Backstories by Simon Van der Velde

Dreamers, singers, talkers and killers
; they can dazzle with their beauty or
their talent or their unmitigated evil, but inside themselves they are as frail
and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them?
Can you unravel the
truth?
These are people you know, but not as you know them.
Peel back the mask and see.

Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Backstories will be available on March 25th.

Backstories is smart and enigmatic, encouraging the reader to be involved. Author Simon Van der Velde combines history and fiction to create something entirely different- the surprising stories behind famous figures. Instead of the public persona we all know, the veneer is stripped away to show the utter humanness underneath.

Interestingly, Backstories isn’t set up in any way that is run-of-the-mill. This collection of short stories isn’t a simple “this is their past” sort of book. Instead, it’s a mystery. The reader has to solve the puzzle: who is each story about? I have to be honest and say that a couple stories completely stumped me. It was fascinating to try and match up new details with what is already known about a person. It added a level of realism to what have always been almost unreachable, exaggerated famous (or infamous) people.

The writing is engaging and easy to connect with. It’s quite obvious that author Simon Van Der Velde put a lot of time and research into his book, but he left just enough to the imagination to encourage me to do my own digging. The little Easter eggs that were left throughout were clever and added so much to the story.

I went into Backstories expecting to be entertained. Instead, I was sucked in and ended up being incredibly invested in the “who was” aspect. Expect an engrossing book, one that will keep you guessing.

Where to find Backstories:

Amazon: Backstories

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black

Okay, okay, I admit: I grabbed this book mainly for the cover. It promised mythical, mysterious tales. Plus, it has the pretty illustrations! This book takes place in the world of The Cruel Prince. Reviews for the series: The Cruel Prince/The Wicked King and The Queen of Nothing.

Unfortunately, How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories (referred from here on out to King of Elhame because the full title is bit long) didn’t quite butter my biscuit. Holly Black is a talented author and I think I expected more than what I got.

First of all, it felt a little thrown together. Several of the short stories seemed a bit like scenes that were edited out of the original books. While they were interesting, they didn’t quite seem like full stories to me. Also, any scene involving the sexening and Carden made me dissolve into giggles. He has a tail for crying out loud! Hmm…that might say more about my maturity level than about the book itself. Luckily, I tend to skip sex scenes anyway.

Something that I found interesting (and a little bit of a bummer) was that the stories that were supposed to take place during The Cruel Prince felt a little revisionist. It was really odd because Holly Black wrote with such confidence that I did not expect her to feel the need to change anything. She is a very good writer and I truly hope she knows that.

That being said, I did really enjoy the three stories involving the troll woman. In two of them, she told Carden a different version of the same fairy tale. I liked that they changed based on both Carden’s age and what had been happening in the original series at the time. It showcased Carden’s character development. I won’t ruin anything by talking about the third of the troll woman’s stories. I will just say that I thought it was extremely clever.

The final verdict for me was: the book was not horrible, but it felt unnecessary. However, I am sure that my opinion isn’t the popular one and I would love to hear what you loved about The King of Elfhame and why. Tell me what I missed!

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa Albert

Before The Hazel Wood, there was Althea Proserpine’s Tales from the Hinterland…

Journey into the Hinterland, a brutal and beautiful world where a young woman spends a night with Death, brides are wed to a mysterious house in the trees, and an enchantress is killed twice―and still lives. (taken from Amazon)

The funny thing about The Hazel Wood (and its sequel) by Melissa Albert is that, for me, the best parts weren’t the main storyline. Nope. The best parts were the undeniably eerie fairy tales come-to-life that bled through into the pages of the books. I told my husband that if a collection of Hinterland tales was every published, I’d be super excited to read it. So, of course I had to snag a copy of Tales from the Hinterland!

These completely original fairy tales were about characters that crossed over from the fictional world into the real one in The Hazel Wood books. And they were as creepy as it gets without descending into full-on horror. Let’s just say that the majority of them did not end well for the “hero”. In fact, most of them didn’t have a hero per se. What they did have was a ton of creativity and a darker tone that sent shivers down the spine.

One thing that stood out to me was that the main characters were all female. There were naïve females, clever ones, even evil ones. But males were always in a supporting role. It was an interesting choice. It didn’t change my enjoyment of the book, either positively or negatively; it was just something I noticed.

