Review: BLOOD COUNTESS by Lana Popović (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Trigger warnings: torture, gore, vomiting, abuse

Blood Countess is a young adult historical horror which reimagines the crimes of Elizabeth Bathory through the eyes of a midwife apprentice who becomes her chambermaid.

This book is short, but what a wild ride of lust, murder, and redemption, all in that order. Anna’s voice is wonderful. She’s brave in her compassion and proves a formidable adversary to the cruel and cunning Elizabeth. Their chemistry hums on the page, and I do appreciate the effort Popović put in making a version of 1500s Hungary where the crime wasn’t that they were two girls in a relationship, as twisted as it was.

Gothic, gory, and full of tension, definitely a must-read for readers with a villain-romance-shaped hole in their hearts.

 

Review: LADY HOTSPUR by Tessa Gratton (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

I very quickly returned to Tessa Gratton’s Shakespeare retellings with this queer take on Henry IV (which of course, I have not read). In this companion to Queens of Innis Lear, we follow the exploits of Lady Hotspur, Prince Hal, and Banna Mora as they seek to bring political peace to Eremoria and reunite with the magic of Innis Lear.

This book is so deeply character-driven. No political decision had been made without the influence of any of the characters, which made the love story between Lady Hotspur and Prince Hal that much more compelling. I love how authentically messy and ambitious all the POV characters were. They didn’t feel like pawns to destiny, and instead had their own loves and conflicts. The familial relations especially in Prince Hal’s story line really resonated with me.

With regards to the political world-building, the tension between tradition in an otherwise queernorm world soaked through the pages. The examination was so fascinating, and in many places, made the book un-put-down-able because it didn’t have to end in a way defined by bloody history. Figures from Queens of Innis Lear do return in the form of flashbacks, but there is absolutely no requirement to read that book to understand this one.

If you want a book full of disaster queers, including sword lesbians and bisexual wizards, magic, and destiny, definitely pick up Lady Hotspur.

 

Review: WE HUNT THE FLAME by Hafsah Faizal (2019)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

In a world cover in snow, a young woman disguising herself as a hunter to provide for her family and an assassin prince tries to make his father, the sultan proud. Both are sent on a mission to retrieve a book containing lost magic.

The atmosphere of Arawiya is just so good. The world feels lived in, and each of the different cultures had enough time on page for full exploration. Nothing in terms of the politics is black and white, which lends really well to the enemies-to-lovers dynamic happening between Nasir and Zafira. Both are extremely skilled at what they do, but part of the journey is them discovering how much more they are than their roles. Their is so much vulnerability. The rest of the Zumra were fantastic, my personal favorite being Kifah. Their dynamic proved an uneasy alliance with excellent banter. When things got bad towards the end, the emotions were there.

The adventure feels dangerous, with secrets and ifrit posing a threat every step of the way. The plotting is tight, with enough space for further exploration of the world in the sequel. In particular, I really liked how character-driven the world problem was. Each character had their own stakes and arcs, even though the story is told through two POVs. It makes for excellent tension and palpable danger.

A lush fantasy about returning magic to the world, found family, and overcoming destiny. I’m really excited and scared for the Zumra.

Review: MIDDLEGAME by Seanan McGuire (2019)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Science Fantasy
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

Trigger warnings: suicide, death of family, blood

Twins Roger and Dodger are two sides of the same cosmic coin separated by the continental United States. Roger of New England masters language with relative ease, while his sister Dodger is a math prodigy.

The structure of this novel, though not linear, was frightening in how easy it was to follow. It bounces between past, future, alt!past, alt!future, and the interstitial space where Reed and Leigh plot their schemes for dominating time and reality. Never once did I find myself confused. McGuire has such a precision in her language that this book simultaneous felt like a fairy tale, something contemporary, and a thriller. Absolutely engaging and mind-blowing.

The characterization of the twins is absolutely fantastic. What I think shines brightest here is the depiction of Dodger’s math skills by showing the reader enough of that mastery without going into the specifics of the mathematics itself. It was surprisingly accessible, and even more mind-blowing when you see how it fits into the ending.

Part Frankenstein, some cosmic fuckery, definitely read this book if you’re wondering how any pair of the Wayward Children would turn out as young adults.

Review: THE GIRL FROM BLIND RIVER by Gale Massey (2018)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Crime Thriller
Year Release: 2018
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

In Blind River, New York, the Elders clan has a terrible reputation of being thieves and conmen. Nineteen-year-old Jamie Elders wants something more for her than the dead ends all around. She thought online poker was a way to break out of her uncle Loyal’s toxic circle of fellow gamblers, but the government shuts down the sites she played on and she owes Loyal big time. The perfect opportunity comes when Loyal and one of his associates have to cover up a murder.

I loved how multi-dimensional all the characters were, from feisty Jamie to her traumatized younger brother Toby to Loyal and his dubious motives. Gray morality reigns in this story that’s ultimately about surviving and the choices people make to make it to the next day. Massey layers together a story that isn’t just about covering up a murder and illegal poker rings. She deftly touches upon cycles of poverty and the ways people try to cope while keeping their own safe.. The most fascinating plot to me was Phoebe Elders’, the mother of Jamie and Toby. The tension of wanting to protect herself and the call of motherhood while dealing with the loss of a husband felt like the line keeping the rest of the story in place.

The crime and detective work aspects were engaging as well, but the book offers no easy answers to what the correct solutions are to unravel all the predicaments and situations affecting our characters. A fast-paced, compelling crime thriller about small town life.

Review: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson (1959)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror (Classic?)
Year Release: 1959
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

I generally don’t read source material or classics. The thrills and chills, however, of the Netflix adaptation of Haunting of Hill House, tickled my terrors so thoroughly, I had to read the source material. What a classic it is. (Writing this review on the heels of a horror workshop is also interesting).

