Coed Demon Sluts (Omnibus), Jennifer Stevenson

Nothing like jumping back into the mix after a few months off with a review about a five book series called Coed Demon Sluts. Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation, or maybe it’s the constant parental wariness required when caring for an enthusiastically loving toddler big brother and a five month old who’s game for anything as long as it involves being near said sibling, but it makes me laugh. Why not talk about books that feature women who have made a deal with hell to become sex demons that are funny and thoughtful with a refreshing feminist philosophy?

81uhpceu5xl-__bg0000_fmpng_ac_ul320_sr214320_Popcorn lit is one of my favorite genres, and the best are those easily digested by the mind slop currently inhabiting the space where my brain usually lives. These books though, had the added bonus of exploring fascinating issues around societal expectations of sex and sex work for women and men, appearance as it relates to size, race, and sexual identity, and female friendships and support networks.

After the first two books, I was a bit concerned because I didn’t necessarily agree with some of the conclusions being drawn – for example, the women/demons are able to shape their appearance any way they’d like, and each of the original four characters choose tall, thin, young, impossibly beautiful bodies. I don’t believe that given the option, every woman would want the same template, but it did pique my interest around the way women often by necessity associate power and appearance.

It also made me all the happier to get to the third book and see this stereotype start to be dismantled in the rest of the series. In fact, as much as I enjoyed the first two books, Stevenson told her strongest story throughout the last three volumes. The five books are very much written as one, and although each follows one demon in particular, I found it worked better to consider each an extension of the same story.

Honestly, once a conversation gets going around male gaze, the worship of youth, racial bias, the long term effects of abuse, and the privilege surrounding wealth and beauty, it’s difficult to dismiss these books as light summer reading. I’m a huge advocate for read what you love (lest you read nothing at all), and I think it’s both appropriate and inspired to see an author tackle these topics in such an accessible way. It feels like Stevenson is really living out the idea of meeting people where they live, encouraging her readers to enjoy a mental vacation without sacrificing a sense of empathy and connectedness with the wider world.

Quick housekeeping note: I said I’d be writing again in September, and I’ve clearly got things well in hand (definitely not sliding in under the wire here – nope, not at all). It turns out, having two young children makes it more difficult to write, not less, and although I’ve actually read about thirty books since May, it’s been insane to try to get even ten minutes on my computer to talk about them. This post (and probably many of my future reviews) was written with one thumb on my phone. I apologize for any errors that might occur as a result. At any rate, I’m happy to be back.

The October Daye books, Seanan McGuire

Happy New Year, folks! I realize for most people, this is the first (dreaded, though hopefully, abbreviated) work week back after the holidays, but since we decided to travel a little later this year, I’m still bouncing around the east coast visiting family on both sides of the proverbial tree. It’s strange to be seeing so many people who are back from vacation and feeling – let’s charitably say “a little grumpy” – rather than catching them in their most festive moods.

cover_rrI’m not sure I’d suggest it as a general practice. Too many people have started new diets this week, or all of a sudden have to get up early to go to the gym rather than meet us before work to enjoy a bear claw while our toddler climbs all over them. It’s not my fault that they’re in the middle of a detox while I’m still in a treat baking frenzy! (Okay. It is my fault, but to be fair, I’m so over-sugared at this point that I feel like my whole body has been set to perma-vibrate. I have to give these cookies away or die trying…)

In the meantime, I’m just trying to get the stink of 2016 off by binge reading a little urban fantasy. I couldn’t even pick one of the books to review because in the last month, I’ve read six of the ten that have been published, and it wouldn’t be fair to try to limit my love of Toby Daye to just one volume (except book 4 – this isn’t much of a spoiler, but I hate storylines that center around the protagonist being falsely accused. It’s one of my least favorite tropes, and unfortunately this book is integral to the larger plot, so it can’t be skipped. It just wasn’t my favorite.)

She’s my favorite kind of heroine – self-sacrificing, unfailingly sarcastic, a lone wolf who’s absolutely plagued by people who love her and won’t let her go careening off without, at a minimum, moral support. She’s been the perfect remedy to the chaos of December, the onset of head colds, and the insane desire of children to be fed three relatively well-balanced meals a day while wearing passably clean clothes. As a bonus, when I checked out her website, I saw that McGuire is already slated to release at least three more volumes in the next three years, which is great news for future me! (Present me is still content to have four more books on standby to get through the Northern Hemisphere’s most detested month.)

Of course, this means I “have” to finish those books, and then read something more…nutritious in the next two weeks, since even I can’t justify posting about this series twice in a month. Oh January – this is why everybody hates you…

Fire Touched, Patricia Briggs

Is there anything better than seeing an email pop up saying a book you pre-ordered (and then forgot existed) is now available on your kindle this very second?! To me, it’s almost better than Christmas – a complete and wonderful surprise from a beloved author – it’s a happy enough occasion that it redeems even a week trapped inside watching the rain while a nine month old climbs the walls.

25776210Briggs, of course, was the author who got me through the last six weeks of my pregnancy and much of the summer caring for a newborn. Her Mercy Thompson series brings me so much joy with its lighthearted spin on werewolves, fae, vampires, and of course, coyote shape-shifters. It was painful that I could only read this newest volume in fits and starts, pages stolen during nap time (after chores and real work were finished – thanks a lot adult responsibilities!) and for a few minutes before I passed out at night. I told myself that I was just savoring it, but really, it was torture.

