Resting Witch Face: The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams

The Babysitters Coven - Feature

The Babysitters CovenThe Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams

Published: September 17, 2019
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre(s): Fantasy, Young Adult
Format: eBook
Length: 368 pages

I wanted to like The Babysitters Coven. It has a fantastic, eye-catching cover with an illustration of a badass girl facing down some presumably nefarious multicolored clouds. I am always a sucker for a good cover design, so it breaks my heart when the book doesn’t live up to the cover.

The elevator pitch for The Babysitters Coven is The Babysitters Club meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve never read The Babysitters Club, but I feel like you don’t have to read those books to understand what they’re about. Buffy, though, is something that I obsessed over to the point of distraction a few years ago, and I’m always game for stories that play around with those tropes.

The book starts off well enough. The narrator, Esme, is a snarky misfit of a girl who meticulously plans and documents her daily outfits, curating clothes along thematic or referential lines. She runs a local babysitters club with her best friend Janis, another fashion plate. She lives with her dad and a flatulent dog named Pig, and the only real black spot on her life is the fact that her mom is almost catatonic and lives in a mental institution. The snarky narrator is a stock character in YA fiction, but Esme lands a few solid laugh lines early in the book and I highlighted one or two passages.

Esme’s life is fairly normal until the day that someone tries to kidnap one of her babysitting charges. If that wasn’t enough to freak her out, Esme starts to realize that she might be able to move things with her mind. Everything comes to a head when a mysterious girl named Cassandra asks to join the babysitters club and Esme finds out that she might not be the only one experiencing unexplained supernatural events. Further complication matters is Cassandra’s smoking hot older brother, Dion.

I started reading this book on May 10th, 2019 and didn’t finish it until August 21st, 2019. That’s a good three months and change. In the intervening time, I finished nineteen(!) other books. For whatever reason, I liked the book enough to want to keep reading, but I never seemed to make much progress until the last week or so when I decided it was time to power through and finish it. That said, when I finally got into a rhythm reading the book, I liked it less and less.

One of the biggest problems with The Babysitters Coven is that the pacing is deadly dull. After Esme and Cassandra discover their shared supernatural experiences, they noodle around without any clear goal for more than half of the book. The discover a written guide to basic magical powers, but they don’t receive an explanation for their abilities and responsibilities until past the halfway point.

When Esme and Cassandra finally meet someone willing to give them some guidance, their new mentor mostly serves as an infodump who speaks in cheesy jargon before disappearing for the rest of the story. The magic system seems ill-defined and without any real weight or consequences, but after the characters play with magic early in the book, they neglect to use any of their more complex powers during climactic scenes.

Williams jams most of the plot and action into the last quarter of the book, where everything falls apart and then resolves itself in short order. Esme and Cassandra don’t receive much in the way of training or information before they face a more serious threat, and then everything is neatly wrapped up in only a handful of pages.

To return to the subject of the elevator pitch, The Babysitters Coven is fully aware of its pop culture precedents. The Babysitters Club and Buffy are both name-dropped in the story, among other pop culture, as if lampshading the shared tropes will make it more acceptable.

I think it’s an interesting choice when speculative fiction interacts with some version of our real world via pop culture, but it has to be skillfully done so that the author is interrogating those tropes instead of just cataloging them. I’m sad to say that The Babysitters Coven is not that skillful.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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The Name of the Game: Cryptofauna by Patrick Canning

CryptofaunaCryptofauna by Patrick Canning

Published: January 23, 2019
Publisher: Patrick Canning
Genre(s): Humor, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 17 mins

Cryptofauna is an entertaining book that runs on pure momentum. The sheer volume of absurdity paired with the author’s constant digressions and convoluted wordplay keeps things humming along while the mysterious nature of the game at the center of the book keeps you hooked until the end.

Reading this felt like strapping myself to a narrative rocket with no time to stop and think about the whys and hows of it all. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think it could get a bit exhausting if the book was too much longer.

