#36 The Girl in the Tower: Winternight Trilogy #2 by Katherine Arden (2017)

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Orphaned and ostracized by her community after her encounter with the Bear, Vasilisa Petrovna flees her village. She is now faced with the only two options available to a Russian maiden, allowing her sister to arrange a marriage to a strange noblemen or retiring to a convent. Scorning either, Vasilisa dresses as a boy in the hopes of traveling outside of Russia and seeing the world. But a chance encounter with a group of bandits in the forest finds her in the service of the Crown Prince of Moscow. Now she must carefully guard her secret even as a larger threat begins to loom over the kingdom.

I reviewed the first installment in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, last month and absolutely loved it. Author Katherine Arden created a stunning world of deep winter and deep magic. The heroine Vasilisa was a lovely mixture of vulnerability and defiance. Overall, I was enchanted by the world that Arden wrote and eagerly awaited the second novel in her Winternight trilogy. I was definitely not disappointed.

While The Bear and the Nightingale was a dark and lyrical fairy tale, The Girl in the Tower is a little more plot-driven. Vasilisa Petrovna exits the cold and cloistered village of her childhood and bursts into the wider world with equal parts determination and naivety. This is a girl who considers a tiny mountain town to be a “city” because it has wooden walls. You can imagine her surprise when she is finally presented to the city of Moscow. There are numerous action sequences in this novel, all of which unfold in a straightforward and easy to follow manner. Too many fantasy and fairy tales rely heavily on deux ex machina and surprise plot twists. Katherine Arden avoids all of this.

But Arden also does not stray far what made Nightingale so enchanting. The numerous Russian spirits still play a major role in the proceedings, as do ghosts, frost demons, and one very opinionated horse. Together they form a world that I was excited to revisit and reluctant to leave.

Also, major props go to illustrator Robert Hunt for yet another gorgeous cover design.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Girl in the Tower here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

#30 The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (2017)

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In 13th century Russia, the world is ruled by icy grip of winter. Into this cold and unforgiving world, a young girl named Vasilisa Petrovna is born utterly at home in the forests and snowdrifts around her village. She lives her days roaming the forests against the wishes of her father and her nights curled up listening to the fairy tales spun by her nursemaid. But her life changes forever when two new people show up in her village. The first, her new stepmother Anna, fears and hates the wild streak that runs in her young stepdaughter. The second, a priest named Konstantin, is determined to turn his new flock away from the worship of the old spirits and towards the teachings of the Orthodox Church. He too is threatened by the defiance and spirit shown by the young Vasilisa. She has also captured the attention of one far more dangerous, a dark figure with piercing blue eyes who becomes bolder as midwinter approaches.

Everyone knows the old platitude. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well I love judging books by their covers. Especially when the cover is as mysterious and beautiful as Katherine Arden’s debut, The Bear and the Nightingale. When I decide to judge a book by its cover, I generally refuse to read even a short synopsis, so I went into this novel with absolutely zero expectations. Within the first chapter I felt myself entwined and entranced in this dark and romantic fairy tale, so much that I could almost feel the howling winds of Russian winter outside my window.

At its heart, The Bear and the Nightingale is about the struggle between the old ways and the new. In the Middle Ages, as Catholicism slowly but thoroughly steamrollered its way across Europe, how many of the ancient spirits were left to wither in its wake? In this way I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s amazing novel, American Gods. But while Gaiman deals in the bitterness of those abandoned gods, Arden’s novel instead focusing on their sadness and confusion as they find themselves rejected by those who had left them offerings for generations.

Arden’s prose is dark and lyrical and completely mesmerizing. Her heroine, Vasilisa, is strong and independent while still maintaining a sense of vulnerability. She behaves in the only manner she knows how, and is utterly bewildered when people begin to whisper that she is dabbling in witchcraft by continuing to practice the old ways. How can it be witchcraft to hold to the same traditions that her people had held to only years before? I also loved the descriptions of the numerous little sprites and spirits that inhabit Vasilisa’s world. There are spirits that tend the oven, spirits that protect the horses, and so on, all of which have their roots in Russian folklore. Because Vasilisa is the only one who can see these entities (at first) it comes as no surprise that she seeks to aid them when they begin suffering from lack of care.

I would highly recommend this book for any audience. I am greatly anticipating the sequel.

