Posted in [fiction reviews]

[Fiction Review] “The Boneless Mercies” by April Genevieve Tucholke

Full Title: The Boneless Mercies
Author: April Genevieve Tucholke
Published: October 2018 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Genres: Fiction, YA Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, High Fantasy, Mythology Retold
Edition Details: 352 pages, trade paperback
Source: Purchased
Rating: {4/5 stars}

This review is spoiler free. No details will be shared from the storyline itself that aren’t available or inferred from the book jacket and online descriptions.

First Glance

This book has been on my TBR list for ages, but I kept putting it back in an effort to avoid buying too many new books when my pile of unread books is already unmanageable. And yet, when our local book club asked for suggestions on books to read, I immediately thought of this one. It gave me an excuse to finally buy it!

Positive Bits

This world is harsh but beautiful. The fact that the Mercies and their trade are needed, that people would pay to die at their hands, tells you something about the kind of reality they live in. And yet, each death we witness has its beauty. Even the deaths of “bad” people are done in such a way as to be a mercy killing, so that we walk away with the feeling that death is both a kindness and an inevitability.

I adored the variety of girls involved in the Mercies, particularly when their origins come out during the course of the story. Letting each girl be so different while remaining so close spoke to me, and they felt real compared to a gaggle of photocopy children running wild together. Each girl played an important role toward the finale of the story, all feeding into the plot with their actions. Juniper is my favorite from start to finish, particularly as her story is told.

The end left me both satisfied and a little sad. Without ruining it, I can only say that I had hoped each girl would get to make different choices for their futures after leaving behind the Mercies. More than once, though, we see them at a fork in the road without an obvious path to choose; as we follow them down their choice, we can see all of the potential futures they left behind. The fact that each choice feels like a reasonable one is what makes this book so good!

Less Enjoyable Bits

This book never mentioned that it’s a retelling of Norse mythology or a clever twist on Beowulf. The blurbs mention it, but I honestly skip blurbs on covers out of irritation; I prefer a proper book description rather than snippets of someone’s opinion. Honestly, the mythological tie-ins are a bonus rather than a notch against this book, but they should’ve been part of the marketing.

While it doesn’t bother me, the book does run light on the descriptive imagery. We get an introduction to each person and location with vaguely sketched lines, and then we move on with the plot. For some, that means more space for our imaginations to run amok. But for others, this might be an issue.

There’s a romantic subplot that’s woven throughout the book, only to have no real payout. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but it was a letdown. If it had been treated as a small detail, the lack of follow through would’ve been just fine. When it’s brought up often enough to feel very important, you kind of need to make something out of it by the ending. Added to that, there’s an almost sapphic energy between the Mercies that’s never explained or explored – another disappointment and, at least in my opinion, a missed opportunity.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

Glory. I wanted to touch it. Taste it. I wanted it so deeply I thought my heart would swell up, claw its way out of me, and float away on the wind, cawing like a Sea Witch raven, a prayer caught in its beak.

I’d experienced joy before. Not often, but enough to know what it was, enough to ache for it late at night when I sat quietly beside the fire. Joy was different from peace, though. Peace was slower, calmer, and lasted longer. I hadn’t know this kind of tranquility could exist.

We didn’t speak. There was no need. I felt her heart against mine, and it sang the same sad song.

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – I will always recommend a good retelling of mythology or folktales! This weaving of magic and Norse-flavored myth is perfect for someone with little familiarity of the base materials.

Posted in [fiction reviews]

[Fiction Review] “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Full Title: Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1)
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
Published: October 2020 by Gallery / Saga Press
Genres: Fiction, Epic Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Native American Literature, LGBTQ Fantasy
Edition Details: 464 pages, trade paperback
Source: Advanced Reader’s Edition won via Goodreads Giveaway
Rating: {5/5 stars}

This review is spoiler free. No details will be shared from the storyline itself that aren’t available or inferred from the book jacket and online descriptions.

First Glance

I enter giveaways on Goodreads if the book sounds like something I might read. In the case of this book, the description had me entering to win in the first sentence:

From the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Resistance Reborn comes the first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

I’m a sucker for any story based in mythology, but I particularly enjoy magical worlds reimagining unfamiliar cultures. In her acknowledgements and credits at the end of the book, the author points out how often “epic fantasy” only seems to apply to European-flavored stories. I agree, which is why I often seek out those written in different lands.

