Author: Lish McBride
A Firebug Story
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Ava and her friends Ezra and Lock are on a job–for the magical mafia, which, not their choice really but definitely their norm at this point. It ought to be a fairly simple task, present a sufficient show of force that the witch they’ve been sent to deal with pays up. Not too hard when you’ve got a werefox, a half-dryad, and oh, a girl who controls fire on your hands. But of course, things are never simple for these three.
I adore Lish McBride’s novel Firebug, so it was with delight that I discovered this digitally-released short story set in the same world and following the same three main characters. Chronologically within the story’s timeline, “Burnt Sugar” actually predates Firebug and gives us a good picture of an (honestly) pretty average mission for these three. Which isn’t to say the story’s average, by any means. It’s exciting and suspenseful, with a great sense of humor and some amazing friendships. Seriously, I just love these three and the relationship they share so, so much. And really, a plot that involves gingerbread houses, health-conscious witches, and a girl who can summon fire with just a thought–what’s not to love? Also, if you’re not familiar with this author/series and would like a sampling, “Burnt Sugar” actually provides sufficient information to appreciate the characters and what’s going on, while avoiding being a straight-up info dump. (Granted, if you’ve read Firebug, some of the information provided is unnecessary, but not annoyingly so.) I would definitely recommend this short story, honestly to a broad audience, although particularly to fans of quirky, funny urban fantasy.
Note: While this story is available for digital purchase, you can also read it for free on Tor.com at https://www.tor.com/2014/12/10/burnt-sugar-lish-mcbride/.
Author: Ira Levin
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Joanna’s life seems to be going just as it should. She’s got a supportive husband, has two healthy children who argue only as much as any others their age, her photography is beginning to be recognized and profitable, and the whole family has just moved to the quiet suburb of Stepford. Only, Stepford isn’t exactly what she was expecting. In fact, in the whole area, Joanna has only found two other women who are remotely normal . . . all the rest seem to be perfect housewives, actors in commercials almost, focused only on their housework and pleasing their husbands. It’s all terribly backward for the times, and something about it just doesn’t sit right with Joanna.
Fair warning that 1) I’ll probably spoil something about this story somewhere in the review, and 2) I’ll likely ignore a lot of things that are typically commented on or have different opinions from those that are popular. This book is iconic enough–and well enough known–that I’m not really trying to avoid either of the above. The Stepford Wives is a psychological thriller set in 1970’s suburban Connecticut. It’s also a solid example of what I would term “suburban horror”–the whole idea that in the suburbs no one will give you too much grief about [insert horrible thing you do here] so long as your house is tidy and your lawn neat and green. So yeah, basically throughout the whole town, all the women are being murdered and replaced by robots because the menfolk in this backwards place prefer that over real, modern women with opinions and personality and interests outside the home. Blah, blah, social commentary, you get the picture. It’s a great insight, this far out from when the story was written, into the mindsets and social atmosphere that were prevalent at that point. From a strictly storytelling perspective, this story is fascinatingly written. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, Levin limits us to what Joanna knows but also sticks strictly to the facts. This happened, that happened, in minute detail at times–we’re given occurrences, hints, the passage of time, and Joanna’s gradual horrifying realization, but we never actually delve into her psyche and emotions. It’s all objective and almost clinical at times, the clear, spare way in which things are written. But I really like the way it’s done; in some ways, it increases the horror of what’s happening as you begin to realize along with Joanna just what’s going down in this place. Also, the pacing of the story is deliberate, spelled out in minute daily events, in a way that makes the progression seem inevitable. I enjoyed The Stepford Wives quite a lot and would recommend it to those interested in psychological thrillers/horror. Just don’t expect a fast-paced, emotion-drenched story coming in to it.
AO3 ID: 12592096
Status: Complete (22 Chapters)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Rated T for violence/whump
Princess Allura has entrusted Lance with his very first diplomatic mission, to the cat-like people of Macka–a peaceful planet that has historically been allied with the Alteans. Lance is determined not to mess this up, although it should honestly be pretty easy, enough so that the team is only sending him and Keith to handle the meeting while the rest of them attend to another mission. Only, it seems the Mackans have changed a bit in the thousands of years since Altea last communicated with them, and now Lance and Keith find themselves dedicated as sacrifices to the Mackan goddess Lady Leora. And even when Keith manages to break them out, they must handle the harshness of the desert, Lance’s (magical) loss of his voice, his (equally magical) non-healing wound that’s bleeding all over, and a fierce group of Mackans fueled by religious fervor at their heels. But at least Keith and Lance are in all this together.
The Purity of Sin was the first of Icy’s works that I read, and it was brilliant then. It’s still brilliant upon re-reading. This story is definitely whumpish–there’s lost of violence and bloodshed, and Lance in particular just gets some really rough breaks. But there’s a ton of character development as well. The transition of Keith and Lance from awkward rivals-turned-allies to brothers is beautiful and touching, and the author does a great job of showing this in a myriad of little moments–new understandings, cuddles, sharing in hardships together. Also, I liked that the author didn’t make the Mackans some stereotypical “bad guys” but instead gave us a people with good intentions but misguided, fearful beliefs that lead them to terrible choices. The whole story is balanced well, and the writing is enjoyable to read–as long as you’re up for some pretty angsty moments. Recommended.
