Book Review: House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

I enjoyed The Year of The Witching on audio book, which I listened to after finding out about Alexis Henderson’s newest release, but I liked House of Hunger even better, although it had its issues.

I liked the main character, Marion Shaw, and found her plight of abusive brother and abusive workplace to seek a better life compelling, if derivative. Scrappy Marion doing whatever it takes to survive intrigued me. The universe Henderson created as a backdrop was also interesting, the democratic South with lots of poverty and income inequality versus the aristocratic North with its royal houses and debauchery. Marion answers an advertisement in the paper for a bloodmaid, which the south views as nothing more than whores but in the North are held with a creepy reverence. Marion, used to servanthood, views the role as a highly paid servant and jumps at the chance to leave Prane behind. I thought she should have questioned a lot of things more at the beginning; for a seasoned street thief she seems entirely too trusting and naive.

It turns out the source of the power of the North is blood in this fresh take on vampirism, where Northerners are human but not quite human with a hunger for blood. Marion is thrust into the world of bored Northerners with their lavish sex parties and becomes besotted with the Countess she is contracted to, the mysterious Lisavet with an odd blood disorder.

I felt the middle of the book really dragged, and Marion went from curiosity to obsession in too much of a lightswitch. It got bogged down in petty noble games and female infighting between the bloodmaids. Had the standard problem of the saggy middle where the author seems to have just lost the train of ideas. But the ending really picked up. I’ve read enough books classified as gothic horror that just weren’t scary, or the horrors in the book were just horrible things and there was no sense of dread or suspense. By the time the pace picks up, the dark twist on the romance between Lisavet and Marion and the whole bloodmaid operation is properly scary.

I also was confused about what properties blood had that made it so special to Northerners. It felt like more of a fetish to me than anything that had truly special powers. The blood didn’t seem to give them any power or have any magical properties. The reason for taking the blood was never properly explained other than some random folk tale legend that didn’t really make much sense.

Other than that I enjoyed this book, despite its predictability and familiar tropes. If you love sapphic gothic you’ll be entertained.

NaNoWriMo Week Three Progress Report

Image from Pixabay

Truth is, I don’t feel like I really did make much progress over the last week, but I don’t want you to think I have given up like past years, so here I am, faithfully checking in.

I skipped four days because I was so exhausted. Haven’t been sleeping well and felt like I’d be forcing creativity if I made myself sit down and write. It’s always a balancing act between forcing yourself and making yourself do something instead of coming up with excuses, I think. But one day passed into the next until it was four days.

However, I have since caught up over the weekend, and now I’ve hit 20,387 words, so I’m happy with that. Slow progress is still progress, and there is hope even if you have not made huge gains like others. I usually give up after 20,000 words, thinking my first draft isn’t worth pursuing, I lose interest in my characters and I think I can’t possibly add enough conflict. 20,000 words is my usual wall. But this time I am determined to stick with this till the end.

That to me will be a win for me, because in past years, I’ve given up by now, seeing how far along everyone else got and how I’ll never catch up. I will be plugging away every day until November 30 and I’ll feel accomplished.

So my next goal is to make it past 25,000 words this week. I have a four-day weekend for the American Thanksgiving holiday coming up, and no big plans other than a small dinner with my partner, so I should have plenty of time to catch up, or keep going. All I care about right now is not quitting. I can do this! And you can do it, too, if you are sticking with it and also behind like me.

Book Review: Sweetland by Dareth Pray

I’ve had such a spotty track record with indie novels this year, hit or miss and generally veering on the miss, that when I run across the gems I have to leave a review. I really enjoyed “Sweetland” by Dareth Pray, a gripping thriller about a CIA operative going deep undercover in a domestic terrorism plot.

I loved the author’s character development. Erin Stark was as promised, a badass spy woman from beginning to end. I liked the very plausible take of a highly organized crew of redneck militiamen and fringe far right groups annexing Tennessee and engaging in sex trafficking, infiltrating local sheriff’s offices and the far reaches of government along the way. It spoke to the times and a threat I think isn’t taken seriously enough. Though in the real life scenario I am not sure the government would have the means to fight back, but that’s the pessimist in me.

