Book Review: Bent Heavens

I read Oliver Twist recently, and this is billed as a sort of retelling or heavily inspired by the Dickens work. I remember Oliver and Company and other Oliver Twist retellings that I’ve enjoyed, so I look forward to investigating this book.

The Book(s)

Bent Heavens
Author: Daniel Kraus
2020
Amazon Link

There’s a bunch of body horror in this one, but that’s not the most “shocking” bit of this: it’s that a lot of the crazy stuff is done by children. If you don’t want to see children making reasonable but really gruesome and evil decisions, this isn’t for you.

While the book is YA, it’s probably not for a younger YA (more high school than middle grade reader). It’s definitely on the more intense end of YA. Also, if you’re a parent who thinks they might want to let their kid read this, I’d strongly suggest getting the kid to read Oliver Twist or an abridged version first. Definitely makes this book more worthwhile from an artistic perspective.

On With the Review!

Though at first this seems YA due to the youth of the characters, this book quickly turns everything around and becomes clearly adult with its dark, sinister plot and disturbing characters. While I loved the sense of dread present throughout the book, I would rather put up front that this book is in no way for everyone.

That being said, I loved this book. Kraus designed a set of believable seniors in high school and gave them typical concerns and societal pressures. He used these societal pressures to force the characters into performing their actions, and the characters responded marvelously. Something I found incredible was how these kids get a new, alien hunting extra curricular, and their school and social lives suffer for it. Olivia Fleming must choose between either avenging her father by pursuing information from an alien, or she can choose cross country. I was stunned by how Kraus led Olivia to make her decision.

Artistically, Bent Heavens was chock full of allusions, and the whole damn thing was an obvious allegory for Oliver Twist. I mean, come on – Olivia, with a dead father, and Oliver? The compass from the father? It was obvious. But Kraus didn’t focus on the nonsense extraneous parts of Oliver Twist, just the good parts I’d have kept if I’d made an abridged version of the Dickens classic.

And now, spoilers.

SPOILERS

Liv Fleming got caught up with her childhood friend, Doug, when Doug’s traps catch an alien. The rural setting and long-term closeness of Doug made it more reasonable that Liv would have kept hanging around that creeper despite his… creeperness. That Liv’s dad liked Doug and taught them both ways to fight the aliens was also sheer genius. Like Dickens did in Oliver Twist, Kraus put together the weird societal pressures of rural Iowa to make something reasonable in the world of the fantastic.

Next, the torture. Oh my God, I did not see the alien torture coming. It made sense once I got there, and the fact that Doug perpetrated it didn’t surprise me at all. He convinced Olivia to join him, reminiscent of Oliver Twist falling prey to criminals, and the insane gorefest just kept going. I do think that this part may have gone on too long or too far, but two kids torturing an alien in a shed in their backyard was something I’ve never seen before. Usually they talk with it, or hide it from the government in a friendly way, or the alien abducts them. Never do they choose to torture it in attempt to get revenge for another dead person.

Now, the super duper SUPER spoilers.

EVEN BIGGER SPOILERS

The alien wasn’t an alien.

By the time the twist was revealed, I kind of knew something wasn’t right and that somehow Liv’s dad wasn’t dead. I actually thought the aliens had turned Liv’s dad into an alien, but I didn’t expect THE GOVERNMENT MADE HIM AN INSANE CANCER MONSTER who thought he was being experimented on by aliens. HOLY EFFING CRAP BATMAN. The sheer madness of the Cold War like villainy and uncaring. The fact that Kraus used society’s racist tendencies to keep the secret a secret. It was amazing.

Once Liv found out that the creature they’d been torturing in her backyard was her dad, she went to save him by killing him and ending all the pain. There was more to it, including a fight with Doug in which Liv sadly became a damsel in distress, but in the end the conspiracy was completed and the story ended pretty similarly to the allegorical Oliver Twist.

Overall, the story was pretty great. Recommend for readers who enjoy suspense horror or dark fantasy/sci fi.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

What I’m Reading Next:

We’ll see.

