Monday, March 1, 2021

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

From the publisher: When the witch built the forty-flight tower, she made very sure to do the whole thing properly. Each flight contains a dreadful monster, ranging from a diamond-scaled dragon to a pack of slavering goblins. Should a prince battle his way to the top, he will be rewarded with a golden sword—and the lovely Princess Floralinda. But no prince has managed to conquer the first flight yet, let alone get to the fortieth. In fact, the supply of fresh princes seems to have quite dried up.

Those looking for a quick, easy fantasy read could do worse than Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower. Author Tamsyn Muir made a name for herself with her debut novel Gideon the Ninth, a space opera-fantasy mashup that struck an appealing balance of brutal and outrĂ©, with a slick feminist feel. Her storytelling takes quite a different shape in Floralinda, but her fierce female vibes and tilt toward surprising, occasional brutality remain. Instead of high fantasy or science fiction, Muir pivots the world of fairy tales with her latest, a riff on the familiar "princess locked in a tower" trope, but here with a heroine who is self-sufficient, even sometimes bordering on manipulative, who takes charge of her own destiny. There's also a witch, of course, and a fairy named Cobweb, which is obviously the best name for such a critter and how exactly has that not been done before?

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower is a short book, and so to say too much would spoil the small pleasures therein. It's brevity is also its greatest weakness, as the book definitely feels more like a short story than a short novel. 150 pages is plenty of room to construct a novel, if done right, and it's not as if Muir fails to do so here — it's just to say that this was clearly never her intent. Instead, the story is a slight two-hander between Floralinda and Cobweb, built on their banter and developing relationship to each other, and that bit works well enough. But for fantasy readers, or those who like a little more texture to their settings, very little is done to flesh out the world, as Muir keeps things relegated to the the eponymous forty flights of the tower. Likewise, the creature work is fairly superficial, as familiar iterations of fantasy mainstays pop up without much consequence (or very loose, new creations, mostly in the form of mashing up two different animals or beasts). 

For all that, Floralinda is diverting enough and at least doesn't overstay its welcome. Muir possesses both a wicked and weirdo sense of humor, each getting its due at various points here. It's not a book that much reinvents or deepens the fairy tale template, but it's a harmless read that will amuse and surprise with enough regularity to keep your attention for its short page count.

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower is available for checkout from the Galesburg Public Library in hardcover.

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Last High by Daniel Kalla

 From the publisher: A Vancouver doctor and a detective face the deadly consequences of the opioid crisis as they track down the supplier of fentanyl that landed a group of teens in the ER with critical overdoses. The Last High explores the perfect storm of greed, addiction, and crime behind the malignant spread of fentanyl, a deadly drug that is killing people faster than any known epidemic. 

While The Last High is not particularly original, it is easy to read and highly enjoyable. A "bag of chips" kind of novel. A doctor who is also a guilt-ridden sober addict, a Canadian detective of Chinese descent who still feels like an outsider, and a whole bunch of people dead from an extremely potent street drug. Wisecracking bromance-y detectives. A paternal mentor. A race to discover what's happening and who is responsible, and to save lives.

The author is an emergency room physician and it shows. Everything about the hospital scenes feels realistic. Maybe not so much how the doctor gets to tag along after the detective as he interviews suspects, but their relationship is sweet. The book does contain violence, and a lot of drug use and death. The author wants to both entertain and educate, and he achieved that with this reader. 

It seemed like it was setting up a sequel but I don't see one on the horizon. This is an author I would read again. 

The Galesburg Public Library owns The Last High in our Libby Overdrive collection, and the print book will be available soon.

Monday, February 1, 2021

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

From the publisher: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Dannie Kohan lives her life by the numbers.

She is nothing like her lifelong best friend—the wild, whimsical, believes-in-fate Bella. Her meticulous planning seems to have paid off after she nails the most important job interview of her career and accepts her boyfriend’s marriage proposal in one fell swoop, falling asleep completely content.

But when she awakens, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, and beside a very different man. Dannie spends one hour exactly five years in the future before she wakes again in her own home on the brink of midnight—but it is one hour she cannot shake. In Five Years is an unforgettable love story, but it is not the one you’re expecting.

