Book Review: Like Water

like waterLike Water
by Rebecca Podos
YA LGBT Romance
312 pages
Published 2017

I’m always interested in queer young adult books, and this one especially caught my eye with its mention of “performing mermaids.” Because y’all know I love my mermaid books! So Savannah isn’t a real mermaid, she just plays one at a water park. But it was enough to make me pick up the book, and it’s a good book. Young adult books about discovering your identity are always needed, and this book is about Savannah realizing she’s bisexual.

Much of the angst in this book comes from Savannah not knowing if she has the same disease her father does, and she’s not sure if she wants to know. Altogether, in this book we have chronic illness, hispanic teens, bisexual, lesbian, and genderqueer teens, small-town angst….there’s really a LOT of demographics covered in this book.

I like Savannah, but I don’t like her love interest, Leigh, very much. Leigh does NOT have her shit together, and between drinking and doing drugs, all while underage, she poses a very real threat to Savannah’s well-being.

I’m a little nonplussed by the ending of the book. It leaves a few questions unanswered, but not in a cliff-hanger-y way. It’s more of a possibilities-left-open kind of way. Which makes sense for a “first love” romance. It’s not necessarily a “true love” story. It reminds me of John Green novels in that way.

So – it’s a great book for representation, but don’t expect a tidy, wrapped-up ending. You won’t find that here.

From the cover of Like Water:

In Savannah Espinoza’s small New Mexico hometown, kids either flee after graduation or they’re trapped there forever. Vanni never planned to get stuck – but that was before her father was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, leaving her and her mother to care for him. Now she doesn’t have much of a plan at all: living at home, working as a performing mermaid at a second-rate water park, distracting herself with one boy after another.

That changes the day she meets Leigh. Disillusioned with small-town life and looking for something greater, Leigh is not a “nice girl.” She is unlike anyone Vanni has met, and a friend when Vanni desperately needs one. Soon enough, Leigh is much more than a friend. But caring about another person threatens the walls Vanni has carefully constructed to protect herself and brings up the big questions she’s hidden from for so long.

With her signature stunning writing, Rebecca Podos, author of The Mystery of Hollow Places, has crafted an unforgettable story of two girls navigating the unknowable waters of identity, millennial anxiety, and first love.

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Book Review: The Shape of Water

the shape of waterThe Shape of Water
by Daniel Kraus and Guillermo del Toro
Magical Realism
314 pages
Published 2018

Alright, so, with as much as I enjoy twists on mermaid stories, this was kind of inevitable, right? I’d heard a lot about the movie, but hadn’t yet seen it, so I figured I’d read the novelization. What I didn’t realize until reading the book, though, is that this isn’t actually a novelization of the movie. The movie and the book were written at the same time, about the same story, but tell different parts of it. (This article explains how both were written.) The book delves more into the mythology behind the creature, and gets into the thoughts and feelings of both the creature and Elisa. Those things are incredibly hard to communicate in film, especially when the characters can’t speak! So, far from “reading the book instead of seeing the movie,” now that I’ve read the book, I REALLY want to see the movie!

If you haven’t heard of the movie, the basic premise of both movie and book is Elisa, a mute janitor at a top secret research facility, is cleaning a lab when she sees what’s contained in it – an amphibious man-like creature kept in captivity and experimented on. She teaches him sign language and eventually falls in love with him and decides to break him out of the lab before the researchers kill him. The plot is set in the 60s, so there’s a lot more overt racism and sexism going on, as well as some Cold War spycraft.

It’s also set in Baltimore, which is another thing I didn’t know before reading the book!

There’s a pretty good amount of minority representation here – Elisa is mute, her two best friends are black (Zelda) and gay (Giles). Zelda worries about her place as “the black friend” of a white woman, but also sees Elisa as a little damaged and in need of her care. When Elisa gets tunnel vision on the merman, Zelda’s worries are mostly confirmed, but not for the reasons she thinks, since Elisa shuts out Giles too. There’s definitely something to be learned there about hurting your friends unintentionally when starting a new relationship!

