Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Brass Giant by Brooke Johnson



Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I have such mixed feelings about this book. There was a lot I enjoyed. The setting, the steampunk gears-and-machines geekery, the main character's gumption (sometimes--she completely lacked gumption in some parts), the fairy tale strange path to your dreams feel. I even liked the Dickensian "orphan is more than she seems" fun. I was definitely pulled into the story and wanted to see Petra make her engineering dreams come true and find true love and change the world. I was cheering for our heroes, so that's a win.

But there was also a lot that disappointed. An unnecessary plot thread involving a rejected suitor turned potential rapist. It seems like we could have come up with a more natural sort of peril rather than giving a character who was presented as innocuous such a vicious turn.

The amount of the book spent on mooning over chocolate hair and copper eyes. I have limited stomach for swooning romance and at times the romance overwhelmed the elements that interested me more.

Interesting small characters that completely disappeared never to be thought of even for a moment when they weren't actively participating in the scene (Solomon? Matron? Mr. Stricket?) Other small characters that seemed to have gone to the Snidely Whiplash school of villainy.

Emmerich, our stalwart hero, was one-note in the way he protected Petra by seeming to betray her. Twice in such a short piece is at least once too often.

In the end, I can say I enjoyed it, but I wanted it to be more than it ended up being, to push a little deeper, reach a little higher. There was unreached potential in this book.

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Review by Samantha Bryant, another bookish fangirl. You can learn more about her and her work at http://samanthabryant.com

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

✈️ liquids in carry-on bags are limited to 3oz per TSA regulations, but nobody ever said anything about the amount of books one could bring… 😅 💌 I've gotten some amazing bookmail in the past few weeks from @PenguinTeen and @theauthorscurse 😻😻 I'll feature some photos on these books individually in the coming weeks. for now I'm in #vacationmode and I'm bringing @maggie_stiefvater's ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS along for the journey. ✈️QOTD: what's on your list of must-haves when traveling? My wireless headphones are a personal must because I love to zone out and listen to podcasts!


My Cheese Problem


I have a metaphorical cholesterol problem. I just can't get enough cheese!

No, I don't mean cheddar or muenster or gouda (though all of those are also good-ah).

I mean so bad they're good, groan-fests: cheesy movies.

Call them what you will. B movies. Cult Classics. Guilty pleasures. Misunderstood genius. Mistakes. Train wrecks. Disasters. Silly. Fun.

The "it factor" that defines them for me seems to be that in popular, general terms, these movies are not regarded as good. They wouldn't win Oscars for anything, not
even set design or soundtrack. They're melodramatic and overwrought. The plots are weak and require serious suspension of disbelief. Characters are drawn in broad strokes, not with subtlety or nuance. They don't grow or change. The journey is just surviving the adventure.

But they have heart.

I'm not as fond of the ones that are doing it on purpose, stuff like Sharknado or Snakes on a Plane. A truly cheesy movie has to be sincere, so it can't know that it's a cheesy movie. It has to believe in itself or the magic doesn't work. Sure, the costumes may be bad, the acting even worse, but there's something about the very lack of professionalism and controlled artistry that is a siren call for me. There's no distance. They *mean* it.

Especially in the summertime, when I'm in recovery from nine months of relentless, demanding classroom work and I want my escape, I turn to cheesy movies. Candy for my brain. Wonderful, possibly hallucinogenic candy.

I blame my father.

We used to watch the worst movies together after cartoons on Saturdays, so besides the attraction of the high drama and unbridled imagination or the allure of no-holds-barred who-cares-if-you're-offended transgressiveness, there's also a nostalgic comfort like Chef Boyardee and Ovaltine. Maybe it's not good for me, but it's cozy.

So, whenever I'm not busy this summer (and I'm awfully busy, considering it's summer: teaching, going to conventions, meeting deadlines, etc.), you can find me trolling the bowels of Netflix looking for the best cheese. (Or at the Carolina, where sometimes they play it for me on the big screen!).


Any other cheesy movie fans out there? 

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Review by Samantha Bryant, another bookish fangirl. You can learn more about her and her work at http://samanthabryant.com

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review: Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley



Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

This is a brave and wonderful book, tackling race and class in the context of political intrigue and a murder mystery through the eyes of a 17-year-old steeplejack. If you like historical fiction coupled with suspense and thriller elements, this story is for you.

The world building for Bar-Selehm (a fantasy version of South Africa) is deep and fascinating, and deftly interwoven into the story so naturally and organically that you don't notice it as you read, but find yourself immersed. This post colonial historical fantasy never becomes pedantic or lingers too long in exposition, but still really paints a fascinating world.

The three main kinds of people we encounter are the white colonial Feldish people, Lani immigrants descended from indentured servants (like the main character), and indigenous black Mahweni people, both city-dwelling and unassimilated. We see a variety of characters of all three groups and get a good cross section of the city.

