The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 14, 2016

Summary: One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction…

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it’s already been stolen.

London’s underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.

Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself…

Review: There’s something I love about books involving books. Maybe it’s the joy of connecting with other bibliophiles, however fictional, and knowing that no matter what else may or may not click between me and the character, we have a shared love of books and that seems to bring a lot of people together. Throw in an appeal to my love of multiverse theory, and hot damn, you have a book with a concept set to keep me amused for hours!

Irene is a Librarian, and the Library is special. Existing outside of time and the regular known multiverse, it houses a nigh-impossible number of books from all those different worlds, from fiction to hundreds of different histories. After returning from a mission to acquire a new book, she expects a bit of a break, only to be handed a new book-retrieval mission along with a new assistant. What at first seems like it should be a relatively easy mission quickly turns into something vastly more complicated, with chaos magic and Fae and Kai’s secret history and oh yes, the fact that an ancient ex-Library and current enemy to the Library seems to want that book for himself.

I find the world that Cogman sets up to be pretty fascinating. Or maybe it’s better to say “worlds.” We spend most of the book following Irene and Kai in an alternate world, old-timey London only with vampires and chaos magic and Fae making moves in high society. The book Irene has been sent to get is stolen, and so she teams up with Vale, a nobleman and detective, who also helps Irene and Kai adapt a bit more to society at the time, albeit in the form of infodumping now and again. There’s a lot of little detail that goes into all this, hints at a larger world beyond that one city, and it’s the subtleties that all come together to make something feel real and large and like you could really be there.

As for the Library itself, well, the idea of a vast repository of books from countless different worlds definitely strikes a chord with me. So too does the idea of the limited immortality that being a Librarian offers; time doesn’t move within the Library, so while one is perusing the stacks, they don’t age. This sounds great, but it has its drawbacks; early on it’s mentioned that Irene’s parents couldn’t raise her within the Library, since she wouldn’t grow from childhood to adulthood there. Irene suffers an injury at one point in the story, and she’s reminded that she has to leave the Library to heal. Without the passage of time, she’d remain injured, her body literally incapable of repairing itself because that repair necessitated change.

There are a lot of mysteries to unravel in The Invisible Library, and I’m actually pretty happy to say that they don’t all get tidied away at the end. We discover some of what’s going on with Kai. We discover more about Alberich and his goals. We discover what’s so special about the book Irene was sent to recover. But it seems like each answered question opens the door to a new room filled with related questions, but not in a way that frustrated me. Sometimes in books, questions get answered in a way that makes me ask, “But how does that make sense in regard to this?” or, “How does that all work when you take that into account?” Questions that make me think that plot threads are being awkwardly and obviously dangled in front of me, trying obviously to make me bite. But here the threads are dangled subtly. I have questions, yes, and I’m curious to see how the rest of the story will play out because there are definitely unresolved issues at play, but at the same time, enough was resolved that if I wanted to, I could just not read the rest of the series and still feel like I’d experienced a complete story within the first book. It’s a rare novel within a series that can pull that off, sinking the hooks in so delicately, and I think it’s worthy of some praise.

The Invisible Library is a great novel for those who love adventure and who love books, and who love seeing things they love meet and create new wonderful things. The pacing is pretty smooth, though it does get a little bogged down in infodumps and recaps now and again. The action is tight, the characters interesting even if they’re note incredibly varied, and the story overall is pretty compelling. It’s a series I will definitely continue with, if for no other reason than to feel a little bit more at home with characters who love books enough to devote a fraction of eternity to them.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 17, 2016

Summary: My name is Hope Arden, and you won’t know who I am. But we’ve met before-a thousand times.

It started when I was sixteen years old.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the tale of a girl no one remembers, yet her story will stay with you forever.

Review: Claire North writes some amazing genre-defying books. They seem to exist in that small range that can only really be called “speculative.” It’s not really sci-fi, it’s not really urban fantasy, it’s not really anything other than some amazingly-written “what if” stories that always engage me and get me thinking about things differently.

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, we see through the eyes of Hope Arden, a woman who, for some reason, can’t be remembered. Once she’s out of sight, your brain will just filter her out, leaving you with the impression that you ate dinner alone, didn’t meet a fascinating person, just generally went on with life without interacting with anyone. A few moments and gone are your memories of her.

Which is why she’s such an excellent thief.

But Hope gets in a little over her head when she encounters Perfection, an app that transforms lives by incentivizing socially-approved improvements. Link your bank account so the app knows you’re only purchasing vegan non-GMO food? Have 5000 points! Get a nose job so you look more attractive? Here’s a coupon for an hour at the spa! But Perfection is insidious, and Hope’s interest is sparked after it contributes to the death of someone she knew. She goes on a mission to steal the information and coding behind Perfection, to unravel its secrets, and in so doing, unleashes something terrifying and deadly against the app’s most successful users.

