Reviews Revisited – I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Horror / Mystery
Series: John Cleaver
Publication Date: March 30th, 2009
Publisher: Tor Books

“Fear is about things you can’t control. The future or the dark, or someone trying to kill you. You don’t get scared of yourself because you always know what you’re going to do.”

Dan Wells’s debut is an unusual witches’ brew of dark humor, cerebral horror and bleak small-town life. The writing has jagged edges in its beginnings, but I have yet to find another series that I love with so little wavering. This is one of those rarities where I feel it was written specifically for me, with everything I knew and didn’t know I sought in a novel.

Me and this series are like connate flowers. However, John Cleaver really schemed and staked his way into my heart, and was cemented as an instant perma-favourite series to me with the second book, Mr. Monster. I Am Not a Serial Killer suffers from initial uneasiness as Wells gets on his feet with the series, and sudden doses of genre whiplash. The first novel pools its arachnoid feet into many genres, but gives off a flighty self-consciousness about taking the leap from a mystery with paranormal aspects into straight-out horror, which it definitely becomes by the second book. This was the only trait it had I didn’t care for, and I still don’t upon revisits, but the unsure tone actually fits when the main character’s chaos of self. John is never sure what he wants to be.

John “It Doesn’t Matter What Other People Think When You’re Right” Cleaver is a bitter, anxious, antisocial teen with hair-trigger violent tendencies that he struggles to keep from unraveling on those who don’t deserve his wrath, whether it be his mother or his friends. He is pulled between crushing loneliness and craving nothing more than being alone, something that reflected painfully when I first read it. His discussions with his therapist, Dr. Neblin, devolve from him not taking them seriously and trying to freak the doctor out, into panic and emotional decay from trying to hold up the façade of being “normal” and never showing anger, out of fear of what he’ll end up doing.

“I’m on the edge, Neblin, I’m off the edge – I’m over the edge and falling to Hell on the other side. […] I’m down in the cracks of the sidewalk,” I said, “in the dirt and in the blood, and the ants are looking up and we’re damning you all, Neblin. I’m down in the cracks and I can’t get out.” Continue reading “Reviews Revisited – I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells”

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Book Review – Brazen by Pénélope Bagieu

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Full Title: Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World
Genre: Biography
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Publisher: First Second

There is no more straightforward way to put it – this graphic novel is phenomenal. If you need a boost of vitality and determination in such trying times as these, look no further than Brazen. This book makes you reflect on yourself and say, I could do this too. The obstacles suddenly don’t seem so insurmountable anymore, at least for awhile.

Though if I did learn one important fact in this collection, it’s that most artistic and scientific fields historically have been overseen by, well… bigots and incompetents, and even with the efforts of these wonderful women and others, are still very much in dire need of an overhaul in their bureaucracy and ways they practice. Most, if not all of these women, even those alive in more recent years, have had to struggle for recognition because of these institutions and their staunch attitudes that they can do no wrong. If we hope to make any positive change to this little gloom-ball we live on, sometimes the system has to be challenged.

Bagieu tells the shortened but fascinating legacy of thirty important women, both influential and underappreciated, in all their determination, wit and triumph, giving each of their stories their own unique colour scheme. Not only is Brazen a visually beautiful and charming book, but it never feels anything less than passionate and heartfelt on the artist’s part, and is one of the most inspiring collections I’ve read.

What surprised me is that I actually knew most of these women. I’m very familiar with Tove Jansson, Nellie Bly, Josephine Baker, but I didn’t know the sheer extent of their accomplishments. That’s something a simple search won’t really elaborate on. Some of these women were practically the nucleus of their field, it being nonexistent or a hopeless train wreck before they came along. Continue reading “Book Review – Brazen by Pénélope Bagieu”

Book Review – Perfect by Natasha Friend

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publication Date: September 16th, 2004
Publisher: Milkweed Editions

You are never alone in anything, no matter how it feels. Everyone must face their own tragedy, and deal with their own disorder. Some are just better at seeming composed.

