That's What She Read
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- When magic tattoos disappear, so does the magic
- When magic tattoos disappear, so does the magic
- A satisfying end
- A History of What Comes Next
- Courtney Summers does it again
With more ink on my skin than my husband, I am a sucker for fantasy books that revolve around magic tattoos. Granted, they haven’t been the greatest stories I have ever read, but that doesn’t stop me from reading them. Kim Smejkal’s Ink in the Blood rewarded me for my interest, so I was really looking forward to the story’s finale, Curse of the Divine. Sadly, everything I loved about the first book failed to impress me this time around.
What impressed me so much about the first novel was Ms. Smejkal’s critique of organized religion, her use of auras – visible to everyone – to identify gender fluidity, and the idea of magic tattoos. In Curse of the Divine, we get away from two of the three elements, and the story suffers. For one, Celia destroyed the existing organized religion in the first book, so there can be no criticism of it. Instead, Celia must deal with the one person who may be able to save her friends from a terrible fate, one that has nothing to do with religion. For me, dealing with someone who has delusions of grandeur is not as enjoyable as criticizing organized religion in any form.
At the same time, Curse of the Divine moves away from magic tattoos and instead focuses on the actual ink Celia used in the magic tattoos. Rather than sending secret messages, she learns that one can use the ink to manipulate the corporeal world. While impressive and more than a little foreboding, it is a much more serious consequence of using the ink. No matter how dark the first novel got, there was still a feeling of whimsy at the idea that Celia could use her ink to send messages to friends whenever she wanted. Now that Celia uses the ink to change the world around her, that whimsy disappears, making the story something entirely different and not, in my opinion, in a good way.
Plus, the origins of the ink, something we find out in the novel, are disappointing. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I was expecting something much more earth-shattering than the information we obtain. It is a bit as if Ms. Smejkal used all her allotted creativity for the first story and had to rely on old standby explanations for the sequel.
Thankfully, Ms. Smejkal does still include gender-identifying auras and their infinite nuances. In fact, Celia ruminates on the beauty of gender fluidity and the freedom to change whenever you desire. She describes the auras as something so beautiful, it makes me wish they were real. Not only would it end the confusion over designated gender versus biological sex, but it would also remind people that we are beautiful no matter how we express ourselves.
I find that Curse of the Divine is four hundred pages of Celia dealing with the trauma she faced at the end of the first book followed by fifty pages of acceptance, forgiveness, and understanding so that Celia can obtain closure. While that closure is satisfying in its way, the journey to get there is less creative than in the first novel. There is less bite, less social critique, and a whole lot more hand-wringing, something I never thought I would see in Celia’s character.
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I loved Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy. I thought Kelsea’s growth from unencumbered teen to the protector of her people was as fascinating as it was entertaining. In Beneath the Keep, Ms. Johansen once again brings readers back to the world of the Tearling. This time, however, we find ourselves at a point before Kelsea’s birth, so that we may understand the politics at play behind her hiding as well as the chance to obtain the backstories of certain key players in Kelsea’s future.
As much as I enjoyed the original series, I will admit to the fact that it took me quite a while to remember all the characters and their later significance to the story. In fact, if it were not for some rudimentary wiki fan pages, Beneath the Keep would be nothing more than an entertaining but very dark story that precedes Kelsea’s own. Because I was able to identify the connections, however, I find that the prequel helps in one’s understanding of the trilogy.
Not only does it clarify any lingering questions one might have about the Tearling society and its government, but it also includes character development for key major characters who did not need any such development to fuel Kelsea’s story. For instance, we learn Mace’s origin story and get greater insight into his unique abilities. More importantly, we get front row seats to Arlen Thorne’s rise to power. We get to see other familiar faces as well. All of which makes it rather a fun sort of revisit.
However, Beneath the Keep is not easy or light-hearted in the least. Mace’s story, in particular, is as brutal as it is triggering, and anyone uncomfortable with any form of child abuse or pedophilia should stay far away. For me, it simply highlights that nurture does not always win out in the fight between nature and nurture, and it makes Mace that much more impressive a person. It is not this way for everyone though, as Ms. Johansen does not fail to show humanity at its worst as well as at its best.
Beneath the Keep is a welcome return to the world of the Tearling. While I initially struggled to remember characters and the history Kelsea learns in the original trilogy, by the time I finished with the novel I was more than ready to dive back into the trilogy to read it with my new-found knowledge. I haven’t done so as of yet, but as Ms. Johansen promises more of Kelsea’s story is on the horizon, I will be doing so sooner rather than later.