Now that I’ve finished, all I can think is, how long until the next book comes out? Do I really have to wait a year or two for more? This is a problem I often find when I’ve binged on a series and then caught up to real time production. My brain believes I’m entitled to infinite pages, but the reality is that I have to wait and hope that another email will pop up in the next few weeks telling me about a sequel in another beloved series I hadn’t remembered was forthcoming. The idea of such a treat will get me through the first long difficult hours after finishing, but the reality is, I don’t pre-order often, so I’ll eventually have to let go and turn to my shelf of perfectly good to-read books.

I’m not ready yet though. I’m still happy to daydream about characters I love, to swish this last novel around in my brain for awhile, sifting through it for bright shards of story I might have missed during my fractured read. It’s that bittersweet clingy stage all bookworms know, defiantly wrapped up in a favorite world even after the book has come to its satisfying end…

Hellzapoppin’, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Sometimes I think back on the first book I read by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. I had just seen a tweet that John Scalzi had shared about a contest for writers interested in working on a collaborative novel. I wish now that I’d saved it because I can’t remember what it was about those hundred or so characters that piqued my interest. I felt compelled to click through and find out more though, and it led to a life changing novel writing experience for me. 

I’ve been writing books for many years, but learning to trust writers I’ve (still) never met was both a challenge and discovery of one of my true passions. I don’t just like to write – I want to collaborate. I love taking ideas generated by a bunch of half-crazy people and helpin71myanzzgzlg to turn them into something beautiful. Goody and Grant are, I suspect, a lot like me in that respect. They don’t shy away from the complications of writing books together, and what I discovered reading that first book was that they have a real gift for it. 

Of course, back then, I was lounging around in a coffee shop in London, soaking up my time as an ex-pat and grasping every opportunity that flew within reach. I was exploring a country and culture just different enough from my own that it felt like tripping into a mirror image. I was comfortable. I had spare time. I could consume caffeine with zero consequences. It was another time. 

Reading this latest installment of the Clovenhoof books took a lot longer. I mostly had to skim, juggling my phone while my all of a sudden loathes nursing baby flailed around, trying to smack it out of my hands. There was zero lounging involved, let me tell you. It was more like a full contact sport – how many pages could I get through before a tiny but surprisingly strong arm knocked it out of reach? (Somewhere between half a page and six, in case you were curious.)

As a result, it took me longer to get into this volume. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it as much as I had the earlier books until I was about a third of the way in. Once I understood where these new characters stood (and had more than fourteen seconds to read about them), I was hooked. I found myself trying to unwind where Grant began and Goody stopped, but it was seamless, just as their earlier books have been. 

I have to say that there’s something odd about visiting authors I read before I was a mother. I haven’t had much opportunity to do it, but with the few sequels I’ve gotten to since June, I find myself comparing the before and after experience. It was much different, being a reader before parenthood. Even at my busiest, in comparison to my life now, it seems like I had loads of time to lay around getting lost in a good book. It was a luxury I’m not sure I fully appreciated. I can’t get lost anymore. I can only dip in and out of a book like a kid learning to hold her breath underwater.

It has made reading even more of a necessity. My world has, at least temporarily, shrunk, and books – both new and familiar – make me giddily part of the wider world. Every day, my son and I read every one of his books (I’m guessing he has thirty or so in his budding collection), and then we move on to the library books. We fill our days with words, and it’s amazing to me that he seems to love it as much as I do. 

Even as he grows to appreciate his books more, the amount of time I have to read my own shrinks, and I cling to every flailing opportunity. I’ve come a long way since I first discovered Goody and Grant, and I suspect I still have a ways to go yet. I’m glad every now and again, I can grab one of their books and know I have a good laugh and a bit of nostalgia waiting for me.

Cry Wolf, Patricia Briggs

December is such a busy time that I have had far less time to read than I would like. I love to curl up in front of the fireplace with a great read, the Christmas tree joyfully lit up when the sky is dark so early. There’s really nothing cozier than the perfect book paired with a cup of tea and a plate of freshly baked cookies when my toes are toasty and warm. Of course, this year, we aren’t using the fireplace because exploring little people don’t yet understand the concept of “hot,” and I have to keep an eye on the tree lest it be mauled by over-excited little hands. We do spend a lot of time reading in front of it, but the books are small and hard, and they feature a lot of farm animals and rhyming. I’m not complaining. It’s a wonderful way to spend Advent. It’s just not quite as intellectually stimulating as some books on my to-read shelf (oh Sonia Sotomayor, I swear I’ll get to your life story eventually!).

Life being what it is, I’m going to talk instead about a series I read during the first few months of our son’s life. I kept a list of everything I read during parental leave on my computer since I knew I was far too sleep deprived to remember (and feel the deserved sense of accomplishment) how many books I got through. It’s been interesting to go back and look through it, remembering how hot the summer was, and just how many hours I was awake every day. During that time, I obviously wasn’t seeking out any life changing reads. I wanted light and fun, and because I was so devastated when I finished reading all of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, I was over the moon to discover her Alpha and Omega follow-up.

