A collection of fourteen short stories taking one ordinary experience and inserting an extraordinary fantastical, scifi, or bizarro instance into the situation, seeing how the main character reacts.
A mixed collection, containing both 2 star and 5 star stories, although most stick right around the 3 star mark. The stories veer between scifi and fantasy, although both have some bizarro element in them.
Where Marek excels is when he takes a little talked-about male experience and utilizes the unique qualities of genre fiction to explore it. The only 5 star story in the collection, “Boiling the Toad” explores a male victim of domestic violence. It does this in a powerful way without demonizing all women. The story starts as “my life is so bizarre” but eventually becomes all too real. It’s interesting to note that this is also the opposite of many stories in the collection. Many start ordinary and turn bizarre. Starting bizarre and turning ordinary worked much better. Similarly, “Testicular Cancer vs. The Behemoth” explores male feelings about a cancer that is only possible to get if you have testicles. Marek fairly eloquently presents the main character as attempting to defend his perceived manhood by trying to protect his girlfriend from a Godzilla-like monster attacking the city. These stories are interesting, and I enjoyed exploring them.
Where the collection fails and flounders, though, is when the main character is self-centered and perceives of women as objects or only existing for his pleasure. It’s incredibly difficult to feel any empathy for a character who wants to cheat on his wife but ends up failing because of a mysterious puking illness he gets at the sushi restaurant (Sushi Plate Epiphany) or to care about a man who calls his pregnant wife a monster and tries to cheat on her while she’s still carrying his children (Belly Full of Rain). A lot of these stories incited an eye-roll and “boohoo it’s so horrible to be a man” sarcastic response from me, which I seriously doubt was what the author was going for.
Then there are the stories that simple don’t seem to have any point or make any sense. They seem to just be getting going when Marek stops them abruptly. Or they do seem to be at their end but there is just no point. Both “the Forty-Litre Monkey” and “Jumping Jennifer” have a great set-up of a mystery but that mystery is never addressed. They stop too soon. “Instruction Manual for Swallowing” and “The Thorn” are highly fantastical yet the conflict isn’t set up enough so as to be interesting.
Marek’s writing style varies widely between the perfect tone for bizarro genre fiction and being overly pretentious for his genre. For instance he writes sentences like this:
Being in the room felt like being suffocated in an armpit. (location 55)
But also pretentiously calls a college quad a “quadrangle” (“Jumping Jennifer”).
Overall then this is a widely varied collection of bizarro short fiction. Some of the stories offer wonderful insight into male issues while others wallow annoyingly in the minds of terrible men who only think they have a problem, while still others set up a fantastic world but are ultimately boring due to lack of conflict. If you are intrigued by any of the stories mentioned, I would advise getting a copy from the library since they will be quickly read, and you can return it when done. Definitely feel free to skip around in this collection.
3.5 out of 5 stars
When the aliens landed, they ignored humanity. Stopping briefly on their way somewhere else. Leaving behind mysterious random detritus, much like the remains left behind a roadside picnic. Redrick happened to live in one of the towns visited, and as a result has become a stalker. He sneaks into the Zone to gather alien artifacts to sell on the black market. Soon his whole life–and those of everyone in the town–becomes dominated by the Zone.
When I saw that this was Russian scifi from the Soviet era, I knew that I needed to pick it up, if for no other reason than that I’d never seen any before. This new print has been returned to the authors’ original vision, with the heavy edits (really, censorship) removed. It also starts with an introduction by Ursula K. LeGuin. I want to highlight one thing she says about scifi that I think truly illuminates its power.
Soviet writers had been using science fiction for years to write with at least relative freedom from Party ideology about politics, society, and the future of mankind. (location 22)
Scifi provides an opportunity for writers and readers to remove the shackles of whatever society they are currently living in and imagine the other. I think that’s a very powerful tool, and I commend the Strugatsky brothers for utilizing it in such a way from behind the Iron Curtain. They had to fight for years to get some version of this book published, in spite of being well-known and respected authors. That is a commitment to their art that is truly admirable. Now, on to the review of the actual book.
