BOOK REVIEW: Nooks & Crannies, by Jessica Lawson

BOOK REVIEW: Nooks & Crannies, by Jessica LawsonTitle: Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson
Published: May 10th 2016
Genres: Middle Grade, Mystery
Pages: 352
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Clue when six children navigate a mansion full of secrets—and maybe money—in this “delightful gem” (School Library Journal, starred review) with heart.
Sweet, shy Tabitha Crum, the neglected only child of two parents straight out of a Roald Dahl book, doesn’t have a friend in the world—except for her pet mouse, Pemberley, whom she loves dearly. But on the day she receives one of six invitations to the country estate of wealthy Countess Camilla DeMoss, her life changes forever.

Upon the children’s arrival at the sprawling, possibly haunted mansion, it turns out the countess has a very big secret—one that will change their lives forever.

Then the children beginning disappearing, one by one. So Tabitha takes a cue from her favorite detective novels and, with Pemberley by her side, attempts to solve the case and rescue the other children…who just might be her first real friends.

This was purely a cover buy, because every time I’d walk by it, I’d tell myself I needed it. But then it sat on my shelf for years until this year when I added it to my 20 books in 2020 list (that I’m not going to finish, but that’s okay!!). I’m glad I read it when I did because it’s the perfect mystery escape, and I think it will appeal to a lot of different readers of all ages. Within the first few chapters, I found myself thinking This is a little dark for a kids’ book but then seeing the comparisons to Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket made perfect sense. This is something that would appeal to those readers and definitely belongs on the shelf next to Robin Stevens’ Wells and Wong mystery series!

Tabitha is such a wonderful character, sure of herself while also searching for her place in the world, smart without being too smart, and very funny on top of it all. After being told by her parents they’re dumping her off at an orphanage because they can’t keep her any longer (!!!) but days before she’s set to be dropped off, Tabitha receives a mysterious invitation to the Countess of Windermere’s mansion. She along with five other children are chosen to help get to the bottom of a lineage mystery as well as an inheritance mystery.

Mysteries can be easily spoiled, so I won’t write much about the details, but I will say that I was delighted by all of the twists and turns and red herrings. This is such a well-crafted traditional mystery story, and it made me want to dive back into reading some Agatha Christie again because the pacing of the story and the characters and reveals within reminded me so much of what I’ve read of Christie.

I just really loved this one for all sorts of reasons. If you enjoy well-paced adventure stories, well-plotted mysteries, and great multifaceted characters (no matter your age), this one should be on your list to read next. Nooks & Crannies was the sort of book that reminded me of how much I loved reading when I was younger, and I feel like there are so few middle grade books I’ve read in the past few years that make me feel that way. I also loved that it’s a standalone title! In this current pandemic with all of the stress of it on top of regular life stress, it’s so nice to be able to read a story from beginning to end in one book!! (But this is also a post for another time, because while I love series, my brain is definitely leaning toward standalones.)

BOOK REVIEW: The Phlebotomist, by Chris Panatier

BOOK REVIEW: The Phlebotomist, by Chris PanatierTitle: The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier
Published by Angry Robot
Published: September 8th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Thriller, Science Fiction
Pages: 344
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

In a near future where citizens are subject to the mandatory blood draw, government phlebotomist Willa Wallace witnesses an event that makes her question her whole world.To recover from a cataclysmic war, the Harvest was created to pass blood to those affected by radiation.

But this charitable act has led to a society segregated entirely by blood type. Patriot thanks and rewards your generous gift based on the compatibility of your donation, meaning that whoever can give to the most, gets the most back. While working as a reaper for the draw, Willa chances upon an idea to resurrect an obsolete collection technique that could rebalance the city.
But in her quest to put this in motion, she instead uncovers a secret that threatens her entire foundations…

Chris Panatier’s The Phlebotomist is a wild dystopian ride that took a turn I was not expecting but by which I was completely thrilled. It starts out as a Bladerunner-esque dystopia in which people must sell their blood to Patriot, the government, in order to survive and to help those in the Grey Zone, an area suffering from the aftermath of bombardment. This differs from the usual dystopian fare in that the main character is a grandmother, and I truly love seeing older characters in the spotlight. Yes, the younger ones can be fun, but having the experience of life while also learning that you don’t know as much about the role you play in society is such a refreshing thing for me to see.

If you’re bothered by blood and medical terminology, definitely be aware that this has a lot of it. It’s so well done that even I was feeling a bit squeamish at some of the scenes, but I think that added to the grim reality of selling blood every month to the government for survival. I loved the medical definitions related to blood at the beginning of each chapter that kind of clued into where the story was going. Around a hundred pages in is where the twist happens, and it’s better if you don’t know what it is, because that’s when the puzzle of this future world starts piecing itself together and making its reveal. I went into this only knowing it was about a phlebotomist in a dystopian setting, and that twist got me excited to finish reading this to see how everything ended. All of the characters brought so much life to the story, and the unusual cast was another reason I was hooked, even though I knew no one could possibly be safe.

