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Review – Spectacle Vol 1

Spectacle Vol 1, Paranormal Mystery Graphic Novel by Megan Rose Gedris

Series: Spectacle, first volume

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

Although her true talent lies in interpreting the data processed by the difference engine she built, Anna works as a fortune-teller in a circus. Her twin sister Kat also works in the circus, as a knife-thrower. The circus is a visual accomplishment, both in the art–which shows the reality more than the spectacle, which is fun–and the depiction of the community. People bicker, put together church services, gossip, and come together in crises. One such crisis is Kat’s sudden murder.

Anna finds the body, as well as Kat’s ghost. The two work together to catch the murderer without disrupting the circus, hoping that resolving the mystery will allow Kat to move on.

I loved all of the characters and their relationships. Anna is not a social butterfly. She’s awkward, accidentally insults people, and has difficulty accepting kindness at her sister’s funeral. In contrast (because they’re twins I guess), Kat is brash yet forges emotional connections with others. An interesting difference between the two of them is that Kat is the forgiving one. My impression was that Anna was less so because she doesn’t ‘get’ people the same way.

Art downfalls, the stupid belch, cliffhanger sudden stop

For the most part, the art is great. The chapter covers are stunning and really show the time and care taken with them. Sometimes there are things that look strange or don’t quite work. Sometimes the blood looks like finger-paint, I think because the colour saturation in those instances is too high. The text is easy to read, except when it’s white and written directly over the art.

The biggest downside to this book is the sudden jerking stop at the end. There’s no denouement, no To Be Continued caption box in the corner, not even a blank white page. Calling it a cliffhanger would be missing the mark. It looked unfinished.

There is a satisfying story arc, though. After a mysterious event gives the local acting sheriff a dubious reason to lock up the ringmaster, the performers band together to earn as much money as possible to make his $500 bail. When Anna tries to gain access to the ringmaster to get his advice on her own ghost/murder problem, she discovers the acting sheriff is corrupt and dangerous. It’s a slow burn arc, but as I said, ultimately satisfying.

I love ghosts and murder mysteries, and this combined them very well. To be fair, the abrupt ending does offer a culmination of a few very subtle clues throughout the book. There are a lot of unanswered questions, so I’m looking forward to the next volume!

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Review – A Dream for Three

A Dream for Three, Bildungsroman Graphic Novel written by Jérôme Hamon and drawn by Lena Sayaphoum

Series: Emma and Violette #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Given that I don’t usually read simple slice of life fiction, it takes something special to even draw me to check one out. In this case, although the pastel softness of Sayaphoum’s art style initially caught my attention, what really cinched my interest was the story. Two sisters who both dream of getting into the Paris Opera Ballet School, but only one of them passes the audition. This upsets both of them, although I was surprised to find that it didn’t quite create the kind of rift I’d expected.

Despite the series title of “Emma and Violette” this is infinitely more Emma’s story–perhaps that will change as more volumes are released. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense. Not only is Emma the one who fails the audition, a narrative position that carries considerably more weight and potential, but she is also the elder sister. Her life is further along, and a major theme of the story is moving on, as well as growing up and making choices. On the other hand, Violette comes off as nothing more than a background character, which isn’t very compelling to a reader looking for sibling drama and reconciliation.

The writing is a bit fast and loose as the saying goes, with a great deal of emphasis on “loose.” The main plot, Emma struggling with her perceived failure, is very strong, if a bit After-School Special in execution. Her mother once dreamed of becoming a professional violinist. She seems to be trying to succeed vicariously through being “supportive enough” to help her daughters achieve their ballet dream. However, she isn’t a crazy pageant mom, and I believed that enough of her drive was that she wanted the girls to be happy. The girls’ father is much more relaxed, as he keeps in touch with everyone’s feelings as a mediator. In my favourite scene, he takes Emma to a theatre, where she tries on costumes and he talks to her about all of the different things she can do with her life.

The subplots are where things sag in the middle. Emma and Violette have a fight, but it is not resolved. There are a couple of Mean Girl moments that amount to nothing–first because the character is not properly established and then chastised and removed without ceremony, and the was second immediately addressed before Violette can have any plot to herself. Emma has a love interest story that simply peters out. I won’t say it isn’t believable, but the way it plays out means yet another of the characters is inadequately utilised and worse, implies that he didn’t have to have a reason for his actions and it’s okay. It isn’t okay.

Still, the message of the story is eminently positive and unflinchingly clear. The art is fluid and lovely, with a soft prettiness that I adored. I don’t have daughters, and my children are much much younger than this, but I found the mother relatable. Not an easy thing for the writer to have accomplished. I’m sure the issues with Violette having less spotlight will be addressed in the very next volume, too. This is a sweet comic, and I highly recommend it.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Duels & Deception

Duels and Deception, YA Regency Romance by Cindy Anstey

My rating: ⭐️

This was not so much a book as it was a veritable flood of period turns of phrase, misused clichés, and smugly written dialogue lazily patched over places where any other type of writing would have been better suited. The main character is obnoxious and flat, suffers from a severe case of Not Like the Other Girls, and the romance is about as exciting and engaging as tapioca without any raisins.