I could read this book about a thousand times and find scarce to dislike. I believe this is one of the absolute best young adult books, especially for girls. Friend, I’ve noticed, takes care to challenge the conventional concept of perfection, and if it’s even necessary. Which it isn’t, spoiler alert. Coming from a staunch perfectionist who’s struggled with abandoning society’s expectations, you know I’m serious about that. At the end of the day, if the goal you’ve reached is the desire of someone who isn’t you, and came at the cost of important facets of your personality, it wasn’t worth it, and will be replaced with a new one to covet tomorrow.

Perfect is about the cycle of unhappiness that spawns eating disorders, though there are a lot of small and traumatic events that usually factor into it. Friend writes in a way that’s easy to approach and never preachy or contrived, letting you come to your own conclusion about Isabelle’s path.
The death of her father led into a depression, and the only influence outside of that is a girl she befriends at school, who despite all appearances as “the perfect girl”, has an extremely damaged self-image and forces herself to throw up so often that she starts bleeding from the mouth. Isabelle sees in her a mirror of her own bulimia, and their relationship becomes a paradox of enabling each other’s disorder and offering a genuine bond based around it. Continue reading “Book Review – Perfect by Natasha Friend”

Book Review – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Screenplay) by J.K. Rowling

★★★★ 4 Stars

Series: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplays
Genre:
 Fantasy / Adventure
Publication Date: November 18th, 2016
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books

“My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.”

In my honest opinion, the Fantastic Beasts series was a fantastic way for Rowling to rejuvenate the Harry Potter universe and spread its branches in fresh, inventive directions. It needed this after Cursed Child, which I didn’t particularly like and thought was a mishandled retcon of the original novels. Like virtually every witchy soul in this strange little world, the novels remain amongst my favourites, and if ever somehow they don’t age well for me in years to come, I will forever be fond towards them.

Screenplays, by their nature, aren’t exactly “engaging” in the way a novel is, but it’s fun and a quick read nonetheless, and the movie the script goes with is really entertaining. Fantastic Beasts wins where Cursed Child faltered. The characters are consistent, moreso because they are new characters that haven’t really been a major part of the series before, and because Rowling herself actually developed and wrote this one in its entirety. Cursed Child took established characters from the novels and… descended into strange, fanfiction-like caricatures of them. Traumatic flashes of My Immortal and its infamous poetic prose dashed through my head the entire time with that screenplay. Continue reading “Book Review – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Screenplay) by J.K. Rowling”

Book Review – Seafire by Natalie C. Parker

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Adventure / Post-Apocalyptic
Publication Date: August 28th, 2018
Publisher: Razorbill

“Four years ago this had been a fantasy. Trapped on a beach with nothing but a gut wound, her best friend, and this very ship in pieces. Caledonia could only dream of the day she had the means to stand up and fight. It had come sooner than she could have hoped, the morning Pisces looked at her square in the eyes and said she wanted revenge. It came as they bent their minds to the task of recovering their ship. It came one girl at a time.”

Oh, I am conflicted. Flighty as the tides that carry in the flotsam and treasure alike. Let me just say that I adore this novel. In most aspects, I do. But the traits I didn’t like are extremely troubling in a relentless way that niggles at the back of your head. This book is its own contained Stop & Go Station, a whiplash of dark and urgent and whimsical and tranquil that is still somehow extremely addictive either way it goes. But it also makes you nervous because it’s very obvious when someone’s bound to die.

I really appreciate the simpler prose. Parker doesn’t inject what is really a pretty straightforward story with lacy, flowery padding. My biggest issue was how the characterization was handled, but I’ll get to that. The plot of Seafire concerns a young woman, Caledonia, who along with her best friend, Pisces are the sole survivors of a massacre upon their ship, in some kind of apocalyptic era where the world is extremely hot and oceanic. The waters are controlled by a warlord named Aric Athair who forcibly recruits children and turns them into soulless murder machines.

