Folding Paper & Spilling Ink

I'm an avid reader, literacy advocate, poet, and long time independent bookseller at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colorado. When I'm not reading or recommending books I spend my time writing them. While I read a variety of genres I primarily focus on curating the poetry and science-fiction sections at my store, which is where I focus most of my reading attention. I also have a soft spot for a good teen read, and enjoy digging into graphic novels whenever I get the time.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant (Or, The Slytherin Handbook)

The Traitor Baru Cormorant - Seth Dickinson

I'm clearly in the minority on this one if you look at reviews, so it was somewhat heartening to meet up with my book club and discover they also had lukewarm feelings. Here's the thing: Dickinson crafts lovely prose. Sentence for sentence he is absolutely masterful. There were passages in this book I read over and over again. But when it comes to crafting a story as a whole? I just didn't buy in.

 

I loved the beginning of this book. The early chapters, when Baru is young and we get our first sense of how the Masquerade is trampling her people, had me sucked in and thinking this book would be a favorite. And then the story picks up, moves to another location, and stays there for the remainder. The rest of the book sets up scenarios, characters, and plot points, and none of them ever grabbed ahold of me or made me care. The plot attempts to twist and turn, but for me it just knotted - it seemed overly complex, and yet at the same time predictable, which is quite the trick. The supporting characters do things that seem convenient to the plot, but ultimately make no sense to me, thus breaking some of my suspension of disbelief.

 

And through it all Baru continues to tell you how awful she is, and is true to her word at least in that respect. That might be the thing that kills this book for me the most: I can't stand Baru. I read for character, and I just did not enjoy hanging out with this person for 400 pages. (Tain Hu on the other hand was pretty great. Lord knows what she sees in Baru.) For any Potter fans, this book reads like the Slytherin handbook - how to influence people and then screw them over for your own gain...the book! It's in the title. It's right there. But somehow that didn't make reading it any more enjoyable.

 

Here's the thing, if you like books that are rooted in political wheeling and dealing this might be your cup of tea. I mean, it's about vengeance through accounting, c'mon! And if irredeemable and terrible people aren't a big turn-off you also might love this book. As for me I need someone to cheer for, and I just couldn't cheer for Baru. I concede I'm in the minority here, so your milage may vary.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century - Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny is a bare-bones lesson in modern examples of Fascism and Totalitarianism. Snyder presents his information in an easy to absorb list format, each item giving you historical context, warning signs, and ways to defend against common pitfalls and traps. My first inclination was to say I wish this slender volume was longer, but after reflection I think the concise chapters and shortened length were a boon - having this information presented in bite sized chunks made it easier to fully absorb and digest. This book was equal parts informative, alarming, and useful. I finished this book with renewed resolve and sharpened perspective. A vital and eye-opening reading for engaged citizens of the world.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time & The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time - Yasutaka Tsutsui, David James Karashima

I feel like this is a really difficult book to review because I can't tell if the problems were with the writing itself or the translation. The concepts were interesting in both stories (this book actually contains two short stories), and I quite enjoyed Tsutsui's creativity. I actually think I enjoyed the second story, The Stuff that Nightmares are Made Of, more than the titular piece. However, the writing was...not good. The prose was stilted and awkward, and the descriptions felt lacking. I also couldn't get a good feel for the characters, and often felt as though the clues were there but I was missing them. I might be inclined to write this off as me missing cultural cues, but I haven't had this difficulty with other Japanese books and media. I strongly suspect this is one of those works that wasn't translated well, and is missing a lot of the original elegance and nuance.

Sunstone Part 5 - The final chapter!

Sunstone TP Volume 5 - Stjepan Sejic

This book closes out Lisa and Ally's story, and it does so with plenty of heart, drama, and passion. If you've read the previous volumes you know what to expect, and if anything this volume takes it to a new level. The writing is heartfelt and every page is a gorgeous work of art. I can't wait to see what Šejić does next!

I Hate Fairyland #1

I Hate Fairyland Volume 1: Madly Ever After - Skottie Young

Bursting with color, Skottie Young's art jumps off the page. I love the style and detail he puts into each panel. The story is a violent, absurd, romp through fairyland as Gert murders her way across the countryside in frustration. Perfect for fans of Deadpool style humor. I can recommend this book heartily to the right person, despite it not quite being my cup of tea.

The Darkest Dark

The Darkest Dark - Chris Hadfield, Terry Fan, Eric Fan

Beautifully illustrated by the Fan Brothers, and written by astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield. A story about being afraid of the dark, learning to see the wonder of stars, space, and the night sky, and chasing your dreams. Perfect for fans of the space program or parents of kids that still want to sleep with the lights on.