I don’t think I even took a breath from one series to the next. The Alpha and Omega books take place in the same world and feature a character I’d gotten to know in the original series, so it was easy to dive right in. I burned through my phone battery every night reading while holding a sleeping or nursing baby in my arms, and it was totally worth it. In my mind, it was the best of both worlds – sweet cuddles and a popcorn read – and there’s little else a book loving new mom can ask for. 

Of course, Mercy Thompson and I were so tight that I couldn’t bring myself to love the Alpha and Omega series quite as much, even though it was as well written and compelling. I loved the world, and I liked Briggs’ new protagonist, Anna, very much. It was just too soon for me to form a bestie bond with her. Of course, that didn’t stop me from devouring all four books in the series as quickly as I could download them onto my phone. When I think of all the books languishing in my kindle app right now, I feel just a hint of nostalgia for those days when our son slept so much of the day away…but just a hint, because that transition from “fourth trimester sleep confused little person” to “hey! the night is for sleeping little person” is a truly blessed gift. And hey, the long grey days of the new year are just around the corner – plenty of time to curl up under a blanket and read a luxurious page and a half before attending to more pressing things!

Finn Fancy Necromancy, Randy Henderson

Do you ever buy a book purely for the title? I have to imagine the answer is yes, and the main reason I want to believe this is that I really struggle with titling projects and I want to believe that at the end of the day, all that agony has meant something. I want to know that at least a few people who buy my books are doing so not because they know me or my work or even because they care much for the genre, but purely because it would be too hard to pass up the opportunity to buy something with such a fabulous title! As you can tell, I’ve clearly got my priorities in order.

While I was considering this question, I actually wished I had created an appropriate tag when I started this blog just to mark the books I buy and read for the title. I know I’ve done it more than once, and it seems like it would be fun to go back and compare how those books worked out for me. I feel like if I collected enough empirical evidence on the topic, I might be able to make an educated guess about how reliable it is to judge a book by its cover. (For the record, the cover art for Finn Fancy Necromancy is both amazing and completely nonsensical, and I love it – sheer bonus on top of the title, in my opinion.)

If I had to make a guess without any data (which is, admittedly, how I like to roll), I would say that books I’ve chosen purely for love of the title tend to score a six or a seven out of ten for me, whereas books I pick for the cover art alone tend to score much lower, averaging maybe a four or so. Again, I have no real evidence to back this up other than my memory (which has become, in the last nine months, not so much a sieve as a sucking vacuous black hole). Fortunately, I suspect it would be hard to prove me wrong on this point, and even if it were possible, it would be a tremendously unsatisfying victory. It would take so much work, and for what? To discover that taste is a fleeting concept? That the most enduring stories last regardless of title or cover? That it’s only in this wonderful age of book over-saturation that we even get to contemplate such a curious issue? Our time could be much better spent perusing the library shelves for titles, like this one, that make us giggle. Is Finn Fancy the best book I’ve ever read? No. Was it light and fun and perfect for my wandering brain this close to the end of my pregnancy? Yes. 

Henderson’s style is familiar and friendly, and his characters are people I can imagine befriending over a coffee even though their circumstances don’t seem to allow for many latte breaks. Every morning at the gym, as I battled exercise-induced heartburn (yes, that’s a real thing, and yes, I have it right now), I would read a chapter or two about Finn, returning from exile in a faerie prison world after twenty years, and I would appreciate how challenging it would be to try to pick up life where he left it, as a teenager in the eighties, now far from the cutting edge and pushing forty. 

Since he’s returned, he’s not only the target of the mysterious forces that framed him for his original crime, but he’s also been dumped back into the the fray of his family’s drama and his adolescent love interests. He has no personal memories of the last twenty years, has no idea what technological or political advances have been made, and has had no contact with anyone from his old life. What he does have is a healthy sense of humor (very much under appreciated by the people in his life) appropriate for a kid growing up with the Goonies. I couldn’t help but sympathize for the poor guy. No one should have to go to bed seventeen and wake up middle aged – it’s just not fair. 

When it comes down to it, the reason a book like this often ends up being a good fit for me, even when I do no research on it whatsoever before reading, is that silly wordplay is something I enjoy. While a beautiful cover might inspire or intrigue me, it often has little bearing to what’s on the page. The title, on the other hand, is an author’s wink at the world, a little peek into the particular twist of psyche that has turned a spark into an adventure.

For more about Randy Henderson, head here.

Half-Resurrection Blues, Daniel José Older

After my vacation at the beginning of February, I took a sharp left from reading fiction. I’m not sure why, but every novel I started ended up abandoned somewhere between one and five chapters in, even though they were all books I got specifically believing I would enjoy them. My brain just wouldn’t engage in any of the stories or characters, and I felt bored and restless as soon as I sat down. I’ve found this happens every now and again, and often the remedy is either time, or picking up an old favorite and giving in to the well-worn love of a previous happy world.

