The Hollow Girl – Hillary Monahan

Hillary Monahan, who is part-Romani and a sexual assault survivor, explores both topics in this wrenching but flawed novel. I really wanted to like it more than I did, but though I devoured it, I couldn’t give it more than three stars.

Bethan is a Welsh Romani girl who has been raised by a woman whom she believes to be unrelated to her. Her guardian is a witch in a world where magic is rare but real, and she wants Bethan to follow in her footsteps. Bethan is more concerned about dealing with her harasser, Silas, whose father is a leader who won’t accept that his son could do wrong. She’s also enjoying a budding friendship (or maybe something more) with diddicoy (part-Romani) farmboy Martyn, who is curious about her culture and helps her out at the market.

Things go seriously wrong when Silas attacks Martyn and Bethan, raping her and nearly killing her friend. Bethan turns to her grandmother’s arts to engage in a gruesome ritual to save Martyn and avenge herself on Silas and his accomplices. She deals with dissociation after the attack, and also has to consider whether or not she wants to continue along the path her grandmother set her on.

The ethics of the book are downright weird, with outright slavery in the form of a magical bond being condoned. The prose is also not at the level I hoped it would be. The setting is vague in terms of time–it seems to be in the past, but there aren’t a lot of clues as to when. Nevertheless, the characters sometimes use very modern language when discussing racism and other topics. And the grandmother character’s backstory somewhat unbalanced the book–I felt like it should have taken up either less space or more.

That said, it’s an interesting and readable book. Monahan brings her personal knowledge and experience to bear on two very important topics, and reading the book was certainly educational for me. But I feel like it had a lot of unrealized potential in terms of the writing.

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Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

I’m not an automatic fan of everything John Green writes- I loved Looking for Alaska but couldn’t get into An Abundance of Katherines and never read The Fault in Our Stars. However, he is immensely talented, as this book reminded me. It’s the single best portrait of OCD I’ve ever read, probably in part because he himself suffers from this illness, as I do. #ownvoices stories can be found in the most unlikely places, and a white male superstar of YA lit has written a raw, intense novel about mental illness that I hope is not dismissed by those who are sick of his fame or think he’s overrated due to his privilege. These are valid complaints, but Turtles All the Way Down does not stop being an important book because of them.

I related to so many little details, even though main character Aza has a very different form of OCD from mine. Green gets the shame, fear, evasions, and irrationality all down on paper–the fear of getting triggered in a romantic moment, the desire not to go through with effective but painful Exposure-Response Prevention therapy, the way these bad patches reccur throughout life, the self-centeredness that happens when you literally can’t get out of your own head. If I had to recommend one book to people who don’t have this illness to understand it, it would be this one.

One thing I didn’t like was that while fandom played a part in the story, it was treated satirically (Aza’s best friend is a Rey/Chewbacca shipper ffs). Satire is fine but it meshed uneasily with the otherwise realistic portrayal of Aza’s relationship with her best friend, tested by class, mental illness, self-absorption, and other barriers. I also thought that it would be interesting to read a story about a character like Aza’s friend, who is poor, dealing with mental health issues without resources, but that would be another story entirely. It’s not just middle-class people who suffer from this illness.

However, these quibbles didn’t stop me from absolutely loving the book. In addition to the OCD parts, Green captures the importance of transient relationships. Just because a romance doesn’t last doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a positive effect overall. He also discusses an interesting problem, that of virtual vs in person romance, without dismissing one or the other.

I could ramble on further but basically: Go read it. Now.

The Convenient Marriage – Georgette Heyer

This is an entertaining early romance by Heyer, and some of the plot construction issues hadn’t been smoothed out yet, but the delightful characters make up for it. To get my plot beef out of the way, it is pointless to have the humorous/suspenseful misdirection occur after the climax rather than on the way to it. Yes, the characters don’t know that the situation has been resolved, but the reader does, and this undercuts both the suspense and (as the misdirection becomes annoying/lengthy) the humor. Also the main character is somewhat dropped in the second half and not as involved in the resolution as I’d like.

Despite this structural failing, this was a wonderful read. In a time when news of rape and other sexual misdeeds is everywhere, I enjoyed reading about the diminutive, stammering, and generally heedless Horry getting the better of a would-be rapist by hitting him over the head with a poker. Yes, the plot has a very 30’s attitude toward gender, and the characters are from an even less enlightened time (a sympathetic character suggests Horry’s husband beat her–Heyer doesn’t try to make her heroes and heroines better than their age). There’s also a bit of casual anti-Semitism–not as bad as the later The Grand Sophy, but still not good.

If you can deal with these flaws, you will be rewarded with a madcap tale of fake highwaymen, masked balls, mistaken identity, gambling and, of course, falling in love where it’s least expected–between two people who are already married! Heyer is great at writing disturbingly sexy villains, competent heroes, non-passive heroines, and hilarious side characters. The drunken antics of Horry’s brother and his friends had me in stitches. She’s also good at portraying three-dimensional portraits of people whose flaws genuinely hurt others, yet who have great virtues. You’ll want to punch and applaud the same person.

