Travel reading wrap-up (fall 2021): A batch of mini-reviews — high school drama, Aztec vampires, and classics retold

I’ve just returned from a one-week trip (which was all sorts of awesome), and realize that I’ve fallen way behind on my reviews. Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read while I was away (and the week before, when I was already in pre-trip mode). As always, a mix of genres, topics, and new vs old.


Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado: A YA story starring a plus-sized Latina high schooler who dreams of a first kiss, even while feeling like she’ll never measure up. The story emphasizes the importance of true friendship and trust, as well as body positivity. Charlie experiences a first relationship, has her relationship with her best friend tested, gains confidence as a writer, and learns to stand up for herself and not let others’ negativity undermine her belief in herself. While there are some plot points that I found frustrating (such as a mother whose toxicity about Charlie’s weight is never truly resolved, and unnecessary break-ups with both her boyfriend and her best friend), I loved the lead character enough to make this a really enjoyable read overall.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: This is my 3rd book by this author, but it definitely won’t be my last. Certain Dark Things is a gritty, noir-ish story of vampires, gangs, and drug runners in Mexico City. The main character is a teen boy who devotes himself to helping a lone Aztec vampire escape the city and the various other clans of vampires who want to see her and her people wiped out. It’s a fascinating spin on the world of vampires, and while I would have liked to have seen a bit more on the origins and natures of the different vampire species, I still really enjoyed this book. It’s dark, fast-paced, and surprising.

Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers: I guess I should have read the full synopsis, instead of deciding after just the first sentence that this book sounded like fun. The main character wakes up alone in a Las Vegas hotel room with a vague, hung-over memory of having married an adorable woman the night before. All she has to go on is a note left by the woman with a radio station listed. Grace decides to track down the mystery woman… but for the most part, despite the potential rom-com set-up, this is a story about a woman trying to find her place in the world, figure out who she’s meant to be, and understand her relationships with family and friends. Maybe because I went into it with incorrect (or incomplete) expectations, I was mostly frustrated and annoyed by the depth’s of the main character’s introspection and occasional selfishness.

Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle: This YA retelling of Romeo and Juliet offers a fresh perspective — that of Rosaline, the girl Romeo loved before meeting Juliet. Here, the teens are seniors at an upscale California high school. Rose has been looking forward to reuniting with Rob, her best friend and boy next door since they were small children, especially since their near-kiss right before he left for his summer job. But within a few days of school starting, Rob dumps Rose for the new girl in town — the mysterious Juliet, who also happens to be Rose’s cousin. I really liked the way the author turned the classic story into a contemporary YA drama, and found her portrayal of Rose very thoughtful as well as being a creative twist on a tale that’s been told and retold so many times. When You Were Mine follows some, but not all, of the original’s storyline, and the little differences keep this book fresh and engaging. Sure, I have a few quibbles and would have liked to see a few plot points handled differently, but overall, this is quite a good read.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Bennet Women by Eden Appiah-Kubi: Another classic retold! This twist on Pride and Prejudice centers on the “Bennet Women” — the young undergraduate women living in Bennet House at Longbourn College. EJ (the Elizabeth stand-in) is a senior studying engineering and the RA of Bennet House, who holds the values and standards of Bennet House dear to her heart. Her best friends are a trans woman, Jamie, who’s our Jane stand-in, and Tessa, who has a smaller role and seems to be taking the place of Charlotte Lucas. While hitting the major plot beats of P&P, it’s a fresh take full of woman power and feminism, with a nicely diverse cast and some clever approaches to the expected storylines. I really appreciated how EJ’s education and aspirations were given prominence. Here, marriage isn’t a goal or even talked about much — it’s about finding love and respect while also finding themselves, pursuing their dreams, and not giving in to the many ways the world outside of Bennet House might want to limit their opportunities or pull them down.

Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

That’s my reading round-up! And now, back to all the ARCs and other books calling my name…

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Mini-reviews: Starting 2021 with two YA novels

Okay, 2021. Let’s do this!

I started two different YA novels right at the end of December, and finished both by January 3rd. I haven’t read a whole lot of YA lately, and I’m definitely not in the target demographic, so take my reviews with lots of grains of salt, please.

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Title: You Have a Match
Author: Emma Lord
Upcoming release: January 12, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the beloved author of Tweet Cute comes Emma Lord’s You Have a Match, a YA novel of family, friendship, romance and sisterhood…

When Abby signs up for a DNA service, it’s mainly to give her friend and secret love interest, Leo, a nudge. After all, she knows who she is already: Avid photographer. Injury-prone tree climber. Best friend to Leo and Connie…although ever since the B.E.I. (Big Embarrassing Incident) with Leo, things have been awkward on that front.