Cryptofauna is about a suicidal janitor named Jim, stopped from killing himself and recruited into the titular game by a mysterious older gentleman named Ozymandias (Oz for short) who lives in the mental institution slash retirement home where Jim works.

Oz doesn’t explain much to Jim before setting him off on a series of three tasks – his initiation as an “operator” in Cryptofauna. Jim meets a lot of colorful characters and ends up in a series of bizarre or distressing situations that always feel playfully absurd even when they are also deadly serious, and the book carries us along his journey.

Cryptofauna the game is never explained in much detail. We get the broad strokes, i.e. that it involves sets of operators battling each other over the course of their artificially extended lives to either improve or undermine the state of the world. The actual details of what that means in practice are vague, probably because it’s funnier that way. I have mixed feelings about this if only because the whole thing feels a bit hand-wavy; the silliness and humor are clearly the point, so the rules don’t matter.

Also, the book spends most of its length focused on Jim completing the seemingly random tasks that serve as his initiation. His assigned rival doesn’t play by the rules, so we don’t get to spend much time with Jim as a practicing operator. Jim’s tasks sort of make sense in a macro way while also feeling arbitrary for the sake of comedy.

There is a scene late in the book where Jim and his allies destroy a sinister boarding school, but instead of dramatizing the action, Canning summarizes it in a few non-specific sentences and explains that it was a battle for the ages. Again, this is presumably meant to be a joke, but it felt more like a placeholder.

I did enjoy this book, and I’d probably be up for reading another by Canning, but I think I would enjoy it more if it balanced humor with a slightly more grounded narrative.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the author.

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My Month in Reading, June 2019

Girl Reading

For whatever reason, I had a bit of a slow month in June. I was still working on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, and although I loved every minute of it, it still took me a while to read. I also listened to two fairly long audiobooks this month. The Nix clocked in at almost 22 hours, and Foundryside was nearly 20 hours. Both were excellent in different ways.


The Subtle Knife
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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

This was not at all what I was expecting from a sequel to The Golden Compass. The end of the first book in the trilogy pulls the rug out from under the reader, revealing that Lyra’s father is just as dangerous as her mother, if only with different methods and conflicting alliances.

The second book resets the playing field when we meet Will Parry, who comes from a world much like our own and who lives in modern times, not the early part of the Twentieth Century like you might imagine from Lyra’s version of Oxford.

The Subtle Knife is deeper and weirder, and much more disturbing than the first book. Lyra and Will discover a third world that serves as a way station between their respective worlds, but it has fallen into disrepair and been overrun with invisible specters who can suck the life out of an adult in seconds.

Will has to make some hard choices, and they encounter new and more terrifying dangers. We also start to get glimpses of Lord Asriel’s grand plan, and it is unclear what to root for other than Lyra and Will living to fight another day.

The book ends on a cliffhanger that must have been maddening back when it was first published. On to the final book in the trilogy!

LOVED IT


The Nix
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The Nix by Nathan Hill

This is a sprawling coming-of-age novel about a boy abandoned by his mother, and the man he becomes when he seeks her out years later to try and write a book about her life and history. It’s also about the girl she was before she gave up and married his father.

It jumps back and forth between 2011 and Chicago in the late 1960s, when the city was on the verge of erupting into riots at the Democratic National Convention.

The Nix reminded me a bit of The Goldfinch at points, but the end result wasn’t nearly as masterfully done. I enjoyed the book, but there were several points where Hill spends long chapters on characters completely secondary to the main plot, and I found myself asking why those scenes were relevant.

The only real justification is that they cross paths with the main character, and Hill wanted to paint a bigger picture of their lives. It didn’t help that the audiobook narrator chose to narrate those chapters in the voice of the characters, which made the time spent with them even more annoying.

I also felt like the ending wrapped things up just a little bit too smoothly, especially after so much strife and struggle.

