28 May

Reading Challenge: May 2019

Is it just me, or has this month lasted 72 years? Anyhoo, this was supposed to be my last month of web hosting, but it’s tied to email addresses linked to endeavors that periodically cough up money, some of which are unnecessarily difficult to change (“you’ll have to email us your bank information so we can set up a new account for you”—uh, noooooooo), so I’m locked in for another year while I extricate myself from tertiary garbage. Pour one out for my sorely abused credit card.

Product links are affiliate coded and go to Amazon.

THE TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy: The story shifts between the 1940s, when Francis Turner moved to Detroit and left his wife Viola behind in Arkansas while he got established, and the present (2008), which mostly focuses on 2 of their 13 children. Cha-Cha, the eldest, is currently providing a home for their mother due to medical issues, so the titular house sits vacant. He’s in therapy after a work-related driving accident he attributed to a “haint” that first appeared to him as a teen at his parents’ house, trying to figure out what this apparition means. Lelah, the youngest, who’s been suspended at work for borrowing money from coworkers to fund her gambling problem, crashes in the empty house after being evicted from her apartment and spends much of her time trying to prevent everyone from finding out she’s homeless.

In the fashion of literary fiction, this is all character, no plot—the only tangible goal is what they’re going to do about a $40,000 loan left on a house that’s valued at only $4,000, and that subject rarely arises (and is ultimately unresolved!). The lives the characters meander through were interesting enough to keep me reading, but it was slow going because there was no pursuit of a goal in which to get invested. I recognize this as absolutely a “me” preference and not a fault with the book itself. I would, in fact, give it credit for not being a total slog like most lit fic is for me, but I still ran straight back to genre stories with their measurable milestones that satisfy my need for order.

SUMMER IN ORCUS by T. Kingfisher: Summer is the 11-year-old child of an overprotective mother too afraid to let her do anything other 11-year-old children do. She spends a lot of time comforting and reassuring her weeping parent. One day, Baba Yaga comes to the neighborhood with her bird-legged house and promises to give Summer her heart’s desire. Problem is, Summer doesn’t know what that is when she’s dumped in a strange land to pursue it.

This book includes: a commendable supply of puns to make my word nerd heart happy; delightfully whimsical things like trees whose falling leaves turn into frogs, an insolvent hoopoe attended by a flock of valet birds, and a were-house pursued by house hunters; and horrific things like a guy addicted to “wight-juice” who eventually splits open like a meat cocoon and an inn being burned with people inside because the bad guys thought they might have withheld information about the otherworld girl who had never actually been there. Unlike many characters, Summer has actually read books and periodically uses Narnia as a portal fantasy frame of reference for situations in which she finds herself. Being only eleven, she’s honest in a way adults seldom are about not knowing what to do, and being the child of dysfunctional parental “guidance,” she’s quite adept at looking at pros and cons and performing risk analysis. (There’s one character who cheerfully points out all the ways she could screw Summer over that Summer failed to intuit.) In the end, she learns one doesn’t have to be a save-the-world warrior hero to make a difference.

It’s a big hug of a story that made me wish I had someone to hunker down in a pillow fort with and read out loud to—child, adult, attentive dog, doesn’t matter who, this book just calls out to be performed with accents and hand gestures. Parts might be too grim for very young children, but it’s a delightful arrangement of words at any other age.

THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Myke Cole: Timewise, this story closely follows THE ARMORED SAINT (mentioned at the end of this post) and dives straight into the moment with no exposition, so absolutely do not start here. Given the continuity, any discussion of the Book Two will be somewhat spoilery of Book One, so scroll on past this point if’n you don’t want to know how TAS ends.

When we last saw 17-year-old Heloise, she had, in desperation, slipped into a suit of imperial power armor and battled a demon to the death, in the process losing several people she loved and suffering a grievous physical injury. Since only Palantines supposedly have the holy blessing to slay demons, the tinker who made the power armor declared her a Palantine. The Pilgrims (the emperor’s “religious” enforcers who clearly just get off on terrorizing and robbing villagers) were returning with reinforcements to burn her village to the ground for several acts of defiance, and other than a young, wounded, grieving girl with a suit of power armor, the villagers had little more than pitchforks with which to defend themselves from slaughter.

As one might expect from the available resources, the return of the Pilgrims does not go well for the villagers. The power armor gives Heloise certain tactical advantages, but she’s not invulnerable, she’s an inexperienced fighter, and she can’t be everywhere at once. People (including Heloise) are injured. People die. The survivors flee on foot into the fens, where the armored, mounted Pilgrims will have difficulty pursuing immediately. Heloise herself gets the power armor wedged between the trees before passing out from blood loss. The villagers are temporarily taken in by a band of Traveling People, who sympathize with the rebellion but would rather not get killed in it. Homeless, vulnerable, and desperate, Heloise and her few remaining supporters invade the town of Lyse and make their stand from behind its walls against impossible odds.

