The sins of the fathers

Haze by Rachel Crunden

r/suggestmeabook: I want a contemporary thriller with a young couple trying to overcome their past tragedies.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 267

Publisher: Self

From the publisher: When Eliza Owens gets a phone call in the middle of the night from a girl she’s never met, she doesn’t know what to think. The girl introduces herself as Paige, and says she used to date Erik Stern, Eliza’s fiancé. What’s more, she has something important to discuss. The only problem? Paige has been dead for years.

This absorbing thriller spools off one tragedy after anther before it settles in to solve the mysteries behind them. Rebecca Crunden does a great job of sketching characters quickly so that you become invested early. I was debating whether to call this YA, and after chatting with mavens, will say it’s “adult with YA crossover appeal.”*

The dead don’t care if you’re religious.

Rebecca Crunden, Haze

Eliza and Erik are the protagonists, and they both have demons aplenty. How they deal with them (not well, for the most part) is a large part of the story. Erik wins the worst dad contest, but Eliza’s, although more likable, becomes problematic. Be prepared to read about various addictions, and, if you’ve had panic attacks, you’ll know that Crunden’s descriptions are so good that they almost provoke one.

We talk shit. We talk about Eliza, we talk about this ghost, we talk about the past and the present. We don’t ever talk about you.

Rebecca Crunden, Haze

The pace is rapid enough that it’s easy to overlook that there’s not as much background and development that I usually prefer. My biggest gripe was the ending, which suffers from the Lord of the Rings syndrome: it felt like multiple endings, rather than one. I think it would have been more satisfying to skip the last chapter and go straight to the epilogue; I’d say more, but I don’t want to give anything away.

One of the greatest conspiracies of life is the how and why of the tax system. Right up there with cauliflower and the purpose of wisdom teeth.

Rebecca Crunden, Haze

I don’t read enough thrillers to venture many other comments, but for someone who doesn’t generally gravitate toward them, this was a fun ride.

*Thanks to Fabienne and Eriophora for the genre classification assist, although they should be absolved for any error on my part. Check out their websites for more YA and other goodies.


Still trying to live up to dad

Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

r/suggestmeabook: I want to go adventuring with a young female bard who latches on to a group with daddy issues.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 479

Publisher: Orbit

Series: The Band

From the publisher: Tam Hashford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown. When the biggest mercenary band of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard.

It’s more difficult to gauge a sequel to a book that you loved—or, for that matter, any book you approach with higher expectations than usual. I think this is a better than average book, but my initial response was to downgrade it because it wasn’t nearly as absorbing as the first in the series, Kings of the Wyld. Luckily, this is one of the few books my husband read first, and, although he agreed with the comparative rating, he supported a higher rating when comparing it to books overall.

Why the disappointment? First, the first two-thirds of the book are more serious in tone than the first book ever was. The tone of Bloody Rose isn’t as tongue-in-cheek until it gets closer to resolution, at which point the silly allusions start flying fairly thick, and even then, it still feels more grim than its predecessor. Not that grim is an issue; it’s a matter of expectations.

Funny, Tam thought, how different a thing could seem at a distance—how beautiful, despite the ugly truth. Was it worth it, she wondered, to look closer? To examine something, or someone, if doing so risked changing your perception of them forever after?

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

The second major difference, for me, was the protagonist point of view. Both books are written in close third. Clay Cooper, the character followed in Kings of the Wyld, is a retired mercenary who’s seen it all and done it all and really has not interest in doing it again, which is a far cry from Tam Hashford’s ingenue bard point of view. I assumed Clay would be the protagonist again (bad reader), and going back to a more conventional coming of age POV was not as interesting to me as the world weary Clay.

Shadrach had controlled them through fear, and, although fear bred subservience, it did not beget loyalty.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

So both of my major gripes with the book have nothing to do with it if treated as a standalone—and it could be read as one. When I approach it from that angle, it’s quite a good book. The characters are all fully realized and distinctive, and the plot is well executed. The world building is still well done, although the difference in overall tone made the referential humor feel a little more out of place—things like the line on the cover, “Girls just want to have fun,” dropped in the middle of a battle sequence, are more likely to get an eye roll than a chortle.

“You’re a legend now, girl, and legends are like rolling stones: Once they get going, it’s best to stay out of their way.”

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

Let’s talk about the cast. The daddy issues of the eponymous Rose, still dealing with the problem of being a celebrity’s child and Tam, whose dad was also in the biz, just not as famous as Rose’s dad Gabe, are evident from the outset, but the majority of the rest of the band will prove to have problems with their dads as well, but I feel like going any further is spoilery enough to leave it at that.

Fuck her, Tam thought. Everyone suffers. We’ve all lost people we love, and it’s not always—or ever—fair. But only a monster paints everyone with the same bloody brush. And only a madwoman wants the world to suffer with her.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

Rose’s love, the Druin Freecloud, is cool and efficient, a great match for Rose’s fire, and probably the most reserved member of the band. Brune, the shaman, takes the shape of a bear in fights, but is a teddy outside of battle. Roderick, the manager, is a fast-talking, insecure satyr, but ultimately the manager you want. Cura the ink witch is an injured soul who tries to keep everyone away but will do anything to help her bandmates. I didn’t love all of them, but I enjoyed reading about them.