Book Review: And Then There Were None

Egads, don’t look up the original British title.

The Book

And Then There Were None
Author: Agatha Christie
1939
Amazon Link

This is somewhat cozy. It’s probably your prototypical mystery, in fact, because you have a closed house and a limited number of potential perps. Beyond your typical murder mystery stuff, this is a pretty normal book that shouldn’t contain anything to really spook anyone.

Non-Spoiler Review

This was my first Agatha Christie novel, and I’m glad it was my first! I enjoyed it more than I usually enjoy murder mysteries. I definitely enjoyed it more than Sherlock Holmes, that’s for sure.

I think the best part of And Then There Were None was the almost gothic setting. While the setting had the modern feel of being in the 1920’s or 1930’s (the book was written in the 30’s), there was a very distinct feeling of dread throughout. There was something haunting about the house and the island the characters were on, beyond the whole murder mystery bit about why the 10 vacationers were slowly dropping like flies.

I’m not sure if there was a book about this premise before, but the general idea is pretty much given away by the poem in the introduction: 10 little soldier boys (or, in this case, vacationers) come to an island at the behest of mysterious Mr. Owen. From there, characters begin to die in the manners prescribed by the poem. The paranoia sets in, and it continues to grow as the characters remain trapped on Soldier Island.

As far as the mystery part goes, I’m strangely good at picking out the murderer after first introductions. However, I will say that Christie had me there for a while after she did something (Spoiler: she “killed” off my suspect) to throw me off. At the same time, I feel like I didn’t have all the information at that critical part and there’s no way I could have suspected anything else as long as the narrator seemed reliable. Even after the questionable event, the palpable psychological tension was ever present.

The ending, thus, was still somewhat of a surprise to me even though I’d picked out the killer. The book did keep me interested from start to finish, and because of that I was pretty well pleased.

2/5 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

I’m reading the Oliver Twist inspired Bent Heavens!

Book Review: Gilded Wolves

First, I try to keep up with publishing trends as I can. This seems to be one of those “in vogue” type stories, so I’m going to read it. But why, oh why, does it seem like more YA gets published than adult books? Is it just that much more profitable? Is it just that much more advertised?

Whatever. Here we go.

The Book

Gilded Wolves
Author: Roshani Chokshi
2021
Amazon Link

I think this is perfectly billed as YA. It has the right amount of violence, love interest, character balance, and darkness. No concerns whatsoever with how this book presents itself, its material, or anything else. If it looks interesting to you, you can probably go in without expectation that anything will be truly disturbing for you.

Non-Spoiler Review

This book started out like a pretty normal steampunk fantasy. You have four kids with disparate talents and weaknesses, and they all have uncanny levels of education and skill. They want different goals that happen to align, and they fit the “found family” trope (especially because their biological families are dead or useless, etc.). I thought this was all ok, and I think anyone interested in YA would not bat an eye at how Chokshi writes these characters. The reason I think I made this 4 stars instead of 5 was because it did have those YA tropes that I feel cringey about.

I really liked the concept of the forge and how the world’s magic worked. Chokshi used these concepts to great effect in making her commentary on colonialism/post-colonialism. By using a diverse set of characters and not using their races in a tokenistic fashion, Chokshi came up with something devastatingly unique in a genre I find clogged with nonsense.

I was fascinated by the character concept of Laila. She was a stillbirth, but through the magic of her local area (India), her parents brought her back – questionably, we might add, with a soul. Her struggle was to either gain a soul or ensure she had one before her time on earth ran out. I did not like the very end where she entraps Severin into a relationship, but throughout most of the book that relationship is very tightly done.

I recommend this to fans of YA adventure or steampunk. If you like kids doing cringey YA things on a treasure hunt, this is for you.

4/5 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

We’re going to read a classic mystery: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None!

Book Review: Jefferson and His Time, Volume 1

This book, first in its series and often titled “Jefferson The Virginian”, is the first in a 6-volume monstrosity written by Dumas Malone over the course of thirty years. This was written in 48, and the final volume was written in 81. I think it reasonable for me to read biographies of more presidents than just Andrew Jackson, so here we go.