The praise suggested it was inspired by the film Fury Road, which I was afraid, because it was the praise that compared the two, that Seafire would just be a straight rip-off. Thankfully, it’s not, though there are distinct shades of that movie in this. If you liked it, you’d probably like this too. I did, anyway. Continue reading “Book Review – Seafire by Natalie C. Parker”

Book Review – To Dance by Siena Cherson Siegel

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Memoir / Sports
Publication Date: October 1st, 2006
Publisher: Atheneum-Richard Jackson Books

To Dance is the story of Siena Cherson Siegel’s journey from her desire to be a ballerina at age six to her debut performance with the New York City Ballet as a young adult. Siegel was faced with being unable to compete several times, due to being flat-footed, personal issues or injuries, yet prevailed with optimism. It’s an uplifting story told in whimsical watercolours by Mark Siegel.

While To Dance is light-hearted, Siegel doesn’t spare the brutal honesty of ballet, and how extraordinarily difficult it can be to break into its ranks at all, much less achieve fame. The art of ballet and its behind-the-scenes has for some reason, always interested me more than actual ballets have. It is definitely a demanding profession, asking so much of you, physically and mentally, that it takes an insane amount of determination to succeed in. Thus, I have a lot of respect for ballerinas. I’ve heard this graphic novel described as “symphonic”, and I think that fits quite well, the art flowing as smoothly as a lifeline.

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Are Young Adult Books More Progressive?

Just some random musings on a positive and surprising trend I’ve noticed recently. There’s been much turmoil in recent years over diversity in literature. It’s misunderstood that the conflict comes from people thinking that every young adult book should be inclusive of every group, ever, and that’s not the case. The argument comes mostly from authors trying to portray a group, but not doing it accurately or with sensitivity to their issues.

Even if that is true in some cases, the fact that there is such a massive variety of diverse books in young adult that you can compare and contrast them easily is uplifting. For example, YA books with LGBT+ protagonists, that are neither pandering nor exploitative, are quite easy to find with a few searches. Novels for adults in the same vein… a wee bit trickier. And there’s not, stylistically speaking, that rigid of a difference between adult and young adult books. One could argue that the slowness to change is because of the more restrictive nature of the publishing industry when it comes to adult fiction. Continue reading “Are Young Adult Books More Progressive?”

Book Review – No Place Like Oz by Danielle Paige

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Series: Dorothy Must Die
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Retellings
Publication Date: November 12th, 2013
Publisher: HarperCollins

“For everything that’s wonderful, there’s something wicked, too. That’s the price you pay for magic. It’s worth it, I thought. Even here, standing at the mouth of a place that radiated the purest evil I’d ever felt, I knew it would always be worth it. Because without magic, you’re just left with Kansas.”

Dorothy it seems, has become something of an unhinged sociopath…
As of this review, I’ve only seen the film, The Wizard of Oz, and haven’t read any of Baum’s original series. That being said, I’m familiar enough with the story and am always up for a dark take on the classics. I always thought there was something shady about Glinda. Maybe not Dorothy, but Glinda is suspiciously calculating to be the supposed “good” witch. Dorothy Must Die seems to recognize that as well, and runs with it.

I was hesitant about reading the prequel novellas first, because in my experience, young adult writers don’t know how to execute a prequel in a way that doesn’t cause reference vertigo. It’s almost always and very annoyingly I might add, necessary to read the first book to know what the actual hell is going on, and I like that the prequels to this series are both large and developed enough to not need that context. These are full-length novellas, too, rather than a series of disconnected short stories, and that definitely helps.

No Place Like Oz has good writing and is fun. It’s edgy, vicious and strange. And Dorothy, oh, Dorothy is horrible. She’s like Veruca Salt with magic abilities. It’s great. This also reminded me of A.G. Howard’s Splintered in its style, which I am a massive fan of, so that’s a plus. Don’t know how far I’ll continue this series, but I would like to see up to why Dorothy’s gotta die, at least.