If you’re not a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing, then there’ll be a lot about this book that doesn’t appeal to you. We’re seeing it all from Hope’s perspective, not so much sitting on her shoulders and being inside her head, privy to her thoughts, and, as thoughts sometimes get, things aren’t always coherent. Stops and starts, run-on sentences, inappropriate humour and random song lyrics, the rules of punctuation flying right out the window at times. And it’s intentional. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of thought, especially when someone’s frantic or stressed. Personally, I’m a fan of it. It’s refreshing, especially after seeing so many first-person POV stories where characters notice too much random detail or think extremely coherently, which makes for a very clear mental picture for the reader, but never actually reads as if it’s all coming from insider someone’s head as it all happens. This stylistic choice may not appeal to everyone, but it definitely appeals to me.

North has superb ability to write a complex story with brilliant realistic characters who exist outside the mainstream for various reasons. When she wasn’t tackling different kinds of immortality in Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, here she’s writing about not only someone who’s not only an accomplished thief, but someone who by definition cannot exist within the mainstream when nobody ever remembers her. She goes into detail about the trouble this causes, from not getting service at a restaurant to not getting care at a hospital, to the constant loneliness caused by not being able to make friends or by having your own family forget you were ever part of them. Her story is heartbreaking, and her fire understandable. You may not always agree with her actions, but you can always see the motivation behind them.

This is an amazing book, and in the manner of amazing book, it’s incredibly difficult to unpack. You’ve got themes of social engineering, racism, sexism, loss, suicide, risk-vs-gain, what people will do to survive, economic class struggles and the opportunity for advancement, whether it’s right to encourage people toward a damaging ideal even if they want to be that damaged… There’s a lot here about taking life into your own hands, for good or for ill, and it presents no clear side as unambiguously right or wrong. Morality wars with survival, advancement wars with acceptance, with all sides of the arguments having their pros and cons. North presents some interesting debates here, and over and over again I see it comes back to limits. What’s the limit on what somebody should do to further their goals? Where do the lines get drawn?

Also interesting is that The Sudden Appearance of Hope doesn’t really get a resolution at the end. You see the end of Byron’s story more than you see the end of Hope’s. Hope ultimately doesn’t get what she wanted, and goes through hell in the process. It’s less the story of Hope and more the story of how Hope participated in the destruction of a problematic app and social movement. Less her story and more her part in something else’s story. Which is an uncommon approach to take, I think, but for my part, I think it worked well. Even if it left me feeling horrible for Hope in the end.

North tells the story well, captivates the reader and draws them in with vivid details and fascinating realistic characters. It’s the kind of story that gets under your skin and forces a perspective shift, forces you to confront uncomfortable issues and face down the things you take for granted, pushing you outside your comfort zone. It’s a story that stays with you long past the final page, keeping you asking questios and reconsidering what you once thought. It’s a book that, similar to North’s other novels, defies categorization, with the exception of being firmly in the You Should Read This, It’s Good category. It’s uncommon, special, and very much worth the time and effort you put into it. My hat’s off to Claire North once again for telling so poignant a story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Movie Review: Paranorman

Paranorman is a title I was excited about for a while, but then it dropped off my radar. Discovering it on Netflix this past weekend was a nice surprise, and I decided it was high time I watched it. I’d heard briefly that it wasn’t very well-received, though doing a little bit of research online tells me that impression was wrong, that it didn’t have stellar reviews but was overall considered decent, and was nominated for and even won some awards.

Which I’m glad of, because it was a damn good movie in a lot of ways.

paranorman

The movie features Norman, an 11 year old boy who can see and talk with the dead. Naturally this causes a large amount of awkwardness with the living, who don’t typically don’t believe in Norman’s abilities. At best, they tend to think of him as a freak. At worst… Well, Norman’s relationship with his father makes me downright uncomfortable. His father is an abrasive man, someone who doesn’t hold with Norman’s talk of ghosts, and who makes no bones about it. When Norman snaps at him that he didn’t ask to be born the way he was, his father snaps back, “Well, neither did we.”

Ouch.