Another thing that I really liked was that not a single tale seemed even remotely like an existing fairy tale. There were no Beauty and the Beast retellings, and Little Red Riding Hood didn’t make an appearance. The stories were 100% original. It was refreshing to see entirely new ideas (not that I mind a good fairy tale reimagining).

There wasn’t a single story that felt lesser than or out of place. My main complaint, in fact, is that the tone was similar in several tales. I am not even sure if that should be a complaint: that the stories fit well together. Hmm…something to think about.

There were three stories that stood out to me. One was The Door that Wasn’t There, which was equal parts creepy and sad. It’s about two sisters who were locked in a room to starve and what one of them does to survive (no, there’s no cannibalism. Ew!). The feeling that Melissa Albert created in this story was a little bit gothic and a whole lot of unearthly.

The second story that kept me enthralled was The Mother and the Dagger. This felt like your usual tale told to scare kids into coming home before dark- but with a twist that was uncanny and creeptastic. The way this one was written, like someone is talking to you, stood out from the other stories and drew me in. I loved the ending, which had an abrupt finality to it.

Finally, was Twice-Killed Katherine. That character was one of the bits of fairy tales that showed up in The Hazel Wood, and the one that I found the most intriguing. While the story didn’t go the way I expected, it was nonetheless fascinating and really cool to see the backstory the author had for her. That one also felt different in that what was left unsaid could have been stretched and expanded on to create an entirely separate novel in its own right.

Tales from the Hinterland was by far my favorite book that takes place in the Hazel Wood universe (so to speak), even though it’s not a straight-through narrative. It was eerie and intelligent, and definitely not a book to read alone at night. I wouldn’t necessarily call it horror- maybe horror-adjacent. Either way, it was really stinking good.

Small Magic: Short Fiction 1977-2020 by Terry Brooks

Escape to worlds full of adventure and magic in the first-ever Terry Brooks short-story collection, featuring both new and fan-favorite stories from all three of his major literary worlds: Shannara, Magic Kingdom, and The Word and the Void.

Here are heroes fighting new battles and struggling to conquer the ghosts of the past. Here are quests both small and far reaching; heroism both intimate and vast. Here we learn of Garet Jax’s childhood, see how Allanon first located Shea Ohmsford, and follow an old wing-rider at the end of his life. Here we see Knights of the Word fighting demons within and without, and witness Ben Holiday and his daughter each trying to overcome the unique challenges that Landover offers.

This collection of eleven tales is a must-have addition to the Terry Brooks canon—a delightful way to spend time with favorite characters, and a wonderful reminder of what makes a Brooks story such a timeless classic. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Small Magic: Short Fiction 1977-2020 will be available on March second.

Terry Brooks is a giant among fantasy authors. Even if you haven’t read any of his works, chances are you recognize the name. He’s most well known for his Shannara books, although I personally like Magic Kingdom for Sale–Sold! the best. When I was given the opportunity to check out his short fiction collection, I jumped at the chance.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s Terry Brooks! Some of these stories add a new level to already established worlds and characters. His writing skill is on full display and is fantastic, as usual. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read any of his works, and it was fun to catch up.

On the other hand, some of the story additions were just odd. For example, the very first story was written for an anthology by Poul Anderson called Multiverse. It did not really make a lot of sense to make that the very first story, seeing as it was written for someone else’s anthology collection, and it alienated me a bit. If it was going to be in Small Magic, I personally would have preferred to see it pop up later on, after there had been some short stories that took place in worlds created by Terry Brooks.

My favorite story of the collection featured a cantankerous dragon. While I definitely felt that some stories were much better than others, I feel that most Terry Brooks fans will enjoy the collection, even if only for the sense of nostalgia it provides.

I personally didn’t love it as much as I was expecting, but it wasn’t awful. While Small Magic is worth checking out, I strongly suggest reading some of Terry Brooks’ full length fiction first.

Lexcalibur: Useful Poetry for Adventurers Above and Below the World by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik

Useful poetry for adventurers above and below the world from the guys at Penny Arcade. A collection of nerdy poems for adventurers of all ages, written by Jerry Holkins and featuring illustrations by Mike Krahulik. (taken from Amazon)

I was gifted this poetry collection. My friend described it as “Shel Silverstein poems for nerds”, and there’s really no better description. It’s all kinds of nerdy fun!

The poems are generally on the shorter side, and are extremely clever. There’s never that feeling of trying too hard and I found myself chuckling as I read through the book. The poems are engaging enough for children with enough wit and little nods that adults will be just as entertained.

