Rise by Mira Grant

Rise: A Newsflesh Collection: The Complete Newsflesh CollectionRise: A Newsflesh Collection: The Complete Newsflesh Collection by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joy of joys, Mira Grant has published another installment to her Newsflesh collection! This goose-pimply sci-fi post-zombie-apocalypse series follows teams of bloggers chronicaling the presidential race in the first four books, but in Rise Grant takes us back to the beginning of the zom-pocalypse and fills in some of the blanks. It’s a collection of short stories and novellas with new faces and old favourites, and it’s every bit as good as the others. Even though some of the stories pre-date the first books in the series, I would recommend finishing the series proper before reading Rise. Major spoilers otherwise. Furthermore I must furnish content warnings for a sizeable quantity of gore and violence, suicide, suggestions of sexual assault, and violence involving children. Despite all of that, Newsflesh remains my all time favourite zompocalypse series and possibly one of my favourite science fiction books. I also can’t finish a review without commenting about Grant’s emphasis on inclusivity. She has multiple characters from diverse racial backgrounds and from along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. And it’s never a “thing,” it just is. She mentions it the way she mentions this person writes fiction, or is a whiz with electronics. A normal part of someone’s personality. I’m really looking forwards to when that attitude is the mainstream one. I’m also impatiently awaiting the movie adaptations of all of these books, so, Hollywood, get on it. No whitewashing or straightwashing, K?

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Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

SteppenwolfSteppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will say one thing about this book; there aren’t many authors who would combine a philosophical treatise on the soul of man and the nature of depression with a rave, then plunge it all into a drug-addled murder. (Spoiler alert. Sorry about that.) Steppenwolf was decades ahead of its time. Published in the 1920’s, it reads like something more suited to the 60’s or 70’s. That impressed me. Hesse delves deeply into the make up of a human soul, the needs that drive us; the urge to live lives bigger than ourselves, battle against impossible odds and either surge to glorious triumphs or be crushed beneath a merciless foe. Unfortunately all that gets really boring after the first couple chapters of it. And because Harry Haller’s life is devoid of the challenges he longs for, he struggles with depression and suicide throughout the text. At least, until he meets a beautiful young woman. Honestly, if Hesse hadn’t drilled into the narrative that Harry had been suffering from these feelings for the entirety of his adulthood, I would have dismissed this as a mid-life crisis, resolving when Harry finally starts making new friends and has a relationship with a woman the age his daughter would be, if he had had any children. Harry spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself. A lot. Then he kills someone. But it’s not a big deal! It was just a misunderstanding. His newfound friends forgive him. Honestly, unless you’re really in the mood to read pages of someone dancing around the edges of self-annihilation, coupled with pages on the multiplicity of souls inhabiting a person, and then cap it all off with a grim drug-induced psychotic break and a murder, I’d skip this one. Maybe see if there are Cliff’s notes? I bet Wikipedia has a great article that will tell you all about what Hesse was trying to say without you having to read him saying it.

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What the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti

What the Mouth WantsWhat the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A luscious, succulent memoir filled with sex and food that will have you craving fresh pasta, grieving lost loves, and probably wishing you were Italian. Meneghetti shares her memories, her family history, and some of her favourite recipes in this complex and layered piece. The layout reminded me of Like Water for Chocolate; most chapters were molded around a specific recipe or ingredient. Both books have abusive parents. In Like Water for Chocolate it is the matriarch, but in What the Mouth Wants the father is the toxic one. Meneghetti struggles against his restrictions. His hostility and judgement whenever she bypasses conventional social norms. She also touches on learning to accept her identity as a queer woman. Growing up in a small town in the era before gay marriage was legalized adds another layer of difficulty to the process of self-discovery we all do as we age, and Meneghetti traces her revelations bravely here. Her writing drifts gently between straightforward recounting and more poetic, almost dream-like sequences. She muses on the nature of memory and recollection the same way she muses on the qualities of the perfect risotto. It’s all very delicate. Almost baroque. If you’re in the mood for something rich and complex, this could be the book for you.

