I was drawn in by the drop-dead gorgeous cover art and the rest of the book did not disappoint. “The Vain,” published by Oni Press, is a wonderful noir thriller about a gang of vampires and the FBI agent who spends a lifetime chasing ghosts.
The gang calls themselves “The Vain,” a crew of incredibly stylish, of course, vampires whom we first meet in a bank robbery in Chicago in 1941. But it’s not just any bank – it’s a blood bank. FBI Agent Felix Franklin, a fresh recruit desperate to prove himself, thinks this is his big break. The coincidences are too many to overlook.
Through the years, the gang of four works undercover for the FBI in the fight against the Nazis, surfaces again in Communist Cuba, and turns into a cult of spiritualists in the 60s cheating drug addicts out of their blood with promises of an endless life without pain. They steal blood, lay low for awhile, and manage another heist. A beautiful vampire called Lost is their ringleader.
From his first run-in with them, Felix becomes obsessed. But of course, no one believes him. He loses his family, he’s institutionalized, he’s reinstated again at the FBI, but he becomes a laughingstock. That part is something that’s often missing from vampire stories; what happens to the people who see them, in a world that thinks they are a fairy tale?
I am not usually a vampire fan; I am not an easy sell for these kinds of stories. You have to bring something original and different in order to entice me. I enjoyed the historical arc of the narrative, the focus on the 1940s. The art was vivid, realistic and quite wonderful throughout the book. The storyline was fun and fast-paced. The Vain became sympathetic villains, in the end, and I wanted this story to be a series instead of just a five-issue book. This was Bonnie and Clyde if Bonnie and Clyde were a badass, hot lesbian vampire couple robbing blood banks throughout history.
I also appreciated the foil with Felix, a do-gooder type driven to the brink of madness in his hunt for revenge.
All in all, a fun story, and a work of art. I will be keeping this one on my shelf for a long time.
A fast-paced buddy fantasy quest adventure; multidimensional female characters; and an intriguing species called the Maer that throws the traditional high-fantasy villain on its head. These were a few of the highlights that brought me to give “Hollow Road” by Dan Fitzgerald, published by Shadow Spark Publishing, high marks.
In Book One of the Maer Cycle, we meet Carl, a soldier who lands a well-paid job to bring a body back to Brocland, Carl’s hometown, for burial. It turns out that nobody’s heard from Brocland in ages, and they fear it is under siege by the Maer, a race of man-beasts that loom so large in legend and folklore that people think they are monsters, or at times, bedtime stories to scare children. Carl will need to make a perilous journey across Hollow Road to reach Brocland, and for that he enlists the help of two of his friends, also from Brocland – Finn, a student mage training at a monastery-like compound to become an adept, and Sinnie, a circus archer.
This ragtag crew embarks on their journey to Brocland, where they discover that the Maer are less monstrous than anyone could have imagined.
The story alternates points of view between Carl, Finn and Sinnie, and this was a strength of the writing style for me, helping us gain better insight into the relationships between these three as we switched between their perspectives of each other. It also meant there wasn’t as much chance for showing for the emotional states of each characters, but I was okay with that with this story because it’s meant to put the adventure arc front and center instead of the literary. The pace of the writing style moved along briskly and I enjoyed the author’s deft hand with rich descriptions of natural settings.
Moving onto characters, I really liked Sinnie; she resonated with me as my favorite character. Usually I cringe whenever I read a male indie author’s depictions of woman characters; I’ve read some cringey descriptions before, that tend to rely on emphasizing a woman’s sex appeal and physical appearance instead of her emotional complexity. Sinnie was a well-rounded character and I appreciated that. I also enjoyed how her strength was shown not just in her military prowess, but in how she interacted with the Maer when she changed her mind about them.
I wanted to know more about the magic system practiced by Finn; it was intriguing and I felt Book One only brushed the surface of it – I still have a few questions about its parameters, which I hope are answered in future books. I liked that it was based around meditation and a yoga-like practice.