REALLY LIKED IT


Miss October 1
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Miss October #1: Playmates, 1961

This book, translated from the French, follows two parallel storylines in Los Angeles, 1961. One thread follows competing detectives as they try to catch a serial killer known for murdering beautiful women and then posing them like centerfolds. The other thread is about a young woman who went deaf after an assault and decided to take up cat burglary.

The possible connections between the two storylines are intriguing, and the premise has a built-in ticking clock as the murderer kills a new “centerfold” every month, presumably leading up to the cat burglar in October.

The art is gorgeous, perfect for the fashion and the period, and the story is compelling enough that I came close to buying the rest of the series as soon as I finished this first volume.

REALLY LIKED IT


Foundryside
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Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett (Full Review)

This book is a great combination of epic fantasy world-building structured around a series of heists with escalating stakes and a dark heart of atrocity that permeates the engine of its dystopian society. Highly recommended.

LOVED IT

More Than Wordsmiths: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside cover detail

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Published: August 21st, 2018
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fantasy, Heist, Adventure
Format: Audiobook
Length: 19 hrs and 34 mins

Golems from Jewish folklore have always fascinated me, with their heads full of instructions written on a life-giving scroll. A golem is both the creation myth in miniature and a way to codify magic, a sort of early computer programming where the processors are clay giants. It’s strangely comforting to imagine that human beings could control the world in such a fashion, while also terrifying to imagine the many ways it could go wrong.

In Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett takes some of those basic elements and introduces a world where craftsmen use the art of scriving to write a reality-controlling language on inanimate objects and give them a form of consciousness; everything in creation is nothing more than a golem waiting for its instructions. Then, he imagines all of the ways that this power could and would go sickeningly, catastrophically, heartbreakingly wrong.

Sancia is a thief, and a damn good one, all thanks to her ability to touch any object and understand how it works. When she touches an object, understands everything about it, which comes in handy when she needs to pick a lock or avoid a trap, but makes it hard to focus when she has to tune out her own clothes.

When the book opens, Sancia is about to start a seemingly mundane job for a mysterious client: steal a small wooden box from the waterfront and deliver it unopened, no questions asked. As you might imagine, the heist goes catastrophically wrong, and Sancia decides she needs to know what she went to all that trouble to get.

Inside the box, she discovers a bizarre scrived key that can open any lock and that also happens to speak in a snarky voice that she can hear in her head. Sancia quickly realizes that she is in deep shit with any number of people who want to kill her, and she sets about trying to find a way to survive.

This wouldn’t be a book about a thief if there wasn’t eventually a bigger, more dangerous heist in the cards. As Sancia comes to understand the true stakes of her situation, she slowly but surely builds out a crew of friends and allies while Jackson Bennett unpacks her history and reveals the horrors of her former life.

Meticulous worldbuilding always feels like the “fun” of an epic fantasy novels, the part of the book that the author obsessed over, sometimes to the detriment of the story. Jackson Bennett’s worldbuilding is fun, but scriving is also the rotten core at the heart of Foundryside.

Sancia’s world and its wonders exist only because of atrocities that seem like ancient history but that happened not so long ago. The worst part is the revelation that the modern-day scrivers only understand a tiny fraction of the language of their ancestors, and all the power will go to the first scriver who puts enough pieces of the language together to remake the world in their image.

Foundryside is the first of Jackson Bennett’s novels that I’ve read. I had heard endless praise for his Divine Cities trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll read it before too much longer, but for whatever reason, I was more drawn to Foundryside’s fascinating premise and high-stakes magical heists. Highly recommended.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, but I listened to the audiobook from Audible.

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My Month in Reading, May 2019

I thoroughly enjoy reading Jason Kottke’s monthly media diet posts, so I decided to try something similar with my monthly reading for this year. I thought it would be a good writing challenge and help keep me fresh between longer reviews.


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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I originally read this back in the 90s, sometime after the second book came out but before the third. I remember enjoying it at the time, but for whatever reason I never got around to reading the rest of the trilogy. As part of my goal to finish more series that I started but never finished, I decided this would be the next trilogy/series I tackled.

