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.

Spoonbenders: Or, con men and psychics versus the mob

Spoonbenders: A novel - Daryl Gregory

For such a hefty book I have surprisingly little to say about it! I've been a huge fan of Gregory's work since I read Raising Stoney Mayhall several years ago, and he has yet to disappoint. I particularly enjoy how he mixes genres. This book reads like a modern lit family drama...except with psychics. The plot is a series of seemingly disconnected threads that all come together in the end to form one masterfully woven scene. The real core of the book, however, centers on the five central characters, which works well since Gregory is a master of creating rich and complex characters. These are people with flaws and layers, and as I got to know them I didn't always like them but I did sympathize with them. I particularly enjoyed the "rules" Gregory set up for how the psychic powers worked in his world.

 

All in all Spoonbenders was more literary and less creepy than his other books, which will probably have broader appeal (but a little less for me since I love the creepy factor). This book has plenty of familial drama to keep it grounded despite being filled with grifters, mobsters, and psychics. If you've avoided Gregory in the past because demons, zombies, and other horror tropes are not to your taste this is the perfect entry point to get a taste of his excellent writing.

Her Body and Other Parties: Dark, feminist, erotica, body horror (yes, that's apparently a thing).

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories - Carmen Maria Machado

I didn't realize you could blend erotica, feminism, and body horror until I read this collection, and now I find myself wondering why this combination hasn't been in my life sooner. Machado has created one of the creepiest story collections I've ever read, and it is made all the more disturbing by not shying away from feminist themes. This deft blending of genres is perfect for exploring topics like the relationships women have with their bodies, and how those bodies are treated by others and society at large. Using both old familiar stories, like The Husband Stitch, and new ones, like Eight Bites, these stories scared me and made me think. If you're a fan of horror you should absolutely give this collection a read.

 

Story By Story Impressions and Thoughts:
The Husband Stitch - Brought new life to the old story of the woman who wears a ribbon around her neck.
Inventory - An exploration of sexuality, and sexual encounters, and how those make us human and inform our sense of the world and self.
Mothers - Themes of motherhood, and what that does and does not mean for different people.
Especially Heinous - A dark supernatural re-magining of every episode of SVU, which made me actually want to sit down and watch SVU.
Real Women Have Bodies - Dealt deftly with the visibility of women in society, ideas about beauty, and how appearance and presence are often enmeshed in our culture.
Eight Bites - A story with a heart that revolves around body image and how many women hinge so much of their happiness on being thin.
The Resident - Memory a moving target in this story as it addresses how the damages of the past show their scars on our art and our present.
Difficult at Parties - A gut wrenching look at some of the shadows sexual assault casts across one's sexual landscape in the aftermath.

Bearly a Lady: Or, Werebears just want to have fun

Bearly A Lady - Cassandra Khaw

First and foremost a big thank you to Book Smugglers who provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a honest review! You ladies are the best!

 

Confession time: I don't read a lot of romance, and I've never picked up a "chick-lit" book. (Not that I have anything against these genres at all.) I do, however, read urban fantasy, which is romance and horror's weird love-child. When the author talked about her influences at the back of this book I really appreciated the roadmap, while much of this might be familiar territory for many readers.

 

Okay, so if I'm not a romance reader then why was I so keen to pick this book up? Two words: Bisexual werebear. I'm so sold. When I was reading I was also pleasantly surprised that the main character is also of a more, ahem, robust body type than you usually see depicted in stories like these. In fact, the writing Khaw did in respect to body image, fat shaming, and self-esteem was my favorite part of the book. You get to see this woman struggle with her size and how she is perceived by others. And, without giving too much away, the more her self-image improves, the better she is able to see not only herself but others around her. I loved that.

 

The novella is a bit choppy, jumping from scene to scene without much transition, and some characters come and go so swiftly it can be hard to tell who is important and who is not. I particularly liked the roommate and the love interest (though it would be cheating to tell you who that is). I was a little surprised that for a romance this novella is fairly tame in the sex department - if you're looking for super steamy this is not the place, however it is quite sweet. All in all it's a lovely meringue of a novella with some great things to say about body image stirred into the mix. I'd certainly give Cassandra Khaw another read in the future.

All Systems Red: Or, the day in the life of an introverted media-junkie Murderbot

All Systems Red - Martha Wells

This book was highly recommended by a couple people I trust, so I was expecting to enjoy it. I was not, however, expecting it to be one of my favorite reads so far this year. This novella was so much more than I hoped for. This is hard sci-fi with a gooey heart filled center (much like the Murderbot itself).

 

The titular Murderbot was designed as a security unit, but has gained self awareness and individuality. When it hacked its security protocols to gain autonomy it didn't go on a murder rampage - instead it educated itself and became a media junkie. Murderbot is supposed to protect its clients, and it will, but it would really rather be left alone to watch serials. Interacting with humans is awkward and stressful, and when it comes down to it Murderbot just wants to be left alone. (I might relate to Murderbot a little too much sometimes.)

