Shelf Control #169: A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: A Night in the Lonesome October
Author: Roger Zelazny
Published: 1993
Length: 288 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Loyally accompanying a mysterious knife-wielding gentleman named Jack on his midnight rounds through the murky streets of London, good dog Snuff is busy helping his master collect the grisly ingredients needed for an unearthly rite that will take place not long after the death of the moon. But Snuff and his master are not alone. All manner of participants, both human and not, are gathering with their ancient tools and their animal familiars in preparation for the dread night. It is brave, devoted Snuff who must calculate the patterns of the Game and keep track of the Players—the witch, the mad monk, the vengeful vicar, the Count who sleeps by day, the Good Doctor and the hulking Experiment Man he fashioned from human body parts, and a wild-card American named Larry Talbot—all the while keeping Things at bay and staying a leap ahead of the Great Detective, who knows quite a bit more than he lets on.

Boldly original and wildly entertaining, A Night in the Lonesome October is a darkly sparkling gem, an amalgam of horror, humor, mystery, and fantasy. First published in 1993, it was Zelazny’s last book prior to his untimely death. Many consider it the best of the fantasy master’s novels. It has inspired many fans to read it every year in October, a chapter a day, and served as inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s brilliant story “Only the End of the World Again.”

And further info from Wikipedia:

A Night in the Lonesome October is a novel by American writer Roger Zelazny published in 1993, near the end of his life. It was his last book, and one of his five personal favorites.

The book is divided in 32 chapters, each representing one “night” in the month of October (plus one “introductory” chapter). The story is told in the first-person, akin to journal entries. Throughout, 33 full-page illustrations by Gahan Wilson (one per chapter, plus one on the inside back cover) punctuate a tale heavily influenced by H. P. Lovecraft. The title is a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ulalume” and Zelazny thanks him as well as others – Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Bloch and Albert Payson Terhune – whose most famous characters appear in the book.

The story reveals that once every few decades when the moon is full on the night of Halloween, the fabric of reality thins and doors may be opened between this world and the realm of the Great Old Ones. When these conditions are right, men and women with occult knowledge may gather at a specific ritual site to hold the doors closed, or to help fling them open. Should the Closers win, then the world will remain as it is until the next turning… but should the Openers succeed, then the Great Old Ones will come to Earth, to remake the world in their own image (enslaving or slaughtering the human race in the process). The Openers have never yet won. These meetings are often referred to as “The Game” or “The Great Game” by the participants, who try to keep the goings-on secret from the mundane population.

How and when I got it:

I bought a used copy online a couple of years ago, after spending some time tracking down a copy.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve seen this book mentioned on all sorts of blogs and book lists over the years. I’ve read books 1 – 5 of Zelazny’s Amber books (loved them… one of these days, I need to read the rest!). I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while, but now is not the time: I hear that the ideal reading approach is to read one chapter per night during the month of October, and I’m totally up for that! I’m so glad I just re-discovered this lurking on my bookshelf. Now I’m all set for a spooky Halloween read!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

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  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Top Ten Tuesday: A Selection of Favorite Fantasy Books and Series

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books From My Favorite Genre. I bounce between genres quite a bit, but thought I’d focus here on fantasy. My list includes stand-alones as well as series, and because I’m sticking to just 10, I ended up not including three that pretty much go without saying: of course I love the Narnia, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Lord of the Rings books! (See? I managed to mention them after all!)

My top ten, in no particular order:

  • The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
  • Codex Alera (series) by Jim Butcher
  • The Immortals (series) (standing in for ALL Tortall books) by Tamora Pierce (review)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (review)
  • The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (series) by Patricia C. Wrede (review)
  • Wayward Children (series) by Seanan McGuire (review)
  • The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King (review)
  • The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner (review)
  • His Dark Materials (series) by Philip Pullman
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman

What genre did you pick this week? If you wrote a TTT post this week, please share your link!

Book Review: Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey



Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magic. She is perfectly happy with her life—she has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It’s a great life and she doesn’t wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha.

But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.

Magic For Liars may be set at a school of magic, but we’re on notice from the very first page that this is not THAT kind of school:

Now they were all downstairs at the welcome-back dinner, an all-staff-all-students meal that marked the end of the first week of classes. They’d joke there about house-elves and pumpkin juice — or at least the freshmen would. By the time they were sophomores, that vein of humor was worn beyond use.

