P. Pufferfish really needs coffee (but somehow still manages to review a book)

mrchurchillssecretary

Today’s featured book: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (Book #1 of Maggie Hope Mystery), by Susan Elia McNeal.

The premise: Okay, jumping straight in. Basic summary taken from Goodreads, as usual:

For fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Laurie R. King, and Anne Perry, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary captures the drama of an era of unprecedented challenge—and the greatness that rose to meet it.

London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

In this daring debut, Susan Elia MacNeal blends meticulous research on the era, psychological insight into Winston Churchill, and the creation of a riveting main character,  Maggie Hope, into a spectacularly crafted novel.

My thoughts [MOSTLY SPOILER-FREE!]: When I was first recommended this book, I was told that the protagonist works as a secretary for Winston Churchill during wartime and ends up having to solve a mystery or two during the course of her work. For some reason, I pictured a woman in her forties, kind of like Chris Pine’s (hilarious!) secretary/P.A. in Wonder Woman. I was a bit disappointed when I started the book and realized the protagonist was grad school age (she’s 24). I also didn’t get why Susan Elia McNeal made her American. It’s England in 1940. The character was born in England and has British citizenship. But the author had to make her American in upbringing. I figured it was because she’s American herself and this makes it easier to describe/explain things without being called out on accuracy, due to the outsider’s perspective. As the story progressed, I grew more accepting of the fact that Maggie is American and Wellesley-educated and not English and Cambridge-educated or something (it started to make more sense, too, once her family’s backstory was brought into it).

Some parts of this book are a bit clunky and clumsily executed. There are also continuity errors, mostly in regards to Maggie’s roommate Chuck (short for Charlotte). For example, there are many scenes where Maggie and her friends are out at a club/bar/restaurant/event somewhere. The author lists out everyone who’s there, and then describes where they are in the room. During one outing, Chuck and her boyfriend go off to dance. The people remaining at the table have a discussion about something. Despite being on the dance floor, Chuck is one of the people expressing her opinion. WUH? Perhaps Chuck returned to the table and I’d missed it. But no! A few lines later, Chuck and her boyfriend return to the friggin table and rejoin the group! I wouldn’t mind if this happened only once, but it keeps happening! In another scene, the other characters mention that Chuck’s boyfriend is going off for his RAF training. The group goes out, everyone present is named and their whereabouts in the room indicated. Chuck and her boyfriend are not among them, so I went “oh, the two of them must be meeting at his base or something instead, since this whole group is so codependent and wouldn’t split up otherwise”. Then suddenly, both Chuck and her boyfriend are there at the table having drinks! Waahhhh???

Another thing that bugged me is Maggie’s relationship with John Sterling. Don’t get me wrong– I like John, and I like him with Maggie. But I felt that from the point of his introduction onwards, the author wanted to make sure we didn’t forget that there was *sexual tension* between the two of them. It was like there was a big neon sign with an arrow pointing at him going “PRIMARY LOVE INTEREST”. It’s kind of like in Game of Thrones (the show) where the writers decide to have every character in every other scene go “Hey Jon Snow, I saw you looking at Dany.” *Nudge nudge* and then “So Khaleesi, you and that Jon Snow. How about it?” *Wink wink* I wouldn’t have really thought about it if they hadn’t kept shoving it in my face! This wasn’t as bad, because the other characters around them seem to ignore their antics until later on in the book, but there’s a whole section that’s completely from Maggie’s POV, and then suddenly, there’s a random-ass short paragraph from John’s POV (with no warning or page break!) going “JOHN THOUGHT MAGGIE WAS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN AT THE OFFICE. BUT WOULD SOMEONE LIKE HER EVER NOTICE SOMEONE LIKE HIM?” or something like that, and I was dragged out of the moment. I just don’t think all these hints are necessary. Oh yeah, and Maggie is super weird and annoying around John, especially later on. There’s a scene where they go on a sort-of date and she just behaves in the most unreasonable, almost out-of-character way. If I were John, I would have walked out!

The depiction of Maggie’s relationship with her father could also use some help. Sometimes she seems like she’s all cool with him, and then one second later, she’s going off on him and telling him she hasn’t forgiven him yet. There’s a scene where she tells him to go dance with her, and when they get to the dance floor, she starts telling him what a shitty father he was, as if he was the one who dragged her out to the dance floor against her will and not the other way around.  I get being confused about having your lying father back in your life after all these years, but the way the author wrote their scenes just didn’t do Maggie justice.

Overall, this is a protagonist and a series with some potential. I read it in a day, so there were enough happenings to keep me going, and I didn’t hate any of the characters. I just wish the editors did a better job and the author tried showing us some more things instead of telling us using big, bold letters.

My rating: 3/5.

Now, diversity scale time.

BAD-ASS FEMALE CHARACTERS? Ehhhh, I would say that Maggie and her gal pals are pretty strong, outspoken, smart women, although they seem to fit the “stock types” that are present in most friend groups in popular culture (the leader; the bubbly, naive one; the loud-mouthed one; the sexy one). Also, other than Maggie, the women at the Prime Minister’s office are stereotypes of older working office women.

Another thing I found annoying was the fact that Maggie very frequently unleashes angry feminist tirades on her male coworkers and friends. I am a feminist myself, and there is sexism in this book (although nowhere near the scale of other stories set during WWII)– Maggie is angry at the sexism she experiences, and she’s allowed to be, especially as someone who grew up raised by an accomplished academic aunt and went to Wellesley for undergrad. But when the rants go on for paragraphs and start to sound more like they’re from the 2010s than the 1940s, I start cringing. There are lots of *preachy* moments like this throughout MCS. 89%, B+/A- marks, as one of my professor used to give on papers.

