book reviews by Althea

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Sourdough and Other Stories – Angela Slatter *****

Sourdough and Other Stories
Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

***** The Shadow Tree
An amazing opening to the book… familiar fairytale elements combine in unexpected ways, creating a haunting, eerie and poignant tale.
This cinder-dark Ella, servant in a great castle, sees to the needs of both the king and the queen, and tells strange stories to their two horrible children. But that’s not all she’ll do…

**** Gallow-berries
This is a ‘prequel’ to ‘And Sorrow And Such’ – here we meet the main character of that novella as a young woman who’s just lost her mother. Lest you feel too, too, sorry for her, her mother was a witch, so is she, and she’s already quite capable of taking care of herself.

***** Little Radish
A retelling of Rapunzel. What if she wasn’t forcibly imprisoned in that tower, but was actually there by choice? It can be difficult to come out of your isolation and form connections with other people. It’s not a process that can necessarily happen without pain and damage. A story with a strong message of forgiveness and wisdom.

**** Dibblespin
A half-troll girl has a strained relationship with her fully-human sister. Strange magic has been affecting the forest where they live, and things will come to a head when her sister’s mother re-enters the picture.

***** The Navigator
A dark and tragic tale: Slaves deprived of their wings, an illicit love affair marred by guilt and inequity. Betrayal and sacrifice. It is both horrible and beautiful.

**** The Angel Wood
When a girl is taken to the home her mother fled before she was born, she must take up the fate that her mother ran away from, and fulfill the responsibilities of the bargain her family made long ago. Here, a destiny that could be horrific is instead bittersweet.

**** Ash
When a woman demands the return of a child that she gave to a witch as payment for her services, she learns that although a bargain can be broken, and a witch can as vulnerable as any other woman, there is a price for her reneging on the agreement.

**** The Story of Ink
A sequel, of sorts, to ‘Ash.’ A young serving girl obeys her master when he instructs her to find and retrieve his runaway ward. His plans for the runaway involve dark and sinister magics, but the servant is more concerned with her promised reward.

***** Lost Things
Also a sequel to ‘Ash’ and ‘The Story of Ink.’ We follow a character who has joined a gang of bandits as cook’s boy. However, an accident reveals not only that she is a girl, but that her skin bears a legendary and magical map which is key to retrieving all lost things – perhaps, even the dead.

**** A Good Husband
Bargains that don’t work out quite as expected are a recurring theme in this collection. Here a woman violently disfigured by her husband asks a boon. Will the inhabitant of the local lake, a mermaid-like, magical being reputed to grant wishes, make her husband love her?

***** A Porcelain Soul
Wow. This story is strikingly original in so many details – it has to be read, not described. A young woman’s greatest ambition is to become a dollmaker. (She studies at a center where the dolls and toys created are infused with the souls of the makers, creating wonderful, almost-living toys.) Her biggest competition for the place she seeks is talented – but has no desire for the career. Unfortunately, she’s connected by blood to the head of the studio, and may not be given a choice about what path she is allowed to pursue. Trying to restrict peoples’ choices leads to desperate measures – and desperate measures, too often, lead to tragedy.

*****The Bones Remember Everything
A strange voice calling leads a woman to a tower encircled my thorns, untouched for years. Within sits a spinning wheel… and yes, a woman who has ‘slept’ for years.
You might think this sounds familiar, but the story that is told, and the story that unfolds, will not match your expectations.
Very nicely done, and the details that tie this piece in with others in the collections are an added bonus.

***** Sourdough
When a baker is called upon to demonstrate her wares for a big wedding catering order, the last thing she expects is to fall in love with the groom. But things happen as they will. Although it’s an arranged marriage, it’s unsurprising (except to the baker) that the fiancee is none too pleased with their affair. The events that transpire will involve curses and revenge. In these stories, there tends to be no ‘innocent’ party.

**** Sister, Sister
Once a queen, a woman is now reduced to life in a brothel. (A brothel where a remarkable number of characters from earlier stories seem to have ended up.) It’s actually not the worst place to live; the woman who runs the place is fair and considerate. But that’s not to say that the woman doesn’t have plans to leave, or that she doesn’t hold serious resentment against her sister, whose lies caused her husband to throw her over and make that sister his mistress.
However, there’s more to this story that she realizes… rumors are going around of children disappearing, and this betrayal may have deeper roots.

