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.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts - Rivers Solomon

This is a really good book. And I did not like it at all. Those things are not mutually exclusive.

 

This book is a slave narrative filled with all the horror that entails. It is also, primarily, a character study. Solomon does, I think, a good job at drawing a complex and rich portrait of a queer black woman who sits somewhere upon the autism scale, and who has a history of abuse and trauma. This is no small feat, and Solomon's writing is up to the task.

 

The problem, for me, was that this was not a character I wanted to spend time with, nor was it a world I wanted to inhabit. Picking the book was a struggle every time. Were I reading this book from an academic perspective it would have a lot of merit and plenty to chew on. Reading it for pleasure, however, was absolutely draining.

 

This is going to be a taste thing. For me it's also a timing thing. It's not to say that I need a constant stream of optimistic stories dripping in rainbow glitter, but I do need some relief when it comes to my reading right now. Because I am Tired. So yes, this is a good book. And if reading a book about the evils of slavery and what it does to people sounds like something you're up for I recommend it. For me it was too much heartbreak and not enough payoff.

Fence: Volume 1

Fence, Vol. 1 - C.S. Pacat

This title swirls together the feel of a sports manga with the enemies to lover romance trope (at least, that's where it seems like this is going - I could be wrong). Except it's also super queer. And I am so here for it. I can tell the writing is doing its job because I am genuinely invested in these boys and on the edge of my seat waiting to see who wins each bout. The art is a perfect fit with lots of clean lines, good use of negative space, and a sweet style to the character design that nods to the story's roots. This was a delightful, and fast paced, read.

DIE: Volume #1 - Fantasy Heartbreaker

Die Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker (Die #1-5) - Stephanie Hans, Kieron Gillen

Really stunning all across the board. The art is stylistically interesting and really lovely to look at - despite the detail work it feels very smooth and dreamy. The story itself hits me right where I live, so to speak. A bunch of teens in the 90s play an RPG that transports them into the fantasy world, and when they emerge they aren't the same. When they return as adults it's even more fraught. I loved the world-building and game work that went into this, as well as this being a story about gamers that was so clearly written by someone who has been a part of that culture. Brooding and dripping with regret, rooted in fantasy tropes that have been twisted enough to be fresh, and meditative on the nature of fantasy and collective reality. I really loved this collection and look forward to more.

(Read as single issues.)

Lord of the Butterflies

Lord of the Butterflies - Andrea Gibson

I usually prefer to write my own reviews, but the write up in the back of this book nails it so perfectly I have to steal it:

 

"In a fierce oscillation between activism and love, Andrea's most recent literary triumph, Lord of the Butterflies, is a book of protests, panic attacks, and pride parades. These poems riot against gun violence, homophobia, and white supremacy, while jubilating gender expansion, queer love, and the will to stay alive."

 

A perfect summary. Written with all the passion I've come to expect from Gibson this collection has teeth. Political, queer, brutally raw, heart-wrenchingly honest, and fierce as hell these poems hit me right in the heart - my thanks to Gibson for writing them.

Obits.

Obits. - Tess Liem

Liem has assembled a collection of poems in conversation with one another, and what a conversation. Liem spins a eulogy for both known and unknown women, as well as herself, within a world where women are nameless and forgotten. Sparse in language yet striking, these poems are simultaneously grounded and emotional. A feminist rumination I will be thinking on for quite some time.

 

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Unnatural: Volume 1 - Awakening

Unnatural, Volume 1: Awakening - Mirka Andolfo

Well that was weird. Not in a bad way, but not what I was expecting. The art in this one is lovely, using lots of color and a round style that reminds me a bit of manga (though just a bit). The story blends mystery and dystopia with a touch of erotica - what starts out as a somewhat sweet slice-of-life story gets progressively darker as the story progresses. My one real complaint is that sentence for sentence the writing isn't great. I suspect, however, that might be a translation issue. I'm curious to see where this one goes.

Exit Strategy: Murderbot Diary #4

Exit Strategy - Martha Wells

The final installation in the Murderbot novellas. I'm always nervous about endings, and I think this one was solid. The story curves back around to the beginning as Murderbot reunites with the humans it met in the first story. The bulk of this book is focused on a rescue mission and tying things together, so there isn't as much time for humor and awkwardness. There also isn't a new robot pal to meet in this one, like there were in books two and three. However, I personally didn't mind the more narrow focus. Murderbot got to be a badass, make some big decisions, and evolve as a character. All in all I was satisfied with the closing of this particular storyline, and I'm super excited to see what happens in the future with the full length novel. Bring on more Murderbot!