The Golden Compass definitely holds up. I didn’t remember too much – just the broad strokes of the plot and characters – but what I found welcome about it is that it’s the rare young adult book where the main character behaves like a kid, but she’s also smart and capable in a way specific to children. Lyra Belacqua never feels like a little adult trapped in a child’s body, and the book is all the better for it.

Pullman also has a way with words and a fascination with headier philosophical matters that weave throughout the story without ever overwhelming the plot. This is a book for kids with stakes that feel real and dangerous and occasionally horrifying. The villains are truly villainous, and the book doesn’t pull any punches.

I started reading the second book the day after I finished the first, so I’m already doing better than I did oh those many years ago.

LOVED IT


The Blood of Elves
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Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

This is the first book in the “Witcher Saga” proper. The books leading up to this one are short story collections that set up the characters and relationships while also building out the world.

The funny thing is, this book still felt a bit like several novellas stitched together, like the old-fashioned fix-up novels from the golden age of sci-fi. The end result is a novel that still feels fairly episodic. It works, but it doesn’t build to much of a climax.

Instead, it’s a series of stories about Geralt’s ward, Ciri, her early training, and the dangers she faces from the outside world. Geralt isn’t even the viewpoint character for most of the book, with Dandelion, Triss, Ciri and Yennifer all getting their turns at the helm. I like that this book kept things fairly small-scale. I’m assuming the series only builds in scope from here.

REALLY LIKED IT


Unnatural Volume 2 cover
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Unnatural, Volume 2 by Mirka Andolfo

The further adventures of a sexy pig-girl living in a dystopian society who gets caught up in a supernatural conspiracy because of her status as the chosen one in a former life. Yes, you read that right.

For a book marketed on its sex appeal, this volume sure does focus on the main character running and hiding from the villains who want to control her life, all while fighting the spirit of an evil wolf-man that only she can see. Yes, again, I know. I like this series more than that ridiculous premise might warrant, mostly because the art is so wonderful.

REALLY LIKED IT


Reincarnation Blues cover
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Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore (Full Review)

An alternately bleak and drily funny book about a man who keeps getting reincarnated but would rather spend all his time in the afterlife with his girlfriend Susie, who happens to be an incarnation of death.

LOVED IT


⭐️⭐️

Exorsisters, Volume 1 by Ian Boothby and Gisele Lagace

I do like Lagace’s art, which is probably why I keep reading Menage a 3, but where that series has sexy hijinks to keep things interesting, this book includes more than one scene where a character explains backstory to another character who already knows it in an awkward info-dump. The most interesting thing in this series is the revelation that the main character’s mother sold her daughter’s soul to save herself, but the story around it is limp and graceless.

DISLIKED IT

The Perfect Do-Over: Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

Reincarnation Blues coverReincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

Published: August 22nd, 2017
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 13 hrs and 3 mins

In Reincarnation Blues, Milo is the ultimate slacker. He’s lived thousands of lives, but he still hasn’t reached perfection. Instead, he just wants to spend his time in the afterlife with his girlfriend, Susie, who also happens to be one of the incarnations of death. They’ve been together for more than eight thousand years, give or take, and Milo’s primary goal in the afterlife is avoiding transcending to the oversoul so that he can spend eternity watching TV on a couch with Susie.

Things get complicated, as they often do, when Mama and Nan, the caretakers of the afterlife, explain to him that he is about to run out of lives. Every soul gets no more than ten thousand reincarnations, and he’s down to his last five. If he can’t reach perfection and join the oversoul, Mama and Nan will push him off a floating sidewalk into nothingness and oblivion.

Milo thought that all he needed to do was be a wise man, which is why he’d spent his most recent life dispensing wisdom from fishing boat, but it turns out that perfection isn’t that simple. Part of the problem is that every life he lives feels more like killing time until he dies and gets to go back to Susie. Even still, Mama and Nan’s warning scares him into action, and he decides that he’ll do anything he can to reach perfection and avoid dissolving into nothingness.