What really struck me the most was just how deep into the characters’ heads we get. We start off the book and everyone seems to be well-adjusted. And then they start their summer at the house. The eerieness comes in small doses, not reaching any kind of climax. The house is just like that. It’s a villain under whose spell the characters can only fall under, powerless despite their research and the resident medium.

The house itself is undoubtedly a setting-as-a-character. Its influence is felt from the very first introduction. No action that the characters take comes without the house’s influence. It’s eerie and spooky in a way where you cannot separate the characters from their setting.

By the end, I hadn’t realized it was published in the year it was. There’s a certain timelessness to both the characters and that vulnerability. Many of the feelings did translate to the Netflix adaptation, but that’s a whole separate essay, which I’m sure someone else has done.

The archetypal haunted house story, definitely give this a read if you’re behind on reading things that are thoroughly beloved.

Review: WE RULE THE NIGHT by Claire Eliza Bartlett (2019)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

Revna and Linné are the unlikeliest duo to be paired up as pilot and navigator in the first all-women flight squad in the Union of the North, an alternate fantasy world not unlike mid-twentieth-century Russia.

I love how unflinchingly Bartlett depicted this fantasy land which felt so Soviet. From the factory workers, to the intense focus on secrecy, to the tip-toeing around the government, it felt uncomfortably close to what the our-world Soviet Union could have actually been like. The characters are a bit rough around the edges, and the way that the shadow government plays almost a character in itself is brilliant.

Magic and technology blends perfectly. There are more modern technologies like radios and airplanes, but there is also enough of a backdrop of two different kinds of magic to reaffirm that this is definitely a secondary-world fantasy novel. The way the two work together feels really familiar and had been integrated seamlessly. It made me so excited to read.

Finally, the shining star here were all the girls. From the privileged, to the impoverished, to those more attracted to “girly” things, to those who wanted to play like the boys, I really like how this book focused on how there’s not one right way to be a girl. They all have their worth and value to the squadron. Each of them had been well-rounded I found Linné ‘s journey particularly compelling. I do want to note that Revna uses prosthetics and this is a big part of her arc, but I am not in the right community to comment on the disability rep.

This book takes you on highs and dips into heart-wrenching lows. The depictions of the relationships between young woman are triumphant and the magic-tech makes my heart soar.

Review: THE FISHERMAN by John Langan (2016)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult horror
Year Release: 2016
Source: Libro.fm

Listened to the audiobook

This book is narrated by the kindest-sounding old man, but don’t let that fool you: it is full of folk terror and upstate New York eerieness.

The Fisherman are about two IBM coworkers who happen to be widowers who go on a weekend fishing trip. Things get weird and very cosmic horror from there. There’s not much I can that wouldn’t turn into a spoiler, but I really loved the fishy horror of this one. There’s also a fair amount of the dead walking, all tied to this one stream in the Catskills. The location is absolutely beautiful, and alluring in a way that almost wants you to take up the sport. After reading this tale, however, it’s probably best to leave the restless waters alone.

The book does go on a relevant, but lengthy story of one of the first families to settle in the region. As if tragedy had not been enough, they are also befallen to the tortures of a godly type. It’s a fantastic mix of how people in general are scary, but also with the unsettling that comes with the unexplainable happening all around you. The fish and the location are the constant linking the contemporary tale and history together.

If you weren’t afraid of fish before reading, congratulations! You have ichthyophobia.

 

Review: MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (2019)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult historical nonfiction
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

The Chernobyl miniseries on HBO is one of my favorite pieces of visual media. While the docudrama follows the Voices from Chernobyl, this book delves more into the context of nuclear power in Russia, the culture of scientific academia, and politics and policies that influenced the choices made and, more importantly, not made.

The narrative for this one was fairly linear, starting all the way with the construction of the facility, moving through Russia’s hopes and dreams of being on the forefront of technological development, the education of the facility staff and those in power, and finally, a timeline of the disaster itself. It is fascinating from a cultural perspective, especially as this is something my parents likely remember.

Given the current circumstances of the world, parts of the government’s decision making hit uncomfortably close to reality. The saving face, the underplaying of an unprecedented disaster as something totally manageable, and taking the correct actions far too late hit differently.  For these reasons and more, this book is another fairly difficult read, but this read goes more into the science and background of being a nuclear scientist in Soviet Russia than the heart-wrenching stories of those affected by the disaster.

Review: PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING by Randy Ribay (2019)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

Jay Reguero seeks a fairly average final semester of high school before off to college. He receives news, however, that his cousin Jun had been murdered as part of Duterte’s war on drugs. From then, he goes on a trip to the Philippines to reconnect with his family and to find his own answers behind his cousin’s murder.

This novel covers so many facets of not only contemporary life in the Philippines under Duterte’s rule but also authentic captures the experience of being the American relative coming “home.” Ribay deftly navigates the nuances that come from the cultural differences, both from Jay’s perspective and his family’s. Like Jay, I had been born in my home country and moved to America with my family not long after. There are aspects to that distance which I had not seen in other stories. Nothing in this book is presented as black and white. Jay confronts his own privileges and discovers a culture he had not had much exposure to in his Americanized life. He learns of the contradictions within his own family.

The layers of tension in Patron Saints of Nothing thread through from start to finish. Ribay covers a variety of viewpoints throughout the narrative in a way that feels seamless. It isn’t all bleak, however. Some of the most powerful moments in the novel are the quieter moments among the family. One of my favorites was when Jay’s aunts (good to mention that there is f/f rep in this novel) invite friends and neighbors over for karaoke.

Definitely not an easy read, but this book made me cry, laugh, and dropped my jaw on more than one occasion.