Book review · Young adult

Review: Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power

The writing in this book? Amazing. The rest had… a point, and pretty much nothing else.

Burn Our Bodies Down is a contemporary-set horror novel following 17-year-old Margot as she tries to reconnect with what’s left of her family in the reclusive town of Phalene, after being isolated and lied to by her abusive mother all her life.
As it turns out, her mother learned her ways from someone else, and the darkness that follows Margot could have deeper roots than she could ever imagine.

It is, at its heart, about the cyclical nature of interpersonal violence and the price of ignoring its effects for generations. I really appreciated what it said, and the path it offered to Margot in understanding her family’s history – without ever shying away from all the complicated feelings that come with that. I also appreciated that it’s a book about a lesbian that doesn’t have a romance, because queer people exist outside of romantic plotlines, and yes, queerness is part of our lives even when we aren’t in love.
If this had been a straightforward dark contemporary about cycles of violence, I would stop here; unfortunately, it’s not, and having a strong message doesn’t erase that it was a complete mess of a horror novel.

I don’t think horror needs to be scary necessarily – this isn’t – but I expect something like suspense at the very least, and Burn Our Bodies Down was lacking in that. When your horror novel relies on missing answers, on the unknown, there should be at least a sense of what the consequences might be for the main character if she doesn’t find out. As we know nothing, most of this novel just felt like following Margot around as she interacts with very lackluster characters – seriously, anyone who isn’t a Nielsen is as flat as a piece of paper, and the Nielsen who aren’t Margot are… alike – without any sense of urgency. It isn’t that she’s safe, or that there isn’t a sense of unease running through everything, but it’s all so unspecific and not enough to carry a whole novel, not – again – when the characters are like that.

Then came the reveals. They were all at the same time in the last pages, and even if it weren’t for my dislike of this pacing choice when the rest of the book had been so empty, I wouldn’t have liked them, because they were just… cheap. Instead of leaving the supernatural-metaphorical aspect be, the book tries to explain it too much, and even throws fake science in it to make it feel more grounded. Which is the last thing one should do, and also a pattern, as Wilder Girls had the exact same problem. The result is that both books end with an embarrassingly bad twist related to environmental topics, the kind I’d expect in a cli-fi parody.

I’ll admit, I am sensitive to anything that doesn’t treat topics like climate change or pollution with the weight and research they deserve, but aside from that – this is just the coward’s choice. Don’t justify yourself at every step; let the weirdness speak on its own.

My rating: ★★

TBR & Goals

October Try-A-Chapter TBR for the Uncanny & Scary Season!

Hi! Today’s post will be a TBR – one different from what I usually do.
It’s October, and I see October as a chance to explore genres I wouldn’t normally reach for, genres I have a complicated relationship with: horror and thrillers. I tried something of the sort last year and it didn’t pan out very well, but I think I would have been able to tell that those books weren’t actually my thing at all had I bothered to read a preview instead of jumping into them because of recommendations.

So, today, I’m combining the Try A Chapter tag with my TBR: I’ll try out most creepy and mysterious books I’ve marked as interesting on goodreads and choose what to read.


What I’m Trying

These Women by Ivy Pochoda: I first became interested in this purely because of the cover, then it stayed on my mind because it has been described as standing at the intersection between literary fiction and thriller, more a character study than something you’re supposed to “solve”, and maybe that’s more of my thing? Maybe the answer to being chronically disappointed by mystery reveals is to read books in which it’s not at all the point. Let’s try.
The preview: the first chapter is from the point of view of a sex worker, and I think she’s talking to someone in the hospital? I do like how this whole book seems to be about taking a completely different angle from most of the genre and centering the sex worker instead of making her a disposable victim (you don’t even have to have read or watched a lot of mysteries or thrillers to know that it’s a common thing because it is That Common). I think I like it, but I don’t know if it’s something I would reach for outside an “out of my comfort zone” challenge as this one. The writing is very unusual and deliberately choppy.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan: this is backlist and a favorite on US trans twitter, and I’m not sure I get what it is exactly, but hearing that is something both semi-autobiographical and with horror elements makes me really interested in it, given that the only other book I’ve read that walked the line between fiction and nonfiction is the masterpiece that was Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I’m sure this will be completely different – books that can’t be pinned down in one genre tend to be! – but the point is that it sounds like it will be an Experience. Also, there’s very little I like as much as reading about haunted people. The main criticisms I saw of this one were that it’s pretentious (might be a problem depending on execution) and that it wanders a lot (I don’t think I’ll mind).
The preview: one thing I really like about this is that it doesn’t shy away from words like “crazy” and “insane”, deliberately. (If you’ve ever seen “ableist slur” discourse play out, well, you know why I’m saying this.) These are words I mostly avoid to not make others uncomfortable, but the thing is – living as the crazy one is much more than uncomfortable. Apart from that, this is thematically heavy but easily readable despite it not being in any hurry to make a point, possibly the best kind of combination. I still don’t have a clear idea of what this is going to be, but again, that is deliberate. I may never have one. It literally starts with “This is the book it is, which means it may not be the book you expect it to be.”

Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power: let’s see if this is just like Wilder Girls, both in the sense that I thought it shouldn’t have been a YA book at all and in the sense that it’s not going to work for me. I hope I’m at least wrong about the second, and as I said once before, I want to see how the concept of “creepy cornfield” is executed. My opinion is that any huge monoculture is inherently creepy and so are a great number of plants if they get tall enough, but I don’t get why corn specifically is The Creepy Field in American culture.
The preview: I still don’t know about the corn, but the writing is breathtaking – even more than in Wilder Girls. The hints of “complicated mother-daughter relationship” are drawing me in already. I don’t know how credible my premise “I’m not into thrillers or horror” sounds now that I haven’t been able to exclude even one book yet, but that’s good news I guess? (Not necessarily, as many of them fail for me in the ending, but at least it won’t be like last year’s picks)

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson: this has one of the most striking covers I’ve ever set my eyes on, and it was the main reason this ended up on my TBR even though mysteries are not my genre at all. However, it’s high time I try something by this author, and the premise of this one sounds interesting – it’s about a Black girl who is accused of a murder she doesn’t remember committing, and I’ve heard its explores themes of misogynoir, abuse, and famous adult men exploiting teenage girls (don’t know the details because I want to avoid spoilers).
The preview: there are content warnings at the beginning, which is very considerate and that I really appreciate. As far as the story goes, it’s already setting up the tension effectively – only a few chapters into the flashback and I would be already worried for the main character even if I didn’t know the outcome. I think it’s going to be told mostly in flashbacks, though I’m not sure yet; I hope we gets more glimpses into the future timeline as well. The very short chapter make it feel like a tense, unputdownable read. If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t actually own this yet I’d be tempted to skim forward. The other thing that is holding me back is that this is going to be a necessarily heavy read – the kind I could only deal with on a day in which I’m not already doing badly, I think.

The Damned by Renée Ahdieh: I just want to go back to the decadent underworld of New Orleans and its secret societies in which the paranormal dwells (and marginalized people are accepted)! I’ve been seeing mostly negative reviews, but that was also true for the first book – slow-burn atmospheric paranormal isn’t for everyone nor is it trendy right now either – so I’m not that worried. Also this is one of my favorite covers to ever exist.
The preview: this is so dramatic, I love it already. I don’t know if I’ll like Bastien’s PoV as much as I liked Celine’s in the first book, but I hope so. Also Odette is there and it’s my obligation as a lesbian to read about her, if not now, at least soon. (I hope she gets a girlfriend…) My main worry at this point is that I won’t be able to remember all the names because the cast of characters only in the Court is neverending, but at least I have my e-copy of The Beautiful to search things in.

Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall: a YA horror that apparently also has queer elements that was really hyped for being extremely creepy (at least by YA standards) last fall. It has to do with disappearances, a road that requires a toll, and it’s told in a mixed media format.
The preview: this isn’t bad – at all, at least from what I can tell – but it suffers here because it’s by far the book with the plainest writing on the list so far, and if there’s one thing I don’t like about writing it’s “plain”. Be weirder! I know many people’s idea of good writing is “writing that isn’t intrusive and gets the job done” but I don’t agree at all, I want to sink my teeth in it. I’m interested – the mixed media format is really intriguing – but it’s low priority.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas: since I’m a fool, I’m going to give yet another chance to something that has been marketed as Dark Academia, and not even one that is getting good reviews. (Maybe that means I’ll like it? Who knows.) However: I recently saw Kayla/booksandlala liken its weirdness to some of my favorite weird & underrated books in one of her recent videosThe Gallery of Unfinished Girls, A Room Away from the Wolves, and even A Like in the Dark. I want to know why.
The preview: …the chapters in this one are neverending. Like, the preview ends and we’re not even finished with chapter one. I still think it seems easily readable, or maybe I just think that about everything this evening. I don’t know. The writing isn’t horribly pretentious and no one is quoting Shakespeare at me, which is already a significant improvement from the last time I tried this genre. Also, the feeling of being lost is already coming through and giving me vague A Room Away from the Wolves vibes. (That book is also set in a place named “Catherine House”. How.) I don’t have a definite impression yet but I’m curious.

She’s Too Pretty To Burn by Wendy Heard: queer book twitter made so much noise when the cover of this YA thriller was released, and for good reasons! It looks so fascinating, and as it has been described as “an electric romance that sparks lethal danger”, inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray… of course I want to try it. I have an ARC and I’m going to read it for sure, all this trying a chapter is going to accomplish is deciding whether I want to read it right now.
The first chapter: so, this is compelling enough and something I would have absolutely loved at 16, which is a good sign for a YA book but not necessarily for my current enjoyment – though it’s too soon to say for sure. I will say that I really like the writing and that it’s already setting the tone very well, even though I’m not yet sold on the characters.

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour: haunting stories! I think including this one on this list is more of a stretch, as I’ve heard it’s more “introspective contemporary with magical elements” than anything remotely horror, but it has ghosts in it and I say it counts.
The preview: this is very… muted? Faded? I expected a quiet book from Nina LaCour, and this has again that feeling of isolation and loss, but in a completely different way from We Are Okay. I think it would take me more time than a brief preview to truly get into it, as it’s intentionally removed. I appreciate the already ominous tone. Maybe it’s a little more creepy than I thought? We’ll see.

Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford: this is another weird genre-defying novel that has been described as “haunted” and compared to some of my favorite contemporary fantasy books; I have no idea what it is about but given this and the cover I don’t need much more to want to try it. I feel like it’s going to be way more ~literary than I’m used to but let’s see.
The preview: this is… really interesting and weird and the writing is gorgeous. I have no idea where it’s going but that’s both a good thing and something I imagine I’ll also feel after having finished the novel if I actually end up reading it (also not necessarily a bad thing? It depends). For something that is about taking body parts out of people, it isn’t even that gory, and I’m not yet sure about whether that’s a good thing or not.


Results!

I’ve been struggling with TBRs lately, so I’m not going to define one clearly; I’m going to give myself space to choose which books I’ll read as the month goes on instead of choosing them all now, which also gives me the chance to check out some that aren’t out yet (queer thriller They Never Learn by Layne Fargo) and even some self-published stuff that looks interesting if I have time.

For now, I will say that my priorities are:

  • Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power, which is the one that impressed me the most with its writing – Rory Power got even better in this aspect since Wilder Girls;
  • Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas, because of the possible parallels with some of my favorite books, and because of how difficult to pin down and yet so… effective in setting the mood that beginning was;
  • The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan, because the preview was promising and I’ve seen this recommended so many times by now that I can’t just drop it without going further;
  • I also really hope I’ll be able to fit The Damned by Renée Ahdieh in there, I just want to get back in this world.

