need to start it right away) that I just thought were terrific. Tense and dark and sweet and magical and twisty–the kind of story that drags you completely out of your world and into a new one.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, this story has an ensemble cast with a crafty leader who is always one step ahead of everyone else. In this case, the ringleader of the group is Kaz Brekker, an up-and-coming gang boss in a city that reads like an alternate universe Amsterdam where magic is real. When he gets offered a can’t-say-no job breaking into an impenetrable ice palace, he has to assemble a group of other disreputable underworld teenagers with the skills–including sharpshooting, demolitions, and magic–needed to pull off the heist. But this is not a simple theft, and the gang gets swept into disputes both international and interpersonal. Reading Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom was like a roller coaster–I would get more and more tense as things went wrong and situations got dire, and then there would be this rush of glee as all the double-crosses and plans were revealed.

Now, this isn’t a comedy. As appears to be the thing in YA books now, there is violence and death and things do get very dark. I should also note that this story is set in the same universe as another trilogy of books, starting with Shadow and Bone. I haven’t read those yet (they’re all waiting on my Kindle) but they happen some time before Six of Crows. So if you’re very intent on reading things chronologically and not getting any hint of other story lines, you might want to start there.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Gritty, magical caper

You might also like: We’ve already raved here about Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, but I really think that if you liked one of these, you’d like the other. Kaz and Gen have an awful lot in common. And this is great opportunity to tell you that Turner just came out with a new book in her series (technically, a stand-alone story in the same universe) called Thick as Thieves. Quick like a fox, go check it out!

The Tearling Trilogy

I read the first book in this trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling, almost a year ago, but I was too scared to recommend it until the final book was released because I’ve been burned before. I wrote a blog entry about The Fifth Wave before I had finished the series and you guys–that one was not good. It got so convoluted and nonsensical at the end that I read all three books but am still not 100% sure if the aliens or humans won. But this trilogy did not descend into madness!  It really held up and kept me hooked the whole time.

Trying to describe the plot of these books makes it sound like every other YA/fantasy-ish series out there. In a land that sounds a lot like medieval Europe, a teenage girl is about to become queen of a country under attack, and will have to learn confidence in herself and how to wield her power in order to protect her people. I know, I know, this could describe half the things I read. But there are a few things about this story that I think make it different than some other versions:

  • It’s dark. I know that YA these days leans dark, but this is pretty darn dark. Kelsea, the main character, doesn’t just have to save her people from looming threat, but from some truly terrible things happening in her kingdom.
  • This is not a romance. Some people like each other, and some people have sex, but this is not a story where you spend the whole time waiting for two key characters to realize how much they love each other. These characters have so much to deal with that love is pretty secondary to them, and the books treat it that way.
  • There is an interesting treatment of time. I don’t want to give too much away, but especially when you get to the second and third books, the concept of time becomes somewhat malleable in a way that I was not expecting.
  • This may connect to the first bullet (the darkness), but there is not a lot of redemption in this story. Bad things happen to people–tough. People do some bad things–they don’t always get to make up for it. Even people who do great things don’t necessarily get rewarded for their efforts.
  • There are a few subtle magical elements in this world that are pretty much never explained. I am still torn on whether I am annoyed about a few things that we all apparently just have to accept as a given, or pleased that the author didn’t try to make up “reasons” for magical occurrences.
This all made these books sound horribly depressing, doesn’t it? Well, they’re not light and fun. But I was completely hooked on them and I was surprised with where the story ended up–the author took what could have been a familiar, maybe even overdone YA trope, and took it in a newer, darker, more subtle and complex direction.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dark, moral coming-of-age

You might also like: A number of adult sci-fi fantasy books, such as Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, The City and the City by China Mieville, or David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. In the YA area, this was similar in a lot of ways to The Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy.

