BOOK REVIEW: The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie

BOOK REVIEW: The Raven Tower, by Ann LeckieTitle: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Published by Orbit
Published: February 26th 2019
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 416
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Gods meddle in the fates of men, men play with the fates of gods, and a pretender must be cast down from the throne in this breathtaking first fantasy novel from Ann Leckie, New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

For centuries, the kingdom of Iraden has been protected by the god known as the Raven. He watches over his territory from atop a tower in the powerful port of Vastai. His will is enacted through the Raven's Lease, a human ruler chosen by the god himself. His magic is sustained via the blood sacrifice that every Lease must offer. And under the Raven's watch, the city flourishes.

But the power of the Raven is weakening. A usurper has claimed the throne. The kingdom borders are tested by invaders who long for the prosperity that Vastai boasts. And they have made their own alliances with other gods.

It is into this unrest that the warrior Eolo--aide to Mawat, the true Lease--arrives. And in seeking to help Mawat reclaim his city, Eolo discovers that the Raven's Tower holds a secret. Its foundations conceal a dark history that has been waiting to reveal itself...and to set in motion a chain of events that could destroy Iraden forever.

Give me all, and I mean all, of the unconventional narrators in fantasy and science fiction, please. I read this right after finishing Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and these two books will always be paired with each other in my mind. Each are different from what’s often expected out of fantasy, and both of these are game changers on what I personally will expect from fantasy from now on.

Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower is told from the perspective of a god who resides in stone and who has lived in their particular stone for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. The Raven Tower takes some time to unfold, as the god in the rock spends their time thinking about everything in the grand scope of everything from the beginning of time. It had a very Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead approach to a Hamlet-like fantasy, and I loved that. I’m the kind of reader who loves that sort of thing. Give me the perspective of someone not directly involved in the action of the story.

Because the god is a rock, The Strength and Patience of the Hill, the narrative is exploratory, and you must be patient, because patience pays off in the end, like a rock rolling downhill and gaining momentum. The final quarter of the book is unputdownable and made my patience in letting the narrator tell Eolo his story, this story they have heard, well worth it in the end.

If you’re ready for something new in your fantasy, something for your mind to chew on and think about, and something a little philosophical about what it means to be involved in a story and what it means to be a god, pick this up. It’s already one of my favorite reads of 2019.

Thank you to Orbit Books for sending me a complimentary finished copy of this book to read! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Hollywood’s Eve, by Lili Anolik

BOOK REVIEW: Hollywood’s Eve, by Lili AnolikTitle: Hollywood's Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. by Lili Anolik
Published by Scribner
Published: January 8th 2019
Genres: Biography
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s was the pop culture capital of the world—a movie factory, a music factory, a dream factory. Eve Babitz was the ultimate factory girl, a pure product of LA.

The goddaughter of Igor Stravinsky and a graduate of Hollywood High, Babitz posed in 1963, at age twenty, playing chess with the French artist Marcel Duchamp. She was naked; he was not. The photograph, cheesecake with a Dadaist twist, made her an instant icon of art and sex. Babitz spent the rest of the decade rocking and rolling on the Sunset Strip, honing her notoriety. There were the album covers she designed: for Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, to name but a few. There were the men she seduced: Jim Morrison, Ed Ruscha, Harrison Ford, to name but a very few.

Then, at nearly thirty, her It girl days numbered, Babitz was discovered—as a writer—by Joan Didion. She would go on to produce seven books, usually billed as novels or short story collections, always autobiographies and confessionals. Under-known and under-read during her career, she’s since experienced a breakthrough. Now in her mid-seventies, she’s on the cusp of literary stardom and recognition as an essential—as the essential—LA writer. Her prose achieves that American ideal: art that stays loose, maintains its cool, and is so sheerly enjoyable as to be mistaken for simple entertainment.

For Babitz, life was slow days, fast company until a freak fire in the 90s turned her into a recluse, living in a condo in West Hollywood, where Lili Anolik tracked her down in 2012. Anolik’s elegant and provocative new book is equal parts biography and detective story. It is also on dangerously intimate terms with its subject: artist, writer, muse, and one-woman zeitgeist, Eve Babitz.

It seems like two summers ago, everyone on Bookstagram and on book Twitter was talking about Eve Babitz. The more I read about her from the people I followed, the more I wanted to know who she was through her writing. I purchased Sex & Rage in the fall of 2017 (and, shamefully, still haven’t read it), and I bought Eve’s Hollywood this past fall at Strand Bookstore in New York City while I was there visiting a friend. I read Eve’s Hollywood from the end of November to December last year, and I simultaneously wanted to devour that book in a day and savor it over all time. I finally understood why everyone was talking about Eve Babitz (again).

Babitz is an enigma. She’ll make you fall in love with her Los Angeles, and she’ll make you fall in love with her, all while keeping you at an arm’s length so you can’t help but want to listen to everything she has to say. Lili Anolik’s fascination with Eve Babitz, her life, and writing, turned into a Vanity Fair article that was later expanded into Hollywood’s Eve. I read Anolik’s Hollywood’s Eve in a single sitting. I picked it up, read a few chapters, and did what I had to do for the day quickly so that I could spend the rest of my afternoon completely engrossed in Anolik’s discovery, research, and eventual personal connection with Babitz.

