Reading Roundup

So last week or so I brought home the library haul.  Five books, three of which I read completely, one of which I got 2/3rds through, and one that went back without really getting started.  Then I hit the Raven Bookstore with a holiday giftcard for more bookloot.  These are the results.

The Guilty Dead: Monkeewrench #9Not a surprise that I really enjoyed The Guilty Dead, the ninth Monkeewrench outing.  I skipped book 8 somehow, but each of these novels is pretty much standalone.  One of the things I most like about this series is that even as the mysteries build to super high stakes, each step feels plausible.  The characters are believable in their context.  My favorite of the series is still probably The Sixth Idea, but this is a good entry. I understand that PJ Tracy is a solo act now after the death of her mother, but she’s doing her mom proud. Recommended for mystery lovers.

Creatures of Want and Ruin

 

I went back and forth on whether I was enjoying Creatures of Want & Ruin, by Molly Tanzer and in the end, the exceptional and out of the ordinary, characterization, demonology, and setting made this a win.  Her books aren’t always paced the way I’d like, but they always make me feel rewarded for reading them. I’m looking forward to more in this world. Recommended.

 

Pop the Clutch! This is an anthology I picked up on a whim, despite not having any particular Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horrorinterest in Rockabilly culture.  And the book had some formatting/editing issues that really irked me–splash pages of art left blank with <IMAGE PENDING> left behind; stories that repeated a sentence twice, the constant misspelling of “altar”.  But crankiness aside, there were some gems of stories in here.  I really enjoyed “Tremble” by Kasey and Joe Lansdale about a singer with a grudge; “Dr. Morbismo’s InsaniTERRORium Horror Show” by Lisa Morton about schlock horror shows running into a real ghost; and “I Was a Teenage Shroom Fiend” by Brian Hodge which has them all beat for pleasantly weird.

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean.  How many times am I going to check this book out before I Priest of Bones (War for the Rose Throne Book 1)finally finish it?!?  At least one more.  The deal is that somehow, despite McLean’s great writing, and treading the sweet spot between “gritty” and “nihilistic”, and me being invested in the characters, I just keep hitting a wall. This time, I got through the entire first act, much of the second, and well… I’m not as interested in the turn the book makes toward politics.  Add in the fact that it’s not a stand-alone, and I lose momentum.  I’m still going to recommend it though because it’s really well-written!  And really compelling!  And I’m going to check it out again. Recommended.

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep.  A DNF.  Really, more of a DNStart.  I blame the blurb.  It told Kill the Queen (A Crown of Shards Novel Book 1)me too much of the exciting event to happen, so that I started the book on a mental timer, waiting for the slaughter to begin.  And instead, I got a slow build, where the heroine notes all these “odd” things going on in the palace, but doesn’t draw any conclusion–which annoyed me, because I already knew what the conclusion was: SLAUGHTER!!!  I was impatient and not in the mood.  I sent it back to the library.  It looks like it might be a lot of fun for the right reader.  That’s apparently not me.

 

Picked up two mysteries at the local bookstore, one of which I disliked immensely because I thought the heroine and her family were horrible stuck-up snobs.  Her sister met her fiance… ON THE INTERNET!!!! The Horror!!! And it tried really hard for quirky cast of characters but mostly just felt crowded and full of people I would hate to be around.  Not going to name it.  But it was one of those cozies that require the mystery to stop while the “gimmick” is run through.  In this case, every meal involved a long description of the cooking process.  Which, really, was maybe my favorite part?  But… if I want to read about cooking, there are other books with that as the actual focus.

The Secret, Book & Scone Society

 

The Secret, Book, & Scone Society by Ellery Adams on the other hand was pretty good.  It’s a little artsy for my taste in some places–the four women sharing their “dreadful” secrets and handing out secret keys, and the like–but in the end, I really liked these characters and would gladly read another book in the series.

 

Though I never read A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice & Virtue, that didn’t stop me from picking up the second book in the series, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats & Piracy.  I felt comfortable The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracydoing this since it revolved around a secondary character from the first book as this book’s protagonist.  And I’m always up for reading about a determined girl trying to break down the rules of society that get in her way.  Things I really appreciated about this book?  Multiple female characters, all fighting for their futures in their own ways, and learning to respect each other’s choices.  That’s before you get to having an Ace protagonist, which is always refreshing.  My only hiccup was that I was reading along assuming this was pretty much basic historical YA and suddenly there were magical dragon scales.  So that sort of took me aback.  Not badly, just a bit of blinking and wondering how MacKenzi Lee managed to convince the publishers to go for that!