The germ of the idea is truly brilliant and is immediately clear. This idea of an alien race stopping by for a picnic, essentially, and ignoring humanity like so many ants. It’s so different from the more egotistical interpretation of alien visitations that we usually see. The book was worth the read for that alone. The early scenes are vivid and clearly establish this post-visitation situation where the Zone the aliens landed in is uninhabitable, and the government and scientists are trying to study it while stalkers sneak in (at great risk to their lives) to extract artifacts for the black market. Similarly, the artifacts that the stalkers (and government) find and bring out of the Zone are wonderfully imagined. It is easy to see that the authors probably knew exactly what the aliens used the items for whereas the characters in the book are clueless. Trying to find any use they can for them.
The book though is truly about Redrick. It uses the scifi setting to explore this man who really just wants to escape the rat race and have a comfortable life with his family. He chooses to attempt to be his own boss by being a stalker in the Zone and is repeatedly thrown in prison for it. We never really see him as a whole man, since we only saw him after the Zone. It is as if the presence of the Zone gave him hope, and the repeated failures slowly rob him of his life energy.
My whole life I’ve been dragged by the nose, I kept bragging like an idiot that I do as I like, and you bastards would just nod, then you’d wink at each other and lead me by the nose, dragging me, hauling, me, through shit, through jails, through bars…Enough! (location 2295)
In spite of this excellent set-up and interesting character arc, the book didn’t fully satisfy me. I found Redrick difficult to sympathize with. He thinks he is a slave to the system, but really he is choosing to be a slave to money. He could have left the town and the Zone behind multiple times to go live a life with his family, but he doesn’t. I understand others might interpret his freedom of movement differently from me, but that is how I saw his situation. It seems most of his problems come from a love of not just money but a love of wealth. So although I periodically sympathized with what he was saying, I didn’t ultimately sympathize with him.
What I truly found disappointing though was the ending. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that while the rest of the book was realistic scifi, couched in darkness and despair, the ending was surprisingly positive in a deus ex machina manner. It felt like a real cop-out, particularly compared to the rest of the book. Whereas most everything else was innovative, this was generic, ho-hum, and disappointing. While I was still glad to have experienced Redrick’s world, the ending kept the book from truly grasping me or blowing my mind.
Overall, then, this book is an important piece of both Russian and scifi literature. It has enough uniqueness of setting to it to keep the well-versed reader of both genres interested but beware that the main character might not be entirely sympathetic, and the ending is a bit disappointing. Recommended to fans of Russian or scifi literature.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Something strange is happening in Spokane, and the US military has taken control of the city, closing it and its happenings to the press. Dean sees this as the perfect opportunity to break into photography before he graduates from college and is forced into giving up on his artistic dreams to work a regular 9 to 5 job. So he sneaks into Spokane, where he meets an intriguing young woman and her rag-tag household of survivors, and quickly starts to see the inexplicable things that are going on inside the city.
Dark fantasy is one of my favored genres, but unfortunately not a ton comes out in it in any given year. So when I saw this title available on NetGalley, I just had to snatch it up. I’m glad I did, because it’s a truly enjoyable read.
The basic plot uses a trope of dark fantasy–a creative outsider comes to a town where bizarre things supposedly happen then starts to document them happening. The twist here is that the creative type is a photographer, so the art form being used is photography. This was an incredibly refreshing way to approach the topic. Each chapter opens with a description of a shot that Dean will get at some point in that chapter. It’s fascinating foreshadowing, and also Gropp shows real talent in describing photographs of both the fantastical and more ordinary varieties. The descriptions also talk about more technical aspects of photography, and these show up within the story too (such as lighting and shutter speed). Describing instead of showing the photographs was a choice that I at first was not certain of but I ultimately appreciated. By not reproducing the photographs, Gropp leaves quite a bit of the mystery up to the reader and doesn’t spoil whatever images the reader has already established within her own mind. But the descriptions are also so well-done that the impact of seeing one brief moment in this surreal world is still rendered. It’s a unique and well-done choice, and I’d recommend this read to people based on that creative storytelling aspect alone.
It’s also great to see a story centering primarily around 20-somethings. Often literature tends to stick to YA (teens) or jump right over those of us who are in that truly young adult phase of our lives and into 30-somethings. Although the primary focus of the story is what precisely is happening in Spokane, conflicts frequently faced by 20-somethings come up within this framework–what to do for a career, do you give up on your dreams and settle down into a cubicle or not, when and with whom should you settle down, should you settle down at all, when should you respect your parents and their experience and when should you stand up to them, etc… Long-time followers know that one reason I enjoy genre literature is it addresses these real life issues within the context of the fantastic, and the good ones do it integrated and in a thought-provoking manner. This book achieves that.