My rating; 5/5

You can find The Bear and the Nightingale here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#24 The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (2017)

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Li-yan lives a secluded life in the mountains of southern China. A member of the Akha ethnic minority, the upheavals of the Communist Revolution have left her isolated community relatively untouched, and her people still adhere to the ancient spirits and rituals that have been practiced for generations. But as the modern world begins to encroach on their lives, Li-yan and her family are all affected by the changes that begin sweeping into their quiet village.

I’ve been a big fan of Lisa See’s work since I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan almost ten years ago. Her novels tend to focus on the lives of Chinese women and the struggles that they undergo, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is no exception. It is a powerful story of the bonds between women and how even under the oppressive thumb of a strictly patriarchal society, women will always find a way to express themselves independently.

I had never heard of the Akha tribe before reading this novel, and I highly recommend that you do a little bit of research into this fascinating minority culture. The Akha managed to remain almost completely ignored by society until the 1990’s. Their belief system is a mixture of ancestor worship and animism, the idea that everything on Earth has its own spirit. Their lives are dominated by religion, omen, and tradition, and can seem incredibly backward to our “modern” sensibilities. During one horrific sequence early in the novel, we find out what happens when “human rejects” are born into the Akha community.

The protagonist of the novel, Li-yan, has been raised to believe the same things that her ancestors have believed for thousands of years. But then something happens that opens her eyes to the possibilities of the outside world. Li-yan goes to school. She learns to speak Mandarin Chinese, which makes her the designated translator when a stranger shows up in their village one day. The stranger is in search of a special kind of tea that can only be found in these isolated mountains, and according to him it is worth a fortune. This one event changes the course of Li-yan’s life. I won’t say anything further, but suffice to say that the repercussions of the tea-buyer reverberate down the years and even across the oceans.

It’s difficult to place a theme to this novel. It’s about the bonds of mothers to their daughters. It’s about the inevitable march of progress and how powerless we are to stop it. It’s about trying to find a sense of belonging in a world that is changing too quickly. One of the reasons I loved this novel so much was that it asked so many different questions, and offered a thousand possible answers in return.

This was yet another knock-out story by Lisa See. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#18 Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (2017)

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Thalassophobia: an intense fear of the sea and what lurks beneath.

After her older sister is lost at sea while filming a monster-hunting style show on mermaids, Tory Stewart agrees to ship out with the crew of the Melusine as they travel to the oceans around the Mariana trench. The goal is to dive to the depths of the Challenger Deep to seek out the mermaids that legends say still dwell in the waters. Hopefully they’ll be able to solve the mystery of what happened to the first vessel. Once there, the group of scientists finds out that looking for monsters and finding them are two very different things.

Mira Grant is one of my favorite authors. Her Newsflesh trilogy, about the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, is utterly brilliant. The Parasitology trilogy, about sentient tapeworms taking control of their human hosts, is equally well written. So when I found out that Grant was releasing a stand-alone novel, I was thrilled. My excitement grew when I found out that the plot was going to be centered around the deep ocean.

Being in the deep sea makes me intensely uncomfortable. This might be due to the fact that I grew up in a landlocked state and never saw the sea until I was seventeen. I’m great on boats, and I’m perfectly happy in shallow water. I’ve even been scuba-diving twice. But the moment that I can no longer see the seabed my heart rate instantly goes through the roof. It’s the same with lakes as well, and it’s a pretty straightforward fear. I don’t know what’s down there. Even worse, I understand enough of marine biology to know what’s down there, and I want no part of it. I went into Mira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deep knowing (and hoping) that it might scare me. Boy was I right.

In the year 2022, humans have polluted the Earth to the point of a mass die-off of both land and marine life. Grant does not try to hide her strong environmental message. Leave the orcas alone, stop dumping things into the oceans and the air. Or don’t be surprised when drought, famine, and fires sweep the planet. The hubris of mankind has brought us low in Grant’s novel, and the main characters are scientists who are just trying to mitigate the damage.

This is a science fiction novel with a strong horror theme. There is one amazing scene where Heather, a young scientist, is taking a personal submersible into the chasm of the Challenger Deep. As the blackness and the pressure mounts, the tension rises to a screaming pitch. It is claustrophobic to the point of being physically uncomfortable. What Heather finds at the bottom of her journey sets in motion the rest of the novel’s action.

The basic plot centers around one simple question. What if the mermaids of our mythology looked, not like this:

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beautiful, nubile, pageant queens of the sea. And more like this:

 

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deep sea nightmare fodder?

Grant’s “mermaids” are carnivorous, intelligent, and, utterly in their element both in and out of the water. The scientists on board the Melusine are so egotistically wrapped up in their new discovery that they never stop to think that the “mermaids” chose to be discovered at the proper moment. Of course, not until it is too late.

