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Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey

May 24, 2019

In brief: Ivy Gamble can’t turn down her latest PI job, even though it’s a) at a high school b) that her sister works at c) which teaches magic that is absolutely not something she ever wants to do, no way, thank you.

Full disclosure: This was a reading copy which I received through work, with the expectation that I would like it enough to review it and then order it for stock. This book is out June 4, 2019.

Thoughts: It’s a little ironic that this review is coming so close to my urban fantasy commentary dump on Tumblr, because this book does a lot of the stuff I dislike in the genre but also manages to reimagine other elements so it does, actually, push the UF bubble forward. I do, however, really wish I’d enjoyed it more, because the hype I’d seen had me, well, hyped.

This is also one of those books where if I say much more about the story than I did in my summary, it’s going to spoil the book. I will say that Gamble does the hard-bitten alcoholic noir PI well and that she’s captured both the “adult back in a high school” surrealness and the modern teen very well. Also adult sibling relationships and how it feels to be the “muggle one”. I enjoyed Gailey’s magic system a lot too and kind of hope she writes another book in this world so I can see another side of it.

But at the same time, I dunno, I was expecting the voice to be fresher, I think, and for the story to start as a mystery but then go somewhere else entirely. There’s a good amount of diversity and some fun trope subversion and commentary, but at the end of the day, it’s a murder mystery with magic in, and an entertaining enough few days, but not the gosh wow cool I’d been expecting.

To bear in mind: Alcoholism, graphic murder and gore, snotty teenagers, dysfunctional family dynamics.

5/10

Hello Girls – Brittany Cavallaro and Emily Henry

May 23, 2019

In brief: Winona’s life is perfect, except her dad controls it. Lucille‘s is full of money troubles. When they can’t stand it any longer, they get out, and if that means stealing a car and sticking it to all men ever, all the better.

Full disclosure: This was a reading copy which I received through work, with the expectation that I would like it enough to review it and then order it for stock. This book is out August 6, 2019.

Thoughts: If there’s any book that is both “hard-hitting issue novel” and “pure feminist escapism”, this is it. I spent a lot of time cheering the girls on on their road trip/crime spree because it was so much fun to watch them do things I didn’t know I wanted to see done, especially because they’re coming from a position of righteous anger and going after people who deserve it. And because you kind of can’t help seeing them as underdogs.

But at the same time, this tackles abuse and poverty and sexism in so many facets, not only the situations themselves but also the trauma of the victims, in very realistic ways (panic attacks, ingrained habits, the desire to be seen as more than a body, etc.). And of course, it handles all the crimes well too, balancing “they’re jerks so this is ethical because I’m righting wrongs” with “but you just committed grand larceny” with “holy shit I am not okay”.

The girls are realistically late-teens—aware of their value, their power, and their womanhood, capable of pop music singalongs in glitter wigs and booking motels, but also still making the impulsive and questionable decisions teens sometimes do, like surviving entirely on junk food for a week. And there’s a lot they don’t know about how the world works too, which makes for some fun times. For a given definition of fun. I kept having moments where I’d flip between “yes do the thing!” and “oh honey that’s not the right choice” and “yeah, that’s what I’d probably do too though”, often within the same paragraph.

In short, it might sound like there’s a lot going on in this book but it never feels like there is because everything works so well and the journey’s just so much fun. It’s pretty perfect as a summer read, which I’m sure is why it’s coming out when it is, but I can see it being empowering or at least enlightening for a lot of teens at the same time.

To bear in mind: Contains girls dealing with abusers, poverty, sexism, drug dealers, threats of violence, skeezy jerks, and paedophiles, and also committing all sorts of exciting crimes.

7.5/10

Moonstruck, Vol. 2 – Grace Ellis

May 22, 2019

In brief: The coffee shop crew have been invited to a fairy frat! But the frat bros might be planning more than a par-TAY. Second in a series.

Thoughts: Cute and fun series continues to be cute and fun. 🙂

Okay, fine. While I wasn’t quite as charmed by this as the last one, that’s almost certainly down to already knowing the world and the characters and nothing else because everything I liked in the first volume is also in this one. Off-kilter fantasy college campus? Diverse cast? Supportive friends getting each other through low-stakes conflicts? Adorable couples? Lovely art? (Chet continues to be my favourite character.)

Plus I feel like the villains were better written, that the book-in-the-book was woven in a little better as well, and that Ellis balanced more subplots than the last book and did it well. Even the advice columns work a little better! I enjoyed the jokes and references too, and the running gags, and there’s one punchline/reveal that … nice.

If I say any more, I’m going to veer into plot points and spoil something, so I’m going to leave things there. A good read, definitely. Over neither too fast nor too slow. Just the right amount of zaniness and fluff for my taste. Now to wait for the next volume…

To bear in mind: Contains those sorts of frat bros and sorority girls. And drinking.

7/10

How to Be a Tudor – Ruth Goodman

May 21, 2019

In brief: A day in the life of someone living in the Tudor era, from dawn to dusk and from farms to cities.

Thoughts: I picked this up because I liked How to Be a Victorian so much and wanted something kind of similar. This was not as good as the last book, mostly because it’s more of an overview and doesn’t go into detail about all the different levels of society the same way, but it was still good and informative and interesting. Perhaps a little more quickly written?

I think what I appreciate the most about Goodman’s histories in general is how they don’t shy away from historical realities. Winters were uncomfortable if you were poor because you couldn’t stay warm. You needed your kids to be helping at home or you couldn’t make ends meet. Clothing was extremely expensive and you could only afford new clothes by saving up or being super rich. Things you know if you think about them, but having them laid out on the page makes them more real.