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The Day the Sky Fell: The Yellow Hoods, Book #5 by Adam Dreece

The Day the Sky Fell (The Yellow Hoods, #5)The Day the Sky Fell by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is it. The last of the series. Do Tee and her brave friends triumph against the Lady in Red, the Piemans, the Fare, and all the other foes arrayed against them? Can a group of teenagers best experts in intrigue?
Of course I’m not going to tell you. Read the book and find out. The Day the Sky Fell had the fastest plot of the whole pentalogy, I really couldn’t put it down. I still wanted a flowchart for all the character relationships, but at least there weren’t any new ones added. Again, some violence and bloodshed, but little else. Dreece has even revealed one of the characters is gay, in the sort of offhand scene that makes me dream of one day having a society where homosexuality isn’t a big deal. It just is. I’m happy to see that Dreece agrees with me, and put his beliefs where his mouth is. Or rather, where his writing utensil is.
Despite Dreece closing The Yellow Hoods with this book, not all the loose ends are tied up. A few of the antagonists could certainly stage a comeback some years down the road, and Dreece mentions possibly starting a second series around a more mature Tee and her friends. I wouldn’t say no to that. It’s been a good run.

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Beauties of the Beast: The Yellow Hoods Book #4 by Adam Dreece

Beauties of the Beast (The Yellow Hoods, #4)Beauties of the Beast by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe you thought there weren’t going to be new characters in the penultimate book. Maybe you thought you could stop updating your cast flow chart. Finally laminate it and put it up on the wall to use as a reference. Well put that frame back in the box. Dreece put in more people. Never fear, the delightful Tee, Elly, and Richy are still with us. As are many of the old favourites from previous installments. Plus all the backstabbing, plotting, and double-dealing we’ve come to expect from Dreece’s writing. But wait, there’s more! Airship battles! More explosions! Rocket packs! Here I thought shock sticks and mechanical horses were enough excitement. Dreece disagreed, and we all benefit. Something he didn’t add more of was bloodshed. The level of violence has been pretty consistent since it was upped in the second book, and there isn’t much else to warn for. This is a really decent series, and I’m looking forwards to seeing how everything gets tied together in The Day the Sky Fell. Stay tuned!

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All the King’s-Men: The Yellow Hoods Book #3 by Adam Dreece

All the King's-Men (The Yellow Hoods, #3)All the King’s-Men by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just when you thought you knew all the characters. Dreece keeps stuffing them in, with more betrayals and flashbacks than you could shake a shock-stick at. If your memory is anything like mine, it isn’t the gripping plot alone that keeps you from putting these books down. It’s the fear that when you pick it up the next day you won’t remember who is on what side anymore. Tee, Elly, Richy, and Nikolas Klaus haven’t left us, nor have the Cochon brothers from Along Came a Wolf, but the leaders of the Tub and the Fare join the Pieman family in seeing just how many people can fit into a 340 page steampunk romp. (Answer: about 30). I wonder if Dreece reads much Russian literature? Tolstoy would be proud.

It seems that Dreece uses All the King’s-Men to start tying the history of Eorth with its present political climate, as he brings the series to its climax. Tee and the Yellow Hoods are joined on their flight through the wilderness by new friends and questionable leaders as they flee the agents of the Fare and other rogue factions bent on toppling the government and taking over the world. Again, some bloodshed, gunshots, and deaths. Suggestions of child abuse and mentions of kidnapping, but written from the perspective of the (safe) survivor which takes out much of the sting. An even mix of female and male characters. With an even mix of strong and weak traits. Take a spy novel, add teenagers, set it in the medieval era and then hose everything down with a good spray of steampunk and you’d have yourself The Yellow Hoods series. It’s good stuff.

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Breadcrumb Trail: The Yellow Hoods Book #2 by Adam Dreece

Breadcrumb Trail (The Yellow Hoods, #2)Breadcrumb Trail by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is where things start to really pick up. Tee, Elly, and Richy are joined by a steadily increasing number of characters as Dreece weaves several parallel plot lines; chapters on missing children in the previously peaceful town of Mineau tag team with secret societies plotting to steal steam engine plans in a universe where inventing has been outlawed. If you had a tough time putting down Along Came a Wolf, clear your calendar when you start Breadcrumb Trail. You can put it down if you really have to, but there aren’t exactly breathers built into the plot. It’ll be a struggle. This was also the book with the strongest fairy tale influences, thanks to the plot line with the disturbing “Ginger Lady.” The fairy tale influences in the first book seemed to revolve around names and titles rather than having those old stories come to life, or be rewritten in a novel way. Compared to the first book, this one has more violence. Actual bloodshed, gun shots, deaths. No racism or sexism. Child abuse and kidnapping are present in this installment, however. Only hinted at, but they are there. Having finished the series, I can say they are mentioned again later in the series, but only in passing in two other books. Dreece writes a good story without resorting to sensationalism, and his non-stop plots make for a quick read.