In Five Years is a beautiful story of love and friendship. Main character Dannie is incredibly Type A and has her perfect life all mapped out. On the same day she nails a job interview for a prestigious NYC law firm, she gets engaged to her boyfriend David, and everything looks like it’s going as planned. But fast forward four and a half years, Dannie and David are still not married when the man from her “dream” walks into their lives in the form of Dannie’s best friend, Bella’s, boyfriend. This sends Dannie into a tailspin that threatens to derail everything she’s worked for. 

Even though the book deals with some heavy topics, Serle still manages to keep it lighthearted and sweet. This is the perfect read for a winter day in the middle of a pandemic. It is especially perfect for anyone who has COVID-brain and feels like they can’t concentrate on anything for longer than 15 minutes right now. That has been me for the past 9 months, which has made reading a chore. But I read two thirds of In Five Years in one sitting. I could not put it down.

It’s hard to explain why I liked this book so much without giving away the twists and the ending. The main love story is, indeed, not the one you’re expecting, but it’s just the one I needed to read about right now, and that love story was my favorite part of the book. Also, even though it’s billed as “romance”, the book also has a mystery element, with the twists that occur for everyone throughout the book, and a bit of a fantasy/science fiction element, with Dannie’s “dream” of the future. I enjoyed the genre-blending and think it helped make the book a page-turner.

I loved Dannie and Bella’s relationship. It’s good to see strong female friendships, and this definitely had that. Dannie and Bella have been there for each other through everything since they were children, and there is A LOT that they have stuck by the other through. Check this out if you're looking for a story about empowering, enduring friendships.

There’s not much I didn’t like about this book. I don’t normally like stories that have sad endings, or even worse, incomplete or abrupt endings. But while In Five Years sort of has both of those, I actually loved the ending. It wraps up just enough to leave you satisfied and feeling very hopeful. There are a few secondary characters that I wish were more fleshed out. Dannie’s parents, for example, are talked about frequently but we get very little information or actual interaction with them. I think some more background or interaction with a few of these characters would have helped make the story and atmosphere stronger, but that is a minor critique. Overall, this is a great book if you’re looking for a fast read that is uplifting and captivating.

The Galesburg Public Library owns In Five Years as a print book. The ebook is also available on the Libby app and the Axis 360 app, and a downloadable audiobook is available on the Axis 360 app.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Body in the Garden by Katharine Schellman

From the publisher: London 1815. Though newly-widowed Lily Adler is returning to a society that frowns on independent women, she is determined to create a meaningful life for herself even without a husband. She's no stranger to the glittering world of London's upper crust. At a ball thrown by her oldest friend, Lady Walter, she expects the scandal, gossip, and secrets. What she doesn't expect is the dead body in Lady Walter's garden.

Katharine Schellman’s The Body in the Garden is a fun, well-researched cozy mystery set during the Regency era. Main character Lily loved her husband, who left her a young widow. His family convinces her to return to London, hoping she’ll remarry. She is grieving and unsure how to live the rest of her life, reluctant to rejoin the ton. Her husband’s oldest friend, a naval captain, is in London while his ship is repaired, and he naturally becomes her escort and ally.

The author’s note makes the connection between the story and historical facts. She believably adds two people of color to the story – an heiress from the West Indies and the naval captain, who has an Indian mother. The story isn’t original – the helpful street urchins, the gruff but sincere policeman, the members of the upper crust solving a mystery – but the author brings freshness to her telling. There are hints of romance to come in a sequel. The Body in the Garden would make a terrific movie – someone should snap it up in this day of Bridgerton on TV.

The Galesburg Public Library owns The Body in the Garden as a book, an ebook, and a downloadable audiobook.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Vagablonde by Anna Dorn

Vagablonde is a darkly humorous, rollercoaster ride through the Los Angeles music scene about a woman who wants two things, the first is to live without psychotropic medication, and the second is to experience success as an artist. A cautionary tale about viral fame, Vagablonde speaks directly to our time in biting detail.

Anna Dorn is a writer from Los Angeles. She is a former criminal defense attorney with a JD from UC Berkeley Law and has written for various legal and pop culture outlets. It’s not too far off then to think that her book about Prue Van Teesen, a lawyer-turned-rapper battling anxiety and depression, is probably a bit autobiographical. Prue has never felt totally happy with being a lawyer, but it keeps her parents content, pays the bills, and allows her the free time to create and hang out with her girlfriend. When she meets Jax at a concert, he invites her into his “Kingdom” (a group of musicians and some other questionable characters) and she decides to take her art more seriously. To do this, Prue believes she needs to stop taking Celexa, an antidepressant she’s been on for the last 10 years. The Kingdom becomes Shiny AF, the newest viral sensation with their single “Dearly Queerly.” Prue begins spending less time on her law career and more time on her music career, and all the shenanigans that come with it. She drinks more, takes a lot of drugs, and even ends up befriending one of her clients, creating an ethical dilemma for her and her employer.