**** Lavender & Lychgates
Malicious magic has raised a boy from the dead. Reanimated, he believes that the daughter his mother bore after his stillbirth has usurped his place, and that he will somehow regain the love that should have been his if he can only eliminate her.
A sequel, of sorts, to ‘Sourdough.’

**** Under the Mountain
This final tale, again, incorporates many of the characters we met in earlier stories. The main character here is the daughter of the once-queen in ‘Sister, Sister.’ On a quest to rescue a loved one from the troll kingdom, she must face hard truths.
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The Casquette Girls – Alys Arden ***

The Casquette Girls
The Casquette Girls by Alys Arden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Guilty pleasure alert!

I have to admit, as I began this book, I found my eyes rolling several times at the silliness of it all… I wasn’t sure it’d be for me. But somehow, as it went on, I found myself continuing to turn the pages… enjoying it more and more. It didn’t get less silly, but I was along for the ride.

Adele Le Moyne is a high school student whose hometown of New Orleans has been devastated by a terrible hurricane. (Is it Katrina? I’m not sure – there’s not mention of “Katrina” at all, and it might be an even-worse storm.) After spending two months in Paris with her rarely-seen mother, Adele is ready to rejoin her father and start rebuilding her home.

The destruction she encounters is shocking. Her school is closed down. The streets are empty. But some of her old friends are around, trying to make the best of a bad situation along with her.

There are the “teenage” things to deal with: soon, Adele is placed in the upper-crust girls’ private school, where her designer duds from France are her only hope of being socially accepted. After school, there’s the annoying guy from the coffee shop who unfortunately (?) starts taking art lessons from her dad. And then there are the two drop-dead handsome Italian brothers – who say they’re in town searching for lost family members. (ooh la la!)

But stranger things are also in the offing. After a bizarre experience at the old convent, Adele seems to be developing a talent for telekinesis. She has to consult with her new friend down at the local voodoo store (who’s also a ‘cool’ girl, AND the mayor’s daughter) about whether she might be a witch… and the descendant of old-time New Orleans witches.

When we hop back in time to learn more about what happened with those old-time witches – back when young, unmarried girls were sent over from Frances with only the ‘caskets’ than supposedly contained their dowries – more light is shed on the supernatural events that Adele has become entangled in, back in the present day.

Good fun… and, (view spoiler)

The quote that really captures it all: “Am I going to die tonight? As a sixteen-year-old virgin with only one passport stamp?”

Many thanks to Amazon and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own

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Within These Walls – Ania Ahlborn ****

Within These Walls
Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well-crafted, nicely-done horror/thriller which merges cult murders with an element of the supernatural.

I’d heard good things about Ania Ahlborn, so picked this up when I had the opportunity, and it did not disappoint.

A true crime writer, Lucas Graham, gets an offer that he can’t refuse: Jeffrey Halcomb, a notorious, Charles-Manson-esque killer who’s never once spoken to the press since he was jailed, years ago, says he’ll give Graham an exclusive. The resulting book will be the best-selling hit that puts his faltering career back on track and brings his family back together, Graham is sure.

Of course, there’s one catch: Halcomb has made it a condition of the interview that Graham move into the murder house; the scene of his crimes. In order to comply, the writer finds himself being less than honest with both his wife and his young daughter, desperately clinging to the hope that he can make it all come right.

The books alternates between Lucas’ story, and that of Audra Snow, the woman who was at the center of the group murder that took place back in the 80s. Gradually, as Lucas tries to uncover the grisly details of what happened and why, we see how the vulnerable Audra was drawn into the spell of a charismatic and eerily charming leader who was ready to promise Audra everything she’d always wanted most.

I loved that Lucas & his wife were ex- (or semi-ex-) goths dealing with having an emo kid.

The supernatural elements were woven in really well with the ‘real-life’ horror of the ‘true-crime’-type story. And I very much liked that the author didn’t shy away from the ending that the book needed. Very satisfying.

