The Follower by Nicholas Bowling

As the parent of twins, I can attest to the fact that twins can be as sweetly devoted yet as deeply strange as the siblings depicted in this novel. After the death of his father, the already rather odd Jesse Owens (yes, really) starts looking for meaning in all the most metaphysical places. His search leads him across an ocean and a continent to the Northern California town of Mount Hookey, where the inhabitants are devoted to the idea of a Crystal City in the mountain, as promised to them by John of Telos, a messianic figure from the 1970s who was enlightened by beings from a place? a race? a state of mind? called, unsurprisingly, Telos.

Since the 70s, any number of schools have sprung up around The Violet Path to Telos, and it’s to these that Jesse has applied his considerable mind and inherited fortune. His twin, Vivian, is used to his strangeness, to his inability to function well in mainstream society. When he goes missing, Vivian knows that it’s up to her to find him and bring him home.

Unfortunately, hippie NorCal is way out of her comfort zone, even before she’s violently mugged in the neighboring town of Lewiston while journeying to Jesse’s last known location. She enters Mount Hookey almost as a drifter, and soon finds herself trying to untangle a bewildering web of New Age offshoots and practitioners in her search for her twin. People are either overly helpful or shy away from her for no reason she can discern, but the one thing most of the residents agree on is that she shouldn’t go up the frigid, forested mountain, and certainly not by herself. But if that’s where Jesse went, Vivian will have no choice but to follow, even if it leads her straight to danger.

For all its brooding weirdness, The Follower is at its heart a satirical examination of New Age cults and the brutally cynical thinking behind them, threaded through with ideas on reaching your potential and what that means in our modern world. Tonally, it feels a lot like The X-Files, with a skeptical Vivian trying to find her much more believing brother in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, with a little bit of The Simpsons in both the appearance of a mysterious glowing figure and in the absurd, often oblivious humor of the townsfolk. The most touching part, to me, was the examination of family, the bond between siblings as well as the bond between parent and child. Parents don’t mean to ruin their children, mostly. The comparison of Vivian and Jesse’s relationship with their dysfunctional parents to the mindsets of the followers of Telos is thought-provoking, especially as a parent myself.

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The Smurfs Tales #1: The Smurfs And The Bratty Kid by Peyo

I grew up with The Smurfs as a child, tho in all honesty, I was one of those children who barely absorbed the “mythology” of the overarching story vs enjoying the gags of each standalone episode. And while I certainly gobbled up my fair share of Asterix and Tintin comics, I never got into the Smurfs books, or the Johan And Peewit comics from which our little blue heroes originally came.

So I leapt at the opportunity to remedy that oversight in my childhood reading with the repackaging of several of Peyo’s tales, translated by the Papercutz team, here in this inaugural volume published to coincide with the relaunch of the cartoon on Nickelodeon. Comprising a long story about the Smurfs; another long tale starring the Smurfs, Johan and Peewit; a shorter tale about just the humans, and several pages of Smurf gag panels, this was very much a volume out of the Belgian cartooning tradition, with clever, accessible art and a surprisingly wordy narrative that feels geared towards a slightly older audience than the popular TV adaptations.

The first story, the titular The Smurfs And The Bratty Kid, was my favorite of the bunch. Papa Smurf gets lost traveling back to Smurf Village because his stork has no sense of direction, but encounters a kindly old man looking forward to a visit from his nephew Awsum. Unfortunately, Awsum is a holy terror who not only wreaks havoc on Smurf Village but also teams up with Gargamel to capture his would-be benefactors! Papa Smurf will have to use every ounce of his patience, kindness and know-how in order to help guide Awsum to becoming a better person.

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The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

I loved “The City Born Great,” the 2016 short story (and 2017 Hugo finalist) that was the seed of this novel. “The conceit of the story is that great human cities have a life of their own. Maybe that life awakens quickly, maybe it takes centuries or millennia, but at some point the genius loci becomes a thing in itself. Birth is never easy, not every potential new life makes it into the world, and Jemisin’s story tells the tale of New York’s attempt…”

In its short form, I found the story irresistible: “What makes this story great is the sheer exuberance with which it’s told. It’s fast, it’s furious, but it’s also tremendous fun. And sure, it’s a power fantasy, too, but if that gives readers sentences like ‘I backhand its ass with Hoboken, raining the drunk rage of ten thousand dudebros down on it like the hammer of God. Port Authority makes it honorary New York, motherfucker; you just got Jerseyed.’ then let a thousand fantasies bloom. It’s a story about life, and living, and that’s what it’s most full of: the very stuff of life.”

