Review: Shadow Girl

Shadow GirlShadow Girl by Kate Ristau (Not a Pipe Publishing, February 2018)

I received an advance review ebook from the publisher.

This book begins in a strange place. No, literally, with main character Áine (pronounced ON-ya) crossing from the world she knows into the mysterious and dangerous Shadowlands. I didn’t know where I was or what was happening, but Ristau’s writing is so assured that I could relax and enjoy the ride.

In a neat reversal on the usual fairy story, Áine comes from the Aetherlands, a place of magic and immortality where Oberon and Titania are real, and her crossing brings her into 21st century Ireland, the land of her long-ago birth. She’s searching for answers about her parents and the traumatic events that led to her own disappearance from the human world. That part of the story is serious, sad, and scary. The mood is lightened by Hennessy, the human girl who attaches herself to Áine as sidekick, tour guide, friend, maybe more than friend. There’s a lot of humor to be had in the person-from-another-world plot, but it’s not overdone. The growing affection between the two girls is touching and real; they have chemistry, above and beyond their willingness to sacrifice for each other. This budding relationship is complicated by Áine’s loyalty and fondness for her childhood friend Ciaran, who makes his own dramatic entrance into the story.

Ristau writes dialogue without explicit dialect, yet I could hear the Irish in it. That’s a magic touch. She brings folklore to life in the experiences of a character who feels like a real person. Áine has magic, too, but it’s not reliable and she has to work at it, which adds to the suspense. I was not ready for the (cliffhanger) end to this book and look forward to the next exciting episode.

Available in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover here.

Review: Djinn

Djinn+ebook+Cover+edit+3Djinn by Sang Kromah (Not a Pipe Publishing March 2018)

I received a review copy of the e-book from the publisher. It will be released March 20, 2018 and is available for pre-order now.

Djinn is a twisty page-turner about magic and identity, rooted in folklore but with a 21st century spin. The unfolding tale keeps the reader guessing right to the end.

Bijou Fitzroy just wants to fit in. She knows she’s different, perhaps mentally ill; she constantly shuffles cards to calm her nerves, she’s hypersensitive to the feelings of others, and her color-changing eyes seem to freak people out. She has no idea what’s wrong with her, and Gigi, the wealthy, uncannily young grandmother who raised her, isn’t telling. Home-schooled until the age of 16, everything she knows about high school comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So when she moves to the small town of Sykesville and enrolls in public school for the first time in her life, she hopes to make friends, go to parties, maybe have a boyfriend. She thinks her wish has come true when she meets Sebastian and Amina Sinjin, though she can’t tell what Sebastian is feeling. Her teacher Mr. Jennings has it in for her, and seems to think A Midsummer Night’s Dream is non-fiction. And what’s up with mean girl Mandy, who takes an immediate dislike to Bijou? Is she only jealous about Sebastian, or is something more going on?

When Bijou learns that local girls who share her birthdate have been disappearing, she can’t resist digging into the mystery. What she learns causes her to question everything she thought she knew about her family, her new friends, and most of all, herself. It’s possible she’s not only different; she may be the Chosen One. Who can she trust when no one is what they seem? What looks at first like petty teenage rivalry turns out to have earth-shattering stakes, and Bijou has to choose: escape to safety or risk everything to protect those she has come to care about.

Bijou’s story, like Buffy’s before her, applies a magnifier of myth and magic to typical adolescent issues of identity, belonging, and empowerment. Author Kromah widens the folklore scope to include African (specifically, Liberian) sources, enriching material that may be familiar to some readers and new to others. And this satisfying book’s ending is temptingly left open for sequels. More? Yes, please!

Available March 20, 2018. Order your copy from your favorite independent bookstore by asking for it at the front counter, or order it from one of these fine online booksellers:

Amazon: HERE

Kindle: HERE

Review: The Staff of Fire and Bone

The+Staff+of+Fire+and+Bone+hardcover+front+coverThe Staff of Fire and Bone by Mikko Azul (Not A Pipe Publishing, January 2018)

I received a review copy of the e-book from the publisher. It will be released January 30, 2018 and is available for pre-order now.