 

If you look at the cover and title you would not expect this book to be funny, but I found myself laughing out loud numerous times. Murderbot's voice makes this book for me. Told from Murderbot's POV this sci-fi mystery is also a story about self discovery and the bonds we form (or do not form) with those around us. The world building was subtile yet rich enough I could imagine how this culture functioned as well as the technology being used. I loved the sci-fi and action, and I also loved the dialogue and character. While the secondary characters tend to run together a bit, especially in the beginning, that felt like an authorial choice due to Murderbot's POV rather than a misstep. I was invested in the outcome for all involved, which kept me turning pages.

 

All in all I loved this novella, and I'm so happy there will be another one. If you've been hunting for a fast sci-fi read with a protagonist that's one of a kind, full of snark and world weariness that's actually earned, you need to read this book.

Boy Meets Boy: Or, a gay teen Meet Cute of a book

Boy Meets Boy - David Levithan

I was in the mood for something light and sweet for Pride month, and this delivered. This is one of those books where I feel like its strengths and its weakness come from exactly the same place. This book is refreshingly free of tragedy, which is usually the order of the day when it comes to most teen books centered around queer characters. The town the main character lives in is so fantastically whimsical and diverse it almost feels like magical realism. I mean, the cheerleaders ride motorcycles - it's intentionally unrealistic and utopian. This tone meant I wasn't crying my eyes out and depressed, but it also pulled me out of the story because it was difficult for me to fully buy into the world.

 

As per usual I liked Levithan's writing, heart, and characters. I was rooting for Paul and Noah. I had my fingers crossed for the friendships at stake. But really the character and story arc that captured my heart was Tony, which is telling because that was the part of the story with the most sadness and realism. Tony isn't from Paul's magical town - he's from here and now. And the conversations and mirroring between these two worlds was the best part of the book for me.

 

If you're on the hunt for an adorable gay teen romance without a lot of tragedy and angst then this is the book you have been searching for. Filled with whimsy, sweetness, and plenty of ups and downs to keep you glued to the page, this book is truly fun and nice. It's a dessert of a book, so know that when you dig in and enjoy the fluffy sweetness.

Last Sext

Last Sext - Melissa Broder

This collection will speak to a lot of people. Unfortunately I was not one of them. On the surface this collection has a lot going for it that appeals to me: the tension between the sacred and the profane, existential dread, exploration of the ephemeral and mortality, diving into gender and sexuality, etcetera. However, the collection as a whole fell flat for me.

 

Broder uses a great deal of repetition in her poems, which can be fine. That repetition also echoes through the entire collection, which can also be fine if done well. This was not, in my opinion, done well. He language is harsh and sparse, which makes the repetition feel, well, repetitious. I couldn't shake how much it felt like I was reading the same poem over and over again - the same words rejumbled in a different order, like refrigerator poetry. Again, this sort of device could be used to brilliant effect, but in this case it felt like reading endless revisions.

 

This is an angry, dark, and sexual collection (which I actually enjoy), and there is a lot of meat in here. Most of the poems have at least one brilliant line, they just get swallowed by the work as a whole. The abstract is favored over the concrete, and symbolism rules out over the sensory. For me it felt more like a work of the mind than the heart, despite the sense of immediacy and passion. While I didn't connect to this collection at all I can see how many people will. I just happen to prefer my poetry a bit more grounded in the specific, and more lyrical. I would try Broder again, but in smaller doses.

 

Personal highlights:
Lunar Shatters
Wide Sigh
Long Tomb

Release

Release - Patrick Ness
Once upon a time I read a Patrick Ness book, and it pissed me off so much I threw it across the room. In the years that have followed he has since published numerous books that have sparked my interest, but I always ended up giving them a pass - first impressions matter. When I managed to get my hands on an advance copy of this book (Thank you, Harper!) I was dubious, but curious. I'm so glad my curiosity won out - this is one of my favorite reads so far this year.

Taking place all within one tumultuous day, Release managed to encapsulate what it feels like to have one of those days where everything is changing way too fast to keep up. It's one of those days where everything shifts and goes sideways. It could so easily feel contrived, but Ness manages to make the non-stop hits feel connected and realistic. We've all had that day where it's one thing after another and before you know it things start snowballing. Especially when you're young and feelings run so deep and swift.

(One note on content, since I know some people like teachers, school librarians, and parents occasionally have this question: Yes, this book has sex in it. And the main character is gay, and it is graphic. It's also important to the story, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Still, you might want to take that into account before giving it to younger readers if you have concerns.)

Structurally this book has some ups and downs for me. The action moves swiftly, and the book is divided into smaller chunks, which kept me reading past my bedtime. This book is hard to put down. The one part of this book I'm still not certain worked for me was the ghost story that runs parallel to Adam's story. I'm still not 100% sold that it added to the story - even though the stories mirrored each other the tones really clashed. 

I loved the characters. I loved Adam, and I loved his friends. Even the characters I disliked I appreciated because they felt real and well drawn. Without saying too much I will say I also really appreciated the ending, both in its subtlety and where Ness chose to end the narrative. I set the book down feeling satisfied and I'm still thinking about it weeks later.

This is a book about feeling trapped, not just in the closet but also in your circumstances and family. This is a book about love, both the good and the bad sides, with not just lovers but friends and family. This is a book about acceptance, of self, others, and reality. And more than anything this is a book about learning to let go. I loved this book, and I can't wait to press it into people's hands this fall.

 

 
 

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.

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The Fifth Season
N.K. Jemisin