Book Review: The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht

OUT SEPTEMBER 24TH! Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review. (Trigger warnings for child abuse, sexual abuse/assault, murder/violence, family death)
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Image from Goodreads

This is a nasty little book, brutal and beautiful. To call it simply atmospheric would be doing it a great disservice. Jennifer Giesbrecht’s debut novella The Monster of Elendhaven is absolutely phenomenal. In a short 160 pages, Giesbrecht paints a world of cold, dark filth. It drips with pain and sorrow. The characters are wretched but fascinating and fully developed. I use these descriptors not as a way to dissuade you in reading it, but to let you know what arena you’d be playing in. The characters are wretched, yes, but you love to follow them in their dastardly plots. The setting is stark and harsh, but you will not be able to look away. And while the story is creepy and gory, it has moments of true tenderness and humor.

In The Monster of Elendhaven, a superhuman man named Johann stalks the dark and seedy streets of Elendhaven, acting as the city’s own Jack the Ripper of sorts. There’s something unique about Johann though: it appears he can’t be killed. He’s tried. Multiple times. When he encounters Florian, a man from one of Elendhaven’s oldest families, he sees a kindred spirit. Soon they team up, Johann acting as the strong arm for Florian’s dark revenge fantasies. But even the best laid of evil plans can experience some hiccups. Someone is hunting Florian, and they mean to kill.

Magic plays a huge role in this book, but it’s the kind of magic that you need to look at out of the corner of your eye. Sorcerers and magic used to fill the world, but as time passed it became dangerous to be a sorcerer. It was punished, shunned, and bred out of society…but not entirely. Elendhaven, being a fantasy mirror of a Germanic/Nordic country, has old magic and old lore that does not forget the truth behind the universe. It is a place where fantastical things can still happen. I love settings like this, that exist in the spaces between the modern mundane world and an older magical world.

What Giesbrecht does in such a short space is so impressive. She gives us a fully realized story, equipped with rich characters, a visceral setting, a deep mythology, and a satisfying end. And while we only get a fragment of the lore this world contains, it is robust and offers the appropriate support to the tale at hand. I could read a whole series based on these characters or set in Elendhaven or its surroundings.

The Monster of Elendhaven is like if Tim Burton and Rob Zombie collaborated on a film together. It’s a Dickensian tale on crystal meth. It will chill you to your core but leave you wanting more. I wait in eager anticipation for whatever Giesbrecht publishes next!

Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

OUT SEPTEMBER 10TH! Thank you to Redhook Books and Netgalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.

43521657When I read Alix H. Harrow’s short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” in the February 2018 issue of Apex magazine, I cried. That story hits on a very deeply rooted value I hold in librarianship and illustrates the life-saving abilities of literacy.

In it, a librarian watches a young boy come in to the library time and time again, lingering longer each time, using the books to escape whatever real life horrors were happening outside of the stacks. In the story, the librarian is a witch. There are rules to the magic of librarianship. Some magical books are not to be offered to patrons, and there is knowledge that should be locked away safely, protected. The librarian knows this, and she knows what will happen to her if she breaks those ancient rules. But she also knows the exact book this boy needs to break free of his oppressive life and find happiness in a new world. She gives him the book and watches him escape to better life, risking her own exile and ostracism.

This is important to me not only because of the obvious metaphor concerning literacy, education, and freedom, but also because of what it says about librarianship. It’s hard to explain fully to folks who don’t work in libraries, but there is a bit of a split between librarians and what we think librarianship should be. I belong to the camp of disobedient witches.

I bring all of this up to say that Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is written with just as much passion using similar plot devices and metaphors, and it’s fucking beautiful. January Scaller and her father Julian are outsiders to the wealthy white elite of Vermont in the early 1900s. The color of their skin makes that known immediately. But January has the privilege of growing up in a fine mansion under the care of their benefactor, Mr. Locke. Julian travels the world for Mr. Locke, bringing back rare artifacts stolen from other cultures in exchange for taking care of his daughter. Mr. Locke then takes these items and “safely” preserves them by locking them away in dusty rooms and cases.