Anglet or Ang, the main character, is pretty amazing. Not only is she physically adept enough to make her living as a steeplejack, which involves climbing to dizzying heights and repairing masonry, she's also smart, independent but still connected to others, and insightful. She's physically strong, and making it as a young woman in what is essentially a job for boys (not even men, because most don't live that long).

I quickly found myself on her side and cheering for her, which is a good thing, since the novel is entirely in her perspective. If I have one complaint about her, it's that she's a little too perfect, stopping just this side of being more properly named Mary Sue. But there were enough times that she needed to rely on others, that I was able to forgive the slightly implausible range of her skill set.

For most of the book, the pacing is beautiful, giving us hints of what to come at the right time, but not giving things away too soon or manipulating too broadly with red herrings.

Unfortunately, the ending felt rushed, to the point that several lingering plot points were resolved by looking into a single carriage at the end of the climactic scene and finding that not only were situations we worried about resolved, but the people involved were all in the carriage. My suspension of disbelief was also stretched thin by the number of things one of Ang's friends was able to resolve for her so quickly, the one time that the difficulties a person of his race might have in being heard by the right people was ignored. I was glad he succeeded, but part of me doubted he could have.

If not for these few flaws, which are small in the scheme of things, and didn't really interfere much with my enjoyment as I read, I would be able to call this a perfect book. The language is beautiful and I marked several passages for their poetic nature or spot-on insights into larger philosophies. Bravo!


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Review by Samantha Bryant, another bookish fangirl. You can learn more about her and her work at http://samanthabryant.com

Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: Tokoyo Tarareba Girls Vol. 1 by Akiko Higashimura



Published: 14 February 2017

Publisher: Kodansha

Category: Manga (Josei)/Slice of Life/Romance

"I spent all my time wondering 'what if,' then one day I woke up and I was 33." She's not that bad-looking, but before she knew it, Rinko was thirty-something and single. She wants to be married by the time the Tokyo Olympics roll around in six years, but...that might be easier said than done! The new series by Akiko Higashimura erupts with sharp opinions on girls and tons of laughs!!

Rating: 4 Stars

I'll admit, the first thing that caught my eye about this manga was the tag line:

"I spent all my time wondering 'what if,' then one day I woke up and I was 33."

I'm approaching my 32nd birthday this November and that line really resonated with me. Sometimes you don't realize how much time is passing while you're getting by in your day to day life, talking about all these plans for someday or maybe. Rinko, the main character of Tokyo Tarareba Girls, has just that shock one day after a manicure from her best friend, realizing it's been ten years since the first one and what's changed while so much has remained the same.

The art style has a nice touch for a modern story. I didn't realize when I bought the first volume that this is the same manga-ka that wrote/drew Princess Jellyfish, another series that's on my TBR. I'm not very familiar with it, but I noticed that Higashimura-san included at least one nod to her other series (a web series that Rinko wrote the script for it called Jellyfish Princess, for example). I love it when authors include Easter eggs like that for their fans. Further to the art style, there are moments of overreaction from the characters, such as when Rinko was given a ring as a birthday gift on a first date, and I liked that while the emotion was evident, it was too over the top, as some manga can be.

On to the story: I LOVE Rinko's friends that are there for her no matter one. One is Kaori, the friend that is a nail stylist, and the other is Koyuki, the daughter of parents who own the pub the girls consider the best in Japan. Whenever one of them is in need, they have a girls night at the pub and hash out their problems, dissecting the problem and talking it over alongside a good beer.

Another fun character is Rinko's co-worker Mami, a younger woman who dresses in outrageous styles and funky jewelry. I think the first time we saw her, her outfit consisted of a monster print top and an eyeball ring. While she's bit more freewheeling than Rinko, they really do mesh well together in the small office they share (it's just the two of them in Rinko's office/writing studio). There's some conflict, of course, but nothing that ruins their working relationship.

Key is an aggravating character because he acts as a counterpoint and a real-life version of what, I think, Rinko is feeling deep down. He constantly criticizes the girls when they're drinking at the pub and Rinko when they meet through work. I'm not sure what he will be in the future. Will he turn into a romantic interest? Will he lead Rinko, Koyuki, or Kaori toward a new path? The cliffhanger of an ending certainly complicates things and makes me wonder who is sincere and who is being played. What's going on with this guy? I'm going to have to read more to find out!

The comedic moments were well spread out. There were some moments when suffering a disappointment, her mind's eye had lightning striking her office building and demolishing everything; also, Rinko's food talked to her (she'd been drinking) and afterwards these food-shaped characters become her conscious. Those foods, apparently, are the favorite snacks of the author AND make up the name tarareba: codfish ("tara") milt and liver ("reba") which means "what-if" when put together. It makes sense because in the Japanese translation, at the end of their sentences they say their individual characters, positing the question to Rinko: what if?

These were funny moments among a steady contemporary story that was a quick read that left me wanting to read more about Rinko, her what-ifs, and what the future will be like before the next Tokyo Olympics.



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Friday, July 7, 2017

Review: Classic Reads: We Have Always Lived in the Castle






First Published: 1962

I've been a bit of a re-reading kick. 