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Book Review – A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Poetry
Publication Date: May 12th, 2015
Publisher: Speak

“I’m a lone palm tree towering over grassy fronds of rice in a paddy field, yearning to touch the sky although I get lonelier the higher I go.”

A Time to Dance has a simple but absolute beauty. It is a captivating portrait of the rise, fall and spiritual rebirth of a young dancer, Veda, who loses her leg to an accident, yet is more determined than ever to dance. Veda’s dance is so valuable to her, so demanding of her body and spirit, that any pride that held her back before is no longer worth losing it.

I pretty much devoured this book in a night. I love the way this story is captured in loose but flowing prose that blossoms as naturally as flowers. The relationship with Veda and her grandmother was especially beautiful, always an offset to the strained feelings Veda seems to grow with everyone else.

The character development is well-executed, showing whose heart is shallow and whose is true when they treat her differently after her accident. Veda feels as if she is re-enacting in her own life, a smaller and more human version of the epic poetry she portrays on stage. The intertwining parallels between the narrative and Hindu mythology are creative, I have to say, and I also appreciate that the romance was not written at the forefront of Veda’s achievements.

“The strangers’ presence feels warm as a blanket, but not warm enough to thaw the sea of unshed tears frozen inside me.”

I don’t like to compare this novel with one of my most loathed, because I enjoyed A Time to Dance quite a lot, but it reminds me of a more sensitive, good version of Izzy Willy Nilly. They’re both about a promising athlete losing her leg and having to prove herself capable. I realize what I hated so much about Izzy Willy Nilly is that the protagonist never does overcome her struggle. That book was uncomfortably focused on blaming her for her misfortune. So much victim-blaming. There was nothing meaningful but reliving someone’s pain, with no hope nor retribution towards the one actually responsible for the accident.

Venkatraman’s poem avoids all of that to tell a personal saga, and is so much better for it. The characters are well-rounded, realistic, and importantly, it accepts that sometimes misfortune can just happen. That it’s something we all have to triumph at some point in one way or another, and it tells so beautifully. You definitely should read this, if it interests you in any way. It’s very difficult to find much to dislike about, and is one of the better free verse novels I’ve picked up.

“Mukam karothi vachalam; pangum langayathe girim. – God’s grace moves the mute to eloquence and inspires the lame to climb mountains.”

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Book Review – Last Stop by Peter Lerangis

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Series: Watchers
Genre: Mystery / Science Fiction
Publication Date: November 1st, 1998
Publisher: Scholastic

Trains have mysteriously always had this reputation for being passages into the unknown, whether it be into death, time or another dimension entirely. The metaphor has remained really persistent, and I like a story that utilizes it well.

Last Stop started off alright, with a teenager, David Moore, having visions of his dad while riding the subrail, waiting for him at a station that’s not even there anymore, much less active as he sees it in the vision. This wouldn’t be too strange except that his father’s believed to be dead or insane, and in the vision he seems to be neither.
This is an interesting setup, and midway through the book becomes very engaging, with a conspiracy of alternate versions of the same city linked together. It’s kind of short, so the characterization given is surprisingly developed for how little time there is, especially David and Heather.
I mean, it’s passable but not great. There’s not anyone who strikes me as memorable, it’s more the concept that stands out.

There’s a dreamlike feeling to the gross, dingy urban settings that I liked a lot. The twist ending is crazy and actually catches you off-guard, which is something I appreciate in the day of the predictable cliffhanger. Last Stop feels extremely short, and there’s much more that could be done with all that this idea offers, but for what’s present it’s not bad. There’s apparently a lot of entries in this series, so it could improve.

(Okay. Something I found hilarious that I just have to mention – the father’s name is Alan Moore. In a series called Watchers. Alan Moore… and the Watchers. Hmm. This sounds unintentionally like an off-brand now. Who watches the watchers? I don’t think this was on purpose? But running across it was awesome.)