Some people knew how to kill a conversation. Cura, on the other hand, could make it wish it had never been born.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

The theme of “what makes a bad guy” is intriguing, and is an interesting development for this world’s history, illustrating how time can reframe your perspective. Other themes explored are the notion of what constitutes family and how to grapple with childhood trauma as a young adult. (See, I told you it was more serious than the first one.)

Glory fades. Gold slips through our fingers like water, or sand. Love is the only thing worth fighting for.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

My first thought is to recommend reading Bloody Rose first, then Kings of the Wyld as a prequel, but you’d still have the problem of expectations because of the mismatch in tone. Reversing the reading order might not fix a sense of disappointment with the second book; it’s probably best to say they’re simply set in the same world.


On a personal note, let’s talk about VESTIBULAR migraines

Why, yes, I am shouting

A big thank you to the folks at the Vestibular Migraine Community on Facebook for providing the words and weight to generate the word cloud.

After two days in the hospital waiting for the neurologists to decide whether my imaging studies meant my head was going to blow up, I was released without a firm diagnosis, but the attending neurologist shrugged and said “It could have been a migraine.”

I rolled my eyes hard every time I had to tell someone about it. I knew what a migraine was, dammit. I’d had 3-5 per week for at least seven years before they’d stopped about five years before. This was no migraine. I was right and wrong: it wasn’t the common, classical migraine I’d become so intimately acquainted with. It took five months for me to find out that it was probably the first big moment of the vestibular migraines that would become my daily life.

Last March, after other, less drastic symptoms, I started having a vestibular migraine which, for all intents and purposes, hasn’t stopped. I have fluctuations in the intensity and mix of the symptoms, but it never really ends.

It took six weeks to get a diagnosis, because when you hear that dizziness is the primary symptom, “migraine” is not the first thing you jump to. Like me, most people hear “migraine” and have a completely different idea about what’s happening. A VESTIBULAR migraine is a different animal, but, even though I’ve explained it multiple times to people, they still ask me, “How are your headaches?” It’s upsetting and frustrating because it feels as though my struggles to explain were completely ignored—and it is now a struggle to explain.

Even when I had the “regular” migraines, the headache part was never the worst part of it. For me, it was always the photophobia and phonophobia that made it worse. When every noise has the same effect as fingernails on a blackboard, and light feels like someone has thrown a dagger into your eye, it’s just as debilitating as an extremely painful headache. I had a hard time talking, because my own voice hurt. It was a period of isolation and darkness, and when I wasn’t actively having a migraine, I was having a migraine hangover.

In some ways, vestibular migraine (VM) is worse, although arguably, it’s also what I’m experiencing now, so that could account for it seeming worse. It’s always dangerous to compare suffering, so don’t take this as saying my vestibular migraines are worse than your regular ones. All I’m saying is that, for me, VM has some features that I have more difficulty with.

I can probably sum it up with this: The persistent symptoms of VM that are most troublesome for me, and have lead to an inability to work, are ones that go to the very heart of my identity: the ones that make up “transient aphasia.” I have always feared Alzheimer’s, which runs in my family, because of the way it eats away at the sum of who the sufferer is. The vestibular migraines are not in any way the same as Alzheimer’s, but that erosion of your cognitive self is there, albeit in a less dramatic way. And the lack of drama in itself is part of the problem.

Here’s the deal: Although dizziness is the hallmark of the vestibular versus the common migraine, it’s by no means the only one. When the VM first started, yes, the dizziness was the most salient symptom. It was constant, and I was always sure I was on the verge of falling over–my shorthand description was that I felt like I’d slammed a couple of margaritas all the time. So I thought that it was the dizziness itself that made reading and writing impossible. But when the dizziness was banked down to a low level of instability most of the time subsequent to botox treatment, I still found issues with reading and writing—transient aphasia.

I read about aphasia for the first time in a linguistics survey course in undergrad. I remember thinking it sounded horrifying—to have the words in your head but not be able to force them out of your mouth. It’s no fun, although, like most things, the reality isn’t quite as awful as imagining it (and it’s mitigated by the fact that it comes and goes). But while it’s going on, it’s extraordinarily frustrating to be trapped in your head with the words that literally will not make the trip from the brain through your mouth and into the air.

Even when fluency is less of an issue, I still misspeak. I write something and later realize I’ve said what I meant backwards, or said something baseless or inane that wasn’t what I was trying to say, or had an episode of non-sequitur theatre. I struggle to spell words that never gave me problems before (for some reason, for example, “female” is always “femail” on the first try now.) I feel like I need a warning label on everything I write to say “It may be social awkwardness, or it may just be my VM acting up.” But the need to engage in some kind of conversation coupled with my ADHD pressure to say something RIGHT NOW because, well, impulse control, makes me continue to try to talk or write and then repent later.

That’s the outgoing version. There’s also the incoming version, where words stop making sense. It’s as though the words start dancing around, text devoid of meaning. I don’t know if it’s true of everyone, but for some reason, it happens more frequently for me on electronic devices, and is worse reading on a laptop than on my phone. My guess is that it has something to do with the lighting and with the amount of eye movement involved, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

I also start having trouble processing what someone is saying to me if a phone conversation goes too long. It happens some in live conversation, but, again, for some reason it’s worse when it’s purely a telephone call.