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Book Review: Violet by Scott Thomas

OUT SEPTEMBER 24TH! Thank you to Inkshares for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Image from Amazon

I grew up on a lake. My grandparents had an adorable lake house on one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York very close to the small town I grew up in. We spent most of our summer days making the quick drive to their house and enjoying the fresh, cool water, the slight breeze, the gorgeous and magical woods, and the secret worlds we created. There were caves, waterfalls, glens, clearings, fields of wild flowers, and of course the lake itself. We learned how to swim and sail on that lake, and spent countless hours sunbathing on the dock and telling ghost stories around the fire on the beach. Our favorites were about the ancient monsters that lived at the bottom of the deep Finger Lakes, which were formed by glaciers making giant cuts in the land thousands of years ago.

Lake houses mean true peace, serenity, and happiness to me, so this book hit me like a ton of bricks. I was always on the look-out for ghosts in and around my grandparents’ lake house, but Scott Thomas’ Violet has made me grateful I never found them!

After Kris’ husband is killed in a crash, Kris takes her young daughter Sadie to her family’s lake house on Lost Lake in Pacington Kansas to get away from the memories and the prying eyes of family for the summer. Kris hasn’t been back to the lake house in thirty years, since she was a child herself. Her memories of the place are happy and full of joy, and she thinks the house could help her and her daughter handle the grief of suddenly losing her husband. The issue (one of many, as it turns out) is that the lake house hasn’t been touched in years. It has been neglected and is now overgrown and even rotting in some places. And it becomes very clear early on that the state of the lake house mirrors the state of Kris’ soul, and just like with her own trauma, Kris assumes she can just slap a coat of paint over it and it will get better.

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How I Discover Books

IMG_20190731_082053If you follow me on Instagram (or just know me as a human), you know that I love giving book talks and recommendations. I also love to talk about different book-related resources and discovery tools. A while ago, a friend of mine requested a blog post that put all these resources in one place for all you bookish babes. I am, of course, here to please.

First of all, I’m obviously going to say, “GO TO THE LIBRARY!” Librarians are on hand to offer you on-the-spot book recommendations, and they (read “I”) love to do it. It’s like a fun puzzle that needs to be solved. You can also ask me for book recommendations directly. I adore giving recommendations and would do it all day long if I could. And if you haven’t tapped into the Instagram #Bookstagram community yet, make sure you get on that! Book recs all day long!

Below is a list of websites, tools, apps, book boxes/subscriptions, and podcasts that I’m addicted to that help me discover books, talk about books, and manage my book ownership and reading life! All of these things I have tried and enjoy. Warning, quite a few things are specific to genre, so if you’re not a fan of that genre maybe it isn’t for you.

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Book Review: A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill

OUT SEPTEMBER 17TH! Thank you to Pantheon for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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From Goodreads

There are monsters in the world, unspeakable evils that rob us of that which is most precious to us. Life can break your heart and rip you apart, but Noah Turner has more to contend with than the familiar horrors of human existence. Noah can see monsters, like real monsters. Big harry creatures. And they can see him too.

Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters is an incredibly touching story about the Turner family. What starts off as a cute love story quickly turns to sorrow as Harry and Margaret Turner and their three children face tragedy after tragedy over the years. But in the midst of their struggles (struggles that many of us would recognize and be acquainted with), a fantastical element rears it’s furry, sharp-toothed head. A true monster has had its sights on the Turner family for decades, and Noah, the youngest, decides to let it into his home, his family, and his heart. What Noah doesn’t know is that his father also saw monsters, and his mother knew something was wrong.

I knew from the cover art that this was a book I needed to pick up. Once I read the synopsis I was hooked, and I couldn’t put it down. This stunning literary horror debut hit me in all the right places. I was up way past lights out flipping the pages, fully invested in the Turner family’s story and the monster(s) that haven’t stopped haunting them for generations. I couldn’t get enough of the throwback 80s/90s vibes mixed with Lovecraftian horror! Despite it being a horror/fantasy novel, I found it oddly relatable.

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The Books to Read When You Want to Save the World and Yourself.

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The obsession is real.

The other day, I was a little extra tired after being out later than normal for my husband’s birthday the night before. I got home and started making dinner, and my husband walked into the kitchen and asked, “Weren’t we going to go to empanada night?” Our favorite bar was hosting an empanada food truck and we had been excited for it all week. I basically had a breakdown right there because I forgot about the empanadas, desperately wanted to go get them, but was so tired and had already started making food at home. I freaked out and felt a panic attack building, and I eventually said, “I’m so overwhelmed all the time, just thinking makes me overwhelmed. I’m exhausted.”