The main character also is bisexual, while being primarily interested in a woman. It was so awesome to get to see a bi male main character and have it be presented as just a part of who he is and not a big deal at all. Although there is certainly a need and a place for the coming out tales and stories where the character’s sexuality is a central issue, it is also nice to see glbtq characters where that is just one aspect of who they are and is not dwelled upon much. It is just a part of who Dean is.
As for the central plot–what is happening in Spokane–I admit that I hoped for slightly more answers than we ultimately get. Readers looking for nicely tied up endings or even a hint at an answer will be left wanting. I enjoy an ambiguous ending, but I also felt that perhaps the plot could have been a bit clearer. In particular, without giving anything away, I felt that the scenes revolving around the hospital while powerful left me feeling a bit like perhaps even the author doesn’t really know what’s going on in Spokane. Perhaps that is the point, but it did leave me feeling that the plot was not as up to par as the world building and characterization.
Overall, this is a wonderful addition to the dark fantasy genre. Gropp gives us a unique main character and also utilizes writing about photography in a creative manner. I highly recommend it to fans of dark fantasy, particularly 20-somethings and those with an interest in photography.
4 out of 5 stars
After spending over a decade serving hard labor in the Caribbean for mutiny and conjuring, Ethan has finally made it back to Boston. He now makes his living as a thieftaker, essentially a private investigator who hunts down stolen items, using his conjuring where necessary to help him out. But the year is 1767 and trouble is starting to brew in Boston. The Stamp Tax has been enacted, and the people don’t like it. There are even riots in the street. Against this back-drop, Ethan is asked to find a brooch that was stolen–from the body of a dead girl. He doesn’t usually take on cases involving murder, but this one is different.
It’s probably hard to tell from this blog, because they’re hard to find, but I am a real sucker for a good Boston during the American Revolution story. So when this title showed up I snapped it up. I’m glad I did because it’s an interesting take on the Stamp Act Riots.
This is an interesting piece of historic fiction, because it’s more like urban fantasy historic fiction. Is that a genre? Can it be? What on earth would we call it? In any case, I was in heaven, because I love BOTH urban fantasy and history so having both in one book was heaven. I mean first it’s breeches and three corner hats then it’s look at this illusion of a creepy little girl. Brilliant.
I struggled a bit with Ethan, which in retrospect wasn’t a bad thing. That shows he’s a realistic, well-rounded character. But let’s be honest. I’m more of a Sam Adams revolutionary type. Ethan served in the British Navy and is all “oh these hooligans.” This bothered me a lot! Especially when I got suspicious that the book as a whole would lean Tory. But! This all ends up being part of the character development, which in the end is what makes the book stronger. Ethan isn’t sure about protesting and fighting the aristocracy at first. But he changes his mind with time. This makes for a great plot-line. I like it. I do hope in the sequel we will get less of this hemming and hawing about owing things to the crown and yadda yadda. DOWN WITH THE KING. Ahem.
As a Bostonian, can I just say, I haven’t seen a book so intent on giving actual street names and buildings before, but it worked. They are totally accurate. I could completely visualize not just the streets but the entire routes Ethan was walking along. Granted, it was as if through a looking glass, since when I walk them they’re a bit different than in 1767, but still. It was very cool. I also really appreciated the depiction of the South Enders, since I spend quite a bit of time in Southie. Seeing the historical versions was really fun.
The magic portion of the book was also unique. Ethan has to cut himself to get blood to work the more powerful spells. The less powerful ones he can work with surrounding grasses, plants, etc… This makes the interesting problem that people struggle in fist-fighting him because if he bleeds he just uses it to work spells. It’s a nice touch.
