Book Review

Twisted Fairy Tales By Maura McHugh

Publisher: B.E.S. Publishing
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 144
Format: Hard Cover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

This Fairy Tale Anthology book is more than just another collection of classic Grimm Brothers’ Fairy tales. Each story contains a dark and dangerous heart that exposes the more fearsome side of these colorful tales. It includes 20 gothic retellings of classics such as Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, now filled with murder, blood, and a whole lot of macabre. Readers beware, the classics you loved are as twisted as they come, and you may never look at them the same again.

Thoughts

As a lover of classic fairy tales, this book was a nostalgic treat. The beats of the story remain the same overall, with only occasional twists that age up the children’s tales for a more adult audience. Snow White killing her mother, the witch being strangled by Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella also being abused by her father, and the like give the stories a chilling aftereffect. This was helped by the fact that there were several less popular fairy tales included like “The Bone Whistle”, “May and the Elf Knight,” and “Vasilisa’s Fire.” These stories were completely new to me and as such their chilling elements had a stronger effect.

Aiding the book’s eerie atmosphere is the truly amazing art by Jane Laurie. These illustrations are the highlight of the book, providing gritty watercolored pictures of the book’s many gruesome stories. These images breathe new life into these old tales and create hauntingly beautiful portraits that pull the reader into the story in a way that the simple tales cannot. The book is also formatted beautifully, with purposely stained pages and a beautiful font that is reminiscent of the old Brothers Grimm books. This combined with Jane’s art creates a very stunning book that has an ambiance of both fear and beauty.

The one issue I took with this book is that, despite claiming to have a dangerous heart, the stories stuck too closely to the classic Brothers Grimm stories. If you are at all familiar with the origin of most of our beloved fairy tales you know that a great deal of them already have dark origins. Cinderella’s sisters cut off pieces of their feet to fit into the slipper, the Witch blinds the prince for falling in love with Rapunzel, the wolf eats Granny, and so on. When I began this book I assumed that these stories would be amped up to a more disturbing level, but for the most part, the stories simply returned to their origins and stuck with what was already dark about them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was far from the new take on fairytales I was hoping for and left the macabre fan in me disappointed.

Overall, this was a solid fairytale retelling for an older audience. Though the stories are a bit predictable, they maintain their enjoyability and the style and artwork make them unique. If you’re in the mood for a classic retelling that embraces the dark side of fairytales, Twisted Fairy Tales may be what you’re looking for.

Book Review

All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Publisher: Tordotcom
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

What if you were a killer cyborg—built to be the perfect murdering machine—but all you wanted to do was watch soap operas?

Murderbot is a SecUnit owned by a company that provides resources for planetary exploration. It has secretly hacked its governor module (the part of its brain that forces it to obey its corporate masters). It uses this newfound freedom to watch the 35,000 hours of television it has downloaded to its personal hard drives—or it would, if its human masters weren’t constantly getting into danger. If anyone finds out it is free, it will be hunted down and killed (because everyone just assumes rogue SecUnits are rampaging Terminators bent on eradicating all human life). And so it goes on doing its job, hoping to keep its humans alive long enough for it to finish the next season of Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.

Thoughts

At their core, The Murderbot Diaries are sweet, funny, and intensely personal stories about building a life in the aftermath of trauma and despite a society that wants you dead.

I instantly fell in love with the character of Murderbot. Books, TV, and movies are saturated with misanthropic, hyper-competent characters: your Tony Starks, Sherlock Holmes, and Mavericks. I normally hate these characters—I don’t want to read about übermenschen who can treat everyone around them like objects because they’re the Heroes (with a Campbellian capital ‘H’). But Murderbot takes this trope and flips it on its head.

Yes, Murderbot is misanthropic and hyper-competent, but it is also deeply moral. Despite having every reason to seek vengeance for the terrible violations society has inflicted on it, Murderbot spends All Systems Red carefully preserving the lives of the humans under its care. Murderbot refers to itself with a name that represents how society perceives it, but in actuality spends all its time making sure people don’t get murdered despite their best efforts to the contrary.

All Systems Red is not Martha Well’s first book by a longshot, but it is her first book to receive widespread critical acclaim. It swept the holy trinity of science fiction awards, winning the 2018 Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for Best Novella. And Murderbot hasn’t stopped winning awards since. Network Effect—the fifth entry in the series—is poised to pull off the same feat; it’s won both the Nebula and Locus and is currently nominated for the Hugo. This is even more impressive considering that Network Effect is significantly longer than All Systems Red, forcing it to compete in the “novel” category which is (comparatively) more competitive than the shorter “novella.”