The Book

Jefferson and His Time, Volume 1: Jefferson The Virginian
Author: Dumas Malone
1948
Amazon Link

Fair warning, the book does a really, REALLY bad job explaining this guy’s relationship with slavery. It’s probably a product of the time in which the book was written, but you know. You know it’s not a good thing to sweep the sins under the rug. I wonder if Malone’s view on Jefferson changes over the course of his life and as he writes more of these books; if you’ve read them, let me know in the comments!

Who Cares About Spoilers? Here’s a Review!

This book is about a young Jefferson, how he developed his political philosophy, wrote the declaration, and performed as governor of Virginia. Sounds cool enough.

But, after being such a big fan of Jackson who – by 14 – was a severely injured orphan and a prisoner of war, Jefferson is so boring. He was a smart boy with extravagant resources that allowed him to ride his family’s riches to become famous. He was so dull as a young man. He just went to school, did well, eventually became a governor, and happened to be good at writing. Sure, he developed a sense of state rights, but it was so dull.

During my reading of Remini’s 3-volume Jackson bio, I said I’d never find a biography in which the author had a bigger, more raging hard-on for their subject than he.

I WAS SO WRONG.

Malone had nothing bad to say of Jefferson and, when forced to approach things like his running from the British and getting reprimanded by the Virginia state government, Malone claimed Jefferson right and *everyone else* wrong. He spoke extensively about Jefferson being anti-slavery, but he never talked about where Jefferson’s money came from (slavery). He always forgave Jefferson for cheating on his wife and how he treated the women enslaved to him. He claims Jefferson always just, non-partisan, and “a man of ‘insert good trait here'” with regularity. Malone’s writing is so brokenly pro-Jefferson that it’s obvious even to one who’s only mildly familiar with Jefferson.

Part of this is, inevitably, due to the time of the writing. Jefferson was in favor in the post-WWII years, and Malone would have been influenced by that. As you read, this sort of timeline should be considered because Malone’s focus is thus drastically different than we’d expect from a modern edition.

Subject’s so boring, though, that I don’t think I can keep going with the next one.

2/5 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

Back to some modern zeitgeist trash with Gilded Wolves!

Book Review: Oliver Twist

I have a soft spot in my heart for Dickens. Not for any good reason – no, no, it’s because I was Ebenezer Scrooge in our 4th-grade rendition of A Christmas Carol.

Most of the time, I find Dickens quite dull and to follow a very prescribed formula. Somehow I always forget it, then I pick up another of his books expecting something different. This time, I won’t be fooled: I’ll go in expecting a story of historical and cultural importance, but also something that will bore me out of my skull.

The Book

Oliver Tiwst
Author: Charles Dickens
1816
Project Gutenberg Link

You can get this from Gutenberg with ease. If you’d rather not the illustrated version, they have another edition without the pictures available. I listened to this on audiobook because I learned my lesson when dragging through A Tale of Two Cities.

Non-Spoiler Review

Upon starting this book, I made the stunning realization that I’d experienced this story before. A Disney movie that came out before I was born, Oliver and Company, was essentially the same story as this. Of course there were differences, especially in the character and quality of Fagin and his crew, but the overall plot had a lot of similarities. The more I read, the more I realized that I already knew a lot of Oliver Twist. I think this helped keep me engaged, because I knew something better was coming.

Because the middle third or so was dullllll. Right up from when Sikes is first introduced up through when the Dodger got into trouble I just had the hardest time paying attention. All the story about the adults had all the excitement of dishwater. The exposition was great because it introduced Oliver, his world, the political message, and got you drawn in. The book picked up again, though, right at that typical Dickensian moment that you don’t think you can go any longer. At that moment where publishers brandished the whip and said, “FINISH IT OR WE CUT OFF YOUR FUNDS.”