Cultural diversity: Maggie is an American from New England. Her friend Paige is a “southern belle”, also from the states. The guys are typical upper-class English types. Chuck is Irish. Sarah is from Liverpool and has a Polish dance partner. There are pages devoted to talking about Britishisms (quite hilariously, in Very British Problems-style remarks), and I was impressed by how well the British “kept calm and carried on”, despite having bombs dropped on them every night. There is also a lot of attention given to English atrocities against the Irish, but here, the telling vs. showing problem comes in again; since two of the main villains are Irish/of Irish descent, this results in pre-Timothy Dalton era, one-dimensional James Bond villain-esque monologuing. Quite unfortunate. D+.

LGBTQIA representation: This one’s a bit tricky. Maggie’s friend David is gay, and since it was illegal back then (he actually says this at one point), he’s closeted, but among his friends, his homosexuality seems to be an open secret. Here, the continuity errors factor in once more, since at the beginning, when David’s on the phone with Maggie pleading with her to take the secretary job, she pretty much threatens him with her knowledge of this secret. Then waayyy later on in the story, David comes out to her and she reacts as if she never knew at all! HUH? Maggie’s aunt Edith is a lesbian who lives with her female partner, another Wellesley professor, and has been estranged from her mother for decades because of her sexual orientation. I would argue that Maggie, having been raised in an environment where her primary guardian is a lesbian, would be more likely to be an ally to David. It also makes sense for Sarah, who’s a ballerina and works with gay male dancers every day, to be cool with homosexuality as well. It was a bit of a stretch for me that everyone else was perfectly fine with it, though. It’s true that this isn’t the focus of the story, and this is fiction, so we’re allowed to suspend our disbelief, but I think because it’s set during the same time period as The Imitation Game, I couldn’t help but go, “This guy needs to do a better job hiding this!” Still, A- for representation.

Quality platonic friendships: HMMMM, I’m actually attempting to keep this review mostly spoiler-free, plot-wise (FOR ONCE!), so I can’t say much without giving away a major plot development, but I’m going to grade a B for this category. There are moments where the friendships in this book shine, such as when the girls are digging a hole for their bomb shelter, and Maggie and Sarah’s scenes together are great. John is the PRIMARY LOVE INTEREST *announcer voice*, and he doesn’t really interact in notable ways with the other girls, so he’s not eligible for this category. David and John are best friends, but I often felt as if David had a more obvious friendship with the girls. His scenes with John are a bit lacking.

So overall diversity score for this book is about 83%, which is a B- or a B depending on how strictly you interpret your grades.

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P. Pufferfish reviews The Black Witch, by Laurie Forest.

theblackwitchcoverToday’s featured book: The Black Witch (Book #1 of The Black Witch Chronicles), by Laurie Forest.

Format I consumed it in: Print, from the library where I work.

The premise: So as I may or may not have said before, I only found out about this book because of the whole controversy over it. I put it on hold ’cause I had to see what all the outrage was about. I also read/watched reviews of it from PoC bloggers and booktubers, many of whom had read it and thought it was good.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, basically, some prominent book blogger read the book and (I have no idea if she actually finished it or not) found it unbelievably, unforgivably, undeniably racist, homophobic, etc., so she wrote a post warning others against reading it, complete with examples of racist speech that appears in the book (if I recall correctly, most of the excerpts are from the first half), and the online YA community was pissed off and started actively rallying against it and calling out the author and giving the book 1-star ratings, even though many of them hadn’t read the book. Now, I work in a library, and when I work at the reference desk, I find myself making book recs to people, sometimes without having read the books first (*GASP* yes, based solely on word-of-mouth or reviews), so I’m not saying that you have to read a book cover-to-cover before deciding if it’s good or total crap or, in this case, dangerous, but even before I read The Black Witch, I felt that some of the anger was kind of misplaced. Here’s a summary of the plot, lifted from Goodreads:

A new Black Witch will rise…her powers vast beyond imagining.

Elloren Gardner is the granddaughter of the last prophesied Black Witch, Carnissa Gardner, who drove back the enemy forces and saved the Gardnerian people during the Realm War. But while she is the absolute spitting image of her famous grandmother, Elloren is utterly devoid of power in a society that prizes magical ability above all else.

When she is granted the opportunity to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an apothecary, Elloren joins her brothers at the prestigious Verpax University to embrace a destiny of her own, free from the shadow of her grandmother’s legacy. But she soon realizes that the university, which admits all manner of people—including the fire-wielding, winged Icarals, the sworn enemies of all Gardnerians—is a treacherous place for the granddaughter of the Black Witch.

As evil looms on the horizon and the pressure to live up to her heritage builds, everything Elloren thought she knew will be challenged and torn away. Her best hope of survival may be among the most unlikely band of misfits…if only she can find the courage to trust those she’s been taught to hate and fear.

Okay, so the protagonist is this 17-year-old Gardnerian girl who has been homeschooled all her life by her eccentric Uncle Edwin, who took in her and her two brothers, Rafe and Tristan, after their parents were killed during the Realm War, this huge world war where her grandmother, the legendary Black Witch Carnissa Gardner (the last name really tells you how impressive this family’s lineage is) also died pushing into enemy territory. They grow up in what sounds like a fictional version of the Alps, and eventually the two brothers go off to university in this big city. The younger brother, Tristan, turns out to have powerful magic (he’s a level-5 mage, which is a big deal), and is recruited into the military. Elloren, who looks exactly like her grandmother, has no magic at all, which is a huge disappointment and shock to the Gardnerians, especially her aunt Vivyan. Aunt Vivyan is a beautiful, wealthy, powerful mage who sits on the Council. She is also a racist, classist, prejudiced, manipulative bitch, and several of the excerpts I saw of the abusive language used in The Black Witch comes from her mouth. Elloren and her brothers were raised by Edwin, who seems much milder and more tolerant (most likely, this will be further explored in the sequel), so they’re very sheltered, but at the same time, a bit more open-minded.

