Elatsoe

elatsoeElatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: MG fantasy

Setting: slightly different America/ Texas

I read it as a(n): audiobook, then switched to a physical book

Narrator: Kinsale Hueston

Source: public library 

Length: 09:01:00 / 360 pp

Published by: Dreamscape Media (22 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Elatsoe “Ellie” is a Lipan Apache who is able to raise the ghosts of dead animals. She comes from a long line of family members with this talent, back to her great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who her family calls Six Great, also Ellie’s namesake. Ellie’s constant companion is the ghost of her dog, Kirby. When Kirby freaks out, Ellie soon learns that her cousin Trevor was killed in a car accident, but it was a cover-up to his murder. When Trevor’s ghost visits Ellie and asks her to help take care of his wife and baby son, Ellie and her best friend Jay try to figure out what really happened to Trevor, and how a white man called Abe Allerton from Willowbee, TX is involved. Dark, ancient secrets then threaten to consume Ellie and all her family as she digs deeper to uncover the truth about Trevor’s death.

There was a lot to like about this book. For one thing, I think it’s good that Ellie identifies as asexual and not one person in her circle gives a toss or makes a big deal out of it. It is just pure acceptance and it is part of who she is, no questions asked and no one trying to tell her she’ll change her mind once she’s older. 

There was also a lot of tradition and stories from Ellie’s Apache heritage. I know absolutely nothing about this, so I’m just going to assume that it is at least partially true, considering that Darcie Little Badger is Apache herself. The elders, the way they are so highly respected, and the various stories are all awesome.

Related to Ellie’s knowledge of her Native culture is her experience with racism. That is not a pro – for those sitting in the back, racism is bad! – but the discussions that came with her experiences are important and necessary. I liked that Jay was shown as a generally real, clueless white dude who has never had to experience racism of any kind. He means well and doesn’t have a mean or racist bone in his body, but he is utterly unaware of why he would have to convince a store clerk to sell him anything because “we haven’t done anything wrong.” Ellie’s response to him is somewhat amused eye rolling, which in real life doesn’t help much of anything, but in the story, it gets the discussion onto the page for readers to ponder over. 

Also, how can a story involving the ghosts of fossilized animals not be cool on at least some levels? Ellie brings back the ghost of a trilobite, for fuck sake! And there’s a wooly mammoth ghost! That is rad!

There was a lot, though, that I definitely did not like, and I mostly feel that it outweighed the good things that I did like. For one thing, this book was marketed as a YA. However, it read as way, way younger than that. Middle grade would have been far more accurate. I often had to remind myself that Ellie and Jay were both 17 and nearly through with high school. For example, when the ball at Allerton’s mansion was in swing and vampires were killing, Jay’s older sister wanted to keep Ellie from seeing. She responded that she and Jay were at least at a PG-13. Um, yes. Considering that you are actually 17, it would make sense that a PG-13 scene would be something ok for them to see. I mean, what? 

Also, Ellie and Jay are described as being best friends from birth, having met when their mothers were in the same birthing class. And yet they don’t know some very basic things about each other. Out of the blue, Jay tells Ellie he is a descendant of Oberon and that was a huge surprise to her. You wouldn’t know your best friend is descended from the most famous fairy king ever? Really? And Jay didn’t know “Ellie” is short for Elatsoe. Things like that are little facts about a person you learn when you are first becoming friends, not when you have grown up with someone. At one point, Ellie asked Jay if he had other sisters. The way it was written made it unclear if she was joking in that moment or if she was being serious. Given the lack of knowledge they have about each other, I think the confusion is understandable. Which leads me to the next reason I didn’t like this.

LAME DIALOGUE! OMG so lame. Ellie and Jay would literally be in media res and trying to fend off bad guys – and they engage in witty banter? Which isn’t actually witty? No. Just no. It might have worked if this was something like The Princess Bride or Indiana Jones but here? It just came across as immature. Also, one character made actual use of the phrase “meddling kids.” Like from Scooby-Doo. The dumb witty banter would have been fine in that children’s cartoon as well. But here, it kind of just smacked of the author needing to work on aging up her dialogue a lot more. 

