The Kingdom of Back

The Kingdom of Back

I truly enjoyed Marie Lu’s reimagining of the fairy tales in her Lunar Chronicles series, so when I saw that she was writing a Mozart story from the perspective of his sister I was intrigued. History never treats women artists as well as their male counterparts, and historians wonder if Nannerl was the more talented Mozart.

I take no pleasure in saying that this book is a failure of world building and character development. I wanted to care about what was going on, but it was all so…I’m not sure the best word to describe it…maybe monotone? Nannerl imagines the Kingdom of Back, which is a backwards version of her real world. There is a princeling who is trying to win his throne back and he offers her a chance to compose in a special notebook if she’ll help him regain his kingdom.

The Kingdom was supposed to be magical and mysterious but it was so obviously her imagination that it was hard to believe that it was a parallel universe, which I think was the intention? And where were the stakes? There’s no impending marriage for her to escape, no other duties, even her father encourages her playing (not composing though) so that she and her younger brother can earn money and patronage for the family. She wants to compose, her own desire is the only driving force and maybe this will lose me my feminist pin but that wasn’t enough to keep me reading. I must compose or die! isn’t a compelling story mover.

Really Nannerl’s drive is “I want to never be forgotten” but even that is…well we’re all going to be forgotten and that’s something that you learn as you grow and accepting it is part of the maturing process. Having already accepted this, it was next to impossible to feel for a teenager from another era altogether who imagines another realm that helps her while she is trying to become famous. The entire story just felt shallow and selfish, which I’m usually okay with but here it was just boring.

I put it down about halfway through. I’d rather go pick up Lu’s other, better works. If you like fantasy, go find something else. I’d skip this one unless you can get it at your local library, then why not. See if it’s for you. But don’t put your money out on it.

Here and Now and Then

Here and Now and Then

A pandemic is the perfect time for my stay -at-home self to catch up on all the 2019 books I didn’t have time or energy to read. Luckily I was able to get three such books out of the library before I locked the husband and I down in the house with weeks of food and (thankfully) toilet paper. Coming off the enjoyable read Recursion by Blake Crouch, I decided to start with the time travel story in the stack.

Mike Chen starts off his book with a bang. We immediately understand that Kin Stewart is a time traveler cop who deals with time traveling criminals – he’s wrestling with one and gets shot. His equipment is damaged, which means they cannot retrieve him and bring him back to the future. So he’s stuck until someone finds him, and then the problems really start.

He’s not supposed to form attachments, but he meets a woman and gets married and gets a dog and has a daughter – all against the rules of a time travel agent. He’s stuck in the past for 18 years before he’s found by a retrieval agent, who makes the arrangements for the jump home. In the future though, its only been a week, and when he returns he tries to manage his family in the past while also reacclimating to his fiancee and friends and job in the future. Spoiler alert: this mix doesn’t go well.

The book goes 100 mph until it screeches to a halt when Kin’s efforts to help his daughter have a better future creates a HUGE alarm in the time travel company. She has created a video game based on one of his journals that basically lays all the company’s secrets bare. He has to return to the past one last time to save her from being erased, helped by his future fiancee Penny and his retrieval agent Markus. This part of the book takes FOREVER and we all know how it’s going to end and it’s the most anticlimactic ending to a book I think I’ve ever read.

Honestly at one point I wanted his daughter to get wiped out of history. Chapter after chapter he’s just obsessed with knowing about her life and how it’s going and how he can help and is she okay??? Oh my god, it was very boring and a little irritating too. Just let it go, man. Start over with Penny. Live your life into the future and let the past be the past.

The book as a whole is really well written and the story is sound, but it’s not very deep. There aren’t any lessons to take away, you kind of know what’s going to happen the whole time. But if you want a quick read about time travel, you could do a lot worse than Here and Now and Then. Give it a try.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

The Lager Queen of Minnesota is a story of two sisters and their split over underage drinking.

Helen drinks beer for the first time in her teens and discovers an almost obsessive love of all things beer: lagers, IPAs, stouts, you name it. At first she tries to get her hands on beer to drink, but then she decides that she wants to create beer. She hooks up with (and eventually marries) a local beverage heir (Blotz Brewery) and talks her elderly dad into selling his farm to help fund her venture. The trick is that she does not split this money with her sister, Edith, which causes a rift of silence that lasts until they are in their seventies.

