Review: Orphans of the Carnival

Posted on October 25th, 2016 @ 23:09
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Orphans of the CarnivalOrphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

My rating:


A life in the spotlight will keep anyone hidden.

Julia Pastrana is the singing and dancing marvel from Mexico, heralded on tours across nineteenth-century Europe as much for her talent as for her rather unusual appearance. Yet few can see past the thick hair that covers her: she is both the fascinating toast of a Governor’s ball and the shunned, revolting, unnatural beast, to be hidden from children and pregnant women.

But what is her wonderful and terrible link to Rose, collector of lost treasures in an attic room in modern-day south London? In this haunting tale of identity, love and independence, these two lives will connect in unforgettable ways.


[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley.]

This novel is based on the story of Julia Pastrana, a perforrmer and “freak” who lived in the 19th century; more than the typical “woman with a beard”, Julia was covered in hair, and had a facial condition that made her look like an ape. Throughout the story, we get to see here leave her hometown and the house where she had lived, to perform with a troupe, then with independent managers. More than a mere attraction, Julia sang and danced beautifully, something other characters find both fascinating and troubling: after all, is she really a human being, or merely an animal?

I found this attraction mixed with revulsion fascinating, for all the questions it raised. Most of the story is told from Julia’s point of view, and there’s no doubt she’s a human being, period, with her own thoughts, feelings, dignity, and desires in life. She may appear as a little passive at first (her fellow performers have to remind her to get a contract, not just take everything her manager send her way, and she let herself be prodded by doctors and scientists), but she reveals herself quickly as full of willpower: leaving the people she’s always known for the big unknown, and especially accepting her condition as something normal, something that’s part of her, while making use of skills that, in about everybody, would certainly garner admiration (singing, dancing, playing the guitar, acting). There’s some contradiction in her character, true; on the other hand, this is just part of the human condition—so many of us are creatures of contradiction.

But the world isn’t so kind to her, and while a lot of people are ready to pay just to see her, or are her friends (Ezra, Friederike…), some others don’t hesitate to criticise her, judge her as amoral, or as an abnormality that should be kept under lock and not shown to people. This definitely raises the matter of the “freaks” (Victorian period) and how they were perceived, not to mention what may easily be forgotten: that those people were, well, people first. In this way, the novel can be shocking—thus reflecting a very Victorian feeling, with “well-thinking people” judging those who’re different, while at the same time never judging themselves for gawking. (Also, there’s the matter of Theo’s decision later.)

This highlighted the tragedy of Julia’s life: people came to see her, but less for her skills than for her appearance. She was invited to social gatherings, but less for her personality than for others to “see the freak”. People talked about her relationship, but less out of happiness for the couple than to whisper in their backs about “does he does it with -that-?” It was all very sad, all the more because Julia can never free herself from her appearance, which in turns is limiting (she can’t go out without a veil, for instance, and in spite of travelling a lot, she doesn’t get to really see that many places).

Theo, well… Theo was less interesting. Mostly his character was of a mercantile quality (and at least he’s honest about that), and there was never any mystery about the part money/fame played in their relationship. Still, when things were told from his point of view, they never seemed as rich and interesting as when they were from Julia’s.

Julia’s story would have been a 3/4 stars. However, a few things prevented me from really enjoying it. First, Theo’s voice (as said, not very enthralling, especially when it dealt with his ambiguous feelings for her); I kept thinking that I would’ve wanted to see this relationship told only through Julia’s eyes, perhaps because there would’ve been more than a seed of wondering whether he truly loved her or just took advantage of the situation? Hard to tell. Also, the fact that Julia doesn’t stay that long with other performers, and apart from a couple of encounters with Ezra, Berniece and Cato later, mostly everything revolves around Julia and Theo, therefore: not much potential for various interactions.

Finally, the Rose narrative: I disliked that one, none of the characters were particularly appealing, and that story was only connected by a lose thread to Julia’s. I had expected something more… intense? More closely related? The way it was, it brought nothing to Julia’s story, and in the end my only feeling was “why did I bother reading those parts?”

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. Julia’s narrative didn’t need to be bogged down by Rose’s.