After a bloody murder at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages (located in the vicinity of Sunol, California — less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco or Oakland), private investigator Ivy Gamble is called in to help solve the case. Magical authorities have deemed it an accidental death due to a spell gone bad, but the school’s headmaster thinks there’s more to be discovered… and since Ivy is the non-magical twin sister of a professor at the school, she seems to be the right choice to lead the investigation.

The assignment at Osthorne is fraught with tension and high emotional stakes for Ivy. She and sister Tabitha have been estranged for years, really since Tabitha was selected to go to an elite magic school when they were teens. Their paths diverged sharply from that point onward, and the two have never managed to reconnect, especially in the aftermath of their mother’s death while Tabitha was away at school.

Now arriving at Osthorne, Ivy sets out to solve the murder while also trying to understand who Tabitha is now, and who she herself might have been if she’d had magic too. Ivy’s journey is painful to witness, as she drinks herself through her tumultuous feelings every night and lets herself become consumed by the mysterious death and the suspicious undercurrents at the school

I love Sarah Gailey’s writing — I loved it in the American Hippo books, and she’s totally on point here as well, conveying the otherworldliness of the magical world while rooting it in a grim and grimy reality that has more than a shade of noir to it. What magical school doesn’t have a library with weird and dangerous sections? Here at Osthorne, Ivy hears:

… the books murmuring to each other like a scandalized congregation of origami Presbyterians.

Isn’t that delicious?

Some other choice bits:

Across the bay, San Francisco bled money like an unzipped artery.

…. and

The drive through the Sunol hills was as beautiful as the novocaine that comes before the drill.

Certain magic school tropes makes appearances too — there’s a Prophecy and a Chosen One, for starters, as well as the more mundane clique of popular girls who flutter around the central Mean Girl and all sorts of relationship drama, both appropriate and not.

The plot zooms along quickly, and sometimes reality can be a slippery thing. Ivy’s investigations are often clouded by the magical elements around her, but even so, she applies her skills and street smarts to get to the shocking truth. The resolution is pitch-perfect, and even though I guessed at the outcome ahead of time, that did not detract at all from the impact and the shock when the answers are finally revealed.

Magic For Liars is, plain and simple, a terrific read. Don’t miss it!

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The details:

Title: Magic For Liars
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Audiobook Review: The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

 

“Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a king with two sons….”

Thus begins one of the most unique tales that master storyteller Stephen King has ever written—a sprawling fantasy of dark magic and the struggle for absolute power that utterly transforms the destinies of two brothers born into royalty. Through this enthralling masterpiece of mythical adventure, intrigue, and terror, you will thrill to this unforgettable narrative filled with relentless, wicked enchantment, and the most terrible of secrets….

I originally read The Eyes of the Dragon ages ago, probably not long after its release in the late 80s. And honestly, I didn’t remember much about it, other than (a) it was a real departure for Stephen King at that point, and (b) I liked it.

Why did I decide to revisit this story? I’m not really sure what brought it back to my attention — I think maybe it popped up on my Audible recommendation list? In any case, the audiobook caught my eye right when I was in between listens and I decided to give it a try. Great choice!

The Eyes of the Dragon, as far as I can tell, is one of King’s early departures from writing straight-up horror. It’s not a horror story at all — instead, it’s fantasy set in a far-off kingdom, where an evil magician is determined to thrust the land into chaos and bloodshed in order to satisfy his own dark purposes.

King Roland the Good is an okay king, kind but not particularly effective, and perhaps a little too under the sway of his advisor, the magician Flagg. Roland has two sons — his heir, Peter, and a younger son, Thomas, who grows up in his older brother’s shadow, always plagued by feelings of inadequacy and jealousy as he watches Peter grow into a fine, beloved young man. When Flagg’s schemes end with Peter falsely imprisoned on charges of murdering his father, Thomas gains the throne, but he’s guided in all things by Flagg, who uses Thomas’s weakness to destabilize the country. But Peter is strong and smart, and doesn’t give up so easily…

Such a terrific story! I was completely enthralled by this tale of loyalty, royalty, friendship, betrayal, and the evil that threatens to undermine families and kingdoms. The characters are so well drawn, showing shades of personality and motivation, and finding hidden dimensions in characters that might otherwise seem like a stock type.

