Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang

Hello friends, I'd like to introduce you to the book that I've been secretly obsessing over these last couple days. It's adult historical fiction, which I know might seem off-putting to some who have neatly filed "historical fiction" under B for "Boring" in their mental file cabinets, but trust me when I say that this book is amazing and even though it's written for adults, there is tons of cross-over appeal for YA readers, especially YA readers of darker fiction cast in the molds of Rebecca Schaeffer's NOT EVEN BONES and Kerri Maniscalo's STALKING JACK THE RIPPER.

Our heroine, Cora Lee, was born in 19th century New York. By all accounts, this is a squalid, sordid time, but for Cora Lee, it's worse. Due to a genetic anomaly, she has two hearts. The doctor who delivers her into the world can't wait to acquire her tiny little corpse and puts in an offer then and there, but the family refuses. Frustrated, the doctor goes off and spews his drunken tale to all who will listen: stories of the half-Chinese girl with the two beating hearts who would make the perfect prize for a museum.

Fast forward two decades later, and the girl who the doctor said had no way of surviving is in good health, two hearts and all. Knowing that people will kill her for the marvel of her body, she has decided to work in the same shady career that would see her dead: she is a resurrectionist, a procurer of corpses for curiosity and scientific interest. A glorified grave-robber, basically. She does her work in drag, under the name Jacob Lee, and is considered the best in the business along with her crew.

One day she meets a man named Theodore Flint, who also seems to know a lot about the business, including the rumors floating around of a girl with two hearts. As the desire for freaks and geeks increases, some of those with curious medical afflictions begin to die under suspicious and morbid circumstances. And less we, the readers, be too quick to pass over the dead, Kang writes of their deaths and last moments in the first person, to show their humanity in the way that their murderer(s) did not. As more and more people die, Cora Lee realizes that she's in grave danger, and that Theo, who she finds herself growing more attracted to by day, might pose the gravest threat of all.

So I loved this book. I posted about NOT EVEN MONSTERS recently, which is basically the fantasy equivalent of this book, and it has the same "hunter becomes the hunted" concept. I think both authors did a good job discussing that uncomfortable but still highly relevant question: what is the price of a life? NOT EVEN MONSTERS is gorier than this book but neither is a picnic, and THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL had some very dark moments, including a twist that made me raise my eyebrows the way STALKING JACK THE RIPPER did (although it's nowhere near as ridiculous).

Twist aside, I thought this book was great. The research that went into it was obvious, and Cora is such a great heroine - I love it when heroines are strong and clever, but also allowed to be vulnerable and make mistakes. I even liked the romance, which I didn't expect to like at all. But then, doomed romance always has been my catnip. I'm honestly shocked that THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL hasn't gotten more love. It was just shy of perfection and I can't wait to check out this author's other works.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Queen and the Cure by Amy Harmon

After finishing THE BIRD AND THE SWORD, I was eager to pick up the sequel, THE QUEEN AND THE CURE. Harmon is a good author - her writing is gorgeous, and even if her stories don't feature a lot of swashbuckling action or grim political coups, there is something appealing about a light fantasy that packs in some romance if it's done in capable hands. I liked the hero and heroine of the previous book, too. Lark and Tiras had the whole "star-crossed lovers" thing going on (I'm a sucker for that), and I thought Lark's magical abilities were cool. Plus, she was illiterate and she starts to fall for the hero when he teaches her how to read. YES. I couldn't wait to find out what happened next in the story, because even though the couple ended up together at the end, it was still more of an HFN because the baddie got away.

My first warning that THE QUEEN AND THE CURE wasn't going to be what I expected started at the very beginning. This book isn't about Lark and Tiras (although they have cameos). No, this book is about Tiras's bastard half-brother, Kjell, and the insipid little twit that is his love interest, Sasha - although I prefer to call her Becky, because of how basic she is. You know those spineless, teary, self-sacrificing heroines who immediately cling to the hero like saran wrap. That's Sasha, AKA Becky. To a T.

