Fiction most truthful

Big 4+ review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin

r/suggestmeabook: I want a reimagined history of slavery that illuminates individual and group brutality as seen through the eyes of a young enslaved woman.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 320

Audiobook: 10 hours and 43 minutes

Publisher: Doubleday

2017 Pulitzer Prize: Fiction

From the publisher: In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop.

I decided to read this book after seeing it on a list of historical fiction must-reads and didn’t look into it any further. For a change, I decided to try the audiobook (and it was available sooner from my library). Bahni Turpin is an amazing narrator. She did a great job with the voices, making each character distinct. She got through all the brutality without ever overdoing it and turning it into a mockery, which would have been tempting, as harsh as it gets at times. And the writing? Gorgeous.

Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The first section of the book, about 1/5 of the overall text, is straight historical recreation. Colson Whitehead makes sure that we’ve adequately toured the degradation of field hands in Georgia’s cotton fields. What was unexpected was that, unlike other books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, Whitehead delves into the relationships between the enslaved—not the typical house vs. field, but among those working the fields—and how the cruelty of their environment poisoned the relations among them. Twelve Years a Slave or Django Unchained didn’t go nearly this far, so be prepared for a shit ton of violence. Is it unwarranted? I think not, given what the reality was.

Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than the one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America, the quirk was that people were things.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So imagine my surprise when I get to the part where the railroad is literally carved underground. It’s not like they hide it in the description, so it’s my bad for not knowing. Not knowing that this was going to be more along the lines of alternate history, it was like taking a bite of what you thought was gravy and finding out it’s pudding. It’s not that you dislike the pudding; it’s just that you weren’t prepared for it.

The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating patter. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I do have some issues with the literal underground railroad, just because the world is so literal in most ways that it’s a strain on the suspension of disbelief. Creating tunnels that reach from Georgia to Indiana would be a feat of engineering far past the ordinary abilities of untrained labor, even today. In the period, the technology was just being invented after early attempts to tunnel under the Thames demonstrated the hazards of doing so–it’s not just a matter of enough brute strength to pick your way through the stone or earth.

But even that didn’t bother me so much as what anyone who watched enough WWII POW escape movies (or even Hogan’s Heroes) knows: What would they have done with all the debris? That’s always a big thing for those movies–or of prison escapes by tunneling. You have to have someplace to put the dirt you’ve taken out of the hole to avoid suspicion. So where the hell did they put the debris? It bothered me more than it should.

The cabins radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings in those who lived and died in them: envy and spite.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

But, okay, I got past that. The writing is beautiful, in contrast to the horror it invokes, and the pace is generally on point. I’m not crazy about the digressions into other points of view that don’t really lend themselves to moving the plot along; only two of them seem at all necessary to the story.

White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him? That was one kind of work you could say no to.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The use of other historical assaults on the health and integrity of Blacks in this country, although displaced in time and place to be included in this narrative, integrates the narrative of racism in an effective way. It’s not just evil slaveowners on the plantation, but reaches out across to those who are purportedly looking to advance Blacks.

Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tine moment across the eternity of her servitude.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

As a result, it’s easy to enter into the feelings of Cora, the protagonist, when she is suspicious of whites who say they’re going to help. It’s easy to say; hard to do. Even seemingly helpful whites offer betrayal at times, so it’s hard to know who to trust. But Whitehead doesn’t then elevate all Blacks to sainthood; there’s treachery there as well. Whitehead’s world in The Underground Railroad, bent and distorted by slavery and the concomitant racism, is a stunning feat of imagining oneself into another reality, informed by facts but turned into an immersive experience through his artful use of them.

As the years pass, Valentine observed, racial violence only becomes more vicious in its expression. It will not abate or disappear, not anytime soon, and not in the south.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So, on the balance, I am in favor of this alternate reality, as it shines a light on truth through fiction. It’s not quite perfect, but, damn, it’s close.


Survival, banditry, and a little magic

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

r/suggestmeabook: I want a wuxia-inspired novella about bandits trying to deal with the outcome of temple desecration in a fantasy mid-20th century Malay.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 155

Publisher: Tordotcom

From the publisher: A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.

This novella has plenty to love: combat, deceit, trans rep, a corner of history largely unknown in the US, and lots of little mysteries. The writing is lucid as mountain spring water, and the characters are intriguing where not sympathetic, and mostly sympathetic (if occasionally annoying).

It was of course safest to avoid bandits, but since most looked like ordinary people—indeed, if you were unlucky, some of them were your cousin, your uncle, your brother—this was not always possible.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

There’s the bandit with the pretty face, Lau Fung Cheung, also known as Ah Sang, who could be Aramis of The Three Musketeers in a different life. There’s the solid and dependable Tet Sang, Lau Fung Cheung’s second, who finds himself drawn into conflicts he’d prefer to avoid. Then there’s the woman they made the mistake of helping, Guet Imm, a former votary of the tokong of the Pure Moon, a temple which has been destroyed.