And finally, the audio book. I had started this as an audio book. The narrator was so awful that, if I hadn’t been reading this for book club, I would not have bothered to continue. Since it WAS for my book club, I got a hard copy from the library and read that instead. It was better and far more interesting to eyeball read it. I would not listen to another book read by the same narrator. She made what was already a mediocre book for me almost unbearably boring. 

So ultimately, this was a solid meh for me. I didn’t hate it, I think it had some good things in it, but I definitely did not love it. 

All that said, I did find Little Badger’s short storyNkásht íí online. I thought it was pretty good.

Dark Matter

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: several different variations of Chicago

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 342 pp

Published by: Crown (26 July 2016)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jason Dessen is a physics professor at a small college in Chicago. Years ago, he’d had a promising future as one of the brightest young scientists in the world. He gave it up, though, in favor of living a quiet life and making a family with his wife. Then, he gets abducted and ends up in an alternate Chicago, looking at an alternate life. Now he has to figure out how to get back to his actual life in his own reality – or decide if he even wants to. 

This was a fast-paced, fun read full of “what ifs” and hypotheticals. It makes you think about the choices you make in your life and ponder the consequences of having chosen one way over another. What happens if you, as Jean-Luc Picard once did, start pulling at the threads that make up the tapestry of your life? 

akata warrios

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 477 pp

Published by: speak (3 Oct 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny Nwazue is a Leopard Person, AKA Nigerian witch. In the aftermath of defeating the evil masquerade Ekwensu, Sunny is spending her time studying with her mentor and learning how to read her magic Nsibidi book. She soon learns of an existential threat to humanity, centered in the town of Osisi, which exists both in reality and in the invisible spirit world. Sunny goes on a quest to save mankind, aided by her friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and her spirit face, Anyanwu.

Okorafor’s characters are ALL delightful and well developed. I fucking love Sunny and her friends, and am fascinated by the intersection of history, myth, and folklore that these books portray. The adventures and challenges Sunny faces are crazy fun to read and show kids overcoming obstacles, learning to be independent, becoming supportive friends, and strong leaders. Love it! Rumor has it that there’s a third book in the works for this series; I really hope that is true and that it will come out sooner rather than later. 

Eleanor Oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 327 pp

Published by: Pamela Dorman Books (9 May 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Eleanor Oliphant is a woman struggling with other humans. She appears to be on the spectrum, is highly structured, dislikes being touched, and generally prefers her own company. Sometimes I wonder if I, too, am on the spectrum. I identified with Eleanor in some very uncomfortable ways. Anyway, a wrench is thrown into her routine when she meets Raymond, an IT guy at her work who insists on befriending her. They share a further connection when they both assist an elderly man who faints on the sidewalk. That connection impacts them both in ways no one could have predicted. I don’t mean romance. That’s boring and predictable in most books. This isn’t that.

I loved this book. One of my top reads of 2021 so far. Eleanor has a terribly sad history, which readers piece together slowly with tidbits of information parsed out over the course of the book. Raymond is a proper good guy you can’t help but like. The novel is about the various ways we can destroy ourselves but then usually we get by with a little help from our friends. 

Girls in the Garden

Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell (Twitter, Insta)

Genre: mystery, I guess

Setting: London

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 313 pp

Published by: Atria (2 July 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

This was a solid meh for me. I enjoyed it well enough to finish it, the writing was fast paced and held my attention. But it maybe wasn’t a mystery? Especially since the answer is literally in the title? I figured this out like in chapter two; I think it would not come as a surprise to anyone who has been or lived with teenage girls at any point. Teen girls can be real assholes. 

That said, I didn’t hate this book at all. Just wasn’t surprised. I do plan to read other books by this author. Maybe if there are ones that aren’t centered on teenage girls, those will not be as easy to solve. Plus, if they’re all set in Britain, I’m down for that. I’ll read just about anything set in Britain.

Love After Love

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud (Twitter)

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: Trinidad and NYC

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: public library 

Length: 327 pp

Published by: One World (4 Aug 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Betty Ramdin is a young widow raising her son, Solo, on her own. Like, solo. In need of a little extra income or help, she takes on a boarder, Mr. Chetan. The three of them become their own unique little family until one day, Solo overhears his mother telling Mr. Chetan her darkest secret. Solo, like the little shit he is*, takes off to NYC to live with his paternal uncle as an undocumented immigrant. Mr. Chetan becomes the glue that tenuously holds the family together, until his own secret comes to light.