While this isn’t your typical gritty dystopia, I recognized a lot of throwbacks to dystopian favorites while also being fresh and innovative. There are a lot of WTF moments that pulsed throughout because it’s full of secrets, political intrigue, and class exploration that feels so relevant toward today, especially with COVID, society collapse, and its criticism of governments exacting control over their citizens. Because it blends together elements of so many different genres — thrillers, science fiction, mysteries, and dystopias — I think it’ll appeal to a wide variety of readers. It’s definitely a fun, fast read, and I hope someday there’s another book set in this universe! It reads as a standalone with enough of an open to add more.

Many thanks to Angry Robot for sending me a complimentary review copy! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Branwell, by Douglas A. Martin

BOOK REVIEW: Branwell, by Douglas A. MartinTitle: Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother by Douglas A. Martin, Darcey Steinke
Published by Soft Skull
Published: July 7th 2020
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 256
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

For readers of Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles, this genre-bending exploration of the tragic figure of Branwell Brontë and the dismal, dazzling landscape that inspired his sisters to greatness is now available in a new edition with an introduction by Darcey Steinke.
Branwell Brontë―brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne―has a childhood marked by tragedy and the weight of expectations. After the early deaths of his mother and a beloved older sister, he is kept away from school and tutored at home by his father, a curate, who rests all his ambitions for his children on his only son. Branwell grows up isolated in his family’s parsonage on the moors, learning Latin and Greek, being trained in painting, and collaborating on endless stories and poems with his sisters.
Yet while his sisters go on to write Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Agnes Grey, Branwell wanders from job to job, growing increasingly dependent on alcohol and opium and failing to become a great poet or artist.
With rich, suggestive sentences “perfectly fitted to this famously imaginative, headstrong family” (Publishers Weekly), Branwell is a portrait of childhood dreams, thwarted desire, the confinements of gender―and an homage to the landscape and milieu that inspired some of the most revolutionary works of English literature.

Douglas A. Martin’s Branwell is a queer interpretation of Branwell Bronte’s life, and an interpretation that I found both thought-provoking and stylistic. Martin imagines a Branwell struggling to live up to the expectations he felt as the ‘man of the house’ and ultimately failing on several levels. I think to get the full scope of the novel, the reader must be familiar with the Bronte history and lore, especially knowing that Charlotte destroyed so much of their family’s personal writings and letters after their deaths. It raises the question of what Charlotte was hiding or protecting, and Martin’s novel explores an answer to the question of Branwell. Based on my own research, this novel takes liberties with the life of Branwell, though I feel these liberties were tied in with Martin’s own experiences through revelations in the introduction to this book. I ultimately found the sexual content of this novel disturbing, and the barn scene at the end soured my reading experience because the implied bestiality ended up being all I could think about as it seemed out of place in the context and scope of things.

I do find it interesting to me to have received this almost alongside another title about Branwell’s life and I am looking forward to reading that one as well, and Martin’s seems to be in stark contrast thematically and stylistically to the other book about the affair of “unspeakable acts” Branwell had in his lifetime, as the affair has been referred to as a screen for homosexual activity. If you are interested in queer interpretations of literary figures and stylistic writing, based in fact or toying with it, this may pique your interest, but do be aware of the heavy subject matter.

Many thanks to Soft Skull Press for sending me a complimentary copy to review! All opinions are my own.

Little List of Reviews #8

Welcome to another little list of reviews! I have a little backlog of reviews that I’ve been wanting to post, mostly for me since these are ones that I bought myself (and one free arc from my old job). They’ve been sitting as empty drafts since like… May, maybe, and it’s time to get those written and move on so I can write about other things!

Little List of Reviews #8Title: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
Series: The Invisible Library #1
Published by Roc
Published: June 14th 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 341
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Collecting books can be a dangerous prospect in this fun, time-traveling, fantasy adventure from a spectacular debut author. One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction...   Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it's already been stolen.   London's underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.   Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself...

FEATURING BONUS MATERIAL: including an interview with the author, a legend from the Library, and more!

Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library is the first in a series of books that involves libraries, special books, and dragon-shifters. I loved the world-building and desperately wanted to become a Librarian while reading it, and this novel serves its purpose as a set-up for everything else because it was a lot more telling and description than it was character-development and depth. That doesn’t deter me from wanting to continue the rest of the series (and I’ve got most of them, as far as I can recall), so I’m looking forward to seeing where the adventure goes next. I’m a little weird about steampunk as a genre because it can get confusing in its setup, depth, and exploration, but I thought Cogman’s delivery and worldbuilding led to in-book plausibility and created a solid foundation.

Little List of Reviews #8Title: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Series: The Crescent Moon Kingdoms #1
Published by DAW
Published: December 31st 2012
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 367
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

From Saladin Ahmed, finalist for the Nebula and Campbell Awards, comes one of the year's most acclaimed debuts: Throne of the Crescent Moon, a fantasy adventure with all the magic of The Arabian Nights

The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. But these killings are only the earliest signs of a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn the great city of Dhamsawaat, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin.