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

Yellow Jessamine is a queer gothic horror novella following shipping magnate, poisoner and pretend-widow Evelyn Perdanu as a terrifying plague of mysterious origin devastates her already dying city.

I will start by saying that I’m not completely sure I got this. Horror endings are some of the most polarizing things to read for me, as them not resonating can break the book, and I think that’s what happened here. The ending made sense, and it wasn’t necessarily underwhelming, but I still finished the novella thinking “that’s it?”: it didn’t make sense to me on an emotional level. However, that’s something so personal that I don’t think it should discourage others from picking the book up, despite it being the main reason I didn’t get much out of this.

Because there is a lot to love about Yellow Jessamine. A story that knows the potential of a creepy poison garden is a story I want to love, and so is a story that explores how someone’s paranoia can be at the same time their strength and their downfall. It is a creeping spiral from misanthropy to paranoia, all rooted in a self-loathing so overwhelming that it masks every other feeling in Evelyn’s mind.

That might be one of the reasons people on goodreads aren’t recognizing this as a queer book, but it is, and it’s clearly queer early on. No, the main character isn’t in a place where she can think about loving or anything similar. However, anyone who isn’t forcing heteronormativity on the novel can recognize that Evelyn is meant to be a portrayal of a lesbian who happens to be deeply unwell, given that from the beginning Evelyn spends a lot of time thinking about her maid Violetta undressing her, describes Violetta as (quoting) “special”, “radiant”, and the only good person in the world, and becomes clearly uncomfortable when men show any interest in her.
I wish people realized that we’re used to dismiss – often, even in ourselves – signs of women being attracted to women at every turn because of how homophobia and misogyny shape the way we understand and recognize desire. There’s a reason “just gals being pals” about obviously gay situations is a lesbian meme. To not take this at all under account and just stating “this isn’t really queer” is to reinforce heteronormativity.
This isn’t a love story, this is a tale about devotion and obsession and downfall. Queer people exist – and should get to exist in fiction – outside of clear romantic storylines.

Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this. Reading Yellow Jessamine felt like following something to its inevitable consequence, but the atmosphere wasn’t strong enough for that to work: it should have felt creepy and ominous, but everything was too vague and barely-grounded. Maybe I would have liked it more had it sacrificed some of its readability (it is a quick read) for some heavier writing. More detail and clear indication of how things looked like would have made the whole story feel much more claustrophobic. You can’t feel trapped in a manor if the book doesn’t even really bother telling you how it looks like.

I still have a lot of respect for how casually messed up this book gets, and Evelyn is a fascinating if somewhat static (that’s kind of the point! She is rooted) character to follow, but I don’t know how much it will stay with me.

My rating: ★★★

Weekly

T10T: Last Ten Horror Books I Read

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Halloween Freebie.

I decided to talk about the ten most recent horror books I’ve read – and what I thought of them, as horror is a very hit-or-miss genre for me. I will include my rating of the book and also a rating of how creepy/spooky/scary/unsettling the book is, with a little specifics about what makes it so. Said rating will vary from 💀 for “mildly spooky” to 💀💀💀 for “scary, really affected me for a while, glad I read it during the day”. (Consider, though, that I don’t read a lot of horror, so what’s really creepy to me might not phase habitual horror readers!)


Other Small Disclaimer:

Yes this went up at 4 AM in my time zone when it was still unfinished, so you might have seen the draft this morning (sorry! I’ve been sick all weekend+monday and forgot that I had a post scheduled.)


The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht

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Genre: it stands on the line between dark fantasy and horror.
My rating: ★★★½ (full review)
Creepiness rating: 💀💀, it seriously gets dark – it might be that I’m strongly affected by everything involving plagues – but it’s also really short.

This is a novella about horrible immortal men and their even more horrible relationship and goals; villainous gay content is the best content. Also: Monsters! Sorcerers! Plague! The writing is gorgeous and evocative, the atmosphere is thick and everything feels overwhelmingly bleak. After a first half that made me think this one would be a favorite, the second part of the book really disappointed me – it didn’t go far enough and didn’t leave any impact whatsoever if not for how anticlimatic it felt.


House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

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Genre: YA Gothic horror
My rating: ★★¾ (full review)
Creepiness rating: 💀 – mild, with the exception of one very upsetting scene involving a dead animal and worms.

A horror retelling of Twelve Dancing Princesses set on a island seemed like a really interesting premise! And I have to say, the island descriptions and atmosphere were definitely the best part. Everything else… not so much. I don’t love books that backtrack too many times on what’s real and what’s not when it comes to creepy scenes, and I thought the worldbuilding needed to be a lot stronger than it was for the book to actually pull off what it was trying to do. But my main problem was with the characters, as they flat out didn’t have a personality, and the romance/vague love triangle me feel as if I had picked up something published in 2012. While this was a quick read, it didn’t feel worth it overall.


Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé

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Genre: YA contemporary-set horror
My rating: ★★½ (full review)
Creepiness rating: 💀 – more uncomfortably sad than creepy; also involves dead animals.

I just didn’t get what this one was trying to do, which was overall a more unsettling experience than reading the book itself, as it didn’t have that much going for it apart from some very stereotyped horror devices like the creepy little girl who is creepy for literally no reason. The more I think about it, the more I also realize that I also disagree with what this book seemed to be saying in the end (did it mean to? That I can’t say), but I won’t go into it because spoilers. The only thing I actually liked about this one was the creepy wood atmosphere, that was written really well.


Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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Genre: YA horror with a (failed, imo) sci-fi twist
My rating: ★★★½ (full review)
Creepiness rating: 💀💀 – excellent body horror.

