Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Unexpected Beach Reads

Welcome to Top Ten Tuesday, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we're all about that beach, 'bout that beach with a beach reads freebie. I know for some parts of the country (hey, former home state of Wisconsin) it's not really beach time yet, but it will be Memorial Day in six days, and that's the official kick-off to summer. I'm not sure who decided that (probably some scheming executive in a mega corporation), but I'll take it.

Much like chick-lit, "beach reads" is often a term used with derision. I see no reason why deeming a book a "beach read" automatically reduces its value, but that often is the case. When you stop and consider that not all beach reads are fluffy--thrillers make the cut a lot--I do think it is a gendered attack on female authors. But beach reads, like beach bodies, should have no stigma attached to them. A beach body is a body on a beach. A beach read is a book you read while you happen to be at the beach. Because I take this view, I read whatever I want when I'm at the beach. I'm looking for a gripping story, but I wouldn't necessarily bring my Balzac or Victor Hugo to the beach. I need some respite from tragedy, after all.

Here, in no particular order, are some non-traditional beach reads to try out this summer:

1.  Misery by Stephen King. This is my current beach read, and the contrast between Paul Sheldon's confinement and the open spaces of the ocean is interesting to contemplate. And, you know, it's terrifying. Also, it will keep strange people away from you if you're an introvert like me and crave solitude.

2.  Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. It's a toss-up between this one and The Cabinet of Curiosities for my favorite Pendergast novel, but if you must start, start at the beginning. Bonus: count how many times the beast has a "goatlike" odor and how often it "ululates."

3.  Heartstone by Elle Katharine White. If you lean more toward the romance spectrum in your reading preferences, give this fantasy retelling of Pride and Prejudice a spin. I am quite sure that I had a silly grin plastered to my face while reading the whole thing, and man, I shipped the ship so hard that I shattered into all the feels.

4.  The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi. With prose as fluid and graceful as waves, this book will sweep you away on a romantic, magical journey with a feisty heroine and a demon horse with a wicked sense of humor. It's achingly beautiful and perfect for sunsets.

5.  Thunderstruck by Erik Larsen. Most people are familiar with The Devil in the White City (and if you haven't read it, you MUST!), but this tale of murder, scientific quarrels, and police chases in Victorian England will hold you captive until the last page. You may have quite a sunburn from trying to finish this in one day.

6.  Sweet by Emmy Laybourne. If you feel sad that all of your friends are going on a cruise and you aren't, then have I got the book for you! You'll be super excited about all the money you saved and get a hefty dose of body positivity to boot. If Carnival Cruises were renamed Cannibal Cruises, this would be their promo guide.

7.  Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey. Kick-butt female protagonist, horselike companions, and fantasy intrigue combine in this, one of my favorite Valdemar books.

8.  Zero World by Jason Hough. A twisty, mind-bending story of alternate timelines and universes, this book moves quickly but is hefty enough to provide food for thought.

9.  Close Reach by Jonathan Moore. Again, this will make you think twice about that sailboat you may have been eyeing. A brutal, psychological thriller about a couple's really, really, really bad sailing vacation.

10.  Meg by Steve Alten. Sure, this one is hokey as all get out, but it's a novel about a dinosaur shark. How can you go wrong with "giant dinosaur shark" while you're at the beach? The new cover is garish and I love it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Fairest of All: A Tale of the Wicked Queen

Historically, I've not had a good track record with Disney's reworkings of fairy tales. However, good things happened with their Journey to The Force Awakens marketing push for TFA (see my reviews of Alex Bracken and Tom Angleberger's take on Epidodes IV and VI, respectively), and I was willing to give them another shot. In spite of my suffering through A Whole New World, I am drawn, moth to the flame, to the Braswell retellings series. It's my literary masochism rearing its ugly head again.

I was at the local Barnes and Noble* right before going to see the live action version of Beauty and the Beast, and the teen section was decked out with Beauty and the Beast swag, along with piles of Disney ephemera. Tables with Braswell's retellings abounded, but they were side-by-side with some other, more middle-grade focused titles with really lovely artwork. I am a sucker for a pretty cover, and if the book has special touches like beautiful endpapers or gilded pages, I will make almost any excuse to buy it. However, because of the thorough burn I had received from the hokey Aladdin retelling, I talked myself out of buying any of the Disney Villains retellings, turned firmly on my heel, and went to the movie.