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A satisfying end
2021-02-08 16:00 UTC by Michelle
All the Tides of Fate by Adalyn Grace brings a satisfying ending to a creative duology. Taking place six months after the end of the first novel, Ms. Grace adequately captures the struggles Amora faces as the new queen after implementing life-altering changes for her people. As Amora works to gain necessary support, what follows is an adventure that remains honest and in keeping with what we know of the characters.
The one aspect of All the Tides of Fate I appreciate is how well Ms. Grace captures and uses Amora’s grief and trauma from the previous story’s events. Some of Amora’s choices are aggravating to a rational reader. However, when seen in the light of someone still struggling to deal with the violence and loss she experienced, her choices make sense. Amora’s trauma is a large part of the story which makes sense since it is such a large part of her mental psyche at the opening of the story. To ignore the shock, grief, and mental trauma from those previous events would be to ignore what has become a large part of Amora’s personality and would feel disingenuous to the character.
The other element I feel Ms. Grace handles well is the precarious balance between duty and heart Amora must determine. To someone still adjusting to the changes to her life and her magic, it again makes sense that Amora would grab on to any potential option that would reverse those changes. Yet, Amora would not be who she is if she did not consider her duty as her highest priority. This inner battle becomes the heart of the story. More importantly, Ms. Grace does such an excellent job of highlighting Amora’s seesaw battle that you have no idea what she will ultimately decide.
I like All the Tides of Fate as it brings Amora’s unique story to a satisfying close. The decisions she makes feel right given everything she experiences and her new responsibilities. Plus, they set the story apart from every other princess-made-queen-struggling-to-keep-her-throne story that exists. Combine that with the inclusion of magic and magical beings as well as acknowledgment of character trauma and grief, and this story of a monarchy has a modern feel to it.
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- The World That We Knew is a must read
- Caleb’s Crossing is good reading in the fight towards anti-racism
- My Mother’s Secret inspires as it soothes the soul
After reading Stamped from the Beginning, I wanted to compare what others said about Abraham Lincoln and his approach to slavery. Since my husband already listened to Tried by War by James M. McPherson, I took the opportunity to do just that. Unfortunately, Mr. McPherson’s portrayal of Lincoln as the commander in chief is exactly what I expected.
Tried by War is not for anyone looking to learn more about Lincoln’s presidency. In essence, Mr. McPherson does nothing but look at Lincoln as the commander in chief. There is the requisite fawning over Lincoln’s ability to teach himself everything he needed to know, especially as his utter lack of military experience meant he had to learn the basics of combat strategy. More importantly, Mr. McPherson explores the limitations of being commander in chief while fighting a war from long-distance.
Mr. McPherson breaks down each of Lincoln’s Army commanders, their subsequent wins as well as their spectacular losses, and his frustrations with each of them. Moreover, he discusses the politics behind each assignment and the party machinations that were at the core of Lincoln’s decisions. In this case, we learn that everything Lincoln did had two end goals – to keep the Republicans in power and to reunite the country.
Since the slavery “issue” directly impacted Lincoln’s two goals, Mr. McPherson does spend some time discussing his evolving opinion about slavery. He even acknowledges that Lincoln’s shift from ignoring the “issue” to abolishing slavery was less ideological and more politically expedient. Still, Mr. McPherson continues to perpetuate the idea of Lincoln as slaves’ savior rather than someone making a calculated decision and even sometimes forced to take action before he was ready because his commanders backed him into a corner.
I can’t say I learned much from listening to Tried by War. There was a time in my late teens where I was obsessed with the Civil War and read everything I could about it. So, the detailed exploration of the various Army commanders Mr. McPherson includes did not provide new insight. If anything, it reiterates the incompetence of those commanders and the prolonging of the war their ineffectiveness ended up achieving. Still, those without extensive background knowledge of the Civil War may find Tried by War interesting. Mr. McPherson’s approach is welcoming while his explanations of each battle are clear enough for most people to understand. Given the severe political division separating the country right now, his descriptions of the politics of the war are particularly interesting.
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A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel is a clever alternative history story involving a mysterious alien race and a long-term plot to help Earthlings get into space. Except the aliens have an enemy determined to prevent them from living long enough to do so. With its witty monologues and creative approach to dialogue, A History of What Comes Next redefines the space race in a way that is as entertaining as it is intriguing.
Aliens exist, except no one really knows that they do. The Kibsu inhabit the shadows, guiding humanity towards space one generation at a time. At the opening of A History of What Comes Next, Mia begins her training as the next Kibsu to forward humanity’s progress by saving various Nazi scientists from certain death as World War II enters its final phase. From there, Mia gets to experience Soviet Russia and later the Red Scare. All of these historic events force Mia to question whether humans are worthy of saving. In light of our current history, it is a very good question indeed.