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Along Came a Wolf: The Yellow Hoods, Book #1 by Adam Dreece

Along Came a Wolf (The Yellow Hoods, #1)Along Came a Wolf by Adam Dreece
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With Along Came a Wolf Dreece launches a steampunk-fairy tale young adult fantasy series with ample excitement, danger, and plot twists to keep you engaged until the last page of book five. We follow the spunky Tee, Elly, and Richy as a visit from a mysterious messenger to Tee’s grandfather plunges the four of them into a world of intrigue and danger. The action barely pauses until the last page. The characters are pretty well fleshed out and a good balance of gumption and terror. There isn’t a single thing for me to offer a content warning about. Very little violence, no sexism, no racism, nothing. Only the editing could have been better. There are some sentences that could have been more polished, and a few times where Dreece used the same word in two adjacent lines, which is kind of a pet peeve of mine. However, I will say that I started book two Breadcrumb Trail immediately upon finishing Along Came a Wolf and the editing has much improved, so if it bothers you push through it and the rest of this page-turner of a series will be your reward.

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes it seems like all of my book reviews start off this way, but The Left Hand of Darkness was not what I was expecting. It begins with political intrigue swirling around a clueless ambassador, and slugglishly morphs into a polar expedition that would make Shackleton proud. Emphasis on slugglishly. I didn’t get really drawn in to the plot until after the first 100 pages. This edition is only 300 pages long. That’s a lot of slogging for not a lot of payoff. Even if this book is practically legendary now. The world of Gethen and its nuanced cultures, religions, and governments certainly merits praise. Though I wish things were more fleshed out. There’s a lot of vocabulary to puzzle through and not quite enough contextual clues to easily unpuzzle it. I’d speculate that what really made this story famous are the Gethenians themselves. This is the first story I’ve ever read where the characters are ambi-sexual. It’s fascinatingly done. Like human women, the Gethenians have a monthly hormonal/sexual/reproductive cycle. Unlike humans, during the reproductive portion of each cycle a Gethenian may become either male or female. And perhaps the opposite during the next cycle. One may father children, then mother children. There are no rigid sexual roles. They may vow fidelity or not, as they please, and neither choice is praised or denigrated. For a book published in the 1960s, The Left Hand of Darkness is ground breaking. With so much flexibility in genders, it’s a little difficult to determine if this book passes the Bechdel test. Anyone not actively female is referred to as “he.” There are no homosexual relationships. There’s mentions of incest, but only from the perspective of equal consenting adults. Minimal violence. Almost no gore. As befits a tale of political intrigue, Le Guin has written in forcible confinement and drugging too. It’s quite the package, and if the beginning hadn’t been so boring I would have given this book five stars. Should you be bored and bookless one day, consider The Left Hand of Darkness.

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Feedback: Newsflesh #4 by Mira Grant

Feedback (Newsflesh, #4)Feedback by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grant has done it again. Her Newsflesh series is set in the near future United States, after two man-made cures for unrelated diseases unexpectedly combine and mutate, infecting the world’s population with a virus that causes the body to reanimate after death. The story is told through online bloggers, who have risen to become the dominant journalistic force in the new world. Feedback follows Ben Ross, Aislinn North, Audrey Liqiu Wen, and Mat Newson as they battle the sinister plans of sinister forces. The first three books in the series are told by Shaun and Georgia Mason, and Buffy Meissonier. This one takes you back to the plot of Feed, but has our new quartet following the opposing political candidate for the election. It’s a page turner. I had to force myself to put the book down or I would have finished it in a day. Who needs sleep when there are zombies to out run? Or kill. With that in mind, violence and bloodshed are a regular feature of this book. Guns abound. Suicide makes an appearance, as does a cult. I was not expecting there to be a cult.

Aside from changing the main characters, Grant also introduces her first gender-neutral character! Mat Newson runs a fashion blog for the team, disassembles everything they can touch, and prefers gender-neutral pronouns. I adore Grant’s cast stuffed with a range of LGBTQ people, and am delighted that she’s expanding it for her new series. And don’t get me wrong, even though Feedback looks bigger than any of the previous books, it almost has to be the beginning of a new installment. Grant ties her loose ends up very nicely in the other books, and Feedback doesn’t quite reach the same level. So it’s got to be the first offering in a new mini-series within the Newsflesh universe. Or I will be one disappointed reader.

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