But she didn’t know she’s a younger sister.

When the DNA service reveals Abby has a secret sister, shimmery-haired Instagram star Savannah Tully, it’s hard to believe they’re from the same planet, never mind the same parents—especially considering Savannah, queen of green smoothies, is only a year and a half older than Abby herself.

The logical course of action? Meet up at summer camp (obviously) and figure out why Abby’s parents gave Savvy up for adoption. But there are complications: Savvy is a rigid rule-follower and total narc. Leo is the camp’s co-chef, putting Abby’s growing feelings for him on blast. And her parents have a secret that threatens to unravel everything.

But part of life is showing up, leaning in, and learning to fit all your awkward pieces together. Because sometimes, the hardest things can also be the best ones.

I’m fascinated by real-life stories of people discovering hidden family connections through DNA testing companies like 23andme. (My test results were not particularly dramatic — no secret siblings or deep-dark family secrets!)

In You Have a Match, 16-year-old Abby discovers through DNA testing that she has a full sister that she never knew about. Determined to understand how this is possible, Abby and Savvy connect, and decide to attend summer camp together as a way to piece together the puzzle of their pasts… without telling their parents about their big discovery.

Family secrets come to light, tears are shed, and Abby learns a lot about herself, her parents, and the secret history she shares with Savvy. Plus, there’s friend and boyfriend drama, plus social media, worries about the future, and a best friend/boyfriend to sort out too.

I really liked the camp setting (memories…), and thought the main concept was really inventive. The secrets behind Abby and Savvy’s shared past are surprising and moving, although I’m not sure I buy some of the events as they’re described. I loved that the girls were able to get past their surface differences and come together as sisters, filling roles in each others’ lives that they never knew they needed.

I was less into the emphasis on Instagram followers and fame, but I suppose that’s a generational thing. The romance aspects also didn’t really speak to me, but again — not an actual young adult here!

I didn’t really know what to expect from You Have a Match, and I was pleasantly surprised! This is a fast, easy-to-get-lost-in read. Lots of fun, and also hits the emotions.

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Title: You Should See Me in a Crown
Author: Leah Johnson
Published: 2020
Length: 336 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.

But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.

The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?

This book came to my attention when Reese Witherspoon picked it as her book club’s first YA book. I’m so glad I gave it a chance!

In You Should See Me In a Crown, Liz is an outsider when it comes to her wealthy community’s obsession with prom. Really, she’s never really thought about it in relation to herself, until forced to take desperate measures when her hoped-for scholarship falls through. And nothing could be more desperate than Liz Lighty running for prom queen.

With the support of her best friends, Liz determines to step outside her comfort zone and do what it takes to pursue her dream. Battling cliquey mean girls and the school’s slant toward the straight, white, popular crowd, Liz has to balance being true to herself with doing what it takes to earn the votes needed to become queen.

The book showcases friendship and honesty, falling in love and deciding whether to be out, family support and keeping secrets, wealthy inequality, and so much more. While the race for prom queen is the overarching plotline, You Should See Me in a Crown is an excellent portrait of a young woman in an unexpected situation, figuring out how to achieve her goals without losing herself in the process.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Alaska Jackson, and it was light, fun, and sweet. I really enjoyed the story, and think it would make an awesome Netflix movie!

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There you have it — two contemporary YA books that gave me a cheerful start to my 2021 reading!

Mini-reviews: Three short takes on my end-of-the-year reads (or listens)

It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve, I’ve finished three different books over the last day or so, and I’m not really in the mood to write detailed reviews. So, wrapping up my year of reading, here are my final three books of 2020:

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Title: Us Against You (Beartown, #2)
Author: Fredrik Backman
Published: 2018
Length: 448 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

After everything that the citizens of Beartown have gone through, they are struck yet another blow when they hear that their beloved local hockey team will soon be disbanded. What makes it worse is the obvious satisfaction that all the former Beartown players, who now play for a rival team in Hed, take in that fact. Amidst the mounting tension between the two rivals, a surprising newcomer is handpicked to be Beartown’s new hockey coach.

Soon a new team starts to take shape around Amat, the fastest player you’ll ever see; Benji, the intense lone wolf; and Vidar, a born-to-be-bad troublemaker. But bringing this team together proves to be a challenge as old bonds are broken, new ones are formed, and the enmity with Hed grows more and more acute.

