FICTION REVIEW: A Choir of Lies

Welcome to September, goblins! Yesterday was publication day for one of the prettiest books of 2019, Alexandra Rowland’s A CHOIR OF LIES, which I was so happy to get my hands on an arc copy of. To celebrate, I’m bringing you all my review. Trust me, you’re going to want this one on your TBR.

Three years ago, Ylfing watched his master-Chant tear a nation apart with nothing but the words on his tongue. Now Ylfing is all alone in a new realm, brokenhearted and grieving—but a Chant in his own right, employed as a translator to a wealthy merchant of luxury goods, Sterre de Waeyer. But Ylfing has been struggling to come to terms with what his master did, with the audiences he’s been alienated from, and with the stories he can no longer trust himself to tell.

That is, until Ylfing’s employer finds out what he is, what he does, and what he knows. At Sterre’s command, Ylfing begins telling stories once more, fanning the city into a mania for a few shipments of an exotic flower. The prices skyrocket, but when disaster looms, Ylfing must face what he has done and decide who he wants to be: a man who walks away and lets the city shatter, as his master did? Or will he embrace the power of story to save ten thousand lives?

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This is a gem of a book full of grit-teeth, open-eyed hope in humans’ ability to pull themselves up off the ground and do the right thing, even when the chips are down. It’s also full of snarky storytelling rap battles, tulip mania, whirling auction houses, lies that catch fire and almost take the teller down with them, and some grade A flirting. I’m so pleased to have gotten an ARC for review.

I loved so much about this book. I loved the slow unraveling of half-forgotten myths, the stories from faraway places dispersed throughout, the crowded canal city where our sweet, sensitive protagonist Ylfing finds himself living. Tender, introspection male protagonists are in short supply in any genre, but Ylfing is so wonderful and richly drawn. The strong, vibrant, morally complex middle aged women he finds himself surrounded by gave me life, and I fell in love with his problematic, smooth-talking, hedonist beau.

I’m not usually a fan of second world fantasy; one look at a string of fantasy place names and proper nouns and my eyes start to glaze over. But Rowland has pulled off a very clever magic trick here in making a complex, detailed fantasy world feel cozy and folkloric. They do this by feeding the audience world-building in tiny, tasty bites, like they’re guiding us through a cheese plate. A lot of people have already talked about the metatextual elements of this book (we have footnotes from an annotator reading the memoir of our protagonist about events they both experienced! your faves could NEVER!) but even those clever moments of commentary insertion feel naturalistic, effortless. Hell, Rowland can even make economic commentary RIVETING. Want to see how bubble economies are hatched, nurtured, and then grow big enough to threaten the safety of entire merchant city-states? Yes, you do. Trust me.

This is a book that takes you by the hand and spins you a yarn that grows bigger and wilder than you can ever imagine, but you don’t want to pull your hand away, not even for a second, because you trust somehow that you want to end up on the other side of wherever it’s going. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

AMAZON: tinyurl.com/yxpwgemo

BARNES AND NOBLE: tinyurl.com/y2hqzv34

INDIEBOUND: tinyurl.com/y6pxw6jd

GOODREADS: tinyurl.com/yxfjjptq

Pride Month Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’m not really one for big parades and teary social media coming-outs, but I wanted to intentionally commit time this Pride Month to study and appreciate the history, art, and literature of LGBTQ+ people. As most of you already know, I’m a bisexual woman whose books feature people and couples from all sorts of backgrounds, genders, and sexualities, and I’ve found such solidarity and freedom in queer theology and LGBTQ+ inclusive fiction.
So I dusted off the old TBR and followed my instincts around from queer book to queer book, and ended up reading four amazing books this month! I didn’t intentionally set out to read one f/f romance, one m/m romance, one queer theology text, and a gay history book, but I’m pleased with the balance nonetheless!

In the Vanishers’ Palace – Aliette de Bodard

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5 Stars)

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This Vietnamese science fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast takes place in a shadowy, lush world driven by linguistic magic, generational trauma, and alien technology. The central romance is between two women, a displaced scholar and a powerful dragon shapeshifter in need of a tutor for her two wild children. Their tentative love story is interwoven seamlessly with fresh worldbuilding, the main character’s driving devotion to her family, and the struggle of repairing a world ripped open at the seams by previous rulers who did not steward it well. All in all, a mind-opening speculative ride with a happy ever after to sweeten the telling.

 

Transforming – Austen Hartke

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5/5 Stars)

41mW-vAfmQL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I’m a big admirer of Hartke’s work as a speaker and Youtuber, and his first book is a warm, welcoming introduction to transgender-inclusive theology. Hartke raises up the voices of diverse trans Christians rather than focusing on proof-texting, which was so incredibly refreshing in a sphere that is usually obsessed with nitpicking translations of Hebrew and Greek. As a bonus, the book ends with pointers for self care, church inclusion, and pastoral best practices. It’s a good blend of memoir, theology, biblical study, and social mobilization, and would be a good starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about the transgender experience in the American Christian church. As a bonus, Hartke imbues the narration of his audiobook with such a soothing, centered authenticity!

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1949 – George Chauncey

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5/5 Stars)

0465026338I was looking for queer history to round out Pride Month and am so happy I picked up Gay New York, despite my initial trepidation. I was hesitant about committing to such a long book that focuses primarily on the experiences of gay men, since I’ve found similar histories to be dismissive of women, transgender people, and especially bisexual men.  However, Chauncey paints  a rich portrait of the complexities of turn of the century gay life with an eye towards ethnic and class distinctions and norms of homosocial behavior, all while being fully aware of the text’s  limitations. The history is thorough, compassionate, fact-checked, and doesn’t project modern political struggles or sociological sexual labels onto the diversity of queer life 100 years ago. Anyone who wants to understand the development of gay identity, anti-gay political policies, and “gayborhoods” in America should  pick this one up. It’s proof that even during a time when it was much more dangerous to be out, there was still queer joy, art, love, activism, nightlife, and scholarship happening in the public eye.