The ability to make sense of text is also dependent on the complexity of text. For some kind of context, my husband has always referred to me as his mentat, and I’m trained as a lawyer. But now, I have been having difficulty figuring out if I’m eligible for Social Security Disability or if it’s only SSI that has a need component (like the Medicare/Medicaid distinction) because it’s all situated in more difficult texts and I cannot get it to stay still long enough to puzzle it out.

A novel that’s too oblique—the kind I used to enjoy hugely—now baffles me. One with too many characters is too hard to keep track of. Nonfiction is down to a page or two at a time (on a good day). Magazine articles of any length have to be taken at several sessions.

Given that the constant in all my various careers has been the ability to process language, it’s unsettling that this disease attacks that particular faculty. I’ve never been athletic, so a disability that would limit my physical speed wouldn’t affect my sense of self in the same way that the limitations on my language abilities have. Thanksgiving was almost comical because of the mistakes I made in preparing the dishes I’ve done every year for decades—substituting two sticks of butter for two tablespoons, for example, more than once.

You may read this and think, well, but you’ve written this post. But what isn’t readily apparent is the number of times I’ve had to come to the computer and write a little, revise a little, write a little more, for a document that I could have done at one sitting a year ago. I can’t write, edit, and proof effectively for hours at a time now, and I have to take the times I’m relatively clear to work on it.

So if you come across something in the blog and think, wait, that doesn’t make sense, or see a typo, please feel free to point it out. Odds are I missed it—of course, that could have happened in the past as well, but my frequency of errors is much higher.

If you someone tells you they suffer from vestibular migraines, realize that the modifier “vestibular” is very important to the person who is letting you know: it’s something more than or different than a headache going on. It may have come on quickly with devastating consequences’ almost 89% of the 56 respondents to a question about the onset posted at Vestibular Migraine Community said it did (“Like a lightning strike”). It may be completely different for another VMirate than for me; I have almost all of the symptoms in the cloud (I think I counted five that I’ve never had), but not all of them have affected me as profoundly as others. Different VMirates will have a different cocktail. And it may be a struggle for them to explain, so if they’ve said “vestibular,” or if they’ve described it, that takes an effort, and repeating the song and dance is just that much more frustrating.

VM is poorly understood, but there’s some research to indicate it involves more of the brainstem than classic migraine. It’s also not even all that well known among doctors. I was fortunate that both the ENT and the neurologist I saw the first time for it were aware of the syndrome; there are stories of people taking years to get a diagnosis.

Treatments are pretty much the same as for a classic migraine, and probably will remain that way for a good while, as only about 1% of the populations suffers from VM versus 12% for classic migraine, and not all VMirates had classic migraines before the VM hit (about 17% of 36 respondents). Treatments are like any other drug—some work for many, some work for a few, but all of them take trial and error. There’s not much more than anecdotal data out there, but it’s not uncommon to hear that folks took around three years from the initial onset to getting back to a normal life.

So I’m about a third of the way there; I guess I’ll take that as a glass-half-full observation.

A man among women

The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

r/suggestmeabook: I want a WWI-era quest by a young man to be part of an elite magical rescue mission group which is only open to women.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 464

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Series: The Philosophers

From the publisher: Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is one of the few men who practice empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, heal the injured, and even fly. He’s always dreamed of being the first man to join the US Sigilry Corps’ Rescue and Evacuation Department, an elite team of flying medics, but everyone knows that’s impossible: men can barely get off the ground. When a shocking tragedy puts Robert’s philosophical abilities to the test, he rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study philosophy at Radcliffe College—an all-women’s school. 

Tom Miller’s WWI-era world where magic is a gender-linked trait is an intriguing analogue to our own. Women have amazing powers through the exercise of the magic—practical philosophy, in the terms of that world—and yet they are still facing misogyny from a group that is eerily similar to the resurgent far right of our day.

Sigilry only came into widespread use around 1750 and right from the start women were better at it than men. That upset a lot of folks, who thought sigils must be some form of witchcraft. Most people, though, saw the usefulness in empirical philosophy and were content to allow it.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

The hero, Robert, is a talented philosopher, but he keeps bucking the status quo by being a guy. The “feel sorry for the man who’s being discriminated against” vibe got to me every so often, although the book is clearly sympathetic to women’s issues and paints the men who are opposed to the women’s power as irrational and evil. But it still bothered me from time to time to read about a man with discrimination issues. He’s not trans, he’s not BIPOC, he’s not gay—in our world, he’d be privileged as hell (except, perhaps, for the fact he’s from Montana). However, it is an avenue for a person who is usually privileged to look at what it’s like to have the shoe on the other foot.

I sampled scoops of vanilla ice cream with an inner layer of insulated chocolate that protected a hot, molten caramel core. There was a ham smoked to taste like peaches accompanied by peaches smoked to taste like ham—more clever than delicious, but that didn’t prevent me from taking seconds.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

On the other hand, in the context of the novel, he has been raised in a family of women with far more strength in their magic and has been marginalized in his own way. It feels churlish to suggest that a man shouldn’t want to excel in a women’s field or that somehow he didn’t suffer because he is part of a privileged group. Comparing suffering as a form of competition generally doesn’t lead anywhere I want to go, and empathy is always the better choice, so, yes, this guy clearly has endured some harassment within the context of the novel. It bothers me, and it bothers me that it bothers me.