And a personal fail.  I bought a book I already owned.  God, I hate that.  A lot.  At least it was a good book!  A Treacherous Curse, book 3 of the Veronica Speedwell mysteries by Deanna Raybourn.  I would recommend this series for anyone who loved the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters.

A miscellany post

AKA things that I have been up to.

Preparing for the holiday cookie siege.  I made chocolate chips, and gingersnaps, and following Sally’s Baking Addiction recommendation, froze most of them in little raw balls of dough ready to be baked.  I always forget how much I love doing that.  You can freeze cookies for later (as long as the fat content is high and you wrap them well), but nothing really beats yanking out a half dozen cookies and having them bake up fresh whenever you want a treat.  I really always mean to do this year ’round and forget.

Someday I will treat puff pastry with the respect it deserves.  But this was not that week.  My roommate cooked up a bunch of local apples with cinnamon and butter and cloves and I bunged a bunch of them into the world’s most haphazard puff pastry wrapping.  They kind of looked like softballs caught mid-explosion, but tasted delicious.  And while I was at it, I used up the nutella to make puff pastry pockets.  I would have used lemon curd, but tragically, it had gone bad.

And reading.  I read a lot but every so often I lose it and go on reading binges.  Usually when I find a new-to-me author who has not only an enjoyable book, but an entire backlisk.  So Clara Coulson.  Yeah.  Her books are urban fantasy fun, and I devoured pretty much all of them between the 9th and the 15th.

CoulsonFatePortendsThat’s three of the Frost Arcana, five of the City of Crows, and one stand-alone Lark Nation novel.  Just a heck of a lot of fun, though I’d say the Frost Arcana are probably the best entry points.  Cal Kinsey in the City of Crows takes a little getting used to.  If he were a heroine, they’d be lining up to call him a Mary Sue.  Mostly Clara Coulson scratches the same itch that Mercedes Lackey used to.  I can’t wait for more of her books!  If you like adventure based urban fantasy with a surprising amount of super-violent action and great fantasy elements, this series might be for you!  Seriously.  After a celtic fantasy binge that lasted through most of high school, I was kind of burned out on the seelie/unseelie/sidhe/tuatha de danaan mythos.  These books make it all feel fresh again.

Things that I have not been up to:

Writing.  Ffs.  I’m about six thousand words into Book 2 of the fantasy series and sort of stopped working on it.  There are reasons (decent ones), but primarily it comes down to lack of organization.  Life gets busier and busier in the fall and I need to take steps to make it easy to sneak a few hundred words here and there.  It’s easy to get hooked into the crutch of the perfectly set up desk with all your note files and scrivener and the white boards full of maps and the walls full of setting pictures and character images, but when you do, you find yourself thinking oh, wish I could work, but so-sad, I’m out of the office, and not near my desk.  So, I’m trying something sensible and slightly new.  Setting up the next scene and tossing those few paragraphs into google docs so I can access it while at the day job, or out and about.  I can read the plan on the phone and write on paper, or I can read it on a desktop and write directly into g docs.  Failing everything else, at least I can keep thinking about where I want to go in the scene!

And a snippet of what I was last working on.

Genee’s feet turned her toward the side stairs and the guest quarters, not to seek her own rest, no. She might not know where Cavenner and her boys had bedded down, or even where Calyx Favager had slunk off to. But the girl…
Genee had made sure she knew exactly where to find her.
Sianan Maccuin jerked to attention when Genee melted out of the stairwell’s shadows and Genee made another mental note: More light. GreenStone Hall was as dark as a tomb.
“Commander,” she said, but quietly. “Do you need…?”
“She hasn’t come out?”
“Been quiet as a mouse,” Sianan said, “Did she really….?”
Genee waited. Sianan had a sneaky habit of talking in questions, letting people fill in the gaps. She learned more than she should that way. But she wasn’t supposed to apply that to her commander.
Sianan shrugged, “Sorry, Commander. Just… it’s such big magic, and it shook all the walls…. Hard to believe such a small girl could do so much damage.”
“She’s a Favager,” Genee said. “They’re nothing but damage waiting to be unleashed”

 

Vacation miscellany

So the weird thing about working a day job as well as working for yourself is that you can take a vacation from one or the other as well as both.  Having finished up a writing project (the draft of Ring of Stones is done!  Hoorah! and in the agent’s lap!  Hooray!  Not my problem for a little bit!) I decided I wanted a week off without coming home from the day job and sitting right back down in front of the computer.

Not writing in the evening is giving me a strange, luxurious feeling right now.  It won’t last.  I’ll get antsy and the scene notes I’m taking currently (that doesn’t count as work, right?) will demand to be made into actual scenes and chapters and so forth.  But for right now, I feel like I have all this free time!