A gorgeously-written and atmospheric horror novel following three girls trapped on an island where a mysterious illness is changing everything. It’s a story that shows a deep anxiety towards change and the lack of agency that can come with it; I liked the subtle point it made about how being a girl can be a horror in itself because of the expectations inherently placed on your body, and how that relates to the body horror in here. Unfortunately, the characters were barely sketched and the story ended up trying to talk about another topic it wasn’t able to tackle properly, and that really isn’t the kind of thing you should shove in your story as a plot twist.


Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter

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Genre: YA contemporary with horror aspects
My rating: ★★★★ (full review with TWs at the end)
Creepiness rating: 💀💀 – not so much scary as deeply twisted and dealing with difficult themes. I strongly recommend looking up the trigger warnings.

This book is pretty much as weird and dark as current YA can possibly get, and if one isn’t prepared, it’s an ugly surprise. I wasn’t, not fully – I was familiar with the author, but not with what this story is about, and I wouldn’t wish that on others (despite the fact that I did really like this in the end). This is about an abuse survivor dealing with complex trauma while trying to get out of a codependent incestuous relationship and the evil faerie realm. Yes, it’s a lot, and the horror is deeply tied with the main character’s life circumstances. It’s the best that YA psychological horror has to offer, it’s beautifully (if very unusually) written, and has one of my favorite character arcs. Stories about marginalized people (the main character is queer) who are survivors and are allowed to not be the figure of the perfect victim while being allowed by the story to still find healing will always be important to me.


Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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Genre: Sci-fi horror
My rating: ★★★★¾ (full review)
Creepiness rating: 💀💀💀 – ominous and suspenseful; slowly rising tension to a conclusion involving a lot of gore. It has the creepiest scene I’ve ever read in it.

This sits perfectly at the intersection of two of my favorite horror subgenres: sci-fi horror and ocean-based horror. It’s about man-eating mermaids, and it gets just how creepy the ocean can be. Another thing it gets? Marine biologists and natural scientists*. There’s a mermaid necropsy scene! (This is particularly relevant to me because shark necropsy might be one of the things we’ll have to do this year as students, and the characters’ reactions to the idea in that scene are pretty much ours, too. The realism!) As someone who might maybe end up being a queer woman in this branch of science, it was also really nice to see that one of the many PoV characters, arguably the main one, is a queer woman in science – a bisexual marine biologist who ends up in an f/f relationship during the course of the novel. This book gets a lot of things right, and there are few things as relevant as environmental horror questioning our ideas about human relationships with the environment.

*not always; there’s this flavor of “internet environmental activist who doesn’t know what they’re talking about” to some of the ecology aspects of it, but it could have been so much worse


The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

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Genre: YA paranormal horror
My rating: ★★★★★ (full review)
Creepiness rating: 💀💀 – amazing, well-thought-out psychological horror

I have talked before about how stories about haunted people are stories about isolation, and I’ve also talked about how a rarely portrayed aspect of being mentally ill is how isolating it is. And this is a book about the consequences of avoidance and isolation due to mental illness told through a paranormal metaphor (a haunting). Since I’ve been in this kind of situation, it was an oddly comforting story, not scary at all; by others (seeing from reviews) it has been described both as “addictive and terrifying” (from a less personal PoV: it is scary) and “boring” (don’t look for fast-paced horror here).

So, this is my favorite horror book, it has an f/f relationship I love, the main character even ends up on antipsychotics and experiences side effects (why do most YA books either act as if medication will destroy your life or medication is a gift with no drawbacks?). If the next book I’m going to talk about is Annihilation, the one turned into a movie, this one could easily be renamed Self-Annihilation: An Attempt with Consequences, and if that sounds interesting to you, you really should try it.


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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Genre: New weird
My rating: ★★★★ (full review)
Creepiness rating: 💀💀💀 – on the deeply terrifying idea of the unknown. Really upsetting and bitter.

Its length is between a novel’s and a novella’s, which makes the distant narration work really well. Definitely don’t get into this if you’re the person who liked to get explanations or answers, but otherwise, this is a really good book about ecological horror (I don’t know the author’s thought process but I would be surprised if this wasn’t deeply influenced by climate anxiety). Like Wilder Girls, about the inherent horror of unwanted change, but it takes a completely different angle.


The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco

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Genre: YA paranormal horror
My rating: ★★★¼ (full review)
Creepiness rating: 💀💀½ – pretty much as dark as YA horror goes

A horror book told in the point of view of a vengeful Japanese ghost girl! The first half is set in America and kind of boring/not that creepy, the second half is set in Japan and (by YA standards at least) seriously terrifying. The main character was probably my favorite aspect of this book, and if you want to read about creepy dolls, this is also definitely the book for you.


Persons Non Grata series by Cassandra Khaw

Genre: cosmic horror mashups; the first book is described as “Lovecraftian Noir”, the second as “Lovecraftian Southern Gothic”
My rating: ★★★★½ (first review; second review)
Creepiness rating: 💀 – mostly mild, but watch out for the eye horror and unsettling atmosphere.

These are short novellas playing with a genre I have very little experience with; it probably will carry even more meaning for those who are familiar with Lovecraft’s fiction (and want something that isn’t a racist mess) but I really liked it even with my very limited knowledge. The writing is gorgeous and makes them feel almost like poetry. From monsters hiding inside abusers to eldritch music taking over people, there’s a lot of horrible supernatural in here, and I loved what the stories did with it, especially the way A Song for Quiet ended up being a story about how much a monster grief itself can be, among all the literal monsters.


What are your favorite horror books? Have you read any of these?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Villainous Novellas

Today I’m reviewing two Tor.com novellas I’ve read this year:

  • The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, which I read this August and hadn’t posted a review of yet, despite having talked about it many times on this blog already
  • The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, a book I read this October for Spookathon.

34613788The Ascent to Godhood is about the relationship between Hekate, the series’ villainess, and Lady Han, a courtesan-turned-revolutionary. It follows how the two met, the times they spent together, and how the relationship fell apart – so, yes, it’s basically an f/f villain romance, with delicious intrigue in the background.