This is the story this author wanted to tell, his point of view is sympathetic, so why am I bitching about the fact that it’s from a man’s point of view? My reaction smacks of the attitudes that TERFs have about someone else discussing issues of exclusion, but this isn’t the same thing. I don’t really know, but I was comforted when I discussed it with my daughter and she could relate to the unease.

Aside from that, Robert’s quest to be a philosopher good enough to be in Rescue and Evacuation is well-structured and peopled with likable characters. It’s refreshing that the romantic interest is not objectified in the ordinary way, but is beautiful to Robert because of her character. There are plenty of strong women with different temperaments and personalities, which is a pleasure to read. On the other hand, there are several characters who seem to be created only to meet a particular plot point and not really developed; it would have been nice to either have them more fully realized or to consolidate them into fewer characters.

[I]f you and I hang back and do what’s comfortable, if philosophers wall themselves off and only associate with other philosophers, then the Zoning Act is going to sneak through and we’ll all shake our heads and say, “How did it happen?”

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

For example, Brock and Addams—I had a hell of a time keeping them straight. They didn’t seem to have much difference in personality, and although they were two different levels of academic authority, there wasn’t enough to make each one memorable in her own way.

A remarkable thing, the human hand. The infinite number of ways it fits together with another. Fingers interlaced, first with my thumb on the outside, and then rewoven so that hers was.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

One of my favorite characters, though, is Freddy Unger (I keep wanting to call him Felix, which is probably an age issue). Freddy is the guy who completely gets the theory behind it all, but can’t do anything practical to save his soul—yet he never seems bitter about it.

It’s never mattered that I can’t do it. What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

Issues of class and race are hinted at, but not fully explored—the former particularly surprising, since the bulk of the action takes place at Radcliffe among the elite, and the hero is a relatively poor Westerner. The allusions to race tend to make me feel as though the early women’s movement in this reality was not as anti-Black as the one in ours, but there are enough racial tensions in it to make it an open question. The hero’s lack of exposure to racial issues because of his childhood in a white enclave could be an explanation for the oblique treatment, but it would have been interesting to see it more explicitly discussed.

We fought the wrong way. We always thought that if we killed enough of them—killed the right ones—that they would leave us in peace. All that got us was one cycle of violence after another.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

The fact that I’m wanting this or that out of the book is, however, testimony to the fact that I enjoyed it, and the book that’s there is worth a read. It would provide excellent fodder for a book club discussion, particularly as it confronts a question that is relevant to our current difficulties: How do you come to a peaceful solution when two sides fundamentally disagree on reality?


When knowing is a burden

The Fire in the Glass by Jacquelyn Benson

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery set in Edwardian England focused on a defiantly independent and lonely young woman with precognition.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 494

Publisher: Vaughn Woods Publishing

Series: The Charismatics

From the publisher: For as long as she can remember, Lily has been plagued by psychic visions of the future. Never once has she been able to prevent the horrors she foresees from coming to pass. Now a mysterious fiend is stalking London. The tabloids shriek of vampires, but Lily knows the killer is a different kind of monster, one who could be caught and brought to justice before he strikes again.

The satisfaction at concluding a well told tale never gets old, and Jacquelyn Benson delivers that lovely feeling with this marvelous book. The characters are compelling and well drawn, the plot intriguing, and the prose lively. Even though this is envisioned as the first installment in the series, it feels complete in itself.

As she climbed, she watched for Cat, an enormous beast who did not belong to anyone in the house but was impossible to eradicate. Cat had a penchant for sleeping in places designated to endanger the lives of unsuspecting passersby.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The details of Lily’s estrangement from her fellows may differ from what you or I may have gone through, but the experience of feeling excluded, of being different because of factors you can’t control—that’s not so different. Lily struggles with doing everything herself, taking on more responsibility than she should, just to protect her heart, to keep from being vulnerable.

She kept trying. She fought to win her lonely battle against fate despite the steely opposition of the nannies and the guilt, grief, and gutting frustration—right up until the day her mother died.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

But those details are what makes the story intriguing, as well as the way in which she begins to face up to her fears. There’s Estelle, the neighbor who has wormed her way into Lily’s heart, making her irreplaceable and any threat to her unthinkable. Estelle introduces her to the mysterious Mr. Ash, who asks for more faith than Lily has. Lily also meets the enigmatic Lord Strangford, who has secrets of his own.

The words resonated. Lily knew that fear. It had lingered at the back of her mind for as long as she could remember. Humanity was not kind to difference.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The pace builds well over the course of the story, and the anomalies of Lily’s life as an Edwardian woman are dealt with head-on—mostly by her class and background justifying her refusal to act completely within society’s dictates.

The ton was generally happy to presume that a child conceived in sin carried the same loose morals in her blood like some sort of hereditary disease, one they apparently thought contagious.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The theme of the willingness of powerful men to sacrifice powerless women is explored within the novel, and although most of those men still find themselves justified, there are some who are enlightened in the process. There’s a darkness at the heart of the story, but it’s a darkness which is being fought.

The Fire in the Glass was a pleasure to read, and I look forward to the next installment.


Drugs, sex, and a poisonous toad

Review: Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead by Christiana Miller

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery about a witch who is learning about her powers and trying to deal with a curse.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 372

Publisher: HekaRose Publishing

Series: The Toad Witch Mysteries

.