The City We Became extends and deepens “The City Born Great,” while keeping the essential story: New York wants to live, to become its most vibrant, most colorful self; something else wants to stop that from happening. A slightly revised form of the short story becomes the novel’s prologue. Instead of the battle it depicts marking the birth of the living city, it’s just the opening scene, an incomplete start, leaving the avatar of New York in unknown circumstances and its enemies still active. Each of the boroughs also has an avatar, and together they must complete the tale, though they do not know that from the start. Manny, newly arrived in the city, his past forgotten already, sharp, fast, not averse to controlled violence. Bronca, oldest of the five, daughter of the Lenape who were around when the Dutch came calling, harried administrator of an arts center. Brooklyn Thomason aka MC Free, in her younger days a rapper, now a city councilwoman, Black, formidable, and worried about her family. Padmini Prakash, Queen of Mathematics, immigrant living with her auntie, thrilled to have a chance in New York to use her abilities to their fullest, not so thrilled about all that entails. And then there’s Aislyn Houlihan, teenage daughter of an Irish cop on Staten Island, too afraid to go into the city, wanting more than anything to be left alone in the world she knows.

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Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow

Isn’t Eastern Standard Tribe a neat title? It sounds so nifty, so cool, so exciting, there must be a lot happening behind it. Doctorow has Art, the first-person narrator of roughly half the chapters, spell things out about halfway through the book.

“It’s like this,” I said. “It used to be that the way you chose your friends was by finding the lost like-minded people you could out of the pool of people who lived near you. If you were lucky, you lived near a bunch of people you could get along with. … Chances were that you’d grow up so immersed in the local doctrine that you’d never even think to question it. …
“Now, once ideas could travel more freely, the chances of you finding out about a group of people somewhere else that you might get along with increased. …
“People immigrated here and picked where they wanted to live based on what sort of people they wanted to be with, which ideas they liked best. A lot of it was religious, but that was just on the surface—underneath it all was aesthetics. You wanted to go somewhere where the girls were pretty in the way you understood prettiness, where the food smelled like food and not garbage, where shops sold goods you could recognize. … [T]he tug of finding people like you is like gravity. Lots of things work against gravity, but gravity always wins in the end—in the end, everything collapses. In the end, everyone ends up with the people that are most like them that they can find.” …
“Fast-forward to the age of email. Slowly but surely we begin to mediate almost all of our communications over networks.
“So you’re a fish out of water. You live in Arizona, but you’re sixteen years old and all your neighbors are eighty-five, and you get ten billion channels of media on your desktop. All the good stuff—everything that tickles you—comes out of some clique of hyperurban club-kids in South Philly. They’re making cool art, music, clothes. You read their mailing lists and you can tell that they’re exactly the kind of people who’d really appreciate you for who you are. In the old days, you’d pack your bags and hitchhike across the country and move to your community. But you’re sixteen and that’s a pretty scary step.
“Why move? These kids live online. … Online you can be a peer. You can hop into these discussions, play the games, chord with one hand while chatting up some hottie a couple thousand miles away.
“Only you can’t. You can’t, because they chat at seven AM while they’re getting ready for school. … Their late nights end at three AM. But those are their local times, not yours. If you get up at seven, they’re already at school, ’cause it’s ten there.
“So you start to eff with your sleep schedule. You get up at four AM so you can chat with your friends. You go to bed at nine. ’cause that’s when they go to bed. Used to be that it was stockbrokers and journos and factory who did that kind of thing, but now it’s anyone who doesn’t fit in.
“So you get the Tribes. People all over the world who are really secret agents for some other time zone, some other way of looking at the world, some other zeitgeist. … Like any tribe, they are primarily loyal to each other, and anyone outside of the tribe is only mostly human. That may sound extreme, but this is what it comes down to.
“Tribes are agendas. Aesthetics. Ethos. Traditions. Ways of getting things done. … I know that my Tribesman’s taxi will conduct its way through traffic in a way that I’m comfortable with, whether I’m in San Francisco, Boston, London or Calcutta. I know that the food will be palatable in a Tribal restaurant, that a book by a Tribalist will be a good read, that a gross of widgets will be manufactured to the exacting standards of my Tribe.” (pp. 108–13)

