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.

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.

SKY WRI TEI NGS

SKY WRI TEI NGS - Nasser Hussain

Written entirely in three letter airport codes this collection is an interesting linguistic challenge. However, the cleverness of the exercise waned quickly for me. I felt it would have been better suited to a small handful of poems as part of a greater whole rather than an entire collection - it quickly felt gimmicky. Also, due to the constraints of the form, Hussain was not able to play with other aspects of language with any real freedom. There's no real emotion or impact in here for me, just cleverness. And cleverness isn't really what I value most in a good poem.

Beyond the Empire: Indranan War #3

Beyond the Empire (The Indranan War Book 3) - K.B. Wagers

I read and enjoyed the first two books in this series (with some caveats) so I was interested to see how Wagers was going to finish out her first trilogy. Unfortunately this just didn't land for me. It was just not well written (and it really pains me to say that). Not only are people laughing and grinning their way through all the dialogue on almost every page (I mean, people "bare their teeth" four times in the first 60 pages), but it reads like sitting in on a planning session of an RPG. The characters sit around talking about what they know, don't know, and plan to do...and don't really do anything until the very end of the book. With a cast of dozens of interchangeable characters rotating in and out of scenes and just talking and talking I think I could have skipped to page 300 and not missed much.

 

On the bright side there were some memorable moments, good scenes, and one character death that really bummed me out. The end was fairly action packed and fun, but it comes so late in the game that by then I had mostly checked out. I still like many of the side characters, and the world building, but this book didn't highlight either particularly well - most of the book took place on ships and focused on political strategizing instead of character growth. This book will likely hold more appeal to those who are invested in politics and military sci-fi. I really enjoyed the second book in this series, but I think this will likely be my last Wagers book despite how much I enjoy her as a human being.

Accelerants

Accelerants - Lena Wilson

I wanted to love this, but in the end it was a mixed bag for me. I really enjoyed the representation and the characters. The relationships felt authentic, and I was invested in the bonds formed over the course of the book. However, I didn't particularly care for the ending (that's probably a taste thing), and this novella suffered from the common problem many novellas have: it felt like the beginning of a longer story rather than a full and complete story of its own. I would happily read more from this author, but this particular offering felt like it wasn't quite finished.

Bestiary: Poems

Bestiary: Poems - Donika Kelly

Kelly's first poetry collection is a triumph. Her language is sensuous, raw, and honest - simultaneously spare and lyrical. Bursting with animal imagery the collection takes wing and glides. Her poems resonate with longing and vulnerability, and never shy away from dark truths. Unapologetically black, queer, and feminine this volume packs a hell of a punch.

Motor Crush: Volume 2

Motor Crush Volume 2 - Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr

I wish I hadn't waited so long between reading the first volume and this one - it took me a while to get back into it, and remember who was who and what was going on. The time jump and storytelling that skips around didn't help. That said, Motor Crush remains a delight. The writing, world building, and characters are interesting and snappy. And the art is just so juicy and bright every panel is a wonder. Looking forward to seeing how this series wraps up!

We Are Legion (We are Bob)

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse) (Volume 1) - Dennis E. Taylor

Look, I don't enjoy writing bad reviews, so I apologize in advance if this steps all over someone's feelings. I just...have feelings of my own.

 

If you took a concept from Iain Banks and then had Ernest Cline write it while he was drunk and sleep deprived this is probably what you would get. This book is so poorly written I wanted to throw it across the room on several occasions. It's never a good sign when you start yelling, "NO!" at the page because of shoddy writing craft. That said, this book does move along at a decent clip once you get off world, so I will concede it was a quick read.

 

Perhaps most damning is that Bob is pretty intolerable, and boy howdy is there a lot of Bob in here. Bob is the sort of character that thinks he's super clever (he's not) and everyone else is an idiot (they aren't), and he finds his own immaturity oh so charming (it isn't). He reminds me of every nerdy guy who has ever started of a sentence with, "Well actually..." before mansplaining some pop culture reference to me. Screw you, Bob. *deep breath*

 

So why two stars instead of one? Honestly I enjoyed some of the concepts in here and the space opera was fun. There are story elements in here I found enjoyable. I love the idea of reading about sentient Von Neumann probes, I just wish Banks had written it instead. There will be people who will love this one. I was not one of them.

The Cold is in Her Bones

The Cold is In Her Bones - Peternelle van Arsdale

This might be the most bleak thing I've read in years. And that's saying something. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's not what I was expecting at all. Van Arsdale does such a good job of forming a sense of oppression that the book is suffocatingly claustrophobic. Even after the story moves from the tiny farm and out into the larger world it still has a feel of a small enclosed space. The magic and storytelling in this one is very surreal and rooted more in feel than in any real explanation or hard and fast rules. The creatures were unsettling and haunting, and the world dark and creepy.

 

At it's core this is a book about a feeling more than a plot. It's themes of feminism and oppression are woven into the fabric of the story, and you can feel this world closing around the characters like a fist. All in all I liked this book, but it is in no way a fun adventure story. It's a dreamlike meditation on how intolerably the world shrinks when you're forced into the silent mould of the obedient and powerless daughter rather than being allowed to grow into a bright and fully realized woman.

Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust - C. Robert Cargill

This is a perfectly serviceable popcorn book. Take a robot apocalypse novel, stir in a good dose of western, and just a dash of <i>Mad Max</i>, and this is what you get. It's an adventure, and to a lesser degree an examination of what makes us human. The robots in this book, for better or worse, all feel very human. I'm fairly certain that was a deliberate choice by the author, and part of the point in some cases, but to me it also felt like a missed opportunity. Then again, that might be me just wishing this was a different type of book altogether. As is it hits all the adventure beats and keeps pages turning at a good clip. Brittle makes for good company as the story barrels forward. This book has a strong sense of fun about it, and will make for good light reading for sci-fi fans. If, however, you find AI terrifying you might want to give this one a pass. It's hard to enjoy a fun romp when you can't stop thinking about how all the robots murdered humanity and poisoned the world. It rather puts a damper on things. Your milage may vary.

City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts - Victoria Schwab

I just...can't get into middle grade fiction. I keep trying, and I figured if anyone could convert me it would be the enormously talented and charming Victoria Schwab, and yet... Look, here's the thing: I would have adored this book when I was younger. It's gloomy, creepy, adventurous, and has characters I enjoyed. The way Schwab brings Scotland to life is deliciously macabre. It's an excellent middle grade read, and I look forward to recommending it to youngsters aplenty. It's just that while I totally appreciated what this book was doing it wasn't made for me. Which is fine. Nay, it's even good - there need to be more books like this written for this age group. I just need to stop reading them and thinking they will click with me.

The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories - Angela Carter, Kelly Link

It's sort of weird that it took me so long to read Angela Carter - dark feminist leaning fairytale retellings are near and dear to my heart. This collection took me a while to get through, though that's no fault of the stories themselves. Carter's writing is rich, sumptuous, and dense enough it's worth taking your time to read. There were moments where the writing itself dazzled me as much as the storytelling. The stories do tent to run together a bit, which is why I took breaks and read this collection in between other books. All in all I liked this collection, though I'll admit I was hoping for it to be a bit darker after everything I had heard. If you're looking for solid horror this collection doesn't quite deliver, but if you're looking for something a bit on the dark side this comes through in spades.

Currently reading

An Unkindness of Ghosts
Rivers Solomon