As far as the Maer go, that was the most interesting part of this story to me. You would expect a buddy adventure quest story to end with the buddies victoriously slaying the enemy and celebrating their spoils. I won’t spoil anything, but this book ends up with more internal than external conflict in that regard. Can people change, after they’ve grown up taught to hate someone? This book explores that central premise. In the Maer, we discover a species very much like humans, with their own customs and even legal systems.
I’m intrigued enough to want to read more in the series. It was a fun book, just the thing for escapist adventure fantasy with deeper moral questions driving the story.
“Pirouette,” published by Black Mask Studios, LLC, is an understated little gem of a book about a girl named Pirouette and the two-faced clowns who raise her in a shabby old-timey circus. Clowns and circuses are fertile ground for fright, as well as beautiful art.
This was a lovely book, light on story and heavy on art. The art was done in very dark tones, with some simply gorgeous character work by artist Carlos Granda. This kind of horror is not the kind of in-your-face body horror with cheap scare tactics. In fact, most of the violence happens “off-screen,” as it were, leaving the darkest scenes to the reader’s imagination.
This is, instead, slow-burn psychological horror; I wasn’t exactly scared per se, but it did a good job of building a sinister whiff of desperation. Pirouette always thought she was abandoned at the circus as a baby and the circus life, with the abusive clowns who look after her, was her own personal hell that she’d be trapped in forever. Until one day, when the traveling circus arrives in the town of Lima, Ohio, a clown tells her a tale about her parents, and she goes on a wild goose chase, chasing after a strand of hope for some reason from clowns who have lied to her all her life.
But in a twist, Pirouette’s dreams of a better life, a comfortable suburban life with a family who cares for her, are a fragile veneer; she knows the circus life is hers, and she has to make it work for her in the end.
I liked this book because sometimes the scariest moments aren’t when the monsters attack you, but living with the monsters inside our head, instead. This is quiet horror, my favorite kind; a comforting kind of creep factor. This was an enjoyable little ride down the dark side of the circus.
I haven’t blogged in so long! I haven’t been writing much so I don’t have much to report on my writing process. I plan to change up my reviews to only review graphic novels and indie books on this blog, and quick recaps of all books on my Goodreads. I am trying to read more comics so get ready for more comic book reviews! Without further ado…
“Odessa,” written and drawn by Jonathan Hill, published by Oni Press, is a lovely book. An epic, but understated; a heartwarming family story, except in a dark, dystopian setting. Comic books are usually produced by teams and this is a remarkable achievement by just one writer/artist.
But, I almost DNF’ed it at first, so I am glad I stuck it through. This is not the kind of story that is packed with action and high stakes at the beginning. It is quite slow paced to start and then it is a slow burn mystery quest story as it unfolds. Eight years ago an earthquake, the Big One, hit the Cascadia fault line, wreaking disaster. Now America is a land pocked by bloodthirsty street gangs and strange new plants and animals, like jinx root, which heals injuries but also turns humans into cannibalistic creatures.
With the backdrop of this landscape comes Ginny and her family – her two bratty younger brothers, Wes and Harry, and their distant but loving father. They’ve lived without their mother for years, so Ginny becomes the mother figure for the boys, whether she likes it or not. But one day on her seventeenth birthday, a mysterious package arrives from her mother, and Ginny is consumed by an obsession that she is alive. Driven by this urge, she embarks on a journey across the hellscape of the dystopian frontier on an impossible journey to find her mother.
But Wes and Harry, unknown to her, tag along, and soon they are one family on a strange trip, full of adventure and bonding moments. This is book one of a series, and it certainly doesn’t end where you think it might, but I won’t give any spoilers.
The art is interesting, it’s done in a two-tone style with a predominantly pink theme. It’s charmingly simple. The storytelling is stronger than the art, but the art drives the story, too. I liked the pink element because it was symbolic of the heart of the story being a family tale, and it was a nice contrast to the dark, dystopian wasteland. Even as violent gangs kidnapped and murdered people, the pink tones were a soothing contrast and made the reader focus on the family story, instead.
All in all, this is a lovely book. It’s quite long, so get ready to dig in, but it’s worth the journey.