As the big match approaches, the not-so-innocent pranks and incidents between the communities pile up and their mutual contempt grows deeper. By the time the last game is finally played, a resident of Beartown will be dead, and the people of both towns will be forced to wonder if, after all they’ve been through, the game they love can ever return to something simple and innocent.

Saying I have a love/hate relationship with Fredrik Backman’s writing is a bit too strong. Maybe it’s a like/feel annoyed by relationship?

Us Against You is the sequel to Beartown, continuing the story of a small hockey-obsessed town, its politics, its personalities, and its ugly and beautiful sides. This book is really very dark and dismal for most of its length, with people suffering, fighting, and making each other miserable.

As with his other books, I found myself rolling my eyes at the abundance of declarative statements about the meaning of life. I’m glad that I read Us Against You, for the sake of seeing what happens next in these characters’ lives, but ended up speeding up to the audiobook to 1.5x when my exasperation made me want to just be done with it.

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Title: The Little Book of Hygge
Author: Meik Wiking
Published: 2016
Length: 289 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Denmark is often said to be the happiest country in the world. That’s down to one thing: hygge.

‘Hygge has been translated as everything from the art of creating intimacy to cosiness of the soul to taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things. My personal favourite is cocoa by candlelight…’

You know hygge when you feel it. It is when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one, or sharing comfort food with your closest friends. It is those crisp blue mornings when the light through your window is just right.

Who better than Meik Wiking to be your guide to all things hygge? Meik is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and has spent years studying the magic of Danish life. In this beautiful, inspiring book he will help you be more hygge: from picking the right lighting and planning a dinner party through to creating an emergency hygge kit and even how to dress.

This little hardcover (borrowed from the library) is a guide to hygge — taking the Danish concept and using it to make life more peaceful, cozy, and satisfying. It’s a sweet little book — no earth-shattering revelations here, but a gentle reinforcement of some basic principles: simple is better, be cozy, keep social gatherings small and intimate, enjoy making and sharing, spend less, focus on the here and now.

I’m not sure that I got much in the way of practical steps, but it’s a good reminder to cherish the small moments and make life more comfy and cozy in little ways. And, as the author points out, the more candles, the more hygge.

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Title: I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are
Author: Rachel Bloom
Published: 2020
Length: 288 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the vein of Mindy Kaling, Ali Wong, and Amy Poehler, a collection of hilarious personal essays, poems and even amusement park maps on the subjects of insecurity, fame, anxiety, and much more from the charming and wickedly funny creator of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Rachel Bloom has felt abnormal and out of place her whole life. In this exploration of what she thinks makes her “different,” she’s come to realize that a lot of people also feel this way; even people who she otherwise thought were “normal.”

In a collection of laugh-out-loud funny essays, all told in the unique voice (sometimes singing voice) that made her a star; Rachel writes about everything from her love of Disney, OCD and depression, weirdness, and female friendships to the story of how she didn’t poop in the toilet until she was four years old; Rachel’s pieces are hilarious, smart, and infinitely relatable (except for the pooping thing).

Rachel Bloom is talented, funny, and hides absolutely nothing in this hilarious memoir about a girl who never felt “normal”. She shares poems and diary entries written by her 12-year-old self, tells about becoming a theater kid through a musical script, shares the ups and downs of her love and sex life, and manages to be really moving even while making me laugh out loud or cringe uncomfortably.

I loved Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and reading this book makes me want to go watch the series all over again (or at least watch some of the best musical moments). I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are is a must for fans!

(Okay, sure, why not share a random favorite CXG musical number? Well, if you insist…)

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And that’s it! Onward to more great reading in 2021!

Mini-reviews: Three short takes on short-ish reads (or listens)

I managed to squeeze in a few quick and short books this week, in between a heavier book club pick and a book requiring more concentration than I anticipated. Here are my quick takes!

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Title: Fangirl (Manga), Volume 1
Author: Rainbow Rowell, Sam Maggs, Gabi Nam
Published: 2020
Length: 216 pages

The manga adaptation of the beloved novel by #1 Bestselling author Rainbow Rowell!
New York Journal of Books

Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, everybody is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath, being a fan is her life. Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath just can’t let go. Now that they’re in college, Cath must decide if she’s ready to start living her own life. But does she even want to if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

Cath doesn’t need friends IRL. She has her twin sister, Wren, and she’s a popular fanfic writer in the Simon Snow community with thousands of fans online.  But now that she’s in college, Cath is completely outside of her comfort zone. There are suddenly all these new people in her life. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming boyfriend, a writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome new writing partner … And she’s barely heard from Wren all semester!