I read this for my book club, which is good because on my own, there is no fucking way I would have even looked at a book titled Love After Love. It sounds like a romance. I do not do romances. I’m glad I read it because it is on my top books of 2021 now. All the characters were richly developed, even if they were little shits. It was also interesting – and sad, sometimes – to see a glimpse of life in the Caribbean. Would definitely read more by this author!

*Solo isn’t a shit because he is undocumented. I am in favor of granting amnesty and Social Security numbers to everyone who wants to be here who doesn’t otherwise break the law. Solo is a shit because he is a spoiled, myopic asshole who could use a good ass-kicking.

The Lady Jewel Diviner

The Lady Jewel DivinerThe Lady Jewel Diviner by Rosalie Oaks (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy/ cosy mystery

Setting: Georgian England/ Devon coast

I read it as a(n): digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 266 pp

Published by: Parkerville Press (11 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Miss Elinor Avely finds herself exiled on the Devon coast with her mother and brother after her reputation was ruined in London in a most public fashion. Accused of stealing a jeweled necklace, she self-destructs further when she shuns Lord Beresford, who tried to save her by declaring before one and all that she was his fiancee. Exiled from society, Elinor is determined to keep her head down and be a dutiful daughter. Until, that is, her evening is interrupted by a bat flying into her room, turning into a tiny, naked woman, and demanding to be fed a sheep. The two form an unlikely alliance when a local man turns up dead, piles of jewels and gold are missing and presumed smuggled over to France to pay Napoleon, and the identity of an English spy may hit too close for comfort.

This was an entirely agreeable cosy mystery. Or cosy fantasy. Either one would be accurate. Honestly, though. Who wouldn’t adore a Regency cosy mystery fantasy romance? Elinor is a typical figure in many Regency romances and mysteries. She is curious, intelligent, and not at all afraid to speak her mind. If only Lord Beresford could appreciate that about her! Or does he? 

Aldreda Zooth, the tiny bat-woman, is a vampiri from France. She is in England to search for a necklace that belonged to her lost beloved and she convinces Elinor to help. Elinor is what Eldreda calls a Diviner, one who can find hidden objects by a sixth sense. This is, of course, what led to Elinor’s disgrace in London – she found a necklace but was accused of stealing it. Elinor agrees to help Eldreda but they are soon both drawn into an intrigue. Elinor gets to display her bravery and intelligence in several instances, but is still able to be a damsel in distress. Eldreda is an ideal chaperone, even though she is fairy-sized, and is a plucky and fun character.

Elinor’s brother, Perry, is a bit flat in terms of character development, but I really don’t think it matters a whole lot since he is not the main attraction of the novel. He is in it enough, though, that a little more depth for him would be appreciated. Perhaps this will come in future books, as the second in the series is set to be released on 1 March 2021. 

I will definitely be on the lookout for that book as well as others by this author. A light, somewhat silly, cosy mystery is exactly what I needed to read as pure escapism. Enthusiastically recommended.

Catch-Up Round: A Cook’s Tour and The Deep

A Cook's TourA Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Genre: food memoir

Setting: global

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 274 pp

Published by: ecco (30 July 2001)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Just like his various TV shows, this book takes readers on a global tour with Anthony Bourdain. He travels, eats, gets drunk with the locals, and writes about it, which is basically my dream job. He covered regions from Russia to Mexico, the UK to Asia, and many places in between in search of the perfect meal. 

This will be a super short review. I loved this book. I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 just because I thought the Russia section was overly long, and there were a few places where he seemed to have run out of words and kept using the same one over and over. That is bad editing, not really Tony’s fault, though. One of my favorite parts was in the Russia section, though, where he went into the frozen pool. LOL! 

I read this to complete a Read Harder task (read a food memoir about a cuisine you’ve never had before). I have had many of the cuisines in this book, but not all of them. I can honestly say I’ve never had any kind of Russian food, and some of the UK food. Though last time I was there, I did try black pudding and thought it was delicious. Anthony Bourdain is the reason I tried it. I wanted to read this book again now because I still miss him. 