Neither of those options were appealing to me though. My pig-headed nature wanted to force its way through this slump and into the wonderful arms of a new book. I wanted it so badly that I was willing to take a chance that I would cast aside Older’s new book, having forever tainted it with my bad mood. Make no mistake – it was a risk. I’ve loved his short stories, but that was not a guarantee that his warmth and wit would translate to a longer form. Part of me didn’t want to use him as a sacrificial lamb, but the other half – the dangerous, swashbuckling reader half – won out. Onto the pyre with you, Older, I thought, and let us see how you fare against this zombified brain!

As it turns out, his new series was a worthy opponent. It didn’t completely snap me out of my fiction funk, but the first installment was compelling enough to finish in about two and a half days. It certainly helped that I’ve already read and enjoyed stories about his protagonist in Salsa Nocturna Stories and had some idea about what I was getting into, but I also think Older has the sort of style that makes me want to pull up a chair and inhabit his version of Brooklyn.

For the record, while I’m certainly not anti-Brooklyn, I’m also not hip enough to have any desire to live there in its current incarnation. To be fair, I haven’t visited since I was a child, and in the eighties, it was a much grittier place, but that memory doesn’t put me off nearly as much as what I’ve heard it’s turned into – again, not because its evolution (an evolution much like those that take place in cities worldwide as financial waves ebb and flow) is so terrible, but because even from afar, it doesn’t appeal to me. New York has never been one of my heart’s homes. It’s too brash, too extroverted, too aware of its own importance for me to relax for even a moment when I visit. I constantly feel underdressed and ill at ease in my own body, even as I’m taking in all the wonderful things the city has to offer.

This is surely why it amazed me to find his version of the city so charming and accessible. Older is patiently aware not only of its current existence, but also of its history. He respects the many threads that come together to create such a place and then finds a way to blend Brooklyn’s diverse tapestry into the perfect setting for a ghost war. The city itself is one of his greatest characters and he consistently does right by it, ensuring people like me, with little or no investment in such a place, feel connected and part of the scene.


For more about Daniel José Older, head over here.

Alice in Zombieland, Gena Showalter

I know we’re only two days away from a three-day long weekend, but the last week has been a real slog of post vacation blues. Usually this is a condition I suffer, at most, a day or so, but I have not been able to let go this time. I crave more sun! More family time! More hours to lazily read zombie novels while the waves crash at my feet!

Yes, while on vacation, I finished the two books I’d brought (unheard of!) and ended up downloading one at random from my Amazon wish list. As is the case with many of the titles collected there, I couldn’t remember where I had tagged it from or what it was about; all that mattered was that it looked like just the right level of popcorn fiction for the occasion at hand. Judging by the quick three-day turn around (read exclusively on beaches or while waiting for my turn to scrub sunscreen-cemented sand off), it was the right choice.

Now, this is not one of those books I’d blithely recommend to just anyone. First of all, it has a teen romance element I was neither expecting nor particularly enamored with. Secondly, it’s about zombies. Now, personally, I love a good zombie book. While I often find television and movie depictions of the genre too intense, I find the right novel, laced with a healthy dose of humor, to be intriguing. (For example, I’m more of a Shaun of the Dead fan than The Walking Dead.)

It’s not an area of fiction where I’ve generally found much traction. While vampires, werewolves, and otherworldly spirits have long dominated the shelves, zombies seem to continuously slip by on the reader popularity scale. I think I’ve only reviewed one other even remotely similar title here, and that was a few years back now. I’m certain some of you are genre aficionados and will be able to point me toward some great titles, but it still stands that as far as monster fiction goes, the pickings are rather slim.

It was with great joy, then, that I discovered Alice. Although the character is flawed in some very realistic adolescent ways, the writing was never less than compelling. The pacing was perfect for such a story, and even when I rolled my eyes at descriptions of muscle-bound teenage delinquent zombie hunters, I was also completely hooked. The kids Showalter was describing – burn outs and troublemakers and victims of great tragedies – did seem like the perfect army to fight the undead. They had that ideal combination of ridiculous unflagging energy and young bones that could take brutal beatings and realistically recover in a few days or weeks.

The end result was a guilty pleasure that practically had “vacation reading” stamped on the cover. I didn’t even have to break a sweat to finish this before we flew home, and it was the perfect companion to that brief bit of summer I glimpsed during this interminable winter.


For more about Gena Showalter and the White Rabbit Chronicles, head here.

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

Way back when I started this blog, I wrote a review about the second book in Grossman’s Magician trilogy. It was one of those stories that ripped out my heart, mutilated it, then tried to shove it back into my chest in only a rough approximation of where it had originally been. It was that good (or bad, depending on how you want to look at it). Either way, it was one of those books I can’t bring myself to reread because it was too painful the first time, even though I often find myself thinking about it and recalling specific lines with a sort of perverse heartbreaking pleasure.

I was fortunate enough to discover the first two books in the trilogy through John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” and of course read them back to back. I was surprised to find that the second was my favorite, since in general I find the middle book of a trilogy to be, at best, a placeholder, and at worst, a dull repetition of the first book.

I had two years to dwell on that second volume though, since Grossman didn’t publish his conclusion, The Magician’s Land, until early fall of this year. I thought I would tear right into my pre-ordered copy when it arrived in September, but I found myself putting it off again and again, strangely hesitant to reenter the world he had so lovingly created. I don’t know why I hesitated, but some part of me wasn’t ready. The end of the second book was just…well, I can’t quite explain it, but it stuck with me so deeply that it was nearly impossible to move into the end of the story. Let’s just say that I still get choked up when I think about that book, and reading the third one almost felt like a betrayal of what had come before.