The Tensorate is a series of novellas written in unusual formats, some of which worked for me more than others, and when I heard that The Ascent to Godhood was to be a transcription of “a drunken monologue”, I thought this wouldn’t work for me at all. And was I wrong. You already vaguely know how the story ends, and you’re being told by Lady Han what happened, and yet it works – maybe too much? (Those were my FEELINGS, book. How dare you.) It makes up for the details lost in the telling with a narrative voice that you will remember, and maybe exactly because of the few descriptions you’re given, the few details you know are even more memorable.
This ended up being my favorite novella in the series.

This is not the story of a revolution. It is much more personal than that, it’s a story about love and loss and grief, and it deliberately doesn’t focus on Hekate’s downfall, because that’s not what was important to Lady Han to begin with. Lady Han loved this terrible woman, and hated her just as much, and this is about how those feelings can coexist, and this complicated, twisted relationship. If you’re looking for something that is about political intrigue and a revolution, you’re going to be disappointed – they’re the background, not the focus. I didn’t mind that; I was there for the villain romance, and all the conflicting feelings that come with it. It’s probably my favorite trope, and it means so much to me to finally see a book focus specifically on an f/f version of it.

Villainous, competent women are my favorite kind of characters, so I knew right from the beginning that Hekate was going to have a lot of potential, but I didn’t think I would get a book focusing on her, and I’m so glad this exists. Lady Han is also brave and shrewd and manipulative, and I loved reading her version of the story.
The Ascent to Godhood is a tragedy, one about how your love and admiration for a person can mislead you, and about how the excessive mistrust from those experiences can destroy you all the same. Tragic f/f love stories in which the tragedy has nothing to do with homophobia, like the m/f ones that have existed since forever, have so much value, and while this is a tragic gay story, it’s not the kind of tragic gay story we’re so familiar with.

I also loved how this novella and The Descent of Monsters were tied to each other. I didn’t love The Descent of Monsters, but this novella gave it more meaning. I really recommend reading this even if you, like me, thought the third book was kind of a waste of your time. The only thing I still don’t understand is what is even up with Sonami. I mean, this book kind of gave me an answer, but as she’s not a developed character at all, I’d still love to know more.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content warnings: suicide of a minor character, child trafficking, death of a toddler, forced sterilization. Nothing graphic because you’re just being told about it, and usually not in detail.


42269378-1This was so gory, disgusting and atmospheric you could almost feel the smell of decay wafting from the pages.

The Monster of Elendhaven is a dark fantasy novella following an immortal, magical man as he meets another man who might be even more dangerous than him, and who might have some nefarious plans; deliciously evil relationship ensues.

What I loved the most about this novella was the writing. It is vivid, even though most of the time you kind of wish it hadn’t been, because Elendhaven is a horrible place to be in, and every single character is on some level corrupt and/or unhinged. I loved it for that; it truly makes you experience just how ugly this world is. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the narrator’s humor made this city bearable to read about and also made it feel more real.

“Leickenbloom Manor was the oldest mansion in the city: four floors, twenty-six rooms, and a wrought-iron trim that made it look like an ancient prison that had been garnished by an extremely fussy knitting circle.”

This book had the best descriptions, yes.

I also really liked the way the relationship was being set up: as usual, I’m always there for the trainwrecks, especially if they involve gay characters being evil the way a straight one would be allowed to be. (I don’t feel like the novella explored the full potential of it, but that’s not too unusual for short books.)

Those two things were a significant part of why I loved the first half, which introduces the reader to the world, the characters and what they’re up to; I thought this was going to be amazing because of what it seemed to lead up to.
And then… it just fizzled out. It starts talking about an apocalypse and then just ends with that? (I know, I’m vague, but I keep things non-spoilery.) Maybe there’ll be a sequel, I don’t know. What I know is that when I got to the end, my main feeling was “that’s it?”

I hesitate to say that this isn’t good, because it is well-written, but I didn’t really get what it was going for, and in the end, I kept thinking about so many other directions it could have taken that I would have liked more – but then that’s kind of wanting to read a different book.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any great novellas/stories about villains lately?

Adult · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley

43801821._sy475_I could sum up my thoughts about Meet Me in the Future by saying that all the stories were, if not always good, at least solid, but not one of them was memorable on its own the way I find short stories can be.
These stories are not pretty. They’re not necessarily satisfying. They would, however, be really interesting to discuss, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the whole purpose of how some of these were written. They’re meant to be shared and talked about, not read and put down, I think.

As you’d expect from something Kameron Hurley wrote, many of them are about war. War is an element in the past, still casting a shadow on the main character (Elephants and Corpses), it’s something that is seen as inevitable by a society, but is also a direct danger to it (The Red Secretary, oh had this story a lot to say), or something that is paradoxically seen by some as “bringing civilization” even as it actually destroys it (The War of Heroes), something that is always inherently tied to the dehumanization of someone (When We Fall) and horror, horror, horror as much as an instrument to keep the attention away from the actual enemy (The Light Brigade – I recommend skipping this one if you want to read the book, however), something that needs to end (The Improbable War).
Not all of these were anything remarkable when read on their own. Inside the collection, it’s a running thread, and there is for sure a lot to discuss.