I just planned a wedding, and that process took so much out of me. I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as it was. I had panic attacks and horrible bouts with my anxiety. I thought I’d be back to my normal self after the wedding was done, but I’m not. I’m burnt out. And this moment has made me realize that I’ve been burnt out for a long time, not just because of my wedding.

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We got married in a library!

My anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed, even when it appears that I’m not, have prevented me from doing so many things I expect of myself. It causes a kind of paralysis that then spirals into guilt and frustration, and it just gets more fun from there. Recently I’ve realized that my anxiety and existential struggles are, in ways, directly connected to our modern American culture of achievement, consumerism, and “disruption”. With the attention economy (social and traditional media) following us everywhere we go thanks to invasive technologies, this frantic culture has infected every aspect of our lives. I’m overdue for a refocusing of my life.

Luckily, I’ve happened upon four books that, when read together, validated what I was feeling and helped me start to build a plan for how to get out of this headspace. I realized that I needed to take a step back and refocus in a way that allows me to build meaningful awareness and take pointed actions in my life. These books are The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, and How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I recommend these books to everyone.

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Book Review: Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

OUT NOW! Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Trick Mirror cover art. Image from Goodreads.com.

My girlfriends and I are in our early 30s. We have grown up in a strange time and continue to struggle to navigate an increasingly complicated society. Social and environmental consciousness, extreme debt, global connectivity, and political turmoil occupy our attention. Couple all this with internal conflicts specific to us at this time in our lives (the questions of marriage and motherhood, careers, our identities as grown women, the concept of permanence in a community), and it’s no surprise we felt drawn to Jia Tolentino‘s work at The New Yorker. We couldn’t stop talking about her piece “What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away”, where Tolentino attempts to live as analog as possible for a time.

It led us to additional questions…how had our childhoods informed our adulthoods? How much of our past has already been erased or made obsolete? How much will never be erased? Can we take a step back from the fast-paced world we live in, from technology? Can we protect our autonomy, our privacy, our free will? DO we know ourselves?

In her debut essay collection Trick Mirror, Tolentino asks these questions, compiles context, recognizes our struggles, and sympathizes with us. It is a masterful examination of the Millennial experience. Through smart examinations of social media, the Great Recession, the student loan crisis, Amazon and Facebook, reality TV, mainstream capitalistic feminism, and other hallmarks of a Millennial upbringing, she shows us a potential answers to the “why” questions many of us ask ourselves late at night with friends after a couple drinks.

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Hitchcock Haul: The Wrong Man (1956)

511M26LcwiL._SY445_The Wrong Man…more like the wrong movie (yikes). It’s been a while since I’ve really disliked a Hitchcock film that I’ve watched for this little project of mine, but wow did I disliked this one! The thesis of this film is, “all white men look the same.” This movie is bad. I was not only bored but also annoyed.

Hitchcock dips into true-ish crime with this one, basing the story off of the book The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson. Hitchcock would actually hire Anderson to also work on the screenplay for The Wrong Man as well as Vertigo. There is a bit of a similarity in vibe between the films, except Vertigo is amazing and this movie is trash.

The beginning of the film features an intro that would have felt familiar to fans of Hitchcock’s television series. Hitchcock himself appears to tell the expectant audience that the story that was about to unfold was more horrific and compelling than any he’d ever told before, that it was a truth stranger than fiction! At the time, positive reviews mentioned its gripping realism. Folks viewing The Wrong Man today (like myself) would actually call the story tired, in part due to Hitchcock’s own familiar use of the trope.

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Readers’ Advisory: Read-a-likes for Kurt Vonnegut by Women Authors

 

A friend of mine recently asked for book recommendations for her partner. Her partner greatly enjoys Kurt Vonnegut, but she’d love for him to try reading more books by women. She wondered…are there female authors who strike the same chord? Scratch the same itch? Hit the same nerve? Etcetcetc. When I asked further questions, she mentioned that she thought that what he loved most about Vonnegut was the humor.