So right off the bat there’s some uncomfortable tension with his father’s intolerance and refusal to pull any punches, and for a kids’ movie, that was a bit surprising. Much of the time in movies intended for younger audiences, when there’s parental opposition to a main character, it’s because said parent is intentionally portrayed as a bad guy, maybe an evil to overcome, or else a pawn for that evil. Here we see something more akin to a kid and his father flat-out not getting along, something much more mundane, and for what it’s worth, while it hurts to see, it’s also a bit refreshing to see a portrayal of a family that has its problems without being the main problem. In introduces kids to the uncomfortable concept that families don’t always get along, that sometimes adults are blindly cruel, and that sometimes you’re going to face crap from people you love.

In short, it’s something to possibly gets kids and parents talking. And I’m fond of things that might influence parents to be parents and actually explain things to their kids, even if those things are awkward and unpleasant sometimes.

Anyway, Norman can see and communicate with the dead, and goes through hell for it. As if that weren’t bad enough, during a school play about the town’s history and folklore (involving a witch’s curse, because New England), he starts to see the world around him break and burn, revealing hints of something sinister underneath. The town eccentric, Mr. Prenderghast, approaches Norman and tells him that he has a job to do, that only he can hold back the witch’s curse and prevent the dead from rising.

Oh, did I mention that Prenderghast is dead for part of this revelation, and that Norman was talking to his ghost?

Also that Prenderghast is Norman’s uncle? And that Norman is now the only person in the family who can possibly hold back the curse? And that Prenderghast has nor moved on to the afterlife and can’t be contacted anymore for additional info?

No? Well, now you know just how the plot thickens.

para_03caNorman’s supposed to read from a certain book at the witch’s grave before sundown that night, to stave off the curse for another year and keep the town safe. The problem is that Norman goes to the wrong grave, reads from a book of what looks like fairy tales, and surprise, nothing happens except for the curse coming to fruition and raising the corpses of the 7 men who condemned the witch in the 1700s.

So now there are zombies on the loose. Lovely.

Norman and friends (or rather, Norman and his only friend Neil, along with Normal’s sister, Neil’s brother, and a local bully named Alvin) are led on a merry chase through the town, trying to evade the zombies and also find out exactly where the witch’s grave is so that Norman can read from the book at the proper place. It’s not really a surprise to hear that Norman does eventually find the grave and defeat the curse, but the how of it all is the really interesting part.

(Warning: spoilers abound.)

Norman can communicate with the dead, and typically this is just something that happens with ghosts, but as it turns out, since zombies are dead too, Norman can communicate with them. He discovered that the witch was, in fact, a little girl his own age, who could also communicate with the dead, who was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death for it. In her terror, she let loose something horrible, cursing the 7 people who condemned her, and over time getting so wrapped up in her fear and hatred that she turned terrible and cruel herself. The now-zombies have had plenty of time to think about their actions, to regret what they did to a young child, and who want to end the curse and be able to fully rest.

It’s still up to Norman to still the curse, but he realises that holding it back every year doesn’t actually fix the underlying problem. The book of fairy tales is meant to act like a bedtime story, to put a little girl to sleep, but every year she’ll keep waking up angry and still want her vengeance. Norman has to get to the heart of the problem, trying to convince the witch, who is really a very scared and angry little girl named Agatha, that she doesn’t need to lash out anymore, that she’s not alone and isolated because of her power, and that bullying because you were bullied doesn’t actually make you better than anyone.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I love it. First, there’s the presentation of the idea that sometimes what creates a bully is being bullied, that sometimes people stick up walls around themselves as lash out because they were hurt first, and being just as cruel and the cruel people is the only way you feel like you have any way to defend yourself. (But also sometimes bullies can just be jerks, like Alvin; sometimes you don’t get an explanation or a reason.) You see people doing terrible things that they thought were right and good at the time, but only upon reflection and consequence do they see the error of their ways. You see mob mentality, when the townspeople attack the zombies, and even after the zombies escape the townspeople go on fighting because they’re so caught up in fear and fighting that they don’t even see that what they were fighting is already gone. They’re ready to burn down a building with the zombies inside, trapping kids and teens in there, refusing to listen to their cries for help and mercy. It’s some dark stuff, especially for a kids’ movie, and really, I love it. Kids can often handle way more than we think they can, especially when it’s presented to them in an action-packed entertaining way, and if they have questions about people certain things happened, then hopefully they’ve got decent parents around to answer those questions.

Paranorman goes beyond the usual trite messages about being nice to bullies and just being brave in the face of adversity. It talks about how people can become so fearful they lose all rationality. It talks about how people are not always good. It says you can’t always trust adults to watch out for you and be on your side. It says that people can make mistakes, even huge mistakes, and still be forgiven if they learn from those mistakes. This stuff applies not only to the issue of Agatha and her curse, but also on a smaller scale, with Norman’s dad. At the end of the movie, we see him awkwardly start to take Norman a bit more seriously about his ghost-talking abilities, not fully comfortable with it yet, but at least willing to put aside his own discomfort and reach out to the son he previously derided. It was a small gesture that meant a lot.