I finally did it though. Christmas break turned out to be a good opportunity, especially given that the third book turned out to be a lot less devastating than the first two (not exactly holiday heart-warmers, I promise you that). I ended up reading it during breaks from family time and in the various airports we had to travel through, and I wonder if that stuttered timeline influenced my perception of the book. Grossman still writes a hell of a compelling story, it didn’t win me over nearly the way the first two did.

The biggest challenge seemed to be that the author himself was having a hard time saying goodbye to his world. It’s something I completely understand, and it actually makes me like Grossman even more than I did before, but it didn’t all come together for quite as powerful a conclusion as aI was expecting. Things were a little too easy for characters he had made suffer in the other books, and while I’m all for them catching a few breaks after everything they’d experienced, I wanted a little more of that pain he writes so beautifully.

I wonder what the experience would have been like if I’d been able to read all three of these volumes back to back. Hopefully, some of you will do it and let me know if I’m completely off-base with my interpretation of the final installment. Grossman is certainly a major talent, and his books are well-worth the emotional investment. Part of my problem is that I can’t tell if I set myself up with unrealistic expectations, or if he really did go a little too easy on his “children” this time around. The plot certainly filled in a lot of fascinating holes left in the first two books, and I enjoyed the story very much – I just did’t have that shot to to the heart reaction I was hoping for.

*As a side note, I do want to mention that these books contain material that may not be suitable for everyone. The second book, in particular, has a triggering scene so violent I still find it disturbing years later. The series is not, in general, overly violent or sexual in nature but I wouldn’t want to recommend these across the board without issuing this as a consideration.


For more about Lev Grossman, head over here.

Skin Game, Jim Butcher

Michael snorted. “You destroy buildings, fight monsters openly in the streets of the city, work with the police, show up in newspapers, advertise in the phone book, and ride zombie dinosaurs down Michigan Avenue, and you think that you work in the shadows? Be reasonable.” (p 267)

There are few things I love more than a new Dresden Files book. I have to give Jim Butcher major props too, because come spring, he delivers. I’ve been reading this series since 2007 (seven years after he began publishing stories about Harry Dresden), and although it’s painful to wait for the next volume after I finish a new one, it’s comforting to know I won’t be left hanging indefinitely. I cannot overstate how much I value consistency when it comes to a series I love.

An author can buy my affection for the low, low price of a great book written every year. Piece of cake, right? If you have a pact with the devil, maybe. Or you’re heavily into witchcraft. I suspect Jim Butcher of both. And I am fine with that. He works hard, and his books are such fun that even while my rational brain is applauding him for the grueling writing schedule he must have to keep, I never get the feeling it’s hard work – just the contrary. His style is sarcastic adventuring at its best, and it reads like he enjoys spending time in his version of Chicago more than the world outside of its pages.

I don’t know anything about Butcher’s personal life. I don’t where he lives, or whether he’s married or has kids. I’ve never seen him speak or read any interviews, and yet I’ve created a mental image of him after reading his books that informs my own work as a writer deeply. I greatly admire his work ethic. I don’t need to do more than look at the number of books he’s published to know that he lives by the adage “a writer writes.” I, like many writers, go through periods over the course of every year where I write more or less, and at the moment, I’m in one of those lulls that forces me to confront the fear that I’m not doing enough to prove myself in my field. When I read books by authors like Butcher, I’m humbled by his dedication to his characters, to his fans, and to his own desire to tell stories.

It’s such a beautiful thing to read books by writers who are clearly in love with writing. That creative fire ignites their work to create spectacular energy on every page; Butcher is the kind of writer who stokes that fire for all its worth. He could just as easily fall back on the great novels he’s written in the past, but instead, he breathes new life into his characters with every book. When I finished Skin Game, I was reminded again of the joy that lies beneath his stories. It’s a feeling that makes me wish I had time to go back and reread the series every year. I could easily live in Dresden’s universe for months at a time, and the most butt-kicking part of realizing that is that knowledge I should take as much pleasure from my own fictional worlds as I do the ones created for my enjoyment…


For more about Jim Butcher, go here.

Fated, Benedict Jacka

Mages like me aren’t common, but we aren’t as rare as you might think either. We look the same as anyone else, and if you passed one of us on the street, odds are you’d never know it. Only if you were very observant would you notice something a little off, a little strange, and by the time you took another look, we’d be gone.

It’s another world, hidden within your own, and most of those who live in it don’t like visitors. Those of us who do like visitors have to advertise, and it’s tricky to find a way of doing it that doesn’t make you sound crazy. The majority rely on word of mouth, though younger mages use the Internet. I’ve even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under “Wizard,” though that’s probably an urban legend. (loc 78)

For the record, that “guy in Chicago” is Harry Dresden, my very favorite wizard (yes, he nudges Hermione Granger out of first by a hair’s breadth), and Jacka earned major points with me for that reference.