The DeepThe Deep by Rivers Solomon (Website)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: the ocean deep

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 166 pp

Published by: Saga Press (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This was a super original fantasy set in the Caribbean. The Wajinru are basically mermaids, the water-breathing descendants of pregnant slaves who were thrown overboard through the Middle Passage. They live almost entirely in the present, with all their culture’s collective memories housed in one Historian. Once a year, all the Wajinru gather inside a huge room built specially for the gathering and the Historian, Yetu, passes all the memories to the other Wajinru. Yetu, though, is highly sensitive and being the receptacle of all the horrible memories of her ancestors is a burden that is killing her. She has to decide whether to leave her group and let the memories remain in the others or if she is willing to sacrifice her life for the wellbeing of her whole community. 

I did like this novella a great deal, though I found it kind of confusing in some parts. Once I got the Wajinru culture figured out, it got easier, though some of it was pretty nonlinear and threw me off a little bit. Overall, this story was complex and well-crafted, especially considering how short it is. The world-building was awesome.

Akata Witch

Akata Witch paperback cover

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy, MG

Setting: Near Abuja, Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 349 pp

Published by: Viking Children’s (14 April 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny is a young American girl born to Nigerian parents. Although she was born in New York, her family returned to Nigeria when she was 9 so that Sunny and her brothers could grow up knowing their culture and heritage. Sunny doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, since in America she is considered Nigerian, and in Nigeria she’s considered American. Everywhere she goes, she is albino. She can’t go in the sun and carries an umbrella with her everywhere. She can’t play soccer except sometimes at night with her brothers. And on top of it all, now she is seeing visions in candle flames. 

Her childhood friend, Orlu, and their neighbor Chichi discover that Sunny is a talented witch, for lack of a better term. So are they, and Sasha, a friend from the US who was also born to Nigerian parents. The four of them make an oha coven, a group of people whose magic and physical traits are perfectly balanced. Their mentor begins training the children and helping them to learn the extent of their juju. However, none are skilled enough to take on a brutal murderer of children who is himself a highly advanced juju man. And yet, they must confront him not only to save innocent lives, but to prevent an ancient and terrible being from being brought forth into their world.

A super fun and speedy read from Okorafor. The descriptions of Nigerian culture are evocative and rich and, even though this story is at its heart a fantasy, I feel like I was able to learn a bit about Nigerian culture by reading it. My favorite parts were where there were food descriptions. We can learn so much about a place and people through the food they serve. I absolutely am inspired now to look up some Nigerian recipes and give them a try. 

There was a strong theme of the bonds of friendship throughout this novel. Without friendship and trust, none of the kids would have survived the various magickal events and tests they endured. As they mature, I think the idea of their perfectly balanced group is that they will pair off into couples, thus strengthening the magic of the entire group as well as individually. I’ll see if I’m right when I read the sequel, Akata Warrior

So far, this is 5-0 in favor of Okorafor! I’ve read all three Binti novellas, Who Fears Death, and now this one and have really enjoyed all of them. That’s almost unheard of for me. This one is a younger book than I would typically read, but I still liked it a lot and it covers one of the Read Harder tasks. Recommended for all who enjoy fantasy, especially if you are looking to branch out and find books set somewhere other than the US or Britain, and who like to learn about various cultures.

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls coverA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: YA, possibly a little younger

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Jason Isaacs

Source: my own collection

Length: 3:59:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (23 Sept 2011)

All the spoilers below!

Connor O’Malley is a 13-year-old boy whose mother is battling cancer, only no one really calls it that. She is also dying, but no one talks about that, either. Every night since his mother started her treatments, Connor has had the same nightmare. One night, he wakes up and finds a monster outside his window. He had expected the one from his dreams but it wasn’t; it was an actual monster that comes from ancient British folklore. It tells Connor that he himself summoned the monster because he wants something from it. With each encounter Connor has with this creature, the closer he comes to the truth, painful and bright. 

I confess I bought this audiobook purely because Jason Isaacs narrates it and, since it’s a kid’s story, I figured I could just put it on and not pay much attention to it beyond being delighted to hear Isaacs’s lovely, gravelly British voice reading to me. I never expected that I would actually like the story, which I did, immensely. The story was not about cancer or illness so much as a study in grief from both a young boy’s perspective and his mother’s. It is about how childhood friendships shift during times of tragedy and how we learn who our true friends are. 

