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.

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.

Sorcerer to the Crown: Or Pride & Prejudice & Magic

Sorcerer to the Crown (A Sorcerer Royal Novel) - Zen Cho

Book, it's not you. It's me. This year I read several books that really helped me pin down what I do and do not enjoy in my reading. This book helped me realize that I really don't enjoy historical fiction. It's just a matter of taste. Cho really embraces regency fiction, and she nails it. Unfortunately, I really don't like regency fiction. Hence, my lack of enthusiasm for this particular book. 

HOWEVER! If you like regency stories you should absolutely pick this one up. If you've ever longed for Pride and Prejudice with lots of magic this is your new favorite book. It has lots of properness, charm, blushing (so much blushing...), sorcery, and politics. It also has things to say about gender and race, which you don't often see in a regency story. It's well written, the magic is interesting and well developed, and the characters are enjoyable. Most of the people I know who have read it also insist Cho is very funny (again, it's not you, book, it's me). 

So weirdly, despite the fact that I didn't really enjoy this book, it is one that I feel like I can heartily recommend. Cho has really created something special with this one, and I think a lot of people will absolutely fall in love with this one. If you want to read a magical regency romp then snap this one up post-haste. And if you're like me, and could happily never read another book with people blushing at each other at a society party, then give this one a miss.

Caraval: Or Magic and lies in the most deadly carnival game ever

Caraval - Stephanie G. Garber

This was exactly the right book at the right time - after a string of books I couldn't quite latch onto, Caraval came to the rescue in brilliant sparkling glory.

 

There have been numerous circus/carnival themed books in recent years, and some of them are better at evoking a sense of wonder than others. This one absolutely nailed it. While it never gets quite as rich and detailed as a book like Night Circus (but really, what does?), it does bring about a sense of joyful whimsy like falling down a rabbit hole. The world felt vibrant and magical, and reminded me of the first time I read about Hogsmead in Harry Potter - both very real and very wondrous at the same time. Garber also writes using lots and lots of color, both in describing the world and in describing emotions, which gave the book a beauty and brilliance that made it stand out.

 

None of the characters in this book are quite what they seem, as all of them have hidden agendas or desires they keep to themselves (even the main character does this, though she isn't fully aware of it). The nice side of this is there are plenty of surprises and time spent wondering what characters are hiding. The down side is that there are constant "shocking reveals" and the subsequent emotional turmoil that you see in many teen books. I really dislike plots that are driven by characters failing to talk to each other, but in this case it all made sense, though did occasionally get tiresome. The romance is genuinely romantic and I was invested in it, but due to all the secrets it had that rollarcoaster up and down "he's the best, no wait, he's the worst" quality so many teen reads go for. If it seems like I'm being critical it's because this was really the one element of the book that held it back at all for me. This likely won't be an issue for many readers.

 

One last note that I haven't seen covered in many reviews: one of the core themes of this book is abuse. The sisters come from an abusive home (you find this out in the first few pages), and that abuse colors all of their actions and perceptions. I thought Garber did a really good job portraying some of the ways that can shape a person. One sister is a risk taker, and a schemer. The other sister doubts herself and others, and always plays it safe. They are very different, but both of them interact with others and the world around them based off of their experiences at home. While it was occasionally hard to read about I really appreciated this subject being approached the way it was: with a plainness instead of sensationalism, and an insight that lent it depth and credibility. Very well done in my opinion.

 

While it may sound heavy after my last statements, Caraval is anything but a depressing slog. It's fast paced, magical, romantic, and adventurous. The setting pops off the page in brilliant color, the characters are sympathetic and I found myself cheering for them, and the story was a colorful journey through a world of magic and lies that kept me turning pages after my bedtime. If you need a reprieve from the winter blues this book is a shot of sunshine.

 

Caraval is available in bookstores January 31st of 2017.

