The Diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City—and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.

Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.

As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.

I loved Libbra Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty series when it came out, but I haven’t really kept up with her other books over the years. I can’t remember if I found The Diviners series because I stumbled on the series while looking for comp titles on Amazon or an IG post from author Roshani Chokshi inspired me to check out, but both together ultimately motivated me to order the first book in the series.

I usually keep my reviews on Isle of Books positive these days and only review books I thoroughly enjoyed. And I DID thoroughly enjoyed this one, but I have to say I did not like the way Evie spoke. I DO think her voice is very true to the time…I just personally don’t like the way people spoke at that time in American history. I find it grating and I have a hard time watching old movies for the same reason. So while I’m commenting on this to say that the main character does have a distinctive voice that didn’t appeal to me…the story and series is so darn good and intriguing I read it anyway. And I already bought the next book. That should give you an idea of how strong I think this book is overall that I’m still recommending it despite having a personal beef with the main character’s voice!

This book does an excellent job laying the groundwork for what I think will be a unique, immersive, and addicting series. The first book is rather lengthy, but it does an extraordinary amount of world-building, introduces us to a big cast of characters, opens the door to what I think will be a series-spanning arc of solving a cataclysmic problem, and combines the best of many different genres into one neat package (History! Paranormal! Horror! Mystery! Young Adult! Steampunk!) The Diviners feels like the start to a boldly ambitious series and I. Am. Here. For. It.

I will note that I’m not a big fan of horror because I’m easily scared…and this book creeped me out in places. It’s definitely on the more horror-y side of things. And still I kept going because I was intrigued by the characters and the story, both the plot that spans the pages of The Diviners and the larger plot that we just get a taste of in this book.

As I mentioned above, I already bought the second book in the series and am excited to dive back into this quartet of books!

The Girl With No Face

The Girl With No Face by M.H. Borosan

It’s the end of the Nineteenth Century. San Francisco’s cobblestone streets are haunted, but Chinatown has an unlikely protector in a young Daoist priestess named Li-lin. Using only her martial arts training, spiritual magic, a sword made from peachwood, and the walking, talking spirit of a human eye, Li-lin stands alone to defend her immigrant community from supernatural threats.

But when the body of a young girl is brought to the deadhouse Li-lin oversees for a local group of gangsters, she faces her most bewildering—and potentially dangerous—assignment yet. The nine-year-old has died from suffocation . . . specifically by flowers growing out of her nose and mouth. Li-lin suspects Gong Tau, a dirty and primitive form of dark magic. But who is behind the spell, and why, will take her on a perilous journey deep into a dangerous world of ghosts and spirits.

Not too long ago I raved about how much I enjoyed The Girl With Ghost Eyes. Well, The Girl With No Face managed to be even BETTER.

The second in the Daoshi Chronicles series, The Girl With No Face took everything that I loved about the first book and paired it with even stronger character development for Li-Lin and other returning characters. In particular (and this is a slight spoiler) the relationship between Li-lin and her father is a standout in this book.

What this series does really well I think (but it often isn’t mentioned in reader reviews and I didn’t mention this myself when I reviewed the first book) is it presents a strong female character that also feels contextualized to her time and culture. So yes Li-lin is a kickass heroine, but she doesn’t feel wildly anachronistic. She feels like she belongs in 1899 San Francisco and that makes her struggles and character development feel believable. There are also some nice gendered cultural touchstones in this book that are very, very well done (in particular, a conversation about foot binding and a conversation about why Li-lin’s father wanted a boy, not a girl).

The other thing it does well is present Chinese culture in a way that doesn’t feel Westernized or watered down. I would say I have an above-average knowledge of China, her history, and her culture (compared to the average American which is, I know, a super low bar), but a lot of the stories, figures, and cultural practices are things I’ve never heard of or even have the glimmer of a memory that maybe I learned about it in the past. Obviously I can’t comment on the accuracy of everything that’s used, but wow am I learning a lot by reading this series.

If you liked, but didn’t love the first book in the series, I would recommend continuing on to this one because it raised the bar on the series and I’m very, very excited for the next to come out (whenever that is).

The only thing I actually don’t like about The Daoshi Chronicles series is that I’m discovering this when it’s only two books deep. I could use about ten more of these right now haha.

I also want to note this series would be a great quarantine choice. They’re fun, fast-paced, magical, transportive, non-depressing, and they’ll teach you something if you’re open to learning, but you’re not at all required to do deep, meditative thinking.

 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

I first saw mention of The Ten Thousand Doors of January online, but it really piqued my interest when I visited Mysterious Galaxy bookstore last summer and saw it on the shelf as a staff pick. I still didn’t buy it, but a few moments after that it was suggested as our February book club pick and I enthusiastically backed it.

I loved, loved, loved this book. The writing is absolutely fantastic. The story rich, detailed, and imaginative. This world is one I hope we get to revisit again and again in subsequent books. It’s no wonder this debut had so much buzz around it and a Hugo and Nebula nomination to back it up! Incredibly well deserved in my opinion.

I don’t want to talk specifics because it’s easy to give away plot twists and the magic of reading this book for the first time. You should really just experience it for yourself. But I will say that if you read the back cover copy and think you know what this book is – you’re wrong. This is a book that surprises just as much as it enchants.

Definitely don’t miss this one!

Writing Update: A Starred Review for Monsters, Movies, & Mayhem!

The current pandemic has me working a lot and reading a lot (expect more reviews as soon as I have time to get them up!), but I’m popping in briefly to share that the upcoming anthology I have a story in, Monsters, Movies, & Mayhem, received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly!

