FICTION REVIEW: The Beloveds

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Title: The Beloveds by Maureen Lindley
Genre: Suspense/Gothic
Rating:  ★★ (2/5)

Elizabeth Stash has never really loved anything in her life except Pipits, the cherished ancestral home of her childhood in rural England. Even when her mother’s favoritism for Elizabeth’s despised little sister Gloria reared its head, Pipits was there to enfold Elizabeth into a voice that spoke through creaking wood and rustling curtains. Her obsessive love for the house only grows with time, and when Elizabeth’s mother dies she is certain that she, the eldest daughter, will rightfully inherit Pipits. But when the will specifies that Pipits will pass to beautiful, beloved Gloria, Elizabeth begins to hatch an ugly plan that will soon consume her entirely.

The Beloveds is a book that flirts with the supernatural but for the most part stays staunchly psychological, delving deep into the malice which Elizabeth nurtures and cultivates.  Elizabeth is a narcissist who can’t properly empathize with other people, considers herself superior to them, and is constantly convinced she’s been wronged.  As far as unreliable, unsympathetic narrators go, Elizabeth held my attention, though some of her diatribes about being betrayed bordered on repetitive.

The tension in this book ratchets wonderfully as the narrator becomes more and more delusional, and as her actions become progressively more criminal and poorly disguised. However, and to my great disappointment, this suspense ultimately comes to nothing. Elizabeth character’s steadily erodes, but the lives of those around her remain largely unchanged, as as the book reaches what I hoped would be a gloriously cacophonous crescendo, it goes out with a whimper rather than a bang.

The Beloveds is an engaging read that cultivates a Gothic atmosphere without pulling in some of the more scenery-chewing tropes of the genre, but ultimately, it falls flat. It felt like one long character sketch, and Elizabeth’s family remained so unbelievably oblivious to her machinations that I supposed there must be some catch, something hidden from the narrator that would be revealed in the big finish. Sadly, there was not, and without any satisfying cherry on the cake of nastiness, The Beloveds is ultimately an unremarkable summer read.

Note: I received a copy of The Beloveds in exchange for an honest review. The Beloveds is set to drop on April 3, 2018.

Fiction Review: Gods of Howl Mountain

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Title: Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown
Genre: Action/Historical Fiction
Rating:  ★★★★★ (5/5)

After losing his leg in the Korean War, Rory Docherty returns home to the wilds of 1950s North Carolina to run whiskey for the most feared bootlegger on the mountain. Here, family ties are everything, moonshine is more valuable than gold, and secrets are hard to keep buried. Rory is haunted by what he’s seen in the war and what happened to his mother, struck dumb and left unhinged after witnessing an act of horrible violence. In order to find the men responsible, he’ll have to face down federal agents, duplicitous women, snake-handling preachers, and feuding boys out to prove themselves on the racetrack in souped-up coupes. That is, if he manages to stay alive long enough.

Gods of Howl Mountain is equal parts heart-pounding action and memorable characters you can’t help but love, flaws and all. Granny Mae is the crowning achievement of the story. A (mostly) retired lady of the night whose taken up witching and remedies to help pay the bills, she’s tough, sharp as a tack, and marvelously fearless. Even though Rory is our POV character, she’s the heart of the story, and all the characters have a way of turning up at her door to seek her services or advice. She’s the best of all the world-weary, wisecracking women I knew growing up in Appalachia, and I never got tired of her.

Brown’s prose is lush as the wet, green-black forests of Western North Carolina, and he has a great talent for ratcheting the tension up to ten while taking his time with the descriptive passages. The dialogue is a wonder; so steeped in the backwoods you can practically taste the corn whiskey, and it serves to show just how clever all these characters are. There are double-crosses aplenty here, and wrenching moments of tenderness that batter your heart. I was totally gripped by this book, and Gods of Howl Mountain earned my highest rating fair and square, with no complaints on any account.

Note: I received a copy of Gods of Howl Mountain in exchange for an honest review. 

FICTION REVIEW: Binti

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Title: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Genre: Science Fiction/Afrofuturism
Rating:  ★★★★ (4/5)

Binti is the first member of her small African tribe to be accepted into the universe of the galaxy. She’s a harmonizer, a mathematics genius with a near-spiritual connection to the complex technologies and equations that under-gird the universe, and even though she’s terrified of leaving the red deserts in which she was raised, there’s nothing she wants more than to nurture her skills at the prestigious planet-sized Oomza university. But when her classmates are massacred by an alien species aboard the ship ferrying Binti to her new home, it will take every ounce of courage she has to survive.

This book drew me in right from the start and held my attention the entire time. The space travel elements felt fresh and organic, and the novel by and large avoided the old-school sci-fi tropes that give books that sterile, metallic tang. I’m not sure what else science fiction is better for than exploring what it means to be human in a galactic context, and Binti lovingly leans into themes of adolescent anticipation, cultural alienation, and trans-cultural identity.

I really liked Binti as a protagonist; she’s brave, willing to fight tooth and nail for what she loves, but ultimately, her strength is her compassion and level head for diplomacy. Her Himba heritage plays a huge role in both the plot and her character development. I love a book that teaches me something new about another culture, and one of the most touching moments in the book was Binti wondering if she was going to be able to find the right ingredients on her new planet to make the paste of oil and clay the Himba cover their skin and hair with.