I could tell that the author had done her research or had some intelligence training and experience because the descriptions of intelligence work rang with authenticity, although the pacing got somewhat bogged down by granular detail on operational methods. I also enjoyed the use of present tense that put the reader into a more immediate sense of place with the action. In some of the present tense sections, however, there was some distracting tense switching inconsistencies that could have been better edited, but largely the author’s copy was well edited.

Overall, this was a fun, fast-paced ride. I usually expect glamorous international missions from spy thrillers and enjoyed instead the fresh take on a homegrown mission in the heartland. This author is definitely one to watch.

NaNoWriMo Week Two Progress Report

Image from Pixabay

Commencing Week Two of National Novel Writing Month. I am still feeling good about my project but this is usually the time I give up on my WIPs. I see how much further along everybody is in their manuscripts and I give into the pressure. I’ll never catch up so why bother? But since I started off slow with 500-1,000 a day word counts, and I didn’t anticipate I’d actually make the 50,000 words, I am giving myself grace and using those power word counts from the community as motivation instead. I need it to light a fire under my belly to keep going and push through.

I have failed in my goal to write every day, however, but that is okay. I skipped the 14th, when I was exhausted after going out of town to visit friends. I also skipped the 10th. But because I know I’m playing catch-up I am using that as fuel to stay consistent with my daily writing sessions since then. Sometimes you need to make yourself sit down and write even when you’re tired, like making yourself go to the gym when you really don’t feel like it; other times it is better to rest, instead of to force creativity.

However, right now it feels like I’m endlessly playing catch up. But I am really proud of my progress so far.

I am currently at 17,299 words in my psychological thriller, and I have ramped up my daily word count sessions from 500 words a day to 1k-2k words a day. My goal is to exceed 25,000 by the end of this week. I feel like the momentum is lagging in this part of the plot and I need to raise the stakes and increase the external conflict and action, so I am planning on taking some notes to inspire me to push through the rest of the next milestone. I usually don’t outline much, I just daydream my way through; but I don’t want to write a bunch of muddled, boring chapters just for the sake of a word count that I will have to cut later. The word count isn’t as important as whether the words are good, and if the words are good it will motivate me to keep going.

That said, I am not getting bogged down by editing as I go. For me, as I am a perfectionist, that is a sure way to get mired in an endless loop of perfectionism. For instance, I realized a different POV served my story better; I switched to writing it in first person present tense. The first 10,000 words are all in third person limited, but that is too much work to change that as I go. I will never get anywhere in the plot.

The challenge now is since it’s a psychological thriller, I feel it needs to take place in a confined area. In this instance, it’s a haunted ryokan. So I am taking notes and daydreaming, visualizing my story as a movie, to try to increase the conflict even in a tight physical space.

But overall I am feeling good about my project. I am not giving up. I just need to be consistent and write every day because it’s fun and I need to know what happens next. If I am in suspense, the reader will find it unpredictable, too. This is part of what I find joyful about discovery writing, without a detailed plan to guide you. It is a more visceral, nerve-wracking way to write, and it’s what I need to keep myself interested in the story. It doesn’t have to be perfect; the magic happens in the editing. I just need to get the bones down.

Hope your Nano projects are going well. If you’re flagging, maybe it is time to re-evaluate your goals or your plot. Hang in there writers!

Book Review: The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

It’s going to be hard for me to review this book without spoilers because the plot is a convoluted one with lots of twists and turns that you just have to read to enjoy, but I will try. “The Death of Jane Lawrence” by Caitlin Starling at first seems like it will be your typical Gothic novel full of tropes. I have very mixed feelings about it in the end for spoilery reasons. It’s got the spooky old house in the provincial countryside; it’s got a handsome, mysterious doctor with a woman locked in a cellar, reminiscent of Jane Eyre; it’s got a feisty heroine who thinks she knows what she wants and defies societal expectations.

