Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

The Empress of Salt and Fortune [review]

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The Empress of Salt and Fortune (The Singing Hills Cycle, #1) by Nghi Vo
Published by on March 24, 2020
my rating: ★★★ (3 stars)
Goodreads avg:
4.07 (as of 2020-03-13)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads | Bookshop | Author’s Website

Obviously are reviews are subjective, but I want to emphasize that all my ‘issues’ with this book are purely personal preference. I think this was well-written and it is clearly beloved by many! I just didn’t really jive with the writing style, it’s very much a story-inside-a-story and I had trouble parsing it all out. The prose is truly beautiful though, and the characters are all distinct and interesting. I did feel like a lot of the relationships were implied rather than spelled out; I tagged this as ‘polyamorous’ and don’t even know if that’s canon but it is how I read it personally.

I’ll definitely be recommending this even if it didn’t quite work for me, and while I don’t intend to continue the series I’ll still be keeping an eye out for Vo’s future works.

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The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion [review]

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
Published by on August 15, 2017
my rating: ★★★★ (4 stars)
Goodreads avg:
3.60 (as of 2020-08-03)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads Bookshop | Author’s Website

“Fucking hell,” Thursday said. “It’s almost like you can’t summon otherworldly beings into existence, let them loose on your enemies, and set up a culture of worship around them without people getting all crazy.”

i really liked this! it’s not necessarily a new favorite, but it’s an exciting horror novel that takes place in an anarchist commune and is filled with queer characters. i felt like things happened a little too quickly toward the end, and some scenes just didn’t feel organic, but otherwise i don’t really have any complaints! i’ll definitely be recommending it to others, as it’s a quick read to satisfy one’s horror cravings.

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Blanca & Roja [review]

Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
Published by Feiwel & Friends on October 9, 2018
my rating: ★★★ (3 stars)
Goodreads avg:
3.80 (as of 2020-07-05)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author’s Website

My first read for Transathon! Anna-Marie McLemore is nonbinary and one of the main characters is a trans boy whose pronouns are both she/her and he/him.

While I enjoyed this, I wish I had liked it more! I thought that it was trying to do a little too much at once and subsequently ended up a bit scattered. The characters and their relationships really made the read worth it, but I was mainly confused about the magical realism element and felt like the ‘rules’ were kind of arbitrary. I also never felt a real sense of danger and thus wasn’t too invested in the swan aspect of the storyline. I definitely felt a lot could have been cut out of this to make it more enthralling. As a sidenote, I really liked the menstruation rep! Roja has heavy, painful periods and I appreciated their inclusion, although it also felt a bit heavy-handed at times.

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The Ten Thousand Doors of January [review]

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
Published by Redhook on September 10, 2019
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.11 (as of 2020-07-03)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author’s Website

She became something else entirely, something so radiant and wild and fierce that a single world could not contain her, and she was obliged to find others.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the story here. For me, this was a page-turner but I know others have found it slow and I agree that the pacing lagged in some areas. The characters were fun to read but largely felt one-dimensional; I felt like I should have cared more about the side characters than I did and while I liked the story of January’s parents, I wasn’t really drawn to them as people. But the concept made up for it and the twists really got me. I read this as a YA fantasy and I believe the MC is in her late teens for the bulk of the book, but the author has said it was written for an adult audience, just for the record!

content warnings: loss/grief; animal abuse; forced institutionalization; racism

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Middlegame [review]

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
Published by on May 7, 2019
my rating: ★★★★.5
Goodreads avg:
4.07 (as of 2020-06-17)
Spoiler-free review

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

Goodreads IndieBound | Author’s Website

This is going to be one of those books you’re SO lost reading when it comes to plot, but it’s okay because Seanan will take your hand and guide you to an ending that will make about as much sense as it can be expected to. I had been intending to read something by Seanan McGuire (or Mira Grant, another pen name of hers) for a while now and while Middlegame wasn’t what I expected my first book of hers to be, I’m so glad I picked it up!

While it’s impossible to get into the plot while still remaining sensical and avoiding spoilers, let’s just say this book will reel you in. It struck the perfect balance of maintaining a complexity that required me to follow things closely while also giving me enough information to keep me completely interested. At no point did I feel like things were lagging or forced; this book was perfectly set-up and perfectly paced and I’m so impressed by it.

In order to balance out a largely confusing plot, the characters and their relationship were so, so endearing. We start off during Roger and Dodger’s childhood and I was impressed to find that Seanan was able to write them in a way that felt realistic without feeling immature or irritating, which I often find to be the case with younger POVs. They both felt like such truly real people and it was wonderful watching their growth.