Saladin Ahmed’s The Crescent Moon is one of the most engrossing fantasies I’ve read in a long time. The second I picked it up and started reading it, I fell in love with the atmosphere, the language, and the story. It sank deep into my soul, and I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. I felt like I was right there in that world, standing just off to the side as everything unfolded. It features a ghul hunter, a magnificent shapeshifter, and a holy warrior dervish, and each of these characters felt so refreshing and real that I forgot sometimes that this was pure fiction and not based off of something that had once happened once upon a time. But perhaps it did… If you’re looking for something incredible and breathtaking, pick this one up. I do hope one day he’ll continue on with the series, but this also functions as a completely perfect standalone.

Little List of Reviews #8Title: Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Published: May 7th 2019
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 350
Format: ARC
Source: Work
Goodreads

alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here

The universe began as an enormous breath being held.

From the acclaimed author of Stories of Your Life and Others — the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film Arrival — comes a ground-breaking new collection of short fiction: nine stunningly original, provocative, and poignant stories. These are tales that tackle some of humanity's oldest questions along with new quandaries only Ted Chiang could imagine.

In "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", a portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and second chances. In "Exhalation", an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications that are literally universal. In "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" the ability to glimpse into alternate universes necessitates a radically new examination of the concepts of choice and free will.

Including stories being published for the first time as well as some of his rare and classic uncollected work, Exhalation is Ted Chiang at his best: profound, sympathetic — revelatory.

Contents:- The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (2007)- Exhalation (2008)- What's Expected of Us (2005)- The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010)- Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny (2011)- The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling (2013)- The Great Silence (2015)- Omphalos (2018)- Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom (2018)

I can’t sing enough praises about Ted Chiang’s writing. He’s one of my all time favorites, and I was so excited to see his newest collection of stories on the arc shelf at my old job. These are mostly reprints, I believe, but each one is fantastic. There are very few writers who can like… make me straight up cry with the magic, scope, and depth of their writing, but this is a collection you’ll not want to miss.

BOOK REVIEW: The Beast’s Heart, by Leife Shallcross

BOOK REVIEW: The Beast’s Heart, by Leife ShallcrossTitle: The Beast's Heart by Leife Shallcross
Published by Berkley
Published: February 12th 2019
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 416
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

A sumptuously magical, brand new take on a tale as old as time—read the Beast's side of the story at long last.

I am neither monster nor man—yet I am both.

I am the Beast.

The day I was cursed to this wretched existence was the day I was saved—although it did not feel so at the time.

My redemption sprung from contemptible roots; I am not proud of what I did the day her father happened upon my crumbling, isolated chateau. But if loneliness breeds desperation then I was desperate indeed, and I did what I felt I must. My shameful behaviour was unjustly rewarded.

My Isabeau. She opened my eyes, my mind and my heart; she taught me how to be human again.

And now I might lose her forever.

Lose yourself in this gorgeously rich and magical retelling of The Beauty and the Beast that finally lays bare the beast's heart.

It feels like it’s been forever since a I read a fairy tale retelling that was set in its traditional time period. The Beast’s Heart is a Beauty and the Beast retelling set in 17th century France that evokes a lot of the style and magic of what I associate with the fairy tale. Shallcross manages to retell a familiar tale set in a familiar landscape and somehow make it entirely infused with a fresh magic. This retelling is told from the Beast’s perspective, and Shallcross does a fantastic job of letting us into the mind of the beast, showing us the arrogance and the assumptions that the young woman should love him just because he saved her. She shows his growth from “the beast” to “the prince” in a sympathetic and true way, and I liked seeing the Beast’s growth from his own perspective.

While this does stay true to the original tales, as I get older, I realize and recognize some of the weird behaviors that are often swept aside for the romance. As someone in her 30s now, I do find it generally off-putting for men to continually ask someone else out even after she’s said no, find non-consensual voyeurism strange, and think that the whole “woe is me, please love me I’m alone” deal to be tired. You’ll find all of this in the book, and on one hand it is grating and off-putting. I found myself thinking “just leave her alone!” several times when the Beast kept making his advances. I thought some of the scenes where the Beast was watching Isabeau and her family through his magic mirror to add a depth to the story, but there were times he watched Isabeau for the sake of watching her (and in one scene watching her undress). The Beast also bemoans his lack of humanity and the horrors of his beast self, and the consistency with which that happens gets old after a while. But there are people out there in the world who behave this way, and the Beast does come to his senses, matures, and begin reversing a lot of those thoughts and behaviors by the book’s end.

I thought the descriptions of the chateau and its surroundings were beautiful, the dialogue is sparkling, and the pacing is just right for a story like this. It reminded me a lot of the fairy tale retellings I read ages ago by Robin McKinley, Donna Jo Napoli, and Gail Carson Levine, so it left me with good feelings by the end.