And so the ending picked up while on its way to the inevitable conclusion. The book did wrap up nicely. I also liked the political insight into Victorian politics, economics, and changing class structures. The baby farms, themselves, were interesting. I think reading this would have helped me understand what was going on at the farms in Through the Nethergate. The historicity of the book was really what made me think this book was rather legit.

3/5 Discoball Snowcones

3 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

Time for a history book because I haven’t done them enough recently! Malone’s Jefferson and His Time: Book 1 is up for grabs!

Book Review: Cold Mourning

Once again, diving into my library’s “available now” reserves. We’ll see if this worked out any better than the last one.

The Book

Cold Mourning
Author: Brenda Chapman
2014
Amazon Link

There isn’t anything in this book you wouldn’t expect from a murder mystery. You have buddy cops, some murder, some innuendo and bad-people-stuff on screen, but you get what you expect.

Though, this is probably the first Canadian book I’ve read without any reference or similarity to that bear story whatsoever, so I’m going to go ahead and give her kudos for that.

Non-Spoiler Review

I’m not a huge fan of mystery, but this was “available now” on my library’s ebook page. I did not go in expecting to like this, but went in with the attitude of, “well, it’s available.”

I’ll go ahead and say that I didn’t know who was the murderer until the perp was revealed. That’s a good thing.

I probably shouldn’t have watched the <i>South Park</i> episode “Informative Murder Porn” before reading this book. All I could think of, the whole time, was about people who enjoy the spousal/domestic murder stuff. Perhaps because of that or my general opinion of spousal/domestic murder as entertainment, I was sorely disappointed.

The final clue that “brought it all together” was too convenient. It made the vast majority of the book not feel important, since it was really that one convenient clue that did the work. Rather than seeming a genius, I think the final solution made Stonechild – who up until that point had seemed reasonable and underutilized by her police force – seem more lucky than skilled. I was disappointed by that.

I wasn’t fond of any character aside from Stonechild. I think part of this was because Chapman set up pretty much every character as a suspect, which meant their worst attributes were focused on. Still, by the end, I didn’t really care who was the killer even though I also didn’t follow the trail of clues myself.

2/5 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

I’ve been reading modern trash for enough weeks in a row. Time for a classic: Oliver Twist!

Book Review: Ninth House

Dark fantasy is a genre I can get behind. I needed something to listen to at work, and this was listed as “Available Now” on my library’s audiobook site. I was skeptical, though, because this was the first adult book from an author that had only written YA so far. I went ahead and decided to do it because it wasn’t terribly long.

The Book

Ninth House
Author: Leigh Bardugo
2019
Amazon Link

This book cannot have enough trigger warnings. You name it, it’s got it, and it doesn’t really seem to have much impact on the plot of charcterization. Child rape? There. Gore? Got it. Evil, evil, evil stuff? Present.

It’s definitely not for kids, and parents who let their teens read it are a little bit foolish. Parents who read it are in for some horrible events, themselves. Not at all for the faint of heart or even those who want a protagonist that isn’t a piece of crap.

Non-Spoiler Review

Honestly, I can’t think of anything I liked about this book. I could go on in an endless rant about what I didn’t like, but it wouldn’t be helpful to anyone because it would sum up to being “everything.” The book oscillated wildly between “rape and murder horror, including on-screen rape of children” and a theoretical Yale experience that boggled my mind as to “why do I care.”

Because I didn’t care. The main plot, all the way through, felt incredibly YA but peppered with weird “adult” scenes that were “gritty” or gruesome and unfit for a YA audience. If you took away the rape and on-screen bloody murder and made it a special boarding school rather than Yale, you’d get a perfectly acceptable YA book. Because of this, it felt like it didn’t really have an audience – or at least that the audience was definitely not me.

This book was a hair’s breadth away from being abandoned the whole way through. I disliked it only the slightest bit less than Outlander, which is probably the only reason I finished. At least in this book the tone acknowledged when rape was rape and said it was bad. I did set the book down a couple times when the main character, Alex, murdered people and the tone of the book sounded like “oh, it’s ok, they deserved it.”

I didn’t like the characters, the plot, the sentence structure, the world, the purple prose, anything. Anything.