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Review: Death By Cliché

Posted on October 20th, 2016 @ 19:20
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Death by ClichéDeath by Cliché by Bob Defendi

My rating:


To Sartre, Hell was other people. To the game designer, Hell is the game.

Damico writes games for a living. When called in to rescue a local roleplaying game demo, Damico is shot in the head by a loony fan. He awakens in a game. A game full of hackneyed tropes and clichéd plots. A game he was there to save, run by the man who murdered him just moments ago. A game that has just become world-swap fantasy. Damico, to his horror, has become the heart of the cliché.

Set on their quest in a scene that would make Ed Wood blush, Damico discovers a new wrinkle. As a game designer, he is a creative force in this broken place. His presence touches the two-dimensional inhabitants. First a peasant, then a barmaid, then his character’s own father…all come alive.

But the central question remains. Can Damico escape, or is he trapped in this nightmare? Forever.

Wait, what? This is a comedy? Ignore all that. Death by Cliché is a heartwarming tale of catastrophic brain damage. Share it with someone you love. Or like. Or anyone at all. Buy the book.

Based on a true story.


[I received a copy of this book from the publisher.]

I’m on the fence regarding this novel, as some parts were fun, but some others made fun of gamers in a way that I would expect from someone who doesn’t play—as in, clichés that weren’t so funny as demeaning.

Damico, game designer, finds himself trapped in a tabletop RPG scenario, as a non-player character, after he got shot in the head by a loony Dungeon Master. (Which in itself is a bad cliché already, but that may be me being a wee bit sensitive after years trying to debunk myths in my hometown, like “oh you’re a gamer, so you must be weird and deranged”. Meh.) It’s only a game, right? Right. So it doesn’t matter if all those cardboard characters—peasants, the Evil Overlord, the buxom tavern wench…—get to die, because they’re just ink on paper, or in the head of the game master. Except they’re not, not exactly; and conversely, if they are, does it mean that Damico is dead, and nothing more than ink as well?

And this is one of the strong points of “Death By Cliché”. Sure, it’s nothing the literary world hasn’t seen before (what is real, what defines reality, what defines humanity…), yet it doesn’t matter: it remains an interesting theme. The humorous approach doesn’t detract from this kind of “serious” questioning, and at the same time is enjoyable, because, well, it’s fun.

The clichés I’m a bit undecided about, as mentioned previously. The book is packed with them, which is totally expected with such a title and premise, and some of them work really well. If you are, or used to be, a gamer, odds are you’ve encountered a lot of them, whether places, situations or people. It pokes fun at the tired fantasy tropes (the evil lord, the long days of travel—sorry, I’m not a “travel fantasy” person— the fabled Artefact, the cliché large-breasted tavern girls, and so on). Plenty of themes to play with, and it’s obvious the author had lots of fun with those. Also, the feeling of reliving some old gaming sessions, or discussing those with an old friend. I’m positive that every gamer, at some point, even the most serious/storytelling-type/roleplaying ones, gave in at some point to some jolly good cliché or silly action. This is part of what makes such games funny, after all.

Some tropes didn’t work as well for me; but then, they’re clearly the ones that tend to make too much fun of gamers in general, and can easily be construed as more derogatory than mere fun. You know, the “oh but it’s just for fun, don’t get angry” thing, to cover a hurtful comment/joke. That’s the kind of the impression I got.

The writing style was often tongue-in-cheek, sometimes deliberately breaking the fourth wall. I tend to like this, so it made me smile. I couldn’t care less about the chapter quotes, though; the first three or so were cool, the rest quickly became tedious.

Conclusion: As expected, a lot of clichés, that may have been exploited better; but all in all, it was a fun ride.



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Review: Curioddity

Posted on October 16th, 2016 @ 22:02
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CurioddityCurioddity by Paul Jenkins

My rating:


Will Morgan is a low-budget detective after quitting his job and hardly ever has any work. When one day a mysterious man named Mr. Dinsdale, curator of an even more mysterious Curioddity Museum (a museum that houses legendary relics of history), visits him and asks him to find a wooden box made of teak, with a mother of pearl inlay that contains the world’s largest sample of levity, Wil thinks it is all a joke. He accepts the task and before long finds a worthy substitute to meet Mr. Dinsdale’s specifications. What Wil soon learns, however, is that there is a whole other world out there, a world he can only see by learning to un-see things, and in this world there are people who want to close the Curioddity museum down. With the help of his new girlfriend Lucy, Wil will do everything he can to deliver on his promise to help Mr. Dinsdale keep the Curioddity Museum in business.