This question kind of stumped me. As I wracked my brain to figure out who I could recommend to my dear friend that was both a woman and also a read-a-like for Vonnegut, I shorted out a bit. I haven’t yet read a lot of Vonnegut, so I’m working with a handicap. I decided to pull my resources and consult my boss, who is well-read, loves Vonnegut, and has an incredible sense of humor.

Here are both her and my suggestions for my friend’s partner:

44453Dorothy Parker: Parker’s writing is sharp, witty, and incredibly hilarious in the same cynical way as Vonnegut. Satire is absolutely her realm. She got her start as a theater critic and was one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table (along with Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood). Her writing stretches across so many different styles, including poetry, short stories, and screenplays to name a few. Fun Fact, she co-wrote the script for the ORIGINAL ORIGINAL A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland. I recommend perhaps starting with her Complete Short Stories. And if you want a taste of her wit, check out this delightful list of one-liners.

 

 

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Nora Ephron: Ephron, like Parker, is known as a prolific writer with a lot in her toolbox. She’s a journalist, screenwriter, essayist, playwright, and novelist, among other things. Most, but not all, of her writing has a strong vein of humor running through it. She writes from a frank perspective with a sharp wit, and while she’s not quiet Vonnegut-esque, she is absolutely a big name talent in humor writing! I would tell my friend’s partner to start with Wallflower at the Orgy, a collection of Ephron’s magazine writings published in 1970 that take a witty and cynical look at American culture. Ephron lived an incredible life which includes being one of the only people to know the true identity of Deep Throat before it was revealed decades after the Watergate scandal. Her perspective and talent oozes from everything she writes. She is worth your time and attention!

51keam5kkxl._sx330_bo1,204,203,200_Becky Chambers: Now we’re veering off a bit. I recently read the first installment of Chambers’ Wayfarers series and really enjoyed it!It was SUPER funny, smart, tender, and absolutely killed it as both a science fiction book and a story about found family. And if you like Firefly, Titan A.E., or Star Trek, you will probably enjoy these books. If my friend’s partner is into science fiction, I highly recommend starting there!

 

 

 

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Sarah Vowell: Vowell is more of a read-a-like for John Hodgman if you enjoyed Hodgman’s recent Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches (which I did, IMMENSELY). She writes deep-dive quirky non-fiction in a really unique style that can, I admit, be hard to get used to at first. It stops just short of stream of consciousness, but man is it witty and fun! If I had to giver her humor style an official designation, I’d say it is in the vicinity of wise-crackin’. I read her Unfamiliar Fishes, which is about the history of Hawai’i and how the US basically stole it, but for for my friend’s partner I think I would recommend he try Assassination Vacation, wherein Vowell takes a roadtrip across the US to visit places where significant political assassination occurred throughout history. Fascinating!

12868761Jenny Lawson: Lawson became a big name in humor when her hit memoir Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir hit the scene in 2012. This book, which covers her childhood among other things, approaches the shit of life with humor and a big ol’ “Welp”. More appropriate for David Sedaris fans, I do think my friend’s partner will enjoy this first memoir from Lawson because it’s just so damn funny!

 

 

 

33381433Samantha Irby: (Unfortunately the only woman of color I’ve included on this list…please send me your WOC Vonnegut read-a-likes!!) Irby is a comedian and blogger known for her humorous blog bitches gotta eat and her wry, sarcastic style. Her gut-splitting essay collection We Are Never Meeting In Real Life was released in 2017 to rave reviews. This  is a great pick for my friend’s partner!

 

 

 

9780143128045Shirley Jackson: UUUHHHH WHHAAATTT?? Did your eyes just explode out of your head? This was no mistake, my friends. Yes, Jackson is known best for her haunting gothic tales, and yes I am contractually obligated to write about her as often as humanly possible.  But she also wrote about her family and what it was like to be a mother and the weirdness of life in a small community. Often these personal topics were treated with sarcastic wit. You can draw a direct line between this writing and her horror writing, but you will probably laugh more with her memoirs. I recommend my friend’s partner start with Life Among the Savages.

 

As you can see, many of these women write a lot in the “nonfiction” and “essay” genres. I find it interesting that some of the funniest writing I’ve ever read by women is, in some way, a truthful account of a situation or thought or experience or event. I think there is something to this–something that comments on the differences between how men and women interpret and experience the world. This was part of why my brain melted a bit when I first tried to contemplate this question.