“A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine, last year’s Hugo winner, is well worth its regard. It is the first book of the Teixcalalaan series, a cyberpunk and space opera universe inspired by many cultures, including the Byzantines, the Romans and the Aztecs. The second book comes out in a few months. The book follows the appointment of a new Ambassador from Lsel Station, Mahit Dzmare, to the Teixcalaanli Empire. She carries an imago-machine in her head, a technology that enables Stationers like Mahit to store the memories and consciousness of others in their brains. They don’t exactly become two people, but rather they are their own person, with another’s skills and memories enhancing their own. This kind of biohacking is considered immoral by the Teixcalaani Empire, but it is used to preserve institutional memory on Lsel from one generation to the next with the likes of pilots and miners.
Mahit arrives in a particularly dangerous political situation in Teixcalaanli, when the emperor faces a succession crisis. Her predecessor, Yskander, was murdered, but he is hiding political secrets of his own. It is his imago-machine that Mahit has in her head, but it is 15 years out of date, and she suspects it is sabotaged.
This book was an enjoyable, fast-paced ride dense with political intrigue, reminiscent of The Expanse. I was expecting more of a murder mystery but it soon became apparent that Mahit was less of an active protagonist investigating a murder and more reacting to events that unfolded. For example, when she investigates the body of her predecessor, she does not do an autopsy or look for a cause of death, but rather, her assistant asks her questions about the imago-machine. I saw it as more of a political thriller and an examination of the complicated darkness of colonialism. I seem to be reading a lot of books lately with the word “empire” in the title – colonialism is a trendy theme of 2019-2020 it seems.
I found the political games in the story refreshing; it all fit neatly together like a puzzle based on scraps of verse and coded messages. But political machinations usually lose me if the characters are not strong enough, and I immediately fell in love with the characters in this book, Mahit and her assistant Three Seagrass in particular. Their sexual tension throughout the book and romantic subplot was intoxicating. I was immediately drawn to Mahit, with her naive nerd-like devotion to Teixcalaani culture, a society built on poetry, literature and the arts; but even she soon succumbs to bitterness, the brutal reality of empire-building settling on her shoulders, as both the Teixcalaani Empire and Lsel Station face an even greater alien threat than the wars that humans fight among themselves.
I also saw the city on Teixcalaan as a character in itself. This worldbuilding was stunning, and welcome to dive into another popular book not inspired by white Western Europe. The city itself was run by an algorithm, and an intriguing exploration of future sustainable city design. The first book only touched the surface of the implications of the city’s omniscient AI.
This is speculative fiction at its finest. A fun experience, great characters, and an elaborate world with interesting politics. Recommend strongly.
This review also on my Goodreads page. I’m looking for more friends and followers on Goodreads, by the way.
Please Note: I received “Skyward Inn” as an advance review copy from Netgalley for an honest review.
“Skyward Inn” by Aliya Whiteley has quickly risen to the top of my personal list of my most anticipated books of this year. It releases on March 16, 2021 from Solaris, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Devon, England, where the Western Protectorate, a Libertarian wet dream in which subsistence-based agriculture is the primary means of industry and technology is shunned, has set up shop and abandoned the coalition of world powers. In this bucolic countryside of small town togetherness, gossip and community council meetings, human Jem and Qitan Isley run an inn called the Skyward Inn. They rise to a moderate business success based on a mysterious alcoholic beverage that Isley has brought with him from his home world, which they call The Brew. The name of this eponymous drink is not really in all capitals in the book; it just becomes important to the story.
Jem and Isley are veterans of interplanetary war, each full of regrets and unrequited longing. Isley is the penultimate outsider, the “alien,” and all the prejudices that come with that identity; but here, Jem is an outsider, too. She left home, abandoned her son Fosse to her brother Dom, and her son now wants nothing to do with her. The point of view alternates between Jem in a first person perspective to that of Fosse, who also has trouble seeing himself as part of this world. Add in all your colorful characters of small town rural life.
But this peaceful, beautiful place is not all it seems. Elsewhere in this world, a mysterious disease rages, and it threatens the apparent safety of the Protectorate every day. But the disease is not what it seems. Just as the brew is not what it seems, and so on. Everyone is hiding something. The fragile veneer of utopia, if you’re the correct type of person, will soon splinter.