A lot of people saw this plot as super weird, with the woman falling in love with the sea-creature, but how many mermaid films do we have where the man falls in love with the mermaid when she still has her fish tail? Sure, the merman here is fully scaled and can’t talk, but Ariel can’t talk in most versions of The Little Mermaid, either. I don’t see it as much different, other than it’s a women falling in love with someone who isn’t the typical image of masculinity. And at least in the book, there are a couple of chapters from his perspective. He’s sentient and consenting. (I hope that comes across in the movie, too.)

I really enjoyed this one, and I definitely need to watch the movie to get the rest of the story. The book is self-contained – nothing’s missing, exactly, but since it was written in both mediums at the same time, I feel like I need to see the movie to perhaps flesh out some things.

From the cover of The Shape of Water:

It’s 1962, and Elisa Esposito – mute her whole life, orphaned as a child – is struggling with her humdrum existence as a janitor working the graveyard shift at Baltimore’s Occam Aerospace Research Center. Were it not for Zelda, a protective coworker, and Giles, her loving neighbor, she doesn’t know how she’d make it through the day.

Then one fateful night, she sees something she was never meant to see, the Center’s most sensitive asset ever; an amphibious man, captured in the Amazon, to be studied for Cold War advancements. The creature is terrifying but also magnificent, capable of language and of understanding emotions . . . and Elisa can’t keep away. Using sign language, the two learn to communicate. Soon, affection turns into love, and the creature becomes Elisa’s sole reason to live.

But outside forces are pressing in. Richard Strickland, the obsessed soldier who tracked the asset through the Amazon, wants nothing more than to dissect it before the Russians get a chance to steal it. Elisa has no choice but to risk everything to save her beloved. With the help of Zelda and Giles, Elisa hatches a plan to break out the creature. But Strickland is onto them. And the Russians are, indeed, coming.

Developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release – one story interpreted  by two artists in the independent mediums of literature and film – The Shape of Water is unlike anything you’ve ever read or seen.

Book Review: The Pisces

The PiscesThe Pisces
by Melissa Broder
Contemporary Fiction/Urban Fantasy/Magical Realism
270 pages
Published May 2018

I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while; you know how much I like my mermaids! This one is male, and not as predatory as the rest, but still good. This is one of the books from my summer TBR list, and the second book I’ve read from that list so far.

I feel like this book is better classified as Contemporary Fiction than fantasy; the existence of the merman is the only magical thing about it. Everything else is an exploration on love, obsession, and the lengths people will go to to meet their needs. Broder manages to wax philosophical but with a frankness that keeps everything relatable; from missing ex-boyfriends to worrying about Tinder dates, to thinking about the empty abyss of the ocean at night, Lucy’s inner dialogue speaks to the anxiety within all of us.

I went back and forth as to whether I actually liked Lucy or not. I did like her for most of the book, but then she had to go and be stupid and I’m not sure I can forgive her for that. It does illustrate how far some people will go when they’re obsessed with something, so it’s realistic, I suppose. But I’d rather the cost had fallen on Lucy instead of the innocent bystander.

The ending of the book wasn’t entirely satisfactory. It wrapped up the story, sure, but the next to the last paragraph introduced a question that hadn’t otherwise been considered, and leaves it unanswered. Which is a pet peeve of mine. It’s not philosophy, it’s a question of is she or isn’t she, and that’s not something the reader can really theorize about.

Overall, I really liked the book. There were a couple of events that annoyed me, but for the most part, this was a good summer read. It largely takes place on the beach, it’s at turns funny, sexy, sad, and weird. I think it’s mostly deserving of the hype it received.

From the cover of The Pisces:

Lucy has been writing her dissertation on Sappho for nine years when she and her boyfriend break up in a dramatic flameout. After she bottoms out in Phoenix, her sister in Los Angeles insists Lucy dog-sit for the summer. Annika’s home is a gorgeous glass cube on Venice Beach, but Lucy finds little relief from her anxiety – not in the Greek chorus of women in her love addiction therapy group, not in her frequent Tinder excursions, not even in Dominic the foxhound’s easy affection.