Besides, dude drove zombies around in his car. Pretty hard to deny the whole “communicating with the dead” thing after that.

The movie also had a great reading-between-the-lines bit that I feel is worth mentioning. Norman’s uncle’s surname is Prenderghast. Agatha’s surname is Prenderghast. Agatha, Norman, and his uncle, all have the ability to see the dead. It’s never said outright, but there are strong hints that Norman is related to Agatha. Norman’s surname is different, and it’s never said which side of Norman’s family Mr. Prenderghast is on, but the implication is there, that the abilities are a hereditary thing. Of course, it could be complete coincidence, but really, I choose to believe there’s a connection. That it’s left there as a subtle thing for people to pick up on makes me like the movie that much more, since it doesn’t act like the audience needs its hand held to learn every single thing, which is a big problem in a lot of kids’ movies. Sometimes you can leave subtle things in and still have people pick up on them, and even if nobody does, nothing is really lost in the viewing. You don’t need to know that Agatha might be Norman’s ancestor and that their powers might run in the family. All you need to know is that sometimes these powers happen.

Also, can I take a minute to mention Mitch, Neil’s jock brother? Norman’s sister Courtney spends half the movie hitting on him, trying to get close to him, catch his interest, and most of the time he comes across as utterly oblivious. I mean, who can blame him when there are zombies around, really? Then at the end, Courtney asks him if he wants to see a movie together, and he’s all, “Sure, also btw, my boyfriend would love that movie.”

And that, friends, is how you normalize gay characters in media. Don’t make the characters stereotypical, don’t have some big scene where he tries to let Courtney down gently and says, “Sorry, I’m flattered, but *deep breath* I’m gay.” Don’t have people freak out about it. Just, “Yup, got a boyfriend, you’d probably like him.” Mitch is who he is, and you either like him or you don’t, and his sexuality is part of him but not his definition.

That reveal did make me wonder, however, how many angry letters got written by parents, telling the producers how they shouldn’t have included a gay character in a mainstream movie because it’s “inappropriate, and how am I going to explain that to my kids?”

Overall, I really enjoyed Paranorman. It’s not a perfect movie, there were some unanswered questions, and some of the scenes were a little cheese, but really, it was still pretty good. It was a dark but somewhat comedic movie, an animated horror flick for younger audiences, with a lot of strong themes that went beyond what I expected and made for a well developed and engaging story. Given that I heard almost nothing about it after its theatrical release, I’d venture to say that it’s even a bit underrated. There’s more to it than a kiddy Halloween movie, there’s plenty that adults could enjoy, and it’s one that I expect I’ll watch more than once, because it was fun and interesting and does a lot that I can respect. Definitely worth checking out if you haven’t yet.

By Ria Posted in movie

January 2017 in Retrospect

This past month has been difficult for me. I briefly had a job but now no longer do, after the ridiculous amounts of unprofessional behaviour I witnessed there (when you see your future supervisor making fun of and insulting those with mental disabilities, you know that’s a solid sign that you’re not working in a good place). One of my cats was diagnosed with diabetes. Still no sign on the horizon for getting the mental health care that I need. It’s been one of those months that’s both flown by and dragged on for an age.

I’m happy to see the end of it.

But it wasn’t entirely bad. Even if it was just stuff I accomplished for this blog, that still means I accomplished something.

Reviews

Certain Dark Things, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough

SPFBO Review: Paternus, by Dyrk Ashton
SPFBO Review: Larcout, by K A Krantz

Other stuff

I wrote about how poorly Wicca and neopaganism is portrayed in SFF. I got to design my own Loot Crate idea, which was a lot of fun!

For Tea Tuesday, I review King Cole’s chocolate peppermint tea, Stash’s cinnamon vanilla herbal tea, and David’s Tea’s cinnamon rooibos chai. Seems to have been a bit of a cinnamon month!

No movie reviews, though. I’ve been rather slack on those. Probably because I haven’t really watched many movies lately.

Next month

I’m still doing well with sticking to my goal of one book read and reviewed each week, and focusing on books from my backlist rather than upcoming novels. It’s relieving some of my guilt at not having read them already, so that’s good. I should be doing at least one more SPFBO review, too. I’ve got plenty of tea to drink and review, so expect to find out what’s in my cup a few more times along the way!

That about sums it up. How was your January?