It becomes very obvious early on in the story that we know very little about the Kibsu and even less about their enemy, the Kibsi. This feels deliberate on Mr. Neuvel’s part. As A History of What Comes Next is the first book in a trilogy, it is as if this book focuses on what the Kibsu do and get Mia to the point where she is asking questions about her own race. The next books should give readers more answers to who they are and what they are doing on Earth.
Thankfully, the lack of answers and all but the barest of introductions to the aliens never become bothersome. Mia’s monologues are witty and insightful, and her observations of humanity are as brutal as they are thought-provoking. I particularly liked the way that Mr. Neuvel built Mia’s story around true historical events. His notes at the end are enlightening and show just how creative he was in doing so. I am curious to see how much he does so in future books.
A History of What Comes Next is informative, fun, and uniquely creative. We finish the novel with almost as many questions as we started it, but that in no way diminishes one’s enjoyment of it. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to view humanity and history through an outsider’s eyes and am excited to see what comes next for Mia’s journey!
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Courtney Summers is an author known for her biting commentary on one aspect of modern culture. In her latest novel, The Project, she tackles those who prey on the grieving and the lost. She does so with her trademark precision and emotion-laden prose.
The Project flips between two sisters, past and present. Bea tells her story in the past, remembering the birth of her sister as well as the tragic accident that killed their parents and endangered her sister’s life. From there, we see how Lev Warren and The Unity Project fill the void left by her parents and assuage the rage and guilt she feels after the accident.
Lo’s story is in the present, five years after the accident, at which time she just wants to talk to her sister again and make a name for herself as a journalist. Witnessing a suicide one morning on her way to work is the catalyst for everything that follows, as the grieving father insists The Unity Project, the very same organization that seemingly swallowed her sister without a trace, is at fault for his son’s suicide. What follows is an emotional cat-and-mouse game wherein you begin to question The Project, Lo, Bea, and everything else.
Your confusion stems from the fact that The Project is not inherently evil. Their entire purpose, at least on paper, is to cater to the needs of those living without – opening up centers for the homeless and destitute, offering a place of refuge for teens with no other place to go. Their entire business plan is to help others, and they do so without pontificating or without requiring anything from those seeking their services. It is difficult to find fault with any organization so devoted to helping those in need.
This help even extends to Lo, who, we discover, never properly dealt with the trauma of her accident and her sister’s abandonment. As she dives deeper into the organization and meets with Lev Warren, founder and head of The Project, she begins to undercover her longing for love, support, and family. Except, as Lo begins to understand The Project’s attraction, readers learn from Bea’s story that The Project has a darker side.
The Project is a novel that certainly keeps you guessing as to The Project’s real intentions. Your feelings about it shift as much as Lo’s does. This lack of a villain leaves you off-balance and uncomfortable as you search for a source of your unease.
While not as bitter as some of Ms. Summers’ previous novels, The Project makes up for it in emotion. Lo is truly a tragic figure, abandoned by her only remaining family member at the same time she must come to grips with losing her parents. The scars from that accident are not just physical but cleave to her identity in a way that not even she realizes. At the same time, we understand Bea’s need to escape, to seek solace in a higher purpose, to make sense of her world which so suddenly and violently changed. Both sisters must deal with survivor’s remorse, and you are simply along for the ride.
The Project is Ms. Summers’ answer to the oft-asked question of how someone would voluntarily enter a cult-type organization. Through Bea and Lo, we see the appeal. However, just like with the sisters, Ms. Summers helps us understand that when it comes to cults, there are no easy answers.
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- Caleb’s Crossing is good reading in the fight towards anti-racism
- The World That We Knew is a must read
The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking is essentially your go-to introduction to all things hygge. Mr. Wiking takes the time to define hygge, which is not an easy feat given that it really has no clear definition. He also breaks down each important element of hygge to help readers better understand the concept.
Given that the Danish are the happiest in the world, the logical conclusion is that this concept of hygge, which is such a vital part of their cultural identity, must be a contributing factor. Mr. Wiking furthers this theory by providing data that help corroborate his point. As we remain in the throes of winter and almost one year into the pandemic, The Little Book of Hygge will help you combat the winter and pandemic blues.
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Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton is a tale of two halves. The first half starts well with its intriguing storyline of a village that essentially sacrifices one son every seven years to protect its overall wealth and wellbeing. Then we find out what happens during the sacrifice and all sense flies out the window. Add to that a romantic triangle that left me more than a little confused as well as uncomfortable, and you have a novel that I would rather forget.