Rogue Protocol: Murderbot Diary #3

Rogue Protocol - Martha Wells

If you're looking at reviews for the third Murderbot book I'm assuming you're already well acquainted with the series and know what to expect. This offering brings you all the glorious Murderbotty goodness you're hoping for, plus a creepy deserted space station, formidable foes to battle, and more mysteries revealed. I loved the hint of space horror that this one had. I was also charmed by getting to see Murderbot interact with yet another new bot, this one quite different from those we've met before. Another strong installation in what has become a favorite series.

Tales of Suspense: Hawkeye & the Winter Soldier

Tales of Suspense: Hawkeye & the Winter Soldier (Tales of Suspense (2017) #100-104) - Travel Foreman, Matthew T. Rosenberg

Oh, Hawkeye. One of my favorite jackasses. And he pairs so perfectly with brooding super-spy Bucky. Not to mention plenty of Black Widow in the mix as well. This was a blast. Funny, fast-paced, and not so steeped in lore that a new reader would be lost. The art was serviceable, and the writing a perfect blend of light and dark. I give this two enthusiastic finger-guns.

The Last Sun: Tarot Sequence #1

The Last Sun - Jonathan Edwards

So here's the thing: I dig urban fantasy, but I'm super tired of a lot of the tropes that seem to go hand in hand with most series in the genre. The brassy and tough female heroine who reads like a Mary Sue. The ever dreaded love triangle. The worlds filled with the same tired monsters I've seen a million times, and all the people being very straight, binary, and usually white. Yes, there are exceptions, and I dig them. Generally speaking though there's a formula I'm well prepared for when I pick one of these up. That's why I was excited when this book was recommended to me as a queer urban fantasy with nods to tarot and Atlantis. Well damn, that's new! And it was.

 

If I had to pick another urban fantasy series to compare this one too it would probably be Dresden Files just because of the snark and the protagonist always having terrible luck and being outgunned. The world building in this one, however, is unique and I really appreciated seeing some different critters, and a distinct magic system. (The magic reminded me a bit of D&D in that you slot your spells and when you're out you're out.) The characters all grew on me, and by the end of the book I was invested in them and their trials. Perhaps the most stand-out thing this book accomplished is that it makes queerness feel extremely natural and normal. It never gets pointed to or given special treatment. It just is, and I really appreciated that.

 

This book does have some debut novel shakiness. The start is a bit bloated with too many characters, too many scenarios, too much...everything. It gets a little kitchen-sinky. But it does find its legs as the book progresses. I also wish there were more women in this book - it is pretty focused on the guys, and while I didn't particularly mind that might be a real deal breaker for some people.

 

All in all this book made me happy. It's not high literature, but I didn't realize how much I had been wanting a book like this until it rolled along. It's just plain fun, and I found it refreshing in its differences. (I felt the same way about Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, in case you're looking for more urban fantasy that has a fresh feel.) I'm excited to pick up the second book in the series next fall as I have a feeling this author is only going to improve over time.

Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth - Tamsyn Muir

This review has been impossible to write, because I just don't know how to convey to you how much I loved this book. Sometimes, if you're lucky, a book will come around that blends all your favorite things together in one delightful melange. And sometimes, if you're very lucky, the exalted literary spirits will gift you with a book that doesn't just meet your high expectations...it exceeds them. And if you get very very very lucky, you'll get a book that happens to do both of those things. Gideon the Ninth was that book for me.

 

Queer necromancers in space comb through a decaying castle searching for magical secrets, battle skeletal horrors and have sword duels, and try to figure out who is killing them off before they are next. This was the gothic sci-fi fantasy mash-up my little black heart has been waiting for and I didn't even know it. Delightfully grotesque, irreverent, macabre, and sly, this book had me laughing, cringing, cheering, and crying in equal measure. Filled with imaginative and rich world-building, memorable characters (even the ones you hate), scenes that will stick with me for years, and numerous turns of phrase that left me equal measures of impressed and jealous. And did I mention the necromancers in this are actually creepy and gross? Because they are. Gloriously so.

 

With a wit and dark imagination that reminds me of Jay Kristoff's Nevernight trilogy, this book lands decisively on my favorite's shelf. I cannot wait to get my hands on a finished copy next September. If you've been looking for a book filled with shambling skeletons, sword fights, weird magic, space travel, snark, frienemy fireworks, and plenty of murder, this book is sure to charm you. This one is worth the wait, readers. Muir has crafted a true masterpiece.

 

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy!