Tea Tuesday: Cinnamon Rooibos Chai, from David’s Tea

Winter is a great time for chai. It’s warming, it’s sweet, and it just plain makes me happy. This also seems to be the year of cinnamon for me, since it’s the second tea I’ve reviewed this month alone that has cinnamon as a main flavour. Today, I’m drinking some cinnamon rooibos chai, from David’s Tea.

cinnamonrooiboschairNow, I like my tea sweet. I’ve cut back on my sugar a lot over the past few years, but I’m still generally a fan of sweet versus not-so-sweet. And being used to chai, I put my usual amount of sugar in my usual sized mug.

It was too sweet.

However much sugar you think you’re going to need while drinking this, it’s probably best to cut back a little, and that may well be because of the small pieces of apple in the mix, adding their sweetness to the tea before you even think of putting anything extra in. As much sugar as I had in it, it actually overpowered most of the other flavours, making me taste sugar most of all and pretty much relegating the cinnamon flavour to a faint backgroundy aftertaste.

So I made a second cup and added less sugar, and it was much better then. The cinnamon flavour comes to the forefront, not drowned out by sweetness, and it’s a very warming flavour, just perfect for winter nights. It doesn’t have a lot of the stuff usually found in chai, like cardamom, so some of the flavours that hardcore chai lovers enjoy will be absent, but as a warm comforting drink to perk you up, it’s still really good, and I anticipate many cups in my future!

So long as I remember not to go overboard with the sugar.

The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 2, 2016

Summary: In this emotionally gripping, genre-defying novella from Sarah Pinborough, a woman sits at her father’s bedside, watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters–she is the middle child of five–have all turned up over the past week to pay their last respects. Each is traumatized in his or her own way, and the bonds that unite them to each other are fragile–as fragile perhaps as the old man’s health.

With her siblings all gone, back to their self-obsessed lives, she is now alone with the faltering wreck of her father’s cancer-ridden body. It is always at times like this when it–the dark and nameless, the impossible, presence that lingers along the fringes of the dark fields beyond the house–comes calling.

As the clock ticks away in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her, a reunion she both dreads and aches for…

Review: For being such a short book, The Language of Dying is impressively hard to review, especially from an SFF standpoint, since the fantastical elements are rather vague and may in fact not even be real. It reminded me very much of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, in the way that both involve characters coping with impending death, and both also ripped me to emotional shreds.

Her siblings are coming together to be with their father during his last days. The family is broken, breaking further, and all of them have problems of their own to deal with, but they come. And in times of grief, like this one, like times before, the protagonist of the novella finds herself staring out windows, drifting off, waiting for the return of the thing she saw as a child, the dark unicorn-like thing that calls to her.

I mentioned earlier that this novella is short, a hair over 100 pages, and it’s impressive that Pinborough can tell so poignant a story in so little space. Not a word is wasted; you feel the weight of everything as the protagonist struggles with caring for her father, reuniting with her siblings, reflecting on her own traumatic past. Dealing with the guilt of wishing the pain was over for everyone, wishing her father’s life would end so that the healing could begin, while also hating that he’s dying and will soon leave everyone behind. Anyone who has been there for the death of someone or something you’re close to understands this, though we don’t often talk about it, and seeing it addressed so openly was, honestly, a bit of a relief. But it was also part of the gut-punch that The Language of Dying delivers. It forces the reader to confront the unpleasant realities of watching and waiting for someone to die, the internal and external struggles. It’s not an easy read. It isn’t meant to be comforting.

There are elements of fantasy to this book, though they’re extremely downplayed. The story isn’t about a woman who sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. It’s about a woman whose father is dying. And incidentally, also sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. To say this book is primarily fantasy is like saying that this review blog is actually a cat blog because I mentioned a few times that I have cats. It’s an element, but it’s not the primary focus. And it’s not entirely clear if the creature is real or whether it’s the product of combining imagination with grief. It’s left vague, open to some interpretation, and it works well. It means the novella is hard to categorize into a particular genre, but some stories defy those boundaries, breaking out to tell a story that can appeal to different people for different reasons.

The Language of Dying needs to be read. It’s powerful and evocative, it’s brutal and honest, it’s painful and cathartic. It’s so much story in so few words, and it’s the sort of story that stays with you long past the final word. It seeps into you and alters you, and whether you read it for the speculative elements or because you’re looking for literature that deals with death, you should still read it. It’s one of those rare books that’s an experience more than anything else, difficult to properly describe, but I can imagine the knowing nods that pass between people who have read it. For some experiences, no words are really needed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Tea Tuesday: Cinnamon Vanilla Herbal Tea, from Stash

cinnamonvanillateaI’m going to start off by saying that this tea has been a huge hit in this house. We expected it to be good. We didn’t expect it to be so ridiculously addictive! Stash’s Cinnamon Vanilla herbal tea is one that I’m going to miss if/when I can’t find it in stores anymore or they discontinue it.