I really loved the theme of stories taking on lives of their own. The monster tells Connor that ‘Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’ I like this passage because it shows how stories can be interpreted differently by different people, how each person might take a wholly new meaning from it or react to it in an unexpected way. They may not even anticipate how they themselves will react until the story is told. Connor reacts more and more violently with each story the monster tells. If his situation had been different and he heard the same stories, undoubtedly his reactions would not have been the same. Similarly, when writing a story, I’m sure many authors don’t know exactly where their story will go, how it will end up. I can’t be the only writer who is often surprised by what my characters decide to do. Stories weave themselves into the fabric of culture and inform society at many levels; the monster is just highlighting that fact in ways Connor doesn’t always appreciate. 

Another big theme is truth. Connor’s mother has cancer. Truth. She is going to die. Truth. No one comes out and directly says any of this, beating around the bush about it, even though everyone knows what is going to happen. The monster helps Connor to see that the truth, though often painful, is the only way he can be healed, and that that is why the monster came. Not to heal Connor’s mother, but to heal Connor himself. Connor has to learn that the truth is the only way he can learn to let his mother go and also the only way to live through it. And he has to learn to forgive himself. Everyone lies to themselves sometimes, and to others. It is a human trait to ward off pain and to comfort themselves. But ultimately, facing the truth is the only way to relieve that pain, no matter how pleasant the lie is. 

Learning a little bit of woodlore is always an added bonus. There was a lot of discussion about the yew tree, which is what the monster is. Yew trees are what the dreaded English longbows were made from in the Middle Ages. The tree is symbolic of death, rebirth, and immortality likely because old yew branches that droop to the ground can take root and grow new yew trees and they are incredibly long-lived. There are a lot of churches in Britain that have yew trees around them, particularly in cemeteries. They are highly toxic and their needles can produce fatal results if ingested. The berries are also hallucinogenic and lethal. The tree can also symbolise silence, introspection, and aloofness, possibly because they’re very twisty trees with lots of nooks and crannies for solitary creatures to live in, or for ways to the Underworld in Celtic mythology. The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford would make an interesting companion read, at least her chapter on yew. 

As for the audiobook element, yes, I got it for Jason Isaacs. However, he honestly is an excellent narrator, doing various voices and accents with great facility. His performance draws listeners into the story swiftly and seamlessly. He is one of my favorite narrators, right alongside David Tennant, Simon Preble, Davina Porter, Wil Wheaton, and Simon Vance.

Strongly recommended, especially the audio version. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.
  • Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 
  • Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell.
  • Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” 
  • You were merely wishing for the end of pain, the monster said. Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.” 

 

 

 

Suspicious Minds (Stranger Things #1)

40535559._sy475_Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: sci-fi/fantasy/horror

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 301 pp

Published by: Del Rey (7 Feb 2019)

*SPOILERS BELOW!*

Set in 1969, this first official Stranger Things novel focuses on Terry Ives, Eleven’s mother, and how she becomes entangled with Dr Martin Brenner and his MKUltra experiments. An ad in a local paper promises $15 (around $100 today) for each week a person participates in a top secret experiment. Terry joins the group and is subjected to Brenner’s work which involves loading up test subjects with LSD and other stimuli, including electroshock, to see if any specific combination will bring forth special powers. Terry and her friends – a motley group of people from various backgrounds – quickly figure out that Brenner is operating under the radar to perform morally compromised tests. The group struggles to find a way to escape Brenner’s control while also striving to bring him down and free a child who is trapped in his grasp.

This is a difficult review to write. On the one hand, I was delighted to read a Stranger Things novel. On the other hand, it was kind of a hot mess. If I didn’t pay attention to anything but the story, it was an ok read. But ONLY ok. If I pay attention to writing, plot holes, and lack of answers, this is a terrible book.

Let me first say this is in no way a personal attack on the author. However, what the fuck was Netflix thinking in hiring an author who, previously, has exclusively written YA?? Stranger Things is most definitely NOT a YA show, nor is it appropriate for children to watch. The books should similarly reflect the darkness and danger of the show. But this book barely touched on most of what we have come to love about the show, and is written in a very simplistic style, which one might expect for a YA novel or younger. 