Jem copes by drinking the brew with seemingly magical properties; fighting with her brother, who is a leader in the Protectorate who is something of an ideological purist; and counting her regrets. Fosse copes by escaping to an abandoned farm. One day, he discovers the farm is not abandoned after all – and that is when everything changes. And one day, Isley’s Qitan friend Won comes to visit, and Won has a problem; and everything changes for Jem, and for the town.
This is a beautiful, weird, surreal piece of fiction with a deep sense of interiority of character and graceful, gentle prose. It is a story of found family, melancholy, community, and identity. Most of all it is a story of what it means to belong, and what it means to remain apart, and the ties that bind us to the families we wish we had. Jem yearns to belong, to have been a better mother, to have been with Isley, to feel a part of the town, and she mourns the decisions that have kept her alone. But she comes to realize that perhaps her very independence is what will save her. The lush, steady prose, the thoughtful focus on these three characters – Dom, Fosse and Jem – was very well done.
I did have some quibbles, though. I like my science fiction to be science-based, although I am willing to suspend belief for good space opera. This however, did not have much science in it. I can’t reveal too much about the mysterious disease without giving spoilers; it did make sense in the end, where the author was going, but the mechanics of the disease were decidedly magical for literary effect, and I found it confusing until the very end as to how it all exactly worked. It all wrapped up in a weird, bizarro, dark, tidy way in the end, though, which I loved in all its weirdness, regardless of my initial hesitation. I would call it a space fantasy more than science fiction. I also wanted more dimension to Isley’s character, and I didn’t really understand the biology of how the Qitans functioned. But when I saw it as fantasy instead, I appreciated it more.
I thought I knew where this was going – the small bucolic town and a cult, right? But it was a nice upending of the trope of colonialist Earth invading helpless alien cultures, and that is all I will say about that.
Bottom line: This is a weird, wonderful story of a world that is not so unlike our own, a story about finding yourself when the whole world wants to find you first; a story about what it means to be part of something that is bigger than yourself, and the sacrifices that we make for the higher good. I enjoyed this book immensely. Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy.
I received a stack of four library books this last week delivered to my door by my local library, so I’ll review my favorites in the next couple of weeks if I am able to get to them all.
And that brings me to a point I wanted to make about book reviews in my blog this year, if you’ll indulge a tangent. My goal this year is to read 50 books. Last year I read 30. Part of the reason why I review books is to motivate me to keep up with my reading. So this hopefully will be the first of a few reviews in 2021.
My review policy is this: I don’t accept solicitations to review books (avoid the DM! Don’t do it! Just don’t!). I don’t like leaving harsh, negative reviews, so I will DNF a book if I absolutely hate it; life is too short to read books that you don’t like. I review books I feel average about on my Goodreads, and explain some pros and cons about the book. If I can recommend the book, I post it in my blog. Sometimes I just leave a star rating, because that still helps authors in the Amazon algorithm.
The long and short of it is this – reviews should be fun; writing them shouldn’t feel like a job or an obligation. As long as they are fun to write, I keep writing them. I don’t do it to help authors with advertisement and promotion (if you want that, hire me! I’m good at marketing…) or even to network; I do it because I love books and I want to share my love of reading, which was my self-soothing activity during a very turbulent year last year. I hope to read a few more indies and books by POC and LGBTQ authors this year, and to keep up with my ARCs from Netgalley.
Anyway, back to this particular review. This book is an absolute gem, my first book that I finished reading in the brand-new year. It’s called “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse, Book One of the Between Earth and Sky Trilogy. Let’s start with the basics – even though I only had a library book, the hardback was simply gorgeous. The cover art was beautiful; even the font and graphic design were attractive. I kept reading it marveling at both the excellent design and the writing style. I would buy that hardback in a heartbeat. And the maps were drawn by Roanhorse’s daughter, which is pretty special.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, but this book was the whole package. I fully admit I have not read a whole lot of fantasy until recently because it is, frankly, not my favorite genre. Magic systems feel like a “And it was all a dream” plot device to me at times, like cheating; I’ve always preferred science fiction and its established boundaries. What’s more, so much of fantasy is inspired by white, cis, and heteronormative medieval Europe. Women are always queens and princesses; and there is always a dragon. Tolkein was amazing, don’t get me wrong; but how many retellings can there be of Lord of The Rings? Apparently an infinite number. It’s stale, to me, by and large. I’m not trying to judge anyone for liking this stuff, because you’re not alone. It seems unfailingly popular. I’m the weirdo for not being a super-fan; you can judge me all you want.