People are injured. People die. There’s a great deal of gruesome battle as well as a particularly gruesome act of vengeance by Heloise that I wasn’t comfortable with, but it may be intentionally foreshadowing a side of her I’m not going to like. (As much abuse as she takes again and again and again, it’s reasonable to expect some descent from lofty ideals.) I wouldn’t call the violence gratuitous (on the “good” side, at least, the wounded and dead aren’t anonymous placeholders, and the loss is both an emotional and tactical blow that shapes Heloise’s character and the plot), but it’s not for the squeamish.

I predict Heloise will get a rude awakening about the “divine Emperor” in the forthcoming Book Three that will completely break her, but I’m committed to seeing it through with her.

ROSEWATER by Tade Thompson: Kaaro is a “sensitive” who reads minds for a living—one job blocking mental hackers at a bank, another interrogating criminals for the government. He lives and works in Rosewater, Nigeria, which is notable for the presence of an alien dome that opens once a year to spew spores that heal nearby supplicants (though sometimes with disastrous results).

The timeline hops around from the early days of the dome, when Kaaro was a newly recruited government operative spying on the criminal enterprises in the town growing around the dome, to the “present” (2066), when he’s bored and disillusioned. His government boss issues a vague warning not to get involved with a woman he recently met, shortly after which that woman’s “ex” husband abducts him and tries to feed him to a ravenous alien fungus. His boss is pissed he didn’t heed her warning because sensitives have been dropping like flies and Kaaro is an increasingly rare and valuable asset. He has to figure out what’s killing his peers before he becomes the next victim.

The prose style is terse and well suited to the narrator. If you like lavish descriptions, you probably won’t appreciate this style, but it worked well for me because I skim decorative elements anyway. It’s the first book in a trilogy, but it comes to a good stopping point. While I don’t really have any complaints about the book, I’m not super motivated to continue with the sequel (which may be more a symptom of my current mental fatigue than any commentary about the series), and the ending of Book One doesn’t leave me with a nagging sense of incompleteness.

Sometimes when I grab the link for a book, I’ll skim some of the reviews for comparison. It was noteworthy this time that a lot of the reviews contain something along the lines of “I am extremely well read but didn’t know what a lot of these words meant so I couldn’t enjoy it.” I wouldn’t presume to call myself well read, but other than the mycology (which was explained, in context, to Kaaro, IN A CLASSROOM), the only “strange” words I can think of were proper nouns and types of food. Food is a prop, not plot relevant. You learned at some point what tacos, guacamole, and picante are; you can manage akara, dodo, and dundu for one sentence. Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo are a few of the numerous ethnic groups found in Nigeria. They’re mentioned as descriptors for people or languages—you don’t have to know all of African history in order to make sense of a sentence those words appear in. As for names, if you can muddle through books that include the likes of Ereinion Gil-galad and Drizzt Do’Urden, I’m not going to waste a lot of time pondering why Femi Alaagomeji is incomprehensible, but that might be a good subject for self-examination. /end rant at strangers on the internet

THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR by Scott Hawkins: Content warning for rape (no details, but it’s clear what happened), child abuse (frequent, plenty of details), suicide (multiple, some of them pretty graphic), and animal death (many quite graphic).

Twenty-three years ago, a bomb wiped out the residents of the Garrison Oaks subdivision except for 12 children protected by an ancient figure known to them primarily as Father. They were taught 12 disciplines—one for each student, knowledge of one’s specialty never to be shared with another. There are enough flashbacks to their upbringing to explain why they’re so… disturbed, but the current events take place when they’re 30-ish. Father is missing, and some sort of force field has been erected to keep the 12 out of Garrison Oaks and the library within that has been their home all this time. Exiled to the outside world of normal America, where only Carolyn speaks the language and the others don’t fit in at all, they manipulate others (usually with great amounts of violence) in order to secure a patsy who will be able to pass through the force field and shut it down from the inside.

There’s a Lovecraftian feel with pocket universes, old gods, and casual acceptance of various horrors and oddities. As mentioned above, there’s tons of violence. There’s much more going on than being locked out of their home, but it’s not something that can be explained without destroying the whole reading experience because absolutely nothing that happens is a coincidence or accidental or convenient, regardless of how it appears at the time—every move every character makes is the result of a plan set in motion years ago by someone who knew precisely what the outcome would be. The pace grinds to a halt when the cast is cut down to two and the one in the know has to explain everything to the clueless one (and the reader), but it rallies at the end. I wasn’t emotionally involved (there are several POV characters, none a sort of person I particularly wanted to deeply identify with), but I was engrossed by picking at the clues that would unravel the mystery. One of those books that does what it does well, but I have to be extremely careful about recommending it because it comes with a truckload of potential triggers.

