Catch-up Lightning Round: The Language of Hoofbeats, Hellworld, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods

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The Language of Hoofbeats by Catherine Ryan Hyde (Website | Twitter)

Genre: contemporary fiction

Setting: Easley, CA (fictional podunk town)

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Kate Rudd and Laural Merlington

Source: my own collection 

Length: 10:27:00

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I liked it more than the typical 3-star book but not as much as a 4-star. So, 3.5 stars! I’m so smrt. 🤪 A lesbian couple, Jackie and Paula, moved to a small town with their adopted son and two foster children. Across the road from their new digs lives Clementine, the town shrew. She hates everything and everyone and blames it on her daughter’s suicide which, frankly, I think is totally valid. I would hate everything and everyone, too. But she apparently was always like that and she ends up driving her husband away and her treatment of Comet, her daughter’s horse, causes Star, Jackie and Paula’s troubled foster girl, to run away with him. Various dramas ensue and in the end, Clementine decides to be nice, just like that, and everything turns out bright and shiny.

For a piece of fluff, this was good. I liked the kids and their histories and I think it was nice that they weren’t written as all escapees from Hell or a mental asylum, nor that they automatically fit right in and adapted to being a foster kid. I thought Jackie and Paula were well developed enough that they were different on the page, but overall they were fairly one-dimensional. Clementine had development, but I didn’t find it all that believable. Still, she was the most richly-depicted adult in the book, a character you love to hate. I would read more by this author, though I’d probably get it from the library rather than spend my own money on it.

Hellworld by Tom Leveen (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: horror

Setting: mostly Tucson, AZ

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 297 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This was a fast read. I like to support local authors and I bought this one and another of Leveen’s books at a local book festival a couple years ago. So that was fun. He is a delightful human being from what I could tell. And I did enjoy this one, but I generally have a very hard time with most horror. Not because I get spooked – I don’t. It’s because I can’t suspend my disbelief. It’s why I don’t like werewolf or zombie or even sexy vampire stories all that much. They simply aren’t believable to me. Why I have a hard time suspending disbelief for horror and not for the billions of SFF books I’ve read over the years, I have no fucking clue. 

That said, I really liked the vast majority of this book. It was told in a sort of back and forth timeline, the same characters living in the moment for one chapter and then the next chapter being set X number of days, weeks, or months ago. I thought the characters were nicely developed for a genre novel. That’s not shade – genre novels don’t focus as much on character development, but these characters all felt like they had a history and experiences that made them people, not just templates of people like you find in a lot of genre novels. The crux of the plot is that four teens lost their parents a number of years ago while filming a show that sounds similar to Ghost Hunters. They were exploring a cave in the Arizona desert and never came out. The kids go gallivanting off to find them, but whoops! Instead they accidentally open an ancient ark of some kind that lets out gigantic monster bug things that can shoot lasers and fireballs and they start annihilating nuclear power plants, hospitals, schools, and news organizations. You know. Kind of like the Republicans want to do.

I’m not entirely sure the whole story isn’t actually an analogy about the GOP, in fact…

The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods by NK Jemisin (Website | Twitter)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: The city of Shadow, in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Cassaundra Freeman

Source: my own collection

Length: 11:25:00 / 16:58:00

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

(The Broken Kingdoms) A blind artist called Oree takes in a homeless man who glows. She can see some things like magic and the homeless man, who Oree names Shiny since he won’t tell her his name, throws magic all over. Also, someone is murdering godlings and now Oree is smack in the middle of it thanks to her act of kindness. Shiny happens to be Itempas, so you know things are going to get weird.

(The Kingdom of Gods) The gods of the Arameri are finally free and now they’re pissed, but they’re also all that is keeping the world from descending into unending war and annihilation. Good times. This one is told from the perspective of the godling Sieh, who has been changed into a mortal and is aging in leaps over time.

As always, crazy rich world-building and awesome characters in both of these books. I will want to read them again one day, only with my eyeballs, because the narrator was what kept these from being 4 star books. Her voice was too calm and unchanging and I found myself bored of listening to her. Once, someone ripped a heart out of someone else’s chest with their bare hands – and I missed that at first because there was just no emotion or anything to indicate exciting action in her voice. 

I really love Jemisin’s writing. It’s so complex and descriptive. She takes familiar fantasy tropes and turns them on their head. Some people might think that is heretical but I think it’s brilliant and it makes for a wholly new reading experience. One should never assume she will let the good guys win or allow a happily ever after in her books. I really, really appreciate that. She has said that she set out to subvert the genre and she has been successful in doing so.

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.