Either she was on of those happy persons whose periods gave them little trouble, or her stoicism over her blistered feet extended to cramps and cold sweats.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The novel is based on the Emergency, a conflict in the former Malay Colony of Britain, which was perceived as a communist insurrection by the Chinese ethnic population in the postwar period (1948-1960) by the British colonial powers. Taking a chapter from Stalin, the British relocated approximately one million Chinese “squatters” who lived on the fringes of the jungle and were supporting the insurrectionists, who saw themselves as a liberation army. In most of the British official summaries found by a quick Google search, the relocation was benign, giving them housing and infrastructure. The truth is more complex: these “squatters” were first moved to emptied prisons and, when those grew too full, to concentration and detention camps. It was only when the British realized this was not going to be a workable solution (and the more economically advantaged ethnic Chinese began to unite to protect the squatters), that the new villages were created.

“Of course I knew there were problems. But even when I went to town and got a job, nobody talked about a war.”

“Nobody talks about it. It’s not that kind of war.”

“What kind of war is it, then?”

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The spark was racially motivated: the British were about to offer full citizenship to the Chinese Malays, but there was a popular backlash from the rest of the Malay population, and the British retracted the offer. This lead to members of the Chinese population responding more violently. This reaction didn’t come around as quickly as it sounds from this context: the Chinese in Malay had dealt with Chinese exclusion laws much like those in the US, from persecution during the Japanese occupation, and lack of adequate recourse to justice before and after the Japanese took Malay.

A bespectacled man with slick hair and alert lidless eyes of a gecko, he seemed cleanly and decent, like a clerk. At the same time, there was something off-putting about him—one would not be surprised to hear that he had embezzled funds or slapped his mother-in-law.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

At any rate, this novella of a fantasy Malay during that time partakes of aspects of the actual history. Cho uses the term “Tang” to refer to the ethnic Chinese (although it’s actually a dynasty), and it’s clear throughout the story that these are a people being singled out for persecution. The protagonists are not guerrillas; they are just displaced poor people who ran out of options for anything better.

You cannot stay rich in times like these without eating sin. If you don’t dare to do wrong, then you will suffer.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The attitude toward trans people is refreshing. It appears that during this period, transgender people were generally accepted in Malay; it wasn’t until a Muslim resurgence in the 1980s that attitudes started to change. A culture with matter-of-fact acceptance and lack of stigma is a pleasure to imagine yourself into.

Tet Sang had known members of her Order who had been dedicated to the Pure Moon at a young age but then decided they could not endure to be called sister. They had departed to join male orders or start other lives. Conversely, he had no doubt that some of the Pure Moon’s nuns had lived as men before they joined her Order. Once they entered the deity’s light, no one was particularly interested in what they had been before.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Possible spoiler here forward–no specifics, but you might find it to be one: My only real complaint about the novella is the ending; it feels as though it simply stops, rather than having a conclusion. It’s something I like about fiction; unlike real life, resolutions are almost always possible. Like most readers, an ending I dislike tends to color my opinion of the entire story. Cho has said she may return to these characters; I hope this ends up as a first part of a longer story, but even so, I’d have liked a better resting place.

He knew how dangerous it could be to assume that either women or mystics were harmless.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

All in all, it’s a book I recommend, although be warned that you may be ready to turn the last page to another chapter, and find that you’ve been left in the Malay jungle to wonder.

Want a different take? Check out Peat Long’s review of Zen Cho’s lovely book.


The Last King by M.J. Porter

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours: Spotlight

From the publisher:

They sent three hundred warriors to kill one man. It wasn’t enough.

Mercia lies broken but not beaten, her alliance with Wessex in tatters.

Coelwulf, a fierce and bloody warrior, hears whispers that Mercia has been betrayed from his home in the west. He fears no man, especially not the Vikings sent to hunt him down.

To discover the truth of the rumours he hears, Coelwulf must travel to the heart of Mercia, and what he finds there will determine the fate of Mercia, as well as his own.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 316

Publisher: Self

Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of The Last King by M.J. Porter. Two paperbacks are up for grabs. The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on January 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the Author

I’m an author of fantasy (Viking age/dragon-themed) and historical fiction (Early English, Vikings and the British Isles as a whole before the Norman Conquest). I was born in the old Mercian kingdom at some point since 1066. Raised in the shadow of a strange little building, told from a very young age that it housed the bones of long-dead Kings of Mercia and that our garden was littered with old pieces of pottery from a long-ago battle, it’s little wonder that my curiosity in Early England ran riot. I can only blame my parents!

I write A LOT. You’ve been warned!

Not sure where to start your journey through Early England? Here are some pointers.

If you like action-adventure, with a heavy dose of violence, foul language and good old camaraderie – The Ninth Century series is for you, starting with The Last King, or The Seventh Century, starting with Pagan Warrior, has a little more politics to go with the set-piece battles.

If you like stories about the forgotten women of history, then the Tenth Century series, starting with The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter, is a good place to begin. Or, The First Queen of England, with a little more romance.

If you’re interested in the last century of Early England (before 1066) then The Earls of Mercia series is for you.

If you want to read it all, then you can read in chronological order, or mix it up. The series weren’t written in chronological order.

 


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.


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

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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.


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.