Most of the story follows Edith’s descent into poverty with her husband, who dies and leaves her alone. They do not own their home, they rent, and so when she eventually loses her jobs in the recession, she has to move to a cheaper apartment in a more touch and go neighborhood. Events transpire that also cause her to be the guardian of her granddaughter, who somehow finds herself employed at a local brewery instead of going to college (see also: crippling poverty).

I have to be honest and say that I did not like this one as much as Kitchens of the Great Midwest. While Kitchens was able to weave one woman’s influence through many different stories, Lager Queen is laser focused on beer, Beer, BEER! almost to the point where certain story turns are unbelievable. The final resolution of the story lacked the weight of Kitchens, even though everyone coming together should have felt very emotional. The story almost begs me to wish for Helen’s ruination, and yet it also wants me to crave her reuniting with Edith? Bringing Helen back into Edith’s life at all demands a level of redemption that this book just does not allow time for. I want Helen to fall from grace, to experience want and poverty, to reap what she has sown with her greed and manipulation before she has to come crawling back to Edith because Edith has built something successful with her granddaughter and Helen could still have what she loved but because she had to finally share with Edith. There is a lesson in this book that is lost in the seemingly rushed ending.

I will say that Stradal’s portrayal of how the economy and education works for people who are struggling was very spot on. Poverty hiding in plain sight, kids working jobs to help their parents pay bills, trying to avoid shaming at school by putting up a front, and the list could go on and on. I was uncomfortable reading the second half of this book if only because it immersed me in so much of what my life has been like so far. One of the reasons I kept reading was to see how it all turned out – and low and behold like so much of being poor, getting out often takes luck and charity and sometimes even that is very shaky.

Stradal’s writing is still amazing, and Edith’s story is compelling enough to enjoy it on its own without knowing anything about Helen, so I finished the book and was happy for the group of brewing grandmas having fun making beers they thought would be cool. Pick this one up and see if you feel the same way. I wouldn’t miss one of Stradal’s books and you shouldn’t either.

Recursion

Recursion

Dark Matter

I have loved writing this blog over the past 4 years because it has helped me to understand the kind of books that I really love, and those that I would be better to pass by and leave on the shelf. Books that tell futuristic stories that are SUPER plausible are some of my favorites. Recently I read Stephen King’s The Institute which was gripping because 99% of it was plausible and it made the prospects of the psychological fantasy elements that much more terrifying.

Recursion felt to me, at first, a strange Matrix-like story. A chair is invented that can chart your memories, store them, and then reload them into your brain later so you can experience them like it was the first time. It was meant to help people with dementia or other degenerative brain conditions. The chair’s inventor, Helena, is working on this chair to help her mother specifically and is about to run out of funding when she is approached by an Elon Musk-like character Marcus Slade who offers her unlimited dollars to join him on his super-villian-esque oil rig that has been refitted as a research facility and finish her work on the chair. This begins a chain of events that seem very tangled at first but as you read become terrifyingly clear.

This story is not a memory story but a time travel story, and the idea is so bold and so well executed that I was awe-struck by Crouch’s ingenuity. Where did he get this idea? This is wild and amazing and captivating. The second half the book, a full 150 pages, I read all in one night because I could not put it down. Then I spent the next week thinking about which memories I would choose to travel back to in order to change my life. And not to leave anything undone, Crouch also weaves in fairly severe consequences for traveling in this way, making me think twice about whether it would be worth it.

If you like sci-fi that keeps your feet on the ground and messes with actual systems and forces that run our lives day to day, you cannot miss Crouch’s works. They are close enough to real that they make you wonder about what is possible, and then freak you out because it might actually happen. Go get you some.

The Shadow Glass (The Bone Witch #3)

The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1)

The Heart Forger (The Bone Witch #2)

Something that I truly believe about books is that they have the power to grab hold of you and not let go. When I first read The Bone Witch, I thought it was pretty good and returned it to the library. But then my mind kept coming back to it and thinking about what I had read, and then I decided I might as well find out what happened next. I got my hands on The Heart Forger and cried harder than I have cried in a long while after reading a story. These books were so sneaky! How did I come to care about this cast of characters in such a short span of time?

The Shadow Glass moves a lot slower than the other two parts of the trilogy. Tea is often out of sight, and we’re watching her friends try to guess at what she’s going to do next. They all know that she is trying to make shadowglass so she can give her brother Fox his life back and supposedly end all magic forever. Her love, Kaden, is helping her achieve this goal. It’s all pointing toward a huge confrontation with an unknown Faceless. They once thought it was a person named Druj but the major twist of the book is that it was someone they knew all along! In my opinion, it could have been anyone and the twist isn’t as meaningful as the author might have thought? I’m not sure.