At only 90 pages, Binti clips along at a short-story pace that kept me from ever feeling bored. However, because of novella length, I felt like I was robbed of the sort of worldbuilding and setting details that would have really made me feel enveloped in the narrative. The descriptions I was given were sufficient, but sparse, and character development jerked along at times, prey to the pace. However, Binti is the first in a well-received trilogy that’s setting the standard for the new wave of afro-futurism, and I’m excited to pick up books two and three.

Indie Book Radar: Hemlock

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I don’t usually have the patience for all the page-views and mouse-clicking that goes into reading webcomics, but I devoured Josceline Fenton’s Hemlock.

The series follows Lumi, a witch who spends her days hawking spells to townspeople, travelling through the land in the shell of a giant snail, and brewing up poisons to keep her monstrous husband in a soporific stupor. Lumi is a dry and plucky protagonist, and I so enjoyed learning about her entanglements with blood magic, Baba Yaga’s dynasty of witch-prince sons, and the ne’er do wells of the witching world. Every new character introduced into the story is beautifully dressed, morally ambiguous, and full of secrets, which is just how I like them, and the 19th century setting in the forests and icy wastes of Scandinavia is absolutely enchanting.

I read all four volumes of Hemlock in two days, and now I’m addicted. The bad news is that the comic remains unfinished, since Fenton is holding down a day job as a cartoonist and animator, but she does update regularly.

The great news is that if you hate squinting at your computer screen during the nail-biting bits of your favorite comics, you can purchase bound copies of all four existing volumes of Hemlock. This is a must-read for fairy tale enthusiasts and fans of Catherynne Valente’s Deathless.

Got any favorite fairy tale inspired books? Tell me about them so I can add them to my TBR!

Fiction Review: The Lesser Bohemians

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Title: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Genre: Adult Fiction
Rating: DNF

Oof. This wasn’t a pleasant ride, friends, and I DNF’d at page 80, something I am really loathe to do unless a book is not enriching my life whatsoever. That said, there’s some strong points to this sensuous, experimental novel, and I want to give them their due.

The Lesser Bohemians is told from the point of view (deep point of view, you might say) of an eighteen-year-old Irish girl who moves to London to study acting in the 90′s. There she meets an established actor in his late thirties, and the two fall into bed together and being a tortuously on-again, off-again affair of sex, frustration and reconciliation, healing, and harm.

The steam-of-consciousness style narration is much more accessible than other times I’ve seen it used, although it took me until about page fifty to really settle into the dreamy, internalizing rhythm. McBride’s done something really wonderful here with dialogue and action all running together, and the narrator’s personal thoughts slipped furtively in between in smaller print. It’s a feat, and she ought to be given credit for it.

That said, the narrative style keeps the reader suspended between raw euphoria and drunken disorientation, which made the constant barrage of blackout nights, substance overindulgence, repressed vulnerability, and screamed betrayals incredibly unpleasant for me. At almost 100 pages into the narrative there seemed no light at the end of the tunnel of alienation, compulsive behavior, and budding addiction. I would hype myself up to finish the book and then only get ten or fifteen pages in before getting so upset that I had to put it down because the secondhand sexual shame and impostor syndrome were too strong. However, that sort of visceral reaction is a testament to the book’s main strength: entirely immersive storytelling. You’re as close to this narrator as fiction is liable to allow you to get, and you experience all her anxieties and hopes in your own body, adrenaline and all.

This DNF isn’t a mark against the strength of McBride’s writing. The beautiful prose just wasn’t enough payoff for the subject matter for me, but that’s not to say that will be true for every reader. Maybe McBride’s next novel will pair her astonishing talent for voice with a story I find more worth telling, and I can give her another shot then.

Disclosure: I was given a copy of The Lesser Bohemians by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

Fiction Review: The Halloween Tree

Title: The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Gris Grimly
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy Fiction
Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)

The Halloween Tree is one of the most genuinely delightful books I have read in a long time. I’ve been a fan of Bradbury for some time, and he’s well known for his prolific contributions to American literature as well as his innovative writing style. The Halloween tree offers up the best of Bradbury, from his gleeful menage of metaphors and onamonapia  to his strong thematic sense, in a slim little book suitable for readers age “11 and up”.

On Halloween night in the American heartland, eight young boys gather for a evening of costumed carousing. Their revels lead them to the creaky gothic manor of the eccentric and ancient Mr. Moundshroud, who reveals to them the enormous Halloween tree, bedecked with thousands of flame-mouthed jack-o-lanterns. When something dark arises out of the shadows to snag the most beloved of the gang, Pipkin, Moundshroud leads the boys on a merry journey through Halloweens past in the hopes of finding Pipkin and rescuing him.

The book thrusts its reader into ancient Egypt, the old Britain of the Druids, Notre Dame herself, and the glowing graveyards of Mexico at breakneck speed. The narrative is immersive, and full of the spiced scents and sweet tastes of a hundred Halloweens. As far as the spooky factor goes, the book is more of an eerie adventure than anything resembling horror, so even the most scare-adverse readers can settle in to enjoy it. The illustrations by Gris Grimly (cover art featured above) set the perfect mood and embody the freedom of movement in the writing style. I would have enjoyed a little girl or two getting in on the adventure, and indeed this book contains not a single female character, but since The Halloween Tree was published in 1972, I’m willing to to chalk that up to a product of it’s time.

Though the story is simple and the page-count a modest 145, the book explores the history of Halloween, the indissoluble bonds of childhood friendship, and the way humans both ancient and modern have dealt with the passing of light into darkness, and life into death. You’ve heard of the true meaning of Christmas; it wouldn’t be unfair to  say The Halloween Tree serves up the true meaning of Halloween in all is dark, gleeful glory.