Never before have I wanted so badly for a character to make some friends and have a happy life. After all its been through, Murderbot deserves to be safe and cozy for a century or two. Fingers crossed that by the next book the humans will finally get their crap together and let Murderbot have some peace and quiet.

Book Review

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Publisher: Gallery Books
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Still Alice is a story about Alice. And her family. And her diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Alice, a happily married college professor with a family, is only fifty years old when she develops the neurological disease. She begins to forget things, to lose her memory, and to experience cloudy thinking.

Alice’s story is about her struggles and triumphs in dealing with the disease and how it feels to navigate the heartbreak.

Thoughts

Every portrait is really a mirror for others to see themselves in. Still Alice is not a story about Alzheimer’s; it’s a story about Alice, her family, her career, her life, and also her struggles with Alzheimer’s dementia.  Research on dementia often tells a story that is essentialized to a medicalization, forgetting the person, the biography, the daily life. Says the book’s author Lisa Genova, “Five million people have Alzheimer’s, and each has family and friends who know them and care about them.” Alice’s story is a portrait for others with dementia or with loved ones with dementia—to see themselves in.

Still Alice serves as evidence for promoting a person-centered approach to researching dementia and caring for those with it—a holistic approach seeing the whole person and not just their illness. The story is unique in that it is told from the inside looking out, from the point of view of Alice, the person with dementia instead of being told by a caregiver or family member. It’s her story. 

Lisa Genova has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, and after she graduated, her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Still Alice is the result of a rigorous research process. She emailed daily and met with people with early-onset dementia. “They let me in and shared with me their most vulnerable selves.” She shadowed neurologists and social workers, she watched neurological testing with patients, she role-played with doctors, and she volunteered with the Dementia Advocacy and Support Network. 

Her research endeavors culminated into a novel, the best way she thought to reach people with the truths about dementia she had uncovered. Publishers initially rejected Lisa Genova’s manuscript, arguing both that it would only appeal to people with dementia and given her academia background, she should stick to writing non-fiction only. But fiction may be a powerful tool in creating empathy, especially for people with illnesses.

This novel offers a portrait of a person with a real illness and is a catalyst for developing empathy for people with those illnesses. Reading Alice’s story “can show us what it is like to be another person.” Fiction creates empathy for others through identification with a character, seeing yourself in their portrait. Because Still Alice is a story about Alice, what do you see in the mirror of Alice’s portrait? 

Book Review

Laziness Does Not Exist by Dr. Devon Price

Publisher: Atria Books
Genre: Non-fiction
Pages: 256
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Have you ever procrastinated until the last minute and felt guilty? Or beat yourself up for missing a deadline? Maybe you lamented how “lazy” you’d been.

Dr. Price argues in their recently published book that the “lie” we’ve been told about laziness is wrong. What we call “laziness” might more compassionately and more accurately be described as burnout, rest, being overworked, not having access to resources, facing inaccessibility or discrimination, or not having your needs met.

With roots in Puritanism and capitalism, the “laziness lie” as Dr. Price calls it, makes us push ourselves past our abilities and into distress or even illness when our bodies beg us to rest.

Thoughts

Dr. Price drove themself to illness and burnout after overworking for years and years, constantly chiding themself for not working hard enough, not achieving enough, needing any rest or breaks. They share their story and also the stories of dozens of others finding themselves tired and guilty for it. You can see yourself in these stories because we all share in the “laziness lie.”

“We expect ourselves to achieve at a superhuman level, and when we fail to do so, we chastise ourselves for being lazy.”

But this book is permission to rest: it’s a comfort for burnout, it’s a treaty against so-called “laziness.” These sentiments are more valuable now than ever as we face unprecedented climate disasters, environmental collapse, political unrest, and a seemingly endless global pandemic. Things are hard. And yet we are expected to keep working, keep pushing, keep hustling like nothing has changed. We need this book.

Even as a reader already critical of capitalism and productivity, I learned from this book and saw so many insidious ways the “laziness lie” finds its ways into our lives. As radical as this book may be, my only criticism is that it’s not radical enough. Dr. Price urges we take sabbaticals, say no to side hustles, and drop extra responsibilities, but that’s not possible for everyone. Personally, living between paychecks, I cannot say no to work responsibilities no matter how burned out I may be. The arguments from Laziness Does Not Exist must be paired with activism and social action to change the structures that allow the “laziness lie” to exist and thrive.

“If your life has value no matter how productive you are, so does every other human life.”

