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Orchestra and Tidying

exhausted

Going to have to blame pregnancy fatigue for today. I keep crashing, even after a full night of sleep. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m either waddling about hoping to rock Jackson to sleep (he moves so dramatically) or if I so much as sit down I lose consciousness. …I should maybe try to write this standing up.

Thanks to this silly business, I haven’t had time to read almost anything, so my day’s mostly been seeing to the important matters of steering Owen away from insisting that he needs me to buy him a cello RIGHT NOW. He wants to start his own orchestra. Apparently timing is super crucial. Thankfully, we’ve convinced him that he can cobble together pretend instruments using whatever he can find around the house.

I wish the music festival was more often than annual.

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He’s also very interested in possession, but only when he is the one doing the possessing. His kitchen pot drum became his and now the dogs are disallowed from sniffing it.

Aside from that, I’ve been cleaning up my formatting in my posted book reviews to reflect how I want them to look from now on. I hope it doesn’t take too long, but who knows how long anything takes anymore. I’m exhausted all the time and when I’m not exhausted, I’m hurting.

But I’m not in hospital just yet! I’ve been having Braxton Hicks, but no real contractions, thankfully. Still at least four weeks too early.

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Review – The Islands of Chaldea

Standalone by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In the first half, it looks like many a questing journey story with a load of bumblers in the party. At first, the goal seems fairly tame and the bumblers all seem to be comprised of DWJ character archetypes. The main character, Aileen, is a no-nonsense young girl who believes she has none of the magical talent that she’s expected to have by birthright. Her mentor Aunt Beck takes “no-nonsense” to an insane degree, basically an authority figure who feels love but generally shows scary discipline. There are two boys the main character’s age: Prince Ivar, who is a spoiled brat with no redeeming qualities aside from not actually being evil, and Ogo, the foreign boy who is as sensible as Aileen but ill-treated. Their quest is to follow a sort of prophecy that says they need a Wise Woman and a man from each island to take down the barrier that’s cut off the island Logra from all outside access. Once they do this, they will hopefully find men who were taken hostage years ago, among them the Crown Prince Alisdair and Aileen’s father.

There is a point before the halfway mark where things pick up, and they pick up like a monster truck lifting a mountain. Plot twists abound, some of them quite unexpected, threads start to tie up in preparation for the explosive ending, and the world’s mythology starts to really pay off. After the initial party, each new addition is fun and outside the box. One thing I didn’t see coming that I quite liked was that Aileen had family from her father’s side on the last island before Logra. I loved them. The big family atmosphere reminded me of the Montanas from The Magicians of Caprona, but not in a derivative way.

Wherever the transition to Ursula’s contribution was, I didn’t see it. Entirely seamless. Maybe I could make a guess, but I don’t think I’d even want to. Any posthumous book feels like a gift. A gift that makes you sad. So whenever it needed a little help to get finished, I can fully appreciate all of the effort that went into making it look like it didn’t need any help.

Still not up there with Diana Wynne Jones’s mind-blowing books like Archer’s Goon or Dogsbody. But I doubt it was ever intended to be. This is an entertaining fantasy journey through a magical version of the British Isles–although Logra is more Mediterranean, thanks to the implications ofMinoan bull worship, water features, and depictions of the food, particularly olives. I loved it, I would read it again maybe. And I don’t tend to reread.

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Review – The Girl with the Ghost Machine

Standalone by Lauren DeStefano

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is a story about loss, grief, and the damaging effects of failure to accept death. Emmaline’s mother died when she was young, and she was left to move on with no support from her father because he basically abandoned her to build a machine to summon ghosts and give them form. Luckily for Emmaline, she had her childhood friends the twins Gully and Oliver to sustain her. However, she was essentially orphaned, and she seems to know it, if not consciously.

Even if the machine had never worked, I think there could have been plenty of discussion of the themes. Obviously it would have been far more difficult and wouldn’t have all of the science fiction and almost occulty appeal, but I do feel like it could have been done. The basic question of the entire book is this: “Should you trade a lifetime of memories for a brief period of being with a deceased loved one again?”

The answer is not an easy one to come to, although of course since the majority of the characters are children, they each come to their own answers swiftly. Any reader answer to the question is pretty much justified, which surprised me.

I was impressed to see such a heavy topic covered so well in such a short book. It’s sympathetic and respectful, never stooping to coddle or pretend that death is not a big deal or conversely, such a big deal that it can’t be broached. The writing style has some poetic moments, but it’s mostly a clean and simple vehicle for the story. Bravo, I say.