It’s a good rant.
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Assassin’s Orbit by John Appel

Gosh, I’m at the point in my life where I really wish we had a better comparison for books featuring older female heroes than The Golden Girls. Nothing against the classic sitcom, but literally the only similarity Assassin’s Orbit has with TGG is that the main characters are feisty older women. That’s definitely a draw for readers like me, but if you’re coming here expecting laughs and feel-good sitcom moments, oh boy, are you in for a surprise.

Which isn’t at all a knock on this book: it’s just that hilarity isn’t what AO is about. Tonally, it feels a lot more like The Expanse, as various players are drawn together to uncover a deadly conspiracy against the backdrop of interplanetary political maneuvering. Our main protagonist is Noo Okoreke, the sixty-ish head of Ileri Station’s premiere security consulting firm. When Saed Tahir, the grandson of her business partner Fathya Shariff, is killed while serving as bodyguard to the Minister of External Trade in the lead up to unity talks with the powerful Commonwealth, Noo and Saed’s sister Fari offer their services to Constabulary Commissioner Nnenna Toiwa in tracking down the clearly well-trained killers. With anti-Commonwealth riots instigated by the One World party a constant concern, the Constabulary is already spread pretty thin, especially since Nnenna has only recently overseen a purge of corrupt officers from within their ranks. Nnenna is too practical to refuse the help, especially since the Shariff Security firm has contacts with valuable information who would prefer to stay well off the Constabulary’s radar.

Noo and Fari’s investigations bring them to the rescue of Meiko Ogawa, a Commonwealth spy currently facing enforced retirement after being burned to both Ileri and Saljuan forces. She’s set on finishing one last task, however, and teams up with Noo and Fari as they chase their common quarry planetside and into certain danger. But greater trouble is brewing on the Station than any of our heroes expect, as a Saljuan destroyer enters Ileri space and the One Worlders make their ultimate play.

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Disney’s Beauty And The Beast by Teddy Slater, Ron Dias & Ric González

When my middle child brought me this book to read aloud, no doubt gifted to my kids in a grab bag of books from my mother-in-law, I was pretty excited to do it. I grew up obsessed with my hardcover copy of Disney’s Cinderella, and Beauty And The Beast was one of my favorite Disney movies. So Joseph and his older brother Jms cuddled up to me while I read them the Golden Book Disney version of the classic fairy tale.

And oh wow, were there lots of things here that I remembered quite differently! Granted, it’s been decades since I’ve watched the movie, and I certainly did not bother to watch the live-action version, cute as Dan Stevens is. And media novelizations, as it were, always have a habit of flattening the nuance of the stories they’re retelling. Not having the terrific tunes to sing along to certainly doesn’t help either! So I was surprised by how little I remembered of the animated movie’s actual plot, even as I questioned whether the things the book was choosing to emphasize were as egregiously told in the movie. Perhaps my hazy recollection softened the bad parts, but had I truly swallowed down misogyny so easily as a child?

Only one way to solve this conundrum: by putting on the movie once more. Even from watching the opening bit explaining the curse on the Prince who became a Beast, it’s clear that a lot of nuance has been removed from the book adaptation. The words mean the same thing but they carry different inflections. In the book, it seems that the Prince is cursed because he’s shallow, but in the movie, it’s clear that he is being cursed for the cruelty that comes from his shallowness. And omg, the book’s insistence that Belle is “not like other girls” made me question my entire liking for this movie: fortunately, my re-watch makes it clear that in the movie, she’s not like anyone else in their small provincial town. It’s weirdly reductive to limit the uniqueness of Belle’s personality to a phrase that reeks of internalized misogyny, and frankly a bad lesson to teach young readers.