A Monster Calls

Around this time last year, I mentioned that I had enjoyed the Patrick Ness book A Monster Calls. I didn’t go into a lot of detail in that post, but the book uses Ness’s text and beautiful black and white illustrations by Jim Kay to tell the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother is clearly dying (but won’t admit it) and who conjures a monster from a tree outside his window. The monster comes to him at night and tells him stories that ultimately help him process what is happening. I did like the book, although it was a little middle reader for my taste and I’m not a huge fan of heavily illustrated books.  But Anna and I recently saw the movie version released right before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. In fact, I liked the movie much more than the book. Why? A few factors:

The illustrations in the book were lovely, but as someone who is way more into the text, I mostly glanced at them quickly and moved on. The movie does an amazing job of recreating the pictures so the movie has the same overall feeling and some of the same specific imagery. But it’s all alive and moving and in color and really striking.

In the book, the stories that the monster tells the boy were fine, whatever, I read them, they seemed just sort of like morally-ambiguous fairy tales. But in the movie, the stories within the stories are told through colorful watercolor illustrations that you watch appear on screen. They’re just lovely and made me pay attention to the stories in a way I hadn’t in the book.

The acting is truly wonderful. Liam Neeson is the voice of the monster, and his portrayal made the monster seem less like an arbitrary tree man and more like a force of nature that cared about what happened to the boy, even if it couldn’t change anything. (Liam Neeson also appears in the movie for two seconds as a character in a photograph, which I thought added a nice layer). And Felicity Jones made the mom seem sick and in denial, which was most of what came through in the book, but also fierce and funny and real. The boy was also great, and Signourney Weaver is in there too, and the specificity of the performances added to my experience.

A warning: I am not a big movie crier, and there was much crying here. As in, you could hear everyone in the theater around us crying and Anna and I both made use of the napkins I had gotten for my popcorn. But it didn’t feel like despondent crying, more like cathartic, hopeful crying. I also saw Manchester by the Sea recently, and when it was over I remember feeling dull and heavy, even though it was a beautifully-made move. This one felt more like waking from a dream. Which is not what I want every day, but was definitely worth it in this case.

The Best of 2016

2016 was rough, I think we’ve established that. But now as we move forward into 2017, I’ve been trying to make myself remember some of the good things that did happen last year–I refuse to let an entire year go down because of a few (key, admittedly very) bad things. I’ve spent the past few months re-reading romance novels, but before that period of re-reading began, I found some great new books. Most of them I’ve already talked about here on the blog–Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, How to Build a Girl, and Bone Gap–but there were a few others I wanted to mention.

  1. Pointe by Brandy Colbert is a YA book about a ballet dancer, but it also involves a kidnapping and a teenage victim who comes back after years away. It’s a dark, sad book, maybe not for younger teens, but I found it really compelling. I especially enjoyed watching, over the course of the book, as the female protagonist worked out just how much agency she had and how she was going to use it.
  2. I’ve already raved about the memoir Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, one of my favorites books of recent years, but I was a little worried that I might not feel the same way about the author’s fiction. And while nothing could quite match my original love, Paradise Lodge was a really charming story about a British teenager in 1970s who takes a job in a nursing home. Stibbe has this very specific voice that comes across in both her fiction and non-fiction, in which even when she’s talking about some sort of crisis or disaster, everything seems like it will all work out fine. I found this very calming.
  3. If you know who I am talking about when I say “Dave Holmes, MTV VJ,” I suspect you will like his book. Party of One is a memoir, structured around music, and maybe it’s just that he and I are about the same age, but this book felt like it came directly from my subconscious.
  4. Way back in 2012 I wrote about how much I love Sharon Shinn, and I recommended a new book of hers called Troubled Waters and said I hoped was the start of a new series. And it was! There are now four books in the Elemental Blessings series, and I have enjoyed all of them. If you would like to read a fantasy romance novel with a kick-ass female main characters, these are a great option. I would recommend reading them in order, but I think my favorite was the third book, Jewelled Fire.

And with that, I am quite happy to close the book (so to speak) on 2016. I’m already starting 2017 out well, reading-wise, with my continued journey through the Lord Peter Wimsy books, and a lovely, poem-like book called The Lesser Bohemians. I have a lot of hopes and goals for 2017, and continuing to discover great new things to read and writing about them here is definitely something I plan to continue.

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.