So with all this glowing, why not five stars? Well, honestly, Ethan bugged me so much for the first 2/3 of the book that I kept almost stopping in spite of all the good things. He’s just such a…a…Tory. For most of the book. Instead of being angry at the man for putting him in prison for conjuring, he blames himself. Instead of being angry that the rich just keep getting richer while he struggles to pay his rent, he blames himself. You get the picture. Being irritated almost constantly by Ethan kind of pulled me out of the world and the story, which I wish hadn’t happened, because it really is such a cool world. I get what Jackson was trying to do, character development wise, but the payoff in the end was almost missed because I kept stopping reading due to being irritated with Ethan. Perhaps if his change of heart had started to show up a bit sooner it would have worked better for me.
Overall, though, this is well-researched and thought out version of Boston during the Stamp Act Riots. Fans of historic fiction and urban fantasy will get a kick out of seeing the latter glamoring up the former.
4 out of 5 stars
Maggie Wright comes to the cozy Maine bed and breakfast, Seascape, not for a vacation, but to investigate the mysterious death of her cousin, Carolyn. Carolyn’s artist fiancee, TJ MacGregor, just so happens to be staying at Seascape, but a mysterious force is preventing him from leaving. Despite the tragedy standing between them, they start to fall for each other.
This is obviously a romance with a dash of mystery and a touch of ghosts. Maine is a wonderful setting, particularly for a paranormal romance. This one just didn’t work for me, although I can clearly see how it will be able to find an audience.
I found the writing, particularly the romance, to ring a bit….old-fashioned and conservative. The characters all seem to speak in the same speaking style as the elderly woman who manages the inn. That works for her, and she is definitely my favorite character in the book, but it doesn’t work so well for TJ and Maggie who are both young and from New Orleans. I’m sure some readers would find the clean, conservative manner in which they talk a bit of fresh air, but to me it was dull and felt like a book my grandma gave me to get started out in romances when I was in middle school.
Similarly, the way the entire town is willing to appease the local pastor when it comes to things like alcohol and condoms kind of enraged me. For instance, the convenience store will only sell condoms to married couples upon the request of the pastor. I mean WHAT?! That is just not even LEGAL. But. As a book reviewer, I can definitely see that a more conservative crowd would appreciate the idea of a town where that sort of understanding could exist.
So, ignoring the fact that this book is far too conservative for me, there is one other issue that bothered me. I found the mystery of Carolyn’s death entirely confusing. At first I thought that Maggie came to Seascape to investigate the death because Carolyn died up there, but toward the end of the book, it sounds like she died in New Orleans. Which was it? And if she did die in New Orleans, then why did Maggie go to Seascape in the first place? Also, people think the car crash was mysterious because the painting she had with her was undamaged, but then toward the end of the book they say no the undamaged painting wasn’t found at the car, it’s just that it had disappeared and reappeared. Or something. I’m still very confused about everything about Carolyn, which is problematic given that this is the central conflict keeping our romantic couple apart. The mystery should be mysterious but not illogical.
Overall, this is a romance novel that was not for me, but will appeal to more conservative romance readers. People looking for an old-timey style romance with a touch of ghosts will appreciate it.
3 out of 5 stars
The Septembers are all 29 years old now and spread out all over the globe. Bee is expending her energy biking up and down the hills of San Francisco while Eric works as a lawyer. Carmen has a recurring role on a tv show filming in NYC and is engaged to Jones, an ABC producer. Lena teaches art at RISD and lives a quiet life in her studio apartment, except for the one day a week she practices Greek with an elderly woman. Tibby took off to Australia with Brian months ago, and everyone else is in limbo waiting for her to get back. They all feel a bit disconnected until Tibby sends Bee, Carmen, and Lena tickets to come to Greece for a reunion. What they find when they arrive is not what anyone expected.
You guys. You guys. This book shattered me. I am not a crier, and I actually had tears fall while reading this book. I read it in one day. I could not put it down. As someone who grew up with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I found the sudden jump forward in age (we used to be about the same age, and now they are older than me) a bit disconcerting and unexpected, but nowhere near as unexpected as the rest of the book.
I complained to anyone who would listen at the beginning that I hated it. That I hated what Brashares was doing, and omg why would she do this. But as the story progressed, she swept me along, and suddenly I realized that yes this is tougher by far than the earlier books. It’s not the light girl power read the first or even the second one was. But it shouldn’t be. They’re 29. They’re older. Their problems should be bigger and more adult, and the lessons here hurt more to read because they’re tougher ones to learn. It’s precisely the direction the books should have taken. The girls change and, dare I say it, actually grow the fuck up unlike a certain other foursome that have a tv show.