Overall, I just found this to be such a satisfying read and wouldn’t be surprised if my 4.5 tips over to a 5, depending on how well it sticks to me. I’d definitely recommend this to lovers of sf/f.

content warnings: attempted suicide, graphic descriptions of blood/gore/death

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Vita Nostra [review]

Vita Nostra by Marina Dyachenko & Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
Published by Harper Voyager on November 13, 2018 (originally 2007)
my rating: ★★
Goodreads avg:
4.12 (as of 2020-05-24)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound 

Love is not when you are aroused by someone, it’s when you are afraid for that person.

I’m clearly in the minority here since all my friends loved this, but I found this book to be utterly incomprehensible. I had no idea what was going on 95% of the time and had so much difficulty following things. The book really leaves its reader to do a lot of the heavy lifting, so be prepared to make some leaps on your own to figure out what’s happening. There were aspects of it that were really compelling, which is why it gets 2 stars instead of 1, but I got very little out of reading this and felt like it was so much longer than 400 pages.

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Ninth House [review]

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Published by Flatiron Books on October 8, 2019
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.09 (as of 2020-05-02)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it.

One hell of a first sentence, and an easy way to reel in your reader. Set at Yale in a universe where magic is real but fairly well-hidden, I thought the atmosphere of this book was so well-done. I could easily see the streets of New Haven in my mind and loved hearing about the different buildings the societies had. I also adored the characters. Alex is gritty and a bit of a stereotype, but still fun to read. Darlington reminded me a lot of Gansey from TRC, who I loved, so I liked reading about him as well. Dawes was GREAT and I loved how much time she and Alex got to spend together. I firmly feel that Alex is queer and the chemistry between her and Dawes was [eyes emoji]. Alex/Dawes/Darlington OT3, honestly.

There were always excuses for why girls died.

I only had a couple complaints, really. The plot felt convoluted at times and I struggled to follow some things. Some of what’s going on is really complicated and I was confused about how some conclusions were drawn or what had really happened. I also took issue with the first sexual assault scene. While the others felt like they had purpose to them, the first involved the rape of a minor and didn’t seem to add anything to the book. It was clearly supposed to be the foundation for Alex’s drug addiction and PTSD, but it just wasn’t clear to me why another device couldn’t have been used. That being said, from what I recall it was relatively brief and didn’t take too much away from the story for me.

We are the shepherds. But who would protect them from the wolves?

Overall though, I found this extremely compelling and did not want to put it down. I almost let myself stay up way too late reading it because I kept wondering what would happen next and wanted to spend more time with the characters. I’m bummed I’m going to have to wait for the sequel, but am so glad this is not the last I’ll be seeing of Alex and her crew!

My current 2020 Women’s Prize Squad Longlist rankings:

  1. The Body Lies
  2. Girl, Woman, Other
  3. My Dark Vanessa
  4. Ninth House

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Gideon the Ninth [review]

Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb #1) by Tamsyn Muir
Published by on September 10, 2019
my rating: ★★.5
Goodreads avg:
4.26 (as of 2020-02-11)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead. 

“Don’t go down there solo. Don’t die in a bone. I am your creature, gloom mistress. I serve you with fidelity as big as a mountain, penumbral lady.”
Harrow’s eyes flickered open. “Stop.”
I am your sworn sword, night boss.”
“Fine,” said Harrow heavily.

No one is more disappointed than me that I didn’t love this, but there seems to be a pretty firm divide among my Goodreads friends. Some of them love it and some of them seem quite disappointed by it. I hate that I fell into the latter camp on this one. Part of it is probably that this just wasn’t the best time to read it; I just started grad school and have been massively distracted and stressed. But I’m not sure I would have loved this even if I had read it at the best of times.

Gideon is certainly a divisive character and you’ll probably either love her or hate her. She’s obnoxious, annoying, and honestly kind of endearing. It took me a while to warm up to her snark, which had me rolling my eyes at the start of the book but later had me smirking. She’s unapologetically gay as hell and wholly herself and I adore that. Harrow also took a while to grow on me, but I came to love her as well. Their scenes together had me dying after a bit.

The real trouble here for me was the enormous cast of characters. I could not for the life of me tell the necromancers and their cavaliers apart. It didn’t help that everyone was narratively referred to by like four or five different names. There’s a little guide in the front of the book, but that wasn’t much help to me and I would’ve had to take extensive notes had I wanted to really understand. Because of this I was lost so much of the time! I had no idea what the significance of so many events were in part because I had no idea who the hell was participating in each event. I would love certain scenes and feel sure my rating was creeping upward and then would be hit again with something that lost me and made me realize I was not having a great time reading it.