Positive Bits

The world we’re brought into is beautiful and deadly. Isn’t that the best kind? We visit a land with a holy city run by Priests of the non-Christian variety, as well as wild seas and a crescent coast full of different peoples and cultures. Even without visiting some of the locations mentioned by characters, we’re given enough details to have a taste of their individual quirks. The worldbuilding was done skillfully enough that I never had a moment where I fell out of the story due to confusion over a custom or description.

As a queer woman, I greatly appreciated the fact that LGBTQ folks exist throughout the story without being the story. Representation is important, and I love a good queer-focused story as much as the next person, but the best kinds of representation are when being queer is treated the same as being short or tall – as in, it’s natural and a part of some characters’ stories without being the entirety of their plotline. Also, there’s a nonbinary person throughout this first book who uses the pronouns xe/xir, and I found that inclusion to be done skillfully enough to explain and then move us along to the actual reason xe was introduced.

Trilogies by their very nature have to end unfinished, but there’s a skill needed to leave us wanting more without leaving us at a confusing cliffhanger. This book handles that balance well, leaving us with just enough closure to be satisfied while maintaining enough loose threads to keep weaving the story in the next book. The specific characters who end up together at the end due to circumstance definitely had me wishing for more.

Less Enjoyable Bits

Sometimes, I find details I dislike that are important to the story. I think that might be the case here. For example, one character struggles with alcoholism or at least regularly uses alcohol to seek oblivion, and there’s a decent portion of the story where it’s not given context. It’s just a vice they have, and it gets them tossed in jail (to have them meet up with other important characters, of course). Much later, we learn a few details about their past that hint at why they drink so often, but it’s not particularly satisfying. Then again, maybe any family or personal experience with alcoholism or alcoholics makes this plotline hit different?

We’re given hints of each main character’s past, but sometimes it’s not balanced in the first book of a trilogy like this. While I became thoroughly invested in each of the characters as they came across the page, it disappointed me that we didn’t get more information on the Teek. Considering how their people and culture play into the first book’s story, I would’ve expected to hear more about them than a passing mention. The story in book one still makes sense without those details, but it might’ve been enriched with more of them included.

My only other complaint is on the magic system(s) used in this world. I enjoy fantasy worlds where magic is standard, especially if there are different kinds based on culture or class. That said, this book didn’t flesh out the magic existing in their society. We get hints here and there for plot purposes, but there’s never a really good explanation of what is and isn’t possible with magic (or how). Again, this might be a trilogy issue rather than an issue with this book directly. I can only wait and see in book two.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

She was only ten, then, her destiny far from decided. She had not yet learned that she was poor and that people like her only went to the celestial tower as servants, or that once you were poor, people hated you for it even when you weren’t poor anymore.

“Villain,” he mouthed, liking the sound of it, the weight of the word on his bloodied lip. If protecting his crows made him a villain, then a villain he would be.

Even when armed with blade and bow, even with an army of a thousand at her command, a spearmaiden’s greatest weapon is her tongue.

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – if you enjoy reading fantasy based in non-European cultures, this book is a great add to your collection. Also, the queer representation is woven throughout the story, so that’s a major bonus!

Posted in [fiction reviews]

[Fiction Review] “Practical Magic” by Alice Hoffman

Full Title: Practical Magic
Author: Alice Hoffman
Published: Reissue edition from 2003 by Berkley
Genres: Fiction, Family Saga, Magical Realism, Paranormal, Fantasy
Edition Details: 286 pages, trade paperback
Source: Purchased
Rating: {4/5 stars}

First Glance

I’m not a movie person. Period.

That said, Practical Magic is one of the few movies I still call a favorite, even as the years progress and the filming style (i.e. special effects, acting methods, directing, etc.) become more and more aged. I had no idea back in 1998 that the movie was based on a book; I was an eleven year old in a world without internet in everyone’s house, so I enjoyed the movie and moved on.