Aunt Vivyan spends most of the book trying to coerce Elloren into wandfasting with (marrying) Lukas Grey, a level-5 mage from another influential family. Elloren and Lukas seem to hit it off (they go into another room and make out as soon as they meet), but she’s hesitant to marry someone she doesn’t really know, so she decides to keep him at arm’s length while she focuses on more important things, like her work-study in the university kitchens with creatures of other races who are just as prejudiced against her as she is towards them; her less-than-ideal rooming situation with 2 icarals (winged, mixed-race “demons) who aren’t disposed to cleanliness; her extremely demanding courseload; her increasing interest in her coworker, a Kelt boy; and rising political tensions. Oh yeah, and there’s also the matter of Fallon Bane, the most powerful level-5 mage and main contender to become the next Black Witch. Too bad she’s like a younger Aunt Vivyan and hates Elloren, who she sees as a romantic rival. Since this is a YA novel, the budding romantic relationships and tension are unavoidable.

My thoughts: Throughout this book, I kept going MAN, EVERYBODY’S racist! Because shit, most everybody is. The Gardnerians, who are the most politically powerful race at the moment, are obviously racist– most of them echo Aunt Vivyan and Fallon, but not so brazenly. There are some who are more in favor of integration, but they still harbor racist beliefs. The Elves are just as hoity-toity and judgmental as the Gardnerians (they walked out of a class because the new professor was an elf from a lower caste!), and none of the other races trust one another, and for good reason! Still, it was the reverse prejudice that shocked me the most, probably because I’m used to Hollywood showing me racism through a fuzzy-wuzzy lens. I usually see angry, unreasonable, horrible white people mistreating PoC, followed by a scene where the white protagonist ends up in a place with a bunch of PoC, and there’s initially some hostility, but there’s always a leader figure who steps up and speaks nicely to the protagonist and tells the others to back off. The protagonist then learns about the other side, becoming tolerant, so on, with the help of this PoC mentor-figure.

When Elloren arrives for her first shift in the kitchens, her non-Gardnerian coworkers bully her relentlessly and don’t hesitate to show their distrust and hate. The matriarch figure who I expected to step up and speak on her behalf doesn’t. In fact, the burden of reaching out, learning about other cultures, exploring history from another perspective, etc., rests primarily on Elloren’s shoulders. She spends the first half of the book hanging out with other Gardnerians only, mostly because the non-Gardnerians wouldn’t hang out with her even if she wanted them to. She makes several huge mistakes, including getting Lukas to help her deal with her problems at work (he handles the problem by threatening Elloren’s coworkers’ families) and in her dorm (he kills her roommate’s pet and hangs it up in a grotesque display), but the important thing is that she does eventually learn to question things, think independently, and become a true ally to her non-Gardnerian friends and classmates.

Is there a danger of her becoming a “white savior” figure? Ehhh, I didn’t see it that way. First of all, she’s Gardnerian, and some of the other races are arguably whiter than the Gardnerians are, but that aside…  it’s true that Elloren and her few Gardnerian friends/allies are the ones in positions of power, and if it weren’t for their assistance, nothing would have been accomplished (at least, not easily) but most of what they do by the end of the book is a team effort, with people from all races and backgrounds pitching in. I think it’s a bit early in the story (this is a planned trilogy, after all) to judge on this point.

My rating: 4/5. I was going to give it a 3.75, because it is very obviously an early work by a new author (in terms of pacing, character introductions– you’ll see what I mean), but I did like it a lot, and I want to cancel out some of the unfairly negative reviews.

In terms of cultural diversity? I give this book 10/10 points. I thought the different races’ views on who among them is actually most superior (the Gardnerians think they are, the Lupines think they are, etc.) was interesting. Not everyone was subservient to the party in power.

In terms of bad-ass female characters? I give this an 8/10. Elloren spent about 40% of the book crying, even when the situation didn’t warrant it, and I was kind of annoyed by that. Fallon Bane is the only female mage and she happens to be the most powerful, which is awesome, but she’s also a big bully who spends too much time waving around what she’s got. I really wanted Fallon and Elloren to be frenemies, and for Fallon to be a morally gray character, but nope, didn’t happen! Diana gets an A+ from me, though– great female character. Almost all of the victims in this book were women, which gets a thumbs-down from me, but it’s also an old-fashioned, sexist society where women aren’t treated equally, so got to keep that in mind.

LGBTQIA REPRESENTATION? I suppose I could give this a C- passing grade.The only character who is confirmed gay is Tristan, Elloren’s brother, but he is closeted and his homosexuality is a secret known only by Elloren and 2-3 others, because homosexuality is also a no-no in this horrible world! I wondered if Elloren’s female roommates had a thing with each other, but it’s hard to tell. So far, everyone’s strictly one gender or another and all the romances have been straight (but interracial! One thing at a time, I guess).

QUALITY PLATONIC FRIENDSHIPS? Yeah, considering that many of these interracial friendships were hard-earned and many of these characters are committing potential political/social/career suicide by being close friends with one another, I would say so. Elloren and the Gardnerian girls she befriends have a great female friendship going, and with the addition of Diana and Wynter, they have a veritable sisterhood. 10/10.

 

 

P. Pufferfish’s book review for The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet.

Rarely is work slow enough that I actually have time to sit and work on reviews, but here we have it. Ain’t gonna complain! I should really start working on that Children’s Book Reviews page that I set up (I’ve read quite a few Children’s books since then), but I can barely even finish a regular review. Hmmm…

longwaytoasmallangryplanet

Today’s featured book: The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1) by Becky Chambers.

Format I consumed it in: E-book, from the library near my house.

The premise: I have no idea why it’s listed as “Wayfarers #1” when I clearly remember Becky Chambers saying that the follow-up book, A Closed and Common Orbit, is just a follow-up and not really a sequel; I don’t think she has sequels planned.