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Book Review – Dolly by Susan Hill

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Suspense / Horror
Publication Date: October 5th, 2012
Publisher: Profile Books

“All, all of it I remember. Then I relived, my heart pounding again as I stood at the window and through the fog-blanketed darkness heard the sound again. Deep under the earth, inside its cardboard coffin, shrouded with the layers of white paper, the china doll with the jagged, open crevasse in its skull was crying.”

The atmosphere in Dolly is so heavy and intense that it’s almost its own character, perfectly at home in its loneliness. Dolly recalls pieces of Burnett’s The Secret Garden, but twisted. It’s like the marshy underside of the Secret Garden, where you would expect fairytale things to be waiting in the bog.

After the death of his aunt, a man, Edward, recalls his childhood staying at Iyot Lock, her manor house decaying out in the middle of the moor. The house is straight out of a gothic novel and nobody much enjoys being there save for the aunt, and especially not Edward’s cousin, Leonora. He tries to get along with Leonora desperately, but sometimes she just turns into an evil stranger with no warning or transition, and Edward becomes afraid of her. The aunt buys Leonora a baby doll that she breaks, and afterward the doll becomes kind of… vocal, but only late in the night when it’s only Edward there to hear it.

I really appreciate the oddness of the characters. Edward and Leonora have a weird dynamic – they start off like you’d expect they’re going to end up being best of friends. They hate each other on a subtle level from square one, even for the moments they get along. I think that they had always enjoyed seeing each other miserable, and that’s probably why, even though Edward wasn’t insufferable as Leonora was, they are both doomed to be bound to each other through horrible occurrences that they can’t explain to anybody else. Their relationship is surprisingly bleak for being children through most of the story. Continue reading “Book Review – Dolly by Susan Hill”

Book Review – Love is Hell by Melissa Marr

★★★ 3 Stars

Genre: Romance / Dark Fantasy
Publication Date: November 25th, 2008
Publisher: HarperTeen

” ‘There are two types of people in this world: those who believe in love and those who don’t. I believe in love.’ She closes the book. Indeed, it’s not her thing.”

(Un)happy Valentine’s Day. Here I present the fitting title Love is Hell, a romance anthology that, despite the name, is not that infernal. Like the Valentine’s holiday, it’s neat but also easily forgettable.
Love is Hell dips its toes into the border of dark fantasy with the caution of someone who would be humiliated to be seen playing around in such territory. This collection tries on a patchwork flesh of genres, unsure about which it’s supposed to be. However, it does at least succeed at coming across as a romance book. If ho-hum about its paranormal side, I believe that paranormal romance fans are who it would probably appeal to most. I’m not grand on paranormal – not a species of book I have a positive history with. So you might want to break out your salt-shaker for my opinions here.

Love is Hell was a slog for me. The authors are all talented people, no doubt, but there is more aggravation than captivation about this, as well as zero consistency. It’s not fair to expect an anthology to be consistent as far as the writers’ styles, but there’s nothing threading them together. The shorts are at odds with each other rather than bleeding into a theme. One of which there isn’t, not that I could tell. Does this book even make the statement that love is, in fact, equal to eternal torment? Let’s break that down, shall we?

“Sleeping With the Spirit” by Laurie Faria Stolarz – ★★★
Hell-O-Meter: Low

The tragedy of a human who falls in love with a handsome ghost that was murdered in her house. Of course, this only happens after he drove her into severe insomnia because she was initially horrified by him. I found it creepier not that the boy was a phantom but that he was constantly watching her in her room. The apex of romance, that.
This story is alright, though. The plot is a little clichéd but the writing and pacing make for decent intrigue, and the ending is sweet. Continue reading “Book Review – Love is Hell by Melissa Marr”

Book Review – Bird by Angela Johnson

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publication Date: January 19th, 2006
Publisher: Puffin Books

How do you use the gift of a heart which isn’t yours? How does one beg the most important question when they couldn’t stand to hear the answer either way?

