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.

Bird Box: Or, the scariest book I've read in years.

Bird Box - Josh Malerman

Every fall I read all the scary books that have piled up over the year(s), many of which are recommendations from friends and co-workers. And every fall I'm disappointed because none of them are actually scary. Not this year. This book actually scared the hell out of me. In fact, it had been so long since a book scared me that I forgot what that felt like - I have become so jaded that when people tell me they had nightmares or lost sleep I internally laugh. But no, this book actually gave me a nightmare, and the story stuck with me for weeks after setting it down. It was genuinely terrifying...and I loved it.

 

This was another book I went into without knowing anything about it, and once again I'm glad. As the story of what happened before is slowly revealed at the same time as the present action it only made the events more frightening. You knew things were going to go badly, but you didn't know exactly how or why, which added to the suspense and tension. The idea of there being something out there that could hurt you if you so much as looked at it, and having to keep your eyes shut while horror unfolds around you, is so unbelievably frightening. The sense of vulnerability and helplessness is palpable. In a way it mirrors the concept of unseeable and unknowable terror that Lovecraft favored, except actually executed with adept craft and striking results. I will say that I had mixed feelings on the ending, but after a few weeks I've warmed up to it.

 

I'm afraid that if I say more it might water down the joy of reading this book for the first time. If you've been looking for something genuinely frightening you owe yourself this book. If you scare easy know this might push your buttons, and steer clear if you don't like being frightened - this one will actually have you jumping at shadows. I for one feel like this is the book I've been searching for, for many years, without even realizing it.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things: Or, creepy book is creepy, except when it isn't.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things: A Novel - Iain Reid

I intentionally went into this book without reading the back or anything about it - all I knew was that my co-workers said it was scary. One of the original tag lines for this book was that you would be scared but you wouldn't know why, and I actually agree with that assessment. There is a layer of unease and tension that lies over every scene, especially in the first two thirds. I just felt creeped out, even when nothing frightening was going on. Honestly, for me, the experience of reading this was a lot like having anxiety - you're unnerved and anxious even though there is no direct reason to feel that way. When it comes to atmosphere and tone this book nailed it.

 

A book is more than atmosphere though, and here is where I have to talk around things (otherwise I would spoil the entire book). The book hinges on a twist, which I think is pretty evident when you open with a loaded statement like, "I'm thinking of ending things." It sets you up to wait for that moment, and look for the turn. That's a big part of why the book is unnerving. But for me that twist was a let down. If the tone of the first two thirds of the book was a subtle creeping dread, then the final third of the book was someone chasing you through a corn maze with a chainsaw. And that didn't work for me, nor did the twist. Sometimes turning it up to eleven unravels what you are doing rather than building on what came before. It felt like a let down. I know there are a lot of people who disagree and loved the ending, however, so it is absolutely a matter of taste.

 

If you want to read a book that puts you on edge and makes your skin crawl this is a good choice. If you like unreliable narrators (I don't consider that a spoiler as it seems evident pretty much immediately), horror movies, or psychological thrillers you should give this one a shot. Just be prepared to potentially be let down by the ending.

The Ballad of Black Tom; Or, Red Hook Reimagined

The Ballad of Black Tom - Victor LaValle

LaValle's re-imagining of Lovecraft brings race to the forefront, and the results are disturbing and sadly quite timely. The world Tom Tester walks through, and the trials he faces, were painful to behold. Ultimately I was far more invested in Tester's story than any of the Lovecraftian horror elements of the story, though those were well written. I cared about this man and what happened to him. My biggest hurdle came when the POV shifted halfway through - I had a hard time investing in Malone and just wanted to return to Tester's story. Bottom line: If you like Lovecraftian horror, but find the treatment of race in his works unacceptable, you should absolutely pick this novella up. It's a great update to an old and problematic story, and a solid addition to the genre.

The Weight of Feathers: Or, Romeo & Juliet in the Night Circus

The Weight of Feathers: A Novel - Anna-Marie McLemore

Anna-Marie McLamore writes so beautifully I think I would be mesmerized even if she were writing about paint drying. No lie. She is the sort of writer that makes me feel simultaneously inspired and dejected when it comes to my own writing craft. She's that good. If you haven't read her before you owe yourself the treat of discovering her voice.