The plot is so scattered and thin that I could make another food metaphor–smashed corn chips spread over too much plate–made up of the boring, the ancillary, and the outright stupid. But it hardly seems to matter in the face of how much I utterly loathed the writing. Throughout, my mind continuously recalled this thought from Going Postal:

“It was garbage… You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency and then sent to walk the gutter…”

At best, the writing in Duels and Deception is merely tedious. There’s a very clear attempt at using language to evoke the time, however it is also an over the top, desperately unsuccessful attempt.

kermitflail

At worst, there are clichés just dumped in as if they’ll help the setting look authentic merely by virtue of their inclusion. One paragraph contained such an unsightly glut of them I put it in my notes.

“But the die was cast–the deed was done, in for a penny, in for a pound. Might as well take the bull by the horns. Lydia was fully aware that in her anxiety she had overused her metaphors.”

The appended “fully aware” comment does not help.

Usually, I try to find something I liked about a book, no matter how much I didn’t enjoy it overall. Did I think the kidnapping was dramatic and original? Nope. I found it out of place and badly handled. I suppose the villain was interesting, however late into the book we learn their identity. I have to write this off as Very Not For Me and live with the sour taste in my mouth.

Bleh, I feel bad now that I’ve vented, but I don’t want to revise my opinion. I’d rather be honestly irritated than politic, I guess. I just expect more from Historical Fiction than this.

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Review – The Belles

The Belles, Dystopian YA by Dhonielle Clayton

Series: The Belles #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Rarely have I seen a book where the writing style so perfectly suited the setting and theme. The Belles is lyrically stunning, set in a darkly dangerous world covered in disarmingly gorgeous gilt. From the start, it infuses the trend/(sub?)genre of YA Dystopia with a much-needed spin.

In Orléans, beauty is the most precious ideal. Beauty expenses outstrip that of food in the average household. Ordinary people are cursed  with ugly natural bodies, with grey skin and hair like straw. Belles are manifestations of the Goddess of Beauty’s will, using their arcana to make people beautiful. Or at least, more to a paying customer’s own tastes. Camille, professionally known by her flower name of Camellia, is one such Belle. She wants nothing more than to be chosen as the queen’s favourite, as her mother was.

However, like many a lovely thing, the beauty of the court and courtiers hides dark secrets that threaten to poison Orléans from the inside out.

I loved everything about this book. The prose is richly descriptive, bursting with sensation and a joie de vivre that contrasts sharply with the drama as it mounts. Colours, flowers, foods, and fashions all come to dazzling life with consistent energy. There’s an undercurrent of both frenzy and holy devotion to the way that all of the characters feel about beauty. Insatiable, ever-changing, mercurial, obsessed. At times, it feels like the most brilliantly lit gothic romance.

This is definitely a series I want to see through to the end. The world is extravagant in scope and execution, for all that it focuses on the upper class and very little on those not of the court. I loved the way arcana worked–especially the parallels to cosmetic surgery in the real world. The device of gossip rag headlines to convey information was often enticingly subtle. The villain is honestly upsetting, and I found Camellia’s voice engaging and sympathetic.

I was literally on the edge of my seat, up at midnight with my Kindle inches from my face as I sped to the end. It’s that good.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Mask of Shadows

Mask of Shadows, YA Fantasy by Linsey Miller

Series: Mask of Shadows #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is the best book I’ve read this year!

If I were speaking aloud, I’d have to leave it at that. Because if I were speaking, anything further would just be gibbering happiness, the ultimate in Good Book Noises.

Luckily, I’m typing. I was sold on the premise alone, and it helps that the cover is gorgeous. A gender fluid thief competing to become an elite assassin in order to mete out revenge on behalf of their entire country? I may have literally shouted, “Sign me up!” When I was approved for a NetGalley ARC, there was a preview of the gibbering happiness. So here’s my honest review.

Sal is an amazing character. Not only a wonderful representation of a woefully underrepresented character type, but also one of the most complex vengeance-seeking characters of any I’ve seen. Growing up gender fluid myself, I wish I’d had a character like Sal to look to back then. (Mostly happy with “she” now, but I lost count of the times I whispered, “I know that feel,” to myself.) Sal is also awesomely intelligent and capable. It’s a joy to see them think through each conflict and triumph despite, at times, insane odds.

The supporting cast of characters is also quite good. I loved Maud, the servant assigned to Sal during the auditions, and Lady Elise is fun as both a teacher and a love interest. The rest of the elite assassins, the Left Hand, managed to be distinct without losing any of their mystique. Most impressively, the other auditioners didn’t just blend together. I’ve read the Hunger Games and some of Battle Royale, and neither of those books made the faceless competitors even seem like stand-ins for people. In Mask of Shadows, everyone is somebody, even if they don’t survive.

A lot of characters don’t survive. But every death has weight, and Sal isn’t indifferent to them.

The world-building in this book is tremendous and also effective. There’s internal logic and consistency. Magic was drained from the world to stop deadly shadows, and magic does not mysteriously/suspiciously return or work sporadically. It’s gone, so it’s gone. Although the world is expansive and complex, there are no eye-rolling info dumps. There is a timeline/history at the back of the book. Even that has some story weight.

This book seriously has a little bit of everything. There’s sorrow, ambition, death, clever manoeuvring, friendships, careful joy, love, political intrigue, personal agendas, fighting for one’s right to personal expression, sultry writing of poetry ink on skin, and hope.

I honestly can’t see anything else I read this year topping this book. I rarely reread anymore–not with 50 books on my To Be Read Before August list–but this book will be the exception.

(As I said in the review, I received an ARC through NetGalley in return for an honest review.)