Oh! As I was writing that last sentence, I realized: I think there was a theme. So good on her for trying to have a feminist theme, but boy was it weak sauce because of all the resultant murder. Zero. Snowcones.

0/5 Discoball Snowcones, but 1 on Goodreads because there is no 0

Next week:

I think I’m a glutton for pain because I’m just reading a bunch of “available now” crap. Next week is Cold Mourning, a crime mystery (which isn’t even one of my genres of choice).

Book Review: Dread Nation

Read the blurb of this on Amazon or Goodreads. How does this not just sound like one of the craziest, most hardcore things you’ve ever seen? How does this not just sound like a book I’d love?

Of course I was going to pick this up. I kept moving it back on my TBR in order to read things I found to be “more important”, but dude. Nothing’s more important than entertainment.

The Book(s)

Dread Nation
Authors: Justina Ireland
2018
Amazon Link

Good amount of fantasy/sci fi gore in this one. It’s suitable as YA, though, as long as you’re not too squeamish. Like a lot of books I’ve read recently, this one does have quite a bit of racial tensions that could cause those who experience negative race-based events to feel bad. That being said, I think Ireland’s book is very empowering and just HARDASS overall. There’s definite payoff to reading through the hard bits.

On With the Review!

This book was one of the most creative things I have ever read. Not only was it a fantastic alternate history (and fantasy/sci-fi, since it didn’t really try to explain the zombie disease mechanics too closely), it was YA I could get behind. There was a palpable sense of horror ever looming, but the bold and brash Jane McKeene almost protected the reader from it just as she did other characters in the book. Jane was very hardcore, and her struggle for survival and respect was a drive I could get behind. Jane was just wonderful.

Not just Jane, though; Katherine, Gideon, and the complicated and not-present character of Jane’s mother were very well done. Ireland made them all complex and filled with life. She gave them powers and flaws, and she gave Jane – the narrator – snap judgments that were sometimes proven and sometimes disproven. Her use of Jane’s limited perspective to investigate personal and societal relationships was fantastic.

Also, the twist about Jane’s backstory? I didn’t see it coming, but I could see after the reveal how Ireland had planted all the clues earlier. While that was the biggest twist (in my opinion), there were many twists as we learned more things that weren’t initially within Jane’s first-person-limited view. The build to where Jane starts to see multiple other characters more clearly and understand herself in relation to them was, undoubtedly, one of the best parts of the book.

What would I have changed? I’m not a huge fan of the way vaccines were represented in the book. The research undertaken by multiple scientists was both sketchy and bad science. Ireland was genius in a thematic way to include allusions to illegal and horrifying medical experimentation on black people, but the goal of the vaccine was never really seen as a good thing. It was always suspicious. Perhaps this 2018 anti-vaccine premise didn’t age well post-pandemic, but this part bothered me.

As a whole, great book.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

What I’m Reading Next:

Got bored, decided to check out an audiobook on the library’s “available now” list, which is always a crapshoot. Stay tuned for Ninth House!

Book Review: This is How You Lose the Time War

This book seemed to have an interesting title and premise. It also had dual authors, which isn’t terribly common. At the same time, I was skeptical because it seemed to be fitting the in-vogue, Twitter SJW stuff a bit too neatly. Still, it was at my library, so I picked it up.

The Book(s)

This is How You Lose the Time War
Authors: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
2019
Amazon Link

This is an epistolary romance with a lot of sci-fi. There was, if I recall correctly, nothing especially gruesome, sexy, or outside the typical PG-13.

That being said, it’s a hard read. Probably not for children or less mature teens, or pretty much anyone who isn’t fine with “boring”.

On With the Review!

This epistolary romance was intriguing in how the characters’ romance stemmed from one taunt into a flagrant love story. Since the Time War required the warriors Red and Blue to travel back and forth across the ages and universes, the timing of their escapades and how one event affected another was interesting. There was an essentially linear method to how the characters interacted, but the linearity of time itself was questionable.

And I just kind of didn’t get the story.