My boss and I are still trying to think of additional authors who fit this bill (you thought I was out of them, ha!), so if you have any additional suggestions we would GREATLY appreciate you offering them up in the comments! It’s a difficult question because Vonnegut is so singular, and women are still fighting that ridiculous stigma put on them that they “aren’t funny”. That is incredibly false, of course, but it is still prevalent and blocks very funny women from getting their due. Let’s do our part to break it down!

Tanya Tagaq & ROSALÍA: The Keepers of Culture

This year I haven’t felt as connected to music as I usually do. Music has always been a huge part of my life, and when I was a teen I spent countless hours in my room scrolling through iTunes and music websites discovering new types of music, new artists in styles I already liked, and music from artists I already loved. This was, of course, before iTunes became a piling heap of steaming shit. I use Spotify for music discovery now. No regrets. Here is my account if you want to follow along.

I was feeling rather bad about my lack of music exploration in 2018, so I did what most normal people do. I checked out some Best Of 2018 lists. As I was working through NPR’s top 10 albums of the year, I became completely bewitched by ROSALÍA. Her new album El Mal Querer is #8. ROSALÍA is a Spanish-speaking singer from Catalonia, Spain and lends her stunning voice to haunting and beautiful flamenco guitar. Her earlier album from 2017, Los Angeles, shows a rather straight forward approach to flamenco, a style of music not usually being played on mainstream music radio.

As a fervent fan of the Gipsy Kings, who also perform Andalusian-style music, I immediately fell in love with ROSALÍA. While her new album still holds much of the classic flamenco style, it adds more modern and inventive production skills to amp up her sound. The effect is an interesting modernization of a very old and rich musical style. Flamenco is several centuries old and originates from Andalusia, Spain. It is itself born of an interesting blending of multiple cultures, including the Romani, Moors, Castilians, and Sephardi Jews. It is a performance of music, vocalizations, dance, and rhythm. ROSALÍA’s music is obviously not the full package, but I’ve never seen her live so maybe she has dancers or dances herself. I don’t know! I was not surprised when I saw her name pop up next to the likes of Solange and Cardi B on show tickets, but I was a bit surprised that flamenco has made its way to this particular arena.

What ROSALÍA seems to have done reminded me of another female artist: Tanya Tagaq. Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer whose music is haunting, aggressive, and incredibly visceral. Its jarring nature is not for everyone, but her music was recently featured on the soundtrack for the indie film Thoroughbreds. This well-deserved spotlight has highlighted her work and brought it to many people who probably have never heard of throat singing before. The unique thing about Tagaq’s music is that is is very modern. You could seamlessly play it in a club without anyone skipping a beat. But Inuit throat singing is an art that has been in existence for hundreds of years. It was banned for decades by religious communities and is only recently making a wide resurgence.

The amazing thing about Inuit throat singing is that it is primarily a women’s game. It was not originally seen as a type of music or performance, but as just interesting vocalizations and breath work. Traditionally, two women will face one another, and one will start off the roll of singing while the other repeats her as a kind of mimic or an improvised round. The sounds are continuous from both women and the game only stops when one of the women starts laughing or runs out of breath. It is meant to be a silly bit of fun, but can you imagine how metal and witchy it would be to see two women facing off, making what can only be described as primordial grunts and gasps? It’s incredibly badass.

When I consider both Tanya Tagaq and ROSALÍA, I see two young women fully embracing their culture and bringing it into the modern mainstream global culture. This culture has been dominated by American styles for a very long time, and both the elements of Flamenco and Inuit throat singing don’t fit those moulds…and yet they are some of the most beautiful forms of art I have had the privilege to enjoy thanks to Spotify (this is not supposed to be an ad for Spotify, it has its issues too).

Women usually do this work. Much like how our genes carry the exact data of our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers etc., we tend to carry on our family and culture’s traditions. We tell the stories, make the food, teach the crafts and skills. We preserve and amplify. We pass it down to our children. This has generally been the case for thousands of years in human civilizations. Men have been known to do this work as well, and I don’t want to slight men like my father, who gathers and cares for his family’s genealogy, but overall on a grand scale this is a woman’s work. While it might seem unfair or a burden, I take it as a privilege, an honor, and a duty.