The Staff of Fire and Bone is a thrilling tale of a misfit with a destiny to save the world of Muralia—and the power to destroy it. Cedron is the son and presumptive heir to the Regent of Dulnat, but he is hated for his mixed parentage in a world where the four peoples prize racial purity. It doesn’t help that he has recently manifested uncanny and barely controlled magical power. When he is blamed for a disaster during a festival, Cedron escapes the city pursued by enemies, but soon gains allies—and knowledge of his destiny to right an ancient wrong, a destiny that requires the very lack of racial purity for which he has always been hated.

Cedron is an appealing hero. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s young and doesn’t understand his power. He can be a hothead and makes terrible mistakes as he learns to use it without letting it use him for darker deeds. His quest for the sacred stones that will help him save the world involves narrow escapes, battles with enemies (and future allies), heartbreaking losses, and courageous sacrifice. But it’s not all dire. There’s plenty of the kind of comic business to be expected when adolescents have an adventure, as well as philosophical reflections on what power is for and what destiny really means.

Like the best fantasy settings, Muralia feels both familiar and deeply strange. Its mountains, plains, and sky are full of colorful giant birds and tusked herd beasts. The deities of sun, moons, and earth literally inhabit those orbs, and sometimes appear to Cedron in times of great need. Cultural practices of the various peoples feel rooted in long history.

My one (admittedly minor) complaint is that characters are constantly noticing, realizing, and deciding things. I’d rather these verbs were reserved for occasions when a character at long last makes an important decision, or notices something crucial for the first time, or finally realizes a critical truth that has been overlooked till now. The rest of time, don’t tell me he noticed; show me what he noticed; don’t tell me he decided; show me the action. This is my own pet peeve, so it stood out in any otherwise well told, imaginative tale.

But for the staff of the title, I would award 5 stars even if not for anything else. I can’t say much without spoiling, but it is the most shocking and beautiful magical object I have encountered in 40+ years as a fantasy reader.

Pre-order your copy from your favorite independent bookstore by asking for it at the front counter, or order it from one of these fine online booksellers:

Powell’s HERE

B&N.com HERE

Amazon HERE

Kindle HERE

Review: Little Red is Coming Home

Little Red cover

Little Red is Coming Home: A Collection of Almost Fairy Tales by Angelika Rust

First things first: I received a copy of this book from the author and this collection of almost-fairy tales is NOT FOR CHILDREN.

Angelika Rust was the first indie author to prove to me that selfpub could be done extremely well, so I’m always happy to read her latest. This clever, charming, and compact collection does not disappoint. Although all the stories are based on Little Red Riding Hood, each one has its own voice and style as it plays with some twist on the theme of a girl in red headgear taking cake and wine to her grandmother and meeting a wolf. “Tradition” is a comic action-adventure in which the characters are forced by family tradition (or the story itself) to go through the same ridiculous acts over and over until one of them breaks out. “Rich Little Bitch” takes laughably awful characters for a humorous erotic spin. “A Cautionary Tale” is exactly as labeled. “Another Body” purports to be about a monster, but who is it, really? “Never Too Old” casts Red as the monster; or as a supernaturally powerful protector of the innocent. “Little Red Queen” has the flavor of ancient saga with roots in human savagery. “The Other Leg” inserts the mythic into a contemporary domestic almost-comedy. “There Were Roses” brings real magic into play as a deceased grandmother comes to the aid of the Duke’s daughter. “Let Them Eat Cake” forges redemption out of malice.

These stories do not answer the inciting question of what would have happened if Red had simply shared her cake (or “basket of goodies,” as it was told to me) with the wolf. Each one raises its own questions and is satisfying on its own or in conversation with the others. The whole collection can be read in an hour or two, or each story read and savored on its own. Either way, this is a worthy addition to the library of any reader who enjoys a grown-up take on a childhood classic.

Review: Treacle and Other Twisted Tales

Treacle coverTreacle and Other Twisted Tales by Yvonne Marjot (Crooked Cat Books, 2017)

The stories in this excellent collection consist of familiar tales retold in new settings, or new tales inspired by familiar folk tale patterns. They are told in language that feels timeless and exactly right. As promised in the title, each comes with a twist: of humor, of horror, of unexpected magic.