 

Weight of Feathers is best described as a heady blend of Romeo and Juliet meets The Night Circus. I usually really hate comparing books to other books in a review, but in this case it's really accurate. You have this lovely lyrical and rich feel mixed with this feuding family drama. The magical realism blends with the dreamy quality of the traveling performers. There is a sensuality, not just to the romance, but to the performances and world as a whole. Simply put it was lovely.

 

There was some predictability and repetitiveness to this book, which was its one down side. The fairytale feel means that some of the characters fit neatly into molds, and take the stage as set pieces more than people. The familiarity of the story being told feels like the one dull point surrounded by so much originality. I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but if I were going to recommend a McLemore book I would much more heartily champion When the Moon was Ours, wherein her storytelling catches up to her beautiful prose. As is McLemore has entered onto a short list of authors that I will pre-order future titles from on the spot.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne: Or what if you kept spawning evil clones?

The Murders of Molly Southbourne - Tade Thompson

This was a very quick read chronicling the life of Molly Southbourne. It reads like a whip fast memoir giving you snippets of her life in fast succession, some of them only a paragraph long. It would be easy to sit down and read this cover to cover (as is I read it in two sittings). The central idea, essentially of evil clones arising from any of Molly's spilled blood, was an interesting one but not terribly complex. I didn't find myself craving a longer story when I finished this - it was perfectly suited for short form, and in fact it felt very short story like to me. It also felt more like sci-fi than horror, which was fine but not what I expected. I liked this story, and the ideas, but all in all I wasn't blown away. I'm interested in trying more books from Tade Thompson, and would recommend this as a quick diversion to anyone attracted to the central concept.

At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror - H.P. Lovecraft

Nope. This is the second time I've tried Lovecraft, I've given him more than a fair shake, and I'm going with a solid No. Even setting aside the problematic social issues, I just don't like his writing at all. Like many writers who hit on a big idea that births a genre (or mini-genre) he can't actually write.

Here is the thing: he reads like a particularly dry tome written in the Victorian era. I look at his contemporaries and the antiquated language and structure seem even more tortured. I think there were more pages devoted to descriptions of boring equipment, what the expedition packed, and geology than there was actual story. (If I read the word "Cambrian" one more time this book might actually get me to scream, though not for the reasons advertised.) Also, this story is such an ideal example of why "show don't tell" is a writing staple. Again and again I'm told how scary something is, how mind-shakingly terrifying such and such is, oh the horror the horror, and that stands in for actually writing something scary. His writing also suffers from a problem a lot of older sci-fi has where our understanding of science has progressed and made certain things unintentionally funny or absurd. Oh, they have wings so they can flap their way through space? Riiiiiiight. I try to give authors a break on this because it isn't their fault, but it really didn't help matters.

So yeah. Not my bag, and I'm officially giving up on Lovecraft. I know a lot of people love him, and that's fine, but it's not my thing. I'll stick to re-tellings from modern authors if I feel the need to re-visit Lovecraftian horror. The only thing I find scary about Lovecraft are his politics and sweeping popularity.

Borderline: Urban fantasy meets an exploration of borderline personality disorder

Borderline - Mishell Baker

It is impossible for me to read, and thus review, this book without constantly thinking about my past. To keep it simple: Once upon a time I was deeply involved with someone with BPD. That person then spent a decade of their life focusing all their energy into making my own life a living hell. So yes, I'm very familiar with BPD, which meant I went into this book with quite a bit of experience, but also baggage. Because of this I could never trust Millie. At all. And I also strongly disliked her. Whenever she did something terrible she would then remind you she had BPD, which felt like disingenuous apologism to me. This technique might be effective for a lot of readers, but because I never trusted Millie it only make me dislike her more.

 

Rationally I know this is a pretty strong urban fantasy. The fey and magic were neat. There were some good ideas in here. I particularly liked Baker's description of what living with disability was like, both physical and mental. The voice was strong and distinct, and it was a quick read. The climactic scene was a muddled mess, but that felt like a stumble not a fall. It was a solid first novel.