The audiobook is narrated by actor Bronson Pinchot, and he’s wonderful. He captures the folksy nature of the storytelling (as the book’s narrative voice often interjects the narrator’s own opinions and speaks directly to the reader/listener), and also does an amazing job with the voices, from old King Roland to timid Dennis the butler to upright Peter, and of course, most especially, the insidiously scary Flagg.

The Eyes of the Dragon is an excellent adventure — don’t miss it!

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The details:

Title: The Eyes of the Dragon
Author: Stephen King
Narrator: Bronson Pinchot
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: February 2, 1987
Print length: 484 pages
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 23 mintues
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Book Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

 

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.

Y’all know how much I love Seanan McGuire, right? I mean, I have gobbled up pretty much everything of hers that’s come my way, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. And I’m not now.

Which is to say… I thought Middlegame was weird and challenging, and I loved it.

Let me start by adding that the synopsis above doesn’t feel very accurate to me. Yes, Roger and Dodger are twins… kind of. But I don’t think the books itself refers to attaining godhood. So I’m glad I didn’t read the synopsis very carefully before starting, because it might have created some bizarre expectations that definitely would have gone unfulfilled.

In Middlegame, Dodger and Roger are creations, but they spend most of their lives not knowing this. They were created by a powerful alchemist, himself a creation of a powerful, game-changing alchemist, and they have a specific purpose in life — to manifest the alchemical concept of the Doctrine of Ethos.

Huh?

Yup, that was my reaction… but the confusion is part of the experience of this book, and I was happy to just go with it. Roger and Dodger each have a gift — language for Roger, math for Dodger. Raised on opposite sides of the country by adoptive parents, they discover a psychic connection as young children, and as they grow up, their bond develops, strengthens, and becomes powerful, dangerous, and more and more inexplicable. Meanwhile, Reed and his allies monitor the pair carefully, charting their progress toward manifestation, making sure to keep them apart when their progress threatens the greater goals of the project.

It’s all just so twisty and timey-wimey and mind-bending and GOOD. And as always, I love Seanan McGuire’s writing. Does she have a bit of Roger’s ability to create reality through her words? All signs point to yes.

I won’t go into a lot of detail, mainly because I just finished this long, complicated book and I’m still sifting through it all in my mind. There’s a lot to puzzle through and unravel. So rather than digging further into plot threads, I’ll share some lines and quotes that jumped out at me as I was reading:

…and she can no more conceive of failure than a butterfly can conceive of calculus.

Roger thinks that’s the trouble with grownups. The more effort they put into deciding what kids are going to do or think or be, the more things so wrong for them.

People who say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” don’t understand how words can be stones, hard and sharp-edge and dangerous and capable of doing so much more harm than anything physical. […] Words can be whispered bullet-quick when no one’s looking, and words don’t leave blood or bruises behind. Words disappear without a trace. That’s what makes them so powerful. That’s what makes them so important.

That’s what makes them hurt so much.

You can’t skip to the end of the story just because you’re tired of being in the middle.

Everything is perfect. Everything is doomed.

On and on they go, the shorthand becoming more extreme, the air going hot and heavy around them, like an electric storm rolling in, like another fire getting ready to ignite, a fire that needs no flame but only the constant friction between the two halves of something which has never, in all the long years of their lives, been fully realized.

Roger has never understood the math that calls to her, but he feels it now, thrumming in his veins like a promise of miracles to come. Dodger has never grasped the need to put a name to the things she knows to be true, but she understands it now, and accepts the names he throws her way gladly, transforming them through the alchemy of her observations before she throws them back to him.

Here’s one that makes my brain ache:

She knows that, as surely as she knows that every second takes away more of her slim opportunity to escape becoming the future self of a girl she, as yet, never was.

And on a slightly lighter note:

“Wake up,” he says. “We need to let my terrifying ex-girlfriend tell us how we’re supposed to manifest a primal force of reality before asshole alchemists set us the fuck on fire.”

I really don’t think there’s much I can say or add that will do justice to the headlong rush of tragedy, violence, excitement, and true deep emotion that mixes together in Middlegame. So I’ll just wrap by saying that this is an awesome adventure of a read, and I’m sure I’m going to want to read it again after my mind relaxes.