I won’t spoil the events leading up to the ending, but I will say that it ends just how you think it might, but with some interesting “what ifs” sprinkled in for good measure. This book wasn’t as exciting as its sisters, but it was a satisfying conclusion to a unique trilogy. If you haven’t read this series, you should put it on your summer TBR. Its a good’un.

The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

I live in Tampa Bay, Florida and I remember when The Dozier School for Boys was closed. I remember when they found the graves, and I remember when the unmarked graves were discovered and had to be explored and dealt with. Even as recently as 2019 they were still working there. My sister-in-law and her husband met each other while they were working there as a psychologist and guard respectively. At the time I was horrified at what I was hearing and seeing on the news, but it’s 2020 now and over the years I have come to understand that this was probably not an isolated occurrence. There are probably similar juvenile detention facilities scattered around the southern states that have graves and atrocities yet to be discovered.

What I really liked about The Nickle Boys, more than The Underground Railroad, was that it was more real to me. The characters were fictionalized, but the circumstances that brought them all to the Nickel School were real ways that black boys and men would get caught up in the system. The main character Elwood is on his way to take a college course in his last year of high school when he accepts a ride from a man who is heading toward the campus. The man has actually stolen the car, and so Elwood is charged with car theft as well for being in it and sent away to Nickel after his conviction. This happens despite the mountains of evidence that would have proved his innocence, but in the 1950s south that was a moot point.

The horrors that Elwood witnesses and experiences for himself you can probably imagine at this point. I don’t need to spell them all out for you. Nickel has a part of the campus for white boys and a part of the campus for black boys and in the middle is the White House where they go for extreme corporal punishment. There’s field work and house work but since it’s for kids it’s not a jail, it’s more like a dorm. Kids try to escape and are never seen again, kids break the rules or refuse to follow directions and are never seen again. Sometimes kids graduate back out into the real world, most of the time they don’t.

Honestly I’m horrified, but I’m not surprised. There was a period of time where as a white woman raised in one of the whitest states in the nation I was shocked and appalled by the things I learned about the racial inequities and history in this country. My education on these topics has been fast and complete and now it’s still horrifying, but I’m not numb to it, but I’m rarely surprised. My reaction now is “of course that happened in this nightmare country.”

It’s a short read, so if you’re curious about the history of the Dozier (Nickel) School, it’s worth it to pick up and bear witness to the story. The more people know that this happened, the lower the chance that these children will be forgotten. I linked to several articles at the beginning of the review if you are interested. It was an excellent read. Go get you some.

The Institute

The InstituteThe Institute was a popular one this past year, and when I first put a hold on it at my library I was number 84 on the list. It finally became available with no renewals, because of course someone else was in line behind me to read it, and so I had 14 days to get through this 600 page thrill ride or else send it back or accept the late fines.

I shouldn’t have worried about it. Once I started I couldn’t stop and I was able to finish it in about 8 days. Children are kidnapped from all over the country and taken to the secluded, northern woodlands of Maine to serve at the institute due to their telekinetic or telepathic abilities. Tests and shots and trauma are inflicted in an attempt to enhance these abilities, and then the children are sent to the back half of the institute, from whence they never return. Not surprisingly when our main character Luke is taken, he’s one of the smartest kids to ever enter the institute. When combined with a later arrival Avery, one of the youngest and most powerful telepaths to ever be brought in, they stage an escape that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

I think my favorite King books are the ones that are 90% reality and 10% fantasy. They are the stories that make you believe in the plausibility of the fantastic existing in a world where the daily and mundane tend to hold sway. This story is especially engaging if you know how many children are taken in the US alone every year and never found again; it’s not so unthinkable that something as wild as the institute might be where they were taken, when reality is that it would probably be something just as traumatizing or worse.

Also knowing what I know about northern Maine, you could hide just about anything up there if you had enough money. People say they love Maine but what they mean is that they love the ocean, or Kittery, or Freeport, or Acadia National Park. They don’t know Maine, and the heart of it comes out in so many of King’s books. The terrifying ruralness that hides a multitude of horrors because no one ever goes there to ask questions.

I strongly recommend that you get on your library’s hold list and read this book. It was a fast read for its length, and the story was 100% airtight the entire way. I loved it, and I’m sure you will too. Go get you some.