It’s not as well put-together structurally as some of her other novels such as Faro’s Daughter, but it packs in tons of entertainment. Even if you don’t read romance (I usually prefer other genres), Heyer’s books are accessible, funny, and generally worth a try.

announcing TOXIC BLOOM, a fantasy novella

I’ve just contracted with Falstaff Books to do a novella for their series Tales of the Broken Cities, edited by Jaym Gates.

My novella will be called Toxic Bloom, and follow two idealistic politicians forced to grapple with a killer algae crisis when smuggling across the multiverse brings in an invasive species. But they find themselves increasingly at odds as to how to deal with the toxic mess that threatens to destroy their island world.

I’ll be writing it over the next few months!

STAR WARS Rogue One: Cassian & K2SO Annual #1- Duane Swierczynski and Fernando Blanco

I’m not usually interested in Star Wars novels and comics, though I love the films. Lately, that’s been changing. Elizabeth Wein is writing Cobalt Squadron, taking her pilot-centric stories to a galaxy far, far away. Claudia Gray, a solid and creative if unspectacular writer, gave us the story of how Leia joined the Rebellion. And both authors contributed to the anthology From a Certain Point of View.

More relevant to this post, Alexander Freed did a fantastic job with the Rogue Onenovelization, bringing additional depth to the characters. I’d particularly latched on to Cassian Andor, the rebel spy who’s seen (and done) too much, and loved getting his point of view in Freed’s version. Cassian works with snarky, tactless droid K2SO, who provided most of the movie’s humor. In the novelization, there’s a neat bit of backstory where K2SO offers to have his memory wiped when he stumbles on Cassian holding a blaster and crying. I was excited that they got their own comic, even though it wasn’t going to cover that incident, but rather their first meeting.

Reader, I should have stuck with fanfic.

The comic is occasionally funny but mostly dull. It’s missing a real antagonist–there’s K2SO, whom we already know will end up on Cassian’s side eventually, and there are some faceless storm troopers. One of the strengths of Star Wars has always been its great villains, but none of them put in an appearance.

Nor are there many supporting characters. The two agents under Cassian’s command who sacrifice themselves towards the end are seriously underdeveloped. They communicate with each other by scent, a neat gimmick that however undercuts the story, as they have hardly any dialogue. I couldn’t even think of a single difference between the two, or a defining trait of either.

Cassian himself doesn’t get much development either, and K2SO’s, though entertaining, is predictable–he gets reprogrammed. No one learns, no one grows, all the choices are simple. For comic whose main character’s appeal is partly in his dark backstory and willingness to do morally gray things for a righteous cause, this was disappointing.

Finally, the adventure aspect–the thrilling peril and last minute escapes–was completely perfunctory. There’s a secret place, they break into it, the alarm goes off, they fight their way out and take off just in time. The end. That’s the bare bones of a story, not a story itself.

All in all, I was not happy.

Five October Releases I Can’t Wait For!

Fall is here, bringing with it Halloween, pumpkin spice, and some of this year’s most highly anticipated book releases! From the new Philip Pullman novel in the world of His Dark Materials to the 40th anniversary Star Wars anthology to the latest YA from John Green, October is going to be a busy month for publishing.

This list includes both those eagerly-awaited titles and ones that are less well known, but no less exciting!

51wsvwg-otl-_sx331_bo1204203200_1. A Skinful of Shadows – Frances Hardinge

Having heard great things about The Lie Tree and Fly By Night, I’ve been keeping an eye on Hardinge’s releases, waiting for the one that will really grab me. This English Civil War fantasy, featuring a girl on the run from scheming relatives and ghostly possession across war-torn 17th century England, may just be it!

Out October 17th.

51yjlk890rl-_sx329_bo1204203200_2. Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I have OCD. I didn’t know that children’s books megastar John Green, author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, suffered from the same condition. Now he’s drawing on that experience for the story of Aza, who is “living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts”–but it’s also got a reclusive billionaire and Star Wars fanfiction.

Out October 10th.

from-a-certain-point-of-view-cover3. From a Certain Point of View
Elizabeth Wein and many, many others

Speaking of Star Wars fic, this collection of forty stories set during A New Hope–each from a different character’s perspective–celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the classic space adventure. I’m especially looking forward to the short story by Elizabeth Wein (of Code Name Verity fame–I’ve reviewed her The Pearl Thief and The Winter Prince here and here). It looks like will be written from the perspective of one of Leia’s captors, but I don’t know anything more.

Out October 3rd.

51agvobnv1l-_sx328_bo1204203200_4. The Stone in the Skull – Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is another favorite writer of mine, and she returns from a year-long sabbatical with The Stone in the Skull, set in the India analogue of her Eternal Sky universe (I reviewed Shattered Pillars from the previous Eternal Sky trilogy here). In addition to the setting and author, this book also has its characters going for it, particularly the Dead Man, a bodyguard whose charge has died. Here’s an excerpt, in which the Dead Man gives some (possibly hypocritical) advice:
Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 10.08.29 PM.png

Out October 10th.

61f7blrxqil-_sy344_bo1204203200_5. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman

And finally, the long-awaited “equel” to Pullman’s bestselling trilogy–The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Taking place when protagonist Lyra was only a baby, this start to a new trilogy will deal with the massive flood referenced in the other books. Hopefully the time period means we’ll see more of Lyra’s parents, a magnetic and ruthless couple with a love-hate relationship.

Out October 19th.