Partly, this is because I'm in a classics book club at my library, and about half the time the book club selection is something I've already read. I was, after all, a high school English teacher for a decade or so, and have been a reader all my life, so I've read a fair amount of classic literature. Up till now, I've not really been a re-reader. There are so many books out there I haven't yet read yet that it's hard to decide to go back for something instead of taking something out of my endless TBR pile. 

But re-reading is a different kind of experience, especially if many years have passed between reads and you are now a different person in a different phase of life than you were when you first read it. Some books don't hold up, and you wonder what your younger self was thinking. Some books are improved because you are in a place your life that connects with that story better now. Some books are deepened by revisiting them. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is one of those books for me. 

Shirley Jackson was a writer I read at a very impressionable time of life, middle school to early high school. Like many students, I encountered her short story The Lottery, which is probably the most well known thing that Jackson ever wrote. That story raised the hairs on the back of my neck and shocked me. So, I sought out everything else of hers I could find and read it. I realize now that Shirley Jackson is probably responsible for a lot of my own aesthetic as an author: that attraction to the strange, gothic, frightening, and psychological story, full of murky motivations. 

When I decided to re-read it, I didn't remember a lot of detail about the book, though it was surrounded with a fondness and a sureness that it would be good. I think I mostly remembered the atmosphere, and that there was a creepy child. I adore creepy children in literature. 

I got the audiobook this time from Audible. Bernadette Dunne, the narrator, has a very young sounding voice that is still dark, which was perfect for narrating as Mary Kat, the sociopathic girl at the heart of this story. It was one of those cases where the narration truly enhanced the book. 

What I hadn't remembered was the suspense. The slow reveal of what had happened, and how Shirley Jackson was able to surprise me at so many turns by going a different direction than I expected and still thrilling me. Because I didn't remember the plot well, I wasn't sure how the story would end. 

The genius is in how Jackson can play on your sympathies. The main character is an unreliable narrator and a frightening person, and yet she has my sympathy. I'm on her side. Hopefully that doesn't mean I'm a secret sociopath. 

Having revisited this book, I am renewed as a Shirley Jackson fan and will be rereading all her works, this time with a writer's eye to figure out the keys to her magic so I can steal them for myself. 

If you haven't read this or other Shirley Jackson, you should definitely check her out. She's one of those quietly influential writers that many others have imitated, consciously or unconsciously. She took the old fashioned gothic sensibility and intermixed it with psychological horror and domesticity to create a suspenseful and fascinating blend. An under-appreciated genius. 

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Review by Samantha Bryant, another bookish fangirl. You can learn more about her and her work at http://samanthabryant.com

Monday, July 3, 2017

Review: Reenu-You by Michele Tracy Berger



Published: 2 May 2017 

Publisher: Book Smugglers Publishing

Category: Post-Apocalyptic, Women's Fiction, African American

"New York City, August 1998. On a muggy summer day, five women wake up to discover purple scab-like lesions on their faces—a rash that pulses, oozes, and spreads in spiral patterns. City clinic doctors dismiss the women’s fears as common dermatitis, a regular skin rash. But as more women show up with the symptoms, one clear correlation emerges: an all-natural, first-of-its-kind hair relaxer called Reenu-You.

As the outbreak spreads, and cases of new rashes pop up in black and latino communities throughout New York, panic and anger also grows. When the malady begins to kill, medical providers and the corporation behind the so-called hair tonic face charges of conspiracy and coercion from outraged minority communities and leaders across the country.

At the heart of the epidemic are these five original women; each from different walks of life. As the world crumbles around them, they will discover more about each other, about themselves, and draw strength to face the future together."


Rating: 4 Stars


Hair is a complicated topic, especially if your hair isn't naturally long and straight and pliable. You know: white.

That's why the women in this story relax their hair, with the newest wonder-product on the market: Reenu-You. The product is touted as all natural, so pure you could even eat it. Of course, it's not all it's made out to be.

Pulling from a wide range of tropes of science fiction, Berger has written a compelling story full of conspiracy and danger.

Five women who all used the product and had horrifying side effects are drawn together in ways they themselves don't fully understand. The story was political commentary, a cautionary tale, an exploration of women's friendship, and an apocalyptic infection story, among other things.

Berger uses the playground of this speculative tale to explore and consider issues of race, gender, age, class, urbanity, and so much more, yet it doesn't feel preachy or pedantic. You just find yourself thinking and considering while you're quickly turning the pages to find out what will happen next.

The novella read very quickly, pulling me along with my curiosity to understand what was going on with this product and its effects on the group of women the story follows. I was left feeling a little lost at the end, when the mystery is not fully resolved. I did wish for at least a little more resolution, even while part of me felt that an open ending might be the right one for the story. There's definitely room for the story to go further.

This novella is part of Book Smugglers' Novella Initiative, which will include several other novellas running the gamut of speculative fiction. After reading this one, I'm excited to try out some of the others. 
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Review by Samantha Bryant, another bookish fangirl. You can learn more about her and her work at http://samanthabryant.com