I had hoped to get some answers that we missed in the show, such as more about Brenner himself. That was entirely missing from this book and Brenner remains as mysterious as ever, but not in a good way. The other people who joined Terry in the lab experiments – Gloria, Alice, Ken – were all very flat characters overall, as was Terry’s boyfriend Andrew, and even Terry herself. None of them seemed to have much depth. Terry even had a thought early in the book about how Andrew actually ended up having an interesting personality, opposite what she had experienced before with boyfriends, and yet we don’t get to see said interesting personality. He is vaguely anti-Vietnam, and yet he doesn’t hesitate when he’s called up for the draft and goes off to war with only a little backward glance. His draft lottery being pulled up was manipulated by Brenner, and then he dies in Vietnam. Everything about him is just too easy and convenient. The other people of the group are delivered to us as instant friends once Terry meets them, a pretty tired YA trope (insta-friends, insta-love, insta-hate, etc.). They aren’t developed enough as characters for me to care about them, not even when it’s discovered that one is being electrocuted in the lab. I didn’t even care about Kali, and she is just 5 years old in this novel.

In short, all the characters were just a facade with no depth, character growth, or personality traits to make them seem like real people with whom readers can form attachments. 

Nothing is really shown to us; we are told about things, emotions characters are feeling, etc, but it falls flat since little actual emotion goes into it. Terry was filled with rage. How do I know? Because the text says, ‘Terry was filled with rage.’ There are no indicators otherwise, such as clenched fists or stiff posture, to indicate her anger. Telling us she was filled with rage might work fine for a YA audience, but for most adults, this isn’t sufficient. We get beaten over the head that this is set in the 60s – yes, I know, there’s the moon landing; I know, there’s Woodstock; I know, there’s Vietnam and the draft – but there is very little feeling of the 60s about this novel. We want to be shown, not told. 

Brenner is the biggest letdown of all. He was not the creepy, dangerously calm man we see in the show. He was hardly even competent in this book. He was tricked into letting Terry join the experiment, even though she was found out to have switched spots with her roommate early on, and he appears to have little control over his staff. The plot to rescue Kali/008 was half-assed and yet it fooled Brenner quite easily. Yes, he still retains control in the end, but the fact that he was tricked at all by a bunch of mediocre undergrads doesn’t mesh with what we know of him. He didn’t get any of his back story filled in at all, which was kind of implied this book would focus on heavily. Also, holy lack of security on your top secret experiment, Batman! If it’s so top secret, why were any of the participants allowed to know each other? Why were they able to sneak out of their rooms and go gallivanting about whenever they wanted? Why weren’t they isolated and locked in their rooms each time at a minimum?

Also, I get that this was supposed to be a different time and people didn’t talk about pregnancy and/or birth control like we do now, but honestly. How does a woman not know she’s pregnant for seven months? Even if you don’t show a lot, you’ll show some, and there are other changes that might trigger normal women to at least see what happens if they pee on a stick. You don’t notice that your boobs hurt, that you are breaking out like a teenager, the crushing fatigue? This must be written by someone who has never had a baby and didn’t think to research the common signs of pregnancy. Similarly, why didn’t the scientists at the lab notice that the subjects were remarkably lucid and check that they had actually taken the LSD? Didn’t they monitor them for things like pupil dilation or other autonomic responses that can’t be faked? Why didn’t they stay with their assigned subject the whole time they were there each week to monitor things and make sure they didn’t OD or something? Worst scientists ever. 

If you want to read this purely because you’re a huge Stranger Things fan, like I am, and just want to read a Stranger Things book no matter what and don’t plan to read too deeply into the story, you’ll probably be moderately entertained by this. If you expect something actually good that answers questions you have from the show, and you can’t overlook the glaring plot holes and other problematic areas, get ready for disappointment.

Beautiful

45367879._sx318_Beautiful* by Juliet Marillier(website, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy

I read it as an: audiobook, which is the only way it’s available currently

Narrator: Gemma Dawson

Source: my own collection

Length: 07:18:00

Published by: Audible Originals (5/30/19)

In this audio-only story, Marillier takes the fairy tale ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ and delves into the story of the troll princess who is shunned by the handsome prince who turns into a bear. Hulde is a princess, hidden away from the world by her mother, who becomes more abusive as the years pass. Hulde is given human servants to tend to her needs, and for one month every three years, Hulde has a friend, Rune, who comes to visit her. Her mother doesn’t allow mirrors in the Glass Mountain, where they live. Hulde has no real idea she is that different from the humans, and she has been raised to believe that she will marry a beautiful prince on her 16th birthday. When she learns that the prince in question had been cursed by her own mother, Hulde helps his fairy tale come true and then goes on a quest of her own to learn about the outside world, her own people, and how to be brave. 