From the publisher: Mara is having the worst month of her life. At least, that’s what her tarot cards tell her and they’ve never been wrong. Before she knows it, she’s evicted from her apartment, fired from her job and banned from Beverly Hills.

This almost feels like two different books: the first half, in Los Angeles, is the tale of Mara’s impending eviction, desperate need for cash, and a fear of exercising her magic. The second half, in Wisconsin, Mara no longer has the same pressures, no longer fears her magic, but has become involved with a haunted house.

As I flipped through the Templar deck, I noticed Lyra’s face blanching at some of the images: horned gods holding skulls, winged angelic figures challenging humans, lusty women cavorting with skeletons.

“It’s a question that’s always plagued me. Is forewarned really the same as forearmed?” I tapped the deck. “Can this give you the power to turn the Hand of Fate to your favor? Or is it just another way to ruin a perfectly good week?”

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

Mara is generally likable, and the first person narrative is breezy and fun for the most part. Mara’s bad luck, her run-ins with the judgmental Mrs. Lasio, and the backfiring of Mara’s magic is all entertaining. The second part of the book dragged a little more for me—rather than building tension, the repeated instances of supernatural heebie-jeebies got a little repetitive, and I was ready to get some explanations and resolution.

It didn’t take me long to drive through Devil’s Point. There was a small shopping district that included a mom and pop grocery store, an antique store, an old-fashioned diner, the movie theater J.J. had mentioned, and a bookstore. On the other side of the street, there was a hardware store, a thrift store, a bait-and-tackle shop and a mechanic’s shop that was right out of the 1950s, with an old-fashioned gas pump out front and vintage automobiles for sale. It really was an adorable, old-fashioned slice of Americana, preserved in time.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

I’m a CIS hetero woman, so I can’t say how the book would affect a gay man, but there were a few things about it that gave me pause. Mara’s best friend is a gay man, and it almost devolves into the sassy gay friend trope but for the fact that Gus often saves the day (but he could be seen as the fairy godmother, so I’ll leave it up to those affected by this trope to judge). Because Gus is heavily involved in the first half, and a frequent cameo in the second, and is portrayed mostly in a positive light, it seems clear there’s no malevolent intent, but it still could be taken negatively in execution.

I still didn’t want to do it, but Gus had his heart set on being the center of attention. I had tried to talk him out of it, but it was useless. He had been dreaming of this moment ever since he got booted out of the last coven he was in. To be the biggest deal in the center of a large pagan gathering and thumb his nose at the people who had betrayed him, (at least, that was Gus’s version of events). And he had been doing so much for me this week, I just didn’t have the heart to stomp on his inner diva and destroy his fantasy. Especially after he spotted some of his ex-coven members roaming around.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

The most problematic quote for me is the one below; the usage of “queer” in this manner by Mara, even if possibly quoting someone else, made me very uncomfortable. I can deal with pejoratives when they are used sparingly and for a particular purpose (such as illuminating the past or if the context is such that it would seem like white washing or inauthentic if it were omitted), but this didn’t seem to meet any of my internalized criteria.

But according to Lupe, the guy is a raging queer. I thought Mamma Lasio was going to wash her mouth out with laundry detergent and pool water. This place has been like a soap opera ever since they moved in and I’m the one getting evicted.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

The quote refers to Mrs. Lasio’s priest. Again, the description may be Lupe’s (Mrs. Lasio’s daughter), but it still bugged me (clearly, or I wouldn’t be talking about it here). I can’t say categorically that it’s offensive, because it’s not my life experience here; I can just say that it bothered me.

Unlike most of the fantasy I read, this is not a wholly imagined magical system. Rather, this one appears to be derived from Wicca, as the author notes on Amazon that “For Wiccan readers, who are curious about the quarter system used in the book, this story uses the Northern Quarter system which is based in Traditional Witchcraft, rather than the Golden Dawn Quarter system, which is more widely used in Wicca.”

Ah, yes, the toad. I almost forgot. The toad is a recurring background figure, but his magical abilities are never quite substantiated. It’s unclear if he’s really doing anything or not, but as the series is named for him, I’m guessing that will be cleared up in future volumes.

Gus was beside himself. “Grundleshanks ate! Damn you, Grundleshanks. You treacherous amphibian. Traitor of the first degree. The minute my back is turned!”

“Gus, chill. It’s just a toad.”

“I have been watching him for weeks. I have fed him and watered him and watched him and waited and nothing. Nothing. He’s shy, he says. Doesn’t want to eat in public, he says. But let a pretty girl come over…” He glared at Grundleshanks. “Show-off.”

The eyeballs on top of the mud lump calmly blinked back at him.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

Overall, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead was not a book I regretted reading, but I don’t think I’ll pick any more in the series because, by the end, I’d spent enough time with Mara in Wisconsin and am happy to move on to a new world.


Until the vaccine comes, there’s this

Big5+ Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

r/suggestmeabook: I want a satisfying and optimistic fantasy tale of a man finding out what really matters to him.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 393

Publisher: Tor

From the publisher: Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

This was the book I didn’t know I needed. It touches on themes that have been painful this year, but redeems them in a way that restores hope in humanity without ever being glib or ignoring the ugliness that can be part of the equation.