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Review – Lily

Standalone by Michael Thomas Ford

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Yet another book where I cannot easily come down on one side cleanly. Did I like it? Did I dislike it? I could say yes to both of those questions and not be lying.

If there’s one thing this book does crushingly well, it’s atmosphere. The illustrations are amazing, haunting even, but even without them, the whole thing feels like a starkly black and white inked drawing. The world is dark and painful to inhabit. Comparisons to fairy tales are obviously intended, and earned as well. Each character is well crafted, but no further defined than any one of them needs to be. Things other books would have to spread out over arcs, such as romance, are simplified down to their most necessary ingredients.

However, beyond the artistry of it all, there’s not really anything new on offer here. Lily is cursed to see the deaths of anyone she touches, which sends her and her mother out into a world that is foreign to Lily. She winds up as a rebranded circus act for a sinister and predictably evil faith healer who uses both of them. What is new about portraying an innocent being taken  in by a con man who uses a twisted brand of religion as a weapon? What is new about women and young girls being brutalised by men with only a sainted (and dead) father figure to temper the message that all men are evil and all women are victims? Nothing.

I’ll be honest, I am not a fan of stories that build their foundation in the supposed shock of human evils. I don’t blind myself to them or hide in sunshine and fairy cakes, but I also do not feel a need to examine ugliness as if it will enlighten me somehow. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like watching a slasher movie. If it’s to your entertainment tastes, then consume it and gladly, but I don’t see any justification in lauding the gore as artistic. None of the villainy in Lily is shocking. Of course all of the men are rapey assaulters who reach lustily for anything with breasts regardless of age or consent. Of course they’re all ex-cons who are using this farcical carnival to hide in. It’s almost boring in its attempts to shock and horrify. I just felt annoyed that it took Lily as long as it did to see past the lies and prove victorious.

There are two major saving graces to be had, though. The first and best is the character of Baba Yaga. Although her chapters are short, they’re always fascinating and the only unspoiled fun to be had. Her disaffected otherworldliness and attempts to understand this god that everyone keeps talking about are wonderfully nonhuman even as a bit of human softness creeps into her. Then there is the ending, which is better than I hoped, while also delivering an expectation set. up early in the narrative. I particularly loved the riddles, which made for a lovely bookend after being mentioned in the beginning. There isn’t a lot of “everything” to wrap up, but it’s still satisfying that everything is indeed wrapped up quite nicely.

I can only think of a small handful of people I’d recommend this to, aside from possibly a blanket statement that it’s in a class with Tender Morsels. Anyone who read that would find kinship here, I think.

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Review – The Raven Boys

#1 in the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

⭐️⭐️

Disclaimer: Back when I tried to read Shiver, I found it boring and the main character repellant in every way. The only reason I decided to give the Raven Cycle a try at last is because someone told me they also hated Shiver and that reading The Raven Boys was a polar opposite experience. It wasn’t that magical for me, but two stars instead of throwing the book against a wall is a marked improvement.

Extra Disclaimer: I vented more than I expected to in this review. I think anyone who enjoyed this book is entitled to, and I’d be more than happy to hear them rave about it. As long as no one tells me I’m “wrong,” because no one is wrong about a book unless they make a weird statement like, “Twilight is a VCR manual that can raise the dead.” …even that would be an opinion I’d like to see elaborated upon.

That said, I’ll start with what I liked. Ronan is one of those characters with a load of negative traits, disliked even by the other characters, whom I just adored. Sometimes I just have to love the unrepentant asshole who is also a troubled bad boy. I’m only human. I liked the otherworldliness that came in when they finally followed the corpse road, and I liked the family of psychics. Calla reminded me of Amethyst from Steven Universe, for some reason. That’s a good thing. While I wasn’t a fan of the relationships among the core cast, I actually like the girl joining a group of guys on a quest thing. I’d like to see it without said girl being a romantic interest for a guy in the group, but that was not too bad here. The antagonist is intriguing and legitimately threatening when he needs to be. I loved the way he was set up so early and occasionally bolstered. This is one of the few times that I thought the multiple perspectives were pulled off pretty well.