As soon as you open the individually-sealed bags you can smell the cinnamon, which at first seems like it’s going to utterly overpower the vanilla. While steeping, this tea makes my kitchen smell like delicious cookies are baking nearby.

Most herbal teas I drink without sugar and definitely without milk. I tried a bit of sugar at first, and it tasted fine, but the flavours didn’t quite blend the way I’d hoped. I tried adding milk to see if that helped, and did it ever! The flavours of cinnamon and vanilla blended really well and turned nice and mellow, still with a strong cinnamon flavour but with a stronger vanilla flavour to balance it out, leaving a mild and pleasant cinnamon aftertaste. I drink it more like I do a black tea than an herbal one, really. The base is rooibos, so however you tend to drink that kind of tea will likely be the way you most enjoy drinking Stash’s cinnamon vanilla variety.

I really can’t get enough of this stuff. The scent is great, the flavour is soothing, and 1 box in a household of heavy tea drinkers really isn’t enough. Definitely a tea worth trying, if you can find some; I highly recommend this blend!

The Loot Crate Dream Crate

When I found out that Loot Crate, known for their different subscription crates, was looking for fans to get involved with a project they were setting up around the idea of designing your own “Dream Crate,” I was definitely all for it. The chance to put together a hypothetical box of stuff that’s not only awesome and full of pop culture and geek stuff, but also that really speaks to me? Yes please!

I tossed around a few ideas at first, looking at games or movies or aspects of mythology that I both liked and that were popular enough to have merchandise. Vampires? Origin Stories/Creation Myths? Deities? I love all of these things, and there was enough in pop culture that I could probably group together some cool merchandise for a Crate, but these ideas seemed like things that other people would be able to come up with without much trouble on their own.

Then one day as I walked away from a shift at work, I thought to myself, “Ah, freedom.” And there it was. My Dream Crate idea.

Freedom.

stardewvalleyshirt

Freedom like the beginning of Stardew Valley, when your avatar becomes too tired of the corporate grind killing their soul and decides to take up their grandfather’s offer of a farm near a peaceful town. Freedom like having so many options for things to do in that game, be it farming, fishing, exploring the mines, hunting monsters, all sorts.

hatemorndasFreedom like the Elder Scrolls series, which — at least in the last 3 main games — always starts off with you being a prisoner, then attaining freedom, then attaining greatness. The freedom to explore a vast world, to meet people, to choose how to spend your time, whether you enjoy mixing potions or picking pockets or just Constantly Jumping Up Mountains.

nofaceFreedom like what Sen/Chihiro seeks in the amazing Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away, also known as Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. She seeks freedom for herself and her parents, who are all trapped in a spirit realm. The movie also has a major theme involving the dangers of greed, and ultimately, overcoming the trappings of greed and finding freedom from unrelenting lust play a big role in the family gaining their freedom.

fox_mulder_glam_1024x1024

Freedom like Fox Mulder being able to investigate the weird cases that meant something to him, freedom to explore the boundaries of science and pseudoscience to uncover the truth that was out there. Dude got a lot of leniency over the years. And he knew he had more freedom than others to advance his personal mission, too; the show never made a secret of how much other people covered for him, and the character never acted ignorant of how much others made sure he could keep that degree of autonomy.

Even if they made it seem like a punishment sometimes.

Freedom like the ability to lock and unlock entire worlds in Kingdom Hearts. The freedom to travel between those worlds. The main weapon from the series is shaped like a giant key, and if unlocking things isn’t related to freedom, I’ll eat this extremely warm-looking hat.

I’m certain I missed some great examples that could go into something like this. Freedom like the ability to explore a vast world in Minecraft, but I’d already used 3 video game examples that I felt worked better. Freedom like the broken chains on Windrider’s hooves, but since Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels aren’t really big in pop culture unless your pop culture consists solely of my house, I didn’t think it was entirely appropriate. Freedom like… something in Game of Thrones, I’m sure, but I think at this point in the sentence it’s obvious why I didn’t include something from that franchise.

Freedom means different things to different people. Sometimes freedom means having the money to do absolutely anything you want in life. Sometimes it means knowing you have what you need and don’t need to seek the money to do anything else. Sometimes it’s having strength to carve your own path, and sometimes it’s the ability to dance along the path others have carved before you.

I’d love to hear what elements from pop culture make you think of freedom. Leave a comment and let me know!

SPFBO Review: Larcout, by K A Krantz

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – June 1, 2015

Summary: Blood-beings can be chattel or char.