The book covers all things fantasy, ranging from important topics such as were beasts, to concerns about viziers, and complaints about mimics. It’s incredibly obvious that both the author and illustrator are well versed in both the tropes and the lesser-known gems of the fantasy genre. They appreciate all things imaginative and fun.

Lexcalibur is made even better by the inclusion of whimsical and fun illustrations which are scattered throughout. They’re truly delightful and add so much to the book.

I should mention that Lexcalibur can only be found on the Penny Arcade website ( link here, for your convenience). The Penny Arcade comics themselves are meant for adults to enjoy, but this book is all-ages fun. I have heard rumors that there will be a second poetry collection coming before too long. If that’s true, I’m ready to pre-order it.

I loved, loved, loved this collection of poems! If you’re a lover of all things fantastical, you’ll really enjoy Lexcalibur. I’ll leave you with one of the poems:

Irony Lesson

I got a ring, and it makes me invisible.

No one can see me! A marvelous thing!

As I suggested, your eyes have been bested.

Completely invisible.

Except for the ring.

Around the Dark Dial by J.D. Sanderson

Take a trip around the dark dial with eleven original and thought-provoking short stories that invoke the wonder and mystery of old-time radio dramas. Forget all that you know about modern sci-fi. In Around the Dark Dial, it’s all about the unexpected. (taken from Goodreads)

Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

This is a short story collection unlike any other I’ve read. Evoking a sense of the mysterious, each story had an underlying tension that kept me fascinated. Short story collections can be hit or miss for me; this was a definite hit.

Each story provided a unique take on the sci-fi genre. While there were stories featuring common sci-fi features, they were uniquely done in ways that felt fresh and new. There were what seemed to be hidden connections between some of the stories, more common themes than anything else. I enjoyed the thrill I got from seeing how one might be connected to another. Even the way the stories were ordered added to my enjoyment of the collection.

I particularly liked The Simulant for its take on AI. The humanity that author J.D. Sanderson gave to his Simulant was actually very thought-provoking. The ending gave off a sense of paranoia, much like a good thriller can. In fact, Sanderson knows just when to end a tale, leaving plenty of room for the reader to think and wonder, without suddenly dropping the plot. I don’t like books that stop abruptly, but I also am not a huge fan of things being overexplained. Sanderson tread the fine line between the two with skill.

My absolute favorite of the stories, though, was Caller Four. This one revolved around a radio show that covered the topic of alien abductions. The late-night scene, combined with the question of whether the alien encounter was really happening, made for an engrossing read. I loved how the ending brought the story full-circle. This one will definitely stick with me.

If you’re a fan of creative fiction, or if you enjoyed The Twilight Zone, Around the Dark Dial will be right up your alley. I highly suggest giving this one a go!

You can find Around the Dark Dial on bookshop.org (among other places). If you order through my link I’ll get a small kickback. More importantly, you’ll be supporting local bookstores.

For the authors: thank you


I’ll start this post by saying the now overused phrase, it’s been a tough year. I kind of think that’s the unspoken assumption at this point: “I’m doing well” (considering it’s a tough year), or “It’s been a bad day” (in the middle of a tough year). The book community isn’t exempt from the “tough year” unfortunately. I could go into the nitty gritty, but smarter minds than mine have already done that. So, this one is for the authors: you are appreciated.

I know it must be a discouraging time for so many of you, either with news you might have received, or just with life in general. Being an author is not for the faint of heart. You do not have it easy. To take the words in your mind and share them with others requires a massive amount of bravery. It also requires being willing to relinquish a little bit of your vision, knowing that the reader will picture your characters differently in their mind than you do. That takes guts.

This year has been full of changes in schedules, jobs, and lifestyle. There has been worry, and there has been loss. I cannot tell you what a godsend it has been to be able to curl up with a book – either an old friend, or a new discovery – and leave it all behind for a bit. From familiar favorites such as Dragonlance and The Night Circus, to more recent favorites, like The Ventifact Colossus and The Devil and the Dark Water, these books have kept me calm(ish).

Authors, what you do is important. So, so important. You aren’t just writing words on a page. Rather, you are building an escape pod. Your words are reminding us that even though we’re all stuck in our homes bunker-style, we aren’t alone. Good still exists and so does hope, laughter, creativity, new worlds, and mystery.