I only found out about the book when the prequel showed up on our bookstore’s display during my birthday trip. I picked up both books and added them to my TBR list, and a friend’s decision to create an online book club led to me bumping Practical Magic up to read next.

Positive Bits

This review contains spoilers, because this book and movie have been out for years. Fair warning!

Hoffman’s voice is unique in the way she tells her story. Instead of reading a story as though we are the omnipotent viewer, we get to experience the story as though we’re listening to a storyteller as they tell us the story. There’s not a ton of dialogue, but we get a taste of each character’s inner world through the descriptions of what they’re doing and feeling. It’s an interesting approach to telling a story that you don’t see often.

Kylie (Sally’s younger daughter of thirteen) is probably the most interesting character in the book. I enjoyed experiencing her sudden onset of aura and energy awareness, as some of the descriptions really hammer home the way someone with high empathy can feel. She felt like the character who was given the most depth, which is amusing when you consider that her main role in the movies was to be the little girl that saw Jimmy’s ghost. I think the story benefited overall from having teenagers instead of children in the family, as teenagers can provide another pair of nearly-adult eyes to view the story.

If I completely ignore the fact that a movie of this book exists and measure the book on its own standing, then I enjoyed the story. The magical realism involved is extremely subtle (i.e. almost non-existent), but I think it lends just enough suspension of disbelief to make the rest of the story believable. Without the hints of magic, the events that happen and the characters’ reactions to them wouldn’t make any sense.

Less Enjoyable Bits

My wife had to keep correcting me as I talked about this book. In my head, the movie has existed since I was a kid but the book only came into existence (for me) this year. Every difference I noticed came out as “they took out the part where…” instead of “the movie added a part where…”. Regardless, my problems with this book were largely based on what never happened outside of the movie. Some of my favorite scenes included the love spell meant to keep love away and the PTA phone tree calling in a volunteer coven to help save the day… neither of which existed in the book. Basically, the book had none of the movie’s magic woven into the story, and that was disappointing to a fan of the movie’s version of events.

Aside from artistic differences between the book and movie, I took issue with some of the random vulgarity in the descriptions. Hoffman’s prose is generally soft and floaty, like you’re listening to a storyteller, but she randomly tosses in details like “Maybe it’s because she’s just realized who it was she was fucking and calling sweetheart all that time. (page 223)” that become jarring as they enter the scene. There were a handful of times where the that kind of sharp note showed up unannounced, and I don’t feel like they were necessary to tell the story. Sometimes these moments also occurred within tangents in the prose, leaving them to feel both uncomfortable and unnecessary.

This book is labeled as magical realism, but it’s disappointingly mundane. Sure, the aunts are witch-like women who occasionally perform a love spell for someone foolish, but mostly they make soap to sustain themselves. They ride a bus to go down and help the girls out. One of Sally’s daughters can see auras when she turns thirteen, but it’s not important except to explain her seeing Jimmy’s spirit around the garden where he’s buried. She sees a pair of men leave a bar drunk, and her ability to see auras isn’t needed to see that they’re troublemakers; in fact, her ability plays no part in her own story outside of seeing Jimmy’s spirit off and on. Most of the story is based in the kind of world Sally wants to live in: a normal one.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

It doesn’t matter what people tell you. It doesn’t matter what they might say. Sometimes you have to leave home. Sometimes, running away means you’re headed in the exact right direction. – page 56

On especially hot days, when you’d like to murder whoever crosses you, or at least give him a good slap, drink lemonade instead. – page 193

Although she’d never believe it, those lines in Gillian’s face are the most beautiful part about her. They reveal what she’s gone through and what she’s survived and who exactly she is, deep inside. – page 265

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – as long as you’re not looking to read the movie in book form. They’re nothing alike, but I think the book stood up well on its own.

Posted in [fiction reviews]

[Fiction Review] “What Should Be Wild” by Julia Fine

Full Title: What Should Be Wild
Author: Julia Fine
Published: May 2019 by Harper Perennial
Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism, Coming of Age, Fantasy, Adult Fiction
Edition Details: 368 pages, hardcover
Source: Borrowed
Rating: {3.5/5 stars}

This review is spoiler free.

First Glance

My wife’s coworker gave her this book after hearing about some of the other books I’ve read. She said it was my kind of weird. Considering the description includes a family curse and the power to kill at the slightest touch, I figured she was right.