The story follows Rosemary Harper, a newly hired clerk, and her adventures aboard the tunneling ship Wayfarer, in a future where interstellar/intergalactic travel is a common thing and humans have fucked up Earth enough that most of them have been forced to abandon it for Mars and other planets far away. Rosemary herself is from a wealthy Martian family (apparently, the rich who could afford to leave first went to Mars, and everyone else who escaped afterwards went elsewhere) and has lived a pretty sheltered life on the ground, learning about most alien species through books at school. This is probably why Becky Chambers used her as the POV character initially, so that the other characters can have an excuse to explain new cultures and life in deep space to her. She spends the first few chapters just getting used to “punching”, which is when a ship punches a hole through which they can travel to another point in the universe, I think? and meeting the other crew members of the Wayfarer.

At first, I did the thing everybody else probably did and couldn’t stop comparing it to Firefly, but with aliens and more non-white characters. They even have an excitable female engineer, or “tech”! But then I found out that Captain Ashby is a pacifist, which is just such a weird trait for a ship captain to have, imo (but do I think it’s weird ’cause captains are supposed to be willing to physically fight to defend their ships, especially in a dangerous place like space, or ’cause I’m used to seeing fictional captains do that? Technically, there’s no reason he has to own guns and know how to fight, ’cause he owns a fucking tunneling ship), and all the non-human alien crew members (Sissix, Chef, Ohan) are from very unique and completely non-humanoid races (unlike in many other sci-fi series aside from Star Wars or something, except even in Star Wars, the protagonists only *have relations* with other humanoids– not so here!), and Jenks, the other tech, is dating Lovey, the ship’s AI, and Corbin has his own crazy backstory, and basically, what a COLORFUL cast of characters. Perhaps literally. Kizzy is still a lot like Kaylee, though, except mixed-race (Ashby mentions that most humans are mixed-race and a light brown color, which is an interesting point and will probably happen sooner or later in the real future of humanity) and raised by two dads. Then again, I don’t know anything about Kaylee’s family background. As far as I know, she could have been raised by two dads as well!

But what about the plot? You’ve devoted a giganto paragraph to talking about the characters in vague ways! So let’s move on to

My thoughts: But anyways, I heard sci-fi fans talking nonstop about this book for a year or so before I finally put myself on the holds list for it, and I actually attempted to read it once, got about 10 pages in, got distracted by other books, went back on the holds list, started it, got about 60 pages in, and let it sit there on my Kindle for almost 3 weeks, when I saw the countdown clock go up, saying “1 day, 14 hours, ___ minutes until return”, which meant (as all e-book borrowers know) that at that time, the file would disappear from my device and be replaced by a “No longer available on device” box. So I forced myself to sit and read it, and whaddya know? It got better after about 1/3 of the way through the book. I remember Becky Chambers saying in an interview that Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet is like a road trip story, but in space. She’s right in that most of the time, the characters are doing pretty standard, day-to-day upkeep tasks, bickering with one another, getting to know one another better (in more ways than one), filing paperwork… occasionally, they hold important vidconference calls with politicians, officials, clients, etc. Sometimes they stop at spaceports or friends’ and families’ home planets to refuel, pick up supplies, shop, and “get laid”. There are several close scrapes with giant bugs, space pirates, prison, and explosives, but overall, this is very much a character-driven book, and the plot tends to come second to the time devoted to character development.

My rating: 4/5 from me, ’cause I really liked it, but I didn’t love love love it.

And now, it’s time fooooooor… the diversity/representation scale! It’s something I keep track of/keep in mind personally when I read a book, so I figured I should just include it here, too.

In terms of AWESOME FEMALE/FEMALE-IDENTIFYING CHARACTERS— LWTASAP has about a 60-40 gender split in its ensemble cast (a bit more female-leaning if you count the characters who are more genderfluid), and the “ladies” all have their own unique strengths. Rosemary, the initial (and arguably the main) POV character, is a bit timid, but she is intelligent and excels when it comes to research and finding loopholes in laws/regulations. Sissix and Kizzy are a pilot and an engineer, respectively, and they’re both very loud, vibrant characters. The female supporting characters that appear are also powerful, strong, capable women. 10/10.

CULTURAL DIVERSITY: Duuuuude, I can’t stress enough how dedicated Becky Chambers is to depicting new cultures in a respectful way. Most of the cultures that appear in LWTASAP are fictional, but they feel very real because you get details on family structure, home life, traditions, beliefs, values, FOOD PREFERENCES, so on. It’s like the Star Trek or Guardians of the Galaxy scenes where the characters deal with hilarious misunderstandings because someone doesn’t get someone else’s sense of humor or habits or something like that. Even the human characters have different values, depending on whether they’re from Mars, the outer planets, what have you. 10/10.

LBBTQIA+ REPRESENTATION: Without further spoilers, 10/10. Enough said.

QUALITY PLATONIC FRIENDSHIPS: This one is very important to me, because I’m sick of how in every single book and movie, as soon as 2 prominent (usually straight) characters get close to each other, they have to develop sexual/romantic feelings for each other. I was actually waiting for Rosemary and Captain Ashby to get together, and as soon as Kizzy and Jenks were introduced, I thought it would be revealed that one of them had feelings for the other (*cough* Fitzsimmons syndrome *cough*) ’cause that’s how a normal book would have done it, but I was pleasantly surprised. 10/10.

Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet gets an A+ in diversity. Can’t think of a better book for that #diversereads hashtag that’s been going around than this one, really.