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Sweet Tea by Piper Huguley

This is a sheer delight of a clean romance novel, one that touches on getting comfortable with your roots but still being open to love when it shows up to surprise you. Althea Dailey has finally made partner at her intellectual property law firm in New York City but, now that she’s achieved her life goal at the ripe old age of thirty-two, is starting to wonder whether there’s more to life than money and career success. Being sent south to North Carolina on her first big case as partner also has her feeling guilty about not doing more to stay in touch with her beloved Granda down in Milford, Georgia. But when Granda starts enthusing over the young man who’s been such a help to her with her cooking, who wants to make a documentary and cookbook of her recipes, Althea finally has an excuse to overcome her reluctance to head home, booking the first plane back to make sure her Granda isn’t being scammed by some crook.

Jack Darwent is a trust fund baby who found himself chafing at the life that his father, a civil rights lawyer, had mapped out for him. Eschewing law school for culinary school, he now travels the country gathering material for a documentary he wants to make celebrating the too-swiftly vanishing art of authentic Southern cooking. One of his subjects is the legendary Ada Dailey, whose endearing manner is at stark odds with the attitude of her high-powered attorney granddaughter who suddenly shows up in Milford with an entirely skeptical view of Jack’s efforts and intentions.

The way that Althea and Jack eventually come to understand and fall for each other while making peace with their own pasts and present is charmingly depicted in this low-heat, almost-Christian romance. I say almost-Christian because while the AME church plays a significant part in the proceedings, it’s clear that religion is seen as an intensely personal matter — while Piper Huguley clearly has a lot of Christian faith, she’s not about to force it on her readers. As a Muslim, I felt very comfortable reading this book, which gives a joyful impression of a Christianity that accepts and heals, but also makes it clear that you don’t have to go to church every Sunday to be considered a good person. I do wish that the book had been a little less heteronormative but that is an extremely minor quibble in an otherwise affirming, modern tale of interracial romance.

What I do really wish this book had done better was put the same amount of care it had used in the first three-quarters or so into building out the last quarter of the story. Things went by way too quickly after the May dinner. How exactly had Althea discerned the connection between Sherri’s grandma and Cassie? What is she planning to do to rescue Milford College beyond funding one scholarship? What’s up with Jack showing up at her office? I also didn’t really understand what was happening on Decoration Day — I get the basics, but the attitude of the other ladies is still unclear to me. I felt that there was so much story still to build out there in the last quarter, instead of the brief series of sketches that it felt like the narrative had dwindled down to post-May-dinner. I know that Ms Huguley is capable of telling a terrific tale, so it was mystifying why the last part felt so rushed and underdone.

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The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

I wrote in 2015, “One last thing that I liked about The Goblin Emperor is that it didn’t end with an obvious sequel on its way. There are many stories that Addison could set in this world, and they would be a pleasure to read…” The Witness for the Dead is one of those stories, and it is indeed a great pleasure to read.

Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Thara Celehar is a Witness for the Dead, a cleric of Ulis with the unusual ability to contact people newly dead and return with limited information from the remains of the person’s consciousness. Usually, it’s something immediately pertaining to the person’s death, but it can be other strongly held beliefs. Celehar appeared briefly but decisively in The Goblin Emperor, using his ability to reveal crucial information about the airship explosion that set the previous book into motion. That gave him connections at the very highest level, but it also made him inconvenient to a number of powerful factions. As a result, The Witness for the Dead finds him in the large provincial city of Amalo, not quite in exile but out of the way.

Celehar prefers that situation, to be honest. He’s a member of the clergy with a true vocation and a stubborn streak of honesty that the powerful and the ambitious occasionally find inconvenient. He believes in the usefulness of his role as a Witness, someone able to bring compassion and relief to the dead, and truth to their survivors. Truth, though, is not always a relief. About a third of the way through the book, he receives a petitioner from a wealthy family who asks him to Witness for the recently departed patriarch. There are competing wills, and the uncertainty is threatening the family’s ongoing business. Not to mention that dissent strong enough to cause someone to bring forth a forged will is a sign of deeper divisions within the family. Will Celehar be able to discern the patriarch’s desired heir? What will happen to the family in either event?