When Kjell first finds Becky, she's collapsed in the woods, with several broken limbs. She has the Gift, AKA magical powers, so her distrusting village-folk ran her into the woods and off a cliff. Because she would be stupid enough to run off a cliff. Anyway, he heals her (because his magical gift is healing), and she immediately proclaims herself to be his slave now, and that she belongs to him. This becomes a gross recurring theme in the book, her telling him that she's "his." It is also basically the foundation for their insta-love, which is super gross. That's not love. That's needy dependency.

BTW, her "gift" is that she's a Cassandra-like prophet, and most people choose to disregard her. Apparently her visions don't always come true; she can prevent them. I seeeee.

The villain in this book is Lady Firi from the last book, since the other villain died. I was sad about that, because I actually liked Firi, and her big reveal as the bad guy was upsetting. I felt betrayed. We find out that she's even eviler than we previously imagined because - oh, guess what? She's the reason that Becky with the lame powers has amnesia (oh yes, there's amnesia) and ended up a slave in the first place. Because we need a reason to hate Lady Firi, I guess, since Becky doesn't really have a horse in the fight beyond wanting to do what ever Kjell tells her to do.

Oh and guess what? GUESS WHAT?

...It's a spoiler, so don't say I didn't warn you.

No, seriously. It's a big one. Are you SURE???

Well, if you're sure.

Kjell... and Becky with the lame powers...

They're both fucking royalty.

That's right.

Even though neither of them starts off as anyone of importance (beyond Kjell, who's the "spare" to Tiras's heir), both of them find out that they're actually the Royal Royaltons of the Land of Special. Kjell's mother was a Queen, and Sasha - I mean, Becky - is a Queen. So now they don't need to be sad about not being as special as Tiras and Lark! THEY'RE BOTH SPECIAL TOO! YAY!

Oh. My. God. I wanted to throw this book out the window when I read that. I'm a sucker for a good amnesia plot as much as anyone, but this was ridiculous. And what the hell is that power, pulling memories down from the stars? I don't remember that being one of the four main powers from the previous book. I am pretty sure that this author went ahead and created new ones to insert this fuckery into THE QUEEN AND THE CURE for her special deus ex machina and I am not happy.

I am done with this Becky nonsense. Christ, what a disappointment.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Bluebeard's Castle is one of my favorite fairy tales because it's so dark, and has so many possibilities when it comes to retellings. When I saw THE SEVENTH BRIDE pop up for sale on Kindle, I snagged it the instant I recognized it for what it was without even reading the reviews for it. That's a big risk, I know, and sometimes it comes back to bite me in the rear, but in this particular instance, THE SEVENTH BRIDE was totally worth it.

THE SEVENTH BRIDE is about a girl named Rhea, named for a goddess and possessing the strength of one. She is a miller's daughter and helps her family harvest wheat to mill for bread. One day, Lord Crevan shows up to their house to propose marriage, which she is immediately suspicious of, but her family basically gaslights her into accepting his suit. And when he demands that she come to his home at nightfall, prior to their marriage, alone? Yeah, they force her to do that too, even though they know that his intentions can't possibly be good.

And they aren't, naturally.

Oh my God, this was so good, and I recommend it to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Rosamund Hodge, or Charlie N. Holmberg. It's one of those young adult books that manages to be deliciously dark without crossing the line of what the matronly no-fun-a-lot puritans consider "proper." You see, when Rhea goes to his house (after following a mysterious white path, befriending a small hedgehog companion, and encountering a number of monstrous creatures), she finds out that her husband-to-be already has a wife. In fact, he has several wives, all of them grievously marred in some way. Lord Crevan is an evil sorcerer who takes something from each of his brides. And if Rhea doesn't manage to complete his tasks and solve the mystery of the house, he will take something from her, too.