I want something different, though, than the usual fake Western European fare. This book provided that. It was like a breath of fresh air on every page; I greedily read this one, soaking up the newness of it, the originality. Roanhorse wanted to write an epic fantasy and get taken seriously as an epic fantasy author writing something other than white Western Europe. Well, mission accomplished. I respect everything this book has to offer – her worldbuilding, her characters, her mythos, her magic system, her writing style. The scope of this project is just incredible.
This is epic fantasy for a new generation. The world Roanhorse built is inspired by the cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas, taking the idea that indigenous culture is often disrespected as being lesser than or diminished compared to post-colonial technology, and giving respect and reverence to the intelligence and technology of indigenous cultures. But this is not historical fiction; this is not saying, “What if indigenous cultures were the dominate culture instead of white colonialists?” This is pure fantasy, and completely creative. This is a world unto itself. This is not Victorian England; this is another continent, portrayed with warmth and complexity. This book was meticulously researched and it showed in the details of these blended cultures. If you think you love writing fantasy because you don’t have to do any research, let a book like this prove your theory wrong.
The plot takes place in the backdrop of the city of Tova, which awaits the Solstice. It’s normally a spiritual celebration of the New Year, a time when the Sun Priest and the acolytes of the celestial tower bring the four clans together to recognize fresh starts. But this year darkness awaits, darkness that is foretold but more brutal than anyone could believe. Three characters converge in this same event: Xiala, a Teek and a ship captain whose magic lets her Sing to the sea that gave birth to her in order to master its waves; Serapio, the vessel of a crow god, destined for a path of vengeance and destruction, but also just a man, awkward and sheltered and new in this world; and Naranpa, the Sun Priest herself, who rose to her position from crude beginnings and is the only one in the celestial tower who can fully recognize their growing irrelevance to the people below.
All of these paths converge in blood and vengeance. The celestial tower was supposed to bring peace; but law and order is never so easily controlled from on high, with obsolete tradition.
I loved Roanhorse’s writing style; her glittering, vivid prose painted complex, real characters and brought this epic universe to life with sparkling color and detail. This is character-driven fantasy, even in a small ensemble cast. And this is a story in which trans, nonbinary and queer characters are presented in a complex, real, human way. Not in a preachy way; not in a token way; not in a way that focuses only on pain or only on joy. In this world, discrimination exists; division exists; it is the ultimate conflict that drives the heart of the plot, the many layers between magic and science, spirituality and practicality, greed and community. In this world, discrimination doesn’t define the queer characters in the cast; it is not sanitized in order to allow them to exist alongside it; but rather, discrimination exists, and queer characters exist, as complex people you come to care for and cheer for. This is how you do representation and do it well.
In conclusion, I just loved every minute of this book. “Black Sun” is a revelation, and Roanhorse is a refreshing voice in a fantasy landscape that needs new voices. Like the priests in the celestial tower, it is time to join the people instead of always looking toward the stars. I rarely continue on in a series, as I am usually not in it for the long haul; but this trilogy is different. I was hooked from page one, and I am eagerly awaiting Book Two.
I received the book “A History of What Comes Next” by Sylvain Neuvel (expected publication date of February 2, 2021, from Tor) as an e-ARC for an honest review from Netgalley.
First of all, I will try my very best not to review this book with SPOILERS because very few people have read it so far, seeing as it’s an upcoming release, and sadly I have no one to talk with about these spoilers yet; but I can’t wait for more people to read it so I can geek out over this. Yes indeed, this is one of those kinds of books. I was blown away. I need to geek out, people. Hurry up and read this book.