I won’t tell you what made the book so powerful, because that’d spoil it. But I will tell you, my fellow fans, to push past the first quarter of the book where you’re angry and want to throw it across the room in a Carmen-like rage. Give Brashares the chance she earned with the first three to gradually show you what she’s doing. It’s an emotional journey that’s well worth taken. Fans might be frustrated at first, but those who stick it out and love the series for what it really is will love this entry. I don’t doubt it at all. Plus, Brashares hinted that there might be still more to come.
5 out of 5 stars
One thing I have learned from the two movie reference guides I’ve received for review since starting this book blog is that movie reference guides are not for me. Frankly with things like, oh, the internet, they’re just not useful the way they were back when I was in undergrad and professors wouldn’t accept IMDB as a reference in your English paper comparing books to their movie versions. But I digress.
Putting on my librarian cap then why does this reference guide get 2 and not 3 stars? (3 indicating not for me but maybe for others). It frankly bothers me how not academic it is. It essentially reads as a list randomly assembled by some random dude down the road, not a professor of the history of film or a film critic or anything like that really. This would be great for a blog, but not for a serious reference book. Additionally, maybe the print edition is better, but the ebook version is badly formatted and contains none of the pictures promised in the blurb.
The book basically then is your neighbor yammering in alphabetical order about random movies he selected from the early 1900s with all of the natural individual prejudices and caveats that go along with that. There’s nothing academic about it, and when push comes to shove, it’s something that would be better off as a blog than a book. I will give it this though: the title and cover are excellent.
2 out of 5 stars
Rereading a childhood favorite is a dangerous endeavor. However, last year rereading Reddy Fox went well, so when the ebook version of this Lois Lenski classic showed up on Netgalley, I just had to try it out. I can see why I enjoyed it as a child, but I can’t really imagine adding it to the collection if I was a public librarian or, in the realm of more possibility, giving it to my nephew.
This is part of a series that Lenski wrote and illustrated in the 1940s about children living in different regions of America. The thought process was that kids saw children around the world in literature but not the vastly different ways of growing up all over America. A good idea, for sure. I can totally see why these books, written in painstaking vernacular to boot, were popular back then. They just didn’t age as well as they could have. Or, at least, this one didn’t.
Unlike the Little House series where the problems and dramas and joys are relatable, Birdie’s family basically repeatedly lets the neighbors walk all over them. There are also odd conundrums, such as how is Birdie’s family so working class and yet mysteriously has money? Most bothersome, though, is the fact that the central conflict of neighbor worthless father is wrapped up overnight when he gets saved at a revival meeting. Only the most evangelical of children will accept that as a fix. Plus, it gives an unrealistic expectation to children that the serious problem of an addicted parent can be solved with some yelling from a preacher. Not the most useful of message to be giving to children.
Although it’s not an unenjoyable read and the details of life in rural Florida in the 1940s are painstakingly accurate, it just simply hasn’t aged as well as other classics. It is still well-written, researched, and illustrated, however. I’d recommend it to adults with an interest in the history of American children’s literature.
3 out of 5 stars
Beatrice Weatherly is a virginal member of the Ladies Sewing Circle that so loves scandalous talk but now her reputation in Victorian English society has been soiled by scandalous nude photos that an ex-fiance sold on the black market. Since she’s already considered a scarlet woman, Bea decides to enter into a courtesan-style relationship with the fierce businessman and mysteriously secretive Edward Ellsworth Richie. Meanwhile their servants and Bea’s brothers get up to their own scandalous scenarios.
Yet again I requested an ARC that was surprisingly part of a series. Thankfully, the style of this series makes it completely possible to read them out of order with no confusion. Each book or novella is about one member of the circle, so I was not lost at all.