Positive Bits

I happen to enjoy stories that switch perspectives, as long as we’re given clear guidance on who the speaker is for each section. The author did so throughout this book, swapping from the main character Maisie to her female ancestors to build the story. It played an important role in fleshing out the family curse and Maisie’s personal experience of it. Each change in perspective was clearly marked.

Magical realism is that dark kind of lovely to read. It always feels like zooming into a story with magic, whereas we often view it from high above. Instead of showing me how hard it is to live with deadly touch, the author has Maisie weeding the garden by touching certain vines at their base (efficient!). Her actions have a hesitant kind of grace, born of necessity as she dances around touching the living things in her life. I think the real beauty of magical realism is in how successfully it brings magic into our reality, playing it out to its obvious conclusions.

The story of Maisie’s family and the ancestors we meet are tragic and deeply intertwined with Maisie’s own story. Each is fleshed out in a way that builds someone with their own personality and goals, rather than a prop to tell the main character’s story. The other characters in the cast (outside of her family) are equally well told, allowing you to ride along with Maisie while understanding the actions and motives of those around her. Any surprises are based on purposeful plot points, rather than accidental plot holes.

Less Enjoyable Bits

I struggled with what to rate this book, honestly. In my personal rating system, I used 1-10 as options; the 3.5 stars would be 7 in that system, listed as “the book was good, but there were plot holes or tropes that got in the way of full enjoyment – will not keep.” To be fair, “will not keep” just means I have limited shelf space and likely won’t reread this book.

As for the things that got in the way of full enjoyment, there’s not a lot of specifics I can give without ruining the plot. I found that the primary and secondary antagonists we meet just don’t sit well with me. Maisie is made a victim and rests in that place for quite a while, making me frustrated and uncomfortable with her lethargy in the face of being misused. Later, the “climax” kind of fizzles out with the main antagonist not antagonizing Maisie at all once they finally meet. The ending is what I expected it to be, but it was built up to something dramatic only to be solved with a handshake, so to speak.

Because of the ending more than anything else, I don’t know how I’d recommend this book to someone. If asked about this book directly or asked for suggestions on books with magical realism done well, I’d say it’s an interesting read and definitely weird in a good way. But I don’t think this book will be one I choose to suggest to others outside of that window.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

Nothing begs question of permanence, of sin, like the power to kill and revive. Nothing promises revival like a fairy tale.

Tamed. A word for a wild girl made obedient. A word for a hawk with clipped wings, a declawed tiger. A word that made me safe.

Peter would have said that behaviors are determined by principles, theories. That the difference between Theory of God and Theory of Not God was actually quite slim, each a slightly different lens through which to choose to view the world. One a shade lighter, the other negligibly darker – what mattered was that both were held up to the eye and used to filter our experience.

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – if you’re looking for a book with magical realism and a dark family history, this is a good choice.

Posted in [fiction reviews]

[Fiction Review] “Hunted by the Sky” by Tanaz Bhathena

Full Title: Hunted by the Sky
Author: Tanaz Bhathena
Published: Upcoming Release Date – June 23, 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Genres: Young Adult, Epic Fantasy, Science Fiction & Dystopian Romance
Edition Details: 384 pages, Hardcover
Source: {Advance Readers’ Edition}
Rating: {4.5/5 stars}

This is a spoiler-free review. No details will be shared from the storyline itself that aren’t available or inferred from the book jacket and online descriptions.

First Glance

The gods of reading took pity on me, and I once again found a book in my Facebook feed. Fierce Reads promoted this novel via ads that allowed viewers to request an advanced readers’ edition. After reading the description, I had to take a chance:

Gul has spent her life running. She has a star-shaped birthmark on her arm, and in the kingdom of Ambar, girls with such birthmarks have been disappearing for years. Gul’s mark is what caused her parents’ murder at the hand of King Lohar’s ruthless soldiers and forced her into hiding to protect her own life. So when a group of rebel women called the Sisters of the Golden Lotus rescue her, take her in, and train her in warrior magic, Gul wants only one thing: revenge.