Hope in the Dark

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities - Rebecca Solnit

There are sections of this book that I wish I could give 10 stars. Essays that will stick with me for years to come, and that have changed the way I think and see the world. Pieces of writing that I read over and over, and have helped keep me engaged when it would be easier to give up. There are other sections, however, that haven't aged terribly well. Written during the Bush era one thing the book does not (and perhaps cannot) anticipate is living in the post-fact Trump age. If you want to stay motivated in this time of political upheaval there are some really great takeaways in here. I would just recommend pairing it with something like On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder to pull it forward into the present political discourse.

A Conjuring of Light - Darker Shade of Magic #3

A Conjuring of Light - V E Schwab

This is going to be a shorter review than I usually write because I'm basically just going to tell you to read this. Now. If you were putting off starting this trilogy because you were waiting for them all to come out, or you were waiting to dive into this volume until you got confirmation that the ending was worth it, this is your green light.

 

Schwab's characters continue to take center stage. My favorites are all here, and several side characters also get a chance to shine. I can't really tell you more in this arena because it would spoil the surprise. The story picks up right where the second book left off, and my heart was pounding from page one. And it just gets more intense from there. The pacing and plot were fast and twisty enough this book was difficult to put down. With dark magic literally pounding down their doors for a large segment of the story there is a siege element that adds some claustrophobia to the story, but not in a bad way. This gets offset with some time out at sea and plenty of action. The stakes have risen, and as a result so has the death toll. However, each loss felt earned within the story, which made them matter and hurt rather than grate (and I might have cried). When I reached the end I felt satisfied, but also bittersweet. Saying more than that would cheat you of the journey. I envy you the experience of reading this book for the first time.

Planetfall

Planetfall - Emma Newman

It's really difficult to talk about this book without being spoilery, so forgive me if it seems like I'm dancing around things and being cryptic.

 

Things I loved about this book: Almost everything honestly. Specifically though, the voice. Ren is a compelling unreliable narrator. I really appreciated what an excellent job Newman did with conveying what it's like to live with an anxiety disorder. Also, while Ren clearly has a Secret, I wasn't frustrated by the allusions to a bigger untold story like I often am in narratives like this. Ren's POV was so convincing I felt comfortable that the story continued to just hint at whatever happened in the past, because I felt like Ren herself was avoiding thinking about it. I was continually compelled and convinced by Ren's internal struggles.

 

This is a masterfully written book, and it is also a terribly personal book. This isn't a large sweeping drama. There's very little action. The bulk of the story takes place in a matter of days. It skips through time. It's a psychodrama. And in the end it's all about one woman. This was all a big plus for me because of the execution, but it could be a turn-off for people wanting something less meditative and more action packed.

 

Also: the science. I loved that this was a hard sci-fi book, filled with interesting speculative science and alien worlds, and it wasn't weighed down in jargon and complex explainers/exposition. The science is simply woven into the story, and makes perfect sense as you read. It isn't the focus of the story, but it is an important part. I didn't realize just how much I was craving a true hard sci-fi story that has such a personal focus until I was reading this book.

 

Be warned, there is something about this book you may really hate, and that's the ending. When I finished the book I was a bit taken aback, but after sitting with it for a couple days I actually rather like the ending. It feels right to me. However, I am in the extreme minority. Most people (both in my book club and in reading reviews) really strongly dislike the end. So you are warned. I think it is a matter of taste.

 

If you're looking for a deeply personal, meditative, character study: try this book. If you want to read a hard sci-fi that reads more like a psychodrama: try this book. If you love unreliable narrators, or really enjoyed Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer: try this book. If you want a sweeping space opera, an action packed sci-fi filled with a kick-ass heroine, or a book with a more traditional structure and ending: skip this book.

After the Crown - Indranan War #2

After the Crown - K. B. Wagers

I wrote a pretty extensive review of the first book in this trilogy, so I'll try not to re-tread old roads too much in my review here. Okay, so I was luke-warm on Behind the Throne. I felt like it had a lot of debut novel writing issues. So did Wagers step up her writing game? Was I glad I read the next installment? I'm happy to report: yes!

 

While the writing is still not world-shattering fantastic it is much stronger in this installment than the first. The melodrama is down, the characters feel more consistent and dynamic, and the story gets out of its repetitive rut by leaving the palace and hitting the road. Hail actually feels like much more of a badass, and when she falters it feels sympathetic rather than frustrating. The secondary characters continue to take center stage for me, and have plenty of opportunities to shine. (Team Zin & Emmory! Team Cas!)