Part memoir, part interview series, part activism, part self-help, Laziness Does Not Exist is permission to opt-out of the lie. Maybe you’re not lazy for missing that deadline—maybe you were burnt out after working through a year of a global pandemic. Maybe you’re not lazy because you waited until the last minute on a project—maybe you didn’t have access to the resources you needed. As Dr. Price encourages, it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to take a break. Maybe you’re not lazy after all.

Book Review

Ice Planet Barbarians by Ruby Dixon

Publisher: Ruby Dixon, 2015
Genre: Science Fiction, Romance
Pages: 188
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Georgie had a normal life here on earth. That is, until she was kidnapped by aliens who intended to sell her, and the other women they stole, as slaves. After a ship malfunction, Georgie and the rest of the women are dumped on an ice planet until the aliens can return.

Frozen and starving, Georgie sets out to find help and meets Vektal, a six-foot-tall blue alien with massive horns on his head and an instant attraction to her.

Together, they work to save the women from their captors and, maybe, fall in love in this spicy tale of fate and discovery.

Thoughts

The fun of Ice Planet Barbarians is the inherent lunacy of the story’s premise. The plot is insane, but Ruby Dixon’s willingness to embrace the madness allows the reader to do so as well, resulting in an adventure of a book where logic is abandoned and the reader can just enjoy the ride.

The book wastes no time getting to the story, opting instead to thrust the reader, along with the characters, right into the bizarre environment. This creates a fast paced and engaging narrative that draws you in almost as soon as you start reading. Not only that, it also forms a connection between the reader and Georgie as they are equally clueless to the world.

Speaking of Georgie, her and Vektal’s relationship is masterfully crafted. Ruby Dixon has a gift for creating romantic pairings that feel natural. Both Georgie and Vektal are remarkably similar and when paired together they strengthen each other, creating a positive and sincere romance. The book doesn’t shy away from steamy moments—in fact, it’s full of them—but they are well written and offset by scenes of casual affection and connection, creating a well-rounded romance that’s a delight to read.

While the book focuses on Georgie and Vektal, the other kidnapped women and the aliens are also well developed. Since this book is the first in series, each of the kidnapped women and aliens are fleshed out to some degree, to the point that observant readers may be able to determine the future pairings from their personalities alone. This not only sets up the future books, but also serves to create a really dynamic cast of characters who add another layer to the story.

Overall, I loved this book. It was a wild, outlandish romance with sincere and relatable characters. Ruby Dixon has a real knack for romance, and Ice Planet Barbarians is a perfect example of that. I have read six books in this series so far and, in my opinion, they only get better. If you’re looking for a racy romance, Ice Planet Barbarians is the book for you.

Book Review

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Publisher: Random House
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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Summary

Growing up in a remote area of beautiful Idaho may seem like a dream come true. But for Tara Westover, the remote location mirrored her own isolation, both in beliefs and in terms of those she could relate to.

Born into a family of devout Mormon extremists and survivalists, Tara was not allowed to take medicine, have a valid form of personal identification, or even attend school. Moments that might have been spent learning how to read were instead needed to prepare for the inevitable doomsday that her family believed was quickly approaching.

My Thoughts

Tara’s journey—from a child unable to attend school to a young adult earning her PhD at the renowned Cambridge University—is filled with heartbreak, tears, and genuine happiness. The eloquent yet accessible nature of Tara’s writing style allows her readers to go through the journey of her young life with her. Even though her life experiences are likely vastly different from those of the majority of her readers, Tara has a way of telling her story that is innately human. Although most of her readers may not relate to Tara’s memories of things like being in a horrible car accident and then forbidden to go to the hospital for her injuries, themes like familial tensions and the struggle to find the meaning of one’s academic education will certainly resonate with many others. 

Educated is worth the read not only because Tara’s story is compelling, but also because it will positively leave readers with something long after they’ve closed the book—whether that be gratefulness for the opportunities education has afforded the audience or reflection on what life and education means to them. I encourage everyone to delve in as soon as possible, and I promise you won’t be able to put it down.

Book Review

Better Together by Christine Riccio

Publisher: Wednesday Books
Genre: Young Adult, Coming of Age
Pages: 448
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

If you’re looking for an extraordinarily unique, dark twist on a classic story, look no further than Christine Riccio’s Better Together. Jamie and Siri are sisters separated at a young age and completely devoid of contact for over a decade due to their parents’ nasty divorce.

In a twist of luck (or fate) the two sisters are reunited at the same “rediscover yourself” retreat and hatch a devious plan: the two will switch places and confront their respective parents.