Mairwen, Rhun, and Arthur. Mair is the daughter of the resident witch, heir to the Grace witches who created the spell that established the Slaughter Moon rituals. Rhun is the chosen one, born to lead and born to become the next saint. Arthur is Rhun’s opposite but equally determined to become a Saint at the next Slaughter Moon and prove himself to the entire town. Together they make up the next generation of leaders for the small village of Three Graces.
Mair loves Rhun. Arthur loves Mair. Rhun loves Arthur. The three trade kisses and talk about marrying each other. There is even one passage in which Mair jokes that no one would know who the father of her children would be. To call theirs a nonconformist relationship is an understatement. All I can say is that it confused me and made me more than a little uncomfortable.
The drama starts when the Slaughter Moon comes four years early, and Mair must lose Rhun to sainthood. She fights against tradition. Arthur wants to stand in Rhun’s stead. So naturally, all three end up in the mysterious woods during the night of the ritual. Of course, all three also make it out of those woods with a better understanding of the ritual and bargain established all those years ago. This is the point where I feel the story loses all credence.
For one thing, the triumvirate exits the woods with a former saint who first entered the woods ten years prior. Except, he has antlers growing out of his head, veins wrapped around his limbs, talons instead of nails, fangs in place of his eyeteeth, horns, and other growths that mark him as more otherworldly than human. And the townspeople accept him. His mother comes over immediately and tries to hug him. Their acceptance, while laudable, is completely unnatural. To me, that is more an element of fantasy than any of the physical changes.
The story only gets worse from there, in my opinion. There is much confronting of the past as well as a determination to right the wrongs inflicted on the village boys. Strange Grace becomes predictable in its charge towards righteousness and the actions of the characters. The ending is mystical and weird, and I just did not have the patience for any of it.
Strange Grace is, to me, an odd story. Rhun is too good, Arthur too angry, and Mair too indignant and desperate to save the boy she loves. There is no depth to their characters to make them interesting. I struggle to recognize the villagers as human beings because their reactions and interactions don’t feel authentic or realistic. Plus, while the story’s basic shell is interesting, its resolution bothers me more than it should for a story I really didn’t enjoy. Strange Grace is just a little too strange for even me.
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My Mother’s Secret by J. L. Witterick is a simplistic, fictionalized account of two real-life heroines of World War II. Franciszka and Helena Halamajowa rescued fifteen Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust and did so for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. To put it into perspective, in their little town in Poland, only thirty of six thousand Jews survived the war. The Halamajowa women saved half of the survivors on their own simply by hiding them in and around their very tiny homestead.
At only 208 pages, Ms. Witterick does not go into great detail about the events at the Halamajowa household, but what she does show gives us four different viewpoints of the war and living in occupied Poland. We get a partial understanding of the desperation required to ask for help in hiding from the Nazis, and we also get an idea that not all Nazis relished their roles in occupying countries and terminating the Jews. More importantly, we can glean an idea of the humanity it takes to hide not one but two families as well as a German deserter from the enemy.
Again, My Mother’s Secret is more a novella than a novel, so there is no depth, no insight into the characters or the story. Instead, we get a very simplistic view of the generosity of spirit and the creativity it took to protect those most at risk during the Nazi occupation. Coming off of four years of inflamed hatred and burgeoning fascism, My Mother’s Secret inspires as it provides proof that humanity can be better than what the news media reports.
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Alice Hoffman and I have a love-hate relationship. I want to love her books, but most of the time I either do not finish them or finish them under duress. However, with The World That We Knew, I found an Alice Hoffman novel I love. Even though it occurs during World War II, her exploration of what makes us human resonates in today’s fractious environment.
While World War II is the backdrop of the story, The World That We Knew is not a World War II novel. Rather, it is a novel that explores love and sacrifice as key aspects of one’s humanity. Told through various narrators, we get an understanding of what it feels like to be prey among a country of predators, always watchful, always anxious. We also get a glimpse of how people survive in such impossible situations, fighting through action, survival, and love. Never pontific, Ms. Hoffman allows her characters to show the integrity and fortitude required to keep going after horrific losses and the love that binds past to present.
The World That We Knew is an unassuming story with a quiet message. That message, however, loudly resonates within a world in which overt displays of hatred and bigotry become more commonplace and society becomes increasingly ideologically and politically divided. As we enter a new presidential era, The World That We Knew brings a reminder that hope and love will always win.
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