Thursday, November 28, 2019

Book Review: Go to the Grave

Go to My Grave by Catriona McPherson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set-up like murder mystery play, almost all the scenes are at one house (or just outside it) and we have a very limited number of characters (8 or so I think). And yet I still had trouble keeping track of the all the names. Go to My Grave jumps between present day and flashbacks to when the same same group of visitors to the house were teens. Unfortunately many nicknames are used between the flashbacks and present day. Thus I had a hard time keeping track of who was who until about the halfway point when things started to click.

There is a clever little twist at the end of this slow burning story. I’m tickled that I guessed the twist at 85% and felt very smart because of it (yep I'm a loser, lol). Unlike some books, when I guess the ending, I didn’t feel at all ripped off. It’s a very clever ending reveal and fits perfectly into the narrative. Catriona McPherson has done a wonderful job here of ensuring there are no cheap, unexplained or odd moments that don't fit into a logical framework of the story and align with what the reader knows of the events that transpired in the far and recent past.

With a set cast of characters, like in Go To the Grave, you usually expect to have the typical archetypes. McPherson has done a decent job of breaking the mold of the typical archetypes (ie: ditz, jock, weirdo, smart, etc.) and instead creates people who are more complex and reflect what real people are like. While I couldn't tell you a single name of a character (I'm awful with names, lol); it didn't matter because while I was immersed in the last half of the book I was following what was happening. I enjoyed the details included for each character regarding their issues, quirks and personal challenges.

The one thing I would have liked more of in Go To My Grave was creepiness. There is some and a few moments where things click together that is a bit too coincidental and has a creep factor; but at no time do I really remember finding it quite as creepy as I was hoping. Given the title, cover look and overall blurb of the story I expected something more. Although items randomly showing up or disappearing from rooms no one has been in does border on creepy...

The best part about Go to My Grave is that it features a dysfunctional group of family and friends. Not unlike Netflix take on The Haunting of Hill House; there is something both disturbing and comforting about a messed up family. It reminds me that everyone has a screwed up family (thank goodness!) and that we are all compensating or struggling with people and situations we've been forced into. The moral of the novel is that lying or covering up events is a poor choice as things don't just undo themselves and are never forgotten. A good reminder to all of us, regardless of age, that we've all made poor choices and hiding them is likely not a good choice; as what happens when they come back to haunt us?

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Book Review: Through the Water Curtain and other Tales from Around the World

Through the Water Curtain and other Tales from Around the World by Cornelia Funke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This anthology seems to go from more male dominated fairy tales (as most are) to ones where women are shown to be more than just helpless princesses.
I really appreciated that Cornelia Funke went out of her way to find unique stories with different takes on ones we may know or are new all together. Funke's comment's at the end of each story are insightful and ask good questions that prompt both children and adults to think about the origin, purpose and themes in each of the 13 stories.
Each of these stories is just long enough to have substance but short enough that they one could be a great bedtime story. It's a gorgeous little hardback book, with gold inlay, that would make a lovely gift to any child.
Here are my notes from each story:

Story #1 - The Boy Who Drew Cats
I love that Funke points out in a note at end of the story that this version reads a bit too Western because it’s not the original Japanese translation.
A clever little story about the power of art. I quite liked it.

Story #2 - Kotura, Lord of the Winds
A typical three daughters, none do as they are told except the youngest, story. I’m not a fan of this one as it’s about women taking orders and doing exactly as asked. The shining light here is youngest’s compassion for the old woman and regard for bird.
As Funke mentions, in the post story comment; wouldn’t it be cool if one day these stories were less gender bias?

Story #3 - Through the Water Curtain
I wish walking through a waterfall would take me to another world. Just like balloon, tornado or looking glass might.

Story #4 - The Areca Tree
I could handle being a tree. A rock maybe not so much; but a tree seems doable.
A beautiful story about how love isn’t convenient but can endure.

Story #5 - The Maid of the Copper Mountain
This is a Russian folktale that focuses on not being greedy and keeping your word. I like the way it’s set-up and think it’s so important to give kids good role models these days.

Story #6 - Tale of the Firebird
This story has many of the laws we see in our own fairy tales. Always in threes, rules not to touch things, and promises kept it’s different in that when the hero does something wrong he is forgiven each time. This bothered me at first and then I realized the world would be a better place if we all had more forgiveness in our hearts.

Story #7 - Bluebeard
I struggle with this story. Not because it’s gruesome but because it seems to be giving a warning to women about making poor choices. And while the men that save our lady are her brothers it definitely still indicates that no woman can save herself.
I realize this is typical of a fairy tale but this one seems an odd choice for Funke either way.