About a month later, I was perusing the offerings on Kindle Prime** and saw the first book in the series was available. Since I didn't have to pay for it (discounting the fact that I do pay for a Prime membership and therefore it isn't wholly free, but if you divide the savings I've gotten from Prime plus the free items into the actual cost of them membership, I feel like I've come out ahead, so it's like more-than-free), I happily downloaded it, envisioning an evening of oohing and aahing over stilted prose and banging out a cranky review, which is the surest way to restore my mental equilibrium.

Except ... I was rather enjoying this tale of Snow White's stepmother. While some of the prose veered dangererously violet at times, it wasn't bad, nor was it a word-by-word recreation of the film (thank goodness!). In a short novel aimed at higher elementary and middle grade students, Serena Valentino managed to create a rather astounding amount of pathos in the Queen's character and a commentary on the way men treat women's looks as an indicator of their worth as a person.

Daughter of a talented mirror maker, the Queen never expected to, well, to become Queen. Why should the King notice her? Her father told her often enough how very unattractive she was. Is the King playing a cruel trick? But it seems as if he has truly fallen in love with her, and she with him. Additionally, the Queen cares deeply about his daughter, Snow. Like the Queen, Snow has lost her mother, and the Queen is determined to be a stable and loving influence in Snow's life.

But odd things happen in the castle, particularly when the King is away on a military campaign. His three cousins come to visit and threaten both Snow and the Queen. The King gives her a mirror made by her hated father, and there is something--or someone--inside. Watching her. Waiting for her to slip up. Alone, with only Snow and her faithful attendant Verona, the Queen's hold on sanity begins to break.

The king's cousins (who aren't really his cousins, of course) return and offer her something tempting: power over the mirror, which is magic, and the knowledge that she truly is beautiful--fairest in all the land, even. After the King dies in battle, the Queen retreats into herself, brooding on her beauty and cutting out anyone and everyone who should challenge her. In a way, she still loves Snow, but the corrupting influence of her father's wicked spirit in the mirror and the three cruel sisters turns the Queen's uncertainty and self-loathing into a hatred for others' happiness.

At the end of the book, we pick up the story where the Queen creates the poisoned apple and gives it to Snow, but in her guilt and horror at what she has become, throws herself over the precipice during her flight from the furious dwarfs.

My favorite part of the book is when the Queen confides in her husband and tells him the whole story of her childhood. "A day of my childhood didn't pass when my father didn't tell me how unattractive I was, how ugly, and that is how I saw myself." The emotional abuse of a child leaves deep scars, and here, the Queen's father directly related her worth as a person to her physical appearance. Is that not what society does to us today? Your selfies better be at just the right angle, otherwise you are ugly. If you don't have a body that conforms to the currently worshipped aesthetic, you're worthless. Who would ever love you? And yet, the Queen is loved. She is beautiful, yes, but when we first meet her in the book, it is her kindness and unwavering love for Snow that shines. It is only when she turns her focus to her outward appearance that her inner beauty is poisoned and dies.

As I'll further explain in my review for the Beast book in this series, I prefer to think of these as AU retellings, and not necessarily canon (although I suppose that by publishing them, Disney has made them canon, in a way). They offer a glimpse of what might have been or what could have happened to make things turn out the way they did.

The books in this series are quick reads, and not poorly written. They are also quite lovely in physical form--I may go purchase the Ursula volume to read as it's not available for free online yet. Surprisingly thought-provoking for movie tie-ins.

*It's right by the cinema, so please don't blast me for not hanging at the indie bookstores more often. Also I can get gluten free cheesecake there.

**I know this is coming off like RAH RAH BIG CORPORATIONS THAT ARE EEEEVILLLL but honestly there are only so many fights I can fight, and I like the discounts I get on gluten free stuff on Amazon. Also the two-day shipping. If that makes me a bad person, then okay. I am a bad person.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Fifth House of the Heart

Treasures and monks and vampires: oh my!