The Book of Etta

The Book of Etta (The Road to Nowhere 2) - Meg Elison

With as much as I loved The Book of the Unnamed Midwife I had high expectations coming into this book - some of them were met and some of them weren't.

 

I quite enjoyed getting to see this world 100 years farther down the timeline, and getting to see the town the Midwife helped establish. Seeing how the ripples of the first book shaped this new world, at least in a small corner of it. It was also interesting seeing how different towns evolved to face the new paradigm in different ways. The world building in this book is top notch.

 

Much like the first book, this story focuses a lot of attention on sex and gender, which is one of the things I enjoy about the series. Our hero is Etta/Eddy, an individual struggling to more fully understand themselves and their own gender. I appreciated seeing a gender fluid character walk through this world - it brings up a lot of interesting questions. There are also some trans people represented in the narrative, which was also interesting.

 

My one issue is that it is implied Etta/Eddy's fluidity is a result of trauma, and at times it even reads a bit like Dissociative Disorder, which is not an accurate representation if Elison was attempting to describe the experience of being genderqueer (at least for most folks). Gender identity isn't something born out of a trauma response, and I found it troubling the book kept pointing in that direction. I'd like o give Elison the benefit of the doubt, but it did put my hackles up.

 

All in all this book was an interesting addition to the series, and I plan to read the third book when it hit shelves next month. I appreciate Elison's world building, and her focus on issues of sex and gender in the apocalypse. (Especially after reading another book *cough cough The Power cough* which handled the subject so poorly.)

Red, White, & Royal Blue

Red, White & Royal Blue - Casey McQuiston

Every once in a while my coworkers get so excited about a book they convince me to read it, even if it’s outside my usual wheelhouse. This was one of those occasions. I'm not a big romance reader, but I do have a soft spot for stories the feature queer relationships, and I am a total nerd when it comes to politics, so I figured I'd give this one a whirl. I was not disappointed. In fact, I found this one hard to put down.

 

The romance in this one manages to be both steamy and also very sweet. McQuiston is excellent at character development - Alex and Henry are multi-faceted, engaging, and have great chemistry (a must for a romance). As an added bonus many of the side characters were also fleshed out and interesting, and some of my favorite moments happened in the quiet moments between characters just talking. (This book also actually made me laugh out loud a couple times, which is a rare thing for me.) Of course no romance is complete without some Bad Things happening, and when they did my heart ached. That's how I knew I had grown to love these complex, imaginary people.

 

If romance is the plot of the story then politics are the setting, and McQuiston was up to this task as well. The politics are engaging, and point toward the current political landscape in interesting and occasionally gut wrenching ways. And the wind-up to the big election at the end had me anxiously turning pages. I wanted to spend more time in this alternate universe. Reading McQuiston's afterward only made me love the book and its politics even more.

 

Unapologetically sweet, steamy, political, and queer, this romance indeed had me falling in love. If queer love stories are your thing, if you're a fan of the "I Fell in Love with a Prince" trope, or if you like books with a dash of politics mixed in with the sweetness and snark, give this one a shot. I’m looking forward to meeting McQuiston this May!

The Power

The Power - Naomi Alderman

A lot of people love this book. Hell, a lot of people whose opinions I trust love this book. And that's great. One of the cool things about art is that it's subjective. I, unfortunately, did not love this book. In fact, after an hour long rant to my husband that started with "I don't hate it but...," I have been informed that I lied: I do hate this book. If you don't want any general spoilers don't read on, because I can't talk about my issues with this book without really digging in.

 

Here's my main issue: either this book is about gender, or it is about power, and either way I think it fails.

 

If this book is about gender then why is this one of the most binary books I've read in recent times? That would be expected if this came out in the 80s, but it didn't. This book was released in 2018. And there is no mention of anyone in this book that falls outside the very strict, sex based binary of male/female. There is mention of the rare man that grows a skein, and the rare woman that doesn't, but as a concept that isn't explored. And if it's a book about gender that should be explored, at least a little. Where are the non-binary people? Trans people (I especially wanted to know how trans women walked through this world)? Intersex people? Either Alderman didn't consider this, or didn't have a good answer and decided not to address it. Which means that if this book is trying to take on the topic of gender it falls short. A book about the "clash between the two sexes" comes off as outdated and, if I'm being totally honest, mildly offensive to me.

 

Okay, but the book is really more about power than gender, right? Okay. I'll buy that. It is the name of the book after all. But then my question becomes: what are you trying to say by writing this narrative? I want to preface this by saying I don't think all books need or want to say something beyond telling a story, nor should they. Sometimes, however, a book very clearly presents itself as attempting to interject a stance/idea into the cultural dialogue. Alderman very obviously wrote this book to say something, not to be a fun popcorn book. So what is she saying?