Bird is a leisurely-paced novella that centers around three teens who all are still coping with tragedies faded but still visible – divorce, the death of a sibling, and a new life gained from the end of someone else’s. The heroine Bird ran away from home to try to convince her stepfather, Cecil, to come back to her and her mother. As it turns out, Cecil is the uncle of a boy she befriends along the way, who had been bedridden for many years of his life and just recently is able to run and really live thanks to a heart transplant. Cecil kind of ties the story together despite only ever appearing in the peripheral.
Cecil is a distant and chilly figure who seems to be haunted by something he himself is trying to run from, but it’s never exactly clear what. The ending just amplifies this.

I wish the characters had been given more time for development. Cecil doesn’t show his face a lot and the third protagonist Jay never reveals a whole lot about himself, other than he misses his dead brother. An emotionally-charged book does suffer from knowing too little about somebody to really feel those emotions from them. Bird is a good casual, summery sort of read.

Johnson chose to make a situation that could’ve reached absolute bleakness more optimistic and subdued, so while the pacing is slower it never feels like you’re being dragged through a puddle of tar like some books of a similar sort can. I do appreciate that, as it’s all too easy to stumble into the pitfall of heaping tragedy upon tragedy in contemporary books, and it’s not always necessary to do that.
Trying to insert realism through only pain, ironically, can end up making something unrealistically dark. I feel that for a few faults which are small, Bird is a realistic story. If someone told you it in a letter you’d believe them.

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Book Review – Poor Unfortunate Soul by Serena Valentino

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Dark Fantasy / Retelling
Series: Disney Villains
Publication Date: July 26th, 2016
Publisher: Disney Press

“Hate. Her magic was infused with it. And in that hate was a deep, penetrating sorrow. Those humans had taken from her the only person who had loved her, and she was going to make them suffer.”

The sea is a veritable breeding ground for tragedy, and this particular tragedy is a soft reimagining of The Little Mermaid from the villain, Ursula’s, point of view. Well, partly from Ursula’s point of view. Poor Unfortunate Soul tweaks the tale just enough, keeping most of the original story intact while dwelling on the behind-the-scenes schemes that led to its events.

I honestly had no idea that this was the third book in a series. I didn’t think they were connected other than being about Disney villains, but apparently there are some characters exclusive to the retellings that intertwine them all. At least, I think they’re exclusive – I’m not exactly a professional Disneyologist. I know several of the movies fairly well but there’s also several that I’m not familiar with at all, so I have no idea. My mistake there.
I don’t think you’ll have a problem getting the gist of what’s going on… but you might be disappointed that Ursula herself isn’t a bigger figure in the plot.

I know, right? The main focus is on a trio of witches and a Princess Tulip who apparently owes Ursula some sort of favour. They do give the boisterous siren some interesting backstory that opens with a visceral massacre of the humans who wronged her, her magic mutating them horrifically into soulless sirens. That’s a little… grimmer than the cartoon, I have to say.
Wonder if that’s a nod back to The Little Mermaid’s Andersen roots.

Anyway, I do like the witch sisters a lot, and their incorporation into the story was smoothly executed. Poor Unfortunate Soul also allows for a strange grey morality to seep into a story that had a much clearer distinction between good and evil in the original. Triton comes across as much more bigoted, and Ursula has moments that suggest maybe she’s just unlucky. As it turns out, you can be both unfortunate and evil, without those traits tying into each other.
I liked this take on the story – it’s an interesting short read and I’ve never seen another book use the term ‘Ophelian’, but there’s really no other fairytale more perfect for that description than The Little Mermaid.

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Book Review – The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories by Tim Burton

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Dark Poetry
Publication Date: October 28th, 2008
Publisher: It Books

“The boy with nails in his eyes put up his aluminum tree. It looked pretty strange because he couldn’t really see.”

And there you have the general atmosphere of the entire book in one sentence.

À la Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a picture book in which a series of unfortunate children meet horrific, and more importantly alliterative, fates, Tim Burton’s Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy is a collection of poems about mutated children who horrify their peers and disappoint their parents to the point of cannibalizing them just so they won’t have to deal with them anymore.
Unfortunately, it does come across as a quirkier but weaker Gashlycrumb Tinies.