Martians Abroad: Or a pretty standard boarding school mystery, with some space flavoring

Martians Abroad: A novel - Carrie Vaughn

I really love Carrie Vaughn, and sci-fi, so when I heard her first big project post-Kitty was a classic sci-fi I was beyond excited! And there's lots to like about this book. Vaughn's geeky roots are showing, and it is a delight for someone like me who is also a huge space nerd. She clearly devoted a lot of thought and research to the science and details in this book. What it would be like to live on Mars. What interplanetary travel might be like. What Earth would be like for someone who grew up in a place like Mars or a space station. It was a really fun thought experiment, and this was the part of the book I enjoyed the most.

 

Unfortunately there was a down side for this book for me, and it was in the story itself. The plot is barely present. Very little happens in this book to move the action forward. Most of this book feels like a thought experiment that had a story wedged into it, and it moves slowly as a result. While Polly was a fairly developed character most of the supporting cast, including her brother, are barely sketched in. In order for me to love this book wholeheartedly it would probably need to be about twice as long to add in more character and plotting, and move twice as fast by adding more plot movement and action.

 

Here's the thing, I love the way Vaughn wrote about space, but I didn't love this story. In an ideal world I find myself hoping she writes an epic space trilogy. I know she's got the chops, and that would be something I'd love to read. For now I'll just wait and see what she writes next, and hope it flows better for me than this one did.

 

 

Martians Abroad comes out January 17th 2017.

Vermilion: Magic, vampires, and talking bears in the queer weird west

Vermilion - Molly Tanzer In concept I should love this book: a gender bending psychopomp navigates a dangerous weird west world. Yes please! Unfortunately, the execution left a lot to be desired. First, the bad: It took me a while to put my finger on why this book doesn't work for me. There are a lot of little things that feel off. The way the book is divided into three sections that all have very different focus and pacing. The way 95% of the characters are queer in some way, which should be a huge plus, but instead feels forced. How I'm never quiet certain whether Lou's character isn't cemented enough that I can pin down whether she is constantly making mistakes because she's young, naive, stupid, or all of the above. Or how the book just sort of tapers off and stops without any real satisfying ending. But what really puts the nail in the coffin for me is the tone, or lack thereof. This book lacks a cohesive feel. It jumps from thing to thing without ever having a unifying tone. It doesn't feel like the weird west, or anything else. It just simply is, which is a huge missed opportunity. It just doesn't gel together well, and I think a huge part of that is a lack of cohesive tone. But there is good: I genuinely liked Lou despite not being able to fully pin down who she was. In fact, I liked pretty much all of the characters even though most of them were more sketched in than fully drawn. And I really did appreciate the diversity in gender and sexual expressions, even if they sometimes felt forced. The world had promise, even if it felt a bit kitchensink-esque in how many odd things were thrown in without seeming tied together (that's a big part of the tone issue). The psychopompery was really neat, and I wish we had gotten a lot more of it. I would have loved to read an entire book of just Lou in San Fran working her trade. Overall there were parts of this book where I was genuinely engaged and invested, though there were also parts I felt the urge to skim. It was uneven, but the parts that were good really were good. Can I recommend this book? It really depends on what you want. If you're craving a gritty weird west story with a well drawn world and a central character who is gender non-conforming then I would actually recommend Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen. However, if you want a fantasy set in the west, with a diverse cast, and a very loose mystery, then you might enjoy this one. I'm curious to see if Tanzer can build on what she's set down and polish her craft in future books.

Paper Girls: Volume 1

Paper Girls Volume 1 - Cliff Chiang, Brian K. Vaughan

With thick line work and bold colors Paper Girls is not only a joy to look at, but it also taps into its 80s roots with style. Snappy dialogue is interspersed with simple and sparse panels which adds plenty of flavor and depth while keeping the pace rocketing forward. Likable and flawed characters, a crazy twisty turny plot, and plenty of atmosphere makes this collection one of the more fun graphic novels to come out this year. Looking forward to seeing where the story goes in the future.

Dark Matter: Or if Sliding Doors got really damn dark and weird

Dark Matter: A Novel - Blake Crouch

Dark Matter is one of the fastest reads I've picked up in several years. People often say a book is "difficult to put down" or a "page-turner", but rarely do I find a book where I think that estimation is entirely deserved - this one fits the bill. Written with fairly short chapters, clipped sentences, plenty of dialogue, and lots of action, this book flies.