There’s also, of course, a lot of queerness and discussions about gender. The collection starts with a body-hopping mercenary who happens to be a trans man (Elephants and Corpses), and presents gender as something not tied to bodies, even though still relevant to the person, and continues with stories about violent matriarchies (The Women of Our Occupation, possibly my least favorite story, I’m not that interested in reading about speculative reverse sexism), stories in which gender is never stated (The Light Brigade), stories in which there’s only one gender (Warped Passages), and stories in which there are at least four different genders recognized by the society (The Plague Givers, my favorite story). In these stories, women are allowed to be ugly, to be dirty – queer, disabled, brown women are allowed to be all of these things without ever be seen as anything but wholly human, the way a man could be portrayed. The idea that women have to be beautiful is so woven into everything, even everything fictional, that these stories almost feel jarring.
And, since we’re talking about women and imperfections, here women are allowed to be evil or morally gray, humans with the capacity to experience a full spectrum of emotions. I will always be there for portrayals of queer women that are all but soft and unproblematic; in Garda we get a woman who is divorcing from her two wives (if the story had been about that, instead of becoming about a mystery with a main character who wasn’t Nyx but felt exactly like Nyx from the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, I would have liked it a lot more), and in The Plague Givers we get a story about the consequences of a very toxic f/f relationship in a world where magic can bring plague (I loved this one so much).

There are a couple stories that felt like filler (notably, The Fisherman and the Pig was a completely unnecessary sequel to Elephants and Corpses), but overall, this is a collection with a lot of things to say; the average rating might be a weak 3.5 stars, but the whole is more than a sum of its parts.

My overall rating: ★★★★

Individual ratings:

  • Elephants and Corpses – 4 stars
  • When We Fall – 4 stars
  • The Red Secretary – 4 stars
  • The Sinners and the Sea – 3.5 stars
  • The Women of Our Occupation – 2 stars
  • The Fisherman and the Pig – 2 stars
  • Garda – 3 stars
  • The Plague Givers – 4.5 stars
  • Tumbledown – 4 stars
  • Warped Passages – 4 stars
  • Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light – 2.5 stars
  • Enyo-Enyo – 3 stars
  • The Corpse Archives – 2.5 stars
  • The War of Heroes – 3.5 stars
  • The Light Brigade – 4.5 stars
  • The Improbable War – 3 stars

Do you rate anthologies with the average rating of the stories or do you have another system?

Book review · Young adult

Review: Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé

36445966Strange Grace meets The Wicker King, but duller, more hopeless, and unnecessarily heterosexual. If you’ve followed me for a while, you might know that I loved Amelinda Bérubé’s debut, The Dark Beneath the Ice, for being an introspective, chilling horror story about mental illness, portrayed with a care that I don’t always trust the horror genre to have. Here There Are Monsters, however, didn’t resonate emotionally with me at all.

This was… I’m not sure what it was. On the surface, it’s a horror story about a girl gone missing and the woods trying to drag other people into the horrifying, twisted game that got her to begin with. What I got from it is a story about cycles of violence, about neglected teens and preteens trying to survive in a world that laughs at the violence perpetrated against them, and the twisted and ugly things that rise from these situations. About the toxic pull of power, because you want your bullies to stop, you want to make them stop, and the horrifying answers to powerlessness. It’s also a story about how trying to rescue a person from their self-destructive urges might destroy you – and the people around you – in turn.
These sound like good concepts, now that I write them down like this, but what this book did was merely point at the situation and say “it’s ugly”. Yes, of course it’s ugly. Now what?
I don’t know. I guess I wanted more from it.

The thing is, I didn’t feel like the characters gained that much from what happened to them. Skye’s character arc felt wobbly to me, and in a genre that relies a lot on character arcs, I can’t accept that. Or maybe I just struggle with stomaching character development that is both positive and negative (I would explain more, but I don’t want spoilers in here; my take on some things is that the path towards doing better isn’t made of self-loathing). Also, by the end I disliked every single character in the book (my whole opinion of the love interest was “someone please give that boy a personality”), which made caring even more difficult.
I don’t need to like the characters, especially not in a horror book, but then there have to be either solid thematic arcs or character arcs, and here, that wasn’t really the case.

There are some things about this book I did appreciate, like the creepy forest atmosphere, and the fact that the book described which plants one could find in said creepy forest (cedar, sumac, white pine – probably the most detailed plant horror descriptions I have ever read, which was wonderful). It’s just that nothing about the actual story really drew me in.

As with every horror book I didn’t like, I’m left wondering if I missed the point of it entirely. Maybe I did, and this book could be important to someone else the way The Dark Beneath the Ice was almost a revelation to meHere There Are Monsters was just fine, there was nothing deeply wrong with it, so it’s not a story I would actively recommend people to avoid. However, stay away from it if animal death, including pet death, is one of your triggers, as there’s a lot of it.

I definitely intend to read more by Amelinda Bérubé in the future, and I hope I will like (understand?) those books more.

My rating: ★★½

Book review · Sci-fi · Young adult

Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

42505366Annihilation meets Lord of the Flies in this YA literary horror debut featuring a quite deadly illness that slowly turns an all-girl school’s students into monsters.

Unfortunately, me and this book didn’t click as much as I hoped after seeing that cover – one of the most gorgeous in YA – and what this book was about, since it promised creepy woods and queer girls. It delivered both, but I found only one of them actually satisfying.

The main reason this book didn’t work for me were the characters. There wasn’t anything wrong with them, not really, but by the end of the book, I realized that I didn’t know them at all, which was the reason I couldn’t bring myself to care about them. I rooted for them, of course, but I didn’t feel it.
They felt so distant that I started to wonder whether this was intentional and the author was trying to mirror what Annihilation did with its main character. (And it really feels like a YA version of that! It even has the bear.) I can’t know the author’s intent, but the Annihilation approach worked because that book was barely longer than a novella, not even reaching 200 pages.

Another theory is that she chose not to develop her characters because Wilder Girls is meant to be a general portrayal of the experience of girlhood in a misogynistic world – which it could be, since this can be seen as a story about how girls are constantly made to change, told to be different, told that their bodies should be always beautiful, told that their bodies belong to everyone but them. Even then, I still don’t think this was the best choice (if it really was intentional). I just… couldn’t get invested in anything but the atmosphere.