Oh, and I love the fact that one of the super-powerful alchemists wrote a best-selling children’s fantasy book series, full of magical quests along the lines of a Narnia/Fillory tale — but that these stories really are code for alchemical inquiries into controlling the powers of the universe. Which made me wonder just a bit if there’s more to, I don’t know, Harry Potter? than meets the eye…

Extra gold points for great use of San Francisco landmarks (Sutro Baths!)… and how can you not love a book that includes the phrase killer death alchemists as if it’s a normal thing to say?

Seanan McGuire fans, rest assured — our beloved author strikes again, and it’s fabulous.

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The details:

Title: Middlegame
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Science fiction/fantasy
Source: Purchased (and also, review copy via NetGalley)

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Tortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales by Tamora Pierce

My journey through Tortall continues! For the uninitiated, Tortall is the fantasy kingdom created by Tamora Pierce and explored through her terrific series, all of which focus on strong, determined young women who find a way to make their own mark in the world. I’ve been reading my way through Pierce’s Tortall books since the middle of last year, and now find myself approaching the end. *sniff*

Continuing onward by publication date, I now come to Tortall and Other Lands, a collection of stories set in and around Tortall. Actually, most are “around” rather than “in”, but that’s okay. In this set of eleven stories, we explore different times and places related to the world Pierce created in the Tortall books — and also get to read two contemporary stories, which really surprised me. More on that later.

Most of the stories in this collection have been published in other anthologies, with publication dates from 1986 up to 2011. I ended up listening to the audiobook, which was fun. The audiobook has different narrators for each story, with the final story read by Tamora Pierce herself, always a treat.

So what’s inside? Here’s a little overview of the stories in Tortall and Other Lands:

Student of Ostriches: A girl from a desert tribe learns to become a warrior by observing the animals in the wilderness surrounding her village and emulating their fighting styles. While the characters and places in this story are new, there’s an appearance by a Shang warrior, which is a nice connection to the Song of the Lioness books.

Elder Brother: A strange but moving story that connects to the Immortals books. This story shows the aftermath of a particular spell cast in The Immortals, and what happens to the unintended victim of that spell — a tree who is forced to become human.

The Hidden Girl: The Hidden Girl connects with Elder Brother, following up on the events in that story by showing what happens next to a girl located in the same strictly religious community, as she and her father begin to work against the traditions that keep women apart and uneducated.

Nawat: Weirdly enough, I really liked this story, even though it relates to my least favorite books in the Tortall universe, Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen. In those, a human girl falls in love with a crow-turned-man (weird, I know). Here, we find out what happens after the HEA. Nawat is the crow/man, whose human wife has now given birth to triplets. Nawat has to figure out how to be a father, how to remain connected to his crow flock, and when he must go against the crow way for the sake of his wife and babies. I didn’t expect to care all that much — but I really, really did.

The Dragon’s Tale: Oh, I loved this story! The dragon in The Dragon’s Tale is Kitten, the baby dragon (now more like an adolescent dragon) adopted by Daine and Numair in the Immortals series. Here, Kitten has accompanied her humans to travel through the land of Carthak, visiting different towns and villages with the Carthaki emperor, getting to know the locals and studying the magic they encounter. Because Kitten is bored, she sets out on her own to explore, and ends up discovering a woman with secrets and much, much more. It’s so much fun to see the world through Kitten’s eyes, and extra enjoyable because Daine and Numair feature in the story.

Lost: In the Aly books (the Trickster books, mentioned earlier), the most unusual of Aly’s spies and helpers are the Darkings, small creatures who are more or less animated inkblots that can connect telepathically with each other, change shape, grow and shrink at will, and act as sources of information and assistance to the people they interact with. They’re also awfully darn cute, and their voices in the audiobooks are adorable. Lost, in this story, is a darking who befriends a lonely young woman, Adria. Adria has a brilliant mind for mathematics, but she’s bullied by her father and demeaned by a new teacher. When she meets Lost, new worlds open up to her, including the chance to meet and study with an unusual woman working as an engineer in her town.

Time of Proving: A relatively short work, Again, a young woman meets an unusual creature and finds the door opening on a fresh new adventure.

Plain Magic: A girl whose village is ready to sacrifice her to a dragon, and the outsider who provides a new way of thinking about both dragons and girls.

Mimic: Ah, another really fun one! A girl who guards the sheep flocks of her village finds a strange injured reptile and nurses it back to health, against her family’s wishes. As the creature — called Mimic — grows, it exhibits all sorts of talents and magical gifts, and turns into something very unexpected.