“Aurora in Tatters” presents an Arctic Cinderella who makes her own choice. “Treacle” presents an apparently cozy and humorous situation, but watch out for that twist! “Imago,” set in an entomology lab, uses the language of moth life cycles to illustrate the end of life. “Maryika’s Journey” and “Maryika’s Christmas” follow a contemporary woman into Russian folktales. (I first encountered “Maryika’s Journey” in Paws and Claws, an animal-themed charity collection from Cake & Quill, in which work of mine also appears.) “Five Stay Home for Christmas” centers on a group of women with dogs and their plans for Christmas with no family commitments.

These are only a few of the gems in this volume. I recommend taking time to savor each one, though it’s hard not to gobble them like popcorn, as I did.

Review: Wrestling Demons

Wrestling Demons cover

WRESTLING DEMONS by Jason Brick (Not a Pipe Publishing, 2017)

The title might not make you think “lovable,” but that’s what Wrestling Demons is. This sports-fantasy mashup is smart, funny, and sweet.

It opens with the natural drama of a high-school sporting event, in this case a wrestling match. Protagonist Connor Morgan is big and athletic, good enough to get a varsity slot as a sophomore. But he’s the new kid, unsure of himself socially (a nice realistic touch), and on the bad side of the senior he beat out for that varsity slot. After the match, things go weirdly supernatural in a scene that is equal parts horror and farce. Apparently some of Connor’s schoolmates are . . . demon hunters? And apparently, so is he.

Connor is an appealing character, his inner voice filled with comedy and pathos. His Maori heritage is a nice touch of diversity in the beginning (and should appeal to fans of the movie Moana, too!). With its sports and action emphasis, this is a story aimed at male readers, but with plenty of genuine, natural emotion and strong female characters, including Connor’s wrestling teammate (and demon hunter) Sage Kaiser, like-interest Susan Freaking Parker, and his mom, a hardworking nurse who moves herself and Connor frequently to stay away from his dad’s addiction issues.

Exposition about wrestling and Connor’s backstory are handled gracefully, dribbled into the action of the early chapters so even readers with little or no background in the sport can keep up, and Connor’s loneliness makes sense. He longs to make connections, but almost doesn’t dare because what if he has to move again? But—Susan Freaking Parker seems to like him, and training to fight demons naturally leads to friendship with his fellow champions. Can he dare to care when they’re up against a powerful, unknown enemy? Brick does a terrific job of hiding the main villain’s identity from both the characters and the reader while providing several plausible candidates, leading to a nailbiter final confrontation in which Connor has to reach down deep and find his real strength.

 

Square Pig in a Round Hole-June 10, 2017

Square PigNaming a band is an act of concentrated creative expression. Square Pig in a Round Hole exists to reward five favorite band names each week. Winners are (usually) listed alphabetically. Selection is wholly unscientific and subject to whim, with a bias toward wordplay, humor, and local flavor. In most cases, I won’t know anything about the bands at the time of selection. Thanks to the Seattle Times club listings for abundant source material!

I just noticed that it has been one year since I moved the blog to this site. Apparently the move didn’t ruin it, so that’s cause for celebration. Also about a year ago, I was preparing for the publication of my debut novel, The Gospel According to St Rage. A major plot point in the book is the EP the titular teenage garage band is recording for the members’ senior project. I used my real band Your Mother Should Know to realize the songs of the fictional band and released the St Rage EP on Bandcamp to coincide with the novel’s release. At the end of the book is a discount code for the EP. This week, someone finally used the code. St Rage made a whopping $ .74. Is that enough to buy gum?

Meanwhile, the world is full of other bands with other names. Here are a few of them:

Diogenes

Still looking for one honest man? Probably best to stay away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gus Clark and the Least of His Problems

I like this twist on classic X and the Y structure. Everyone has problems, but your band shouldn’t be the biggest one.

Smashing Flannel

Perfect name for a ’90s cover band, which this is. But in Seattle, flannel is almost always a smashing choice.

Speakeasy

Most everything is improved by sneakiness and secrecy, but this caught my eye for another reason. Speaking as we were of the ’90s: anyone else remember the Speakeasy internet cafe? Our free-improv group Banned Rehearsal played in their back room in 1996; the building burned in 2001 but the internet business continued. In addition to broadband internet, they also provided web hosting and email. For those such as us who were grandfathered in, they still do.

The Wild Agenda Tonight

I’m digging the humorous formality of this reference to the evening’s plans. (Mine: in bed by 10). I’m also excited by the very existence of an all female alternative punk rock band from Eastern Washington, my old stomping grounds.