The world-building had me struggling as well. What are the other Houses up to? Where is the Emperor? Who is this big, giant war against? We are clearly seeing the tiniest bit of a giant universe that I know nothing about. I assume that’s in part because Gideon doesn’t know much — that’s why I didn’t have much of a problem with the lack of explanation around magic, which she just kind of knows exists but doesn’t know anything about — but clearly she knows enough to want to go fight in this war against… who?

I dunno y’all, I can easily see how people love this but it was decidedly not for me.

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And I Do Not Forgive You [review]

And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks
To be published by Liveright on February 11, 2020
my rating: DNF
Goodreads avg:
3.7 (as of 2020-01-27)
Spoiler-free Review
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own.

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author Website

I unfortunately only made it through 50% of this before DNFing. I think the title and cover art made me think this would be more about revenge than it was. The stories here felt largely unrelated to that and were also so frustrating to read. Either a story would feel unfinished altogether, cutting off where it felt like it was just starting, or I would feel completely uninvested until the last paragraph, having it end just as I was getting excited. I hadn’t realized going in that I had tried to read another of Amber Sparks’ collections and DNFed that as well for similar reasons, so I think her work just isn’t for me. Below are my ratings and minor comments for the stories I did end up reading:

Mildly Unhappy, with Moments of Joy, ⅘. thought i would cry at the end.
You Won’t Believe What Really Happened to the Sabine Women, 2.5/5.
A Place for Hiding Precious Things, ⅗.
Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park, 2.5/5. felt unfinished, didn’t get invested until the very last page and then wanted more.
A Short and Slightly Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife, ⅕.
We Destroy the Moon, ⅖.
In Which Athena Designs a Video Game with the Express Purpose of Trolling Her Father, ⅖.
Is the Future a Nice Place for Girls, ⅖.

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove [review; reread]

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Published by Vintage on January 14, 2014 (originally 2013)
my rating: ★★★
Goodreads avg:
3.68 (as of 2020-02-08)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author Website

Within these pages, a community of girls held captive in a Japanese silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms and plot revolution; a group of boys stumble upon a mutilated scarecrow that bears an uncanny resemblance to a missing classmate that they used to torment; a family’s disastrous quest for land in the American West has grave consequences; and in the marvelous title story, two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try to slake their thirst for blood and come to terms with their immortal relationship.

I’m honestly devastated that I didn’t enjoy this more, considering I had originally given it five stars. This is one of those rare (for me) instances where re-reading is not necessarily a good idea. Interestingly, the stories I don’t remember liking much were my favorites on this readthrough, and vice-versa. It’s interesting to see how my reading tastes have changed over time, and this is very indicative of that. I wish I had read the rest of Russell’s bibliography around the first time I read this, as I think her writing isn’t really for me anymore and it would have been nice to experience it when it was.

By this time we’d found a dirt cellar in which to live in Western Australia, where the sun burned through the clouds like dining lace. That sun ate lakes, rising out of dead volcanoes at dawn, triple the size of a harvest moon and skull-white, a grass-scorcher. Go ahead, try to walk into that sun when you’ve been told your bones are tinder.

My ratings for each story are as follows:

Vampires in the Lemon Grove 4/5
Reeling for the Empire 5/5
The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979 3/5
Proving Up 2.5/5
The Barn at the End of Our Term 2/5
Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating 2/5
The New Veterans 3/5
The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis 4/5

He couldn’t remember the last time he had acted without reservation on a single desire.

The average rating for these is 3.19, which I rounded down to 3. While there were a couple strong stories in here, the ones that didn’t work for me really stood out. I will mention that Reeling for the Empire is an incredible read. I think before I had even read this collection the first time, I had heard an audio version of the story — meaning this is my third time “reading” it and I still loved it. It becomes more meaningful to me each time.

I was glad he was afraid–I hadn’t known that you could feel so grateful to a friend, for living in fear with you. Fear was otherwise a very lonely place.

There is nothing wrong per se with the stories I didn’t like, and it’s certainly all personal preference. I found the stories I rated on the lower end either needlessly goofy or uncompelling. Proving Up in particular has a lot of promise but unfortunately fell flat for me. I’d definitely recommend this collection to people who like “weird” short fiction, though. There are a lot of fantastic elements that I would say could be categorized as magical realism. If you’ve enjoyed more of Russell’s work, you’ll probably like this and if not, then I doubt you will.

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