This year has fairly vibrated with a sense of powerlessness. Can I, just one person, do anything about all of the big issues that are facing all of us? What can I do about institutional racism, or the pushback against LGBQTIA+ people that runs from casual verbal cruelty to outsized paranoia over what bathroom to use? How can I keep me and mine safe from COVID-19 when people are pretending it doesn’t exist? Then there’s the tick-tick-tick of climate change in the background.

“It’s not only this village, Mr. Baker. Just because you don’t experience prejudice in your everyday doesn’t stop it from existing for the rest of us.”

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Into all that mess comes this sweet and positive tale that doesn’t pretend change is easy or fast, but asserts strongly that change is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s something that each individual can contribute to. Linus Baker, the everyman protagonist of the tale in a close third narrative, does his moral best within the context of his limited powers, but doesn’t really look past his immediate surroundings to see what kind of consequences there might be, the quintessential well-meaning soul who unintentionally contributes to the status quo. His life is upended by a special assignment to the eponymous house.

He’d accepted long ago that some people, no matter how good their heart was or how much love they had to give, would always be alone. It was their lot in life, and Linus had figured out, at the age of twenty-seven, that it seemed to be that way for him.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Self-deprecating, isolated, but dedicated to his job because of a fundamental conviction that children deserve to be safe and cared for, he’s easy to root for. His character growth is fundamental to the story, and it occurs incrementally and believably. I generally hate it when characters have sudden changes of heart because of one particular dramatic incident; those can help, but my life’s experience tells me that people must already be in motion for a drama to move them to a new position.

Then there are all the other quirky and charming characters, as well as the people you love to hate. T.J. Klune has a gift for sketching memorable characters quickly, so small roles such as Ms. Bubblegum, J-Bone, Marty, the train conductor, and the post office guy are almost as memorable as the main cast. There’s the yearning-for-purpose Chauncey, spiders-in-the-brain Lucy, singing-to-the-earth Phee, nibbling-to-communicate Theodore, I-want-to-be-round Talia, and future poet laureate Sal. These children are all lovable, but I must confess some favoritism for Chauncey and Sal.

Many considered them to be nuisances, and for a long time, they were hunted down, their heads used as trophies, their skin made into fashionable shoes. It wasn’t until laws were enacted protecting all magical creatures that the barbaric acts ceased, but by then, it’d almost been too late, especially in the face of empirical evidence that wyverns were capable of emotionally complex reasoning that rivaled even humans.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Arthur Parnassus, however, doesn’t appear to play favorites. The father figure and teacher who heads up the school Linus must investigate is the guy we’d have all wanted to have our backs as students. However, he’s probably the least well-developed character in the book, but that I can forgive that because 1. we’re seeing him through Linus’s obscured vision and 2. it’s necessary for plot reasons.

He was as fresh-faced as the young people who came into DICOMY with their shiny degrees and ideas about how things should be done rather than how they actually were. They quickly learned to fall into line. Idealism had no place in government work.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Then there are all the characters who only appear in a scene or two, and yet they are memorable. Klune has a knack of adding just the right details to sketch them quickly and convincingly.

She was a stern woman, hair pulled back so severely that it brought her unibrow up to the middle of her forehead. He wondered every now and then if she had ever smiled in her life. He thought not. Ms. Jenkins was a dour woman with the disposition of an angry snake.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The bit that made it hard for me get get going on the book was the music (although, to be fair, once I got past the first third of the book, I could not put it down). It mostly put me in mind of the first time I watched A Knight’s Tale. As a hardcore history buff (or antiquarian, if you want to go with my history prof’s label), I was startled when Queen showed up at a tourney:

Yes, in the purely fictional world (I’d thought) of The House in the Cerulean Sea, all of a sudden The Everly Brothers’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is playing in this other reality. Of course, fictional music would not have had the same emotional impact as “Beyond the Sea” or “You Send Me,” so it made a certain kind of sense, but it was a bit jarring, just like “We Will Rock You” showing up in what I thought was a period film. (Yes, my expectations for A Knight’s Tale were all wrong.) On balance, I see why Klune made that choice, but I wish there had been another way to get the effect he wanted.

As Bobby Darin sang about watching ships from golden sands, Linus moved through the dream, fingers tracing along the books on the table. He barely glanced down at the titles, entranced by the telltale scratch of a record spinning.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The other jarring note was the use of the exact phrase that was born of 9/11: “See something. Say something.” I, too, found this formulation disturbing in our world, and to hear it echoed in the book brought me out of the fantasy world Klune had made. Perhaps it was to point to the thematic links between the worlds, but it felt like a moment where he was jumping up and down and saying “Look what I’m saying about the US,” taking focus from the story to the author and his message.

Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

All that aside, at the core of this book is a question man has debated for centuries (and probably woman as well, but we didn’t get recorded much until recently): Are we born evil or made that way? Can we rise above our genetic/hereditary/nature? Can people change? This is not just a philosophical jaunt. The side you take on the debate seems to have endless ramifications about how you treat crime, poverty, drugs, and a slew of other questions with practical political applications. I believe, on some level, it is the answer to that question that lies behind all of the current conflict in the US, because how you treat humanity at large (as opposed to the folks you actually know), really depends on the answer to that question.