And secondly, I like the intimate details of how to do things like brewing ale or making cheese. You get a real sense of how much effort it took to do things and how much skill was involved, and also of how leisure activities like dancing or archery actually worked. There’s a lot I didn’t think to consider and a lot I found enlightening, and a lot I’m going to be taking with me into historical fiction for sure—but at the same time, because this is an overview, you don’t get everything. Goodman talks about how to plow a field and sow your crops and about painting as a career, but she doesn’t talk about what a merchant did or what the life of a nobleman was like apart from clothing or any of the other hundred paths a man could take—and it’s the same handful of described jobs for women.

Where I found this book really lacking, though, is in the descriptions and some of the assumptions that Goodman makes re: general cultural knowledge. Between the photos and descriptions in Victorian, I could get a sense of things like house layouts, cooking set-ups, and household tools and activities, but I didn’t get the same sense in Tudor. Again, part of that’s because things varied too much between economic levels for her to tackle everything, but she also doesn’t hit the same degree of detail. There’s a section on how to roast meat over a fire that talked about spits and layering meat and the sort of flame you want, but not how to lay the fire or arrange the meat or that when she said “dogs” she meant “upright metal posts you put the spit on”. (Which is what I mean about cultural knowledge. There are definitely references to political events and figures that don’t get taught that much outside Britain too.)

But overall, I enjoyed the book and I certainly learned a lot! (It might also have set me on a kick of watching all the reenactment shows Goodman appears on. Which have also taught me a lot and shown some of the gaps in her books a little better.) I wouldn’t rec this as a go-to for writers the same way I’d rec Victorian but it’s still a good resource for the period and an interesting read for the layperson.

To bear in mind: Contains historical instances of inequality, especially gendered, and child labour.

7/10

A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery – Curtis Craddock

May 20, 2019

In brief: Isabelle des Zephyrs, unexpected heroine of the realm, is just as unexpectedly convicted of a trumped-up crime right as murder (and possible worse) hit the capital in advance of le Roi’s birthday celebrations. Second in a series.

Thoughts: I’ve put off writing reviews for too long because it’s a bit hard for me now to articulate what I liked about this book. The characters, definitely! I still like Isabelle a lot and still see a lot of Sam Vimes in Jean-Claude, and the supporting cast has a lot of new and interesting figures in it. Powerful women! A dashing guard! Nasty villains! And more! And by and large they continue to be eminently sensible about how they go about things, which is already refreshing.

I also enjoyed seeing the world expand, getting a better sense of the wider world and the political structures and seeing other magical abilities woven in, though sometimes that all got to be a bit much and detracted from the adventure and escapism of the story. (All of that info gets used and to good effect, though, and I’m interested in seeing how much crops up again in the next book.)

The story itself, the mystery and intrigue, was a little bit more standard. More expected things happen, more character development hits common notes, and I found myself ahead of Isabelle a few times, where in the last book I was right on par, if not a bit behind. That said, there still were moments of shock and thrill and glee and having the rug pulled out from under me, and some proper swashbuckling, and where the first book was largely about Isabelle’s personal journey, this one’s shaking much deeper foundations.

This book was also funnier than the last one, but maybe I’m mis-remembering. There are some really good lines. Really good. There’s more of a sense of vim and adventure too, like Craddock’s let himself have fun with the story instead of writing page-turning intrigue. And honestly, if Craddock’s sequelitis—or middle-of-a-trilogy syndrome, not sure—results in a smidge more infodump, a slightly weaker plot, and a joy in the writing, that’s fine by me. It’s still a strong book and sequel.

To bear in mind: While this book is imo excellent re: feminism, it’s still imperfect re: queer characters and fat jokes. Not ickily so, but there are moments. Also, there’s some reasonably graphic gore and some pretty awful described torture, as well as other similar body-in-peril situations.

8/10

Eagle in Exile – Alan Smale

May 19, 2019

In brief: Gaius Marcellinus has finally adjusted to life in the Native city-state of Cahokia. Mostly. He still believes the Roman Army will try for conquest again, that the nations of Nova Hesperia must unite to face them, and it’s his duty to Roma to make this happen. The Cahokians? Not so sure. Second in a series.

Thoughts: Whee! This is a well thought-out alternate history, and very fun to read. Smale’s managed not only to realistically, sympathetically recreate a Native culture and to portray the impacts Roman contact could have on one (literacy! infantry! saunas!), but he also tackles big issues like ethics, racism, sexism, colonialism, and autonomy and does them well. And it’s pretty fast-paced too, for a book that spans years! With some very excellent battle scenes, a good bit of travel narrative, and a balanced romance.

Also the Cahokians have an air combat division, which sort of makes everything better, even if I have to wonder if they actually did.

7/10

Fellside – M.R. Carey

May 18, 2019

In brief: The Girl on the Train — in prison. With ghosts.

Thoughts: I think I’m suffering a bit from Very Excellent First Book Syndrome with this one. (The Girl With All the Gifts is fantastic and a tough act to follow.) Fellside is still very good, but I didn’t feel it as viscerally as GWAtG and the horror elements are … different. It reads a lot more like a psychological thriller than a horror novel, basically, and while I don’t mind that, it’s not what I was expecting. Also, the twists are wonderful but, again with the GWAtG comparison, didn’t seem to have the same force. I could sort of tell how things were going to fall out, but kept on reading anyway.

7/10