If you create any kind of bleak, monochromatic art, you’re going to have to deal with the phrase “Hey, you remind me of Tim Burton” a lot. I promise you this. Nevertheless I honesty do really like Tim Burton’s style and animated films. Corpse Bride was one of my favourites as a child and still is today. Not going to say Burton hasn’t been a big influence on me. He has. But with this, I expected something a little more macabre from his poems, to tell you the truth..

Oyster Boy and his dilapidated pals are cute. I love Mummy Boy, who plays “virgin sacrifice” at recess and has a head full of scarabs. There’s a lot in here that feels aimless and random though. Not quite horror, not quite humor, not quite surrealism kind of aimless. Still, it’s got clever limbs here and there. And up there. And over there. And nestled in the corner giving me that look I can’t stand.

Image result for melancholy death of oyster boy mummy

Book Review – Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Magic Realism / Short Stories
Publication Date: September 5th, 2006
Publisher: Mariner Books

I have a strange split-dimensional relationship with magic realism. Sometimes we are the best of friends, sometimes it worms under my skin in an annoying way. Many books covet its charm but are not brave enough to attempt it, but that can never be said for Kelly Link, who might as well have invented it. Sewn it together into a beautiful monster out of abandoned skin shed from horror and fantasy and whatever lurks in the mind.

Link’s stories can be frustrating. They are alchemical clockwork, unexpected treasures made out of completely strange ideas. But it’s not a simple task to make such a thing understandable, and sometimes it’s not. A lot of Magic for Beginners has no clear-cut linearity. The endings are often left up for interpretation, and take place in a world that runs on the logic of lucid dreaming.

Boy, but is it a quilt of fascinating tales – mismatched, maybe, but in their entirely working smoothly together. “The Cannon” is the tattered point. As much as I like experimental writing, I usually skip that one on re-reads.
The jewels of the collection are the ones that begin with the mundane. “The Hortlak”, easily the crown story, begins with two men working in a convenience store. Except it happens to be a convenience store on the threshold of a grand chasm, where the dead crawl out when it’s dark. Some nights the dead offer things to the two clerks, but they always leave the store with nothing and nobody can figure out what they want.
“The Hortlak” is a really haunting piece about the aimlessness people carry in their lives like it’s a physical burden, forever confused about what we really want.

Some other favourites were “Some Zombie Contingency Plans”, the unexpectedly Lovecraftian “Stone Animals”, and “Lull”, which has echoes of my own stories.
I first read Magic for Beginners about seven years ago, and it struck a chord in me. I hadn’t really experienced books with this surreal quality I’d been seeking for so long. Link is a difficult standard to try to live up to, but I wanted to write something that gives off the same ghostly unease.

These stories are never obvious or blatant, they are like a painting – they stand discreetly and wait for you to make your own decision about them, and then you notice the scenes that lurk in their backgrounds that have something sinister in them.
To properly enjoy Magic, you have to let your sense of logic free and appeal to your imagination to listen, and it will create its own meaning that’s more than can be said in words.

Book Review – The Plague Council by Eliza Taye

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Science Fiction / Post-Apocalyptic
Series: Oceania
Publication Date: July 21st, 2018
Publisher: Independent

It is a fact that I met The Plague Council by the sea, and read it there with its heart beating in waves at my feet. Hearing the ebb and flow of the ocean firsthand is an injection of new life when the blood in your mind feels stagnant and sad. The best circumstance to read a new book.

The Plague Council begins what I believe will be a really original science fiction series, taking place in a post-apocalyptic society that is dying but has the chance to be renewed if they can relocate to the bottom of the sea where disease cannot reach what’s left of them. A different ebb and flow, of life versus death. I like that it’s a reverse reinvention of the Atlantis myth. Rather than rediscovering an older culture’s “Atlantis”, they build their own.