I believe I got this when Tor had it as their free monthly giveaway. You can sign up here if you want to take advantage of future freebies. Since their regular prices tend to be quite high and they delay library releases (sigh), it’s a good way to give unfamiliar authors a test drive.


FORSAKEN by Michael McBride: This is another Book 2 and probably won’t make a whole lot of sense without Book 1 (reviewed at the very bottom of this post), though enough background info is doled out to refresh memories of previous events without a reread. The essential background info is that a bunch of folks with various specialties were previously gathered by a Jurassic-Park-granddad type to investigate suspected alien technology found under the ice in Antarctica. They stirred up something that infected at least one team member and forced his “evolution” into a big-headed killing machine. When aliens come to us, they generally have two goals: (1) use humans to gain whatever adaptations they require to survive in our environment and (2) exterminate the competition for the planet’s dominant species. These particular aliens intend to accomplish both in one move by hijacking human bodies and making them something else. The few surviving team members were airlifted out and scattered after debriefing.

Which brings us to the present. Two of them have returned to the Antarctic base after the alien life form was captured and contained to continue studying it and the alien tech. Two of them joined an archaeological dig in Mexico, where there are similarities to what was discovered in Antarctica. Two of them are in England looking at crop circles, which appear to be maps activated by underground alien tech. One returned to Nigeria and stumbled across some small, ancient pyramids and a suicidal alien whose final words were “Release… us.” (Yeah, that sounds like a super idea, let’s get right on that.)

In Antarctica, the crew clearing ice with flamethrowers melts free something that had been curled up like an armadillo in the abdominal cavity of a frozen human skeleton—except in this case, the armadillo is three feet long, has clingy toes like a gecko, and stealth kills two armed soldiers with its crocodile-like jaws before they can get off a single shot. In Mexico, they find a crypt full of bodies bound hand and foot and suspended by unknown means while alive—one of the victims fell and used what remained of his life to etch a warning into the stone floor.

Which, in typical SF/horror fashion, all the scientists and military people ignore and forge ahead with bad ideas that will obviously facilitate the apocalypse!

There’s a lot of science terminology, which is frequently accompanied by a character who is not a specialist in the area being discussed asking for the info to be repeated in plain English, so any confusion doesn’t last long. What lingers is the frustration that the characters are doing stupid things and there is no voice of reason to say, “This is stupid.” In the last book, at least they didn’t know what they were dealing with when they did stupid things, but now they know aliens are unstoppable killing machines, and they keep pushing the damn buttons clearly labeled UNLEASH YOUR DOOM. As is the case when watching bad horror movies, I frequently found myself saying to characters, “I hope you die next.”

Like last time, I don’t find the characters terribly distinct (possibly even less so because scattering them to different locations removed the spotlight from any contrasts there might be between them), to the extent that I didn’t know which characters were new until they said so. They’re functional, not full of personality, and that doesn’t bother me much in this case because I was just reading for the alien invasion. These books might translate well to movies with the actors lending identity to the roles.

I ended up DNFing around 65% because every time I mentioned it to my daughter or Twitter, something new to be irritated about came up. (Why refer to the scent of “bad Mexican food” when the characters are IN Mexico? Why does the realization that the aliens are using cocooned bodies not as food but as incubators come not early on from one of the many women characters present in scientific and militaristic roles but past the halfway point from a man whose specialty is crop circles? Why does no one who knows from prior experience that the aliens are unstoppable killing machines call bullshit when the guy who delayed rescuing them last time says, “Trust me, we’re safe in here”?) I’ve had a couple of books this year that didn’t have a Big Nope Point but chipped away at my tolerance until I didn’t feel like giving them any more of my time. My leisure time is too scarce to waste it on anything I’m not enjoying.

APOCALYPSE NYX by Kameron Hurley: Former government assassin Nyxnissa so Dasheem currently works as a bounty hunter when she’s not blackout drunk. Her team consists of a mage (the magic system is insect-based), a tech guy, a shooter, and a shapeshifter, any of whom she’s willing to sacrifice to finish a job, and yet they’re all inexplicably fond of her. The country is war-torn and racist. There are plenty of publicly posted bounty hunting jobs, but she prefers to take those offered to her by shady strangers proven by a quick background check to be lying about who they are and what they want done, against the advice of her team.