October and November TBR (a.k.a. P. Pufferfish’s first ever TBR)

For the past 18 or so hours, I’ve been reading fanfiction and hemming and hawing, trying to decide what to read next now that I’m done with Lady Midnight and won’t be getting Lord of Shadows anytime soon ’cause I was a fool and didn’t bother putting it on hold until 2 days ago. I’m listening to The Clockwork Dynasty, by Daniel Wilson, on audiobook (read by David Giuntoli and Claire Coffee of Grimm fame!) so I’ve been walking around with it playing on my phone, listening while I do laundry, brush my teeth, etc. I have Son of Neptune on CD to listen to in my car. I’ve been slooooowly making my way through Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren, but I usually only read a chapter or two of that in the morning or afternoon ’cause it’s nonfiction. I need a different fiction book to read, though, and I have a stack to pick from, but which one to read first?!

I can’t choose, so I’m just going to set an overambitious goal and say I’m reading ALL of them. I finally get why people do #toberead posts. I’m one of those people who read whatever they see that catches their eye regardless of what they currently have in their stack of unread books already. I also read whatever book gets automatically checked out to me next on the holds list, so any TBR list I create would have to keep shifting and be pretty much unpredictable, unless I want to sit down and calculate which book I’m most likely to get based on where I am on the holds lists. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

It’s, what, October 23rd? That’s one week till the end of the month, so this TBR will have to be an end of October/November TBR. Fall TBR? I guess. Anyways, here’s what I have:

  1. American Elsewhere, by Robert Jackson Bennett. I’ve heard this book reminds people of the Nightvale podcast, which I’m a fan of, so I checked it out on e-book. It’s due in 2.5 weeks, I think.
  2. The Black Witch, by Laurie Forest. There was a LOOOOOOT of controversy surrounding this book, which is how I first heard about it, although many people say that it’s very good. I read some of the passages that were considered problematic and, while the language makes me uncomfortable, I’m pretty sure it’s fucking supposed to. The point of the book is to show what it’s like to move from your stuffy, conservative, racist hometown to a diverse area where you’re forced to interact with those who are different from you on a daily basis and how that can change a person, especially a young person. It makes sense to me to show the level of ignorance and intolerance the protagonist has been exposed to all her life so that we get where she’s coming from and can see why these beliefs are wrong. Anyways, I HAD TO KNOW if complaints were justified after I read some articles about people hating on this book, so I checked it out…. aaaaand left it on my couch for 3 weeks. I managed to renew it, so now I have 2.5 weeks left to read it. Do I read this one or American Elsewhere first? I kind of want to read this, ’cause I just read Lady Midnight and am in a supernatural, elves-fey-vampires kind of mood, BUT… it’s in print. I’m too lazy to read books in print nowadays. I don’t like carrying the book around and it makes it harder to read in bed. I still read print books ’cause sometimes, the library only has the book in print or Amazon sells the print book for the same price/for a LOWER price than the e-book, for some inexplicable reason, but I greatly prefer e-books.
  3. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. It’s Halloween, which means it’s time for my annual reread of one of my favorite novels! It’s been unseasonably warm this year, so I feel like I forgot it’s October and have been procrastinating on starting this. In fact, I didn’t remember until last night that there’s only a week left in the month. Shame on me!
  4. Prince Lestat, by Anne Rice. Last night, when I was lying there in the dark waiting to fall asleep, I randomly started missing my old friend Lestat. The Vampire Chronicles ruined me for all other vampire novels (aside from Dracula), so I occasionally reread them, but I’ve never managed to finish Memnoch the Devil. Anne Rice says Memnoch is her favorite book, so I should really try to finish it, but in my head, The Vampire Chronicles ends with Tale of the Body Thief. Wha’s all this other crap I hear about Lestat falling in love with a witch from a crossover story? Nope! Nope, nope, nope! I think I’ll just skip however many books and jump straight into Prince Lestat, which I’ve heard good things about. Can I do that? Can I make-believe books 5-whatever don’t exist and still have the story make sense to me? Anyone know?
  5. Tales From the Shadowhunter Academy, by Cassandra Clare. Apparently, I was supposed to read this BEFORE Lady Midnight? Oops. I saw that the library where I work has a copy, so I ran upstairs to grab it, and it WASN’T THERE. Now I have to put it on hold and have it sent from another library. Damn. Hate it when that happens. This one should be a quick read, though, so I’ll probably read a story per day when I get it.
  6. The Crimson Campaign (Book #2 of The Powder Mage Trilogy), by Brian McClellan. I’ve had this book on my couch for 1.5 months. I kept forgetting to read it. I just checked it in and checked it out to myself again today. Thank goodness no one had it on hold. I’ll have to read it asap. I don’t even know why I’m lagging– I loved the first book.

All right, that’s what I have for now. Wait a minute! Now that I’ve listed this out, I only have 6 books! I can get through these in 2-3 weeks! What was I even freaking out about? Oh yeah, library due dates. Hmm. I also have a ton of children’s books on my TBR list, but I’ll put those up when I finally start updating the Children’s Reviews page. I’ll do it… soon. Next week. Next month. Someday…

P. Pufferfish’s heart is aching (a.k.a. P. Pufferfish Reviews Lady Midnight, by Cassandra Clare)

ladymidnightcoverToday’s featured book: Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices #1), by Cassandra Clare.

Format I consumed it in: E-book, from the library near my house.

The premise: Another book that makes you go, “man, if only Clary hadn’t done that stupid thing she did 2/3 of the way through City of Lost Souls…”. This takes place 5 years after the end of City of Heavenly Fire, so the protagonist, Emma Carstairs, is now 17, along with her parabatai, Julian Blackthorn. Emma has spent the past 5 years investigating her parents’ deaths, which she doesn’t believe were caused by Sebastien Morganstern, ’cause their bodies were found with weird dark magic type runes all over! With the Blackthorns away visiting relatives in England, Emma enlists the help of Cristina, an awesome foreign exchange student from the Mexico City Institute, to track down leads and– wait, hold on, Imma let Amazon summarize for you, ’cause I’m too lazy to type this up:

It’s been five years since the events of City of Heavenly Fire that brought the Shadowhunters to the brink of oblivion. Emma Carstairs is no longer a child in mourning, but a young woman bent on discovering who killed her parents and avenging her losses.

