Book Review: The Good Demon

the good demonThe Good Demon
by Jimmy Cajoleas
Contemporary Fiction/YA?
306 pages
Published September 2018

The Good Demon is marked Young Adult, and the protagonist is fifteen or sixteen (I don’t remember if the book actually says which) but the subject manner is…surprisingly adult. It’s a very Southern Gothic book.

Clare, our protagonist, had a demon inside her just prior to the opening of the book. She’d had it since she was very young – in one of the many flashbacks we see their meeting. But just prior to the start of the book, the demon was cast out by a local reverend and his son. Clare is lost without Her (the only name she’s had for the demon – Her) and reacts much as an addict would when going cold turkey. And then she discovers clues left by the demon, and resolves to solve the mystery and get her demon back.

Sprinkled throughout Clare’s investigation are flashbacks to when she was possessed, and we learn what the demon really means to Clare. The demon has saved her life multiple times, and seems to truly care about her. But in poking around her town, Clare uncovers some disturbing relics and characters. She learns there might be a way to get her demon back, but the cost might be higher than she wants to pay. (It’s also a bit predictable, but the slow-creeping horror of knowing what’s about to happen is part of what makes this book amazing.) In the meantime, she’s falling in love with the reverend’s son, and their relationship only complicates matters.

The atmosphere of the book is perfect Southern Gothic – from Clare playing in the swampy woods as a little girl, to the one mysteriously wealthy family that controls far too much of the sleepy town, to the small-town feel and the enigmatic hermit off the highway. The broken families and alcoholics and domestic violence all hidden beneath a veneer of sociability – it’s one of the best Southern Gothics I’ve read in a very long time.

The writing is just amazing – evocative and entrancing and – I just loved this book, okay? I’d heard it had mixed reviews, so I was a bit wary of the book, but the premise was so interesting – and then I fell in love with it. I think this is one of my favorite books this year.

From the cover of The Good Demon:

“She was my Only.”

It wasn’t technically an exorcism, what they did to Clare. When the reverend and his son ripped her demon from her, they called it a “deliverance.” But they didn’t understand that Clare and her demon – known simply as Her – were like sisters. She comforted Clare, made her feel brave, helped to ease her loneliness. They were each other’s Only.

Now, Clare’s only comforts are the three clues that She left behind:

Be nice to him

June 20

Remember the stories

Clare will do anything to get Her back, even if it means teaming up with the reverend’s son and scouring every inch of her small, Southern town for answers. But if she sacrifices everything to bring back her demon, what will be left of Clare?

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Book Review: The Bees

the beesThe Bees
by Laline Paull
Fiction
340 pages
Published 2014

I was cautiously optimistic about this book, because I’d heard good things about it, but really? Bees? An entire book from the viewpoint of a worker bee? Even fictionalized, how much material is there really to work with?

SO MUCH.

My fears were completely ungrounded because this book is AMAZING. Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, tasked with taking dead bodies out of the hive, cleaning up wax cells after new bees have hatched, and other duties to keep the hive clean. Somewhat extraordinarily, it is discovered that she can produce the liquid needed to feed bee larva, and is taken to serve in the nursery for a bit, where she starts to develop a mind of her own.

As Flora develops new abilities and works her way through the ranks of the hive, we start to learn that something in the governing of the hive is not quite what it should be. Something is wrong. But the strictly enforced castes and other outside factors, like weather and predators, delay Flora’s quest to ferret it out.

Between lying wasps, conniving spiders, and a conspiracy within the ranks of her own hive, Flora bounces from danger to danger trying to protect what she loves in an engrossing story of bravery and sacrifice.

I absolutely loved this book. I especially liked that anywhere possible, actual bee behavior was described and used to further the plot. This is definitely one of my favorite reads this year!

From the cover of The Bees:

Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her orchard hive, where work and sacrifice are the highest virtues and worship of the beloved Queen the only religion. But Flora is not like other bees. With circumstances threatening the hive’s survival, her curiosity is regarded as a dangerous flaw, but her courage and strength are assets. She is allowed to feed the newborns in the royal nursery and then to become a forager, flying alone and free to collect nectar and pollen. A feat of bravery grants her access to the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers mysteries about the hive that are both profound and ominous. 