The man knows his audience, and I happen to think that’s a crucial part of a writer’s job. I used to get into huge, rambling discussions about this with one of my roommates in college. He was a screenwriter and just masochistic enough to allow me to critique his first drafts. (I always have to warn people who ask for my honest opinion when it comes to this sort of thing that as nice as I may seem, I’m vicious when it comes to the red pen. I’m a big fan of the up-down-up method of critique, but the down can be…prolonged.)

We went to a school that was best known for two (out of only six) majors – film and radio. The students from the radio department were some of the nicest, most hard-working people I’ve ever met, and they produced damn fine shows every week. The film students…well, I was mostly friends with film students, so I was privy to a lot of the drama that’s inevitable when so many big fish are removed from their small ponds and dumped into an ocean of talent. (Spoiler alert: it can get ugly.) I was lucky to fall in with a more down-to-earth crowd, and one of the elements that truly set them apart from their classmates was the ability to take criticism and actually create something better the next time around.

This roommate, in particular, thrived on pulling his work apart completely with me and rebuilding it into a story worth telling. One of the ideas we came around to again and again in this process was that the phrase “But I get what I was trying to say” should never be uttered in response to “This isn’t really making sense to me.” We both agreed that such an answer was where the creative process went to die. It was defensive and short-sighted, and the end result was never as good as it could have been.

He and I were exceptionally tough on each other when it came to that idea. We spent countless hours defining our respective audiences for every project, and then we considered who else we would want to reach if we could. It was the kind of exercise I didn’t fully appreciate in the moment, but when I think about the projects I choose now, I realize how critical those evaluations were. Benedict Jacka clearly knows his audience for the Alex Verus novels and some of the sharpest moments in this first book of the series are when he gives a nod to the writers who have come before him.

Jacka seems to realize he’s picking up new readers based, not on name recognition or white-hot fame, but on the cache of the insider. He makes it work for him, and although at times, I found myself wishing he would challenge himself to dig a little deeper, he certainly knows the urban fantasy trope inside and out. His characters are likable and fun, plagued though they may be by an overly sharp delineation between good and evil. While I’m planning to pick up the next book, I have to admit I’m hoping for more shading, for a subtly in character that the author is clearly capable of, if his plot is anything to go by.

He’s a solid writer, but I got the impression at times that he was so excited to get the story on the page he sacrificed some of the moments where we could have lingered meaningfully with the characters. I have that problem in movies and television all the time, but in a book, I feel like character development should never be squeezed by time constraints. I’ll be curious to see how he does in the next few installments; now that he’s set the scene, he has the opportunity to make this series better than the wink wink nudge nudge he does so well.


For more about Benedict Jacka, head over here.

Salsa Nocturna Stories, Daniel José Older

I have gotten to the point where I can no longer say I’m iffy about short stories. I’ve always loved them, but novels take up so much more space in my brain that I forget how great they can be every. single. time.

It’s not the worse problem to have, of course – a terrible memory means I get to experience that unexpected burst of joy whenever I venture into short story territory. I’m not even picky about genre the way I am with longer books, I suspect because a short story is so much less of a commitment. I can read it in two or five or thirty minutes, and if it wasn’t my favorite, no great loss. I’m not emotionally over-investing, so I have a lot of leeway for experimentation.

Older’s stories fall into the urban fantasy category, and since I wasn’t expecting that when I got the book from my mother, it turned out to be a lovely surprise. While I’m willing to read just about anything under ten pages, the special place in my heart where urban fantasy lives is absolutely infinite. I just devoured this book, with its sweet, interconnected character arcs, each story building on the delicate tales that had come before.

The author manages to capture a New York City that is almost tastable. The overly sweetened coffee with unfiltered cigarettes, cologne masking sweat, rot and the sewer rushes – it all blends together to create a space on the edge of life and death in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. He sweeps the unbelievable in with the want-to-haves, writes friendships as tough as his characters are fragile. Older hovers in the margins of the city, and in doing so, casts his spell over any reader who has been there herself.

He doesn’t shy away from horror, but underneath the creepiness, his gentler heart shines through. He is an optimist, at least on the page, and his characters reflect a kind of friendly hopefulness that seems to run counter to the horrific settings they find themselves in. The balance worked for me though – too much terror and I wouldn’t have made it through the second story, too much light and I would question the true shape of his created world. Swaying in between the extremes, his stories found my happy place and took up residency there.


For more about Daniel José Older, head over here.

Libriomancer, Jim Hines

I’ve been meaning to read a book by Jim Hines for about nine months now, ever since I saw him competing with John Scalzi in a fantasy cover pose-off for charity (not his first time doing such a thing, but the first I’d been aware of it via Scalzi’s Whatever). Since then, he seems to be everywhere, defending the rights of women to be geeks, defending the rights of geeks to like whatever they want to like, and defending his own right to say and do whatever he wants in support of these things.  All the stories I’ve heard about him have been delightful, and when it comes right down to it, nothing makes me want to read more than liking the person behind the story.

I’ve discovered that when I know a little more about an author, when I’ve heard about his or her life, I’m inclined to like the book just that much more.  It’s especially important now that the internet is a thing; when I was a kid, I probably read and enjoyed books by all sorts of simply terrible people, and I never had a clue. That was fine. I didn’t have immediate access to blog posts, tweets, or Wikipedia pages for essentially every author I read, and maybe it was better that way.