No, it's not the latest Dan Brown book. It's a quirky Van Helsing-esque horror novel featuring a cowardly antiques dealer as the unlikely leader of a band of vampire hunters. And I'm using Van Helsing in a positive way, because I thought it was a fun movie, and also because Hugh Jackman. So if you didn't like that film, you may not enjoy The Fifth House of the Heart. Caveat lector and all that jazz. All that Latin? Whatever.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Mommie Dearest

Wooo, it's Top Ten Tuesday again! TTT is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. It's super fun because it combines two of my favorite activities: reading and compulsively making lists! Yay!

This week's theme is a Mother's Day freebie.

I love my mom. I love her even more after finishing a book where the mother/child relationship is ... shall we say, less than ideal? I'm not a fan of the phrase "bad mom," just because ascribing a moral judgement to a person I don't know makes me feel icky, so I'll call these ladies Moms You Probably Shouldn't Make Your #goals.

1. The Commandant in An Ember in the Ashes (Sabaa Tahir). Because nothing says "I love you, son" like scourging him and repeatedly trying to kill him. Mwah!

2. Jeannette's mom in The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls). Another book that made me go to my parents and say, "Thank you for not making us live in a coal town in West Virginia with no heat and also make us eat garbage while you hoard Hershey's bars."

3. Gem and Dixie's mom in Gem and Dixie (Sara Zarr). Because making your fifteen-year-old daughter buy painkillers at school so you can take them to get high is amazing parenting.

4. Gertrude in Hamlet (William Shakespeare). Gotta give a shout-out to the Queen of Denmark, who marries her dead husband's brother and wonders why Ham is in a sulk.

5. Erica Milbourn in Wild Swans (Jessica Spotswood). Self-absorbed? Check. Fat-shaming? Check. Oooh, my top two indicators of a NOPE mom.

6. Myrtle Sunderly in The Lie Tree (Francis Hardinge). I understand why she does what she does, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

7. Mary Addison's mom in Allegedly (Tiffany D. Jackson). So many reasons. So many. Most of them are spoilers.

8. Gervaise Macquart in L'assommoir (Émile Zola). You know, throwing your life away for drink because life sucks (unofficial motto of Zola).

9. Maddy's mom in Everything, Everything (Nicola Yoon). I am one of the few people who disliked this book, but Maddy's mom was really something else.

10. Lane's grandma in The Roanoke Girls (Amy Engel). I know, technically this is a grandmother, but her complicity in the acts of the book is astounding, nauseating, and terrifying.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History

Lady Killers is a strangely delightful compendium of lady murderesses (specifically serial killers) throughout the ages. Obviously, that comes with some caveats, such as:

  • History was written by men. (And some cultures' history isn't written at all, but passed down orally, but that's for another time) These men were Not Happy about women with power, even if that power was, you know, murder. Many of the women in this book had some sort of social or financial power that was extraordinary for their time, and this certainly would have colored the judicial narrative.
  • Our knowledge of the nature of the crimes is limited by the scientific progress of the time period during which the murder occurred; modern readers can speculate that someone in the 1300s poisoned her husband, but since those bodies are long gone and people back then would have accepted "The evil goat looked at me sideways and so I got sick" as a perfectly plausible pathology, we don't have much hard evidence at all. 
However, Tori Telfer (a staff writer for Jezebel, which, while not the exceedingly smart and funny publication of my college days, is still sometimes relatively decent) does a competent and witty job with the female serial killers that we know about from History, As Written By Old White Men. She regularly and consistently acknowledges the almost-definite bias in the stories we have about these women, but also doesn't ignore the scientific and judicial evidence convicting these women of some really heinous crimes. If you want to know more about the last woman profiled, La Brinvilliers, grab a copy of City of Light, City of Poison, a fascinating examination of l'affaire des poisons in Louis XIV's court.