My biggest problem with The Raven Boys is something I was afraid of and half-determined not to do: I hated the only female main character. I tried to like her. I don’t want to be one of those people who reads a book with a predominantly male cast and hates the token girl just because she’s female and there. I liked all of the other female characters, even Persephone, who is yet another cheap, phoned-in expy of Joss Whedon’s Drusilla character type. I even liked Blue’s name until I realised that rather than invoking Aerith and Bob, almost every name could easily be found on a fancy dog collar. Possibly Helen was one of the characters I wasn’t supposed to like and wouldn’t have if I were an obedient reader, but I liked her too. (and no, her being a helicopter pilot was not my sole reason)

So what’s wrong with Blue? She’s kind of a bitch, but it isn’t that simple. It would have been obnoxious enough if she’d just been another super-speshul fatherless wish fulfilment girl who makes her own clothes and even rebels in a “unique” way, despite having a witch/hippie mother. That would have simply been eye-rolling. But pretty much from the word Go, Blue lays out the one thing that made me want to slap her and later Adam: the nasty prejudice against people with money.

This drove me insane. She damns all rich people and any traits she can pin on them as Bad. Never mind that none of the rich people she meets do anything to validate her views or to deserve her nastiness. Wear anything she can identify as expensive? Guess what, she’ll call you a privileged asshole. Even if she assumed incorrectly. She treated Adam liked this just for going to the rich boy school. Of course, when she realises that he’s One of Her People, she can’t praise him enough–especially so she can compare him favourably to those Awful Rich Guys. (and boy do those two ever act like this is an issue of race)

The worst of it for me was that it usually boiled down to anti-intellectualism. I’m defo not rich, but I have endeavoured to be well-educated, so I will admit that this part felt personal. Gansey has a large vocabulary. The guy goes to a pre-Ivy League high school, and his central motivation in the book is seeking the tomb of a Welsh King. NO FUCKING DUH HE USES BIG WORDS. It has nothing to do with either of them. But both Blue and Adam correct him if he uses a word they don’t know and make it clear that they think he’s wrong for doing so. There wasn’t a single time that either of them accused Gansey of being condescending where he was actually guilty. He could not win. If he said something and defined it, he was called or thought of as condescending. If he said something and didn’t define it, Blue decided he was making her feel stupid on purpose and called or thought of him as condescending. The guy is seeking something supernatural and she acts like his owning an EMF reader is just more rich asshole posturing. The hell?

Adam has an inferiority complex that has basically zero to do with Gansey himself. But Adam blames Gansey for it, and takes it out on him pretty much constantly. I couldn’t stand Adam’s complaining, hateful ass either. He was supposed to have this deep brotherly relationship and fierce loyalty to Gansey, but all Adam ever did was bitch about him. There came a point where I was only reading to see if Gansey would ever stand up for himself (spoiler, he doesn’t) and the scraps of times that Ronan would come in and be the only character I gave a shit about anymore. Noah is sketched so thinly that his entire character arc thing was a bit insulting. It was a good read, but not a moment of it felt like it had been earned, so it either rang false or looked cheap.

Sometimes, I wondered if Stiefvater is just not any great shakes as a writer. The style and voice are dull pretending to be profound. Chekhov should shoot this book for the details that take up significant time only to come to nothing–I don’t care if they’re going to be important later in the series. They belong in the book in the series wherein they become relevant. Fight me. There are also a lot of dumb mistakes that I would think a decent editor would’ve caught. I could live with Llywelyn’s name being spelled wrong, since the king they were looking for was Owain Glendŵr. But saying that Ronan “flaunts” school rules rather than “flouts?” Explicitly stating that a phobia is only an irrational fear? What about acrophobia? Two seconds of looking at a dictionary will tell you that a phobia is an “extreme OR irrational fear.” Then there’s the cringe-inducing misinformation about epipens. While I can believe Blue being stupid enough to think that epinephrine is used to “restart the heart” rather than to reverse the effects of anaphylaxis, I refuse to believe that a rich boy doesn’t carry these on his person as well as keeping a few in his room and car. I know they expire incredibly fast compared to other drugs (I think even etanercept lasts 24 months as long as you keep it refrigerated), but he has a lot of money and is clearly very scared of succumbing to his allergy. No way he has just one epipen in the glove compartment. For heaven’s sake, don’t they come in packs of two?

If there’s anything I find next to impossible to forgive in a book, it’s when the author tells me how to feel. It’s particularly egregious here, where the telling is more of a demand that says if I feel differently, I must be wrong. I think that might turn out to be a problem I will forever have with Maggie Stiefvater. I’m going to read the next book in this series, because someone pointed out that it’s “Ronan’s book” and he’s the only one I still like. But any further than that will be 100% dependent on how much I like that one. I’ve got a feeling the ice is gonna be thin.