The Orchardist

The Orchardist

I had seen this book on quite a few “Best Of ______” lists over the past couple of years, and despite not being super pulled in by the description I decided to take a leap and read something new. Amanda Coplin did not disappoint.

I won’t bore you with the plot. You can look up the book’s description via google, and I can tell you that what you’ll find is very accurate. What’s deceptive is that you think you’re reading one story, then two, then three, and then you realize it was all one story after all.

This is a book about how trauma affects us. How past trauma can color our future relationships, how extreme trauma can damage our minds and decision-making abilities, and how the trauma of others, having seemingly nothing to do with us, can affect our lives nonetheless. As I was reading I thought I would see the end of any of the three main character’s storylines, but really there isn’t a happy ending or an ending at all. It’s a book that reminds us, in case we even needed reminding, that life moves on regardless and we need to do the best we can with the hand we are dealt. And boy does “doing your best” mean vastly different things depending on the type and level of trauma involved.

I knew I wasn’t going to get a happy ending and yet I wanted one anyway. Interwoven with the theme of trauma was the necessity of hope. Hope that people will change or be what we want them to be. Hope that there is a future. Hope that things will turn out differently. Despite the mundane ending, I felt good with the message that in trauma there can be hope. Not always, but maybe and sometimes.

The setting is gorgeous and the writing style kept me hooked. You can almost see the light filtering in through the vast orchard, smell the tilled earth and the ripened apricots. You can hear Caroline Middey coming down the trail on her wagon to visit. So even while you are reading things that will make you melancholy, you are surrounded by beauty and love. Always.

If you’re feeling like you’re in the mood for a deep read that will take you places, The Orchardist is it. Light a fire in the fireplace (or at least call up Fireplace for the Home on Netflix), grab a warm drink, and let this book wash over you. You’ll be glad you did.

Godsgrave (Nevernight #2)

Godsgrave

Nevernight (Nevernight #1)

If you’ve been a reader of AAB for a long time, you know that I tend to like a revenge story. Survival and revenge – the strength and intelligence it often requires a main character to have in order to achieve their goals is inspiring and makes for a good read. Nevernight also set up that assassin school/competition vibe a la Hogwarts for magic, which only added more tastes that taste great together.

Godsgrave takes a bit of a turn, which makes sense given the end of Nevernight. The Church is rebuilding its network, and one of the only remaining secret places in the world with a blood walk is, you guessed it, Godsgrave. Mia is assigned to its new watcher, her old trainer Mercurio, and he assigns her to find and kill a marrowborn woman, and intercept the map that she is scheduled to receive. SURPRISE! It’s Ashlinn and they have a good ol’ brawl during which Ashlinn implies that Justice Scaeva, one of the men Mia has sworn to kill to avenge her family, is a patron of the Church an knows about her and everything she’s been up to. She says that Mia has been kept busy to keep her from killing Scaeva because they are bound by honor to keep him alive because money.

We’re left, as Mia is, to figure out if Ashlinn can be trusted, but in the meantime she talks to Mercurio, who basically says that he doesn’t know about it but that logically it makes sense. He agrees to help her extend her search for the map as a ruse for her actually concocting a plan to murder Scaeva in secret so the Church doesn’t know it was her.

Here’s where the story goes a bit off the rails for me. Also spoiler alert, because I’m just gonna list some story details and roll my eyes while a type.

  1. She sells herself to a gladiator collector in an attempt to get entry into the biggest gladiator battle of the season, where if she wins, Scaeva grants her freedom directly as per tradition, and she can slit his throat when he’s close enough. THIS IS A TERRIBLE PLAN WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING.
  2. She is training as a gladiator FOREVER – I’m not going to lie there are like 150 pages that I skimmed because it was just training – cell – escape cell with darkness powers to fuck Ashlinn – cell – training – cell…you get the picture.
  3. SHE HAS SEX WITH ASHLINN – I just…I can’t. SHE MURDERED TRIC AND RUINED YOUR PLANS HOW WHY WHAT?? These kinds of story twists are what remind me that the characters are like 16 and have no fucking common sense. Her shadows Mister Kindly and Eclipse keep telling her she’s being stupid but she won’t listen – again with the teenager bullshit. In Nevernight I kind of forgot how young she was and this book slapped me in the face with it. Good YA, especially YA that Kristoff has repeatedly said is NOT for teenagers, should have characters that can handle their situations as young adults. Don’t give me a 16 year old protagonist that can’t tell her ass from a hole in the ground, especially after a first book that shows her to be cunning and calculating and powerful.