The Fangirl manga is everything I could hope for! I loved the Fangirl novel when it came out, as well as the spin-off Simon Snow books. In the manga, it’s a wonderful chance to revisit the Fangirl characters all over again. The illustrations are clever, and the dialogue and pacing is well done. I really felt like Cath and Levi’s characters came across loud and clear.

My only complaint is that the story stops in the middle! This is volume 1 (of I don’t know how many), and it felt really jarring to have to stop just when I was getting into it.

Still, so much fun! But now, I immediately want to (a) reread Fangirl (the novel), (b) reread Carry On, and (c) know when the 2nd volume of the manga is coming out! Please let it be soon!

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Title: Serpentine
Author: Philip Pullman
Published: 2020
Length: 80 pages

A brand new short story set in the world of His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust by master storyteller, Philip Pullman.

Serpentine
 is a perfect gift for every Pullman fan, new and old.

‘Lyra Silvertongue, you’re very welcome . . . Yes, I know your new name. Serafina Pekkala told me everything about your exploits’

Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon have left the events of His Dark Materials far behind.

In this snapshot of their forever-changed lives they return to the North to visit an old friend, where we will learn that things are not exactly as they seem . . .

Illustrated throughout by Tom Duxbury, the perfect re-entry for fans of His Dark Materials and a wonderful companion to The Book of Dust.

This is a slim, hardcover volume, beautifully highlighted by woodcut-style black and white illustrations, that tells a story about Lyra and Pan set after the events of The Amber Spyglass (and before the subsequent events in the Book of Dust series).

Lyra and Pan are still dealing with their changed relationship, so terribly affected by the trauma of The Amber Spyglass. They’re still together, but everything is different. In Serpentine, it seems as though they’re finally starting to face their new reality together.

This is a lovely little book, and those invested in His Dark Materials will want to read it — but it feels a little slight to take up a hardcover of its own (and sell at a hardcover price).

(For what it’s worth, I’m glad to own it — it will look quite handsome on the shelf next to Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, two other small but lovely installments in the greater world of the series.)

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Title: Once More Upon a Time
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Published: 2020
Audiobook length: 3 hours, 26 minutes

A dazzling fairy tale about falling in love again by The New York Times best-selling author of The Star-Touched Queen and The Gilded Wolves.

Once upon a Time, there was a king and queen in a land called Love’s Keep who once loved one another, but alas, no more. Without love, they were doomed to be ousted from their kingdom at the end of a year and a day.

A year and a day passed.

This is where their story starts.

Imelda and Ambrose can’t remember why they got married. A year and a day ago, Ambrose consulted a witch, trading their love to save Imelda’s life—and they’ve been stuck with one another ever since. When that same witch pays them a visit on the day they lose their kingdom, she promises to make their deepest wishes come true in exchange for a simple favor and a short journey. With nothing left to lose, Imelda and Ambrose agree. But, over the course of their enchanted road trip peppered with a delirious cloak, cannibals, and at least one honey badger, something magical happens…little by little, step by step, they regain what they had forgotten.

They remember why they fell in love.

When the end of their journey nears and they confront parting ways forever, a new decision faces them. Will Imelda and Ambrose choose their deepest wishes, or will they choose each other—again?

I stumbled across this fairy tale audiobook while poking around on Audible and thought it would make a nice break in between longer listens. And I was right!

Once More Upon a Time is a light, fun fairy tale that takes a happily ever after that wasn’t, and turns that into a starting place. The two main characters are king and queen of a kingdom which magically dictates that it can only be ruled by people experiencing true love. The problem is, while Ambrose and Imelda were madly in love when they married, their love was traded away for a cure for Imelda’s accidental poisoning. Ever since, they’ve been living as strangers, aware that they must have once loved each other, but unable to remember what it felt like.

Forced to leave their kingdom, they’re offered a quest, with the promise of having whatever they want at the end. Ambrose wants a kingdom, Imelda wants freedom… but what they get turns out to be just what they need.

Some of the fairy tale elements work better than others, and some are just downright silly and unconvincing, but still, this was a nice, quick listen with some sweet touches.

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Of these three, I’d say my favorite was Fangirl, but I enjoyed the other two as well. Have you read or listened to any short fiction lately? Please share anything you’d like to recommend!