Huntress: A mystical story set in contemporary New York — what a change of pace for a Tamora Pierce tale! In Huntress, a girl descended from a family of goddess-worshipping women gets the opportunity to attend a prestigious private school on scholarship. What she thinks is acceptance into an elite group of athletes becomes an initiation rite where she ends up at the mercy of a pack intent on hunting her. The story is entertaining, although it feels like it could be something out of Buffy or Charmed or any of a handful of other teen-centric supernatural tales. Still, a good listen/read.

Testing: The only non-fantasy story in the collection, Testing is the story of girls living in a group home, who manage to scare away every new housemother assigned to them — until finally one comes along who seems to be able to withstand the girls’ need to test her. On the audiobook, this story is read by Tamora Pierce, and there’s an introduction in which she talks about her own time working as a housemother in a group home. Really interesting — this is a good story, although it’s weird to read a Pierce story without the slightest shred of magic in it!

Tortall and Other Lands is a great read for fans of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall works. I think many of these stories would work on their own as well, for readers who aren’t familiar with Tortall… but if you want a taste of Tamora Pierce, I’d strongly suggest starting with the Song of the Lioness books. And if those grab you, keep going!

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The details:

Title: Tortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales
Author: Tamora Pierce
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: February 22, 2011
Length: 369 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Take A Peek Book Review: That Ain’t Witchcraft (InCryptid, #8) by Seanan McGuire

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Crossroads, noun:

1. A place where two roads cross.
2. A place where bargains can be made.
3. See also “places to avoid.”

Antimony Price has never done well without a support system. As the youngest of her generation, she has always been able to depend on her parents, siblings, and cousins to help her out when she’s in a pinch—until now. After fleeing from the Covenant of St. George, she’s found herself in debt to the crossroads and running for her life. No family. No mice. No way out.

Lucky for her, she’s always been resourceful, and she’s been gathering allies as she travels: Sam, fūri trapeze artist turned boyfriend; Cylia, jink roller derby captain and designated driver; Fern, sylph friend, confidant, and maker of breakfasts; even Mary, ghost babysitter to the Price family. Annie’s actually starting to feel like they might be able to figure things out—which is probably why things start going wrong again.

New Gravesend, Maine is a nice place to raise a family…or make a binding contract with the crossroads. For James Smith, whose best friend disappeared when she tried to do precisely that, it’s also an excellent place to plot revenge. Now the crossroads want him dead and they want Annie to do the dirty deed. She owes them, after all.

And that’s before Leonard Cunningham, aka, “the next leader of the Covenant,” shows up…

It’s going to take everything Annie has and a little bit more to get out of this one. If she succeeds, she gets to go home. If she fails, she becomes one more cautionary tale about the dangers of bargaining with the crossroads.

But no pressure.

My Thoughts:

Seanan McGuire can pretty much do no wrong in my worldview, and That Ain’t Witchcraft is a prime example of why. The InCryptid series is relatively light-hearted, although bad things do happen, but overall these books maintain a whimsical, wise-ass feel that keeps the mood more on the fun end of the urban fantasy spectrum.

Eight books in, the series continues to rock and roll. The beauty (or I really should say, one of the beauties) of this series is the focus on the sprawling Price family, which gives the author plenty of characters to share the spotlight from book to book. So far, we’ve had three books with Verity as the lead, two with Alex, and now three with Antimony, the baby sister of the family. (I understand that the spotlight will be moving to a different family member in book #9 — I’m already on pins and needles to see what happens next!)

That Ain’t Witchcraft continues from the ending of book #7, Tricks For Free, with Antimony and friends on the run from the Covenant, the globally powerful cryptid-hating organization that would also like to track down and annihilate the entire Price clan. Looking for a hideout where they can rest and catch their breaths for a while, Antimony and the gang instead find themselves in a small town with a big problem involving the crossroads, the otherworldy entity that makes bargains that never seem to work out well for the human side.

The writing, as always in Seanan McGuire books, is snappy and snarky and full of pop-culture references and overall geekiness, and I love it all to bits. Random example:

“He’s a delicate boy. He doesn’t need some loose woman coming from out of town and getting him all confused.”

I blinked. “I… what? I don’t know whether to be more offended by you calling James ‘delicate’ or you calling me ‘loose.’ I assure you, I am the opposite of a loose woman. I’m a tightly wound, sort of prickly woman. Hermione Granger is my Patronus.”

