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.

Borne: Or VanderMeer cranks up the weirdness even higher

Borne: A Novel - Jeff VanderMeer

It is really difficult to review a book like this one. If you've read any of VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy then you already know his books are weird. This one is even weirder. I'm going to do my best to write this review without giving anything away, which may be difficult, but I think the less you know about the specifics of this story before diving in the better.

 

The world building in this novel is extensive, even though most of what you know is pieced together through subtle clues and guesswork. The landscape you live in while immersed in this book is distinct, striking, dangerous, toxic, intriguing, and claustrophobic. Populated with biotech, mutated murderous children, poisonous rivers, a decaying city, and an enormous flying bear and its lethal proxies. This is not a world anyone wants to live in, including the characters.

 

Ah yes, the characters. One thing VanderMeer excels at is writing an unreliable narrator that is realistic and intriguing rather than frustrating. Every character in this book has secrets and is hiding something. No one fully trusts each other. And yet, this feels right rather than contrived. The plot and arc of the book is slow paced and builds on revelations about the characters (though there is some action). Without giving anything away I will say that each of the three main characters has a character arc, and each of those arcs concludes in what I found a satisfying manner. This book does have a very definite ending, unlike some of his other works.

 

My only reason for not giving this book higher marks is entirely personal. This book made me feel something, and for that it has my respect. Unfortunately, it mostly made me feel trapped and full of dread, which isn't something I particularly enjoy. On a technical front this book gets full marks - VanderMeer is an amazing writer. But on a personal front I just couldn't wait to escape from this world. When I finished it was a relief. Do I recommend this book? Yes. Absolutely. Especially if you enjoyed his other work but want something with a more concrete arc and ending. I think this is my favorite of his works. He did a great job building a horrible place. Such a good job, in fact, that it was hard to pick the book every night and live there for a time. I applaud that.

Shadowshaper

Shadowshaper - Daniel José Older

Sometimes I read a book and find myself realizing, "This was not made for me." And that is 100% okay! I feel the same way about TV shows and movies. I'm glad that there are things being made that do not appeal to me, but speak to others. Honestly, the world needs a lot more of that. So with that in mind, this book was not made for me, but I'm really glad it exists.

 

What this book does best is show diversity in a realistic and non-pandery/gimmicky way. It portrays Brooklyn as a diverse place filled with different cultures, races, and voices. I've never really read something that brought the city to life the way this book did. It was a living breathing place. The cast of characters is also diverse and youthful. Real issues, like police violence and gentrification, pop up in their conversations, and they speak in slang that felt authentic (I am in no way cool enough to vouch whether this is accurate or not). I was also amused that the villain was basically cultural appropriation personified. Nice touch. I really love that I now have another go-to book to press into people's hands that portrays a non-white youth experience.

 

So then why did I not love this book? Well, simply put it was written for teens and the seams showed too much for me. The characters lacked depth, and reacted in pretty standard teen lit trope ways (like insta-love and the plot being driven by a lack of communication). The pacing and plot were uneven, and the scenes felt choppy and stitched together. The magic system felt tacked on and poorly realized. Etcetera. Now here's the thing: these aren't particularly damning traits for the teen genre. But I'm not a teenager anymore, so they did impact my enjoyment. Like I said up top: this was not made for me, and I get that.

 

So here's the thing, I look forward to recommending this book to people. I'm glad it's gotten some attention, and a sequel is coming out. If they made a TV show or movie I'd be totally on board to see that, because this book was visually striking and I'd love to see it in a visual medium. But I won't be reading more in this series. I do think Older has done more than enough in this book to warrant checking out his adult works, and I will be looking into that.

 

Bottom line: If you're looking for a diverse teen read that puts Brooklyn and other cultures on center stage pick this book up right away. If you want a well crafted and sophisticated fantasy this one may disappoint.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones - Wayward Children #2

Down Among the Sticks and Bones - Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway was one of my surprise favorites of 2016, so when I heard there was going to be another book in the series I got really excited. Then, honestly, I got a little apprehensive. What if it wasn't as good, or revisiting the world cheapened it? Yeah, I'll admit it - sequels sometimes make me nervous. In this particular case I needn't have worried. McGuire didn't rehash the job she did in the first book, but rather added new layers on top of what she built. Or perhaps I should say she added new layers below, as this book plumbs into the murky world of the Moors, and the events that occurred prior to EHaD.