Note: You can find The Purity of Sin at https://archiveofourown.org/works/12592096/chapters/28681112.
Author/Illustrator: Jon Klassen
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Bear has lost his hat, and he really wants it back. He goes around asking everyone he meets if they have seen his hat. For that matter, have you seen his hat?
I Want My Hat Back is one of those great picture books that I truly enjoyed reading . . . even while I have some reservations about giving it to kids to read. I’ll discuss that in a bit. But first, the things I adored about this book. For starters, Klassen’s art style is just fabulous–simple and straightforward but with a softness that makes me want to just pet the animals. And the dialogue is perfect for the 3-5 age range; the words are simple, and you’ve got a repetitive theme with subtle variations so it doesn’t get too boring. Then you’ve got the one huge exception to the repetition–only, it’s disguised to look just like all the other interactions. It’s a fun something for kids to try to catch and a humorous inside-joke upon re-reading. Which leads us to the ending and the love/hate reaction I have to it. At the risk of totally giving spoilers for a kids’ picture book: the bear eats the rabbit who stole his hat then acts all shifty and lies when someone asks about the rabbit later. Which, when reading the story, it basically darkly hilarious, since it’s a perfect mirror of how the rabbit acted when bear asked about his hat. Trouble is, as a responsible adult who’s trying to teach kids honesty and values, I’m then conflicted . . . . I guess, read the book yourself and decide if it’s appropriate for your kids personally. But yeah, for myself, I found I Want My Hat Back to be mostly charming and darkly funny.
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Amelia Peabody, vol. 11
My rating: 4.5 of 5
The 1911 season looks to be one full of drama for Amelia Peabody what with the weddings, the weird family drama between Nefret and Ramses, the political intrigue and drug dealers on the loose, the random child popping up claiming to belong to Ramses. And of course, the rash of forgeries attributed to Ramses’ best friend, David–falsely attributed, obviously, but proving that is being a bit challenging. Maybe it’s a good thing the only site Emerson was able to get this season is a bit boring on the whole.
I absolutely always love Peters’ Amelia Peabody books; there’s some great history combined with lots of thrills, good humor, suspense, mystery, and romance. Basically, they’re just good historical adventures all around. The Falcon at the Portal fills this excellently, although I do have to say that it’s just generally less cohesive than some of the other stories in this series. Honestly, there’s just so much going on that it’s hard to keep track sometimes of what’s actually important. Add to that the fact that you’ve got three separate narrators (even though I love having Nefret and Ramses’ perspectives), and the story can be a bit all over the place at times. But really, I feel like the actual mystery plot takes second place to the character development and drama in this volume anyhow, so it’s not such a big deal to miss plot threads at times. And wow is there some drama going on here! For one, we’ve got some actual development in one of my favorite (of all time, not just of this series) ships–Nefret and Ramses. Plus the whole mess with Amelia’s nephew Percy and the Americans who keep hanging around. And of course, this is where Sennia joins the family. So yeah, lots of drama, a good touch of heartache, but lots of fun, too. Recommended.
AO3 ID: 10986921
Status: Complete (oneshot)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Artemis is dying for a distraction from the essay she’s been fighting. But when Robin comes in wearing a dark mood that (scarily) morphs into one too bright, she’s instantly suspicious. More so when he brings up the bright idea of sneaking through the security of Wayne Manor to–wait for it–egg the place! Seriously, what is he thinking? There’s no way the team will agree . . . only, somehow Artemis finds herself doing just that. This is going to end badly.
CaptainOzone is a fabulous author, and Egg(ing ’em on) is a delightful, well-written story. The characters are in character, and we get some solid character development, particularly on the parts of Artemis and Dick. I absolutely adore their interactions. You get to see some of the darkness and hurt that lies underneath the surface of there characters. But you also get some great insight into the friendships that keep them going and the laughter and fun they have together. Secret identities will be revealed, and there are some great Batfam moments as well. Definitely recommended.
Note: You can find this fic at https://archiveofourown.org/works/10986921.
Authors: Jory John & Mac Barnett
Illustrator: Kevin Cornell
The Terrible Two, vol. 1
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Miles really hates that his mom is moving them from his home near the ocean where everyone knew him as an epic prankster to some podunk Midwestern town that smells of cows . . . where no one even knows his name. Starting at his new school, he knows he’s going to have to act fast to solidify his role as an outstanding prankster before he gets stuck hanging out with the school tattle-tale suck-up, Niles. Only trouble is, this school seems to already have a resident prankster, one who seems to be two steps ahead of Miles at every turn–and one so good at hiding that the principal is convinced Miles is guilty of the pranks!
The Terrible Two is a fun, funny middle-grade story that I literally read in one sitting. It’s got great characterizations, relatable problems, and hilarious pranks. All told is a droll, matter-of-fact tone that just makes it even funnier, along with fabulous black-and-white illustrations that emphasize and elaborate on the story brilliantly. Oh, and it’s got cows. Lots and lots of cows. . . . But seriously, I really enjoyed the way the relationship between these two pranksters played out, going from annoyance and bafflement to outright antagonism and finally to this great bromantic pranking team. The Terrible Two is a lot of fun; recommended.