Need I say more? In case it’s not perfectly obvious, the 8th book in an ongoing series is NOT the place to start. So, I encourage you to go find a copy of book #1, Discount Armageddon, and dive in. If you’re like me, you’ll be hooked, and will want to keep going until you’ve gobbled up all eight books and are panting for more.

InCryptids rule. Check out this series!

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The details:

Title: That Ain’t Witchcraft (InCryptid series, book #8)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: In an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire

 

This is the story of a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.

When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she’s found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

For anyone . . .

Every Heart a Doorway was the first book in the Wayward Children series of novellas by Seanan McGuire, and ever since reading it, I’ve been captivated by the dreamy nature of the worlds portrayed. Now, here with the 4th book in the series, In An Absent Dream, the author once again works her magic through her lyrical, otherworldly writing.

In the Wayward Children books, we meet various children and teens who discover portals to magical worlds — but each door is unique to the particular child, taking him or her to a world that (in most cases) is exactly where that child belongs. We’ve seen people go to the halls of the dead, to a world made of cakes and sugary treats, to a world of monsters and haunted moors. In each case, the children involved may choose to stay, or may find themselves thrust out unwillingly — and when they’re forced out, they may spend the rest of their lives yearning for a way to get back “home”.

In this newest book, we’re reunited with a familiar face from the first book in the series. There, we met Lundy, a teacher at the boarding school inhabited by these wayward children. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Lundy is highly unusual and memorable, and is a favorite character for many readers of Every Heart a Doorway.

In An Absent Dream treats us to Lundy’s backstory, introducing us to her as a young child named Katherine who learns about fairness and independence and fitting in through the casual cruelty of other children. Lundy finds a door for the first time at age eight, and ends up in a world known as the Goblin Market. It’s a place of rules and absolute commitment to fairness. The most crucial rule is “always give fair value” — for every favor granted or assistance given, something of fair value must be given in return, or else a debt may be owed… and those who owe debts find themselves facing odd, disturbing changes.

As in the other Wayward Children books, the writing itself creates the magic — sometimes brooding, sometimes ethereal, sometimes menacing or full of foreboding. I simply can’t get enough of the delicious language. A few random samples:

It is an interesting thing, to trust one’s feet. The heart may yearn for adventure while the head think sensibly of home, but the feet are a mixture of the two, dipping first one way aand then the other.

They ran through the golden afternoon like dandelion seeds dancing on the wind, two little girls with all the world in front of them, a priceless treasure ready to be pillaged.

They held each other, both of them laughing and both of them weeping, and if this were a fairy tale, this is where we would leave them, the prodigal student and the unwitting instructor reunited after what should have been their final farewell. This is where we would leave them, and be glad of it, even as Lundy had long since left a girl named Katherine behind her.

Alas, that this is not a fairy tale.

These books are just too beautiful to miss. Read them, re-read them, maybe listen to the audiobooks, savor the lovely language… the Wayward Children books are not long, but they don’t need to be. In An Absent Dream and the other books in the series are must-reads. Start at the beginning and read all four!

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The details:

Title: In an Absent Dream
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 8, 2019
Length: 204 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Take A Peek Book Review: Elevation by Stephen King

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

The latest from legendary master storyteller Stephen King, a riveting, extraordinarily eerie, and moving story about a man whose mysterious affliction brings a small town together—a timely, upbeat tale about finding common ground despite deep-rooted differences.

Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis.

In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade—but escalating—battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face–including his own—he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others.

My Thoughts:

I’m not sure what to say about Elevation, or even how to categorize it. Is it horror? Not in the jump-scare, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, monsters-eating-your-face sort of way. But does the idea of losing weight without losing size, and with a day you’ll weigh zero pounds looming, scare you? Then yes, you might call this horror. Or fantasy, in that I’m pretty sure there’s no such documented case of a person being perfectly healthy, losing weight, and causing anything he/she touches to have zero weight — sounds pretty fantastical to me.

All that being said, my main take-away here is that Elevation is a truly excellent read — brief, spare, and finely crafted, with sharply defined characters, mounting tension, and an overall feeling of both well-being and loss permeating the entire story. Scott Carey is a likable guy stuck in a weird situation, who tries to make the best of things by doing his part to make a small difference in the lives of the people he cares for.