Who am I kidding? Of course it was better. I read so much more before the internet and all of its distractions! I didn’t know terrible things about writers whose books I love! I didn’t have deep existential debates over nearly as many authors because I was too busy stuffing myself with delicious stories!

And yet, the internet has its uses, doesn’t it? For example, through this blog, I’ve been able to at least tangentially connect with almost 9000 people who love books with a passion kindred to my own. I also hear about and buy books with an abandon that borders on disturbing. Thank God for ebooks, which I basically treat as another limb, and for sites that recommend people like Hines – authors perfectly suited to my taste because, well, the internet is equipped to do such a thing.

Alright, so the internet is brilliant, and it also drives me crazy, so I guess that makes me…normal? I get distracted by it, but then it leads me to a sweet, funny, wonderful urban fantasy like Libriomancer and I get all excited all over again. I like that with a couple clicks, I can find out what conventions Hines goes to, or that the first few chapters of the sequel to Libriomancer is available for free on his website. It makes me happy to know I bought a book in support of a nice guy who tries to make a difference in his community of fans, and I think it’s great the internet is a powerful tool for him to speak out when things happen in that community that upset him.

I don’t know how great an effect such knowledge had on me when it comes to enjoying his novel. I already love the genre he writes in, and I’ve always had a soft spot for funny, bumbling protagonists, so if I had come across this book in a store, I’m sure I would have bought it and enjoyed his work because he tells a good story in a way I like to hear it told. It doesn’t hurt though, that in this case, the internet played the part of an excellent librarian, or a friend with complimentary reading taste. I don’t get recs from either type of person very often anymore, so the ability to discover new authors hinges, more than I’d ideally like, on this massive web of information.


If you find yourself craving more about Jim C Hines work, check out his site (and its free samples) here.

City of Bones (part the second), Cassandra Clare

This isn’t going to be a completely spoiler-filled post, but as a person who hates to be ruined for a book  I haven’t read, I feel obliged to warn you that it crosses into spoiler territory. I won’t tell you what happens (past a few plot points in the first two or three chapters), but I do want to talk about some of the emotional choices made by the protagonist, and if that will ruin a book you potentially want to read, stop here.

* * *

If you’re still with me, I’m going to assume you’ve read the book/don’t mind spoilers/don’t plan to read it, and I’ll dive right in to what I see as the greatest disappointment to an otherwise enjoyable fantasy adventure. The protagonist, Clary Fray, is a fifteen year old girl and the daughter of a widow. At the beginning of the book, it is well-established that she has a tempestuous relationship with her mother. The exchanges we see between them are limited to heated arguments and misunderstandings – a relatively believable situation that I’m sure many people can relate to. Within the first few chapters, Clary’s mother disappears under violent circumstances, and the rest of the plot is put into motion. Clary, unsure whether he mother is even still alive, is determined to rescue her.

With what resources would a fifteen year old girl go about this? This is an urban fantasy, so we know the police will not be involved (not when they would immediately contact social services and remove Clary from any further investigation). No, Clary – with absolutely no information besides a panicked phone call from her mother, disconnected moments after she tells her daughter to stay away from their apartment at all costs; a second call to the closest thing she has to a father figure, who tells her to never to contact him again; and the appearance of a beautiful, seemingly magical (and broodingly handsome) boy she met one night earlier – decides she’s going to find her (potentially alive but certainly in terrible danger) mother herself.

I actually wouldn’t have a problem with this if it weren’t for what followed. I have no difficulty suspending my disbelief in the possibility of a teenager succeeding whether countless other adults with more experience have failed (and died). I was raised on a steady diet of books just like this with protagonists even younger, facing even greater odd. It’s exhilarating to tout the talents of young people – their ingenuity, bravery, and occasional ignorance of the shades of grey existing between moral absolutes. Books like that inspire hope and batter at the idea that children are less capable, when really, it is only that they have less experience to temper their natural abilities.

The problem for me is not the idea of a girl with zero resources facing down a brutal villain in a world she barely understands; it’s not even that Clary is distracted by her position in a love triangle (oh, if only I had a nickel for every love triangle I – or anyone I knew – faced at fifteen…I would have, maybe, seven cents…). Those are both standard for the genre. No, the two things I find unbelievable are 1. how little consideration any plan of attack is given (by all means, token adult, allow these teenagers to throw themselves into incredibly dangerous situations without the slightest protest or backup plan) and 2. how very little time is given to the relationship between Clary and her mother after the disappearance.

The first point annoys me, but knowing how brilliantly sneaky real teenagers are at getting away with far less dangerous plans they have their hearts set on, I can cut the plot a little slack. I would like to believe that the gorgeous but also well-trained man-child Clary meets in the first chapter would have spent some time studying strategy during his life-long tutoring to become a demon-hunter, but, you know, hormones, or something. The guys I knew at fifteen, well, they were incredibly smart, but they often seemed clueless about manipulation and planning. Only those on the extreme ends of the spectrum (uber-geeks and jocks) spent much time considering strategy on any level. My female friends, on the other hand, strategized about everything; often, it felt like living inside a critical game Risk. So sure, I can buy that Jace would barrel headlong into dire situations, and perhaps that Clary would follow him in that embarrassing way that most of us, regardless of gender, can remember doing from time to time when feeling both smitten and emotionally vulnerable. I get it. I don’t love it, but I understand.