 

Before you even get into the alternate world of magic and horror you get to spend time with Jack and Jill in the "real" world. You meet their parents before the sisters are even conceived and follow them all the way through their childhood. McGuire did such a good job with this entire section I found myself marking pages to reread. She made this family so repellant yet realistic, like a less cartoonish version of the Dursleys. There is so much in here about family, and children, that was astute and worth the exploration. And without this grounding the story that follows wouldn't be nearly as rewarding.

 

I love the way this book is written - how it feels like a Grimm fairytale. The authorial voice and the illustrations both add style and depth to the book. The world-building was well done, as was the mood and tone. Character was another win, as I thought Jack and Jill both came to life on the page. I was sucked in from start to finish. As with EHaD my only true complaint was that I wanted more, especially toward the end. Perhaps I'm just greedy. Regardless, this book hit the mark for me again and again, and I heartily recommend it. You can read it as a stand-alone if you so desire, but then you'd be missing out on another great book. I'm looking forward to the third book in the series!

Flame in the Mist

Flame in the Mist - Renee Ahdieh

Okay, before I get into my thoughts on the book I have to start with a rant about reviews I've been seeing: This is not a Mulan re-telling. Stop comparing this to Mulan. Please. STOP. Mulan is based off a true story about a warrior woman who dons men's clothing and joins the war effort in China. This is about a high born Japanese girl who impersonates a boy in order to travel through some magical woods and hunt down ninjas. Just because a story involves a woman dressing as a man/boy, and is set in Asia, does not mean these are the same story, or even similar. (Hint: these stories are not similar at all.) There are tons of stories about women dressing up as men to infiltrate their society for one reason or another, and I don't see them being compared to Mulan. Which means this is happening because both of these stories are set in Asia. Chinese culture and Japanese culture are very different. They are not the same place. So yeah. Please stop. /end rant

 

Alright, now that I've gotten that off my chest lets dig into my review, shall we?
There is a lot to love about this book. Mariko starts out being soft and somewhat spoiled, and by the end of the book she has embraced her inner badass and come into her own. Her transformation takes place over the course of the book (instead of in a slap-dash chapter, which is so often the case in stories like these), and as a result it is convincing and rewarding. Even when I thought she was acting foolishly I believed in her reasoning, and I wanted to see her succeed. Stated more plainly, I liked her and I thought Ahdieh did a good job with her character development. The secondary characters were also decently drawn. The love interest was straight up teen lit stock bad boy, but most people will find that appealing. I did really appreciate that there wasn't a love triangle.

 

This book is filled with terms and concepts rooted in feudal Japanese culture, which I loved. Since I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy of this book it did not have a glossary in the back (finished copies will). Unless you are familiar with this time and region you will likely want to make use of that glossary. I was very thankful that I've studied Japan or I might have been a bit lost. The book talks a lot about Bushido, and many of Mariko's actions (as well as her brother's) are rooted in this philosophy. It adds a richness and additional layers to the story. It was refreshing to see an author actually do their best to evoke a sense of feudal Japan, instead of just giving people katanas and calling it good.

 

The world-building was a mixed bag. As I was discussing above, Ahdieh did a good job of transporting me to Japan. However, I was a little thrown off by the mystical elements. There is magic in this world, but it doesn't get used that much until late in the story. The magic wasn't very well developed, and I found myself uncertain as to what the rules were and whether it was common or not. I'm hoping that will be fleshed out more in the future.

So generally speaking this book has a lot going for it. Adventure, good pacing, well developed characters, and decent world building. So then why am I not rating this book higher? Personal taste really. I think this book is going to be a perfect 10/10 for a lot of people, and I'm looking forward to pressing it into the hands of teen readers. Where it fell down a bit for me was, well, it was very teen. Which is unfair, I know. The structure of the romance with the broody and mysterious boy was something I've read so many times I now find it a bit tiresome. The language was fairly simplistic. The plot was predictable. None of that was particularly damning, but it didn't elevate it to Amazing for me. Again, it's a personal taste thing.

 

All that said, if you're looking for a fast, fun, teen read, with plenty of wonderful Japanese flavor, a strong and clever heroine, and a dash of magic and romance, this book will leave you happy and waiting for more.

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.

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