However, not everything goes as planned, and it’s going to take a lot more than switching places to understand each other, find themselves, and ultimately face the complexities of family.

Thoughts

It has been almost a year since my very first post with The Spellbinding Shelf where I discussed one of my favorite young adult novels, Again but Better by Christine Riccio. Now, coming full circle, I decided to review her newly released second novel, Better Together. While very witty, I have to admit that initially I was not completely sold on the plot—mostly because it wasn’t my usual type of young adult novel. The whimsical magic reminiscent of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday are classically engaging, but I was not as enthused with those themes. Perhaps due to my hesitancy, I ended up being disengaged, and the combination of short and rather uneventful chapters left me searching for more.

Despite some of these shortcomings, I was pleasantly surprised with Riccio’s capability to take a traditionally lighthearted storyline and investigate the twisted, dark, and traumatizing difficulties of divorce, dysfunctional families, and the impact of parents’ choices on their children. Indeed, there were moments in the book where, while I was craving more action, I couldn’t ignore the insight and attention to how both Jamie and Siri processed their emotional baggage. Riccio does an amazing job detailing the struggles of both characters who have completely different personalities and means of handling their past to move towards their future. There were multiple times in which I had to underline prominent messages or found myself laughing at the page as Riccio nicely combined comedy, romance, and sardonic tones with the seriousness of her overall topic.

Most importantly, Better Together was primarily written during the pandemic—a heaviness that is translated in its pages as the reader slowly feels the suffocation and eventual release of tension most everyone has felt over the past year. In this manner, I appreciated Better Together not only because of its mix of tragedy and comedy, but also its overall feeling of angst and the eventual, much needed, feeling of relief.

Book Review

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice by Mariame Kaba

Publisher: Haymarket Books
Genre: Political Science, Essays
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Educator, organizer, and curator Mariame Kaba collects seven years of essays and conversations on Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) abolition into one volume.

Kaba has been a foundational organizer in multiple prison abolition projects, including Survived and Punished (which helps free “survivors of domestic and sexual violence and other forms of gender violence who are imprisoned for survival actions”) and Project NIA (which aims “to dramatically reduce the reliance on arrest, detention, and incarceration for addressing youth violence”).

For those who were first introduced to PIC abolitionism last summer through #DefundThePolice, Kaba presents a holistic vision of the movement’s history, present, and future.

Thoughts

The modern theory and practice of PIC abolitionism grew out of the civil rights movement half a century ago. The movement’s roots, as the name implies, can be traced back to the slavery abolition movement that presaged the American Civil War. However, PIC abolition has been almost entirely excluded from mainstream conversations about the American justice system, until its ideas became central to the Ferguson uprising of 2014 and the George Floyd uprising of 2020. But as “Defund the Police”—the first demand of #8toAbolition—became a policy demand of a plurality of local Black Lives Matter organizations, the national news media were forced to suddenly contend with the work and vision of PIC abolitionists.

By the summer of 2020, Mariame Kaba had been writing about PIC abolition for a decade on her blog Prison Culture. I was introduced to PIC abolition through Kaba’s work, as were many other young abolitionists. She is a gateway for a new generation into the ongoing struggle for emancipation.

Kaba’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is the combination of her writing’s accessibility and her scrupulous care to cite the sources of her ideas. I often have trouble understanding works of political theory, but Kaba stubbornly refuses to deal in the abstract; every idea she presents is grounded in examples drawn from her work as an organizer. Likewise, each idea is attributed to the activists, organizers, and writers who provided her with its germ. ‘Til We Free Us thus functions as not only an introductory text, but an index of foundational PIC abolitionist writers (almost entirely Black women).

If you would like a taste of what this book offers, I’d recommend starting with Kaba’s June 2020 opinion piece for the New York Times, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” which is also included in this anthology.

Book Review

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green

Publisher: Dutton
Genre: Social Science, Essays
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

John Green’s latest book is comprised of a series of essays describing and rating different aspects of the Anthropocene—the current geologic age— on a five star scale. Based on the podcast of the same name, The Anthropocene Reviewed tackles everything from humanity’s temporal range to the world’s largest ball of paint. At their core, these essays ponder the ways in which humans are profoundly and irreversibly shaping the world around us—and, by extension, how we too are being shaped by our actions and experiences in the modern age.