Everything changes when Lucy becomes entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer while sitting alone on the beach rocks one night. But when Lucy learns the truth about his identity, their relationship – and Lucy’s understanding of what love should look like – takes a very unexpected turn. A masterful blend of vivid realism and giddy fantasy, pairing hilarious frankness with pulse-racing eroticism, The Pisces is a story about falling in obsessive love with a merman, a figure of sirenic fantasy whose very existence pushes Lucy to question everything she thought she knew about love, lust, and meaning in the one life we have.

Book Review: To Kill a Kingdom

to kill a kingdomTo Kill a Kingdom
by Alexandra Christo
Fantasy
352 pages
Published March 2018

I really enjoy books that take mermaids (or sirens, in this case, as mermaids exist but are something different in this world) and turn them back to their murderous roots. Adding in Cthulhu-esque horror made Into the Drowning Deep especially fascinating. To Kill A Kingdom didn’t have much horror – it took the fantasy adventure/quest route instead.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Princess Lira, the siren known as the Prince’s Bane, and Prince Elian. Their name is at the start of each chapter that is written from their viewpoint, but it’s small and easily missed. I wish it was in a larger, more obvious font, because I kept having to flip back a few pages to figure out who I was reading.

I loved seeing the character growth of Lira as she comes to know the humans, and realizes there is another possibility besides just following her mother’s brutal orders. She learns, watching Elian’s people follow him, that there is a way to inspire loyalty rather than compel it by magic and brutality.

Lira definitely shows more character growth than Elian does, and the book never really explains how Elian gets past the fact that she’s killed so many princes.

The beginning of the book was also a little slow – I actually set it aside for a couple of weeks while reading other things and worried a little that I was never going to pick it up again. Worried because I don’t usually not finish books unless they’re terrible, not because I actually wanted to find out what happened. I didn’t get invested in the characters until probably about halfway through the book. Books usually catch me far before that point.

So – it was okay. If you want predatory mermaids, I would recommend Into the Drowning Deep long before this one. Though if you want more fantasy with a touch of romance, and less horror, then this is probably the book you want. Just be warned it takes some time to hit its stride.

From the cover of To Kill a Kingdom:

Princess Lira is siren royalty and the most lethal of them all. With the hearts of seventeen princes in her collection, she is revered across the sea. Until a twist of fate forces her to kill one of her own. To punish her daughter, the Sea Queen transforms Lira into the one thing they loathe most–a human. Robbed of her song, Lira has until the winter solstice to deliver Prince Elian’s heart to the Sea Queen or remain a human forever. 

The ocean is the only place Prince Elian calls home, even though he is heir to the most powerful kingdom in the world. Hunting sirens is more than an unsavory hobby–it’s his calling. When he rescues a drowning woman in the ocean, she’s more than what she appears. She promises to help him find the key to destroying all of sirenkind for good–But can he trust her? And just how many deals will Elian have to barter to eliminate mankind’s greatest enemy?

Book Review: The Merry Spinster

the merry spinsterThe Merry Spinster – Tales of Everyday Horror
by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
Fairy Tale Short Story Anthology
188 pages
Published March 2018

So this JUST came out. I’d had my eye on it for a few months, and put a request in as soon as my library ordered it. The author recently came out as trans, so it’s also part of my effort to read more inclusively. Ortberg definitely played with gender and sexuality in several of these tales; in one of them people decided whether to be the husband or the wife, independent of their gender, in their marriage. (One party to the marriage in the story stated “I’ve been trained for both roles.”) In another all of a man’s daughters used male pronouns and that was never explored further. That was slightly odd.

These were dark, twisted versions of these stories. “Our Friend Mr. Toad,” for example, involved gaslighting and psychologically torturing poor Mr. Toad. I found that one particularly disturbing. I enjoyed the title story, Ortberg’s version of Beauty and the Beast, which has a very different ending from expected. I also really liked “The Daughter Cells”, inspired by The Little Mermaid. I LOVED “Fear Not: An Incident Log.”

I think this was a great, albeit strange, little book. It’s unique, for sure, and a quick read. If you’re looking for a fairy tale collection that is VERY different, try this one.