Mini-reviews: A trio of classic horror

Maybe it’s the month of October exerting its spooky influence over me, but I ended up reading three works of classic horror fiction this week, and they were all chillingly great. For all three, I was inspired by recent reads that drew upon these works as inspiration. Read on to find out more…

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Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau
Author: H. G. Wells
Published: 1896
Length: 153 pages

Adrift in a dinghy, Edward Prendick, the single survivor from the good ship Lady Vain, is rescued by a vessel carrying a profoundly unusual cargo – a menagerie of savage animals. Tended to recovery by their keeper Montgomery, who gives him dark medicine that tastes of blood, Prendick soon finds himself stranded upon an uncharted island in the Pacific with his rescuer and the beasts. Here, he meets Montgomery’s master, the sinister Dr. Moreau – a brilliant scientist whose notorious experiments in vivisection have caused him to abandon the civilised world. It soon becomes clear he has been developing these experiments – with truly horrific results. 

For this book and the next on my list, I was inspired by Theodora Goss’s excellent trilogy The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club (which starts with The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, reviewed here.) A newly invented character related to the happenings on Dr. Moreau’s island is one of my favorites in the Goss books, so of course I had to read her origin story.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is grotesque and horrible, but it’s also a very exciting and compelling read. I can only imagine that this would be even more startling if (unlike me) you didn’t know the major plot twist related to Dr. Moreau’s strange and cruel experiments.

There are sinister people, scary beings in the jungle, midnight chase scenes, and all sorts of terrifying encounters. Definitely recommended!

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Title: Rappaccini’s Daughter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Published: 1844
Length: 48 pages

Part fairy tale, part Gothic horror story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is an inspired tale of creation and control. Giovanni Guasconti, a student at the University of Padua, is enchanted to discover a nearby garden of the most exquisite beauty. In it abides a young woman, perhaps the most beautiful Giovanni has ever seen; yet as he looks out from an upstairs window, he soon learns that the garden–and the matchless Beatrice–are not the work of Mother Nature but rather the result of a monstrous abomination of creativity.

Beatrice Rappaccini is another character who appears in the Theodora Goss novels, so it was enlightening for me to read the original story about her. Here, Dr. Rappaccini is a scientist devoted to cross-breeding plants and flowers to create a deadly garden, and has raised Beatrice among the plants from birth so that she herself is poisonous. Giovanni falls in love with her, but eventually has to believe the evidence he sees that proves that Beatrice’s breath and touch are deadly.

Rappaccini’s Daughter is brief, but powerful, and well worth reading.

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Title: The Willows
Author: Algernon Blackwood
Published: 1907
Length: 105 pages

Two friends are midway on a canoe trip down the Danube River. Throughout the story Blackwood personifies the surrounding environment—river, sun, wind—and imbues them with a powerful and ultimately threatening character. Most ominous are the masses of dense, desultory, menacing willows, which “moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.”

“The Willows” is one of Algernon Blackwood’s best known short stories. American horror author H.P. Lovecraft considered it to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature. “The Willows” is an example of early modern horror and is connected within the literary tradition of weird fiction. 

I picked up a copy of The Willows after reading The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher, one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read (reviewed here). In the author’s notes, T. Kingfisher credits The Willows as an inspiration, so of course I had to read it.

This is such an odd story, because in some ways, it’s hard to understand why the characters’ situation is so scary. They stop on a small island in an isolated, wild section of the Danube, where the river is wild and harsh, filled with similar small islands, and surrounded everywhere by willows.

The longer the men spend on their precarious island, the more convinced they become that something unearthly is going on, that they are in fact in a place where the veils between worlds are thin, and that the best they can hope for is to evade the notice of the beings from the other side who are trying to push through.

The Willows has a creeping terror — no jump scares, just the growing sense that something is really, really wrong, and that the characters may not make it out alive. Nothing is obvious, but the overall atmosphere is chilling and disturbing. It’s a weird story, but was enlightening in terms of understanding where some of the elements in The Hollow Places came from. Really a strange yet interesting read.

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That’s my creepy classics round-up! What’s your favorite classic horror story?

Fabulous short treats: A trio of mini-reviews!

These three books delighted me in different ways, so I thought I’d write up a quick post with thoughts on all three.

Title: The Beautifull Cassandra
Author: Jane Austen
Illustrated by: Leon Steinmetz
Release date for this edition: September 11, 2018
Length: 72 pages

Have you read any of Jane Austen’s early writings, collected as her Juvenilia? I hadn’t… but then my daughter sent me this gorgeous edition of The Beautifull Cassandra, a story Austen wrote when she was just twelve years old. It’s a total treat. The story itself is told in 12 chapters, each only a few lines long, with under 500 words in all. The illustrations here are lovely and perfect, and I adored this book so much!