Together with her battle partner Julian Blackthorn, Emma must learn to trust her head and her heart as she investigates a demonic plot that stretches across Los Angeles, from the Sunset Strip to the enchanted sea that pounds the beaches of Santa Monica. If only her heart didn’t lead her in treacherous directions…

Making things even more complicated, Julian’s brother Mark—who was captured by the faeries five years ago—has been returned as a bargaining chip. The faeries are desperate to find out who is murdering their kind—and they need the Shadowhunters’ help to do it. But time works differently in faerie, so Mark has barely aged and doesn’t recognize his family. Can he ever truly return to them? Will the faeries really allow it?

Glitz, glamours, and Shadowhunters abound in this heartrending opening to Cassandra Clare’s Dark Artifices series.

BASICALLY: string of murders in LA area; bodies of mundanes, Faeries, etc., found with the same markings on their bodies as those found on Emma’s parents’ bodies (hey, could this have been done by the same serial killer?); creepy supernatural cult; secret agreements drawn up between the Blackthorns/the LA Institute and the Faeries of the Unseelie Court, who want to investigate the murders of their own kind and are willing to allow Mark Blackthorn to return home in exchange for the Shadowhunters’ aid; BETRAYAL; LAW-BREAKING (there’s a line about the Blackthorns having trouble with the law in the past that I completely sympathize with, especially today, ’cause I’m being forced to go to a mandatory meeting tomorrow because of what I deem unnecessary red tape and prying on the government’s part); COMPLICATED ROMANCE; PINING– SO MUCH PINING. Oh, and the strange, inexplicable ability to use technology. The Shadowhunters of LA regularly use the internet for research, are caught up on their pop culture references, and drive a lot ’cause it’s So-Cal (WOOOOO!) and nobody walks here.

My thoughts: [BIG SPOILERS] HOLY COW, this was hard to put down after about 40% of the way through, when Cristina walks in (out? She technically ran out of the Institute) on Mark and Kieran making out in the parking lot and the plot FINALLY begins to pick up after that. Before that, it was plotty enough that I kept reading to find out what would happen (plus, my sister read it first and told me I had to keep going ’cause of how good it gets), but I just couldn’t get into it the way I wanted to. Julian is just so EHHHH… Emma’s fine, but I had trouble sitting through pages and pages of mutual pining and teen angst. Yes, we get that you’re parabatai and it’s forbidden love and that sucks and all, but Julian was so grouchy and serious, and for a large chunk of the first half, he was nothing but a love interest with a lot of baggage; he didn’t really do much for the plot. A pair that I found way more compelling was Mark and Cristina. I shipped them up until we were hit in the face by Mark/Kieran (but I ain’t complaining about that– Kieran is very sexy and otherworldly), and then I was just confused, ’cause I still liked the idea of Mark and Cristina as a couple, but I also really wanted Mark/Kieran to work out. Then Perfect Diego appeared! Diego and Cristina are obviously soulmates/endgame, but there’s still *sexual tension* between Mark and Cristina, and even though Mark breaks up with Kieran at the end of the book, I still have hope that they’ll get back together. CAN’T WE JUST HAVE A LOVE SQUARE? A FOURSOME? They’d be the most beautiful foursome ever. Good god, if you’d told me half a year ago that I’d be shouting that by October’s end, I would’ve never believed you. Life is so unpredictable.

I wasn’t really big on Cassandra Clare creating so many Blackthorn siblings and having them all be named and appear in so many scenes that we’re all forced to learn their names. But I ate my words later on, ’cause they have very different personalities and I was able to tell them apart pretty quickly. I grew fond of them, especially Ty and Dru. I also liked that the key to the whole puzzle was in a children’s storybook and Tavvy, who’s like 7 years old, was the one who made the connection in the end. To be honest, I think Julian is my least favorite Blackthorn sibling. I understand it isn’t fair of me to keep rolling my eyes whenever he’s being his party pooper self ’cause he had no choice but to play the guardian role and be responsible for a bunch of children when he isn’t yet 18 himself (I admire him for being able to do what I never could have done), but I couldn’t help but cackle out loud when he ran to his studio and dramatically tried to paint a portrait of Emma, but couldn’t because he ran out of yellow paint or whatever. I also laughed when Kieran was eavesdropping on Mark and Cristina outside the window and crushed that acorn in a fit of rage. Oh geezus, Cassandra, couldn’t you have spared us the melodrama?

I will give props for the Malcolm thing, ’cause up until they mentioned belladonna and Cornwall, I had no clue it was coming, although I’m sad, ’cause I genuinely liked Malcolm and when he told Emma that he hated the Blackthorn kids the entire time he was helping babysit them and watching them grow up, I went “NOOOOOOOO!!!” It majorly sucked. Lady Midnight, more than the other Shadowhunter novels, reads like a “villain of the week” case, like a two-episode arc in Criminal Minds or Grimm or some other crime procedural. Plus a ton of teen angst revolving around romantic relationships. The Mortal Instruments books read like 2 massive volumes and The Infernal Devices is more like 1 big book, with the happenings all blending together. Not so with Lady Midnight. The ending was weird, though– I found that it didn’t fit in with the solemn tone of the rest of the book, having Julian distract ROBERT LIGHTWOOD by having him arrest Anselm Nightshade for using dark magic to sell pizza, WTF. That’s like a Kingsman-type ending (I just saw Kingsman: Golden Circle), not meant to be super realistic or even make perfect sense.