[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Hard one to rate… I found it full of good ideas, but the pacing threw me off, except after the 70% mark or so, when it really picked up.

The beginning was tricky: slow and “dull”, which was fitting as it perfectly reflected the daily drudgery that is Wil Morgan’s life. So in a way, it was perfectly adequate, even though it made it difficult to get into the story fast. Wil is, simply put, a man who used to dream when he was a child, encouraged by his mother who taught him to look at the world differently; yet after his mother’s death, banality caught up to him, this time with his father’s support, the latter wanting a secure and normal life for his son. Of course, when the mysterious Mr Dinsdale waltzes into Wil’s bleak existence, everything starts to change…

There is no blatant revelation here, or very complex world building with a whole underground, supernatural society and its many rules and denizens. As far as urban fantasy goes, it’s relatively light, with the magical/unexplained side of things more touched upon than delved into. In itself, it’s not bad at all: it has a quaint charm, that also makes it easy to discover all those strange occurrences at the same time the main character does. It’s all about little things, and perhaps they’re not even so extraordinary, just less mundane than we’re used to, and able to become fascinating if we decide to let them do. Crates that move only when you’re not looking at them. Perpetual Motion artefacts. Machines rumoured to have been created by Da Vinci himself. Weird contraptions and items that “do stuff” as long as you don’t worry too much about it. The Museum of Curioddities has a lot of such objects, and every addition contributes to making Wil’s life more and more unusual, little bit by little bit. (Also, the Evil Swiss Clock.)

And even though it seems like nonsense, all of this, this little world, has a logic of its own. Nonsense ends up making as much sense as mundane life—perhaps even more, at times. So what if the villain is pretty wacky, and the light romance kind of predictable in a world full of unpredictability? Well, it doesn’t really matter.

What prevented me from enjoying this book more were mostly:
- The pacing: even after Wil’s life takes a turn for the oddest, it still felt somewhat… dull in places. I guess I had expected more in that regard.
- Although the writing in general is good, I thought there were too many “witty lines” and bizarre metaphors. A couple thrown in from time to time is all right, and fun, but too many will ruin the fun, so to speak. It was enough to pull me out of my reading; it may just be me, though.

Conclusion: apart from those (jarring enough for me, perhaps not for another reader), it was good in terms of whimsical/somewhat nonsensical magical realism.

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Review: Knights of the Borrowed Dark

Posted on October 11th, 2016 @ 13:20
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Knights of the Borrowed DarkKnights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden

My rating:


Denizen Hardwick is an orphan, and his life is, well, normal. Sure, in storybooks orphans are rescued from drudgery when they discover they are a wizard or a warrior or a prophesied king. But this is real life—orphans are just kids without parents. At least that’s what Denizen thought…

On a particularly dark night, the gates of Crosscaper Orphanage open to a car that almost growls with power. The car and the man in it retrieve Denizen with the promise of introducing him to a long-lost aunt. But on the ride into the city, they are attacked. Denizen soon learns that monsters can grow out of the shadows. And there is an ancient order of knights who keep them at bay. Denizen has a unique connection to these knights, but everything they tell him feels like a half-truth. If Denizen joins the order, is he fulfilling his destiny, or turning his back on everything his family did to keep him alive?


[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

An enjoyable middle-grade novel, even though not the most original ever. Denizen (not the best of names, to be honest) is an orphan, grew up in an orphanage, has never known his parents, and nobody has information about them. But on his 13th birthday, an aunt he was never told about offers to have him home for a few days… and perhaps more?