I have watched the entirety of The Good Place, season 2!  I do love those characters.  I love how clever the show-writers are in making this premise continue to work for them. As a side note, I hate sitcoms, so the fact that I love this one should tell you they’re doing something quite different than the usual sitcom fare.

I have attempted to make stir-fried rice.  That… was not quite a failure, in that the end result was edible.  Just not good.  I need to figure out the heat issue better, find a more useful recipe (though a friend linked me to an NYT recipe that looks good), and use the good cast iron skillet.  The one I used is still pretty new and not as seasoned as it should be. The cast iron skillet that I took from my childhood home, on the other hand, is amazing.

I have read three books:

Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine: seriously intense thriller.  I loved it.  Had to put it down a couple of times just to go breathe.  I think it’s that you know she has significant enemies, but like her, you just don’t know what direction they’re coming from. Recommended if you like thrillers. Or Kelley Armstrong’s Casey Duncan series.

Hazard by Devon Monk: Magical Hockey League.  Wizards and werewolves on the ice, oh my!  Not an unqualified success, but fun to read.

Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett: I’m always seeing comedic mysteries compared to Stephanie Plum books, but this one kind of merits the comparison (in the good way!).  Dayna and her friends are funny, a little nuts, loyal, and moving through LA society in a very entertaining way.  That they’re trying to solve crime at the same time–a definite plus.

I’m embarking on City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett, both because it’s been in my TBR pile since it came out and as a consolation prize for being on a book budget at the moment and not buying Foundryside right away.  Later, Foundryside, I’m coming for you!  RJB is a writer I really admire, incorporating great characters–realistic, interesting, compelling–in a wonderful setting. You are definitely “there” when you read his works.

Book Review: All But a Bloody Mouth

So I’ve been reading and reading all summer long, but not finding things that really satisfy.  It’s the downside of being voracious and pretty indiscriminate about your reading: you get jaded pretty quickly–been there, seen that, seen it done BETTER, and now you’re bored.  Every now and then, I just hit a run of meh books.

And every now and then, I stumble over something strange and wonderful.

In this case, the online novel All But a Bloody Mouth by Becca De La Rosa

The details:

All But a Bloody Mouth  published on tumblr in 2016 and later assembled into a free download—technically self-pubbed, but not available for sale in stores.  If you find it, it feels … serendipitous.
Written by: Becca De La Rosa
Genre: um…. I’m thinking of it as feminist noir horror? Which is a genre I didn’t know I wanted, but apparently was starving for.
Pages: 259 per pdf
Publisher: self-published, nicely formatted, not available in stores.

Why I chose it: During my podcast resolution over on Spec Chic, I listened to podcast Mabel (not reviewed yet–look for my review in Oct or Nov), and wandered over to the website and found the writer for Mabel had also written this novel. Since I was enjoying Mabel so much, and the premise of this book appealed to me, it seemed only natural to dive right in.

The Premise:
All But the Bloody Mouth. First published on Tumblr in 2016; a novel about murder, mystery cults, and apotheosis.

Eleven days ago Loan Santos came home to discover her boyfriend Jack violently attacking a young woman on the kitchen floor. Following the revelation, Jack admitted to committing the five murders attributed to the Red Deer Valley Slasher; he claimed he killed those five girls, however, for a very particular reason. Now, Loan must piece together the facts of the matter (a girl with a scar on her throat who knows more than she lets on, a monster in the wetlands) to find herself some kind of – meaning, or understanding, or transcendence.

​All But the Bloody Mouth is free to download, read, and share.

Spoilers ahead, but I’m going to try to keep them small, because watching this book unfold is a delight.

Discussion:

I read a lot of serial killer stories. It’s almost inevitable. I love fantasy, but as a child, I cut my teeth on mystery. Nancy Drew, Kay Tracey, Meg, Trixie freaking Belden. And oh, here’s a fantasy twist: The Girl with the Silver Eyes, which was a childhood form of an urban fantasy—young girl with a magical gift learns that there are others like her and enemies out there who want to control them, and she assembles a team to fight back…. Tell me that doesn’t sound urban fantasy-ish.

The point being, after a while, mystery divides itself into cozies and murders. (Not that no one dies in cozies, it’s just that no one seems to care much.) So yeah, serial killers. And I enjoy the genre but it is definitely a genre of dead tortured women, usually with graphic scenes, where the saving grace is that many, many of the serial killer stories are written by women, with women as their active protagonists.