My rating: 4.5/5. I didn’t like this as much as Clockwork Princess, but liked it more than the individual books of The Mortal Instruments. It’s probably on par with City of Glass, quality-wise, but I liked City of Glass more.

P. Pufferfish’s identity crisis (a.k.a. P. Pufferfish reviews Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant)

traitorbaru

Today’s featured book: The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

The premise: There is a beautiful island called Taranoke. On the island lives a precocious young girl named Baru Cormorant. Baru is the only child of 2 men, Salm and Solit, and one woman, Pinion. Pinion and Salm hunt and protect the family, and Solit makes a living as a blacksmith. The three adults are in a loving, polyamorous relationship and everybody lives together under one roof. Wait, what? That’s right– on Taranoke, they do things differently than they do in the more western-centric fantasy novels we’re used to– it’s normal to have same-sex relations and have more than one lover or partner at the same time. The people hunt, fish, and live simple, rustic lives, but you know what? They’re happy, so who cares?

Enter the Falcresti empire, or “the Masquerade”, as they’re commonly known as. At first, they show up to trade with the Taranoki and, as these things often work, they bring with them their own social and cultural norms, traditions, ideas, etc. They’re more modernized, more industrialized; they have better medicine, they have a more “advanced” education system; they coerce Taranoki parents to put their children into Falcresti-style schools, run by Falcresti administrators and instructors, telling them that this way, in a rapidly-changing world where Taranoke is doomed to fall behind, their children will be able to have a future, serving the Falcresti empire! But they also outlaw homosexuality and polyamory, spending lots of energy trying to convince the Taranoki that it’s wrong and unnatural. They’re obsessed with eugenics and creating a “clean” society, and SOMEHOW, they’ve managed to work their way in so slowly and “harmlessly” that Taranoke is already under its control, despite no actual war having been fought!

And with that, friends, we have witnessed imperialism take place before our very eyes. All my life, I’ve heard about life under imperialism– my maternal grandparents were born and grew up in a country occupied by a foreign force, were fluent in said occupying foreign force’s language, attended schools run by these foreigners, adopted their foreign lifestyles and fashion, and overall actually thrived as model citizens of an imperialized nation. Did they ever love their foreign overlords/”benefactors”? Nope! It’s not like they were particularly nice, at least not to these poor, backwards people they’d taken under one wing and simultaneously exploited with the other.

But did my grandparents hate these invaders? No, they did not. In fact, to this day, long after all foreign forces have been expelled from their home country and my grandparents and all of their children have moved abroad, everyone on my mother’s side of the family (self included) is still very fond of this country that once took over ours and forced our people to become more like theirs, without ever truly accepting us as their people/granting us the same rights as their people. We still feel this strange, intimate connection to them and even *GASP* cheer for them during sporting events like the World Cup and speak fondly of their beautiful cities and their delicious foods and just how fashionable and wonderful they are as a people. The past is in the past, and our history and culture are forever tied with theirs. That’s been my experience with imperialism– I never dealt with it personally, but its influence is still there.

TLDR: this book fascinated me. Never before have I seen a book delve so deeply into the insidiousness, the permanence, the economics?!, and the ethics?! of imperialism. Baru decides, as a child, that she will play their game. She’s smart and ruthless and one of the Falcresti higher-ups realizes it upon first meeting her. He tells her that she could have a brilliant future with the Masquerade. And so Baru is determined to make it big, so to speak, distinguishing herself as a student at the academy, rising in the ranks, gain power from the inside… all so she can eventually save Taranoke.

The plan seems to have a chance of working. After graduating with high marks, Baru is made an Imperial Accountant and sent to Aurdwynn, one of the nations that the Falcresti have imperialized in more recent memory (their society is a more “advanced” one than that of Taranoke and has adopted many Falcresti methods). Aurdwynn operates under a feudal system, with dukes and duchesses ruling over separate territories within the same border and independently collecting taxes from their people. The Falcresti have placed a governor on the island to oversee things, and he has managed to bring a very prominent duke over to the Falcresti side by befriending him and promising an advantageous marriage for his daughter. The rest of the island, however, is highly prone to rebellion.

Baru’s job, as the new Imperial Accountant, is to figure out who is funding these efforts and weed out the problematic nobles who are most likely to rebel.  Being a mathematical genius, Baru manages to go over all the books and figure out the island’s economy and where/how the money flows in a relatively short period of time, but unfortunately, she has run into an unexpected *complication* in the form of the charismatic, fiercely independent, highly skilled Duchess Tain Hu, who rules over one of the poorest duchies in Aurdwynn, but is loved by her people. Tain Hu, like Baru, has grown up largely under Masquerade control, but unlike Baru, she has never belonged to the Masquerade. Her lesbianism is an open secret. She refuses to conform to the Masquerade’s idea of how she should behave. And Baru is extremely attracted to her. I WON’T SAY ANY MORE, BECAUSE I’VE REVEALED AS MUCH OF THE PLOT AS YOU NEED TO KNOW TO DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO READ THIS BOOK. At least until the next section.

My thoughts: [BIG SPOILERS] HOLY SHIT. Everyone who is a hardcore fan of fantasy has to read this book! It is unlike anything else! Who the hell would believe a book that largely focuses on fictional economics could be so suspenseful and intense? I was glued to my Kindle, pushing the next button to find out how Baru’s TAX PLAN WORKED OUT, WHAT THE FUCK (you will see what I mean when you read it). There was also a lot of will she-won’t she-will they-won’t-they going on, especially when it came to the romance. I have never been attracted to women, unfortunately, but daaaaamn, that Tain Hu! I don’t know how Baru managed to resist her. She’s so sexy and intelligent and good at what she does (fighting and plotting and ruling and sexin’), and so fucking passionate about her people and her country (in a way, she and Baru share pretty similar values– they just approach them differently).