The conceit of this book means that we follow Milo over the course of a dozen or so lives, each stranger than the last. It’s a bit like reading a collection of short stories with a through-line and common main character. The tone of the book is drily funny throughout, which is helpful because several of Milo’s lives are bleak or downright horrifying.

I will say that there is a point about halfway through the book where it almost lost me. Milo reincarnates somewhere far in the future as a young man with a promising future, but he is falsely accused of rape and sent to a nightmarish prison where the other prisoners rape and torture him.

If the trope of a false rape accusation wasn’t bad enough, the sheer unpleasantness of Milo’s life in prison started to drag the book down for me. However, I hung in to see how things played out, and I’m glad I did, because the end of the chapter redeemed itself. That said, several of Milo’s lives do happen in dystopias, so don’t go into this book expecting a happy time.

Reincarnation Blues is hilarious, moving, shocking and occasionally disturbing. The result is a wonderful coming-of-age story if those can happen to someone after they’ve lived close to ten thousand lives. Maybe a coming-to-wisdom story? Highly recommended.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, but I listened to the audiobook from the library.

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

My Month in Reading, April 2019

I thoroughly enjoy reading Jason Kottke’s monthly media diet posts, so I decided to try something similar with my monthly reading for this year. I thought it would be a good writing challenge and help keep me fresh between longer reviews.


Spellbound, Volume 3 by Jean Dufaux – Despite the faux-Disney character designs, this is a pitch-black story about a young woman who murders her mother in self defense only to realize that she enjoys the power that comes with royalty. REALLY LIKED IT

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin – This was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. I have very strong memories of reading and re-reading it, even if the details of the book slipped my memory after more than two decades. The only thing that stuck with me was the reveal at the end of the book, so re-reading it this time was like uncovering buried memories. The audiobook version also gave it a new dimension that I never experienced as a kid. One thing that surprised me about this book is that the adult characters get as much stage time as the teenage girl who would be the more traditional YA heroine these days. This book doesn’t talk down to kids, if only because there’s so much going on thematically that the story works on multiple levels. It’s also held up very well despite being published in 1978. LOVED IT

Loverboys by Gilbert Hernández – I keep reading these standalone stories that exist tangentially in the Love & Rockets universe because I’m in the mood for a quick read, but I’ve only really liked one or two of them, and one I flat-out hated. This one fell somewhere in the middle. It was elliptical and weird and not much happened. One of these days I’m going to give the series proper another go – I do like the art style, after all. LIKED IT

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde – I think it’s fair to say the Fforde is one of my favorite authors. He’s got such a bizarre sensibility and manages to keep things fresh and weird with every new book. The Thursday Next books are probably my favorites of his work, but this standalone story was just as good as the best of those, and didn’t end with the promise of future installments like Shades of Grey, which is feeling more and more like an unintentional standalone with every passing year. Early Riser takes a basic premise – that humans have always hibernated – and runs with it, building whole new societal structures around this biological necessity. Much like most of his other works, this results in a dystopian society. Early Riser is a very funny book, but it’s also one of his darker dystopias, with hibernation resulting in potential zombification, cannibalism, “farming” for repopulation or being “parted out” for transplants. I really enjoyed the ride, with all of its weird little details and digressions, although the climax did feel like it wrapped things up very quickly. I’m always glad to read new Fforde, and look forward to the next of his books, whatever and whenever that might be. LOVED IT

The Boys, Omnibus Volume 1 by Garth Ennis – Watching the trailer for the upcoming Amazon series made me decide to finally pick up and read this series, which I’ve heard about here and there over the years. I ended up really liking this volume, although I wasn’t entirely sure what to think at points. It feels like a book from the 80s or 90s, but it was first published in the early 2000s and is set around the same time. Parts of the book are pretty gruesome, and it seems like series isn’t going to shy away from depicting the gore and perversion. I’m not sure how well that will work in a live-action setting, but I’ll give it a chance if I can find time to watch it without my girlfriend. Worth checking out for its combination of misanthropy crossed with inverted tropes. REALLY LIKED IT