I really enjoyed Anolik’s emulation of Babitz’s style, mixing in personal experience with the subject at hand. I find for certain biographies, this style works well, because a writer is able to add in personal anecdotes about people and places that would seem out of place in a more “formal” biography. I learned a lot about Hollywood in the 60s and 70s through Eve’s Hollywood and Hollywood’s Eve that I’ve not really seen or read discussed anywhere else — like the bits about the Didions and Harrison Ford. Sometimes for me, who has only recently begun to dive into the behind-the-scenes stories of a Hollywood that’s gone, it’s a little jaw-dropping to see so many well-known faces know having those connections back then. That knowledge adds so much depth to the writing and film I’ll consume from that point forward, you know?

Eve Babitz is not often likeable, but she is an incredible observer and writer. I thoroughly enjoyed the small part Anolik included that contrasted Eve with her sister Mirandi because it added so much more understanding to Eve as a person. Over the years I’ve read a lot more about and by “difficult” women, women who sometimes behave in ways that men do and the men are praised for it (or have their actions conveniently brushed aside) while the women are villainized or shamed for it? And why? Because they’re women? I’m still confronting that within myself and realizing the best thing I can do is listen, absorb, and pay attention. And maybe be more like Babitz myself.

Thank you to Scribner for sending me a copy of Hollywood’s Eve to review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Queen, by Signe Pike

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Queen, by Signe PikeTitle: The Lost Queen by Signe Pike
Series: The Lost Queen Trilogy #1
Published by Touchstone
Published: September 4th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Fantasy
Pages: 527
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Mists of Avalon meets Philippa Gregory in the first book of an exciting historical trilogy that reveals the untold story of Languoreth—a powerful and, until now, tragically forgotten queen of sixth-century Scotland—twin sister of the man who inspired the legendary character of Merlin.

Intelligent, passionate, rebellious, and brave, Languoreth is the unforgettable heroine of The Lost Queen, a tale of conflicted loves and survival set against the cinematic backdrop of ancient Scotland, a magical land of myths and superstition inspired by the beauty of the natural world. One of the most powerful early medieval queens in British history, Languoreth ruled at a time of enormous disruption and bloodshed, when the burgeoning forces of Christianity threatened to obliterate the ancient pagan beliefs and change her way of life forever.

Together with her twin brother Lailoken, a warrior and druid known to history as Merlin, Languoreth is catapulted into a world of danger and violence. When a war brings the hero Emrys Pendragon, to their door, Languoreth collides with the handsome warrior Maelgwn. Their passionate connection is forged by enchantment, but Languoreth is promised in marriage to Rhydderch, son of the High King who is sympathetic to the followers of Christianity. As Rhydderch's wife, Languoreth must assume her duty to fight for the preservation of the Old Way, her kingdom, and all she holds dear.

The Lost Queen brings this remarkable woman to life—rescuing her from obscurity, and reaffirming her place at the center of the most enduring legends of all time.

Signe Pike’s The Lost Queen was everything I’d been craving in a historical fiction (with a hint of fantasy) novel. Set in 6th-century Celtic Britain, Pike weaves historical details with Arthurian legends and manages to bring a vivid creation of a young woman’s life to the page. Languoreth is the oft-forgotten twin sister of Lailoken, a warrior and a wisdom keeper who was later known as Merlin. In this first installment of a trilogy, we’re given an insight of Languoreth’s childhood through first love and subsequent marriage, all while the followers of a newly-introduced religion threaten to disrupt life as she and her people know it.

Languoreth and Lailoken are born with gifts and raised in the Old Ways by their mother before her death; and as much as Languoreth would like to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a healer and a wisdom keeper, her father has plans for her to marry to secure an alliance. Even though this novel takes place in the mid-500s, the choices with which Languoreth is faced are immediate, real, and are similar to choices women face today. This first installment in the trilogy is less about Languoreth’s role in Lailoken’s life as it is about her role in becoming a powerful queen, taking charge of the choices she made, and forging her way through a man’s world.

This first novel of a trilogy is rich and engaging, and it sets up for what I hope are brilliant examinations of early Scottish/Celtic life with the invasion of Christianity. I already love the glimpses of day-to-day life in those early courts, and I felt like I was right there next to Languoreth as she experienced everything. I can’t wait to see what happens next with Languoreth, Lailoken, and Pike’s further reimagining of the Arthurian legends. The next one isn’t out until 2020! That’s so far away!! But if you’re looking for something to fill the void between Outlander, Game of Thrones, and Mists of Avalon, definitely check this one out.

Many thanks to Touchstone for sending me a complementary copy to review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab

BOOK REVIEW: City of Ghosts, by Victoria SchwabTitle: City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab
Series: Cassidy Blake #1
Published by Scholastic Press
Published: August 28th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pages: 285
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Cassidy Blake's parents are The Inspectres, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.