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Review – The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Standalone by Brian Selznick

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

My favourite thing about this book is that it’s basically a large scale picture book for an older audience than picture books generally court. The writing is simple and patient without being dumbed down, and the story is structured so that it’s easy to follow while still being suspenseful.

I made the mistake of judging the book by its page count and expected something like Eragon or later Harry Potter instalments. So I put off reading poor Hugo far longer than I should have. But of course the majority of the book is comprised of lovely pictures. They’re incredibly detailed pencils that usually follow one another like frames. On topic with both the automation and movies.

Strangely, I did not come into this book thinking it would be a fantasy or steampunk sort of thing. Either I already knew it was historical fiction, or it looked enough like it up until I recognised Georges Méliès and A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune. I like that it was Hugo’s father’s favourite film. It’s one of mine as well.

The characters are all sympathetic, although it got on my nerves how many times they throw harsh accusations at one another with little evidence and more vehemence than the situation calls for. Sometimes they’re enigmatic for next to no reason, aside from keeping information from the reader for just a little while longer. That first scene can be a little hard to get through. I did want to kick the old man for taking Hugo’s notebook and threatening to burn it.

There is a considerable amount of real peril. Characters get injured, face significant consequences (sometimes for things that can’t be helped), and it seems like everyone has to deal with psychological trauma. The results of which were quite upsetting in at least one case. It’s nice to see a children’s book that doesn’t shy away from real life, particularly since this is historical fiction.

While I generally dislike the film adaptation coming up in a book review, this is one of the few books I can say has a film adaptation faithful enough to be worth showing in a classroom in relation to the book. Both are also highly invested in spectacular visuals.

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Review – Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day

Standalone novella by Seanan McGuire

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“…dead is the change you can’t take back, dead is the mistake that can’t be unmade.”

Another stunning Seanan McGuire novella. There are two supernatural groups at play: ghosts and witches. Ghosts need to take time away from humans. This means that the human is made younger, and the ghost is older. It’s the only way they can age and reach the time they were meant to die. Their dying day. Jenna Pace is a ghost, killed when she ran into a ravine while grieving for her older sister Patty, who committed suicide. Witches draw their power from a singular source, which can vary. Witches can tell the dead from the living and they can control whether or not a ghost gives or takes time from them.

Jenna operates under self-imposed conditions. She needs to feel that she’s earned the time she takes. She does so by working at a suicide hotline and counting only the minutes from calls that she felt made a difference. Proof that, as the book later says, ghosts are still human.

Most of the beginning is establishing the world and its rules, which is good. I didn’t understand “taking time away” at first. The plot kicks in when Jenna is warned that all of the other ghosts in Manhattan have disappeared. She and a sort-of witch friend named Brenda work together to find out why they’re gone.

The cast is principally female, which felt natural and not forced. The writing is melancholy, with a bit of a poetic bent that makes for a dreamy reading experience, as well as nicely establishing Jenna’s otherness, both as a ghost and someone who is old while never having quite aged like a loving person. I was lucky enough to score a glass-door study area at the library, which combined with my cold to make for an atmosphere of altered consciousness.

“As always, it’s comfortable to put my death-clothes back on, like I’m setting the world a little closer to right. The shape of the skin under the shroud has changed as I’ve stolen my way into adulthood, one minute at a time, from the people around me, but this is one thing that will always fit, no matter how old I get. I was buried in it. It knows me.

This is a ghost of a garment, worn thin by my memory, and as gone as the rest of me. The worms have had my flesh by now. The creeping roots of trees have had the cotton stitching at my hips and the colour of my hair. It’s been forty years since I went to the earth, and even my bones will be crumbling by now, going down into the Hollow, like the bones of all the folk who came before me. There’s something comforting in that.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t perfect. The ending is rushed in the worst ways. That could just be a mild irritation, but so much of it falls short of satisfaction. Lots of things go unexplained, which is already bad in a shorter work, but looks worse in comparison to all of the things that interweave and call back so well. The antagonist gets the worst of this. Coming in late is fine, but they had almost no motivation, no explanations, and lacked impact.

Still, this author is generally a win with me, and with good reason. She has awesome ideas and the execution is often just as much fun as the core concept, which is sort of the holy grail of cool moment generation. I think this novella is a perfect gateway for people interested in checking out the paranormal genre without romantic elements.