After this start somewhat common to a lot of books in this category, and somewhat slow as well, things picked up. Denizen is introduced to a new world, and the author isn’t shy of showing that world’s darkness, literally (the Tenebrous) as well as figuratively: the magic has its toll, and is of the kind you need to use scarcely, otherwise it burns its users. Granted, I found the world-building a bit shoddy in places—great concepts, like the Endless King, the Emissary and Os Reges (the latter were beautiful and haunting, in their own twisted, creepy ways), but the Knights seemed to hold little enough information about their own Order and history, which felt odd. I could sense there was much more to develop here, yet was unsure whether it’d be in a next novel in the series, or something that just… wasn’t too thought-out.

In general, the characters were enjoyable. The Knights all had their little quirks, and Grey especially was a character I warmed up to very quickly. Denizen, too, in spite of some childish-pouting moments (he’s 13, after all), was overall a lovable kid. He’s ready to fight for his friends and even for strangers, yet also as savvy enough to obey orders and not get in the way, not too much that is, where I would have expected too stupid to live moments. And when he does “get in the way”, usually it’s because someone’s life is at stake and there’s no other apparent solution, since trying to find help would take too much time. There was one specific moment when his decision felt stupid; this said, it was prompted by wanting to help someone he trusts a lot, so it makes it more… understandable? It wasn’t some silly reason like “wanting to impress the others”, it stemmed from a genuine desire to help.

I hope Simon will be more developed in the next novels, as he seems interesting too but obviously couldn’t be devoted much time to, being at the orphanage and all. Also, I feared some romance with Abigail, but for now she seems to be more the potential friend than potential love interest, and it’d be great if things stayed like that, because I can’t sense much between Denizen and her in terms of “romance chemistry”.

Where this novel fell flat for me, apart from the world building, was in how its characters, albeit sympathetic, weren’t given enough spotlight. Especially the Knights (Darcie, D’Aubigny, Fuller Jack). Getting to know them better would help in making me feel closer, more involved. Finally, some twists were of the expected kind, and not always handled as well as they could have been.

However, in general, it was a good read, that I went through like a breeze. I think that in terms of “fantasy, magic and adventure books for a middle-grade audience”, it will keep its intended readers entertained. 3 stars, going on 3.5.

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Review: Eight Rivers of Shadow

Posted on October 6th, 2016 @ 21:37
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Eight Rivers of Shadow: Book 2Eight Rivers of Shadow by Leo Hunt

My rating:


Luke Manchett used to be one of the most popular boys at school.
That was before his necromancer father died and left him a host of vengeful ghosts that wanted him dead.
Now everyone thinks he’s a freak.
To make matters worse, the mysterious new girl at school is actually the daughter of his father’s deadliest enemy…
And she’s out for revenge.


[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Alas, I didn’t enjoy this second instalment as much as I did the first. It lacked the character dynamics, the spark I had felt at the beginning of this series.

I think the main reason is the way Luke and Elza are rather isolated from the others throughout the novel, even from their parents (who apparently don’t even care what their kids do?). Elza’s family pops in on one page only, Luke’s mother is faring better health-wise but still not very present, Luke’s former friends don’t talk to him anymore… So mostly it revolved around two, maximum three people at a time, and in turn, it shed light on the fact those characters weren’t that much developed. It would have been a great opportunity to do so, and it wasn’t used as such, and I found this too bad.

Another annoying thing was the magic itself: here, too, this book provided huge opportunities of developing it, more specifically of showing Luke growing into it and learning more. However, for the most part, he either didn’t want anything to do with it, or bumbled from one mistake to the other (when he was warned about what mistakes not to make!) while more savvy characters saved the day. Not unexpected, sure, but frustrating no matter what. Or perhaps it is my bias towards necromancy speaking?

On the other hand, the novel shows an actual foray into the land of the dead, which is definitely not unexpected where magic of the necromancy type is concerned! This catabasis was very welcome as far as I’m concerned. And ghosts fighting each other. That’s cool. (I would really have wanted to know more about the Widow!)

Also present in this second book: themes that make you think and difficult choices to make, especially when it comes to helping your loved ones vs. the sacrifices you may have to make. Again, this is about necromancy, not kittens and giggles, right?

Conclusion: Still interesting, only I didn’t feel invested much in the characters, and Luke disappointed me both with his magic and with his borderline stupid decisions.

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