I hesitate to say that any of the women within were favorites, but I was particularly intrigued by the stories of Erzsébet, Countess Báthory; Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova; and Raya and Sakina Mouet, two Egyptian sisters in the 1920s.

Báthory is rather a given--tales of her bathing in virgins' blood to keep her complexion clear run rampant on the internet and in pop culture in general, but she probably didn't do that. She did have a monomania for murdering her young female servants, however, and did so with a measure of cruelty that would have curled Vlad Ţepeş' moustache. Poor, droopy thing. The other problem, of course, is that she was one of the most powerful women in her part of the world, since the King of Hungary basically owed her all the money. Combine that with a view of servants as less than worthless, and you've got conditions ripe for a very, very unhealthy release of rage. This woman's torture methods make her sound like the mastermind behind the Spanish Inquisition. I mean, she literally beat someone until their body exploded. She would be so bloody during a torture session that there would be a wardrobe change before Act II. How can such people exist?

Similarly, Darya Nikolayevna's systematic murder of serfs went pretty much unnoticed and virtually condoned by the system of the day because serfs were just property to Russian nobles. If you haven't read Dead Souls by Gogol, please do! It makes Darya Nikolayevna's story even more horrific. In between pilgrimages, Darya Nikolayevna beat her serfs to death, occasionally boiling the flesh from their bones for a little spice. To her, the serfs were less than animals. They were her possessions to do with as she pleased, and since (as she believed) God put her on earth as a noble, she had a sort of divine right to punish them with impunity. This is droit du seigneur gone very, very, very wrong. She slipped up, however, when she decided to punish her lover and his mistress by blowing them up in a miniature version of the Gunpowder Plot against Parliament. This was too much for her serfs to bear, even with the threat of being bashed against a stone wall or smashed with a fireplace log (one of Darya's favorite weapons). Eventually, the police arrested her, but she never confessed to a single thing.

Early reviewers have been complaining that the women featured in this book are not contemporary (so what?) and all white (not exactly true, but I'll get to that in a moment). I had never heard of Raya and Sakina, the two Egyptian sisters who murdered scads of people in post-WWI Alexandria. They killed the prostitutes in their employ when they got to be too rich for the sisters' liking, although they did also kill a poultry vendor. I am unsure whether it was over the state of the chicken or if Raya and Sakina just felt like it. This is a fascinating account of two women making it as madams in a city wracked with corruption and unrest, and could easily have been one of those rah-rah-go-ladies stories, except for the gruesome murders. Raya and Sakina had hustle, sure, but they also suffocated women and stuffed them inside of clay home walls. Body disposal was not their forte, and eventually led to their arrest.

Interestingly, the women profiled in this book span economic statuses from very poor to "Hi, the King owes me money" rich. But with the exception of Raya and Sakina, they are all white. This matches the data collected on male serial killers--again,  overwhelmingly white. I am no social anthropologist, nor am I a criminologist or, indeed, any other sort of ologist, so I can't comment on what that means. But Telfer notes that any accounts of women of color who were also serial killers were either obviously exaggerated as racist propaganda, or so lacking in any evidence whatsoever that she could not in good conscience include them in this book.

Telfer keeps the tone relatively light, but she takes care to examine the cases from multiple angles, and gives weight to the way women have been systematically abused by men (and therefore, by society). She does not condone their actions, but her research helps you to try and understand them. Then again, some evil is simply beyond comprehension.

This is a must for library collections, as well as for history buffs.

I received an ARC of Lady Killers from Edelweiss.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Royal Bastards

Royal Bastards is one of the freshest fantasy books that I've read in a long time. It's snappy and sarcastic, but it's not fluffy. The body count in this book is pretty high, and treachery abounds. This is one of my favorite new fantasies of 2017, and I'm so excited that it's going to be a series.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

April Diversity Challenge

For all that we (and by "we," I mean bloggers and librarians and authors and people on Twitter) talk about needing diverse books for kids and teens, adult literature is ... also not diverse*. I took a critical step back and said to myself, "Hey, critically-thinking-librarian lady, how many adult authors have you read that are marginalized? How many of the mysteries you read lately featured POC characters who didn't get cast as redshirts?"