Story #8 - The Six Swans
Omg yes! While not quite the version of this story I have heard many times, it’s very close. But this is a personal favourite because of the amazing re-telling that Juliet Marieller wrote called Daughter of the ForestDaughter of the Forest. It has some of my favourite fiction quotes and easily my favourite romantic moment ever. And that all exists because of this little fairy tale about the bravest girl.

Story #9 - Golden Foot
Hmmm... while Funke points out that this is clearly a pagan story with Christian overtones layered on top and she indicates that is one of the reasons she chose it; I’m still bothered by it. This story makes it seem as though a pagan is indeed evil and his offspring as well. Not a big fan of this one.

Story #10 - The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear
Best story yet!! I loved this one. If only we were all so fearless in moments like the ones posed to our hero! Although I can’t help but think anyone with such little fear much be a psychopath. Hmmm...

Story #11 - The Frog Prince
This is not the Grimm version most are familiar with and that Disney popularized. But instead we have a princess that is strong, beautiful (of course, roll eyes) and useful. Her usefulness is my favourite part.

Story #12 - The One-Handed Murderer
I have read this story, almost exactly the same before. It’s one of my personal favourites as the women saves herself... eventually. But it at least says that women are strong enough when pushed far enough. Today’s women just don’t take as much abuse beforehand thankfully.

Story #13 - The Girl who gave a Knight a Kiss out of Necessity
As the last story in this adorable anthology; I like the Funke has ended strong with a strong female story from Sweden.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Book Review: Daughter of the Storm

Daughter of the StormDaughter of the Storm by Tina Callaghan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't think I need to tell anyone that the gorgeous cover attracted me to this Irish published book. Daughter of the Storm starts out as a YA/Teen book and converts into a Horror novel at about 60% of the way through. Making it a very different read. Overall I enjoyed the story but it had some odd nuances to it at times. Some things happening out of nowhere and at other times there will be a sudden moment of gory description that feels out of place compared to the rest of the narrative.

Identity Crisis
Normally I am all over books that cross genres. However Tina Callaghan takes the reader on a primarily YA journey for 60% of the story and then gave me whiplash by swapping to horror storytelling seemingly within one page. The style actually changes, even the structure of the sentences feel different. I I almost wonder if this wasn't written in two parts originally and there was some disconnect on putting them together. So be forewarned that Daughter of the Storm ramps up quickly to some very creepy and a couple horrific moments past the halfway point.

Pretentious MC
While most of Daughter of the Storm has decent dialogue and character development I found some of the things our main gal says or thinks to be very bizarre. In the opening sequence of the book she meets a boy who is taking pictures. No other real details except what he looks like and yet our MC thinks:
"After their few minutes of acquaintance the night before, she already knew he was weird."
For the life of me I cannot figure out why she thinks this. Now I realize this statement is partially because Callaghan wants the reader to sense his quirkiness; but there must be a better way to portray that in descriptions or actions than having our main character come off as judgy and pretentious almost from the opening page. This attitude carries through parts of the story but is not consistent which makes this original thought stand-out even more. A little more intention in our main gal's thoughts would have been nice.

Sentence Structure and Grammar
I hate to pick on authors, editors or publishers, but given this book is published by a fairly well-known publishing house in Ireland, I was very disappointed in the writing quality. All the things that felt awkward or were incorrect should have been easily caught and fixed by a good editor.
This line tripped me up twice due to it's odd structure:
"All he could do was sit there and hold her hand. He thought maybe that sometimes that’s all anyone could do for anyone."
This should be a brilliant quotable line. Instead it made me think too hard and literally paused my reading to sort out what was wrong with the last sentence. This type of flaw is always such a tragic disappointment in an otherwise fairly well-written story. On more than one occassion a typo or odd grammatical choice caused me to be brought out of the well-written ambience that Callaghan creates.

The plot, characters and concept are overall well done in Daughter of the Storm and the creepy ambience worked well for me. While this is not a five-star story; it's certainly good enough for 3.5 stars. However because of the odd transitions, weird suddenness of some events and the poor editing I'm dropping this rating to 3 stars. I'd recommend it if you are really intrigued by the blurb; otherwise this one can be skipped over.
That said I will watch for Callaghan's future work as I believe there is good potential here if she is paired up with a stronger editor.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Monday, November 18, 2019

Book Review: The Bird King

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few lulls but for the most part an excellent read. It felt like I was reading a Guy Gavriel Kay book; which is a huge compliment! There is a lot of Muslim culture here that most Westerners are not likely to be familiar with. I loved learning about the culture and seeing the world from the Muslim viewpoint. And while this is Earth during the 13th century; it has all the magical aspects of the stories we know from that time. Use of 'magic', secret islands, famous swords, etc. You can decide for yourself if you think it's "fantasy" enough; but this quote by a character really struck me as all the proof I need:
- "You’ve transported us into open water without a damned idea where we're pointed, all by cutting through a fucking rope. That’s magic.”