Vacationland by John Hodgman – I really love Hodgman’s work. He’s got a great comedic sensibility, and he’s the perfect narrator for his own stories. This is his first book without made-up facts, focusing instead on short memoirs of his life on vacation and how things changed for him after his sudden fame. These aren’t particularly eventful stories, and they probably won’t blow your mind with their unique insights, but they’re well-told and entertaining, and I loved every minute of the audio version. I just hope he decides to write a novel some day, if only because I love him best when he takes flights of fancy. LOVED IT

My Month in Reading, March 2019

I thoroughly enjoy reading Jason Kottke’s monthly media diet posts, so I decided to try something similar with my monthly reading for this year. I thought it would be a good writing challenge and help keep me fresh between longer reviews.

I’m going to start by catching up on the months I missed, so this is the third installment of 2019.


An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender – I read this at the same time I listened to The Bell Jar, and they felt cut from similar thematic cloth, even though this wasn’t nearly as harrowing as The Bell Jar and was also surreal and magically realist instead of a lightly fictionalized memoir. It’s mostly just that both books are about young women struggling with depression and having a hard time dealing with adulthood and modern life. This one had a happy ending if only because the author is still alive. REALLY LIKED IT

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders – Man, this was a tough one for me. I LOVED Anders’ debut, All the Birds in the Sky, and bought this, her follow-up, on that reputation alone. Anders is a master of world building, and that is by far the strongest aspect of this book, but I wasn’t as much a fan of the narrative here. When you boil it down, this book is about toxic relationships, but it’s also about people making stupid, frustrating decisions because they can’t get out of their own heads. For whatever reason, reading this felt like a bit of a slog, and I think it’s because I couldn’t stand the object of the main character’s affection, who was a terrible person that she pined after long past when it was reasonable. I’m still all-in on future Anders books, but this one wasn’t my jam. LIKED IT

Fun & Games by Duane Swierczynski – I read this back in 2011 and loved it, but I never read the rest of the trilogy for whatever reason. I decided it was time to make up for that, so I started by re-reading this book, which I loved just as much the second time around. All three books were quick reads, so it wasn’t hard for me to plow through the series in no time flat. LOVED IT

Damned by Steven Grant – This was another Kindle Unlimited borrow. It’s a crime novel with your standard archetypes – man fallen on hard times, femme fatale, etc., and it was so archetypical that I don’t remember a damn thing about it. I think the art was decent enough, but mostly it was forgettable. DISLIKED IT

Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher – Continuing my slow but steady progress on the Dresden Files books, which are always a good time and always marvelously narrated by James Marsters (except for the one temporarily released with another narrator until the fan outcry). This one introduces Molly Carpenter, Dresden’s apprentice, as a major character. I felt like Butcher engaged in a bit of unnecessary leering in Molly’s first character descriptions, but you could argue that they set up a plot development at the end of the book that defines clear boundaries and a line that Dresden will not cross with his new apprentice. That said, I wonder if he’d make the same creative choice today. REALLY LIKED IT

Hell & Gone by Duane Swierczynski – Finally on to new ground with the Charlie Hardie trilogy. This one wasn’t as slam-bang awesome as the first book, but it had some great characters, cool twists, and a bizarre setting in an underground prison where it isn’t clear who is an inmate and who is a guard. As these books continued, they just got weirder and weirder… REALLY LIKED IT

Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski – … which brings me to the last book in the trilogy, which starts with Hardie in space (because how else do you top a mysterious underground prison?) I had mixed feelings about this book. The more this trilogy continued, the more I grew frustrated by Hardie’s passivity and his constant idiotic decisions. I wanted him to take charge and finally do something right for a change, but this book sidelines him for a long time (most of the last third, in fact) and has someone else save the day in his place. This was a disappointing end to the trilogy. Fun & Games is by far the best of the three and I didn’t miss a lot by not reading the rest until now. LIKED IT

Isabellae Volume 3: Daughters of Eriu by Raule – I continue to enjoy this series. This volume had a nicely choreographed fight scene with a golem. REALLY LIKED IT

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett – A WW2 sci-fi adventure slightly too much in love with its own attention to detail, but still a rollicking good time. REALLY LIKED IT

My Month in Reading, February 2019

I thoroughly enjoy reading Jason Kottke’s monthly media diet posts, so I decided to try something similar with my monthly reading for this year. I thought it would be a good writing challenge and help keep me fresh between longer reviews.