One of my favorite things about all of Mira Grant’s books is that she has a very pure idea of science fiction. There is actual science present, but it is accessible to the layman. I always come away from one of her novels feeling as though I’ve learned something; in this case about the Mariana Trench, the Challenger Deep, why the ship is named the Melusine, and more. Her main characters tend to be female, and even better, females in STEM. I love the idea of young women reading this novel and having their imaginations sparked by the pursuit and discovery and danger inherent in the exploration of our world.

I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who loves suspense, the sea, and the thrill of scientific discovery. I would not, however; recommend it for a trip to the beach. Or on a cruise. Don’t even take it in the bath.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Into the Drowning Deep here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

P.S. there is a short prequel novel entitled Rolling in the Deep, which centers around the crew of the first crew. I haven’t been able to find it at my library yet, but if I ever find it I’ll let you know what I think!

 

#16 Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (2013)

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In January of 1959, nine experienced Russian hikers lead by twenty-three old Igor Dyatlov began a hiking expedition deep into the Ural Mountains. Weeks later, all nine hikers were found dead under mysterious circumstances, scattered throughout the snow without proper clothing, bearing strange injuries, and with traces of radiation on their clothing. Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, this occurrence has become a popular unsolved mystery. Everything from an avalanche to the KGB to the yeti to UFOs has been suggested to try and figure out what happened to the nine hikers. When documentary maker Donnie Eichar’s imagination is sparked by this story, he delves into the case files, flies to Russia, and even attempts to recreate the Dyatlov group’s journey in order to find a definitive explanation for the incident.

I first learned about the Dyatlov Pass Incident through a 2013 found-footage horror film called Devil’s Pass. The film is actually pretty good if you are a fan of found-footage horror films, and I was immediately intrigued by the unsolved mystery of the Russian hikers. I fell down a Wikipedia hole and tried to learn everything I could about it. I am a junkie for unsolved mysteries, so this was a delightful new find. When I heard about Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain, I immediately put myself on a wait list at my local library for the chance to learn more about this strange occurence.

Eichar’s book reads like a written version of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. He sets roughly half of the chapters in 1959, recreating the last few days of the doomed hikers. He manages to put a human face on the young Russian students, and uses diary entries and photographs to paint a picture of a group of young people who are passionate about nature and enthusiastic about life in general. This easily answers the most obvious question, which is why in the world nine people would go hiking in northern Russia in the middle of winter. Eichar also gives us a broad stroke lesson on the historical context of the time. Stalin has recently died, and while Russia is still under the heavy hand of Communism, the country is slowly healing from the cultural and military wars of the previous decade. These chapters are interspersed with others set in 1959, and told from the perspective of the rescue team workers who are utterly baffled by strange deaths of the nine young hikers.

The rest of the book takes places in 2012. We follow Eichar as he chases down lead after lead. He manages to track down Yuri Kuntsevich, the president of the Dyatlov Foundation. He flies to Russia and somehow secures an interview with Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the original Dyatlov team who had to turn back on the first day due to illness and therefore managed to escape the fate of his friends.

Eichar manages to avoid the “conspiracy nut” path that I think could have been very easy to follow. He immediately discredits the idea that the mountain the hikers were found on (Holatchahl) is supposedly cursed by the local native groups and named “The Mountain of the Dead”. He argues that this is a mistranslation, and the mountain is in fact called “Dead Mountain” due to the fact that nothing grows on it. He discounts the theories of aliens and yetis without giving them much thought. Eichar is utterly practical and devoted to legitimate research and citable sources. He devotes a sizable chunk of the book to methodically listing out all of the possible things that could have caused the deaths of the Dyatlov party and systemically ruling them out. Afterwards, he presents his own theory which he believes can finally explain what happened on that February night. Whether or not you choose to believe him is left up to the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed this book because it appealed to the part of me that loves the inexplicable. I would definitely recommend it, but perhaps not on a ski trip.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Dead Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#12 Everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun (2017)

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Jomny is a aliebn who’s a little weird. None of his fellow aliebns seem to think or act like him. He is left alone on Earth in order to research the strange creatures known as humabns. While on Earth, Jomny meets many new friends, and learns a few important lessons about life, loneliness, and nothing at all.