 

Here's the thing, since I read for character, and I felt personally adversarial toward this imaginary person, I couldn't enjoy reading this book. For once I feel like it would be 100% accurate to say it's not the book it's me. If you're hunting for an urban fantasy with a fresh take, and want to read about a deeply flawed main character, maybe give this one a shot. If you have experience with the darker sides of BPD then go into this book knowing it might raise your hackles.

Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This really felt like two separate books to me. In one timeline you have the story of Meche's youth. There are coming of age themes, growing pains, and puppy love, all mixed together with a plot that felt like that old movie The Craft - magic becomes a stand in for power and it turns ugly. It was decent story. Then in the other timeline you have Meche returning to her childhood home and dealing with her father's death. This was also a decent story. The problem comes in that these two very different stories are occupying the same book.

 

The biggest problem for me is that adult Meche doesn't feel any different from teenager Meche. Despite all the things that happen in her youth, the life she lives in between the two timelines, and then confronting her father's death, she doesn't seem to have changed or grown at all. If the two timelines were closer together I might buy this, but it's difficult to swallow that over 20 years have passed and this person hasn't grown up at all. And if I do manage to suspend my disbelief, and accept that Meche hasn't changed in all that time, then that makes me dislike her even more. Have I mentioned I didn't like the main character? That's another thing that made this book a miss for me - I never empathized with Meche.

 

So here's the thing: Moreno-Garcia is actually a great writer when it comes to putting down memorable and affecting sentences. It's the overall structure of the story that became a problem. The two different storylines felt too different in tone, and didn't compliment each other nearly as well as intended. And without character growth holding them together the structure collapses for me. While I didn't care for this book I would be completely game to try another novel from her. I know she can tell a good story, I just wish she had picked one for this book and stuck with it.

Siege & Storm - Grisha #2

Siege and Storm - Leigh Bardugo

Average series continues to be average. I will say that Nikolai is a welcome addition, even if he is very much a Type. The drama with Mal, however, was predictable and frustrating. Is it a love triangle or a love square at this point? I don't even know. I don't even particularly care. Blah. I would very much prefer more magic and nifty Russian folklore and less romantic drama. At this point I'm invested in seeing how it all comes to a close though, so I'll read the third book.

Shadow & Bone - Grisha #1

Shadow and Bone  - Leigh Bardugo

There are more than enough reviews of this book already, so I'm not going to say much. Really for me is boils down to this: average book is average. Unextraordinary, plain, orphan girl discovers she is The Chosen One, and begins her journey to save the world. On the way she ends up in a magic school where she had trouble fitting in, and meets Mysterious Bad Boy, while pining for the Good Boy from her childhood. The story just sort of clips along without ever bringing any real surprises or revelations. It's perfectly fine, but ultimately forgettable.

 

Here's the thing: I read Six of Crows first, and I loved it. In fact, I loved it enough that I'm willing to give this series the benefit of the doubt and stick with it. (Had I started with this book I doubt I'd bother.) I know Bardugo can write (though she's much better at 3rd person POV than 1st, which is the POV she uses in this trilogy). All in all the book wasn't bad, just uninspired. My advice? If you're diving into the Grisha world for the first time skip ahead to her duology (Six of Crows & Crooked Kingdom) - the writing is better, the plot more complex, the characters more fleshed out and interesting, and the story more surprising and original. As for me I'm going to tear through the rest of the trilogy just so I can hang out in Grisha land a little bit longer.

Delta of Venus - Or, Anais Bin gets freaky

Delta of Venus - Anais Nin

I have such mixed feelings on this collection. Here's the thing: Nin can actually write a really hot erotic scene. However, she can also write a really messed up disturbing scene, and those two things often get stirred together in these stories. I think she hit Kink Bingo in this collection. There is bondage, exhibitionism, prostitution, masochism, rape, incest, pedophilia, beastiality, necrophilia, and probably more that I'm forgetting at the moment. Now, to be clear, not all of those things are necessarily bad (though some certainly are), but it can make for an uncomfortable surprise when the erotic story you are reading takes a disturbing turn and someone is raping their daughter.