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The Wicked King (The Folk Of The Air #2) by Holly Black

Haha, what the hell, NetGalley only sent me the first three quarters of this novel for review? Good thing I looked up the next book in the series and realized from the blurb that I had no idea how the events described there led from this one, and so discovered that I was missing an entire section of The Wicked King! I was all ready to excuse TWK’s abrupt ending with a diagnosis of middle-book syndrome (no thanks to whomever posted this version on NG) but am now pleased to report that Holly Black’s gangbusters The Cruel Prince does, indeed, get the excellent continuation it deserves. With thanks to my local library for having the novel on hand so I could speed read my way through the actual ending!

Jude Duarte is now the power behind King Cardan’s throne, but one of the many things she’s learned from her adoptive father, Grand General Madoc, is that power is much easier to obtain than to keep. Uncovering a plot against the king whom she both hates and desires, she works overtime with her own Court Of Shadows, a team of spies and subversives, to protect Cardan and, by so doing, protect her beloved little brother Oak, who’s also in the line of succession. But an almost off-hand remark from a nemesis causes her to worry. “Someone you trust has already betrayed you,” Undersea Princess Nicasia tells her. Since the fae are incapable of lying, Jude knows it must be true. But who could it be, and what kind of betrayal, and how deeply will this latest one hurt?

Jude’s life is one of pressure and paranoia as she strives to safeguard Cardan and Oak, often without their cooperation, while figuring out a way to extend her hold on Cardan and repair her relationship with her twin sister Taryn. Events come to a head around Taryn’s wedding, when disaster strikes despite Jude’s best laid plans. Can our arch-schemer think her way out of this latest bind, or will love blind her to the machinations of others?

So this book won’t make a lick of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the brilliant TCP, which is frankly one of the best novels of courtly intrigue I’ve ever read. TWK feels somewhat slighter in comparison, if only because Jude is at a distinct disadvantage in not being the usurper, as it were, but the defender of power. Enemies amass at every front, and no matter what she does, she can’t fight them all off. But some enemies are less serious than others, at least for now, and some problems come less from power struggles than from how difficult it is to learn how to trust and open up. There are definite communication problems in this book but, unlike in other YA novels I’ve had to struggle through, these communication issues aren’t stupid. Jude understandably has a hard time trusting Cardan because they’ve always been at odds. She has an even more understandably hard time trusting Taryn or Madoc after what happened in TCP.

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City Of Iron And Dust by J.P. Oakes

I don’t know how to properly express the depth of my love for this extraordinary, brilliant book. It’s a book of revolutions and subversions, of challenging the status quo and thinking, really thinking about who gets to be a hero, and who deserves our sympathy and, most of all, who we should strive to be. Which last, in the hands of any other writer, would veer on the edge of moralizing claptrap. But J. P. Oakes gets to the heart of it here, telling us to try our hardest even if we can be

not satisfied, but at peace with the little [we have] done, with the knowledge that others will still be able to carry on the fight.

God, this book made me cry and laugh and upended all my expectations of what fantasy fiction can do. Because, in addition to being a really terrific industrial fantasy novel, set on a single night of upheaval and rebellion, it’s also a clever as hell tale of a drug heist gone awry and how that winds up signifying politically, as various factions chase down what the author slyly implies in the beginning is a mere McGuffin (mild spoiler: it’s not.)

But let’s begin with the setting. Decades past, the goblin tribes united under the banner of Mab and swept south from their ancestral lands, subjugating the various fae in their path. Triumphant, they built the Iron City, a vast metropolis ruled by the five Goblin Houses and encircled entirely by an iron wall that not only cuts their subject fae off from magic but also infects the fae with sickness. The underclass has tried to rebel but each uprising has been quashed. Many fae turn to Dust, a drug that evokes just a little bit of their gone-away magic, in order to escape their increasingly nightmarish reality. But hope is not an ember easily extinguished, and on this one night, various goblins and fae from all strata of society will be drawn together in a web of magic and mayhem to fight, for the city or for themselves and sometimes for both at once.

Our point-of-view characters include Jag, a young goblin heiress fascinated with the fae and their artistry; her half-sister and bodyguard Sil; Edwyll, an idealistic fae artist searching for a patron; Knull, his cynical drug-dealing older brother; Bee, the thoughtful young member of the Fae Liberation Front; Skart, the de facto leader of the revolution, and Granny Spregg, the scheming former head of the goblin House Spreggan. As alliances form and shift, as betrayals and reversals rend and kill, these seven show us the full picture of a night that will change them all and the Iron City forever.

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