I didn’t find the romance believable. The characters never really met each other, and their teasing letters did not seem enough to foster deep feelings. The risk-reward ratio was entirely skewed against them, and there just was not enough reasonable communication for me to really get into the romance elements. The artfulness of the book did indicate it as a sort of sci-fi retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but the social elements were not compelling to me. The relationship between Red and Commandant and that between Blue and Garden didn’t seem right. The whole time war didn’t make sense, and the sci-fi elements felt like magic rather than science. Sure, there were plenty of sciency words, but it didn’t really come together in my opinion.

I found the book to be filled with some of the most beautiful purple prose I’ve ever read. The characters of Red and Blue had unique voices despite the excellent word choices of both narrators and letters, and it contributed to a very sensual book. At the same time, I thought it dragged despite being such a short book. It had altogether too many passages describing the act of taste and hunger and too few building to a storyline.

As a whole, I wasn’t really a fan, but I didn’t hate it and there were some good elements to it.

3/5 Discoball Snowcones

What I’m Reading Next:

This is a book I’ve moved backwards on my To Be Read list far too often: Dread Nation is a zombie book, and I look forward to it!

Book Review: A Dark Genesis

I like to frequent Berthold Gambrel’s review site, and once in a while I find a book that I think is going to be a very worthwhile read. This was one of those books, so I got a copy and set it where I wanted it on my to be read list.

The Book(s)

A Dark Genesis
Author: Cheryl Lawson
2020
Amazon Link

There are some medically gruesome scenes, body horror, and some violence. If you can do Star Trek or Farscape without cringing, though, this won’t have any effect on you. The only thing is that there’s quite a bit of that body horror; even if it’s light, some people may not like that.

On With the Review!

Sometimes, you just find an indie author and an indie book that is so smooth and likeable that it makes you think it should have been published traditionally. This book had all the cleverness of a GOOD episode of Star Trek, but the alien was truly alien. The humans were truly human (and highly varied). The challenges of space felt real rather than “just the wild west”. The only reason I think this would have been hard to publish traditionally is the length: novellas just so rarely have a place to go.

One of the best decisions Lawson made was to have a main character that wasn’t 100% likeable. Sure, you could get behind Sage and root for her, but she had pretty massive flaws and social quirks that allowed her to make mistakes without it feeling cheesy. A policy I believe in is that if good or bad things happen to characters in a book, it shouldn’t feel like coincidence. Many times, poor communication creates these unlikely coincidences in stories. I think Sage’s sometimes abrasive personality allowed for the poor communication, disbelief, and competition between humans to flourish. Just who Sage was made all the subsequent events fall into place realistically, whereas I believe they’d have been considered “coincidence” if Sage were a better person.

Next, the alien. I love non-humanoid aliens (though, sadly, non-humanoid aliens often put them out of the reach of TV or movie budgets). This alien seemed so close yet so far away from communicating with the crew. Without spoiling much, the plot was centered on the invasion of an alien onto a generational ship. The alien didn’t board through traditional means; it entered the ship as a spore on tiny space debris (think hail-sized or smaller) that the ship ran into. Slowly, the spore turned into A LOT MORE THAN A SPORE, and the ship went into crisis mode. This invader reminded me a bit of the Solaris alien, but way, way more defensive. Though some characters wanted to communicate with it, the alien was also extremely invasive and dangerous. Do the mains ever succeed at cracking into the alien’s ways and talking to it? Well, I’ll let you read it and find out how they solve the issue.

The body horror was good. The description of the “infections” was horrifying and brutal. The punch to the gut when certain characters get hurt and bite the dust is fantastic, especially given the short length of the book. Cheryl builds relationships between her characters, and they all make sense given they’re on a generational ship controlled by a very prim and conservative computer.

Though it’s on the back end of my TBR now, I have also purchased the second book in the series and will be reviewing that soon. Lawson’s good, y’all.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

What I’m Reading Next:

Interesting choice for the next one: How to Lose the Time War, another newer book that’s in vogue with the zeitgeist!