Also: (spoilers)

I’m so tired of “climate change!!” plot twists in books that never in any way talk about ecology. It may be that I’m studying it and so I feel strongly about that, but to me it feels like constantly reading novels in which every plot twist involves deities but that never actually talk about religion. Of course we want to talk about climate change, of course it’s horrifying, but that’s exactly why you shouldn’t throw it around as if it were magic that is completely not tied to how ecosystems actually work.
I strongly believe that metaphors for something should make sense emotionally, and this… didn’t? I don’t know, when the cause was revealed I was pretty underwhelmed, and the worst thing is that I can already think of a lot of ways a similar set-up would have made a far better metaphor for climate change

 

Apart from that, I can say that this book is really well-written. The writing is gorgeous and evocative, the pacing excellent, and this is one of the best examples of plant horror I’ve ever read, because for once, I’ve found a plant horror book that actually tells you how the forest looks like and which trees are there (pines, spruces – yes, this book doesn’t call all of them pines, I love that – and broadleaf deciduous trees). I still didn’t love it, as I prefer books in which the forest horror comes from the plants and not from the animals that roam it.
Also, creepy tide pools! There are creepy tide pools! I loved the setting so much.

In addition to what didn’t work for me about the characters, this book also had what didn’t work for me about Annihilation, the sad, lost and gloomy tone, as I find it exhausting, but that’s not the book’s fault.

My rating: ★★★½

If you want to know the trigger warnings for Wilder Girlsthis list on the author’s site is comprehensive, but to that I’d add “therapy session gone wrong”, because I needed it.

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter

39863312-1Sarah Porter is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Vassa in the Night. When I saw that she had written another book, one about creepy fairies, I knew I had to read it.

Never-Contented Things is a dark contemporary fantasy story about a codependent relationship between two foster siblings. It’s ugly, messy, disturbing and hard to read, and if you’re the kind of person who likes to read about teenagers doing the right thing, I really don’t recommend this book. The main characters in this story are in no way role models, and they aren’t meant to be. However, I think that stories about messed up teenagers finding a way out are very important.

This is a very uncomfortable read with a beautiful message. A story that says that no matter what you went through, there’s hope. You can heal. And maybe you will always be haunted by those memories, but you can get better.
I think we need this kind of stories too, because teens go through similar things – well, not the part were they’re trapped by creepy fairies, but you can see that as a metaphor – and this deserves to be recognized. And we need messed up stories from the point of view of marginalized characters (all main characters here are queer) as well. It may not be the most positive representation ever, but it can help. Not everyone sees themselves in stories about unproblematic people.

This book follows three characters:

Ksenia Adderley, arguably the main character. She’s currently living with her foster brother Josh and her foster parents, Mitch and Emma, who accuse her of having a bad influence on her brother. She’s white, presents as masculine and is described as “not a girl” in some parts of this book, which makes me think she is nonbinary/genderqueer, but she never says anything about it (or, at least, if she did I missed it). She is attracted to multiple genders but doesn’t label herself. She has been in multiple traumatic situations before, including sexual assault, and she’s perceived as cold by many because she’s very closed off. She says and thinks a lot of messed up things, but I understood her and she grew on me.
Joshua “Josh” Korensky, white, chubby, pansexual and gender-non-conforming. He’s perceived as the “good” sibling by his parents. While I understood his motivations and liked his character arc (and he is, after all, a victim too), it was very hard not to despise him.
Alexandra “Lexi” Holden, black, mostly into men but not only, grew up in a supportive family and is a good student. She’s Josh and Ksenia’s friend, she sees how the situation spirals out of control, and she has a major role in Ksenia’s recovery. I really liked her PoV.

The relationship Josh and Ksenia have is unhealthy, codependent and becomes abusive throughout the story. Ksenia is over-protective because she feels like Josh is the only one who understands her and loves her. She is really afraid to lose him, as she has lost many people before. She takes all the responsibility for every time he messes up, and she is seen as the one who has a bad influence on Josh, even if she’s actually the one who sees him as a brother. Josh, however, doesn’t really see Ksenia as a sister, disregards her consent because he believes he knows what she actually wants, and pressures her in romantic/sexual situations.
They’re doing all the wrong things to remain together, and it’s difficult to read.

But Never-Contented Things isn’t just about unhealthy relationships. The friendship between Ksenia and Lexi was healthier, and even the romance (f/f? f/genderqueer?) that develops from it seemed to be. I really liked Ksenia and Lexi together.
One could argue this is a story about a romance helping a person get out of an abusive relationship, but I don’t really agree. Ksenia isn’t saved by Lexi, or by Lexi’s love. Lexi helps her realize she has a problem, but the decision to confront the truth about herself and her relationship with Josh was, ultimately, Ksenia’s. Ksenia doesn’t just get out of a relationship, she gets out of the mindset that got her there, and that’s why I didn’t mind that this book ended with a romance.

I won’t lie, I didn’t enjoy reading most of this. While it does have its fun moments (…the scene about Prince on the burning chair made me laugh out loud), I almost DNFed it multiple times. It made me feel sick. I also highlighted entire pages of it, especially near the ending, because the character development was wonderful.

What I liked the most about Never-Contented Things was Ksenia’s character arc. It’s one of the most well-written arcs I’ve read in a while.
This is a story about denial and self-hate. Ksenia believes she can’t be loved or understood, and that’s why she gets too close to the only person she believes loves her; she also believes she is a bad person, that she doesn’t really deserve to be happy. That part in which she says that she struggles to appreciate the good things about herself, that she gets she should in the abstract but doesn’t really feel it? I understand this kind of double standard more than I’d like to.

You might have noticed that so far I’ve barely mentioned the fairies. That’s because this is not really a “fae book”, the fairies here are… kind of incidental. They make the situation worse, and they add a lot of creepiness – pool party with dying ghost horses? Door graveyards? Eyes growing on your hat? There’s a lot here – but they’re not the focus.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t awesomely disgusting. Especially Unselle. She’s the girl on the cover of this book, and everything she says and does is very creepy and wrong on so many levels. I loved reading about her.