If you’re looking for an unusual gift for an Austen lover, this would make a great choice!

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Title: Snow, Glass, Apples
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by: Colleen Doran
Release date: August 20, 2019
Length: 64 pages

I have loved the disturbing short story Snow, Glass, Apples every since reading it in Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors collection, so when I heard that an illustrated version was being released this year, I just had to have it.

Wow.

The story is as powerful as ever — taking the fairy tale of Snow White and turning it upside down and inside out. It’s gruesome and scary and disturbing, and gives me a chill right down to my bones.

Add to the power of the story the absolutely stunning illustrations by Colleen Doran… and you have a book that is both beautiful and deeply frightening from start to end.

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Title: Galatea
Author: Madeline Miller
Release date: 2013
Length: 37 pages

After reading and loving both The Song of Achilles and Circe, I knew I had to try this earlier short work by Madeline Miller. As with her other books, the author starts with a premise out of Greek mythology: The sculptor Pygmalion creates a sculpture of a woman so incredibly beautiful that he falls in love with her, and begs the goddess Aphrodite to bring her to life so he can marry her.

In Galatea, we learn what happens next. Sure, Pygmalion got the woman of his dreams — but how does she feel about it? What’s it like to be so completely beholden to your creator, a man who only wants you in still, silent perfection? This story is strange and disturbing, and not easy to put from your mind once you’re done reading. Highly recommended.

What not to read before flying! Three shorts about airplane travel

It’s really not that bad…

I’m getting on a plane today, flying home from East Coast to West — so what did I read yesterday? Why, just three different short stories about air travel. And why did I choose to do that on the day before a flight? No idea, really… because they were there?

In any case, they didn’t all freak me out. They’re not all scary, but still — an odd choice, given the timing.

Here’s what I read:

 

Wingspan by Chris Bohjalian: This is a one-act play by an author who’s always terrific. The action centers on two flight attendants, one young and inexperienced, one closer to middle age and with enough years of flying and life to be both practical and somewhat jaded. As they prepare for takeoff, the younger woman’s fear of flying is obvious, and as they talk, she begins to reveal her long-held secrets that led her to this point. The dialogue is sharp and clever, showing the slow development of trust and support between the two characters. Wingspan is not frightening from a flying perspective, but it is disturbing in terms of what is revealed and what the younger woman has experienced. This is a great short read (32 pages), available as an e-book standlone. Definitely recommended.

 

Next, two shorts by the amazing Seanan McGuire, both originally Patreon stories:

Carry On: Published on Patreon in 2016, available to read online at Nightmare Magazine (https://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/carry-on/):

A creepy tale that’s not too implausible. Airlines charge for legroom, carry-on bags, food, earlier boarding, the privilege of choosing seats… what’s next? Carry On takes that question to an answer that’s not all that far-fetched. Instead of making larger people buy two seats while having skinnier folks get to sit in comfort by virtue of their smaller size, why not charge by total weight? You buy a ticket based on the combined weight of you and your carry-ons — and you’d better hope you pass the pre-flight weigh-in!

Emergency Landing: Seanan McGuire’s newest Patreon story (not available elsewhere at this point):

Wow, this is one creepy story! It’s not terrifying from the flying perspective — nothing bad happens to the engines or the rest of the plane. But what happens when you’re in the air on a routine flight and learn that the rest of the world has maybe just been wiped out? This story is horrifying and disturbing in all the best ways.

So, really, nothing to put me off flying too badly, and all great reads!

And hey, at least I didn’t dive into this collection, which keeps showing up in my recommendations list:

A collection of 17 horror stories about… yes… flying, edited by Stephen King, with this tasty hint in the description:

All the ways your trip into the friendly skies can turn into a nightmare, including some we’ll bet you’ve never thought of before… but now you will the next time you walk down the jetway and place your fate in the hands of a total stranger.

I actually wouldn’t mind reading this — but not today, thanks!

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Travel reading wrap-up (summer 2018): A big batch of mini-reviews — bread, tea, roller derby, and more!

As I mentioned in my post-vacation blog post, I’m home again after three weeks away. And yes, as always, my reading time was an essential part of my fun! (But try explaining that to my 16-year-old son, who is most adamantly not a believer in recreational reading…)

Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read while I was away. Definitely an odd assortment of topics and genres, which is just how I like it!