But it’s different in that it is a dark-mirror alternate universe version of England in which after a war with this universe’s version of Russia, religion of all kinds basically becomes obsolete, even though people still practice the old religions of magic and witchcraft in secret. Jane is an orphan, raised by guardians, who doesn’t want to return to Camhurst, the scene of a pitched battle that brings up ugly memories. So she contrives a plan to marry the single doctor in town, Augustine Lawrence, a business arrangement, who turns out far more charming than she expected. He only has one rule – that she not return to Lindridge Hall at night.

Best-laid intentions go awry and she discovers the reasons for his secrets. At night at the crumbling old mansion, designed by magicians, the practical doctor is haunted by visions and supposed ghosts.

It is there that the plot takes a turn into the unique. Jane is a bookkeeper and a mathematician with a head for numbers; I thought it was interesting how she started thinking of magic spells like mathematical proofs. The universe that Starling created was fascinating and unique. The twist behind the ghosts-but-not-ghosts also surprised me and was quite inventive.

My mixed feelings come in because I found the prose annoyingly overwrought and emotional, which granted is a genre trope, but I don’t care for that writing style and voice. And Jane is painted as a practical woman with nerves of steel during her first bloody surgical operation, and then she falls to hysterics when she thinks the house might be haunted by the doctor’s dead wife; even her approach to magic is frantic, manic and not that of a sensible, practical person. I would have thought she would have been skeptical until pushed to believe otherwise but we were expected to believe that her character changed on the turn of a dime. As a result I didn’t care for the main character and I found her inconsistent and unreliable, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I found the characters poorly written.

However, the storytelling is excellent and the universe behind the story is richly imagined. A nice addition overall to the staid gothic canon currently on tap.

Book Review: The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

I fully admit this is one of those books that I splurged on the hardback edition because the cover is so beautiful. More than that, I’m also endlessly fascinated by Slavic and Russian folklore and history, and the tale of Baba Yaga. This is “The Witch and the Tsar” by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, a very prescient historical fantasy by an ethnic Russian American author and lawyer.

I really enjoyed this one, mostly how the author was able to deftly weave the stories of the old pagan religion of Russia in with myths of witches and magic and the encroachment of the Orthodox Christian Church. This is told as the real story of Yaga, a half-goddess, half-mortal vedma, or witch, who prefers to think of herself as a healer who communes with animals, and her connection with Anastasia, the tsarina and wife of the tsar who would become Ivan the Terrible. But Ivan the Terrible is manipulated not by court politics but by forces older than any of the new Russia can possibly understand.

Even though this was fiction, I found it endlessly fascinating how even in the 1500s, Russia’s history was dark, dystopian and dominated by bloodthirsty autocrats, carrying echoes of today. I liked how the author described Yaga’s magic; she described the old gods in a unique, non-tropey way, as if they are only real if you believe in them, and the belief and the memory of the people is fading. I liked how this was a woman-led fantasy in which the women were the ones in the story who really had the power and influence behind the scenes, while wrestling with their own demons.

I did not like how some of the narrative felt like a forced sequential rush of events instead of being present and immersed in Yaga’s world. It felt a bit like the author was stampeding to get from one phase of her life to the next, but there were some wonderful descriptions of gods and a conflicted love for Russia and the old ways that kept me riveted till the end.

NaNoWriMo Week One Progress Report

Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay 

I’ve decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month this November, despite my utterly failed previous attempts in other years. I always think this will be the year and cave under the pressure. I finished my werewolf book in a very Nano-like manner, though, writing in chunks nearly every day, so I know I have the capability of doing it.

I am working on a sapphic romantic psychological thriller set in Tokyo, Japan, among expats and the yakuza; writing women this time is an interesting departure, but the world needs more sapphic stories. I decided to do an alternative NaNoWriMo and not stress about word counts; only try to write every day. I am aiming for 40,000 words instead of 50,000.

Normally I end up posting to Twitter and that’s that, but with the implosion of that platform recently I’ve taken a break from tweeting, so I’m only updating Instagram and the NaNoWriMo website. I miss some of the community that way, but it’s also much less distracting.