The element I cannot reconcile, however, is the relationship (or lack thereof) between Clary and her mother, Jocelyn. They fight, sure. We are made to understand the Clary feels intimidated by her mother’s beauty and talent, and that they maintain a relatively distant relationship with each other. We never learn enough about Jocelyn from her own perspective to understand this, and Clary’s feelings are so scattered that it’s impossible to get a solid read on their history from her.

Surprisingly, I don’t doubt that she loves her mother, despite their difficult relationship, but I never get the feeling that she needs her. Clary spends a few sentences worth of time right after the disappearance crying over it, and then we never get another moment of genuine grief or acknowledgement about what it would mean for her if her mother was dead. We see some anger, and we see her steadfastly pushing forward to find Jocelyn, but it mostly feels robotic. Clary’s more energized by the pain inflicted on the boy she’s known for a week than she is by what has happened to the woman who raised her.

Even that could be legitimate if I were certain Clary and Jocelyn had only a cursory relationship with each other, but that’s never made clear. Honestly, I know people who hate their mothers who still would be deeply affected by a situation like this, if only because, regardless of the relationship, the bond between parent and child has a tremendous capacity for both joy and pain. The rarest thing to evolve in a family is true indifference. Indifference masking disappointment, frustration, abuse or abandonment? Certainly. But complete apathy? It may happen, but I personally haven’t witnessed it. And regardless of the potential for indifference, that isn’t what’s insinuated in the book. The author wants us to believe that Clary and her mother are…something to each other. Maybe she doesn’t even know what they’re meant to be or what their history is, and as a result, as a reader, I got increasingly frustrated.

If it were my mother, who admittedly, I’m very close to, who had gone missing and was potentially dead, the rage, despair, and fear I felt would eclipse everything else. If I had moments of relief or rest, they would be followed closely by unbearable anguish. I would be thinking of heroics, revenge, and my own future, in that order. If a cute boy happened to appear to help me, great. Maybe after we saved my mother, I would have time to appreciate that fact. Maybe, in a moment of terrible loneliness, I would even choose to bury the pain and (given age-appropriate conditions) make out with said boy; after which, I would feel incredibly guilty that I had allowed myself to do such a thing when my mother was in mortal danger.

There is just so much potential for angst and savior complexes here, and it goes completely unmined! This kind of story was made for character-building agony! I don’t understand how a writer who came up through the ranks of fan fiction could possibly miss the opportunity to torture her characters. There’s no doubt in my mind that the resolution would be much more satisfying if Clary had suffered more along the way. Clare sets up an interesting premise, and she creates a vivid world for her characters to play in, but ultimately, I needed her to commit to the pain.

City of Bones (part the first), Cassandra Clare

I never do this, but I have to admit I picked up City of Bones because there’s a movie version being released at the end of August and my friend wants us to go see it. We’ve gone to see a handful of films together that were inspired by books we’ve both enjoyed, and I look forward to seeing this one with her. I already know it will involve about three pounds of candy and one of those tubs of popcorn that could be shared comfortably with eight; we will undoubtedly leave the theatre shaky and slightly sick, and it will be marvelous.

However. First things first. I refuse to go to such a movie without first reading the source material. It just bothers me. Maybe film geeks can do it, but my heart belongs to the written word, and I could never skip this integral step. I have to create my own version of the characters before Hollywood comes along and superimposes its ideas over mine.

That being said, I’m about halfway through the book and it actually feels like it was tailor-made to become a movie. I know this series has been around for a while (since 2007, according to Wikipedia), and I also know it’s massively popular, especially with its targeted young adult audience, but so far, it’s not hitting quite the right buttons for me.

I find this particularly surprising because by all accounts, it should fit right into my guilty pleasure niche (YA urban fantasy). The biggest challenge I’m having (and perhaps this is because I’d already seen a  trailer for the movie before I started reading the book) is that the descriptive prose feels custom-made for adaptation. The plot is engaging, and I enjoy the characters, but it lacks the depth I was expecting (and which I often find in this genre). I keep wondering if Clare’s goal all along was to have this brought to the screen, and if so, she’s done an excellent job. This book was made to be seen rather than read. The setting is lush, the costumes highly visual, and the story, while interesting, is simple enough to be highly translatable to that medium.

Of course, this is also her first novel, and I’m willing to give a lot of leeway for firsts. Also, I’m a member in good standing of the “any book that gets kids to read” club. If City of Bones appeals to young readers (it does, and I completely understand why, even at the halfway point), then it’s okay with me that it isn’t perfect. I read so many books as a child and teenager (and let’s be honest, adult) that I wouldn’t even want to admit to; I completely understand the appeal of a book that’s imperfect but also compelling.

I’m curious to see where she goes from the point I’m at, and whether she’ll be able to create a scenario where I feel compelled to pick up the next book (before the inevitable second movie, that is). I hope she manages it because a part of me would really like to see how her writing evolves. She has to earn it though. The never-ending siege of books to be read is poised to push me away from the series if it doesn’t up its game in the next two hundred or so pages…


For more about Cassandra Clare, head here.