Cavas lives in the tenements, and he’s just about ready to sign his life over to the king’s army. His father is terminally ill, and Cavas will do anything to save him. But sparks fly when he meets a mysterious girl—Gul—in the capital’s bazaar, and as the chemistry between them undeniably grows, he becomes entangled in a mission of vengeance—and discovers a magic he never expected to find.

Dangerous circumstances have brought Gul and Cavas together at the king’s domain in Ambar Fort…a world with secrets deadlier than their own.

Added to that, the book is specifically mentioned that it explores identity, class struggles, and a world inspired by medieval India. I couldn’t resist!

Positive Bits

As someone who enjoys YA, I still find myself frustrated by characters who act a little too immature or naive. Thankfully, Gul and Cavas (the main characters of our story) manage to find that balance between youthful folly and energetic luck.

The chapters pivot between the viewpoints of Gul (female) and Cavas (male), which is one of my favorite methods of telling a multi-POV story. We even get a chapter at the end in the POV of an antagonist who will obviously be around for book 2.

The magic and beings in Ambar are built well, obviously steeped in a familiarity with mythology and a heavy dose of creativity. I admire the way Bhathena sketch out our experience, using a first person POV to allow us to really experience each location ourselves.

I love a good revenge scheme, especially if nothing goes according to plan. I won’t say more, as I’m not willing to share any spoilers, but I enjoyed being wrong about where the story takes us.

Less Enjoyable Bits

Some of the side characters should’ve been given more depth, in my opinion. The story isn’t made less by their flatness, but I think it could’ve been made even richer if we saw more of those people.

For example, the three main people Gul interacts with from the Sisters of the Golden Lotus are slightly 3-D, but I found myself disappointed to not get more out of their backstories and actions. We get bits and pieces, enough for their presence to make sense and be important, but we don’t get a full picture of their character.

I also wish more characters were given depth, largely because that tends to leave you wondering who is important to the plot. It’s not essential, but I prefer a little less lead-by-the-hand reading. When there are multiple fleshed out characters, you end up guessing (and sometimes being wrong about) who will play a key role in the story. When only a handful of specific people get full descriptions, you know they’re the important players and all of the guess work is lost. (Again, that’s a personal preference.)

Tidbits Worth Repeating*

* Without spoiling the plot, but giving you a taste of the mood…

“You have to eat sometime, princess.”

I look up from the plate full of lotus sabzi, dal, and rice and into Amira’s dark eyes.

“No one cares, do they?” I ask. “About girls like us.”

Something shifts in her gaze, something I don’t quite understand. “Eat,” she says again before leaving the room.

I don’t.

One kindness for another, the mammoth tells me as I cling to it. You did not let me die in the market; I will not let you fall.

Do not judge yourself too harshly, Savak-putri Gulnaz. Subodh’s voice feels like a gentle breeze in my mind. I am older than you are and have made mistakes that are even bigger. There are always ways to make amends. 

Is it worth the coin?

Yes! I recommend this book if you like big worlds based on various real world cultures (other than European). I’ll be keeping an eye out for book 2.

Posted in [fiction reviews]

Book Review: “Hush Hush”

Hush Hush on Amazon.com

I’ve decided to review the books I read here. I have eclectic tastes, but I lean mostly toward the supernatural and romance genres. I don’t discriminate against books because of their target audience (teen books, for example). And if you like any of the books I’ve listed as owned and read on my Shelfari.com page, you’ll know that my taste reflects in my review. So here goes.

I read Hush Hush thanks to an advanced proof sent to our Hastings. The cover caught my eye, so I decided “what the heck” and tried it out.

First of all, let me say that I don’t usually like first-person stories, but this one was great. I didn’t really realize it was first-person; the plot was awesome enough to distract me from that. The characters were well developed, along with the introduction of the supernatural factor: angels.

The book entails a fallen angel’s actions and a high school girl’s feelings. It’s not just some corny romance (though there is some romance here and there), but instead a look at how a person can change even after a lifetime or two, or three, spent committing wrongs. It’s also about a struggle between doing what’s best for yourself and what’s better for those around you.

Without ruining the plot, I can’t say much else. But it’s a worth-while read. It officially comes out sometime this year, October 13th. Go read it!!