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 onΒ 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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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 MemoirΒ 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. ThisΒ  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.Β  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!

2019 Resolutions and Reading!

IMG_20181220_174159Happy New Year! I hope you all were able to celebrate in a way that made you feel happy and optimistic, and I hope you have your first book of 2019 all picked out! I don’t know about you, but I’m spending the day on the couch reading FOR SURE. I’m looking forward to 2019 for many reasons. First and most important, I’m getting married! But I’m also looking forward to a new year of reading and general self-improvement (ha).

For the past six months, and for the next six months going forward, I will be very focused on planning my wedding. It’s only going to get more intense, so with that in mind I am trying to be extra kind to myself. I’m not going to set any major goals or push myself too hard, unless it’s about getting this damn wedding planned and executed in a semi-successful manner. Of course I’m going to continue to work on taking better care of myself in all ways, increase my exercise, decrease my shitty food intake, get more sleep, etcetc, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it.

In reading, I’ve decided to have a year of “free reading”. I’ve set a Goodreads goal of ten books, which we all know is nonsense for me. I’ll be reading well over that, but I don’t want to worry about making my goal or stressing over how much time I have to read. I’ve had multiple friends talk to me about how frustrating they find the weird social media pressures that Goodreads can put on you as a reader, so I’ve also started using Bookriot’s Book Tracking Spreadsheet to keep stats on my reading in a way that is very nerdy and pleasing to my librarian heart and brain!

I read 80 books in 2018, the most I’ve ever read in a year! But I anticipate that my reading time will go down for a while as I try to work on wedding centerpieces and chasing guests down for RSVPs. But I don’t want to just NOT set a goal. I enjoy logging my books in Goodreads and seeing them listed together in the yearly reading challenge, so I figured I would just set a dummy goal.

Another thing I’ve done is retire from all book clubs but one. This will eliminate a good amount of scheduled reading that I always seem to have to push through. The biggest change I will need to make is NOT putting books on hold at my library unless I’m planning on reading them right away. Library books, while better than buying a ton of books that just pile up, tend to set another kind of reading schedule in my mind. I feel like I need to read all my library books in the order they’re due back, not the order I WANT to read them in, and that stresses me out. This is all nonsense, but it bugs me just the same.

I currently have 57-ish books checked out and like 13 holds. A bunch of those holds are not ready for me to pick up. They’re all hot buzzy books with long wait lists. How will I read them all before they’re due?? And any book I was hoping to read next is now immediately bumped because I NEED to read N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ’til Black Future Month RIGHT FRICKEN NOW because there is no way I’ll be able to renew. So that copy of Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi that I borrowed from my coworker months ago will still be sitting on my bedside table, untouched.

See how this creates an issue? So, no more library holds unless I intend to read it as soon as it gets in. And only one or two holds at a time. I need to keep my reading schedule loose and open so I can embrace more spontaneous reading!

I have so many beautiful, exciting, fun books on my shelves at home. I’m desperate to read them, but because I own them I always push them aside in favor of the library or book club books. In 2019, I’m really hoping that I will have more moments where I finish a book, set it down, and don’t have the next book picked out already. I’d love to finish a book and then browse my own bookshelves to find a book to read based on how I’m feeling in that moment, not what I wanted to read two weeks ago. Let’s see if I can accomplish this.

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Love @dasharezone too much.

And with all this in mind, my only true goal in 2019 (other than accomplishing the act of getting married) is to get to a point where I don’t order anything from Amazon anymore. I want to cut my dependence on the website and shop, instead, more locally. The ultimate goal is that next year’s Christmas gifts for my family will be 100% bought NOT on Amazon. I have the whole year to practice and get ready for the test haha. While I don’t really use Amazon for books all that much anymore, I’d like to make it a habit to visit a different local book store here in Pittsburgh once a month. It would be a nice opportunity to spend time and money in different parts of the city, see what cool stuff is out there, grab that buzzy new book I’ve been drooling over, and see some adorable book stores I haven’t been able to visit yet!

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Local book stores have the best sections. This is at The Big Idea in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh PA

Life has been really hard lately, and the anxiety and stress from the news and the outside world has had the same effect on me as probably most people: I’m extra tired, I’m extra grumpy, and I’m extra overwhelmed. While I try my best to do my part–contact my elected officials, support local and national groups, volunteer–I’m only one person. What all of this has really pushed me to do is take care of myself. I hadn’t been to a general practitioner in 13 years until 2018. I also just went to the dentist for the first time in 8 years. I saw a therapist for the first time in 8 years. And I treated myself to a full read/reread of Harry Potter! But, embarrassingly, this is just the beginning. I have many more medical appointments to make, little life upkeep things that need to be done. I desperately need my passport and a new prescription for my glasses. There’s just, shit to do. I’m really looking forward to 2019 as a year where I can maybe get a handle on it. As someone who has spent a lot of time putting my energy outward into activities and other people, this almost feels selfish. I feel bad spending my money and time on my health, which is weird. It’s something I’m working on, but it still gets to me. 2018 was a year of what felt like a lot of little steps backwards and away from things. For the first time in a while I didn’t feel like I actually accomplished anything. Here’s to 2019 being a building year!

What about you? What are your reading and life goals for the year to come? It’s cool if the answer is “nothing” because for some of us, that’s a goal in and of itself.

Favorite Books Read In 2018

I had a weird reading year. I set a Goodreads goal of 50 and surpassed it handily, reading 76+ books in 2018. Once again I totally failed at my annual Shameful Book Club, so much so that I think I’m going to retire it for next year. I enjoyed most of the books I read in 2018, really disliked a handful, and really liked quite a few. I also, in a very rare move for me, reread quite a few books this year. I reread some Shirley Jackson, Robert Galbraith, Stephen King, and JK Rowling (yes, I know she is also Galbraith but I reread both series this year). I don’t normally reread, but I was in need of comfort so I returned to some of my favorites.

I also want to make a note that at the time that I compiled this list, there were still several weeks left of 2018. I’m still reading books, and it’s possible those books would have ended up on this list, but I had to cut myself off at some point ;)

Below are the 22 books that really stood out to me this year. They are not the only books I really liked, but the ones that stuck with me the most. I tried to include trigger warnings as I remember them, but some might have slipped through my memory. (warning, this is a long post)

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