I’m drawn to the water as much as the wind. People share a lot in common with the ocean, beyond even the cautious phrase of science and reason, and more complex than the simple fearfulness of superstition.
We are made of its body, we need it. Importantly it also has the will to be merciful or murderous as it chooses. The ocean is a creator and yet also destructive towards its creations. Sounds much like a human personality, doesn’t it?

This story asks some interesting and sometimes uncomfortable questions about what people should choose in the case of a widespread disaster – in the wake of complete trauma, could we go back to the sea? Would it welcome us after what we’ve done to it, or destroy us? Who would be saved and who would be forgotten, and why? Is this more power than we should ever be given that some should decide these things while others have no say?

The writing is descriptive and clear, but I do wish some of the characters besides Jessica were more fleshed out. This prequel is a promising start though. I’m eager to start the main series and see where it takes me.

Book Review – Pan by K. R. Thompson

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Fantasy
Series: The Untold Stories of Neverland
Publication Date: August 10th, 2015
Publisher: Independent

I sped through Pan in a midnight’s blink. Precious, dreamy, and fun enough to be addictive, but it’s over ridiculously soon. It leaves so much desire for full bloom, like a rose you know could be dazzlingly beautiful, but stops budding halfway through. It’s frustrating.

Pan is actually the second novella in the series after Hook, which I didn’t realize before it was too late, but it still made sense within its own sphere so I suppose it doesn’t hurt to read the first two out of order.
Thompson is a really promising indie writer, and I appreciate the sinister touches that edge the sparkle of her reimagining, and this version of Tinkerbell is likeable as a heroine.
There’s always been a devilish chord in the whimsy of Peter Pan to me, or at least I imagine it there, with a strange boy who spirits away other children. The balance of dark and magical, I have a theory is what makes retelling Peter Pan notoriously difficult.

Pan has some issues, it’s a little underdeveloped and brief and Peter’s character goes from awestruck to bully and back without any reason, but especially for an independent fantasy novel, it’s well-written and cute, and worth a look.

Book Review – Bake Sale by Sara Varon

Bake Sale

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Fiction
Demographic: Middle Grade
Publication Date: August 30th, 2011
Publisher: First Second

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Bake Sale is adorable, how could you dislike it? It’s absurdly charming and colourful like a child’s dream. I think it’s something an adult would actually relate to more, though. The obstructions life throws down get more imposing and colossal as it goes, but it takes the same sort of dedication at any age to chisel through them, whether you’re a breathing food or a human (or both!) And sometimes it really does take just one good friend who understands your dream to help.

Cupcake has a pretty wonderful life – he has his own bakery, churning out top-quality desserts. And yes, he does make miniature edible versions of himself, not that it’s strange.
Even so, Cupcake still clashes with self-doubt and burnout with his skills. His spirits are lifted when his best friend, Eggplant, presents him with an opportunity to meet his hero, the famous chef Marzipan. Cupcake is hit with a flood of inspiration then, his creations better than ever in his determination to meet Marzipan.

Despite all the saccharine in its insides, Bake Sale isn’t actually saccharine, it’s genuine to the point where it’s hard not to smile reading it. I do wonder how Cupcake reasons eating cakes and feeding food to other food, however…

Well, possible cutely-drawn cibocannibalism aside, it’s a precious story for when you’re feeling a bit lost with your work.

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Book Review – The Invisible Boy by Mary Feliciani

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Fiction / Children’s
Publication Date: October 13th, 2017
Publisher: M. F. Publishing

The Invisible Boy is a charming, short and sweet book about a group of students in Italy who find a strange magician’s cape in an abandoned house and decide to play a prank on the boy, Marco, who takes the cape home.

The watercolour illustrations are really cute, and it has an important message about exclusion and isolation among peers, and the kindness of including those who are shy or tend to linger away from the crowd for one reason or another. Marco feels like a ghost for only a day, but he finds he has a friend who feels like that all of the time.

Anti-bullying and inclusive books are always vital. It’s impossible to have too many, and I would recommend this one.

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review. 🙂