 

While I didn't particularly like the main character, and found much of the story predictable, ultimately it didn't reduce my enjoyment. The ideas were intriguing, and some of the places the story ends up were far more disturbing than I anticipated. There are a lot of existential questions raised (though not terribly elegantly - this book is heavy handed rather than subtle), and whenever I put it down I was left thinking. This book is a thriller, a sci-fi adventure, and a fast paced fun read, but it also has plenty of interesting things to say. All in all it was the perfect quick read to get me out of a reading slump. If you are looking for something that will keep you glued to the page, and will throw some fun thought experiments into the mix, you should give this book a try.

White is for Witching

White is for Witching - Helen Oyeyemi

This book is a classic gothic, complete with a creepy racist haunted house, weird familial relationships, ghosts of the past, and unsettling body horror. Written in ever shifting points of view this book isn't always easy to grab onto. Sometimes shifts happen mid-sentence, and although the transitions are artful they do leave you struggling to regain your footing (which is likely intentional, but doesn't make for quick or even reading). Don't expect this book to move at a swift pace, or to have a scare in every chapter. This is a slow burner - the scary scenes are sparse, which actually adds to their effect when they do make an appearance. This book is more of a creeping dread sort of story, not a sleep with the lights on one.

 

The bulk of the book focuses on a pair of twins. Weirdly, though the story seems to want to be character driven, I never really felt like I truly knew who these people were. Their voices never felt fully distinct, and I'm still not entirely certain what motivated either of them (especially Eliot). I can make some educated guesses, but when it comes down to it neither of them felt very fleshed out to me. The only character that ever really completely came alive for me was Ore, Miranda's friend(?) from college. Honestly, I wish she came into the story sooner.

 

The writing is well crafted, the creep factor is high, and I was always intrigued enough to keep reading even when the pages went by slowly. This was the sort of book that made me miss literature classes - this would be an amazing text to analyze and pick apart (especially everything the book seemed to be saying about race). Reading it on my own made me feel certain I was missing quite a bit - this one might be a good candidate for a reread. There is a lot to ruminate upon in here, and the ending leaves lots of questions unanswered, though it still managed to be satisfying. If you are in the mood to read a modern gothic this one will probably scratch an itch for you.

Library at Mount Char: Or if Tom Robbins wrote American Gods

The Library at Mount Char - Scott Hawkins

This is one of those rare books that is nearly impossible to categorize, and refuses to fit into any particular genre. There are strong elements of fantasy and horror throughout, but it never quite lands in any one place long enough to be easily defined. It contains plenty of dark humor and absurdity (which reminded me of Tom Robbins or Christopher Moore), as well as creepy, intricate, and creative world building (which reminded me of Neil Gaiman). Picture, if you will, American Gods except with a black sense of humor, deeper mythological roots, and a dash of ultra violence.

 

One of the biggest strengths of the book, in my opinion, is the world that Hawkins has created. There's an amazingly robust mythology within this book, that is so bizarre it has the ring of truth to it. It has that rich weirdness that only the very old myths seem to capture. I've never read a modern book that had such well realized and original mythology. Very cool stuff, and it's very central to the story itself, not just tacked on for scenery.

 

The plot is such that anything I say would give too much away. The book itself is a jigsaw puzzle that only comes into focus when the very last piece falls into place. It's one of those rare reads where I had no idea what was going on through most of the book, and yet I never felt lost nor frustrated. You just sort of get swept up in the events, much like one of the main characters, Steve, and wait to see where it all takes you.

 

Characters. Ah yes. They are weird, and varied, and interesting, and well crafted. Really striking and memorable. All of them sympathetic, even the worst of the villains. And yet I didn't particularly empathize with any of them, nor care what happened to them. My investment was very low, which is why I didn't rate this book higher (I read for character). I was in the minority within my book club on that particular judgement however, so you may have a very different experience. I'm not sure what was missing for me, only that I had a lack of strong connection.

 

In short, if you've been looking for something in a similar vein to American Gods, this might be it. If you're looking for something irreverent, fresh, and creative, with unique world building and a cast of complicated people, this one is truly one of a kind.

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