And then I heard crickets in my mind and I was ashamed.

It really hit me when I was reading Ezekiel Boone's The Hatching that everyone who matters to the narrative in this particular book is white. Every one. Sure, there's a black buddy cop and two scientists in India, but one is conveniently shot and sidelined, and the others are creature fodder. The female lead thrillers I've read all feature white women who are attractive (The Woman in Cabin 10 and Under the Harrow). Even though we have so far to go, reading these popular adult novels made me realize how much more diverse even relatively average YA novels are.

I only filled up one square on my bingo card this month, and that's with An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir.

May will be better! I will make it better!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Le rouge et le noir

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

My reading has ground to a screeching halt (just like the noise my rear passenger brake rotor makes all the time when I drive, so hooray for $500 car repairs!), so I figured I'd have a go at one of these blogging memes. I love The Broke and The Bookish, and I love lists, so their Top Ten Tuesday meme was right up my alley.

This week's theme is: A cover theme freebie!!!

So ... I guess I get to write something about ten covers I love/hate/would like to rub on my face? Cool!

Coverlove or coverlust or whatever your level of cover-admiration is has generally been pooh-poohed by certain among the eliterati, But covers sell books. You could have the most amazing book ever, and if the cover looks like I drew it in MS Paint, people will be like "LOL NO" (and I don't mean that in a "Hey, this Millennial can't express emotions properly" way, I mean that quite literally).

As I was going through some of my favorite colors, I noticed that many of them shared a specific color scheme.

1. Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Not only is this a brilliant book (review here), but the cover is drop-dead Art Deco/ war poster gorgeousness.

2. Heartless by Marissa Meyer

I haven't read it yet, but I am a sucker for stylized flowers. 

3. Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

Ugh, I loved this book. I loved it SO MUCH. Review here. The goddess figure on the cover exudes power.

4. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

If you haven't read this yet, you must. Subversive and feminist and wonderful.

5. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

I am currently reading this for the first time (I KNOW. I'm handing in my feminist librarian card--not really. You'll pry it from my cold, dead fingers) and it is so freaking brilliant that I am frightened. 

Also, it's clearly not a coincidence that books dealing with violence against women and women fighting back have this blood-red and pitch black color scheme.

6. Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I have loved this cover since the moment I saw it. It's deceptively simple, with the delicate transparency of Cinder's flesh revealing the cyborg mechanics within, topped off with a glossy shoe like a maraschino cherry.

7. Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

This has a dragon eye, dragon claws, and something that looks rather a lot like the medallion from Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is also an amazing book.

8. Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan

A Depression-era retelling of "Snow White" that's almost painfully beautiful. Review here.

9. MARTians by Blythe Woolston

This book doesn't get nearly as much love as it should. Life in a capitalist dystopian society? Like ... shouldn't everyone be reading this? Woolston always blows me away with her writing. Review here.

10. The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch: At the Edge of Empire by Daniel Kraus

Bloody, dark, and ornate, just like the story within. This one went rather under the radar, but I deem it a must-read. Also, I would be worried if I were one of Dan Kraus' coworkers at Booklist. Review here.

Have you read any of these? Are you drawn to a particular color scheme when it comes to covers?


Monday, May 1, 2017

The Possible

I am not really a podcast person. Okay, fine, so I've only listened to a few episodes of Serial, and I have every intention of listening to more of Welcome to Night Vale, but it's hard for me to understand the fervor that I see crop up when a new It-podcast hits the airwaves. (Can I still say that? Airwaves? Will people know what I mean?) The general lack of background noise rubs me the wrong way: I feel like it's just me and a total stranger in a soundproof room and they are telling me a story in a very modulated, carefully enunciated, precise manner. And it's so awkward.

Tara Altebrando's latest book, The Possible, describes how an investigative podcast (also named The Possible) upends the life of a seemingly totally normal teen girl. I wish I could say that I loved this one as much as I did The Leaving--with passion and flailing and much fangirling--but I did not. However, The Possible redeemed itself at the last moment with the last, short chapter.

What, you think I'm going to actually tell you what happens? Ha.