The ending had me so conflicted. On the one hand, I wanted to Baru to remain firm and cold and unyielding and not let the Masquerade succeeding in getting one over her, so to speak (arguably, they’ve already succeeded in getting way more from her than just her happiness), but on the other hand, I (and probably many others) really, really, REALLY wanted Tain Hu to live. That line about how Baru always moves her players so carefully when she schemes, but forgets that the players have minds of their own as well and won’t yield to her expectations of them– holy shit, that was like being dunked in cold water. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew Tain Hu, with her spirit and patriotism, would never just stay put in exile after hearing about what was happening in Aurdwynn, and I knew the Masquerade would never just leave her alone when they knew about her connection to Baru, but OH MY FUCKING GOD, when they brought her before Baru at the end, I was still mentally screeching in anguish. POR QUE?!?! Seth Dickinson, why are you so cruel?!

Then again, the brutal reality of it is that Baru, unrelentingly calculating and logical as always, was right in figuring that in about ten years’ time or so, the Masquerade would be back on Aurdwynn’s shores with a bigger navy, a bigger army, and better tech to re-invade and reconquer Aurdwynn. Is there a point in rebelling against a vast empire like Falcrest when you’re (comparatively) small, poor, and disorganized? Should all small imperialized island nations just give up and accept foreign rule, then? Is there even any hope for Taranoke/any point to what Baru is trying to ultimately accomplish? How the hell do you break free of the vicious cycle of imperialism? Geezus Christ, I have so many questions because of this book! I wonder if my experience reading it would have been the same if I hadn’t grown up hearing my mom talk about my grandparents’ lives in an imperialized nation. I’m sure the way the story unfolded would have been just as shocking and painful, but I don’t think it would have been as impactful. Some of the lines Baru kept repeating about the Masquerade and its promises of improvement in quality of life (schooling, vaccinations!) were just eerie to read because I really can’t decide if, in the grand scheme of things, “collateral damage” aside, foreign rule was good for my country or not.

My rating: 5/5

P. Pufferfish can’t decide which book to talk about (and ends up going with City of Heavenly Fire)

Ohhh gaawwwd, why did I eat so much? I ate KFC two days in a row, ate roast duck for dinner last night, and went out for KBBQ tonight with some friends. I don’t remember having ever consumed so much meat in one week, EVER. I tried to eat most of the salad bowl they provided for us and ordered vegetable platters along with the meat ones to make myself feel better (and because I like the taste of lettuce, bell peppers, and mushrooms), but I still feel like a massive artery-clogged lump. *GROOOAAAAAN* I think I’m actually sick of meat. *SHOCK*

Anyways, because I continue to be a bad person, I read 3 more books in a row without reviewing any of them, and now I’m stuck, once again, writing about 3 books in a row before I forget their plot details.

cityof

Today’s featured book: City of Heavenly Fire (The Mortal Instruments, #6) by Cassandra Clare.

Format I consumed it in: E-book, from the library near my house.

The premise: In City of Heavenly Fire, the final book of TMI, we see the horrible consequences of Clary’s stupid, stupid decision from the previous book! Demon and brainwashed-Shadowhunter attacks on Institutes everywhere! The soon-to-be protagonists of The Dark Artifices trilogy appear (well, in Julian’s case, he makes a reappearance)! Sebastian’s creepy, incestuous obsession with Clary crosses over into whole new territory! But hey, at least Jace is back and normal again. Things aren’t SO bad.

At least, not for some. Alec is still heartbroken over his break-up with Magnus. Simon and Izzy are having trouble defining their relationship. Raphael is stuck working under Maureen, the new clan head (my god, it’s true after all!), and is very displeased (I wonder where this is heading? *Chortle*). Everyone is forced to Alicante for an emergency meeting after Sebastian takes over the aforementioned Institutes. Things are a-stirrin’ in the Downworld. Clary gets a new sword (this is a bigger deal than it seems)!

CoHF is a very action-packed, fast-paced book, so I actually can’t say any more without spoiling things (at least, until I get to the next section), but basically– A LOT OF SHIT HAPPENS, AND YOU WILL LOVE IT.

My thoughts: In this book, more so than in any of the others in TMI, I really felt that there was a gap in understanding between Clary/her peers and their parents/the adult Shadowhunters. There was really this feeling of “we’re on our own with this one”. Clary and friends’ top priorities and the Clave’s haven’t usually lined up in previous books, and more often than not, Clary just goes ahead and does whatever she wants without approval, but in CoHF, with most of them on the cusp of adulthood, we get a clear idea of what these kids will be like once it’s their turn to take over as leaders in their community, and how attitudes and values can change within the span of a generation or two.

My favorite things: When Jace forces his way into Magnus’s house to speak on behalf of his bro Alec and finds out from Magnus that the others have all been there before him, to no avail (I love Jace and Magnus’s interactions with each other). Emma. Raphael. Maia and Lily working together to gain power. The way the Seelies’ betrayal is written– it was done very believably, imo. The whole bit in Edom, especially the Alec-Jace moments and all the stuff with the Heavenly Fire. SIZZY. Malec. TESSA AND JEM.

Things I wasn’t a big fan of: UGH, MAUREEN. But at least she was only in there for a little while. The Bat/Maia relationship– it just felt forced to me. Clary and Jace having sex one cave away from where the others are sleeping in Edom– I get that they’re teens and they’re in love and they think they might die any minute, but geez, guys, timing!

ALSO! My god, Simon’s amnesia! I felt SO BAD for Izzy! I was mentally on my knees, fingers crossed, hoping that they’d somehow get around it and he wouldn’t lose his memories after all, but then it happened and I actually thought Cassandra Clare was going to end the series in a bittersweet way like this, but THANK GOODNESS she decided to give Izzy a happy ending. The poor girl deserves to be happy like everyone else!

Rating: 5/5.