Let me be crystal clear here. I would not, by any stretch of the imagination, call this a romance. This is erotica. In fact, one of my GoodReads updates states that I’ve never seen this much sex in a book before, and I do read erotica from time to time. Generally one would find this a positive in an erotica, but personally the reason I like them is that they don’t fade out of scenes that happen in real life BUT THERE IS STILL PLOT MOVING AT A GOOD RATE. The plot here is minimal and is frequently dropped, hurried, or pushed aside in favor of yet another sex scene. And as for the sex scenes, they could have been more redundant, what with Bea being a virgin and all, but they still kinda are super redundant. She’s a virgin, she’s worried, will it hurt? But oh she can see his hard-on through his pants and she wants him to fuck her but no he won’t because he’s bringing her virginal self into it slowly and missionary position and oh my goodness orgasms and he won’t sleep in bed with her. Over and over again. Oh except she rides him once. I don’t know about you, but there’s only so much virgin I can take in my erotica, and this crosses the line.
Meanwhile, the main plot is incredibly bare bones and rushed. Everything happens in the span of a month from meeting to engagement. Plus there’s the super annoying mad first wife in the attic trope of Vicorian lit. Maybe. Mayyyybe the author meant this to be a sort of parody of Jane Eyre? I don’t know. But it doesn’t work really. It’s kind of insulting, actually, especially for a book that supposedly is pro women’s rights but then we have a first wife who went mad after being basically raped by her husband but it’s not his fault because he couldn’t stop himself.
Yeah, so, there is that. What saves this book from two stars is actually the subplot involving Bea’s brother and the male and female servant. They end up establishing a three-way relationship that is healthy for all of them and then move to the countryside to carry it on in peace. Now this is a fascinating little situation and leaves the door wide-open for all sorts of fun sex scenes, but we only get one with all three of them.
My advice to the author would be next time to focus on the unique storyline instead of the one that’s sort of a rip-off from old Victorian lit.
And also not to make the main dude a rapist.
Overall if you’re open to lots of types of sex scenes in your erotica and have a certain affinity for Victorian clothes and virgin sex, then you’ll enjoy this read and certainly get the bang for your buck. (haha) All others should steer clear.
3 out of 5 stars
Jac ran away from her family’s traditional perfumerie in Paris to pursue a career in mythology in her mother’s homeland of the USA. This move was spurred on by her mother’s suicide, and Jac’s own subsequent loss of touch with reality. Years of therapy later, all is well, but when Jac’s brother and current manager of the perfumerie goes missing, Jac must face up to her demons at home, as well as scenes in her own mind. Are they delusions or past life memories?
I requested this on NetGalley without realizing it was part of a series, but it is evident each entry in the series is about different people whose lives intertwine in a minor way. Thus, I was able to read this book without feeling that sense of disorientation that happens when you jump into the middle of a series. I’m glad too, because I found the story an intriguingly different plot-line for a thriller.
Essentially, there are some pottery pieces that Robbie discovers in his home that may or may not have once held a scent that allows whoever smells it to remember their past lives. A past life therapist wants these pottery pieces, Robbie wants to give them to the Dalia Lama, and the Chinese government wants to keep them out of the Dalai Lama’s hand in their on-going quest against Tibet. It’s a good big world plot, but the overall focus is mostly on Jac, which is how I tend to prefer thrillers. And Jac is a great character. She is strong, intelligent, a caring sister. She had a rough childhood, but still has her head on straight. Her struggle with whether or not she had past lives ends up not being as important as the reader might at first think, which I also appreciated. Jac’s character development is about accepting herself for who she is and not making selfish choices. It is not at all the romance I thought at first it was going to be, and that is a good thing.
Rose evokes the settings of Paris and NYC with equal aptitude. I must say I found myself craving an afternoon at the museum and some creperies when I was done with the book. The perfumerie business and house are equally beautiful and easy to picture, but also the tunnels underneath Paris are evoked well. Setting and characterization are strong points of Rose’s.
I did periodically feel the book moved too slow in the beginning. Also, I was disappointed that people who were evil now were evil in past lives and the good were always good. Similarly, only one person had a past life as a different gender. I get it that Rose’s point is that one needs to know one’s past lives in order to fix your mistakes that you make over and over, but I think it’s a bit short-sighted to think that if reincarnation did exist it would be that simplistic. Also, personally, I just don’t believe in soul mates, so having that as a strong theme in the book was rather eye-roll inducing.
Overall, this is a fun worldwide thriller with educated people at the center of it that includes thought-provoking themes like self-improvement and self-acceptance. Fans of the modern, globe-spanning thriller will enjoy it, as well as anyone who has a love of Paris.
4 out of 5 stars