 

The world-building expands as we get to see more worlds and more sides of the conflict. And hey, we actually get some sci-fi space opera action. The scope gets much bigger in this book, and the series benefits significantly from the expansion. Put simply there's a lot more action, and a lot less hand-wringing. This trilogy feels like it finally hit its stride, and is telling the story Wagers wanted to tell from the beginning (but had to get some pesky backstory out of the way). I'm still really on the fence about the first book, but this second installment has me excited to read the third book. Wagers, you won me over.

Behind the Throne - Indranan War Book 1

Behind the Throne - K. B. Wagers

I've been struggling to write a review for this book because I had such mixed feelings about it. When I finished it I shrugged and pitched it in my pile of books to sell back. But then, days later, I found myself wanting to read the sequel (which I did). It sort of boils down to two conflicting things for me: I liked the ideas but not the execution.

 

First the bad.
This book had some serious First Book Problems. The pacing is occasionally odd, it's downright claustrophobic with most of the action occurring in one place (the palace), certain phrases and tropes are repeated to the point that I wanted to start a drinking game, and the main character, Hail, is consistently so overcome with emotions it makes her seem mentally unbalanced. She can't get through a scene without nearly fainting from emotion, losing her temper, or giggling. (No really. Giggling. Lots of giggling.) The story keeps asserting she's a tough-ass gunrunner (indeed, it tells you this nearly every page), but the character the narrative kept insisting she was seemed at odds with how she was written. For me it didn't make her feel complex and layered - it made her feel melodramatic and unhinged.

 

It came down to me wanting to pull the author aside and give her some basic advice like, for example, not every piece of dialogue needs to be delivered with a sigh, giggle, or other emotional indicator. Show don't tell. More subtle and less melodrama. (By the way, I don't mean to sound condescending. My earlier works have all these problems too, which might be why they stand out so sharply for me.)

 

But there is also some good here too.
I liked the universe Wagers created. It wasn't terribly original, and it reads more like fantasy in places than sci-fi, but I genuinely enjoyed it. While this book suffered from feeling like a set-up for later books it did make me curious to explore the world-building more. There are multiple empires, as well as other factions, all working together to create a mosaic of a much larger tapestry. There are a lot of moving pieces, and plenty of of political maneuvering, all working beneath the surface and I found that intriguing. At the close of the book I felt like things were finally breaking out beyond the stifling confines of the palace, and I wanted to see where they would go.

 

Despite the heavy handed writing I really cared about the bulk of the side characters in this book. Since we aren't in their heads we don't get the melodrama we do with Hail, and they actually benefit from having to stand on their own on the page. I fell in love with her guards, especially Emmory, Zin, Cas, and Jet. The tension in the book for me was being so very worried for these people. I especially loved the way Emmory and Zin's relationship was treated - it felt authentic and not added as an appeal for a diversity gold star. I was really invested. And really, when it comes down to it, I read for character. I may never have connected to Hail, but I did connect to the rest of the cast and ultimately that had me picking up the second book.

 

So do I recommend this one? Well, it depends on what you want. This is a standard fantasy plot of rogue princess returns home to save her kingdom story, just set in space. There are no big space battles nor an abundance of interesting speculative science so if you're hunting for a space opera this might disappoint. (I actually think the Star Wars comparison is somewhat apt, as it also uses more fantasy tropes than hard sci-fi ones.) However, if you want to see a brash heroine steamroll through a bunch of bureaucrats this will likely tickle you. The writing has some debut novel problems, but that may not bother some readers. It has some memorable characters and fun world-building. And in case you're wondering, the second book really does improve on most of this book's shortcomings. Your milage may vary.

The Buried Giant: Or the Cost of Forgetting (and Remembering)

The Buried Giant: A novel - Kazuo Ishiguro

The language in this book, especially the dialogue, is highly stylized. It brings to mind not only a different time, but a different type of form altogether - at times it feels like a play, or performative storytelling. There's a disjointed dreamlike quality to the story itself, and there is a great deal of repetition. The voice is also quite distanced. Add all that together and it reminded me a bit of Gaiman swirled together with a dose of Shakespeare.

 

There is a great deal of symbolism at work, as well as ample themes. It's a great book to dig into and analyze if that's your cup of tea. The characters feel more like archetypes than they do specific people, at least to me. The plot also takes on more of a secondary role in service to the feel of the story rather than the movement.

 

So you're probably thinking, sure, but did you like it? Was it effective? Should I read this? Well...I don't really know how to answer any of that. For all this book's distinct and unique flavor I'm not sure I particularly enjoyed reading it. It didn't hit any overtly sour notes, but it never really gave me much I connected with either. It was like a meditation in book form. If you enjoy books that are all about the atmosphere, tone, and prose, or if you like fables designed to make you think, then this will likely be a good fit for you. If you're looking for high fantasy, adventure, or characters that steal your heart this one will likely leave you cold. As for me I'm glad I read it, but after my other stabs at Ishiguro I think I'm going to skip the rest of his oeuvre.