And I’m gonna spoil the ending for you because I don’t want you to get there and be as mad as I was about the dumb ass twist that throws everything off kilter.

  1. Her brother Jonnen is alive and has been given another name by HIS FATHER JUSTICE SCAEVA because he was basically a baby when everything went down.
  2. She’s told by a fellow gladiator (convenient) that her father was gay and her mom slept around with politicians for influence.
  3. Jonnen is also darkin, AND SO IS JUSTICE SCAEVA and so now her revenge for her parents requires her to kill her real father and she has to deal with that knowledge.

Jesus Christ I cannot with this. There weren’t nearly enough breadcrumbs along the way to lead to this twist. It feels really fucking convenient that she just happens to get put in the same cell as someone who worked with her father during the Kingmaker Rebellion that would know these things. And you can’t let us have one delicious moment, now Mia has to reckon with the reality of who her parents were and how that changes her situation and goals now. It’s too hard a left into a final book of a trilogy and I’m not happy about it.

Honestly for me this wouldn’t change anything. Family is who takes care of you, not who contributed sperm to your egg so you could burst into the world. Justice Scaeva still murdered her parents and stole her brother and brainwashed him – knowing he is her biological father changes nothing.

And Ashlinn better get dealt with. This weird romance thing between them doesn’t make any sense and I still want Ashlinn dead for what she did. I’m hoping Mia has other plans and is just fucking her to keep her thinking she’s close so she can deal with her at the right moment.

I was intrigued, then I was mad, then I was bored but hopeful, then I was shocked and mad that Jay Kristoff thinks he could just throw that many twists into the last 50 pages and no one would be like “WTF Jay, this feels too convenient.” I’m going to finish the trilogy because I bought the gorgeous UK edition and got it signed and it’s just waiting for me to crack open. I just hope that Darkdawn is the finale Mia deserves.

Angry Angel Books: Top 5 Books of 2019

This year saw my reading slow down a bit as I reshaped my personal time to improve my mental health. Despite this, I managed to read about 60 books, several of which were very exciting. This year’s list includes only books that were published this year too, which is different from years past.

Seven Blades

Seven Blades in Black
Seven Blades in Black was the surprise of 2019. I haven’t read anything by Sam Sykes before this or since, but when they announce the sequel I will preorder it so fast your head will spin. Fallen empires and rogue sorcerers and crazy beasts roaming free PLUS an unreliable narrator on a revenge quest a la Arya Stark and her checklist – you can see me drooling about it, right? It’s a long one but I didn’t want to put it down. If you like fantasy and revenge and kingdoms and you haven’t read Sykes, you should definitely pick this one up.

king of scars

King of Scars
I love Leigh Bardugo and she is on this list TWICE. King of Scars focuses in on Nikolai, the pirate (ahem…privateer!) who becomes king of Ravka. He has a past that he wants to keep covered up and powers that even he doesn’t completely understand, and is chasing dark powers that lead to the re-emergence of [SPOILER ALERT!]. It was one of my favorites this year but it isn’t my favorite Bardugo book, mostly because it just seemed like a long way to bring [SPOILER] back into the universe and I found myself losing interest in a lot of places. But it’s still Bardugo so overall it was fantastic.

 

The Wicked KingThe Queen of Nothing

The Wicked King
The Queen of Nothing
How did both of these books come out this year? Why is Holly Black so amazing? They did and she is so if you haven’t read the Folk of the Air trilogy then now is the time because all 3 books are now in the world and they are all complete masterpieces. The Wicked King won the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award for Best YA Fantasy (I think The Queen of Nothing came out too late in the year to be in contention).
The Cruel Prince is the first installment.

Ninth House

Review: Ninth House
Leigh Bardugo is on my list TWICE because she is a bad bitch and I love her. Ninth House is a twisted tale full of magic, mystery, and finding identity in the midst of desperation. It showcases how dangerous one woman can be when she has nothing to lose, and how much more dangerous she can become when you give her something to fight for. Winner of the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel, it is definitely a book that deserves your attention.

Red, White, and Royal Blue

Review: Red, White, and Royal Blue
I could not be happier that this book won the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Romance AND Best Debut Novel. There was nothing wrong with this book. It was everything I needed and brought light and joy into a life that seems to always be tinged with darkness and sadness. It made me believe that happiness is possible. It made me believe in the goodness of people in general. The story is funny and smart and modern and the romance is hot and believable. Do you need a spritz of lightheartedness in your life? You must put this book on your TBR right away.