But when Flora breaks the most sacred law of all – daring to challenge the Queen’s preeminence – enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the hive’s strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses jealously wedded to power. Her deepest instincts to serve and sacrifice are now overshadowed by a greater power: a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart, and her society – and lead her to perform unthinkable deeds.

Thrilling, suspenseful, and spectacularly imaginative, The Bees and its dazzling young heroine will forever change the way you look at the world outside your window.

Book Review: Grace and Fury

grace and furyGrace and Fury
by Tracy Banhart
Young Adult
311 pages
Published July 2018

I didn’t actually have high hopes for this book – the description hits a lot of standard YA tropes. Sisterhood, switched roles, Royal/pauper juxtaposition…but WOW. No, this book blew me away.

In Serina and Nomi’s world, women are second-class citizens, forbidden to read, have romantic relationships with each other, or have careers of their own. Serina plans to be a Grace, effectively a concubine to the Prince, with her sister as her handmaiden. But it is Nomi who catches the Prince’s eye when she stumbles into him in a hallway, and Nomi that he picks. In a moment of weakness, Nomi’s secret is discovered and thought to be Serina’s, and rather than jeopardize Nomi’s new position, Serina capitulates and takes the fall. She’s sent to a volcanic island prison while Nomi struggles to tame her own rebellious nature long enough to gain enough influence to free her sister.

The book is about oppression and sisterhood, whether it be with those that share your blood or not. Along the way, we discover a different history of the nation than what is normally taught, and find a few men who sympathize with the women’s plight. (And eventually step up to take action alongside the women.)

It’s a quick read – the action starts on page one and never stops. Chapters alternate between Nomi in the palace and Serina on her island prison fighting for food, and both girls learn that what they saw as weakness in each other can be strengths in different circumstances.

The only downside to this book is that it ends with things unfinished. Not a cliffhanger, exactly, but the story is most definitely not done, and the sequel doesn’t come out until July of 2019! I will be snapping that up as soon as it releases because I NEED to know how these two sisters overcome their trials.

From the cover of Grace and Fury:

BOLD
BRUTAL
BEAUTIFUL

Serina Tessaro has been groomed her whole life to become a Grace – someone to stand by the Heir to the throne as a shining, subjugated example of the perfect woman. It’s her chance to secure a better life for her family, and to keep her headstrong and rebellious younger sister, Nomi, out of trouble. But when Nomi catches the Heir’s eye instead, Serina is the one who takes the fall for the dangerous secret her sister has been hiding.

Trapped in a life she never wanted, Nomi has only one option: surrender to her role as a Grace until she can use her position to save Serina. But this is easier said than done . . . . A traitor walks the halls of the palazzo, and deception lurks in every corner.

Meanwhile, Serina is running out of time. Imprisoned on an island where she must fight to the death to survive, surrounded by women stronger than she is, one wrong move could cost her everything. There is no room for weakness on Mount Ruin, especially weaknesses of the heart.

Thrilling and captivating, Grace and Fury is a story of fierce sisterhood, and of survival in a world that’s determined to break you.

Book Review: Starless

StarlessStarless
by Jacqueline Carey
Fantasy
587 pages
Published June 2018

Jacqueline Carey has been a little hit or miss for me lately. I loved Kushiel’s Dart, read that years ago. Wasn’t fond of the second trilogy in that world. I read Miranda and Caliban a while back, and it was alright. This, though, blew me away. First, the idea that there are no stars in the sky. They have three moons and a sun, but no stars. Their mythology is that the Stars rebelled against their father, the Sun, and he threw them all to Earth, including one who hadn’t participated as it had been a babe in the womb during the rebellion! The stars now walk the earth as gods and goddesses, and we meet several in the book. (And hear about a few more.) The one god that hadn’t been part of the rebellion, but was punished anyway, has been nursing his hurt and resentment until, prophecy states, he will eventually wake and try to kill everyone. The problem is the prophecy was shattered into as many pieces as there are gods, and spread across the world. There are prophecy seekers that try to collect all the bits, but they’re not very successful.