 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See: A haunting, beautiful story of a young woman’s life in a remote village in the Yunnan province of China, growing up as part of the Akha ethnic minority with their unique blend of rituals, traditions, and superstitions. Li-yan’s family depends upon the rare tea trees they nurture for their income, but as the outside world discovers their valuable tea, their entire way of life is changed by their collision with the modern world. Meanwhile, Li-yan’s personal life leads her into sorrow and redemption, and we span the globe as we follow Li-yan and her family members through this touching saga. Fascinating and lovely, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a provocative look at a culture I knew nothing about previously. Above all, it’s a moving story of a woman whose life changes dramatically and the power of family bonds and traditions.

 

 

Sourdough by Robin Sloan: Sourdough takes the prize for my weirdest read of the year. I bought it on a whim at the airport, despite having a fully loaded Kindle in my backpack. Well worth it — I “devoured” Sourdough in a day. (Mmmm, sourdough.) This is such an odd book. It’s the story of a young woman who comes to San Francisco for a tech job that sucks the soul out of her, until her life turns around thanks to a strange pair of brothers who gift her with their mysterious sourdough starter. As Lois learns to nurture the starter, she is slowly introduced into a (literally) underground world of foodies who attempt to reinvent peoples’ relationships with food and eating. Meanwhile, the sourdough starter has an uncanny tendency to display odd lights and make strange sounds… and oh yeah, the bread loaves baked from the special starter have faces etched into the finished crusts. The writing is funny and quirky, and I just loved it. I think I’m the only person on earth who hasn’t read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (by the same author), and I know I need to fix that pronto.

 

 

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg: This collection of retellings is a mixed bag, which includes some truly creepy fairy tale retellings, and some stories that simply failed to make an impression. I particularly loved The Daughter Cells (a retelling of The Little Mermaid) and The Six Boy-Coffins (a retelling mash-up of the Grimm stories The Six Swans and The Twelve Brothers). For sheer creepiness, you can’t beat The Rabbit, a retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit that’s just awfully bloodthirsty and disturbing and wonderful. As a whole, the collection is worth reading, especially if you’re familiar with the original stories. I’m really not much of a short story reader, and some of the stories here left me cold — but the ones I liked, I really liked.

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne: This was a re-read for me — I read the book when it was first released two years ago, but after seeing the show on Broadway, I just had to read it again. The visuals and presentation of the live show are stunning, and having experienced it, I was able to much more fully enjoy reading the book. (I’ve since learned that the show will be coming to San Francisco in 2019, and I definitely want to see it again!)

 

 

 

 

 

InCryptids! Books #5, 6, 7 in the delightful series by Seanan McGuire: Saving the super awesomeness for last! I couldn’t help myself — I binged my way through the remaining 3 books in the InCryptid series, and now I’m stuck waiting for the next new book, which doesn’t come out until 2019. Sob. This series is just so much fun. Chaos Choreography goes back to the original lead character, Verity Price, who battles snake-god-summoning idiots while competing in a reality TV dance competition. Weird, wonderful, absolutely delicious. In books 6 and 7 (Magic for Nothing and Tricks for Free), the focus shifts to Verity’s younger sister Antimony, who ends up joining a carnival and later, working at a Florida theme park that’s almost (but not quite) Disney World. The magic at this kingdom is not particularly friendly, mayhem ensues… and there’s plenty of trapeze work and roller skating too. Oh, and an awesome boyfriend who has quite a few secrets of his own. The InCryptid series, about a family of cryptozoologists who battle evil in order to keep the world safe for all sentient creatures, is silly and funny and totally hilarious — but also contains moments of real emotion and pathos. And hey — talking mice!

 

 

And that’s what I read while I was away! No matter how busy we were, I always managed to sneak away here and there for a bit of reading in the sun. Bliss!

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Travel reading wrap-up: A big batch of mini-reviews — mothers, sisters, dogs, hippos, and more!

I can’t call the last two weeks a vacation. Yes, I was away from home. No, it wasn’t relaxing. And while there were plenty of fun moments spending time with my sisters and friends, for the most part, it was stress, work, and exhaustion that ruled the day.

Side note: When we imagine our adult lives, I’m sure none of us think about caring for elderly parents and the hard decisions that involves, but sooner or later, if we’re lucky enough to have parents that live that long, it’s something that we inevitably have to deal with.

Meanwhile, I did a lot of reading while on airplanes and sitting around hospital rooms and nursing homes. Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read while I was away… everything from feral hippos to church ladies to war stories.