So, THANK YOU. Thank you for all you do. Keep writing. We’ll keep reading.

With Love,

A Voracious Reader

The Serpent Slayer: And Other Stories of Strong Women by Katrin Tchana, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

This volume is an anthology of 18 stories about heroines with as much courage, wit and intelligence as their more familiar male counterparts. It includes Li Chi, the serpent slayer, and the old woman sly enough to outsmart the devil. (taken from Amazon)

I love a good fairy tale collection, and The Serpent Slayer delivers! As the title suggests, this book highlights female heroes. There are no heroic knights or true love’s kisses. Rather, these women kick butt all on their own.

One of the many things I love about this collection is that the stories come from all over the world. There are tales from Indonesia, China, and India, to name a few. Each one is so original, and very different from the average fairy tale fare. Let me tell you-this book has it all! There are dragons, devils, fey folk, and more.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the illustrations. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators anyway, and she outdoes herself in this book. Everything comes to life and a beautiful and fantastical way. The colors are bright and beautiful, and each illustration strives to capture the place of the story’s origin. The pictures elevate the book from good to freaking amazing!

Obviously, I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fairy tales, especially lesser-known ones. Go ahead and buy it; you’ll want to be able to read this one again and again.

American Fairy Tales by L. Frank Baum

American Fairy Tales by L. Frank Baum, Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy ...

From the vivid imagination of L. Frank Baum, the visionary who created the legendary Wizard of Oz series, comes American Fairy Tales, a collection of 12 modern fables and fantasies. These magnificent stories are doorways into fantastic settings beyond the dreams of most. Baum took us over the rainbow into the wonderful land of Oz; now join him on other fantastic adventures including The Box of Robbers, The Glass Dog, The Queen of Quok, The Girl Who Owned A Bear, The Enchanted Types, The Laughing Hippopotamus, The Magic Bon Bons, The Capture of Father Time, The Wonderful Pump, The Dummy that Lived, The King of The Polar Bears, and The Mandarin and The Butterfly. They are fantastic, one-of-a-kind fairy tales that could only come from the mind of this renowned storyteller. (taken from Amazon)

Confession time! I don’t like the Oz books, and I hate the Wizard of Oz movie. I’ve never had any desire to read anything else by Baum at all. I wouldn’t have even considered picking this collection up, except that it was assigned for my Children’s Literature class. I am so, so glad that it was!

This book is chock full of odd, fun little stories. Each tale has a little “moral” added to the end, which made it so very charming. The stories are short, with just enough detail to leave room for the reader to fill in the gaps. Baum did a wonderful job of writing about the fantastical as if it were everyday experiences he was recounting.

I loved all of the short stories, but my favorite was The King of the Polar Bears. I loved the cross between natural animalistic behavior, and the behavior of a monarch. The way the story ended was perfect. I also really enjoyed The Capture of Father Time. I’ve read several books over the years that involved the capture of Death, but this is the first I’ve read that discussed the ramifications of time standing still. It was such a cool idea!

I was pleasantly surprised by this book and plan to read it again in the future. I recommend this story collection for the young and the young-at-heart.

 

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper - Kindle edition by Gilman, Charlotte Perkins ...

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is told as a series of journal entries written by a woman who has gone to a country manor to recover from what is assumed at this time to be postpartum depression.  Her loving husband, John, follows the recommendation of doctors of the day (he is also a doctor), and sequesters the woman so that she might rest and recover. She is not supposed to exercise or write,  instead letting repose heal her. The woman (whose name is never learned) is not allowed to leave her room, which has yellow wallpaper. As time progresses, the woman becomes convinced that the wallpaper moves and there is someone in the wallpaper trying to get out.

I really can’t accurately describe the creepy feel of this story. While it is ultimately a tale of the deterioration of the woman’s mental state (due to the absolutely absurd treatment of mental illness in the late 1800’s, when this was written), there is an eerie vibe to it. The writing is astounding. I was immediately drawn in. I can see why this story is considered a classic.

When I began the book, I thought it was odd that the color of the wallpaper was such a big deal. However, I soon found that it makes perfect sense. The metaphors found throughout are amazing, conveying the hopelessness the woman felt regarding her situation.

It isn’t a happy-go-lucky story, but it is a compelling one. And the ending! Holy terror, Batman! Gilman’s writing is excellent. I highly recommend reading this story.