A Taste of Honey

A Taste of Honey - Kai Ashante Wilson

This book did so many things so well. It perfectly evoked that life consuming intensity and abandon of a first young romance, as well as the tension and pain of love amidst cultural and familial adversity. As a result this was a story that warmed my heart and broke it in equal measure.

 

The story alternates back and forth between the week Aqib and Lucrio fall in love, and the time which comes afterward. The world is lushly detailed and interesting, and I'm looking forward to revisiting it in The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. (I did not feel like I was missing anything by having read this book first, though I could tell there was some nuance I might have understood or appreciated more had I visited this world before.) I really appreciated how cohesive and real the cultures Wilson created felt - this world felt lived in and well realized.

 

I cared about the characters and their relationships deeply, and my one complaint was that I was far more invested in the love story being told when Aqib and Lucrio met than the story of what came later. This was a couple that I found myself cheering for, and I loved both of them, flaws and all. This is a story of both the paths we take and the ones we leave behind, without being overly sentimental. Insightful, beautiful, and at times melancholy, this is a story that will stay with me for a long time.

Uprooted: Or Polish fairy tale charm meets Beauty & the Beast

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

Uprooted manages to be both familiar and fresh all at the same time, which is a writing feat worthy of accolade. The familiar fairy tale tropes, like the wizard in his tower and the creepy wood, feel like signposts rather than a well trampled road. Novik pulls heavily from Polish fairy tales and culture, which is one of the things that makes this story stand out amongst its fantasy brethren - the Eastern European flavor is distinct next to so many stories that lean on British retellings, or occasionally German. With figures like Baba Yaga, instead of Morrigan La Fey, coloring the landscape this book immediately takes on a different feel that was enchanting and unexpected.

 

The writing is lovely. Period. Even when I was tired or distracted Novik pulled me in and kept me reading. She did a fantastic job of setting up tropes and then knocking them down. (For example: The charming prince in shining armor? Not so much.) The magic system was interesting and came to life in interesting ways. I enjoyed that there were different styles of magic, and how Novik made them all feel real. The characters were well realized, especially the women, and I was particularly invested in Agnieszka's relationship with Kasia. And then there is the Wood, a well drawn landscape that was both menacing and vivid. There are scenes in this book that are so creepy they will stick with me for a long long time.

 

The one element of the book I go back and forth on is the romance, which is why this book doesn't get five stars from me. It draws from the old beauty and the beast trope, which is one I personally have a tough time with. (I wish we would stop reinforcing the myth that romantically pursuing an abusive jerk is a Good Idea.) What redeems this angle for me is the way Agnieszka seems to own the romance - it always feels like what she does, or doesn't do, romantically is for her and her own gratification. I don't get the feeling that she's using her love as a crutch, or would fall apart without it. So yeah, mixed feelings.

 

All in all I thought this book was a delight. Familiar enough it was a comfort, and fresh enough I never knew where I would end up - Novik took me on a walk through a scary Wood and I liked it. If you're looking for a fairy tale retelling you haven't read 100 times, or just a traditional fantasy with a twist, try this book out.

The Everyman Russian Poet Collection

Russian Poets - Peter Washington

I really wish this collection contained more contemporary poets - most of the poetry in this collection is from the 1800s. One thing this collection did do was confirm my love of Anna Akhmatova, as well as Marina Tsvetayeva, and a grudging respect for Alexander Blok. I can pick all three of them out of the thicket every time, as they shine amongst their peers.

Dash & Lily Holiday Extravaganza

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares -  'David Levithan', 'Rachel Cohn' The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily - Rachel Cohn, David Levithan

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares:

I've yet to read something by David Levithan that didn't charm me and touch my heart. With that in mind it shouldn't be a surprise that all of Dash's sections were my favorite parts of this book. While Rachel Cohn is a good author I just didn't connect with Lily the same way I did to Dash. While this is at its core a cute, playful, and fun little teen romance it did have moments within it if depth and insight, which made it stand out among its peers. Glad I read this one during the holiday season - it added some cheer and magic to a busy season.

 

Twelve Days of Dash & Lily:

If you enjoyed Dash & Lily's Book of Dares you'll enjoy this book too. The story picks up one year later and chronicles Dash and Lily's second holiday season together. I read both books back to back and it really felt like a seamless continuation of the story. I particularly liked the insights on how the transition between a fresh new relationship into an older and deeper one can be rocky and confusing. Again I found myself enjoying Dash more than Lily, especially since she's a ball of doom and gloom in this one. Still, this felt like a satisfying expansion (and conclusion I'm guessing) of their story.