From the cover of The Merry Spinster:

From Mallory Ortberg comes a collection of darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Adapted from the beloved “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series, “The Merry Spinster” takes up the trademark wit that endeared Ortberg to readers of both The Toast and the best-selling debut Texts From Jane Eyre. The feature has become among the most popular on the site, with each entry bringing in tens of thousands of views, as the stories proved a perfect vehicle for Ortberg’s eye for deconstruction and destabilization. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien all at the same time, The Merry Spinster updates traditional children’s stories and fairy tales with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity, and a keen sense of feminist mischief.

Readers of The Toast will instantly recognize Ortberg’s boisterous good humor and uber-nerd swagger: those new to Ortberg’s oeuvre will delight in this collection’s unique spin on fiction, where something a bit mischievous and unsettling is always at work just beneath the surface.

Unfalteringly faithful to its beloved source material, The Merry Spinster also illuminates the unsuspected, and frequently, alarming emotional complexities at play in the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, as we tuck ourselves in for the night.

Bed time will never be the same.

Book Review: Into the Drowning Deep

drowning deepInto the Drowning Deep
by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire)
Fantasy Horror
450 pages
Published November 2017

WOW. I don’t typically read horror, but this was fantasy horror, and WOW. I picked up the novella precursor to this sometime last year – I never reviewed it here, probably because it was barely over 100 pages, but it was fascinating and haunting all the same. Rolling in the Deep told the story of the Atargatis, a ship sent out to the Mariana Trench to stage a mockumentary – supposedly looking for mermaids, but equipped with actors who could swim with mermaid tails. They never planned to find anything. Except they did. And they all died. One by one at first, a few people picked off, then the entire ship swarmed and eaten. The reader sees this happen, but to anyone not on the ship, the only thing they find is some footage on an abandoned ship.

Into the Drowning Deep fast forwards a few years; the production company, Imagine Network, is not doing so well, and they want to prove that the footage wasn’t a hoax. So they assemble a new mission, this one with a lot more security. (Though they still picked security with an eye for what would look good on TV, rather than what would be effective, which was a poor choice.) The reader, of course, knows that the mermaids are real, and that they are dangerous, so you spend much of the first part of the book in a state of suspense waiting for them to show up. (I actually thought it took a little too long for them to finally show up, but the time was used for character-building.)

The book is very Lovecraftian, actually – from the strong, building sense of foreboding doom to the creatures that should not exist, to the kind of gibbering insanity near the end. It’s probably why I liked the book so much; Lovecraft is about the only kind of horror writing I like, and I get the same feeling from Grant’s writing.

So yes, the book is about mermaids. But these aren’t mermaids as you’ve seen them before. They’re not cute, they’re not seductive, they don’t want to live on land, and they’re definitely not friendly. These mermaids are predators. Intelligent predators, but predators. And humans, apparently, are delicious.

Most of the characters in the book are scientists trying to prove mermaids exist, so there’s a lot of science happening aboard the ship, and Grant doesn’t shy away from it happening on the page as well. She also includes a pair of deaf scientist twins, and their interpreter sibling, which is important because the mermaids use a form of sign language as well. Most of the main characters are women, which is also great to see in such a large concentration of fictional scientists.

If you like fantasy horror, i.e. Lovecraft, you should definitely pick this up. Rolling in the Deep is also worth reading first – I think it definitely adds another layer to the sense of foreboding doom.

Technically this is billed as #1 in the series, which gives me hope for more. I’m counting it for PopSugar’s “next book in a series you started” because Rolling in the Deep came out two years prior and is a prequel. (It’s listed as #.5)

From the cover of Into the Drowning Deep:

The ocean is home to many myths,
But some are deadly…
Seven years ago the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a mockumentary bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a tragedy.
Now a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.
Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves.
But the secrets of the deep come with a price.

rolling in the deepFrom the cover of Rolling in the Deep:

When the Imagine Network commissioned a documentary on mermaids, to be filmed from the cruise ship Atargatis, they expected what they had always received before: an assortment of eyewitness reports that proved nothing, some footage that proved even less, and the kind of ratings that only came from peddling imaginary creatures to the masses.

They didn’t expect actual mermaids.  They certainly didn’t expect those mermaids to have teeth.

This is the story of the Atargatis, lost at sea with all hands.  Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.  Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the bathypelagic zone in the Mariana Trench…and the depths are very good at keeping secrets.