 

There is a lot to find interesting in here beneath the surface though, especially when you take into account when Nin was writing these stories. She does some really interesting things with the female and male gaze, and the societal commentary on sexual mores was also intriguing. These stories must have been absolutely scandalous and taboo when they were published. For that reason alone I found the collection interesting. But more often than not I found many of these stories more disturbing than arousing. If you're looking for something light and hot to read I'd consider looking elsewhere, but if you go into the collection knowing what to expect there's some interesting (and yes, on occasion very sexy) stuff to be found in these pages.

The Fifth Season - Or, N.K. Jemisin proves why she's a grand master

The Fifth Season - N.K. Jemisin

I don't think I can fully review this book without spoiling it, and that is just something I do not want to do. I went into this book knowing nothing about it other than it won the Hugo, was nominated for numerous other awards (Nebula, Locus, Kitschies, Goodreads), and would probably be well written as I've read another of Jemisin's books (Killing Moon) and found the writing lovely. I didn't know what it was about, or even really whether it was sci-fi or fantasy. And I'm so glad I went in blind. Every layer that peeled back felt like a revelation.

 

Here is what I feel like I *can* say without spoiling anything. Jemisin's prose is wonderful. The book is long, but it doesn't drag. In fact, it felt like a quick read despite the length and density. The way the story unfolds, granting you new knowledge slowly one piece at a time, kept me engaged throughout and prevented any sort of info dump exhaustion. The world building is interesting, rich, well thought out, and unique. I've never read about a world quite like the one she has built here, and she has done such a good job with the details that it felt fully realized and real. The characters were multi-faceted and complex. I cared about them, and I hurt when they hurt. I also appreciated the diversity of the cast, and the portrayal of different relationships you don't often get to see in fiction.

 

If I elaborate more I feel like I'd be doing you a disservice. What you really need to know is this is a wonderful book, well worth the buzz and praise. I can't wait to read the rest of the trilogy and see what more Jemisin has in store for her readers.

Song of Achilles: Or, heartbreaking epic romance

 The Song of Achilles: A Novel - Madeline Miller

I wasn't originally interested in reading this book, but after a couple people (whose opinions I trust) recommended it I thought I at least owed it a try. I wouldn't say I'm an expert on the Greeks, but I would say I'm a fan. I know the story of the Illiad, and I'm familiar with Achilles and some of the mythology surrounding him. That's honestly part of why I was originally disinterested - Achilles is a bit of an arrogant ass. That foreknowledge, however, also contributed to what ultimately made this book so achingly sad.

This book broke my heart on every page. In a good way. Miller's prose is wonderful. She does an amazing job of bringing her settings and characters to life. I felt like I was there, in the castles and caves, and on the beaches and battlefields. I was completely transported. The Gods that walked through the pages felt as natural as the wind and the sea, never once breaking the tone of the book, or making it feel fantastical. Patroclus and Achilles became real, and their relationship was one I both believed and invested in, despite knowing how their story would end.

This book is amazingly well written, genuinely romantic without being sentimental, and truly heartbreaking in the best possible way. An epic romance in the truest sense.

The End We Start From: Or, a meditation on motherhood and loss

The End We Start From - Megan Hunter

This novella was a lovely surprise. I was initially drawn in by the stunning cover, and I'm so glad I gave it a chance. Written in a spare and poetic style reading this story is more like following a wandering stream than being tossed into the roaring ocean which features heavily in the narrative. The events of the plot are often suggested more than they are described as you meander through the main character's interior landscape just as much as you do the exterior world. If you're unaccustomed to reading poetry then Hunter's prose may stretch your comfort levels, but it will be worth the effort.

 

This is an elegy. Filled with a sort of wistfulness that feels earned rather than melodramatic. These are observations about the small moments that could so easily get lost in the din, the tiny things that ultimately matter even if the world is ending. It is unflinchingly human. And while the plot takes its cues from science fiction, at its core this is a meditation on motherhood and loss. Simply put: it is beautiful.

 

Thank you to the publisher for the opportunity to read an advanced copy. The End We Start From will be released in November.

All the Birds in the Sky: Or, Science versus Magic, except not really.

All the Birds in the Sky - Charlie Jane Anders

I've been putting off reviewing this book for a while, trying to come up with something new to contribute to what has become a very large conversation. I don't think I'm going to succeed, but I will add my thoughts. Here's the thing: All the Birds in the Sky very swiftly became the "It" book of 2016, and now in 2017 it is up for All The Awards. Many many people love this book. So when I sat down to read it for my book club I had really high expectations. Did the book rise to meet them? In some ways yes and in other ways no.