Linus has avoided this question about the nature of humanity and is forced to confront it, if only implicitly. Despite the two types of intrusions where our realities overlap, I loved this book. And I learned that buttons are awesome. Nope, not going to explain; read the book and know the power of a button.


Not your lit class’s Jane Eyre

Prepublication Big5+ review of The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

r/suggestmeabook: I want a thriller inspired by Jane Eyre narrated by a not-unwarrantedly suspicious, impoverished alumna of the foster care system.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 304

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/5/2021

From the publisher: Meet Jane. Newly arrived to Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates––a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded tchotchkes and jewelry off the side tables of her well-heeled clients. Where no one will think to ask if Jane is her real name.

In the rivalry between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (which I get), just as passionate as the Star Wars vs. Star Trek arguments (which I don’t), I’m definitely a Jane Eyre girl, so this new novel got my attention quite quickly. Rachel Hawkins’s clever reworking of Jane Eyre is an homage to the original but manages to be fresh. She’s not just dressing up the classic in modern clothes, but picking and choosing elements to create a new and fascinating whodunit. 

The reworking also forces you to think of things that were formerly hidden behind Charlotte Brontë‘s polite Victorian prose. Foster homes of her period were no kinder then than now, and the soot filled past obscures much of the permanent damage the original Jane would have sustained from her environment. Brontë’s novel was ground-breaking at the time, and does not portray Jane’s childhood as rosy, but the consciousness of what was done is different, probably because we actually discuss the effects of trauma more openly now than then.

I don’t miss the hard look in her eyes. One thing growing up in the foster system has taught me was to watch people’s eyes more than you listened to what they said. Mouths were good at lying, but eyes usually told the truth.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Like the original, it’s a first-person narrative; unlike the original, it’s not just Jane we here from. Bea (Bertha’s nickname) is also heard from, and even Eddie gets a turn at the mike. The multiple points of view are well-marked and separate, adding rather than detracting from the story. It’s a little odd (and jolting) when the text shifts from first- to third-person in Bea’s sections, but the publisher has used italics to separate the two perspectives, so they’re easy to follow. I think I’d have preferred to have those first person as well, realizing Bea might be an unreliable narrator, but it works well enough in Hawkins’s capable prose.

Mrs. Reed looks sympathetic. She looks like she absolutely hates that I have to walk her collie, Bear, on a cold and stormy day in mid-February.

She looks like she actually gives a fuck about me as a person.

She doesn’t though, which is fine, really.

It’s not like I give a fuck about her either.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Jane’s discussion of privilege, in the sense of wealth and education, is deft. It’s enough to make you aware of the issues of class without descending into an overt morality play. The role her formative years had in her ability to trust pervades the narrative, making her understandably cautious. This was a prime example of a character giving you a way into a different perspective and making actions you might ordinarily find morally indefensible suddenly becoming, if not justified, at least understandable.

Wanting things? Sure. that’s been a constant in my life, my eyes catching the sparkle of something expensive on a wrist, around a neck; pictures of dream houses taped to my bedroom wall instead of whatever prepubescent boy girls my age were supposed to be interested in.

But I’ve been dodging men’s hands since I was twelve, so wishing a man would touch me is a novel experience.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The world in which the story unfolds is well built. Hawkins chooses her details well, and you can viscerally feel the comfortable, elegant, and monied world. It’s also a very Southern world, set in Birmingham, Alabama, where Southern Living is the magazine of choice and magnolias and gossip framed in sympathy. It’s a very white world, though, which surprised me a little, knowing the demographics. But the setting is a wealthy, white microcosm, so I personally didn’t find it problematic.

She’s been gone nearly a year, but the arrangement of lilies and magnolias on the front table of my house were hers, and every time I walk past them, it’s like I’ve just missed seeing her, that she’s just stepped out for a second.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The novel moves along at a nice clip, but still allows things to unravel slowly enough to build tension. The story jumps along timelines, but Hawkins is always in control of them, so there’s never a moment when you’re confused about when you are.

Overall, a masterful book that even a Wuthering Heights fan might love.


A Harlem ghost story

A Little in Love with Death by Anna M. Taylor

r/suggestmeabook: I want a novella about a deadly haunted house that came between lovers.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 97

Publisher: Self

Series: Haunted Harlem

The woman in the banner photo is Hazel Scott, who doesn’t actually appear in the novel, but the photo is from the correct time period. She shouldn’t be erased, as she was a pioneer, the first black woman to host her own television show.

From the publisher: Ten years ago no one — not even the man who said he loved her — believed Sankofa Lawford’s claim she had been brutally attacked by a ghost. Ten years later an assault on a new victim brings her back to Harlem to a mother going mad, a brother at his wits’ end and a former love who wants a second chance. Sankofa longs for her family to be whole again, for love to be hers again, but not if she must relive the emotional pain created by memories of that night.

This is the story of a couple haunted by the past—more literally than most. Sankofa and Mitchell were the loves of each other’s lives until the incident in haunted Umoja, the house Sankofa grew up in. Reunited at Sankofa’s mother’s bedside, they have to decide how to confront the past, which includes confronting some ghosts.

The pain of the separated lovers provokes any pain of separation in your heart, as Anna M. Taylor’s skillful descriptions burrow in past your defenses. It’s hard not to root for the couple to reunite, even though you can feel the frustration of each side’s point of view. In many ways, this novella is more romance than ghost story, although the ghost story is intrinsic to the couple’s problems.