Vagablonde excels in transporting readers to a scene most probably aren’t familiar with — at least I assume the lawyer/rapper pool of humans is a small one. Some have criticized the book because Prue is “unlikeable.” This is true, Prue is not a great person (the way she cares for her two cats, Missy and Ennui, is more than a little concerning), but an unlikeable character doesn’t equal a bad book. Vagablonde is fun, it’s silly, and it takes on a big subject without getting too bogged down in the details of mental health struggles. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but it’s good if you’re looking for something a little weird, a little fun, and a little not-too-deep.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Basketful of Heads by Joe Hill

 From the publisher: #1 New York Times bestselling author Joe Hill asks, "With a cursed Viking axe, what can you accomplish?" and June Branch is ready to answer!

It seems like Joe Hill is everywhere lately: his graphic novel series Locke & Key was adapted on Netflix, with the next season expected later this year. His novel NOS4A2 became a TV series on AMC. Several of his other books and short stories have been adapted for the screen as well. In Basketful of Heads, Hill returns to the graphic novel format for this horror gore-fest that reads like a combination of Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino.

June comes to Brody Island to visit her boyfriend Liam, who's just finishing up a summer internship with the local police department. June's peaceful visit is interrupted though when news breaks that four violent inmates have escaped from the local prison. Liam and June wait at the chief's house while the police search for the prisoners, but things take a turn for the dangerous when the escapees break in, kidnap Liam, and threaten June. Armed with only a strange Viking axe from the chief's personal collection, June must defend herself, get help, rescue Liam, and find out what the inmates are really after..

This is a pretty straightforward gore-fest, with a few plot twists and some morbid humor thrown into the mix. Imagine the Kill Bill movies, except instead of a sword she has an axe that leaves its victims alive after their heads are cut off. Throw in a mystery about why the inmates came after Liam, and the result is a bloody, sometimes funny page-turner that will please fans of horror and crime stories alike.

Basketful of Heads is available now in Galesburg Public Library's graphic novel collection.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Forget Me Not by Alexandra Oliva


From the publisher: She was born for all the wrong reasons. But her search for the truth reveals answers she wishes she could forget in this suspenseful and deeply moving novel.

Forget Me Not pulled me in and kept me reading. I found it intriguing and moving. A rich couple have a daughter, who dies in a terrible accident as a teenager. The mom descends into mental illness and uses frozen embryos to impregnate herself in an attempt to recreate her dead child. But of course she can’t – and the new child pays the price for not being her older sister.

Linda, the protagonist, is very relatable. Now an adult, she is trolled on social media for merely existing. She has a troubled relationship with her famous father. She moves frequently as her address is outed online, and she has no friends until an outgoing neighbor (with a dog!) reaches out to her. But can she trust that Anvi is truly a friend? Or is she using her? Then the walled home where Linda grew up with her disturbed mother catches fire – and the past which has settled is stirred up again.

I liked that we got more than one narrative point of view. I enjoyed the Seattle setting. But what Oliva does really well is create a number of sympathetic and believable characters. Even the mother isn’t painted as evil.

Forget Me Not is set in a near future, and the social media, gun culture, and virtual reality details feel true. This could make a great movie in the right hands.

There is a subplot that I found distracting and not necessary. If I could speak to the author (who I actually did meet at a library conference a few years ago), I would say – stop trying to trick us. You don’t need the tricks. You are a good writer and your stories can stand on their own without the subterfuge. There was another “big secret” that I guessed early on as well. But those were minor distractions. I found Forget Me Not great escapist reading and recommend it to lovers of psychological thrillers.

I read an advance reader copy of Forget Me Not from Netgalley. It is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2021. The Galesburg Public Library will own it in print and as an ebook and electronic audiobook. In the meantime, we also own Oliva’s first book, The Last One, in print, audio, and ebook, and I recommend it as well.