Jinn & Lore
Certainly the best characters in The Bird King are the jinn. I loved how the jinn told little stories and gave out puzzles and clues that would confuse me until I'd have an ah-ha moment later on. The most interesting part with the lore used here was learning new stories that sound like some I know but have a spin or different take than I have heard before. I don't want to spoil them all as they are so fun to discover throughout the story! I will say there is a reference to a mysterious misty island (steeped in religion) that I immediately identified as a version of Avalon.

The Ladies
I really appreciate how strong and smart the women are in The Bird King. Anyone who thinks this story will be oppressive to women because it's viewpoint is from Muslims will potentially be surprised to learn that the women encountered, and those whom are a part of the lead story, are all fierce. Our leading lady and her friend are all at once adorable and admirable. How can you not love a character who is sarcastically told this early on (she's technically a slave) because she's acting out and embarrassing her owner(s):
- "What will the foreigners think if we can’t even manage our slave girls? Pretend to be meek and obedient for once in your life. It will be good for practice."

This is by far the most quotable book I've read in 2019. G. Willow Wilson has taken so many social issues and brought them done to perfect one-line descriptions. Additional it's done with intelligent wit and sarcasm. A few of my favourites (besides the ones shared above):
- "If justice is what you want, then you may often be right, but you will rarely be happy."
- "Happiness she decided, comes only in pauses brother regularly, nor predictably."

Wilson has given us a true gem. I know many will argue this doesn't belong on fantasy shelves and is more 'magical realism'. For me it's like The Night Circus, The Bird King is so well written and put together from a literary standpoint that it belongs in every genre it might qualify for in order to get more people seeing and reading it. The social connections and empathy that are made in The Bird King between today's reality and that of the 13th century are astonishing. Wilson does an incredible job of making this a very relatable story regardless of your cultural or religious background. It breaks my heart that we (humanity) are not further along than we were back then.

Now after reading this rave review you may wonder why I only gave this 4-stars. The reason, there was a large-ish section that dragged for me. I'm not sure if it was just me on that day (I was grumpy) or that the section was actually a bit dull. For now I'm leaving this at 4-stars but I could easily see me re-reading it in the future and bumped it up to five.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of JanuaryThe Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful, well thought out book with stories inside of stories inside of stories. Or books inside of books if you will. Anytime you start layering reading with reading you're pretty much guaranteed to get my attention. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautifully written read. From a heart breaking love story, to new worlds to be discovered to the mystery of doors and even a puppy (named Bad); I can imagine revisiting this story again and again in the future and loving it just as well.

Lead Gal
Our lead girl, January, is an intriguing child. She's a bookworm who is the ward of a rich and powerful man obsessed with collecting unique things. Her father goes on 'errands' for him and brings back amazing wonders from around the worlds (yes plural) that many doors scattered across Earth take him to. I think January is a very well put together character and she felt very real as the story progressed. In fact around 75% I found my mind wandering and getting a bit bored; then I realized it's because that is how January was feeling! It's an impressive feat when I literally feel like the character in the story without realizing it immediately. That is a sign of a heroine that I connected with in a profound way.

Doors to Doors to Doors
If there was one thing I wanted more of it was doors! We certainly don't encounter ten thousand of them; although there are quite a few. For me any time there is an opportunity to set-up a new world or version of an existing one I'm intrigued and want the ideas to be endless. This endless number of worlds/doors reminded me of Seanan McGuire's Every Heart a Doorway in that it could continue into infinity. And while many people will see similarities in McGuire's story to that of Alix E. Harrow I think they are both very different books. Ten Thousand Doors is more of a character study while McGuire is far more about the setting and worlds. Harrow does a good job of setting up 'rules' for the doors and keeping strictly to them. Magic without rules is just lazy writing and so I appreciated that it was obvious from the beginning what the constraints are that allow these portals to open.

Action and Adventure
If you're hoping for some flashy sword work, great escapes or vast adventures then Ten Thousand Doors is not for you. Harrow has given us the perfect book for an introvert if you will. As January is an introvert herself she doesn't really push the limits like many other heroines. There are lots of things that happen and some very tense moments but no real fighting or 'action' the way a lot of fantasy is. I personally feel this made Harrow's story stand-out from the crowd for me in a way most fantasy doesn't. It may also be that the stunning prose gives a certain pace and feel to the book that exude a quieter experience than a lot of fantasy books these days.

