September Book Club: The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids

Cover art for the Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids by Michael McClung.

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids tells the story of Amra, a careful thief who is drawn into the revenge game when her friend is murdered in the middle of the night. While following the trail of his killer, she finds herself thrown in jail for no reason, running from a price on her head, befriending a wizard and closing a hell gate. In other words, this is a very plot focused book where the setting could really be any fantasy town and the character development is minimal.

That’s not to say that The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braid’s is a bad story, in fact there is simply the assumption that you have read a fantasy novel before and have an understanding of what the general rules are. For example: there is a huge power differential between those with money and those without, magic always comes with a price, gods speak through their priests who expect offerings in exchange for favors. The fun thing about the lack of world building and following the tried and true rules is that you can plunk the story into the world of your choosing and imagine your favorite characters running around elsewhere while Amra makes decisions like shaving her head to get rid of lice and maneuvers over cliff edges to sneak into fancy houses.

I don’t see myself reading any more books in the series, but The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids was a fun ride. Perhaps there is more world building in future books, but in my experience first person narratives lead to short scenes due to the limits of narrator perspective. That aside, I do find myself super curious about the eight armed goddess apparently coming out of her prison and wonder how else Amra is going to contribute to that.

It’s hard to believe that I’m already selecting a book for October and that we’re three book clubs away from the end of the year. Let’s hop back into historical fiction and read something from Reese’s Book Club (I’ve never tried one of her recs before!): The Giver of Stars. I’ve read and enjoyed Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, let’s find out if this one is also a tear jerker together.

Cover art for the Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

August Book Club: Sourdough

Cover art for Sourdough by Robin Sloan

This book was so fun and there were several points in the story that I had to remind myself that it’s a fictional story and not a biography (like when the starter took over everything). Lois is a relatable character, taking a job because she is good at it and then working hard because that’s the culture in addition to her nature. Her feelings of burnout were real, right down to the idea that eating a special diet would solve all her problems.

While reading Sourdough, I was left with feelings of yes that’s true (we totally are the children of Hogwarts) and awe at the amount of work that went into feeding the starter (like plants, you have to pay attention to its needs). What I wasn’t left with was a lot to say when the story was over. Would I recommend this book to a friend? Absolutely, it was an enjoyable read. Is it a book that has inspired a lot of discussion beyond the initial “you should read this”? Not really, it’s about a girl trying to find herself and discovering that she can along the way.

That aside, I’ve identified a couple things that we can (and probably should) discuss here. For starters, Lois brings a robotic arm to a farm to table food share and works throughout the book to teach the arm how to preform human functions. The idea that a robotic arm is learning how to crack an egg at a farmers market is both comical and interesting. On the one hand, you have an environment where people are interested in a more analog environment, one where the idea of hand crafted/organic is valued. On the other hand, the novelty of the robotic arm helping bake Sourdough is unique and exciting. This blending of future technology with craftsmanship is similar to the idea of selling machine made socks at a craft fair. True, it’s hard to handknit enough pairs of socks to sell in a booth (for context it takes me about 16 hours per pair), but can you really compare handknit socks to socks cranked out (literally) on a machine? And if the quality is similar enough, how much do we, should we, care?

The other piece of Sourdough that I’m sure no one will be surprised that I’m pointing out is the love story between Lois and her email pen-pal. I didn’t pick up on it until the end because I thought they were just becoming really good friends. Did the romance need to be there? Could she still have gone abroad if she wasn’t taking a risk on love? I’m not sure the story needed it, and in the end it felt a little forced.

September’s book will be The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung and was discovered while falling down the Goodreads Fantasy suggestion rabbit hole. This book won the first ever Mark Lawrence Self Published Fantasy Blog Off and is promised to have some morally grey characters, let’s check it out together!

Cover art for The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids by Michael McClung.

Amra Thetys lives by two simple rules—take care of business, and never let it get personal. Thieves don’t last long in Lucernis otherwise. But when a fellow rogue and good friend is butchered on the street in a deal gone wrong, she turns her back on burglary and goes after something more precious than treasure: Revenge.

Revenge, however, might be hard to come by. A nightmare assortment of enemies, including an immortal assassin and a mad sorcerer, believe Amra is in possession of The Blade That Whispers Hate—the legendary, powerful artifact her friend was murdered for—and they’ll do anything to take it from her. Trouble is, Amra hasn’t got the least clue where the Blade might be.