I really liked that Marillier focused on a character who is generally overlooked in the fairy tale. Hulde would never have been the protagonist in a traditional tale, so giving her the spotlight is a good twist for the continuation of ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’. I do think people will get more out of this story if they already have an understanding of ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ but certainly it isn’t necessary. Knowing the fairy tale just gives it more depth. 

I think it’s a great message that Hulde is shooting for bravery rather than beauty. Despite the title of the book (which I think may be more tongue in cheek than anything?), the focus is not on the way heroine are traditionally beautiful and married to the handsomest prince ever. Hulde learns how to be brave and to appreciate her strength during the course of her quest, including the fact that trust in others is a part of being brave. She also learns that a beautiful person does not always mean they are a good person or are somehow more worthy of love and attention than others. 

The emphasis on storytelling woven throughout this story is delightful. It’s almost meta in the references to storytelling and the bards or memorykeepers who deal with stories. Marillier does this a bit in her other works as well, but it just struck me more strongly in this one. A story about a girl who loves stories and uses them to guide her quest in the presence of a troll-bard who tells her stories to help her keep going. Love it!

 This story felt a little younger than Marillier’s usual work, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable tale. Perhaps it’s because it is only available as an audiobook/ Audible Original that it wasn’t quite as nuanced as her usual style. In any case, it was pleasing to this long-time fan, and would make a great intro to her for younger listeners. While not a children’s story, I would have no hesitation at all letting my young daughter listen to this. 

*Amazon affiliate link.

The Harp of Kings

43316755._sy475_The Harp of Kings (Warrior Bards)* by Juliet Marillier

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 464 pp

Publisher: Ace

Year: 2019

Liobhan has dreamed of joining the elite group of warriors from Swan Island since she was a little girl. She and her brother Brocc, both talented musicians, have gained places in the newest group of Swan Island trainees and she is determined to earn a permanent position there. Another trainee, Dau, seems by turns as determined as Liobhan to win a spot as he does to make sure she does not. When their trainers Innan and Archu decide that these three trainees will accompany them on an actual mission to the kingdom of Briefne to retrieve the magical Harp of Kings, required to coronate the new king Rodan, Liobhan learns the true meaning of what it will mean to become a Swan Island warrior. 

I am always thrilled to get a new Juliet Marillier book and I enjoyed this one immensely. I did think the writing wasn’t as tight as many of her previous books, in particular Daughter of the Forest or the Blackthorn and Grim series. However, this was still a great story with interesting new characters and quite a few easter eggs for her long-time readers. 

Each chapter is told from the first person point of view of one of the trainees. I’ve read other books that do this as well and they often become garbled or indistinguishable from one another. That was not the case here; each character was so well developed that readers can identify who is speaking even without the benefit of dialogue. Liobhan is the saltier of the two siblings and has a thread of impatience and recklessness running through each of her chapters. Brocc is a gentle soul who prefers music to fighting, even though he is adept at it, and his chapters seem almost dreamy at times. Dau has a lot of anger and bitterness in him, and it is clear he has a history he wants to keep hidden or tamped down. Seeing events through each of their eyes makes for an interesting read since each chapter switches from one to another. It gives a nice mix for readers and lets us get to know the characters closely as well as see their growth as people.

The secondary characters were often intriguing. I thought the best one was Mistress Juniper, though Aislinn came in a close second. I kind of want to be a mix of Mistress Juniper and the Aunts from Practical Magic when I grow up. I felt that a few details were left unanswered, such as who Juniper really was, whether Aislinn will get to leave or not, and why exactly Rodan was so monstrous and whether he’ll chill out since events panned out the way they did. I also wanted to know more about the Crow Folk. Speculation from the various characters was all well and good, but I wanted a more definitive answer than I got. In any case, it had an ending that was exciting enough and makes it easier to overlook the few minor quibbles I had with the plot. I am hopeful we will learn more about these things in subsequent books, at least about the Fair Folk and the Crow Folk. 