I can't get over how good this was. Strong female protagonist, adorable hedgehog companion, female friendships in the face of adversity, NO ROMANCE, creative story, dark atmosphere, and oh yes, a retelling of my favorite fairy tale. Could I put this book down? No. I enjoyed every moment of this story and I especially recommend it to people who liked CRUEL BEAUTY but wished it didn't have the romance. It's an odd duck of a tale, with the quirky morbidity of Tim Burton, and I adored it.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Warrior by Zoe Archer

DNF @ 32%

I am so angry at this book for not being good. I spent $2.99 on the four-book bundle when it went on sale, which was a great deal- but also a risk, because then if you end up not liking the series, you're out four books instead of just one. But oh, my God. It's set in Mongolia, and is like Indiana Jones meets Warehouse 13. I was totally predisposed to like this book, but I couldn't stand it. UGH.

Something about the writing in this book just feels very low quality. The sex scenes were awful - truly awful. I think it's going for a steampunk/Western vibe, but it didn't really strike the right balance, and the language was much too modern to feel authentic. Also, insta-love, you old bastard. I thought I told you never to darken my hallways again, and yet here you are, loafing around like you own the place. I'd like at least a semblance of some romantic tension.

It's a shame because the concept - a secret society who defends magically-infused objects called Sources from evil people - was great, and very much in line with some of my favorite movies like The Mummy and the Indiana Jones series (minus Crystal Skulls because that was the Jar Jar Binks of the Indiana Jones series). And this book was the Jar Jar Binks of the steampunk romances I've read: lame, cringey, and oblivious.


1 out of 5 stars

Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present by Hank Stuever

Christmas is one of those polarizing things, like the Kardashians and pumpkin spice, that people are either obsessed with or can't stand. There. Is. Literally. No. In-between. With this in mind, in 2006, Hank Stuever decided to go to Frisco, Texas to observe the locals for several months as the holiday season rapidly approached, and recorded everything that he observed while also primarily following 3-4 different families who would tell you that they f*cking loved Christmas if it wouldn't get them a mouthful of juniper-scented soap from Bath and Body Works, first.

Frisco is interesting because it's a region of the country that probably considers itself folksy and down-to-earth, and yet, the burgeoning middle-class is filled with conspicuous consumers who want all the latest in tech (even if said tech is produced by us liberals they hate so much) even as they go to craft fairs for fruit-strewn wreaths and come up with alternative facts about candy canes, such as the fact that they are actually "J"s for "Jesus."

I saw a few people, who are obviously conservative and obviously took issue with some of the author's snide observations, rating this book negatively because they took issue with the politics of the book. That's fair, I guess. The author is liberal - and I think he said that he was also gay. So obviously, going to Texas is going to be an odd experience for him, for a multitude of reasons. Keep in mind, this was in the middle of the Bush administration/Iraq War, and pre-gay marriage legalization, so politics definitely was a huge thing on many people's minds, and it would be inaccurate reporting to omit how this shapes Texans' ethics/lifestyle.

The three main families in this book are Tammie, a professional Christmas decorator; Jeff and Bridgette, people who go full-out Clark Griswold with their lights; and Caroll, devout worshipper at an actual megachurch who worries about being a good christian and taking care of her fam. Does the author sneer a little at these humble people he's writing about? Yes, a little. But I don't think he was cruel. And honestly, some of the things in this book are so ridiculous that it's hard not to roll your eyes. As someone who is neither conservative nor religious, it was so interesting to see this snapshot in time from the "other" perspective. You have people who are so like you in some ways, and yet so unlike you in others - and for some reason, it's the ways that they aren't like you that end up seeming so much bigger and more important, because those drive the choices that make them so annoying.

Part of what I loved about TINSEL is that the author did such a good job showing both the good and the bad parts of what it means to be an upper-middle-class Texan at Christmas. It was obvious by the end of the book how much he had grown to care about the participants in these little microhistories, and how much they had grown to care for him as well. Reading about all these familiar parts of my own teenage years - Converse, Natasha Bedingfield, Icing by Claire's - interspersed with emotionally manipulative radio shows peddling tragedy to sell Jesus and women who consider Sarah Palin their honorary BFF and would sell their soul to decorate Barbara Bush's house... well, it's surreal.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Heartstruck by Angeli E. Dumatol

I was disappointed by HEARTSTRUCK. I got really into the #romanceclass novellas over the summer, and preordered this one while caught up in the frenzy. Most of them are really good, but there's a couple in the line up that are either hit or miss, and I'm sorry to say that HEARTSTRUCK was a miss.