Click here to read the review on the Publisher’s Weekly site

Note: The cover inside the review is wrong, the actual gorgeous cover of the anthology is below.

I’m really excited to be part of this project alongside some fantastic authors and looking forward to sharing more details about how you can purchase a copy as we get closer to the summer release!

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

One day, Lori Gottlieb is a therapist who helps patients in her Los Angeles practice. The next, a crisis causes her world to come crashing down. Enter Wendell, the quirky but seasoned therapist in whose office she suddenly lands. With his balding head, cardigan, and khakis, he seems to have come straight from Therapist Central Casting. Yet he will turn out to be anything but.

As Gottlieb explores the inner chambers of her patients’ lives — a self-absorbed Hollywood producer, a young newlywed diagnosed with a terminal illness, a senior citizen threatening to end her life on her birthday if nothing gets better, and a twenty-something who can’t stop hooking up with the wrong guys — she finds that the questions they are struggling with are the very ones she is now bringing to Wendell.

I like getting book recommendations from other people because sometimes it leads to a book I really enjoy that I never would have picked up on my own.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is that book. The premise of “a therapist, her therapist, and our lives” revealed didn’t necessarily hook me. But a strong recommendation led to me opening up the book and getting hooked on the first few pages.
In her book, Gottlieb not only chronicles her work as a therapist, she tells the story of the evolution of a few different patients and her own time spent in therapy. I think anyone who’s done any type of therapy themselves will appreciate this book, as the actual act of therapy in the book is comfortingly familiar, even if the individual narratives that unfold are not.
I do wonder how Gottlieb went about selecting the patients to include in her book. She did a good job picking a group that had both wildly different issues, but no less engaging personality quirks. In particular the lonely old woman who’s planning to kill herself before her next birthday, the young woman dying of cancer, and the television writer with the asshole personality really stood out to me.
Lori Gottlieb has a really accessible writing style that lends itself well to this type of storytelling. The kind of writing style that manages to be both dense, detailed, and highly engaging. I could have easily read this book in a sitting or two. But since I designated it for my morning reading (I try to read either a chapter or about fifteen minutes of a non-fiction book every morning), I read it in small pieces. Which meant each time I returned to it with a hunger to pick up the threads where I left off. Since the story jumps around in a way that wasn’t always linear, it meant I often had to read through chapters to get back to where I “left off” with a person to see what happens next for them. This didn’t bother me, but it might bother some people.
I would definitely recommend this book to someone looking for a new memoir-type read that is addictive and engaging. It’s definitely not a beach read as this book did make me cry in a few spots, but it’s a great book to get lost in and help you emerge with a more nuanced, considerate view of those people in your life you have written off as damaged or difficult.
As the saying goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Writing Updates: Winter’s Cry to Be Reprinted in May and Some Personal News

In the midst of all this Coronavirus craziness, I haven’t had time to update my blog at all – and definitely not with the bright spot of news I recently received!

My short story, “Winter’s Cry,” is being republished by The Magazine of History and Fiction in May! It was previously published by The Copperfield Review in 2012.

“Winter’s Cry” is a short story set in the mountains of Colorado in the winter of 1890. Short on cash to fund his upcoming wedding, a young man accepts a position as a ranch hand. But as an unusually harsh winter descends, his friendship with the owner’s young daughter is put to the test when wolves close in on the ranch.

In other writing news, I’ve finished two new short stories since the beginning of the year. I have one more I’m working on then I’ll start writing my next book. Looking forward to starting a new big project!

And in personal news, I have an announcement…I got engaged in February!

My fiancee surprised me at home after we went downtown to celebrate a late Valentine’s Day! We are planning on a wedding in 2021.

 

Treasure of the Blue Whale

Treasure of the Blue Whale by Steven Mayfield

In this whimsical, often funny, Depression-era tale, young Connor O’Halloran decides to share a treasure he’s discovered on an isolated stretch of Northern California beach. Almost overnight, his sleepy seaside village is comically transformed into a bastion of consumerism, home to a commode with a jeweled seat cover, a pair of genuinely fake rare documents, a mail-order bride, and an organ-grinder’s monkey named Mr. Sprinkles. But when it turns out that the treasure is not real, Connor must conspire with Miss Lizzie Fryberg and a handful of town leaders he’s dubbed The Ambergrisians to save their friends and neighbors from financial ruin. 

(I received a free copy of this book from the publicist in exchange for an honest review)

Bored at home? Uninterested in the books you already have? Looking for something to brighten up these long days of quarantine?

Friends, I have found it! Treasure of the Blue Whale is that book!

I went into this book not expecting the pure delight I found inside. I started reading it during the early days of quarantine in California and soon found myself looking forward to being done with my work each day so I could go back to the book.

Treasure of the Blue Whale is a fun, delightful book that presents an escape to simpler times. To the America of yesteryear. To a time before our social media feeds were swamped with news about Coronavirus. To the nostalgia of long-ago childhood.

This book is quirky, light, and fun while somehow needling the simple truths about life and our human existence. The narrator, Connor O’Halloran, narrates this tale from the end of his life. So while the events of the story take places when Connor was just ten years old, the displacement of the narrator allows us to see things unfold both through the eyes of a child and the much wiser adult who has had decades to reflect on them.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot for fear that I’ll ruin the magic of it for you (I already sliced out half of the back cover copy which oversells the story IMO). Just do yourself a favor and pick a copy of this utterly charming book when it comes out on April 1st!

The publicist is also planning a livestream launch party on April 2nd – click here to join in on the fun.