In Khai’s country, the sacred twins are their gods. Pahrkun the Scouring Wind and Anamuht the Purging Fire. They can be seen on occasion striding across the desert. It is by Pahrkun’s will that Khai is bound to the youngest princess as her soul twin; very rarely the royal family gets one of these, and they are always meant to be bodyguards. So Khai is sent to the temple of Pahrkun’s warriors, deep in the desert, and trained in the many ways to kill. The warriors are all men, but Khai turns out to be non-binary, and this is what lets him guard the princess in a culture that includes harems and eunuchs. I love the relationship between Khai and Princess Zariya, and Zariya is no typical princess.

The book follows Khai and Zariya’s adventures in court intrigue, marriage proposals, sea battles, and prophecy-chasing. The action is perfect, the world breath-taking, and the people beautifully written. I’ve always enjoyed the fantasies where the gods show up commonly enough that people know how to identify them and how to treat them. From the Wind and Fire of Zharkoum’s arid country to the shape-changing Quellin and the terrifying Shambloth, the people that live near them build governments and societies around their gods, which makes each society stand out in their own way. World-building is definitely something that Carey is an expert at.

Starless is an amazing fantasy with a lovely queer romance at its heart. It’s full of varied cultures and enigmatic gods and goddesses and I just LOVE IT. Definitely one of my favorites this year.

From the cover of Starless:

“I was nine years old the first time I tried to kill a man . . .”

Destined from birth to serve as protector of the princess Zariya, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect in the deep desert; yet there is one profound truth that has been withheld from him.

In the court of the Sun-Blessed, Khai must learn to navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity . . . but in the far reaches of the western seas, the dark god Miasmus is rising, intent on nothing less than wholesale destruction.

If Khai is to keep his soul’s twin Zariya alive, their only hope lies with an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.

Book Review: The Great Zoo of China

great zoo of chinaThe Great Zoo of China
by Matthew Reilly
Action/Thriller
393 pages
Published 2015

I don’t typically read thrillers, and I haven’t read Jurassic Park because the movie gave young me nightmares for YEARS. (I haven’t seen ANY of the sequels, it was that bad!) But this was billed as Jurassic Park but with DRAGONS. And dragon-themed ANYTHING gets my attention, so in the queue it went! And I am glad for it, because this book was awesome. From the first glimpse of dragons flying above the tourist area, to the moment when everything starts to go wrong, to racing through the pages to find out how our hero manages to survive, this book had me entranced. The action just careens through the swamps and mountains of the park, almost as out of control as the dragons CJ is running from. And while we know CJ has to survive, because she’s the main character, she has a brother, a little girl she’s taken under her protection, old colleagues, and countrymen that she could lose at any moment.

And the dragons. Oh my, the dragons. They come in three sizes – Princes, about the size of a small car, Kings, about city bus size, and Emperors. Emperors are the size of passenger jets. With creatures this size, the action is supersized, too! Picture dragons picking up garbage trucks and flinging them at buildings, and you’ve got the idea! These dragons are intelligent, too. They have a language, and can plan and set traps together. They are devious and DEADLY.

If the dragons weren’t enough, the story is also set in China. China is known for squashing dissent, and it’s no different with the zoo. No one outside the zoo knows about the dragons, and until they have things under control, and the zoo up and running, they can’t let anyone know about it. Which means any witnesses to this dragon rebellion need to die, whether to the claws of the dragons or the bullets of the Chinese military.

The Great (Dragon) Zoo of China is one heck of a ride, and the action is amazing. I think this is one of my favorites of the year. It’s also the fourth book on my Summer reading list.

From the cover of The Great Zoo of China:

Get ready for action on a gigantic scale.

It is a secret the Chinese government has been keeping for forty years. They have proven the existence of dragons – a landmark discovery no one could ever believe is real, and a scientific revelation that will amaze the world. Now the Chinese are ready to unveil their astonishing findings within the greatest zoo ever constructed.

A small group of VIPs and journalists has been brought to the zoo deep within China to see these fabulous creatures for the first time. Among them is Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron, a writer for National Geographic and an expert on reptiles. The visitors are assured by their Chinese hosts that they will be struck with wonder at these beasts, that the dragons are perfectly safe, and that nothing can go wrong.

Of course it can’t….

Book Review: Goodbye, Paris

goodbye parisGoodbye, Paris
by Anstey Harris
Contemporary Fiction
277 pages
Published August 7, 2018

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not a big fan of Contemporary Fiction. This, however, blew me away. Goodbye, Paris, is one of August’s Books of the Month, and as usual, it is outstanding. I don’t know how they consistently pick amazing books, but month after month they bring a bit of magic.