Overall, a very enjoyable read, perfect for a weekend indulgence or fantasy break.

Wings of Fire 3: The Hidden Kingdom

16100976Wings of Fire Book Three: The Hidden Kingdom* by Tui T. Sutherland

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my daughter’s own collection

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Year: 2013

This is the third book in the Wings (snerk. I mistyped it wongs. I am amused. And, apparently, 12) of Fire series, this time focusing on Glory, the RainWing. The dragonets have decided to travel to Glory’s home in the rainforest to find her tribe, the RainWings, and see if they might be prevailed upon to help them in their quest, or at least shelter them from the SeaWings who are pissed off and chasing them from the previous book. When they get there, they discover that “lazy RainWings” isn’t a euphemism applied to Glory by their mean jailers, it is a breed trait. The RainWings generally know nothing about the land beyond the rainforest, don’t care about anything beyond napping, can’t even read, and basically have nothing much going for them. Nor do they notice or apparently care that various members of their tribe are going missing. Incensed, Glory and the other dragonets decide to find out what is happening and discover magical tunnels, like mini wormholes, that take them in an instant from the rainforest to other parts of the world. One of those takes them directly to SandWing territory, and another to NightWing territory. Glory herself becomes a prisoner after using herself as bait, but makes her escape with the help of a spunky baby dragonet, Kinkajou, and returns to the rainforest to challenge the current queen for the throne.

This was a decent entry in the Wings of Fire series. They are all pretty entertaining so far, for kids’ books, though to date, nothing has managed to come close to my love of the Dragonriders of Pern. But my daughter is enthralled with this series and wanted me to read them, so I am reading them to please her. I remember wanting my mom to read the books I loved when I was little, so I am happy to do the same for my own child.

Anyway. This book focused mainly on Glory as she learned about her tribe, the RainWings. They are perhaps not lazy, more like indifferent to the outside world, ignorant, and irresponsible. It’s like they’ve mentally arrested at the development level of young children, or Republicans but without the generally wilful meanness. They just don’t do things they don’t want to, or that sound boring, or that interfere with their naptime. Glory sees this and is appalled, especially once she realizes that none of them even realise dragons are missing, and no one cares to do anything about it. When she takes her complaint to the Queen, Magnificent, she tells Glory that it’s just a few and there are lots of RainWings, so it’s ok. Glory uses herself as bait to get kidnapped so she can find out where the missing dragons are, gets one tiny dragonet out (with help from said dragonet and Clay), and then challenges the Queen.

Glory develops a lot in this book. She learns to be more empathetic – or else she always was and it just shows more here. When she uses herself as bait, she makes sure to do it in such a way that protects her friends as much as possible. When she challenges the queen, she relies on the RainWings who have helped her to win the throne, which she couldn’t have done if she had used her prophecy friends. She learns to trust people other than herself and rely on people to do their jobs for her when she can’t do it herself. I think that is a good lesson for kids, and for adults as well: we can’t always do everything ourselves, sometimes we need help from our friends, and it’s absolutely fine not to know everything or be able to do it all on our own.

The other dragons are less of a feature, though Kinkajou was sometimes cute and a solid ally. Jambu was as well, though rather annoying. The prophecy dragons were mostly an afterthought in this one and played little role in the plot overall, which may not appeal to major fans of those characters. For myself, I am somewhat indifferent to them and don’t have a favorite, so this wasn’t a problem to me. The story was fine and the resolution of the challenge to the queen was satisfying.

However, there were several unfinished plot threads that I found a bit irksome. I hope they are picked up in book 4 because it would be sloppy otherwise, more so than in the previous book with a couple abandoned plots there. Maybe everything will tie together in later books. This is why I get bored with long series. I like a good, tight plot, dense and intricate but still resolved in two or three books. After that, super long series just become like Grey’s Anatomy or Game of Thrones – bloated and unending and just carrying on for the sake of seeing how much more the writers can wring out of it before sending it to a sad and meaningless death. Hopefully that doesn’t happen here. Sutherland seems a talented writer, so I remain hopeful that she hasn’t forgotten the plots she left behind and will tie them up neatly in the rest of the books.

*Amazon affiliate link.