Alexa Zamora is the "It" girl of her high school but she has a secret...she used to be unpopular! People bullied her for being an orphan and said she was the reason her parents died in their car crash (WTF, seriously?) and she's afraid people will find out that she's a tough girl who practices martial arts and hurt somebody once! No, seriously, that is the entire conflict of this book.

When her childhood friend Theo transfers to her school, Alexa is terrified that her "secret" will get out. She's also attracted to him, despite knowing that she shouldn't be, but because her friends have branded him persona non grata (because despite being hot, he's "too broody"), she shames him and publicly humiliates him in front of them while expecting him to be understanding of her "dilemma."

While it was cool to learn about arnis, the Filipino style of martial arts, I couldn't get on board with a heroine that was so selfish. I hated Alexa, and thought the way she treated Theo and her friends was super annoying. How can I be expected to root for a heroine like this and want her to have an HEA?

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 12, 2018

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

Remember when the Anita Blake series was good, back when she wasn't the Special Snowflake Queen of Sex'n'Superpowers™? (Seriously, have you read the new books? How is her vagina not permanently on fire from all that friction? Also, girl has more special moves than freaking Ditto.) Remember how the series was edgy and erotic and did not condescend to its female audience? Remember how Anita used to kick ass? Remember when there were just TWO love interests and not an entire Siouxie and the Banshees concert-worth of Gothic rejects in frilly shirts suffering from existential crises? Ilona Andrews remembers. Enter Kate Daniels.

Ilona Andrews has a huuuuuuge cult following. I got indoctrinated almost two years ago with the Hidden Legacy series (BURN FOR ME was the book that got me back into urban fantasy). After speeding through the rest of the series like a cocaine addict burning through their stash, crying ecstatically over the series' rumored (and now confirmed continuation), and frantically working my way through the rest of the Esteemed Ilona Andrews Hoard™, I finally found my way to reading the much-hyped and very intimidating Kate Daniels series. This series has freaking fans with a capital F.

It's a little scary, because I was looking at the publication date and this book came out when I was still in high school. Despite being over ten years old, though, the book still feels fresh. Part of that is because it hasn't become dated like a lot of other older PNRs. This is because in Kate Daniel's world, magic and technology are in conflict (they short each other out), and currently magic is at its zenith, so technology has yielded to swords, horses, leylines, and magical abilities. Holy father, Batman.

Kate has decided to seek revenge for the murder of her Guardian, using her own magical powers and her trusty sword as tools. But revenge isn't simple. The murderer has covered their tracks well, and worse yet - they also appear to be responsible for the serial killings of several shape-shifters, humans, and vampires in the area. What seemed like a simple goal befitting the most basic of heroes' journey plots suddenly becomes a supernatural Gordian knot riddled with sexy shape-shifters and necromancers (oh my). Andrews doesn't hold back on the gore, either. This book packs a mean body count, and you, the reader, are sitting right in the Splash Zone. (And that ain't water.)

So, my Completely Unbiased and Possibly Unwelcome Opinion™ on this book is... that it was good but not great. People were telling me that this series is much better than Hidden Legacy (OMFG), and maybe that's true for the later books in the series, but honestly, BURN FOR ME has a much stronger hook. And as fun as Kate Daniels is, she doesn't have the emotional depth and aching humanity that made Nevada such a treat (and made her gradual transformation over the course of the three books that much more addictive and investing, as a result). She tosses off some good one-liners, but I don't really understand what makes her tick. She's a stiletto heel in human form: pretty, sharp, but not very empathetic or intriguing. Also, Curran is no Rogan (don't @ me). There, I said it.

Still, I'm curious to see where the books go from here.

3.5 out of 5 stars