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Native Tongue – Suzette Haden Elgin **

Native Tongue
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Read for book club.

OK, first off: Suzette Haden Elgin is clearly a separatist, who believed that both women and men would be better off apart from each other. (Not that she seemed to care much about what might be better for men.)
I do not agree with this premise (not even a tiny bit) – but I’m not demeriting the book for holding a viewpoint I disagree with.

There are some interesting ideas brought up – but most of them are dropped, never to be picked up again. Elgin was a linguist, and as such, did have some interesting thoughts about language acquisition and communication.

However – it’s just not a very good book. The language is clunky and awkward, giving the book a feel more like it was published in the 50s than in the 80s. One of the members of my book club theorized that this was done on purpose (a theory bolstered by the fact that language was Elgin’s professional specialty!), but I have read one other book by her, published over a decade earlier, and that one was pretty similar in tone and style. (And it was even worse, as a work of literature.…) So I’m concluding that this was just her writing ‘voice.’

The premise of the book is that in a near future, when Earth has made contact with multitudes of alien races, communicating with those races in order to hammer out trade agreements has become of primary economic importance. It has been discovered that the only way to communicate with humanoid aliens is to have them send a representative who will interact with a human infant, until that infant picks up the alien language as its ‘native tongue.’ Only the babies of thirteen Linguist families, who all live in communal houses on Earth, are trained to this important work. Both the Linguists and the larger Earth culture have become extremely misogynistic: women have the status of slaves. However, the Linguist women have been secretly working on creating a “Womens’ Language” which they see as the tool of their liberation.

Well, Elgin may have been a linguist, but she certainly was not an economist or a sociologist. The whole situation, as described, feels very poorly thought out.

We have the Linguists, for one. They are the tiny group on which the entire human economy (not just Earth, but a plethora of colonies, which, we are told, are easy and cheap to travel to) depends on. However, they are portrayed as a hated group who have to pretend to be poor and live in ascetic, horrid situations, denying themselves even the smallest luxuries, in order to avoid inciting more hatred. This is just ridiculous. In reality, they’d be like oligarchs (as someone in my book club said) and would not care at all if they were loved or hated. They could have their own private planets, if they wanted.

Similarly – the linguist women are half of the Linguists. They are needed, desperately. Sure, they’ve been brought up to be slaves, but they’re already shown as being smart, savvy, and secretly rebellious. They could also go on strike. Hell, they could’ve applied for political asylum from another humanoid species – we’re explicitly told that other planets’ cultures have gender equality. It just doesn’t make sense with the author’s givens, why they’d just do as they were told.

For that matter though, it doesn’t make sense why the Linguists have their monopoly. We’re specifically told it’s not a genetic difference that gives them their abilities. Sure, people think talking to aliens is ‘icky’ and ‘taboo’ – but if the government is willing to experiment and sacrifice non-linguist babies to try to open up communication with non-humanoid aliens (so far, an impossibility), why on earth wouldn’t they do the same to break the Linguist monopoly on communication with humanoid aliens?

Speaking of the “impossibility” of communication with non-humanoid aliens, the most ridiculous part of the book is when (view spoiler) It was just like those old TV shows where something is entered into a computer and it goes “Does Not Compute… Does Not Compute…” and then blows up. This is just not how lack of comprehension works. (It’s not how computers work, either.)

For a book prominently featuring the idea of communication with aliens, it’s also quite disappointing that there is not one single alien character developed. We don’t know how a single alien thinks; what their cultures want, or how or why they are sending representatives to Earth to teach babies their languages. None do any real interacting with any of the characters. Big missed opportunity….

Last complaint… the ending. (view spoiler) It was completely anti-climactic and disappointing.

From this review, there’s a good possibility I should’ve read this instead:…

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Tower of Thorns – Juliet Marillier ***

Tower of Thorns
Tower of Thorns by Juliet Marillier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The sequel to ‘Dreamer’s Pool,’ ‘Tower of Thorns’ also works as a stand-alone. The beginning contains a quick catch-up on the events of the previous volume (including one of my complaints about the first installment: (view spoiler))

Aside from that, though, I didn’t find the plot here nearly as troublesome as the earlier ‘Blackthorn and Grim’ adventure. Again, it’s a tale inspired by fairy stories, with original elements. The odd couple are installed in Prince Oran’s realm, living happily though chastely together, making themselves useful and abiding by the rules set for Blackthorn by the fey Conmael. (This book remains coy about his agenda and motivations.)