My rating: ★★★★

Trigger warnings for: foster brother/sister incest, codependency, parental neglect, emotional abuse, sexual assault, on-page death, body horror, mentions of suicide.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

34523174I usually don’t give five stars to a book if it took me ten days to read it. However, I like to take horror in small doses; I also read most of this outside – at the beach, because there’s no better beach read than marine horror – and I often put it down because I wanted to spend my time there doing underwater photography, not reading.
I may have spent half of my goodreads updates complaining, but this book deserves five stars, and now I’ll try to explain why.

Into the Drowning Deep is a story about a scientific expedition trying to find mermaids after the mysterious deaths of the passengers of the AtagartisI decided to read this because I love everything that has to do with marine biology, and for once I found a book that talked about it without constantly breaking my suspension of disbelief. Not because it was realistic, it didn’t need to: it showed what I would expect scientists to do if they ever found mermaids.
I mean, this book features:

🦀 mermaid necropsy! With details! And people trying to classify them. Are they mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians or what
🦀 biologists getting very excited about studying mermaid lice
🦀 biologists having very strong opinions about cetaceans (100% true to real life as far as my experience goes). Never ask a marine biologist about dolphins and whales (and never ask them about tuna, even if that’s a fish) unless you want an infodump
🦀 people making very… unwise decisions to discover things
🦀 scientists talking about funds and publications and all that stuff you never see in books when there’s science involved
🦀 try to find another book that mentions carcinisation
🦀 for once, a books that gets how terrifying the sea is. Even real-life sea without mermaids. Really, it’s terrifying and yet I get all the unwise decisions of the scientists. During one of these underwater photography days, I had to move aside to avoid a stingray; I did not chase it to photograph it because I’m not that suicidal, but I get the temptation – I never saw one before! Especially not here! – and that’s why I get this book

The sea is beautiful, the sea is scary, and humans are fascinated by scary, beautiful things. This book gets it. I love it. Enough not to care too much about the things I hated.
Sometimes I thought the environmentalism aspect was exaggerated – not because global warming and poaching don’t have real consequences (they do.) but don’t say a species is extinct in the wild when you’re talking about one subspecies of it! On the other hand, I liked how this book explored people’s relationships with the environment from many points of view. In a way, this is a story about humans being too proud, too fearless because they don’t know how danger looks anymore.

Sometimes the characters annoyed me, even some that weren’t meant to. I’m talking mostly about Dr. Toth. I didn’t hate her most of the time, but the writing didn’t help – it doesn’t let you have your own opinion about the characters. If the writer thinks a character is a bad person you get almost told they’re the worst people ever, and if the writer thinks a person is awesome (…Dr. Toth), you have to endure the narration telling how awesome and great that person is. Which is very annoying, but I understand why telling and not showing can be useful in a book with such a large cast.

My problem with Dr. Toth was:

🦀 “the scientists were wrong and the misunderstood pseudoscientist was right all along” is one of my least favorite tropes ever. Pseudoscientists are dangerous, they’re the reasons we have anti-vaxxers. And someone who was convinced of the mermaids’ existence since before the Atagartis incident is definitely a pseudoscientist.
🦀 she broke my suspension of disbelief more than the mermaids. When Dr. Toth and some other scientists are talking about whether mermaids could be mammals, she mentions that an animal doesn’t have to be viviparous to be considered a mammal (true! see Monotremes). Then she starts a long infodump about the fact that there’s no viviparous/oviparous binary, because there are animals who “lay their eggs internally”. Yes, it’s true, it’s called ovoviviparity and it’s not a revolutionary concept, and I don’t think there’s a biologist who thinks that binary even exists. I knew about ovoviviparity since I was six from book about animals for children, and we learned about it in third grade. The fact that she explained ovoviviparity to scientists and no one told her to stop being condescending is very unrealistic.
🦀 If you’d rather humans got hurt instead of animals, there’s something very wrong with you.
Hence the not-full five stars, but I did want to give this book a full five.

But let’s go back to the positive things. This book is about scientists, and it’s diverse. This alone is something that means a lot to me. Some relevant characters are:

🦀 Victoria “Tory” Stewart, a bisexual marine biologists whose sister died because of the mermaids; she falls in love with another woman during this story. She was my favorite character in the book and the main reason I read it in the first place. Not only a queer woman in science, a queer woman who is a marine biologist. I thought I would never see that.
🦀 Olivia Sanderson, an autistic lesbian who became a camera operator to overcome anxiety. I loved her a lot, and I’m glad I found another book with a f/f romance I actually loved!
The part in which she talked about how non-disabled parents abuse their disabled children in subtle ways like telling them they will never be sexual/infantilizing them was something I never saw in a book, but it’s true.
🦀 Not-really-divorced Jillian Toth and her disabled (chronic pain due to an accident) husband Theo Blackwell. Jillian is Hawaiian; I’ve already said what I thought about her, but I can say that I appreciated her slight moral grayness. Same thing for her husband, except he’s more morally gray and I didn’t always understand him. Anyway, I never saw a similar relationship dynamic before.
🦀 three red-headed sisters, Hallie, Heather and Holly Wilson, of which the last two are deaf scientists (and twins) and the first is an interpreter. I loved the discussion about accessibility and really liked all of them. Heather’s descent in the Mariana Trench with the submersible “Minnow” is probably the best scene in the book. It perfectly got the “the ocean is terrifying but I can’t look away” theme.

And there are many others! These are the most relevant ones, but we get at least ten, if not fifteen PoVs. Some of them last only a chapter, but no character was ever so underdeveloped I didn’t care about them in some way (even if my caring was “I hope they get eaten by a mermaid”)

My rating: ★★★★¾