There are some very unique and heart breaking relationships that January either finds herself in or is privy to throughout the story. There is quite a bit of romance without it ever feeling over the top or sappy. I liked the slow methodical set-up of all the relationships whether between parents, January and her father, January and her friend, etc.
The most intricate of these pairings is by far between January and her master Locke. It's a love/hate, hate/love relationship and we are strung along with January as she desperately wishes the man loved her or had some sort of affection to show for her. It's apparent from the get go that this is a man who collects 'things'and January is merely one of them due to her unique look. I found myself often asking if it would be better for her to be a kitchen worker than to be a 'doll' shown off. Although it seems cruel at times the freedom January gets because of her unique position with Locke plays a large part in how she finds her first door. So all's well that ends well.

The Ending
I have a hateful relationship with most endings. Easily the most likely thing to annoy me in any book is the ending. Often they are cheap, contrived, convenient or cliche. (ohhh, that's some good alliteration there, totally by accident, lol) The exact opposite is true with Harrow's ending to Ten Thousand Doors. It just felt perfect. All the ends are elegantly tied up, it's not happy but not really sad. It just is. Very much like life's endings which is probably why I liked it so much. It felt real.
The icing on the cake? This is a stand-alone fantasy book. While you may mourn that there isn't a series here by the end merely because you wish for more; I am very pleased to have read a wonderful fantasy story that won't take half my life or more to get to a satisfying ending. As Harrow tells us early on; "Doors, once closed, do not reopen."

I can't really imagine another hating this book. Disliking it, perhaps; not really getting into it, sure. But actually thinking it's awful? I'm sure there will be people but it seems unlikely to be often. This is easily a book in my top recommendations for 2019. Lovers of YA/Teen, fantasy, fiction and even probably sci-fi are all likely to find something to love in The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I'll leave you with just one of many beautiful lines from this masterpiece:
"May she wander but always return home, may all her words be written true, may every door lie open before her."

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Monday, November 4, 2019

Book Review: If, Then

If, ThenIf, Then by Kate Hope Day

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quick, well-paced read. While this is technically science fiction it doesn’t read like typical sci-fi at all. Easily read by anyone due to its contemporary setting and strong characters.

When most people think of science fiction they imagine space, aliens and/or monstrous species (think Predator). But the reality is there is a whole area of sci-fi that is often left in the fiction section. Often set in modern day life, where everything can be explained by Earth science and is rooted in current known scientific principles. Michael Crichton is easily the most famous writer of this genre. If, Then is perfectly suited to be classified next to Crichton or Blake Crouch.
The scientific topics in Kate Hope Day’s novel range from medicine to frog migration to bunker load capacity. I think the topics are presented in a very accessible way for any reading or education level.

As everyone in our novel is connected in some way (by family, friendship, co-worker or neighbour) it could be argued that it is a bit tough to create diversity in the pages. However Day does a good job of giving us different families, ethnicities, religions and a lesbian relationship. There was something missing for me however. All our families are built off the premise that a family constitutes at minimum one child and one parent. I would have liked more focus on Ginny (our single lesbian who lives on her own and is a supporting character) or one additional couple whom are perhaps older and have no children (for whatever reason) that are featured like our other characters. The point of view changes in If, Then between all the characters so you get to know them very well. I know my desire for a couple without children is because I wanted a character or two I could relate to easier.

I think anyone who can relate to one of the main characters will be enamoured with the dynamic relationships that Day has given us. Even before things start to really ‘happen’, just past halfway, I felt like I could anticipate how our characters would react. That’s generally a good sign as it means the characters make sense and are well established. Each has their own inner struggle and unique reaction to the odd things happening around them.

I keep telling my husband if we had random extra money laying around (lol) I might set up a bit of a doomsday prepping area of our home. We laugh and blow it off; even though both of us have genuinely indicated that being prepared is important. The question of course becomes how important. Day brings to light what all dystopian (pre or post) fiction does; preppers last longer and are often the only ones to survive. Let’s face it most people don’t even have enough drinking water in their home for 3 days without power and water (never mind a week). If this story doesn’t make you go buy or organize some extra supplies at your house then you probably missed part of the point.

You may wonder why I don’t say much about the plot in If, Then. The thing is anything I say regarding the plot is likely to give things away. There are many nuances in the plot and it’s easy to guess how things likely go. Yet that didn’t distract me from wanting to know how each person coped with what was or would happen.

This would have been a five star book if I had found one character to feel more connected to. It was really the only thing missing for me. As Day’s book is very focused on the characters and so it’s hard for me to ignore the feeling that one more character set would have been the icing on the cake for this story.
That said, this is a well executed character study set in a reality that could be right now and certainly makes you think about our realities and existence.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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