She needs to find the Blade, and soon, or she’ll be joining her colleague in a cold grave instead of avenging his death. Time is running out for the small, scarred thief.

June Book Club: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

I have so many positive things to say about this book that I don’t know where to start, so I will start by simply saying: this book was fun. This book was so much fun that I have spent the last month telling everyone who will listen how enjoyable the Ten Thousand Doors of January is. If you’re reading this blog for the first time, and you didn’t join us in reading the Ten Thousand Doors of January, you should seriously consider putting your device down and picking the book up.

To understand one of the reasons that I love this book I think it’s worth taking a second to mention that portal literature (think Alice in Wonderland) has always played a special role in my life. As a kid, I dreamt of my shower drain opening up so that I could dive into the ocean as a mermaid and watched the stars in hopes that Tinkerbell would fly down and take me away to Neverland. The idea that we live in a mundane world but are surrounded by magic makes me so unbelievably happy to this day. So when you consider the idea that there are thousands of doors in the world that are open and just waiting to be discovered, it’s hard to imagine a world where I do not love this book.

The portal piece of this book is well done, but when you strip that piece of the story away it’s still a phenomenal story. January is a young girl living in Vermont during a time when young girls didn’t have many options in the world. She is the ward of a wealthy caretaker who is more interested in keeping her as part of his collection (both because she is mixed race and because she comes from another world) than in building her up to be the woman she is meant to be. In fact, the most painful transformation that occurs in the book is when January realizes that she needs to act a specific way in order to be loved and accepted, especially because her skin color doesn’t match those that are around her. She almost has to be extra well behaved, a societal pressure that worked well with this story.

And then he sends her to an asylum in an attempt to keep her safe and prevent her from thinking about doors. How on earth do you convince someone that you’re not crazy when you’ve been labeled as crazy? How do you behave in a way that convinces people that you are not a danger to yourself when everything that you do seems to confirm what they believe. How do you hold onto who you are while also conforming so that you are able to succeed? Although January wasn’t in the asylum for very long, I enjoyed watching her work through these questions while trying to keep herself safe.

Safety is an interesting theme within this book because it’s almost as if January is telling you that you can be safe or you can be yourself. True, sometimes there is safety in being yourself, but more often than not you need to put yourself out there in order to get what you want. This goes against all of the teachings that January has absorbed over the years and we see it pronounced the strongest when she eventually leaves her parents to write her own story.

I also want to take a moment to discuss the idea of a story within a story, because this writing technique was executed in a way that allowed me as a reader to escape further into January. I too felt comforted as she read the story in the asylum. I too felt overwhelmed when I discovered that her father wrote each word and that it was real. True, I still struggled to sympathize with his motivations, but it made me understand who he was and what his intentions were.

According to this story, love literally spans worlds waiting for you to come home again. Thought I didn’t need January to fall in love because I was rooting for her to reunite with her family, I didn’t mind it either.

I’ve only seen one episode of the Netflix series a few months ago, but that’s moreso because my partner isn’t interested in watching with me. Next month we’ll be reading the Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevisand and allowing ourselves to fall down the chess rabbit hole that caused so many games to sell out this past fall. Mostly, I’m wondering if I’ll want to pick up Alice In Wonderland when the story is over.

Cover art for the queen's gambit by Walter Tevis

When she is sent to an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth Harmon soon discovers two ways to escape her surroundings, albeit fleetingly: playing chess and taking the little green pills given to her and the other children to keep them subdued. Before long, it becomes apparent that hers is a prodigious talent, and as she progresses to the top of the US chess rankings she is able to forge a new life for herself. But she can never quite overcome her urge to self-destruct. For Beth, there’s more at stake than merely winning and losing.

May Book Club: Mexican Gothic

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This month we read Mexican Gothic, which won the GoodReads award for Horror in 2020. As I turned the pages of the final chapter, I realized that I wanted more from this book than it was prepared to give me. I wanted to feel the house entangle itself around Noemí, choking her desire to leave, really pushing the boundary between what she saw as real and what wasn’t. Instead, I found myself being told, not shown, what was happening at every turn. Noemí’s cousin was acting funny, but what did that really mean? Sure we were told that she was a girl who believed in romance and fantasy, but the contrast of a girl who seemed to sit inside herself all day wasn’t enough to lead me to believe anything beyond the suspicion of her new husband abusing her.