And despite the short length of the story, it was plenty of time to get emotionally involved. Was that a lone tear making its way down my cheek as I read the last few pages? I’ll never tell.

Beautifully written, Elevation is a quick, low-commitment read that will leave you feeling — dare I say it? — elevated.

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The details:

Title: Elevation
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: October 30, 2018
Length: 146 pages
Genre: Fantasy/horror
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

 

Captivating and boldly imaginative, with a tale of sisterhood at its heart, Rena Rossner’s debut fantasy invites you to enter a world filled with magic, folklore, and the dangers of the woods.

Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.

But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.

Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…

The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.

What a lovely and unusual debut novel!

Author Rena Rossner draws from folktales, fairy tales, and Jewish history and traditions to create an entrancing story of two sisters whose lives are informed by magic, yet who are deeply rooted among the Jewish villagers in the small town of Dubossary (located in modern-day Moldova).

Liba and Laya are very different — Liba, the elder, is 17 years old, with wild, dark hair and a rounded body. She loves to study with her father, learning Torah and Talmud and all sorts of scholarly Jewish subjects not considered fit for girls. Laya, the younger, is 15 years old, with white-blond silky hair, pale skin, and a lithe figure. She has no interest in studies, but prefers to dream in the sun, alongside their beautiful mother. The girls’ parents are semi-outcasts. While the father was descended from a respectable, revered Chassidic family, the mother is a non-Jew who converted to Judaism when she married the man she loved, yet the neighbors have never ceased to gossip and consider her an outsider.

When the parents are called away for a family emergency, the girls are left home alone in their small cabin at the edge of the forest, and immediately, strange things begin to happen around them. A group of brothers come to town and set up their fruit stall, selling exotic, exquisite out-of-season fruits that the townspeople can’t resist — and beguiling the young women of the village with their impossible good looks and flirtatious, wild demeanors. Liba and Laya have been told secrets by their parents about their own true identities, and each begins to experience her own set of changes — physical and emotional — as she grows into womanhood.

Meanwhile, there are rumors in the village of violence coming closer, as anti-Semitism rears its ugly head and pogroms begin to devastate Jewish communities across Russia. Dubossary has always been different, with Jews and Christians living in harmony, but when a beautiful Christian girl is found murdered in a Jewish family’s orchard, unrest, evil whispers, and soon real danger threatens the Jewish people of the town.

If the plot sounds a little jam-packed — well, it is. There’s a lot going on here, with Liba and Laya’s secrets and struggles, the mysterious fruitsellers and their addictive wares, the rising anti-Semitism, and the dynamics of Chassidic dynasties as well. Beyond plot, though, there are also so many little touches of loveliness. The book is filled with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian expressions (with a handy glossary at the end) that give the story an authentic, rich cadence. Likewise, the flavors and textures of this world come to life through the descriptions of the foods (borscht, mandelbrot, kugel, and more), the flowers and plants, the wildlife, and the natural beauty of the snow, the river, and the forest.

Each girl has her own voice, as we hear in alternating chapters. Liba’s chapters are in prose, and Laya’s are in verse. Each is compelling, and while Liba’s chapters are much more action-packed and immediate, Laya’s have a lightness that’s quite beautiful to read.

Come by, he calls out
after me,
come by, come by.
When moonlight sets itself high in the sky.

Sometimes the author’s notes at the end of a story really give me a different way to understand what I’ve read, and such is the case here with The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her notes, author Rena Rossner describes her own family’s history in the region of the story and their immigration to America. She also explains the various sources of inspiration for her story, from fairy tales, Greek mythology, and even modern YA literature. She also mentions that the original idea for this book was to write a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (which can be read online here) After I finished reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I went and read Goblin Market (which I’d never read before), and was so impressed by how well its elements are captured and transformed in Rena Rossner’s book. (I also discovered the connection between Goblin Market and the October Daye series, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Naturally, between the setting and the introduction of folktale elements, I was reminded of Katherine Arden’s excellent The Bear and the Nightingale, although the stories are very, very different. Fans of that book should definitely check out The Sisters of the Winter Wood. It’s a magical story filled with beauty and awfulness, balancing real and fantasy worlds, and above all celebrating the love between two devoted sisters and the sacrifices they make for one another. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: The Sisters of the Winter Wood
Author: Rena Rossner
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of Redhook

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