Spectred Isle – KJ Charles

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5/5 Stars)

519worCWdzL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_My favorite romance of the year and one of the best fantasy/fabulism titles I’ve read in a long time. Imagine The League of Extraordinary Gentleman meets the Raven Cycle with a slow burn historical romance at the center, and you’re getting there. A disgraced archaeologist is thrown in with the rich heir to a family legacy of self-sacrifice and occultism, and together they must unravel the supernatural forces threatening to tear England apart. Folklore-driven mysteries, deft subplots that kept me guessing, a well realized supporting cast, a hard won love story, plus scorching love scenes of lightest d/s that will squeeze your heart all come together to create a deeply satisfying story. KJ Charles really outdid herself here.
Have you read any of the books I picked up for Pride Month? Let me know what you thought of them in the comments!

2018 Wrap-Up: Novella Edition

Ah yes, the drowsy, dark days between the December holidays and New Years, where we all enjoy some well-earned time off work, soak up the love of family, and…panic about how few days there are left hit our reading challenge goals. Not sure how you’re gonna cram all of Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell into these last few twilight days of the year? Never fear, I’ve got a list of all the short works of fiction I read in 2018 so that you can pluck out some gems to affix last-minute to your 2018 reading challenge crown.

Reader, I love the novella. Just long enough to build worlds and characters, just short enough that you’re encouraged to fill in gaps with your imagination, embodying both the sparkling brevity of a short story and the languid embrace of a novel…and, uh, you can read them hella fast. Some of the works listed below are more like long short stories (A Kiss With Teeth clocks in at less than 40 pages) and I would argue that others are pushing the boundaries into novel (The Black Tides of Heaven is 240 pages but worth it). These are all fantasy stories of varying flavors and most of them Tor.com originals, but hopefully there’s a little something here for everyone, and the best part? Half of these are available online for FREE.

SIX GUN SNOW WHITE by Catherynne M. Valente

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I am a consummate Valente devotee, and despite reveling in Space Opera this year, I think I enjoyed this Wild West fairy tale retelling even more. Here, sharpshooting mixed-race Snow White flees her racist step-mother and her poisonous trappings of “proper womanhood”, and adventures through mining towns, refugee camps, and the live-wire wilderness of an America on the brink of industrialization. It has all of Valente’s razor-sharp meditations on gender, race, and destiny, mixed in with her unbeatable prose and divine gift for fable. This one is sure to sink its teeth into your heart and not let go.

THE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN by J.Y. Yang

This one has been on my tbr for too long, and Yang’s silkpunk vision of an imperial family torn apart by attempted assassinations, prophetic dreams, and interpersonal conflict is at once epic and searingly personal. This world where mechanical technology clashes with a form of magic known as “slackcraft” is gorgeously realized, along with a society in which all people are born genderless and choose their gender (or lack thereof) when they’re ready. This book with thrill you, break your heart, and leave you hungry for the next installment.

A KISS WITH TEETH by Max Gladstone

This has got to be my favorite Tor.com original story of the year, maybe of all time. This tautly written send-up to the vampire genre imagines what it would be like for an immortal predator to struggle to fit into American suburbia and raise a small boy with his wife. The story is thoroughly fun but never kitchy or cliche, and it explores issues of fidelity, identity, and parenthood with deft insight. The best part? A passionate romance between a married couple. Sign me up.

THE LITANY OF EARTH by Ruthanna Emrys

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Reader, I felt this one in my gut. This is a quiet, misty-edged novelette that perfectly captures the tender, aching start of new life after unspeakable trauma. Our protagonist Aphra, a devotee of Lovecraft’s old gods, has recently been released from the internment camp where she and her family were unjustly held, and is trying to rebuild herself. However, people obsessed with her family’s legacy and religion keep finding her, preventing her from withdrawing from the past forever. This book dives into the intricacies and contradictions of a childhood defined by faith of any kind, and offers a humanizing but still wonderfully weird take on the Lovecraft mythos. I’ll be picking up Winter Tide, the full-length follow-up novel, in the new year.

THE PRINCE AND HER DREAMER by Kayla Bashe

If you need a little sugar-dusted heartwarming holiday cheer, this queer Nutcracker retelling is for you. I’ve been a fan of Bashe’s work for some time, and their prose has only gained more glittering clarity as time has passed. The author’s particular strength for capturing deep romantic friendship between women (and in this case, a nonbinary person) shines through. I adored Bashe’s take on Drosselmeyer and found myself loving and rooting for Prince Mathilde and Clara, despite only having known them a short time.  By and large, the story is easy to follow and thoroughly charming, especially for someone looking for a diverse romance to brighten up their holidays.

THE GIRL WHO RULED FAIRYLAND – FOR A LITTLE WHILE by Catherynne M. Valente

Yes, Valente again. If you’re looking for a shorter introduction to her work, and to her well-loved Fairyland series, this may be a good place to start. Ever-practical village witch Mallow is called into the glittering capitol of Fairyland and, with the help of a flirtatious Jack of the Wood and some wild, gossipy winds, she must uncover the secret behind Fairyland’s inevitable decay before its too late. In the process she will learn the true meaning of sacrifice and responsibility. Like all of Valente’s work, this story is a little bloody, a little quirky, and a whole lot of lovely.

And there you have it folks! Six short titles to kick your reading challenge into gear in these last four days of the year. What were your favorite short fiction works of 2018?

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!