I wanted more from Noemí’s eventual love interest. Honestly, it probably would have made for a better story if he was playing her all along. Tricking her into trusting him so that he could manipulate the situation. Even still, for Noemí to go from not being interested to the seemingly hundreds of boys throwing themselves at her to a fungus enthusiast seemed a bit forced. Just for fun, imagine if there hadn’t been a love interest at all…

I didn’t understand why everyone in the house was so terrible to Noemí and her cousin… surely they could have had more of a sickly sweet tone about them to entice Noemí into staying and use their false kindness to hide what they were really doing. It would have made the eventual betrayal worse.

The next important thing to bring up here is the setting. Despite taking place in Mexico, the bulk of the story takes place in an English Manor. On the one hand, this is a setting that I’ve come to know and love about horror novels and the setting of our story is more or less based on a real place. On the other hand, it’s a little unclear to me what made this story “Mexican” because it reads as though it could have taken place in England. Now, I didn’t live in Mexico during the 1950s, but perhaps there should have been more of a contrast between the manor and the world that Noemí new? Or perhaps the lack of contrast was the point because of the relationship between the house, the town and the mushrooms? Is it even fair of me to want more here?

Speaking of Mushrooms, I actually really like the idea that a fungus growing on a dead body can lead to such horrifying events. Fungi are so resilient, the idea that eternal life can be found in a mushroom if provided the right conditions is really cool! It also plays on the “whatever you do, don’t eat anything” rule that tends to go hand in hand with supernatural. Again, it would have been nice to have spent more time on this idea and to have been shown rather than told.

Finally, I wish that the first two thirds of the book read like the last third of the book. As one of my friends pointed out to me when we were discussing our feelings, “It goes from nearly Gothic Romance, with bits of ‘Oh these people are hiding a terrible secret’ to ‘Body horror and super haunted house’ within about a single page.”

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this book as well! Where my expectations too high? Do you disagree with me on anything?

Next month, we’re going to step into The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. The description and title make me long to reread Alice and Wonderland, I love a good portal literature story.

Cover art for The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
The Ten Thousand Doors of January

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.

March Book Club: The Bride Test

Cover art for The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang

The Bride Test was one of those books that fell into my lap (aka reading mood) at the right time. This is one of those books that would not have worked as well if Helen Hoang (the author) didn’t have Asperger’s Syndrome herself; her characters would have lacked the authenticity that goes hand in hand with fundamentally understanding a different way of experiencing the world.

And we are talking a different way of experiencing the world. Khai’s feelings toward getting a haircut and being touched correctly were a friendly reminder of some of the little things that I take for granted. Without this insight into Khai’s world, it would have been hard to truly understand his hesitancy around intimacy and how one wrong touch could ruin everything.

Speaking of intimacy, it was a little comical to be inside Khai’s mind when he thought he was doing a great job and then to witness the discussion between himself, his brother and cousin. When Khai’s family said that they should have prepared them better, I couldn’t help but think about my own first time and how unprepared I was for it.

I loved that this conversation (and the books that Khai were given) translated into better communication between Khai and Esme. It was a moment that made both parties realize that without telling the other what feels good, they had no way of knowing. No one is a mind reader and, no matter what your views are, intimacy should be an act between two people where they both participate. It should never be something that is just done to you (which should really be a part of the conversation when everyone gets the “birds and the bees” chat).

Was anyone else surprised when no one batted an eye about her existing? After all, Esme spent the summer living with Khai and working with his family. It’s hard to believe that everyone was that accepting, though it was nice to see.

I also have mixed feelings about Khai’s brother constantly saying that he was interested in Esme as a way to trick Khai into evaluating his feelings. On the one hand, he obviously knows Khai very well and was confident that the correct “result” would be recognized. On the other hand, I think he would have gone through with everything if Khai didn’t act…

Our next book for book club will be Reverie, by Ryan La Sala. Reverie came onto my radar back in November because it was my library’s “Next big read” or the ebook that you could borrow without putting a hold on it no matter how many people had it checked out. I have a habit of having three or four books checked out at a time, so I added it to my to read list. Where it has patiently waited for less books to be on my plate.

Cover art for Reverie by Ryan La Sala
Reverie by Ryan La Sala

All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember how he got there, what happened after, and why his life seems so different now. And it’s not just Kane who’s different, the world feels off, reality itself seems different.

As Kane pieces together clues, three almost-strangers claim to be his friends and the only people who can truly tell him what’s going on. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident. And when a sinister force threatens to alter reality for good, they will have to do everything they can to stop it before it unravels everything they know.

This wildly imaginative debut explores what happens when the secret worlds that people hide within themselves come to light.