I started this book thinking “oh, she’s a musician, I can get into that,” but I didn’t know how much the author was going to explore that facet of her life. But right away, on page 14, our main character did something that made me gasp aloud and stop and actually write in my book. Which is a thing I don’t do. Grace plays cello the way I play piano. She’s far more skilled than I am, but – well just read:

My knees poke out, bony and white, cushioning the pointed lower bouts of the cello, and the scroll rests, where it belongs, against my ear. The cello takes up its rightful place and I become nothing more than a mechanical part of it.

This is what I have always done, how I have always found myself when I’ve been lost. When I first went to music college, eighteen years old and paralyzingly shy, when ringing my parents from the pay phone in the corridor just made me miss them even more, I would feel the strength in the neck of my cello, flatten the prints of my fingers into the strings, and forget.

I play and play; through thirst, past hunger, making tiredness just a dent in my soul. I play beyond David’s marriage, his holiday, even how frightened I was when he disappeared below the platform.

I play on until the world is flat again and the spaces between my heartbeats are as even as the rhythm on the stave in front of me.

This is how and why I play piano! To see it so gorgeously described on the page was breathtaking. I am not a concert-level pianist by any means, but I’m decent, and playing piano brings me back to myself. When I’m angry or frustrated or hurt or simply feeling down, the music centers me and makes me focus until everything else falls away. From this point on, I was enthralled with this book and with Grace.

Grace’s partner, however, I was not so enthralled with. Grace and David have been together for eight years when the book opens. David has been married for all of those years, which Grace knew the night they met. (Though after they fell in love – it was one of those lightning-bolt-from-above things) He had two children with his wife, though, and a third on the way, and because of the crappy way he grew up, he was absolutely unwilling to divorce and mess up his children’s lives. Which, okay. Noble. (Though honestly, most children know when their parents are unhappy and wish they’d just divorce already, as Nadia, one of Grace’s friends, illustrates.) He and his wife both know their marriage is only for the children at this point, and are totally okay with relationships outside the marriage. Grace, however, is unaware of this arrangement, and THAT’S where my irritation at David comes in.

I don’t talk about it much on this blog, (though I have mentioned it) but my husband and I are polyamorous. He’s had another partner for almost five years now, plus other occasional dalliances. But everyone knows this. His other partner and occasional flirtations all know about each other and about me. David, on the other hand – his wife appears to know about everything, but Grace only knows about his wife. We’re never told what his other girlfriends know about. This isn’t ethical non-monogamy. He lies to everyone about his intentions and relationships. I think he’s probably incapable of monogamy – some people are – but he needs to be truthful about it. There are ways to make that work without ruining peoples’ lives and breaking hearts!

So David is not a character I like.

Mr. Williams and Nadia, however, are amazing. So besides playing the cello, Grace also makes cellos. And violins, and double-basses. Nadia is her shopgirl, and Mr. Williams is an old man who brings her a violin to repair. These three become such an incredible little trio! Nadia and Mr. Williams are the ones who put Grace back together when her life gets turned upside down, and are saved themselves in turn. Nadia is a little prickly, but I think it was her way of protecting herself. Mr. Williams is too old for games – at eighty-six, he doesn’t fool around anymore.

I loved this book. Book of the Month has once more made an outstanding pick. The characters and emotions are beautiful and heart-rending and magical. I think this is one of my favorites of the year!

From the cover of Goodbye, Paris:

Will Grace Atherton fall out of love . . . and into life?

From the simple melody of running her violin shop to the full-blown orchestra of her romantic interludes in Paris with David, her devoted partner of eight years, Grace Atherton has always set her life to music.

Her world revolves entirely around David, for Grace’s own secrets have kept everyone else at bay. Until suddenly and shockingly one act tips Grace’s life upside down, and the music seems to stop.

It takes a vivacious old man and a straight-talking teenager to kick-start a new song for Grace. In the process, she learns that she is not as alone in the world as she had once thought, that no mistake is insurmountable, and that the quiet moments in life can be something to shout about . . . 

For fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Jojo Moyes, Goodbye, Paris is the story of a woman who has her heart broken but then puts it back together again in the most uplifting and exquisite way.