 

I quite liked that a fair amount of this book put fantasy and science fiction into the same world and made them ideologically opposed. We have the young witch and the young mad scientist, and we stick with them as they grow up and the world falls apart. Both the strength and the weakness of the narrative is that at its core this book is really only about two people. If you manage to invest in these two characters and their relationship then you will likely like this book. However, if you want to see an epic battle between science and magic, or you want to focus in on how the world is falling apart, or even the world-building or other characters, well, you are going to be really disappointed.

 

This is a book that presents a bunch of enormous, epic, sweeping plot points...and then pushes them into the background so they merely serve as the backdrop for a slow-burn romance. Which is honestly something I haven't seen before. I was okay with it, but it was a surprise, and could be really disappointing depending on what you want (or if you strongly dislike the two main characters, which wouldn't be difficult as they can be quite abrasive). The climax of the book felt subtle to me in that the book could have ended in several previous points with equal punch. In many ways it reads like three connected short stories - it has a light touch, close focus, and the bigger plot in the background is overshadowed by a more intimate and close perspective. Again, I didn't particularly mind this, but it was an unexpected choice.

 

Overall I liked All the Birds in the Sky because I was fine with the soft focus and narrowed plot. The side characters were flat and interchangeable, but that didn't hurt my enjoyment since they were so secondary to the focus. The world-building left a lot of questions unanswered, but again, that wasn't the focus. There were some jarring tonal shifts, and the comedy was occasionally bizarrely executed, but I was having fun so I didn't mind that either. Bottom line, I could see reasons to dislike this book, and problems, but I enjoyed myself and the book despite all of them. There's one thing I'm a stick in the mud about though: there were better fantasy/sci-fi books in 2016. I liked this book. I really did. But it was not the end all be all of books in this genre. Worth the read? Absolutely. Worth the hype? Debatable.

The Love Interest

The Love Interest - Cale Dietrich

I don't like writing bad reviews. I don't like saying bad things about people's art. Writing is difficult and everyone enjoys different things out of their books. I don't write this to hurt anyone's feelings. That's the last thing I want to do as a reviewer. But sometimes a book is bad, and I feel like I'd be dishonest if I said I felt otherwise. I was so excited about this book. I was so ready to love this. The concept is so up my alley. And yet, by the end I was hate reading it just to get through. 

So where did it all go wrong?
The first person point of view was a mistake, especially since we only get Caden's POV - it might have worked if we got chapters with Dylan. The characters were flat and forgettable, and I didn't care about any of them. The dialogue was the worst I think I've ever read outside of beginning level writing courses. I cannot understate how bad the dialogue in this book is, I really can't. Hell, the writing in general was bad. The world made no sense, and when I started actually thinking about any of it I just got angry. If you start examining any of the world building or the plot structure there are plot holes so big you could drive a fleet of buses through them. The genre is also weirdly off-putting in that the world seems to be this odd dystopia filled with killer robots and sci-fi tech, but the characters keep referencing current pop culture and acting like they live in the here and now...which...I guess really boils down to another plot hole I can't reconcile.

But hey, spies, right? Not so much. For a book about spies no one seems to have any spy skills, nor does any spy stuff happen. At best the spy characters are actors being fed lines through an earpiece or scripts. Not spies. Okay...so romance, yeah? Except the characters have zero chemistry. Also, for a book that's supposed to highlight queer relationships most of the story focuses on the fake straight relationship. SPOILER: And worst of all? The big twist is that the queer relationship is a lie. Which made me so pissed I almost chucked my book across the room. One of the characters is only pretending to like the other. But then at the end he changes his mind and decides he's into it, apparently. In no way is that shift really explained or redeemed in any meaningful way.

So yeah. This book disappointed me, and honestly pissed me off. I waffled between one and two stars because it did have some good things to say about being gay, and what that can be like. But ultimately that's not enough to redeem it. Yes, we need more books with queer characters and relationships, but we can do better. Much much better. I want someone to actually write a book about gay spies, because this was not that book.

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