Due to the deliberately bad spelling and grammar, my inner English teacher was in a mild state of apoplexy when I  began this book. I need not have worried. Within ten pages I was absolutely enthralled with this tale of a lonely alien who is trying to learn his place among things. This is a “novel” in the loosest sense of the word. One, it is a graphic novel which gives author Jomny Sun nearly unlimited freedom. Some pages have only one or two words on them. Others don’t have any words at all. The illustrations are simple to the point of being childlike, which makes them somehow more impressive at second glance. It takes talent and a degree of restraint that few artists have to express so much through such spare drawings.

The most important idea presented in Everyone’s a aliebn is that all the people we meet are fighting a harder battle. This is not a new idea in any sense, but it’s conveyed here without the heavy handedness that often comes with that territory. Jomny the alien encounters a variety of characters throughout the book, each one dealing with their own problems. Most notable are an insecure hedgehog who dreams of creating art but anticipates rejection, a bear who is feared by all but just wants to make friends, an egg who is anxious because he doesn’t know what he’ll be when he hatches, and a tree who is lonely because every autumn all his fruit and leaves abandon him and to fall to the ground. None of these characters are defined by their fears, and instead are just trying to work through them. Not everything is sadness and not everything is joy, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Sometimes the right book just finds you at the time right. I’ve been struggling for the past few months with pretty crushing loneliness. It’s manageable on a day-to-day basis but then I read a book like this one and come across this:

“u may be sad because u feel alone. the comforting thing abot feeling lonely is that every thing that has ever existed also knows what loneliness feels like too.”

Simple thoughts, told in the simplest words, can have the power of a thousand pithy self-help books. I didn’t even know how badly I needed this book until I was halfway through it. And what’s great is that this isn’t a “self-help” book. It didn’t offer platitudes and self-esteem boosters. It is just a series of observations of the highs and lows that accompany the human condition.

Everyone’s a aliebn deals with questions of life and death, friendship, and creation. It would be a great book for a child to read once they begin asking the important questions in life. It would be a great book for a person who is struggling through hard times. It would be a great book for a person on the precipice of change. Basically, it would be a great book for just about anyone.

Bonus: it’s also an incredibly quick read. I sat down one afternoon and read the book cover-to-cover in thirty minutes. I got up to do some other things around the house but couldn’t shake Everyone’s a aliebn. So I sat back down and read it again.

My rating: 5/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#5 The World of LORE: Monstrous Creatures by Aaron Mahnke (2017)

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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” H. P. Lovecraft “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Humanity has always had a strange fascination with the supernatural. Think of how many movies are produced every year featuring vampires, werewolves, and other creatures that lurk in the shadows. Even when the vampires sparkle and the werewolves are giant puppies, they remain an important aspect of our culture. Aaron Mahnke’s popular bi-weekly podcast, LORE, delves into the historical context surrounding the myths and legends of the supernatural that have become a part of our collective social consciousness. This book is a collection of roughly thirty transcripts from the LORE podcasts, many of which have been combined with beautiful illustrations.

Mahnke covers a lot of ground in a little under three hundred pages. He explores the folklore surrounding the most popular supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, ghosts, and werewolves, as well as some of the lesser known myths such as the Wendigo, the Jersey Devil, and the Mothman. One of my favorite entries describes the account of Robert the Doll, a  well-documented precursor to the Annabelle legend popularized by The Conjuring movies. Some of these stories take place rather close to home. One account, for example, cites the legend of the Beast of Bray Road that is meant to haunt the woods near Elkhorn, Wisconsin. I’ve driven through that town, though I did not see any monsters in the shadows of the forest.

All of these creatures are contained in short little vignettes that can be read in under ten minutes. This makes The World of LORE the perfect book for busy people, since you can read it in short spats and never feel like you’re missing out on something. The book resembles a series of campfire tales, if campfire tales were meticulously researched and cited. Mahnke is an excellent narrator because he never tries to convince his listeners (or readers) towards the existence or nonexistence of the creatures he describes. He lays out the facts, shines a light into some of the darker corners in history, and leaves it to us to decide what to believe in the end. Mahnke does seem intent on pointing out that a lot of the uproar caused by “monsters” over the years can be attributed to superstition, paranoia, and mob mentality. After all, the ghouls and goblins of the world can’t hold a candle to what people are capable of doing to one another.

Overall, this book should be a delight for horror fans and history fans alike. It’s spooky without being over-the-top or gory. Mahnke has done an admirable job of digging down to the roots of these stories in order to separate truth from legend. And sometimes, the truth can be more frightening than the myth.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The World of LORE here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. You can also find Aaron Mahnke’s podcast here.

Happy reading everyone!