When The Inspectres head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn't sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn't belong in her world. Cassidy's powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that Victoria Schwab is one of my favorite writers of all time. Her Shades of Magic trilogy is one of my all-time favorite fantasy series, and her YA fantasies — The Monsters of Verity duology and the Archived series — are complex and SO GOOD. When she announced City of Ghosts, I immediately preordered it and couldn’t wait to have it in my hands.

City of Ghosts follows Cassidy Blake’s and her parents’ move to Edinburgh, Scotland, to begin filming a television show (The Inspectres) episode centered on the ghostly activities in old places within Edinburgh. Cassidy has a ghost-friend named Jacob and I loved their interactions, because there’s a lot of spooky in Jacob’s existence. I also want to know Jacob’s history. How did he die? Why did he decide to choose to save Cassidy?? I also enjoyed Cassidy’s friendship with Lara, and I hope to see that developed further in the future books in the series. I liked that Lara was a little bit of a foil for Cassidy in the sense that Lara is able to do some things that cause Cassidy to rethink her own abilities. I won’t spoil anything for you, though!

I read a few pages of this one night, and then I sat down and finished the rest of it in a single sitting. This is just the right amount of scary for younger readers and was just enough spooky for me. In fact, it reminded me a lot thematically and atmospherically of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book to the extent that I considered City of Ghosts to be a companion series of sorts! Both City of Ghosts and The Graveyard Book deal with thematic horror of growing up and facing the unknown as we “cross the border” between the innocence of childhood and the awareness and understanding of adulthood. It’s in those in-between times that we really come to know ourselves and what we’re capable of.

If you enjoy middle grade fantasy/horror and want to be chilled to the bone in similar ways after reading The Graveyard Book and Coraline, definitely pick this one up!

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn HarkupTitle: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: February 6th 2018
Genres: Non-Fiction, History, Science
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The year 1818 saw the publication of one of the most influential science-fiction stories of all time. Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley had a huge impact on gothic horror and science fiction genres. The name Frankenstein has become part of our everyday language, often used in derogatory terms to describe scientists who have overstepped a perceived moral line. But how did a 19-year-old woman with no formal education come up with the idea for an extraordinary novel such as Frankenstein? The period of 1790-1820 saw huge advances in our understanding of electricity and physiology. Sensational science demonstrations caught the imagination of the general public, and newspapers were full of tales of murderers and resurrectionists.

It is unlikely that Frankenstein would have been successful in his attempts to create life back in 1818. However, advances in medical science mean we have overcome many of the stumbling blocks that would have thwarted his ambition. We can resuscitate people using defibrillators, save lives using blood transfusions, and prolong life through organ transplants--these procedures are nowadays considered almost routine. Many of these modern achievements are a direct result of 19th century scientists conducting their gruesome experiments on the dead.

Making the Monster explores the science behind Shelley's book. From tales of reanimated zombie kittens to electrical experiments on human cadavers, Kathryn Harkup examines the science and scientists that influenced Mary Shelley and inspired her most famous creation, Victor Frankenstein. While, thankfully, we are still far from being able to recreate Victor's "creature," scientists have tried to create the building blocks of life, and the dream of creating life-forms from scratch is now tantalizingly close.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite books of all time, and definitely in my list of top ten classics. So when I saw Kathryn Harkup’s Making the Monster beginning to make its rounds on Twitter and Instagram, I added it to my TBR and wishlist and waited for a good sale because based on the cover and title alone, I wanted it for my own collection.

I love literary histories like these that give the reader an insight into the creation of the novel while also providing context for the scientific aspects of Frankenstein. Sometimes I felt that the structure of the book could be better managed, but overall, I thought that the back and forth between Mary Shelley’s life and the real-life science that inspired the science in her novel worked effectively. Harkup’s book is incredibly well researched, and her meticulous attention to detail adds so much to the experience of reading this. For someone like me who isn’t wholly aware of a lot of medical and science history, the chapters focusing on the medical and science history were the most chilling and most engaging, especially the chapter regarding autopsies and the lucrative business surrounding the digging up of cadavers to sell to institutions of higher learning.

The main issue I had with the book were the biographical sections involving Percy and Mary Shelley because a good portion of those sections read as if they had been poorly edited or were a draft that could have easily been tightened up or finished off. I think Harkup’s strengths lie in scientific writing that is readily based upon set-in-stone information, whereas biographies do require a little more finesse in terms of narrative structure. For example, a lot of sentences in the biography sections ended with prepositional phrases and included digits instead of spelled out numerals for numbers under 100. Several sentences contained dangling participles, and I had to reread the sentences several times to be sure what the “it” was in the second half of the sentence. These are my editorial quibbles from my days editing student essays, so my reading experience is jarred when I notice these things in published works.

Overall, the science and medical histories and the biographies in Making the Monster are accessible to a variety of readers, whether or not they are familiar with Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you’re interested in the sometimes gruesome practices in the history of medicine and/or enjoy literary biographies, I recommend checking this one out!