Coed Demon Sluts (Omnibus), Jennifer Stevenson

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

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

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

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

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

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

The October Daye books, Seanan McGuire

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

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

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

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

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

Fire Touched, Patricia Briggs

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

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

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

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

Hellzapoppin’, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cry Wolf, Patricia Briggs

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

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

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

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

Finn Fancy Necromancy, Randy Henderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more about Randy Henderson, head here.

Half-Resurrection Blues, Daniel José Older

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

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

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

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

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

 

For more about Daniel José Older, head over here.