However, then a lady arrives at court, seeking a boon. Lady Geiléis says that her lands are cursed: a monster is trapped in a tower; every day its wailing and moaning echo across her holdings in a dreadful cacophony. A slight bit of contortion is necessary to make it so that Geiléis needs Blackthorn to come with her to try to solve the mystery and somehow make her way through the barrier of magical thorns in order to break the curse.

The fairy tale imagery and story elements are beautifully done. However, as a mystery, the way the story is structured is more than a bit frustrating. It’s clear from the start that there’s something suspicious about Geiléis, and that she isn’t being totally honest. It’s also clear that Blackthorn’s old friend, who shows up at an awfully convenient juncture, is being far too pushy about what he wants Blackthorn to do. Meanwhile, Blackthorn doesn’t really solve either mystery – she just kind of goes along with both things, wrestling with balancing her own desires with others’ agendas, sure, but not really ‘investigating’ any of them. Meanwhile, the author slowly doles out information in dribs and drabs, in a way that ends up feeling annoying rather than revelatory.

Still, both Blackthorn and Grim are sympathetic, enjoyable characters, and I’d recommend this for anyone interested in exploring a new angle on the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale.

Many thanks to Roc and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson *****

The Traitor Baru Cormorant
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Highly recommended for fans of Daniel Abraham’s ‘A Shadow in Summer.’ Hey, it’s a small subgenre: well-written, painstakingly-crafted fantasy starring female accountants!

I’ve never been a huge fan of accounting; it never captured my imagination. Really, I can’t even be bothered to balance a checkbook. But THESE books – I loved both of them.

‘The Traitor Baru Cormorant’ (known just as ‘The Traitor’ in the UK) introduces us to the character of Baru Cormorant. When she’s just a girl, her homeland is colonized by The Empire of Masks, known colloquially as ‘The Masquerade.’ While the new rulers of her nation bring technological innovation and luxuries, they also bring the double-edged sword of education, previously-unknown diseases, and cultural beliefs that directly oppose the way of life her people have always known (not to mention who Baru is, as a lesbian). Soon, Baru sees her family torn apart and the home she loves disappearing.

In a Masquerade boarding school, Baru applies herself to her education with a will. Soon, she’s an up-and-coming star: a model student, picked out to be a shining example of the success of assimilated citizens from the Empire’s hinterlands. Baru never speaks of her secret desire to change the Empire from within and to somehow be the agent that saves her country.

But when she receives a government assignment to another far-off territory of the Empire rather than its capital, her dream seems further out of reach than ever. When she discovers that her new posting is a place that prides itself on its inability to be ruled, and that rebellion and revolution are bubbling close to the surface, difficult choices await her – and will test all of her loyalties. Through it all, Baru will wear the mask she has learned to don.

The character of Baru, the interpersonal relationships described, and the political situations drawn here are all complex and nuanced. The author avoids being ‘preachy’ at any point in the book, instead letting events as they unfold speak for themselves.

Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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Deep Blue – Jennifer Donnelly *

Deep Blue
Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

DNF, chapter 4.

I was sucked in by the beautiful cover.

Unfortunately, the mermaids here are nothing more than some catty modern teenagers with some words substituted and some generic ‘fairytale’ elements thrown in.
“Merboys” have “merlfriends” (yes, really) and might “swim with a fast crowd.”
They wear gowns, have “updos” and dye their hair (yes, all underwater.) And above all, apparently, love gossiping. The mer-court seems like a cliquish high school.

The main character is a mer-princess about to be betrothed and rule the realm, but she doesn’t come off as someone raised to wield power at all – instead she’s busy whining at her mother “Why can’t you be a mom instead of a queen” (paraphrase).

At Chapter 4, I’d had enough of it. (And I thought I could perceive a romance on the near-horizon, too.)

One disappointed mermaid fan, here.

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