That said, there is a certain sameness to the formula. So, I really enjoy the books that turn the story on its end—the killer caught on the first page!? The story about the recovery of the people affected—yeah, show me that!

And All But a Bloody Mouth begins with Jack, the Red Deer Valley killer caught and jailed before the first page. Because he’s not the focus here. It’s about the two women he left behind—the woman who nearly died, and the woman who loved him, unknowing. But it’s also about pulling back the veil on the lives that women lead.

I said feminist noir and I meant it. Mandy Jane Donovan, the would-be victim is the blonde femme fatale, swanning through the story and helping to open Loan’s eyes to the world she’s always moved through, but always repressed. That Loan surpasses Mandy’s understanding in the end is also noir—Mandy is ephemeral, her importance is to lead Loan in the direction of the truth. Mandy is a vector of sorts, a proselytizer. But unlike classic noir, Mandy has her own successful agenda. She doesn’t come to ruin. She starts there and grows past it.

These truths are about men and women, more than anything else. And they’re not necessarily pleasant truths. Here, each gender is pretty much posed always in opposition to each other.

I also said horror, and I meant it. The horror here is both occasionally gory—though elegantly presented—and social; there’s a scene with Loan and her lawyer that’s just fundamentally upsetting in oh so many ways. Loan starts off quiet and repressed, but it’s definitely the quiet of a banked fire.

There’s real fantasy here also. But it’s a fantasy that is more about mythology than casting spells or having magical abilities doled out. It’s about change. I thought the ending was both surprising and well-led up to, if a little short on the mechanics.

There were small things that bugged me:

I wasn’t sure about Loan’s name. It’s unusual enough to strike the reader as continually odd. It felt more like a symbol than a name. Loan? Like lone? Or Loan, like her life had been on loan…. I don’t know. But it was distracting.*

I adored the ending, but thought it felt a little bit abrupt. A lot of the big moments in this book are a little rushed.

De La Rosa’s writing is full of literary goodness, but occasionally one of her metaphors falls a little flat.

In conclusion:

I’d actually recommend All But the Bloody Mouth to anyone who enjoys Gemma Files—the introspection, the dissection of relationships, the precision in language, and yes, the mythic horror. Elizabeth Hand as well. Try the first few pages; if you like those, you’ll probably enjoy the rest. If you don’t get a tiny little shiver at the end of the first scene, you might not.

 

*ETA and today, Kelly Marie Tran explains that her given name is Loan, and suddenly I have more context for the name.  So, less odd, then.  I have learned something!

Hard Work Cookies

So every so often, usually coinciding with intensive revision, I start telling myself terrible lies.  Things like… you don’t need that much sleep; five hours is totally enough.  You can do the laundry tomorrow.  You can absolutely live on grilled cheese sandwiches for at least a week….

And that Wakefield Cookies are a valid breakfast food.

This is a recipe I got from my grandmother who got it from the popular cookie maker Ruth Wakefield. I don’t believe my grandmother ever met her; it was just a recipe published with her name attached.  It’s one of the three recipes I have that calls for shortening instead of butter, where I actually leave it shortening.  (The other two are torticas de moron, and the Pennsylvania dutch strawberry shortcake biscuit recipe.)  Wakefield cookies are tasty!  They’re crisp and tend to dissolve in your mouth and they’re full of giant oat flakes.  Yum!

But… I get bored.  I have started adding peanut butter, sometimes chunky PB, and mini semi-sweet chips.  Sometimes actual peanuts.  And you know, once you add peanut butter, it’s obviously a health food, right?  We’ll ignore the chocolate.

So whenever I get into the crazy stage of writing–drafting or revising–I tend to make a batch of adulterated Wakefield cookies, because hey!  This saves time for breakfast!  I can eat two cookies and get right to work!  Oatmeal is breakfast food!  Everyone knows that!  And peanut butter is good for you (unless you’re allergic, I’m sorry).

They sure don’t look like much, but they are tasty!  And whether it’s the peanut butter oatmeal combo, or just the ramped up on sugar combo, I do seem to get a lot of work done when they’re around.

Currently reading: nothing too much.  Too much fighting with my own revision!  But books I sampled this week are Over Raging Tides by Jennifer Ellision (fun! will probably buy it later), The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert (put on hold at the library), Cusp of Night by Mae Clair (a maybe.)  I did read (and enjoy enough to recommend) Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine.