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett: Contemporary fiction about teen lovers and the impact on an entire congregation, as told (mostly) through the eyes of the older women who form the backbone of their close-knit church community. The story is engaging, but at times the actions of the characters made me so angry I wanted to hurl the book at the closest wall. (Since I was reading on an airplane, this would not have been a good idea.) Still, I enjoyed the character development, the look at the impact of the characters’ decisions and how these set the course of the rest of their lives, and the intricate weaving of connections, friendships, and family loyalty.

 

 

 

 

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan: If you’ve ever checked out the Bookshelf Porn website, you’ll know what I mean when I say that this book is booklover porn. No, there’s nothing graphic or dirty or illicit here — but it’s sure to touch the fantasies of every devoted bookworm who ever dreamed of owning her own bookstore. Here, the 29-year-old main character, a downsized librarian, buys a big van, stocks it with every book she can get her hands on, and drives around the Scottish Highlands selling books to people who clearly need them. Lives are changed. Quirky villagers abound. And there’s even a love story! This is a sweet, lovely book, perfect for vacation reading or really, for any time you want to get away from the daily grind and wallow in the fantasy of finding a perfect life that combines reading, handling books, and being madly in love.

 

 

 

 

Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy & Becky Hepinstall: A beautiful yet devastating story of sisters, love, and sacrifice set during the Civil War. When Libby’s husband Arden is killed on the battlefield, Libby vows to get revenge by joining the Rebel army herself and killing one Yankee soldier for every year that Arden lived. Libby’s older sister Josephine can’t talk her out of it and can’t stand the idea of Libby going off alone, so the two sisters disguise themselves as teen boys and enlist. Sisters of Shiloh shows the savage butchery of the Civil War battlefields and the horrible deprivations suffered by the soldiers, but above all, it’s a story about courage and sisterly devotion. While I occasionally wanted to just shake some sense into Libby, I loved Josephine and found her part of the story deeply affecting and inspiring. I’d consider this book must-read historical fiction.

 

 

 

 

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley: Warning: If you can’t handle sad dog stories, walk away now. Lily and the Octopus is the story of a lonely man whose life revolves around his beloved dachshund Lily. He constructs elaborate fantasies to narrate their life together (including interactive games of Monopoly and pizza nights), and simply can’t face reality when he spots what he calls an “octopus” on her head — his make-believe image for a tumor. As the story progresses, his battle against the octopus to save Lily’s life becomes increasingly complex — but ultimately, this is the story of a man slowly losing his steadiest, truest companion, and it’s a tearjerker. The octopus and other pieces of the fantasy were a little too much for me at times, but other than that, this is a moving story of love and connection.

 

 

 

 

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey: Oh my. Feral hippos in the Mississippi River marshlands! In this alternate version of US history, the government has solved the country’s meat shortage by importing hippos to be bred in the bayou. Hippo ranches are huge moneymakers, and cowboys ride exotic breeds of hippos known for their overland speed. Meanwhile, feral hippos haunt the criminal-run riverboats — a handy punishment for those who get caught cheating at cards. A ragtag band is assembled to stop a dastardly plot, and this gang is loads of fun, and full of people representing all the shades of the gender rainbow — all without blinking an eye. This novella is oodles of entertainment, and its underlying silliness absolutely hit the spot on a stressful day. I can’t wait for the sequel, Taste of Marrow, due out in September.

 

 

 

 

The Deep by Nick Cutter: This is a quick page-turner, but I found myself weirdly unengaged. An odd global virus starts the book on a promising note, but the virus piece is soon overshadowed by the malevolent goings-on deep in the sea at a research lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. There are lots of icky and creepy things in a setting that should be terrifying… but it just wasn’t scary, there’s no pay-off for the initial premise, and ultimately, the conclusion simply wasn’t satisfying. There is, however, tons of yuck and ick, so definitely not a book for the squeamish.

 

 

 

 

 

We Stand On Guard by Brian K. Vaughan: A graphic novel limited series (consisting of six installments) that tells the story of a US invasion of Canada and the scruffy resistance team that fights back. It’s quite fun, and a quick read. Fans of Saga and Y: The Last Man will absolutely want to check this one out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that’s what I read while I was away! I covered a lot of ground — horror, historical fiction, comics, and dogs, to name a few — and that’s just the way I like it. Give me a stack of books with a lot of variety, and I’m a happy camper, no matter where I may find myself.

And now that I’m home, I’m looking forward to diving back into my bookshelves and seeing what odd array of books I can come up with next!

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