Fire seethes through the veins of every Morsam, demanding domination and destruction. Combat is a hobby. Slaughtering the inferior blood-beings is entertainment. Life is a repetitious cycle in the prison fashioned by the gods. But mix-race abomination Vadrigyn os Harlo suspects the key to freedom lies with safeguarding the blood-beings; until her blood-born mother uses foreign magic to turn the Morsam against Vadrigyn. Betrayed, bound, and broken, Vadrigyn struggles against the dying of her essential fire. Yet the ebbing flames unleash the dormant magic of her mixed heritage…

The magic to destroy free will.

Seized by the gods and dumped in the desert nation of Larcout to stop history from repeating, Vadrigyn discovers her mother’s legacy of treason and slaughter still festers. To survive the intrigues of the royal court, the roiling undercurrents of civil war, and the gods themselves, Vadrigyn must unravel the conspiracy behind her mother’s banishment. But manipulating free will unleashes a torrent of consequences.

If she fails the gods, she will return to the Morsam prison, stripped of all magic and all hope.

If she succeeds, she can rule a nation.

Kasthu. Roborgu. Inarchma.
Live. Learn. Burn.

Review: I’m going to say it right up front: I wasn’t initially sure I was going to enjoy Larcout. The opening chapters dump you right in the middle of things, gives you a plethora of new terms and alliances and relationships to learn and precious little context for them all, and then things change suddenly and the protagonist Vadrigyn is thrown into a new society with even more stuff to learn, and yes, it’s very chaotic and unclear and at times I seriously felt like Larcout was actually book 2 of a series and the reason I was so lost in the beginning was because I missed some essential backstory from a previous novel.

Bear with things. The book definitely improves.

Vadrigyn is half-breed being of fire, proudest of her Morsam heritage but undeniably related to the Larcoutian woman who raped Vadrigyn’s father in order to produce her. The violent life in Agenwold is what she knows, owning blood-beings as chattel, ruling over weaker things. Until she’s suddenly thrust into life in the Jewelled Nation, among blood-beings like her mother, forced to confront the other side of her heritage and to uncover the truth behind the mystery that is and was her mother. Larcout is something of a fantasy murder mystery in that regard, and it’s certainly a well put together one, full of intrigue and detail and some fascinating and frustrating cultural elements that Vadrigyn must wade through to solve the puzzle.

Krantz certainly put a lot of detail into the world in Larcout. The gods of the world have their particular nations, so that Larcout is both a place and a divine being. There are also elemental associations, with Jos, for instance, being of water, and Larcout seemingly being of earth (it’s never stated explicitly, but when you’ve got people who can telekinetically move rocks and who have precious stones sprouting from their foreheads and who turn to sand when they die, I think it’s safe to assume). The culture that Vadrigyn encounters when she finds herself in the land her mother came from is stratified and rigid, with gender inequality and class issues and full of tricky politics and alliances that need to be maneuvered around. Some things definitely felt more developed than others, but it’s clear that Krantz put the effort in and didn’t just make a fantasy analogue for a real-world culture and then call it a day. I find myself appreciating that more and more in the books I read.

If there’s any flaw I found with Larcout, it’s in the descriptions, or rather the lack thereof. I never felt like I had a really clear mental picture of things. I could tell you a little bit about what Dhaval looks like, or Vadrigyn, or a Grethmondor, or where Vadrigyn sleeps, but for the most part, I’ve honestly got no clue. Some details were mentioned, but for me it seems they didn’t really coalesce into a clear thing for me. However, personality-wise, I feel pretty familiar with a number of characters, because Krantz writes plenty of dialogue and all the characters have fairly distinct personalities, even if you don’t get to see them that often. I can tell you a few personality traits of just about everyone who got a name in the book.

A few other reviewers commented on the book’s lack of balance, and I feel I have to agree. The narrative vs dialogue issue is an example of it, and the one that stood out the most to me while reading it, but in retrospect, I think that might be in part because of the writing being a bit uneven. When it’s on, it’s on. It’s crisp and witty and you have a good understanding of what’s happening, even if you can’t always picture the finer details. And then other parts feel rushed or glossed over or inconsistent, and that might be a considerable part of what left me feeling unable to establish a good mental picture.

Despite that, though, Larcout was undeniably creative, and enjoyable to read even when I felt a bit lost, and once I let myself sink into the story I found myself compelled to keep pushing on, wanting to know more of the mystery that Vadrigyn was working to uncover. The threads of intrigue were strong, there were twists and turns to keep it all interesting, and it was endlessly entertaining to see Vadrigyn’s personality be at odds with the culture of the people around her. This is a book I think could be utterly brilliant if it was smoothed out and polished a bit more, but as it stands, it’s still a book worth checking out if you’re in the mood for something a little bit different and have the patience to push past the first few chaotic chapters.