 

As near as I can tell the thesis of this book is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's an oldie but goodie, and I don't even entirely disagree with that premise. Here's the thing though, when you break it down more granularly this book seems to be saying, "if you give women more power than men they would be just as violent and cruel." Oh, and it would end the world. Not metaphorically. Literally. If women held the bulk of the power they would literally bomb us back to the stone age. If women held more power than men within a matter of a few years they would end civilization.

 

So here's the thing, I would not make the argument that women are inherently more gentle, level-headed, compassionate, blah blah blah, than men. I don't think that's true. At our core I don't think men and women are actually very different. However, releasing a book into the #metoo Trump era that essentially says if you give women power, they will use it to rape, murder, and destroy, is a pretty questionable thing to do. So I'm questioning it.

 

For example, there's this extremely uncomfortable section of the book from the perspective of Men's Rights Activists, and they are being their usual vitriolic terrible selves...except they aren't wrong. So we are supposed to empathize with them...I think? These horrible people describing all women as cunts that need to be put in their place are also totally correct about their fears and conspiracies. That's a hell of a thing to put into the world.

 

Side note: I also want to say that reading about sexual violence isn't any more palatable to me when the sexual roles are reversed. Reading numerous scenes where men are abused and raped, sometimes very graphically, wasn't something I particularly needed in my life. That's more of a personal taste thing than a general critique, but I felt I needed to include it as it absolutely effected the way I interacted with this book. Starting the story out with sexual violence against women, and basically ending it with sexual violence against men, made reading this book particularly grotesque for me, especially as a survivor.

 

Look, I think I see what Alderman was angling for when she wrote this book. However, when I really dig into it I don't think this is a message I wanted to ingest at this point in history. Given where we are now culturally this book comes off as exclusionary and misogynistic to me. Would that have been the case in the past? Probably not. But we've moved waaaaaaaay past 2nd wave feminism at this point. There will be a lot of people who disagree with my take on this, and that's totally fine. As always, your milage may vary. I for one, however, was left far more pissed off than empowered.

SPOILER ALERT!

An Excess Male

An Excess Male: A Novel - Maggie Shen King

I almost loved this book. In fact I did love it, until about halfway through when I realized where it was going. Then, not so much.

 

First of all this book is far more speculative fiction than it is strict sci-fi. That's actually fine with me, but since it was marketed as sci-fi (and published on a sci-fi imprint) that did throw me off a little bit. The focus in this book is on the characters, not the world-building nor plot. Thankfully King does a good job with her character development - each character was well drawn, distinct, and sympathetic even when I didn't care for them at times. (Except BeiBei - he may in fact be the most obnoxious child in literature to date.) I was invested in these people and their plights.

 

The core of this story, at least for me, is how these four individuals are failing to have their needs met. And this is where my feelings on this book become complicated.

 

Spoilers below!
What I wanted the book to be about is these four people coming together, learning how to better take care of and love one another, and forming a supportive cohesive nontraditional family unit. That is not what happens. Instead the book does something I was suspicious of from the beginning: it imperils the queer character, makes them suffer, and ultimately cuts them off from the family unit. For the last half of the book he is basically just there to suffer and drive the other characters to action. The character that was neurodivergent also has a less than satisfying ending in my opinion, failing to gain his freedom (or dogs) and spending his time trying to ward off surveillance. The only real winners are the straight couple. And while I see what King was doing, and I think the narrative was functioning correctly, this is simply a story I'm very very tired of reading. I am, in fact, exhausted.

 

So where does that leave me? I feel bad criticizing a book for being something other than what I wanted it to be. The book was well written, and effectively told the story King set out to tell. Unfortunately it wasn't a story I wanted to hear right now. Quite frankly it bummed me out. I would happily give King another try, as I think she's a good author, but this book left me sad and craving a story with better outcomes for its more diverse characters.

This Way to the Sugar

This Way to the Sugar - Hieu Nguyen

This collection focuses primarily on Nguyen's experiences as both a gay man and also as the survivor of childhood molestation, and how those elements intersect with one another. There are also some stunning pieces in here on race and family. Overall the collection paints a deeply personal and revealing portrait of the author, formed from a place of raw honesty. It is a beautiful confessional. I had only intended to read a few poems at a time, but I ended up reading the entire collection in one sitting. Compelling, with a strong emotional core, the language Nguyen sculpts is interesting, fresh, and lyrical. I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.

Currently reading

Storm of Locusts (The Sixth World #2)
Rebecca Roanhorse