I couldn’t find anything in the story to get attached to. I’m fine with “unlikable” protagonists as long as they make sense. This one often acts out of spite and perversity (i.e., stealing poorly qualified team members from former employers, accepting a job from someone with a grudge who likely wants her dead). They’re bad decisions for the sake of bad decisions with no attempt to justify her behavior to the reader. There are inconsistencies in characterization (i.e., at one point during an air raid, she picks up the equivalent of an ice cream cone someone dropped and sits outside to eat it; later, she says she hates being out of the cellar during air raids, as if we haven’t seen her being supremely unbothered about it previously).

The book is divided into five sections. There’s a jump in time between the first section and the second section with no established connection between the case Nyx is initially working on and what’s going on in the second part. I kept waiting for that dead guy and his safe to be reintroduced to tie the plot together, and the longer that didn’t happen, the more the whole first section felt like a worldbuilding exercise. I was going to give the benefit of the doubt and say maybe it came back around after I quit, but a major perk of ebooks is the search function—the guy’s name is never mentioned after the first section, so the whole first quarter of the book is irrelevant.

Most characters are introduced in terms of the bisexual protagonist’s assessment of fuckability. And I don’t just mean “she had a nice rack” descriptions—it’s specifically put forth in terms of sex (i.e., Nyx would have loved to take her to bed and seduce out the story behind that hand; “Why, you want to fuck him?”/Nyx took a drink to disguise her discomfort. Was she that fucking obvious?; Nyx considered making out with her). There are ways to convey a sexually liberated character without duplicating the bad habits of shitty male writers—this ain’t one of them.

Looking for examples of the sexual intros, I used “fuck” as a search term. It came up 276 times. For comparison, bugs are what magicians work with in this story—“bug” shows up only 108 times; “magician” only 86. “Anneke,” THE NAME OF ONE OF THE TEAM MEMBERS WHO IS PRESENT THROUGHOUT THE BOOK, appears only 260 times. This is a 288-page book. Several pages might pass without an occurrence, which means when it does pop up, it’s all over the page. Hey, I’m a profanity enthusiast. I laugh at people who leave 1-star reviews because of “bad language.” But this is a prime example of excessive use, which is more of a redundancy problem (my favorite!) than a profanity problem. “Fuck you,” Nyx said. “A fucking janitor? Go fuck yourself” says nothing “A janitor? Go fuck yourself” doesn’t get across with less repetitive word use.

DNF at 46%. THE STARS ARE LEGION was a good book and I’ll read Hurley again, but not this series.

THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill: Once a year, the Elders of the Protectorate take the town’s youngest baby and leave it in the woods as a sacrifice to “the Witch”—the Elders know perfectly well there’s no evil witch demanding sacrifice and that kid’s just getting torn apart by wildlife, but superstitious fear keeps the poors in line and downtrodden so the Elders can stay rich and plump. Unbeknownst to them, there’s a perfectly nice forest witch who collects those abandoned babies every year, takes them to one of the cities on the other side of the forest, and places them with the most loving families she can find. During the journey to the city, she feeds the hungry babies starlight, which has just enough magic in it to ensure they grow up just a little more smart, talented, and kind than average, and they all thrive beyond their dire beginnings. The witch, Xan, makes a careless mistake and feeds the latest baby moonlight, which contains much more potent magic. A baby stuffed full of magic just isn’t safe to leave in the care of nonmagical folks, so Xan takes the baby home to raise with her swamp monster partner and a tiny dragon who thinks he’s Simply Enormous.

Luna’s biological mother fought like a demon when the Elders came for her baby, so they hauled her off tower for “rehabilitation” (AKA eternal imprisonment). A young Elder-in-training there on the day Luna was taken has skipped every subsequent sacrifice because that one event horrified him. He visits the “madwoman” in the tower, who insists her child is alive and sets a swarm of enchanted paper birds upon him that scar him more terribly than should be possible. He uses his disfigurement to get out of being an Elder and becomes a carpenter like he always wanted and settles down with the woman of his dreams to start a family—with a baby who arrives just in time to be the yearly sacrifice.

Luna, meanwhile, has such enormous, uncontrollable magic, Xan performs a ritual that will lock it away in a seed in her mind until she’s 13 years old, intending to use that time to teach Luna the ethics of magic and how to control it. Unfortunately, it’s locked up so tight Luna can’t even hear about magic without going catatonic, so no magic lessons for the girl who’s going to be exploding with magic and puberty at the same time. Naturally, all these characters and their respective problems converge dramatically.

Like the Kingfisher book above, this is an ostensibly middle-grade book (it’s a Newbery Award winner, so librarians endorse it for kiddos) with enough heavy themes to give adult readers something to chew on. Again, parts may be too dark for very small children—or those parts may go right over their heads because they’re missing real-world context. You know your kids’ sensitivity level better than I do. Mine’s grown now but was hardcore from toddlerhood and would have been fine with this at an early age.

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