At first I thought that this was a time travel book. Then I thought it was a space exploration story. Then the mystery slowly and expertly unfolded and I realized it was all and none of those things. This is the story of the Kibsu. There are the 99; and there can never be three. They have a few rules: Survive. Carry on the knowledge. Achieve space travel. But they don’t know where they came from. They only know the code, passed down through the centuries of women who defied their place in history. This story is really a story about the mystery of their secret society, discovered through fragments of time.
The story follows a mother and daughter pair, Sarah and Mia, in the 1940s. It’s the end of World War II and Mia is sent, allegedly, by the Office of Strategic Services to infiltrate the German rocketry program to recruit Werner von Braun. At first, I was struggling with the idea that a 19-year-old woman could get anywhere in late 1940s Germany, given the restrictions of gender roles and sexism at the time. Even with advanced scientific knowledge, and only interacting with scientists who could appreciate her intellect, that would be a stretch. But then I read the author’s research notes after finishing the book and it finally made sense.
In fact, that’s a theme throughout the whole book; these generations of women sneaking into holes in history where they didn’t quite belong in order to influence events. They leave behind a trail of bodies to cover their tracks, which then leads them to the antagonist of the book, The Tracker, another figure with a mysterious origin story who is feared by the Kibsu. But therein lies spoiler territory.
So in short order, you have: feminism, 1940s rocketry and the beginnings of the space program, all done in an intense, lightning-fast literary style. This one had me at hello. Talk about one beautiful rush.
The story is written in the present tense, which I usually don’t like because it’s usually done poorly. Not so in this book. The first-person present tense was crafted perfectly and immediately sucked me into the story, adding to the tension and ramping up the pacing. I wasn’t sure I really liked the protagonists, Mia and Sarah; they were a bit cheeky and egotistical, but in the end, I was rooting for them to live the normal life they realized they wanted, after all, but could never have. They had dimension and complexity. And the tone was written in an irreverent, self-aware style that drew me into character with depth and style.
This was a gorgeous story. I eagerly await the sequel. Thank you again to the publisher for an advance look.
I received “Ghost River” by Chad Ryan, published by Lost Boys Press, as an e-ARC, an advance review copy, in exchange for an honest review. It took me a little time to read and this book is now available as a new release, but it’s definitely the kind of book that you want to take your time with, sink your teeth into, absorb into your marrow. This novel is an experience, a journey into a land of ancient predators and the power of the names that keep them in their boxes.
It’s a long read, an epic saga. It’s a story to which you make a commitment. On its surface, it is a monster book, but at its heart, it is a story about a family, the blood-soaked ties that bind, and the boxes of worlds that we trade for better boxes. This is a story of fear and love, loathing and revenge, power and control, mythos and modernity. This is the story of Ghost River, and more importantly, Orphan Rock, and the eclectic, dangerous melee that calls this particular box home.
Ghost River is a town in Arizona, a desert place between worlds, between the riverfolk and the desertfolk. In one world there is the tribe, which has always protected Orphan Rock and its fatal secrets from the outside world. But times are changing. Development is coming to Ghost River. First a freeway; then a casino. The old pacts wear down, are no longer valid for the times. Promises wear thin. The old world of Orphan Rock and its shapers of worlds have become mythos, fragments of memories. The monsters become greedy. Their egos enlarge. The Grim Seed always wants more; darkness is never satisfied.
Orphan Rock, you see, is a monster town. It serves the wills of Father Pig, and fighting for dominance, the Sisters of Sorrow. These ancient creatures, predators who subsist on human flesh, come from a crack in the worlds, a portal to another dimension. In Orphan Rock, everyone serves someone, and no one can ever leave. Or so they think. Years of servitude and grooming will do that. Dreams are dangerous. Or are they?
The Northamm family makes up the protagonists in the story; Esther, Minister, and their children, Little Snake and Dark Bird. Esther and Minister can leave the land, but the curse of the dirt keeps the monsters to the box. So Esther and Minister are the ones who feed their insatiable appetites. Love in the cages. Hoping for a better life. Or any life, at all, since choice isn’t something that people like them get to experience, those who are servants to the dark.