 

Happiness cookies

Smitten Kitchen’s Confetti Cookies are happiness cookies.  That is all I have to say about that.  Other than to add you should definitely go make them.  But only if you’re going to buy fresh jimmies and not use some old jar you’ve had sitting around forever since you bought them to throw a spoonful on some ice cream sundae.  FRESH JIMMIES or don’t even bother.  If you taste them and they taste like nothing but stiff old wax?  THROW THEM OUT and go buy new ones.  If you can’t remember when or why you bought them? THROW THEM OUT and go buy new ones.  Besides, this recipe uses a lot of them.  You probably need more anyway.  Buy the bigger jar.

Also, be prepared for sticky rainbow fingers.

I made a couple small adjustments to the recipe.  I only had salted butter, so I used that, and decreased the amount of added salt.  I added a little extra flour (about a quarter cup) because the dough was just too sticky–my kitchen was very warm–and the texture is still amazing.

I used the stand mixer method and I included the optional almond extract and my house smelled so damn good while they were baking!

 

Other happy things this week?

Catie Rhodes‘ book Forever Road: fun start to an urban fantasy story, and hey the first taste is free!  She has a really strong narrative voice.

The Bridge podcast, which will hopefully be putting out a new episode sometime soon.  And which I will be talking about sometime also soon for Speculative Chic.

2016 Writers to love

Every year, I read a lot of books, with two goals in mind. 1) To find entertaining books (naturally) , and 2) to find a new (to me or otherwise) author. 2016 gave me three new authors to follow.

Gaie Sebold, who wrote the charming Babylon Steel (one of my favorite books of the year) as well as Dangerous Gifts, Shanghai Sparrow, & Sparrow Falling.  Her writing is energetic; her characters are awesome and appealing; and her worlds feel flush with life.

Shanghai Sparrow (An Evvie Duchen Adventure Book 1) by [Sebold, Gaie]

JL Bryan, whose Jenny Pox claimed my weirdest book of the year title.  But I started with JL Bryan for the Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper series, which started off slowly and has become one of my most “oooh, a new one, grab it!” series.

Maze of Souls (Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper Book 6)

And this year, I made a concerted effort to read more short stories, aided by the sheer number of good, online spec fic magazines.  One of the first stories I read this year was Sam J Miller’s “Angel, Monster, Man” published in Nightmare Magazine  I wasn’t sold 100% on this story, but I loved so much of it, that it left a big impression.  One that only grew more favorable after I read “When Your Child Strays from God” (Clarkesworld), and “Things with Beards” (also Clarkesworld).  Sam J Miller’s gone from completely new to me, to a writer that I’m excited to see.

Anyone else have new, or new to them writers they fell in love with this year?

If a Baker’s Dozen is 13, is a Writer’s Top Ten really 11? It is this year.

My favorite books read in 2016. Not in any particular order.

radiance

Radiance by Catherynne Valente

Reading Valente is always more experience than story. This is a silver-screen look at a past that never was—if the early Hollywood years encompassed an SF landscape of planetary travel. There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on here spread over multiple layers of story-telling and it takes some work to pick out which threads actually lead to a cohesive solution to the central mystery (though arguably not the central point of the book): what became of Severin, a Hollywood darling? How did she vanish and where did she vanish to? And will it change anything?

Valente’s writing style rewards rereading, not least because she sets up mysteries, then writes a lot of scenes that basically suggest that the answers are unimportant even as she gives you a handful of options, none of which feel super conclusive. This book, especially, flirts with made-up stories, in the thread of a movie being written about Severin that wanders through different genres and tweaks events to suit each need. In other hands, this might be a godawful mess, but here, it ends up being a book that lingers with you. And whether or not each segment of the book ends up part of a cohesive whole, they’re beautifully written vignettes on their own. I was a little dubious about this book when I first finished it, but it’s grown on me.

experimental

Experimental Film by Gemma Files

People talk about art being an “unflinching” look at the world around us, and holy god, this book refuses to flinch. The main character—a film analyst and writer, mother to an autistic child, daughter to a difficult mother—embarks on a brutal self-dissection of herself while hunting down a piece of film that may or may not have something horrific lurking in it. It’s part a mystery about what happened to a long-lost film-maker; it’s part dissection of the film scene in Canada; and its part homage to horror movies as a whole. The main character is rarely likable, but she is fascinating. The ending’s not quite as strong as the rest of the book—a sad irony of so many fantasy books; the better you ground it in reality, the less powerful the magic can feel—but it’s still way up on my list of books for 2016. Plus, Gemma Files’ writing on a micro level—line by line—is often glorious. Where Valente makes elaborations and fancy little flirts with words, Files’ writing tends toward deceptively sparse but it builds inexorably.

Continue reading “If a Baker’s Dozen is 13, is a Writer’s Top Ten really 11? It is this year.”