The first week has been slow going. I thought I’d try something different and plot this one out, but every time I tried to prepare a plot in October I became frozen and couldn’t even jot down simple scene summaries in the various outlining methods I’ve experimented with. So I decided to return to my pantsing ways. Writing by the seat of my pants. I am not editing as I go this time though because I found I just cut a lot of that in revisions anyway, so hopefully I will save time by just pounding it all out in one big fever dream. My goal is continuously think of the action and increased conflict in the next few scenes. My weakness in pantsing has always been that I can write well, my prose and my characters are strong, but my storytelling isn’t as good.

So because I was taking a wild plunge into my story, starting out was like molasses. 500, 600 words here and there. I didn’t write yesterday at all because I couldn’t force myself to the keyboard and I don’t like to force writing sessions. And I had intended my weekend to be my big catch-up time.

Thus Sunday was the day I had left. Today I managed 3,662 words, bringing my total word count up to 6,679. I feel a renewed vigor and interest in my story. I feel like I finally hit upon the hook and why this story matters for me, and I find myself daydreaming the next scenes and sensing the same pull to the pages that enabled me to finish my other book in five months of drafting.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings, but I am fired up about this project now and anticipate pouring out more than 500 words with tomorrow’s session.

Book Review: Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control is a gorgeous novella of impeccable worldbuilding. In a future Ghana in which people are glued to their phones, robocops patrol streets, and autonomous vehicles mingle with foot traffic, a mysterious corporation called LifeGen controls technology behind the scenes. A young girl the people call the Adopted Angel of Death, also known as Sankofa, has the power to end life and destroy any technology she touches after a strange alien artifact lands on Earth near the girl’s beloved shea tree on her family’s farm.

Loved everything about this book. Okorafor painted Sankofa as a complex character, doomed to wander from town to town with nothing but her pride, making connections and only to ruin them in the most devastating ways. She’s shown brilliantly as a child with experience beyond her years, and yet still a child whose closest companion is a fox, who climbs trees and talks to cats, who is asked to wear a hijab because of the awful things she has seen and done.

The worldbuilding in such a short space was stunning. Sankofa is an anachronism in a highly technical world, and you get the idea that there is much more going on than meets the eye; but it still feels as if a novella length is enough to tell the story. Okorafor’s world is rich in imagination, detail and folklore, layers of ancient and modern tradition, and thrumming with the incredible speed at which a community can turn into a violent mob when faced with something that does not belong in their world but cannot be stopped.  

Book Review: The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi

I’m back to doing book reviews on my blog! Took a long hiatus due to burnout, but I am taking a different approach with them. Here’s the most recent book I finished.

This book had me at epic fantasy with roots in Ghanian and Arabian folklore, and a sapphic enemies-to-lovers romance.

“The Final Strife” by Saara El-Arifi is Book 1 in a trilogy that centers on the main character Sylah. In this repressive empire on this dystopian world, people are divided into castes based on their blood. Embers, who have red blood, have the most power because they can do bloodwerk magic; using their blood to activate rune patterns. Dusters are second-class citizens and Ghostings are slaves who once rebelled against the ruling class and have been punished for centuries by their overseers dismembering their tongues and hands.

Sylah is one of the Stolen, Ember children kidnapped from their families, raised from infancy to compete in trials to choose new leaders; sleeper agents who will overthrow the government from the inside. But her people are killed and Sylah becomes a drug addict, hopeless and alone. Until she meets Anoor, the Duster raised in her place who needs help with training to compete in the trials.

The “revenge against the colonizer” trope has become so commonplace in fantasy now that frankly, I’m tired of it. There’s always some Chosen One who’s going to overthrow an evil empire. But I loved this book because the characters were complex and it didn’t go the way I expected. Loved the slow-burn romance and that Sylah’s bisexual. I also appreciated the way the author handled her drug addiction; it was sensitive without being trite.

Will definitely be reading more in this series.