I didn’t believe you before, but I do now. Is that apology enough?

Apology enough for calling her loony when she tried to get him to see the spirits she saw? Apology enough for laughing when her mother and aunt alike tongue-lashed her for hearing voices, for repeating information she had no business knowing?

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

The shifts of point of view from Sankofa to Mitchell were occasionally a little abrupt, but overall served the story well. The atmosphere of the haunted house is evocative. However, despite the fact that the characters fear the house, I never was afraid; there’s more of a sense of uncovering mysteries than facing unknown terror.

Its gothic facade contrasted majestically with the soulless brick, glass, and steel make-up of the neighboring buildings. Umoja’s four-cornered tower looked between two four-story wings topped with crenellated walls. Arched windows framed in contrasting white keystones gave the gray-stone exterior a bejeweled aspect. However, unlike City College and Cannon Pres, no amount of sunlight dispelled the exterior bleakness Umoja retained.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Themes of faith and rationalism are deftly explored with an apparent attempt to reconcile them. I’m not convinced by the recitations of faith, but I can respect them. The notion of family secrets and who should be told the truth is more intriguing to me; a refrain through the book is the saying, “Them that tell don’t know, and them that know don’t tell.”

Mitchell dry scrubbed his face. Could he accept his answer wasn’t the truth? He studied his friend. A scientist and an evangelical believer, John Mortimer was Mitch’s bumblebee: the thing defied all the reasons it shouldn’t exist by its very existence.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Mental health issues are also explored, in particular the stigma it creates. Can someone who has mental health issues be trusted? The novella raises the question through the mouths of various characters, most notably Sankofa’s brother, but never quite resolves the question.

As always the memory of the attack thrust Sankofa into the wintriness of insanity. She shuddered, despite the sunshine bathing the spot where she stood.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Overall, this novella is an absorbing story demonstrating how ghosts, both figurative and literal, affect the people that live with them.


The problems of foreign aid

The Frozen Crown by Greta Kelly

A prepublication Big5+ review

r/suggestmeabook: I want political intrigue where a not terribly politic warrior princess is fighting to save her country.

Movie rating: PG-13

Publication date: 1/12/2021

Publisher: HarperVoyager

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

From the publisher: A princess with a powerful and dangerous secret must find a way to save her country from ruthless invaders in this exciting debut fantasy, the first novel in a thrilling duology packed with heroism, treachery, magic, and war.

Greta Kelly spins an engaging yarn about Askia, a woman with a claim to a crown who has had to flee her country because her cousin has been installed as a puppet king by a foreign power—and that foreign power has been absorbing its neighbors for years. The favored weapon to bring each country to its knees? Sealing up a city and burning all the inhabitants to death. Desperate, Askia seeks help from her godfather, the emperor of a major empire to the south, hoping he will save the present for the sake of the past.

Our homeland, pillaged and burning and crawling with invaders, lay less than a mile north of here. But with the jagged peaks of the Peshkalor Mountains shading my back, I might as well have been a hundred miles away. The strangled screams of everyone I’d left behind echoed through the passes, reverberating through my skull.

Greta Kelly, The Frozen Crown

How Kelly handles powerful women is interesting. The protagonist, Askia, is something we see a lot in fantasy: the warrior maiden who has learned how to fight like the boys and basically shoots the finger at the dominant patriarchal society. She does this well, for even though she sounds suspiciously contemporary, it’s not problematic for me, because, despite the setting, everyone sounds pretty contemporary. The other powerful woman, Queen Ozura, must exercise her power indirectly from the harem, which is a much more traditional way women had to exercise power—from the shadows. But Kelly doesn’t treat her as somehow lesser because the society she’s in has required her to take a less straightforward approach.

I let their indifference slide off me. I wasn’t in Eshakaroth for them. I was there for the Vishiri envoy. My father once told me the Vishiri emperor had a weakness for the exotic and the strange. So I would do my barbarian best to catch his interest from a thousand miles away.

Greta Kelly, The Frozen Crown

The main characters are clearly drawn and likable, despite the fact that they tend toward stock characters. Stock characters are fine when well done, as Kelly has—none of them feel forced or clunky. I’d have liked to know more about some of the secondary characters, but since this is a first person narrative, Askia’s lack of interest in the backgrounds of the people around her works. She’s so focused on solving her immediate problem, and doesn’t always think through how to best utilize the contacts she has, that it makes sense to me that she doesn’t sit down and ask, say, Nariko, the woman who is her primary contact with the local culture, about her life and motivations.

It was being done so casually, so openly, that I could ahve kicked myself for not realizing it sooner. Queen Ozura hadn’t sent Nariko to serve me. She’d been sent to spy. I knew I should be angry, but it was all so ridiculous, I couldn’t muster the emotion.

Greta Kelly, The Frozen Crown

The book is paced well and has clean, clear writing. This is a book that plays into the expectations of the reader in a good way—not exactly predictable, but definitely solidly within the genre. There are some nice twists, and Kelly does a nice job of making you feel as though Askia is being pressured into a corner.

The biggest problem I’d predict someone would have is that it’s definitely a first installment, so if you don’t like waiting to find out what happens next, you may want to wait until the entire series has been published. Overall, this fantasy is well-executed and fun, and I can’t wait to see how it ends.