Thoughts

If you’ve visited our blog before, you’re no doubt familiar with our deep and abiding love of John Green. When the writer/Youtuber/ die-hard Liverpool fan announced that his latest book was going to be a non-fiction collection of essays, I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. While I would be happy reading Green’s shopping list, his novels hold a special place in my heart. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by The Anthropocene Reviewed, and especially by the glimpse that it gave us into the author’s life.

Through Green’s novels, we’ve learned a great deal about the author himself. Looking for Alaska provided a backdrop for some of the personal events in his own life. Turtles All the Way Down delved into what it’s like living with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Green’s latest book is unique, however, in that his life is not being viewed through the lens of Pudge, or Aza, or Hazel. The stories and insights provided are unencumbered by narratives or characters, and the result is pure, unfiltered John Green.

Obviously, Green is no stranger to sharing personal information with his fans. Aside from his books and his website, he regularly engages with his fans on his Youtube channel, vlogbrothers, that he runs with his brother, Hank Green. Through all of these avenues, we’ve learned a great deal about Green’s life. His latest book differs however, in that it centers around opinions and musings that are deeply and intrinsically influenced by personal experiences. As a result, the author shares a great deal of personal anecdotes and stories about his life.

Another charming feature of this novel is found in its footnotes. I really enjoyed finding and reading the small print hidden throughout the front and back pages providing 5 star ratings about copyright and half-title pages. Beyond this, the back of the page also contains notes and sources for some of the facts and stories Green mentions in each essay. This feature is especially rewarding to the Green fans like myself who are continually amazed and baffled by the amount of diverse knowledge Green possesses about every aspect of human existence.

As a final note, I’d like to add that this book—while a wonderful read for anyone and everyone (since it concerns, well, humanity)—it might resonate more strongly with those who are already fans of Green’s work. I enjoyed seeing glimpses into the author’s early life and seeing connections between his personal experiences and his other novels, for example, which would not be as interesting to someone who knows nothing about John Green. Some of my personal favorite essays included those on our capacity for wonder, the movie Harvey, googling strangers, and Hiroyuki Doi’s circle drawings—all of which struck me as especially candid and earnest. I would recommend this book to any John Green fans, as well as those who enjoy learning obscure details about various facets of human existence.

Book Review

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 496
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Ryland Grace has to save the earth. By himself. In space. And he doesn’t remember who he is.

Grace awakens onboard a spaceship many light-years and many literal years away from earth and from any other human. He has to learn not only who and where he is but why because Earth is in danger of being wiped out. Grace is their only hope for survival. And the clock is ticking.

Space is big. Really big. But Grace may not be as alone as he thought he was. With his unlikely partner and his memories slowly returning, he uses science to navigate his way through problems and challenges on an interstellar adventure filled with suspense, survival, and an unusual friendship.

Will he save Earth in time?

Thoughts

Project Hail Mary is my favorite book of the year. If you enjoyed Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian, you will enjoy his newest novel Project Hail Mary published May 2021. Think The Martian meets Interstellar. There are a lot of welcomed similarities to his first novel: cheeky humor amid a grisly survival situation, lots of fascinating science, and a lone astronaut trying to survive. Except this time, it’s not the whole earth trying to save one astronaut—it’s one astronaut trying to save the whole earth.

The science Andy Weir weaves throughout the whole book is intriguing and complex, yet it is never overwhelming for novices or distracting from the story. Like in The Martian, the protagonist uses his expert knowledge to problem-solve and the science always moves the plot forward in exciting and page-turning ways. Project Hail Mary brings in microbiology, astrophysics, the theory of relativity, and even communication theory. Woven together are two storylines—the current events of Grace aboard his spaceship and revealing flashbacks back to earth of Grace in his memories.

Despite all the science, Project Hail Mary’s real story is about connection. I won’t share any spoilers, but I will say that the strange partnership—and real friendship—Ryland Grace makes on his adventure is one of the best parts of the novel. The friendship invites intriguing questions about language, communication, life, possibilities, and what it means to be human. Or not human. Despite all the science happening in the novel, the emotional story is what really shines in this novel.

In addition to the novel’s exploration of beyond-human connection, it’s also about connection with our own planet. Project Hail Mary is a piece of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction… well, speculates. What if this happened? What would we do? Even through imagined stories, speculative fiction theorizes about our current world. These “narratives” [are] concerned not so much with science or technology as with human actions in response to a new situation created by science or technology…speculative fiction highlights a human rather than technological problem.” Project Hail Mary is ultimately an optimistic story about saving the earth, which gifts the same optimism to readers living in a very real world with fears and anxieties about climate change and environmental collapse. This story gives us hope.