I’m going to start by catching up on the months I missed, so this is the second installment of 2019.


The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird – On one hand, listening to this book was a good way to immerse myself in the craft of writing so that I could brainstorm and problem-solve, but on the other hand, this is mostly just clichés in listicle form. The author has no other credits to his name (as far as I can tell) and uses negative examples of movies he didn’t like to prove his points, which I found tacky. DISLIKED IT

Breakneck #1 by Duane Swierczynski – This is just the first issue of four in this series, but it’s a double-length setup for a doomed crime story. Honestly, it wasn’t memorable, and I probably won’t read the rest. I do like Swierczynski a lot, but none of his comics work has grabbed me as much as his novels. LIKED IT

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – The first thing that surprised me about this book was that it was so funny, at least for a little while. It’s beautifully written, sharply observed, incredibly harrowing, and deeply tragic. It’s such a goddamn shame that Plath didn’t stick around to tell more stories. This one is a masterpiece, and I’m glad I finally read it. I listened to an audiobook narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who was a perfect fit. LOVED IT

Mystery Society by Steve Niles – I read this because it was available on Kindle Unlimited. It’s a story about a team of misfit heroes who get vilified as criminals. I liked the art, but I’ve always been a fan of Fiona Staples, and some of the character concepts are weird in a fun way. Unfortunately, this felt like the first volume in an apparently canceled series that never got past the setup. LIKED IT

Black Charity by Bal Speer – This was another Kindle Unlimited borrow. It’s British crime caper that felt like it had a bit of Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore’s stylings although the story was fairly grounded. The art was a decent change of pace but the book wasn’t memorable. LIKED IT

Murena Volume #2: Of Sand and Blood by Jean Dufaux – I read the first volume in January, and the second volume continues in the same vein. I like it well enough that I’ll probably keep reading it (especially since it’s free), but it’s nothing to phone home about. LIKED IT

Spellbound Volume #2 by Jean Dufaux – The continuing adventures of Princess Blanche, betrayed by her own mother and in love with the exiled lord of hell. REALLY LIKED IT

Isabellae Volume 2: A Sea of Corpses by Raule – I read the first volume of this series late in 2018. It’s a samurai adventure about a woman who is half-Irish and half-Japanese, so the story and its mythology pull from her ancestry on both sides. Also, this volume features pirates AND zombies. REALLY LIKED IT

Madness is Better than Defeat by Ned Beauman – Ned Beauman is a fascinating author. I love his books, but I just couldn’t get into Boxer, Beetle for some reason, even though it has a similar feel to both this and The Teleportation Accident. Beauman seems to alternate between madcap ensemble pieces and solo adventures, all populated with weirdos and scumbags. Madness is Better than Defeat is an ensemble piece with a generous helping of metafiction thrown into the mix to keep things interesting. It’s a novel about an investigation into a failed expedition to make a movie about a failed expedition, and the layers of self-reference only increase from there. Considering Beauman’s batting average so far, I’ll probably give Boxer, Beetle another chance some day. LOVED IT

My Month in Reading, January 2019

I thoroughly enjoy reading Jason Kottke’s monthly media diet posts, so I decided to try something similar with my monthly reading for this year. I thought it would be a good writing challenge and help keep me fresh between longer reviews.

I’m going to start by catching up on the months I missed, so this is the first installment of 2019.


LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff – A bit too much muchness, and I wasn’t a fan of the ending. DISLIKED IT

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak – A wonderful nostalgia trip through hobbyist computer programming in the eighties. LOVED IT

Murena Volume #1: Purple and Gold by Jean Dufaux – This is one of many graphic novels that I’ve checked out from Hoopla because they’re free and available. Hoopla seems to have a lot of French or Belgian comics, so I’m reading a lot of those, especially when I can work my way through an entire series. This one is about political machinations in Roman times. It’s a fictionalized retelling of actual events, with real historical figures in the cast. This series is interesting enough that I’ve read a few volumes, but I definitely had trouble keeping track of all the characters, several of whom look almost identical. I could never remember who was the son of the emperor and who was the son of his mistress and why some poor bastard was just murdered. LIKED IT

Spellbound Volume #1 by Jean Dufaux – Also checked out from Hoopla. About a fight for succession in a medieval fantasy world. Some shades of Game of Thrones, perhaps, but the character designs look like they’re from a 90s Disney cartoon, with outsized eyes and exaggerated chins, and the story is full of witchcraft and underworld creatures. The art style was an interesting juxtaposition with all the dark deeds and skullduggery, so it definitely kept my interest. REALLY LIKED IT

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher – I always enjoy the Dresden Files books, and the series only gets better with each installment. These are like comfort food for me, so it’s nice to have another one to read now and then. I’ve definitely been taking my sweet time reading them, but they’re also fairly self-contained, so it’s not like I’m getting only part of a story. This installment introduces some new characters and puts Harry on a collision course with the wardens. He also rides a resurrected dinosaur to fight evil wizards, so it’s got a lot going for it. REALLY LIKED IT

Ménage à 3, Volume 6 by Gisèle Lagacé – I’ve never watched Three’s Company, but I’m assuming it was a fairly horny show for its time. This webcomic is like an even hornier version of my mental image of that show, full of nudity, bisexuality and Canadians. It isn’t particularly funny, but it’s an easy, entertaining read, and I’ve read enough volumes at this point that I’m invested in whatever shenanigans happen next. REALLY LIKED IT

The House With a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs – I read this thanks to the movie adaptation with Jack Black and a convenient daily deal at Audible. It was an interesting change of pace because it doesn’t fit the norms and tropes of modern young adult books. The main character isn’t super-capable or the chosen one – he’s just a normal kid caught up in supernatural weirdness who makes the occasional disastrous mistake. Apparently it’s the first in a series of a dozen or so books, so I might have to pick up the next volume sometime soon. REALLY LIKED IT

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie – This was also an Audible daily deal. I already owned a used paperback copy, but someone thoroughly marked it up, which I hate (and did not notice before buying.) I thought the audiobook version would be a good alternative, especially since it’s a fairly short book. Rushdie pitched the book a little younger than I was expecting, but I didn’t mind that so much. It was a fun adventure that reminded me a bit of Catherine Valente’s Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own (presumably the influence flowed the other way, but still.) REALLY LIKED IT

Man-Eaters, Volume 1 by Chelsea Cain – Saw this in a comic shop and thought the premise sounded intriguing, so I picked up single issues of the first story arc. Mostly it just felt abbreviated. The story stops after three issues and the fourth issue is an only mildly successful satirical magazine for boys with helpful tips on defending yourself from murderous women. Apparently the satirical one-offs are a recurring gag, so this might be a bumpy series to follow. I don’t have much confidence in this as an ongoing series after a first arc that was all setup for a last-minute reveal. This felt like one issue of story padded for length, not a full volume. LIKED IT

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames – I picked this up at Vroman’s, my favorite local bookstore, because I liked the cover and the story sounded like fun. The basic premise is that mercenary bands are like rock stars and the main character has to “get the band back together” to save his friend’s daughter from a siege. The book is funny but not silly; one pull-quote on the cover compared it to Terry Pratchett’s work, which is a gross exaggeration, but did convince me to pick it up, so I suppose I can forgive the inaccuracy. Ultimately this is just a fun adventure. It takes the edge off of grimdark without feeling free of consequences. LOVED IT