But like all monster books, who is really the monster here? The monsters become the sympathetic characters, and traditional narrative arcs twist and turn until you’re not sure in the end who the antagonist really is. Is it Father Pig and the Age of Filth? Is it the endless march of modernity, the people who forgot ancient promises? This is a monster book, but this is exquisite filth, reverent in its hideousness.
There is much to offend in these pages, but I found it a comfort read; because in the end, all good writing hopes to connect us to very human moments. Like Little Snake, escaping the confines of Orphan Rock for the promises of another Sister of Sorrow, Desyre, who made a little boy believe in a better box. It turned out to be just another box, and the boy wanted nothing more than to return home, with the wind on his face as he ran by the desert river, the home that he once wanted so badly to leave. Nothing more human than that, even for a snake.
The prose and writing style was choppy at times, a tug of active voice rapping on your spine; but this was for effect. This was a novel meant to be read aloud, to be experienced. Part of the experience of this storytelling was in the sounds of the writing, the sharp shock to the heart, the vivid descriptions of Arizona desert and ancient dreams and immortal death.
This book, in a word, was a “Wow.” This is the best of indie. Give it a chance, even if you don’t like horror or magic realism. It will make you cringe, and then it will make you revel in its gruesome glory. This may be a monster book, but it’s really, in the end, a human book. It’s a book about what breaks us, and what keeps us together, what keeps us moving, what gives us reasons to get up anyway despite all the burdens of all the worlds. We need more books like this. More stories that help us remember those things, ancient promises stirring, whispering to us from across the desert scrub in the midnight black. Welcome to Ghost River, indeed. You might never want to leave.
I received “A Map to the Stars” by Ashley Hutchison, published by Lost Boys Press, as an e-ARC (advanced review copy) in exchange for an honest review.
Form in literature is something that is often relegated to the province of poetry, with novels often devoid of experimentation in rhythm, grammatical structure, and arranged in the same standard manuscript formatting. Sure, over the years plots and storytelling may have changed and evolved, with traditional publishers preferring third-person narrators instead of omniscient narrators. Publishers will cater to the increasingly short attention spans of modern readers by favoring inciting incidents in the first three pages, thinking too much backstory old-fashioned, wanting to see novels written in a fast-paced, cinematic style. Epistolary novels sometimes rise in popularity, those comprised entirely of letters, emails or other documents that drive the plot forward. But more often than not, the epitome of true experimentation in the modern novel comes in the format of comic books and graphic novels.
“A Map to the Stars” breaks that mold, the kind of experiment that is made for the indie market. At the beginning the author steps outside the fourth wall to caution the reader, “Please know this memoir was written to be a movement, so it is best experienced in a single sitting. Find a comfortable chair and prepare yourself for an emotional journey.” That in itself is not like my usual reading style; I typically find myself reading with the TV on in the background, or stealing snatches of passages before bed or between breaks at work. It took me about a couple of hours to read and digest.
This is a portrait of a dysfunctional family, a painting of the scars of abuse. It follows the story of Avery’s childhood, as Avery confronts the abuse and neglect of her mother, and the instability of her upbringing. In many ways it reads like the kind of letter that you write to the family you did not choose, but then the pain is too much to handle, the emotions too raw, so you burn up the letter and never send it. The story moves from poetry, to epistolary in text messages and emails, to prose, a collection of fragmented vignettes strung together as almost a therapeutic exercise.
At times the writing style veered into a bit heavy of a florid/purple prose style for my taste, but I largely found the style to flow well. The writing adapted to the form of each vignette. In many ways this novelette was like one long primordial scream, an exercise in stream-of-consciousness expressionism as Avery tries to come to terms with her troubled childhood and the people in her past. Each chapter is introduced with a drawing of a tarot card, outlining each relationship in Avery’s life, each fairy tale inevitably turned dark, except for a strain of hopefulness throughout, a child’s faith.
At times this story was uncomfortable, but it begs you to sit with it the way you eventually have to sit with your own discomfort, when you are not avoiding your pain or distracting yourself from it. At times it was achingly beautiful. It was always raw. This story was something real, something bold and honest, and it will linger with me for awhile afterward.