 

Certain Dark Things, by Silvia Morena-Garcia

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 25, 2016

Summary: Welcome to Mexico City… An Oasis In A Sea Of Vampires…

Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is busy eeking out a living when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life.

Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, must feast on the young to survive and Domingo looks especially tasty. Smart, beautiful, and dangerous, Atl needs to escape to South America, far from the rival narco-vampire clan pursuing her. Domingo is smitten.

Her plan doesn’t include developing any real attachment to Domingo. Hell, the only living creature she loves is her trusty Doberman. Little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his effervescent charm.

And then there’s Ana, a cop who suddenly finds herself following a trail of corpses and winds up smack in the middle of vampire gang rivalries.

Vampires, humans, cops, and gangsters collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive?

Review: I like vampires. I’ve had a weird obsession with them since I was around 7 years old. But I don’t like a lot of vampire fiction that I’ve encountered recently, because so much of it follows the same paranormal-romance formula, or else portrays vampires in a way that just really doesn’t work with what I want to read. It’s a matter of personal taste, obviously, because what doesn’t work for me apparently works wonders for hundreds of others, but it does mean that I tend to get quickly burned out on vampire fiction when I dare to pick up a new novel.

However, Certain Dark Things was an incredible and refreshing surprise, showing me uncommon aspects of vampire lore across different cultures and presenting blood-drinkers as more than just dark tortured broody souls waiting for a vivacious woman to show them how wonderful unlife can be when they’re not spending it alone. The different vampires in Moreno-Garcia’s novel are reminiscent of ones from White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade, at least in the sense of  having different clans and offshoots, each with different abilities, weaknesses, strengths, and heritage. And that, to me, made them seem real, well-established, like I could be looking into a hidden part of the real world because culture matters and myths matter and honestly, taking into account that so many cultures have vampiric legends in them just makes sense. It gives you a solid foundation to build upon, and weirdly works to give mostly-Western audiences something they may not have even encountered before, making them old look new and fresh.

Though the book has multiple different viewpoints, the story is primarily about Atl, a vampire with Aztec heritage, who is on the run after her family was murdered. She encounters Domingo, who becomes enamoured of her, and wants to help her despite the danger this puts him in. Chasing Atl is Nick, member of the clan that killed Atl’s family, out to finish the job and torture Atl just for kicks. On the other side is Ana, a cop trying to stand against the corruption in the system, trying to keep her city clear of the vampires who have raised their heads, and falling in with gangs in order to do it. But for all the different characters, everything swirls around and centres on Atl; it’s all about her. Domingo’s fixation on her, Rodrigo’s attempt to track her down, Nick’s violent obsession, Ana’s attempts to find both her and Nick before more damage can be done. It wasn’t merely a case of converging storylines; without Atl, there would be no story.

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. For all that the story spins itself out around Atl, the other characters who take the spotlight feel fully realized, capable of carrying on their own stories even if Atl’s wasn’t the focus. Ana’s story of trying to keep her cool on a police force full of people who don’t take her seriously, trying to raise her daughter to have options and opportunities in life even when Ana herself has to go without, would be a compelling enough story even if you didn’t bring vampires into it. Ditto for Domingo; he felt like a real person, with passions and interests and problems beyond just what you see for the brief time during which the book takes place. You read Certain Dark Things and you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into the lives of real people who go beyond the book’s pages, and they suck you in and keep a tight hold on you as their stories unfold.

I could read books like this forever. In fact, reading Certain Dark Things has made me want to track down more of Moreno-Garcia’s writing so that I can wrap myself in that evocative prose again. She weaves a wonderful story, full of rich detail and incredible characters that you want to read about even if you hate. I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not reading her work sooner.

This book made me love vampires again. And that’s no small feat given that I’ve become so jaded in recent years, more than half convinced that I’d never find vampire stories that appealed to me ever again. But here it is in all its dark violent glory, exactly what I’d been craving for so long. It took me to new locales and let me look into a culture I’ve only ever really seen in travel guides, dropped me right into the streets and let me look at the good and the bad in equal measure. Certain Dark Things pressed all the right buttons for me, and I know it’ll be one that I read again, whenever I need to refresh my lifelong love of bloodsucking fiends. If you’re a fan of vampires, or just enjoy different perspectives on common themes, or hell, if you just love some dark gritty fiction that happens to involve the undead, then you need to read this book. You won’t regret it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)