Empire of the Vampire – Jay Kristoff

Oh, vampires. Unless you sparkle, you’re my favourite fantasy creature. It’s hard to find books about vampires with any real bite, y’know. I enjoyed Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and Christopher Buehlman’s The Lesser Dead, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to enjoy a 700+ page high fantasy novel about vampires. The first in a series, no less! Because 700+ pages. And fantasy. Not really two things that make my very-much-still-beating bookish heart pitter pat. I was gifted a copy of Jay Kristoff’s novel Empire of the Dead last Christmas and it seemed like a good time to take a crack at it because I am now on holiday.

Gabriel de Leon is a Silversaint. What’s that you might well ask? Silversaints are paleblood’s (half vampire) who have taken a vow to protect the church and the realm from coldbloods, full-on vampires. At fifteen, Gabriel was whisked away from his home to San Michon, a holy place where he is trained in the art of killing vampires.

I do here vow; Let the dark know my name and despair. So long as it burns, I am the flame. So long as it bleeds, I am the blade. So long as it sins, I am the saint. And I am silver.

When the story begins, Gabriel is a prisoner of Margot Chastain, Undying Empress of Wolves and Men. Chastain’s historian, Marquis Jean-Francois, has joined Gabriel in his cell to “gather all knowledge of [his] order.”

The conversation between Gabriel and Jean-Francois provides the structure for the story the Silversaint tells. It bounces back and forth in time and introduces a cast of characters, many of whom readers will fall madly in love with (including a lioness, a horse and a sword. Not joking.) As for Gabriel: he’s cynical, foul-mouthed, loyal and brave. He’s the hero of the tale, but he’s imperfect, for sure. He’s also likeable.

I wouldn’t have necessarily said that I read fantasy, but according to this definition from Book Riot, I guess I do:

The basic defining tenet of high fantasy is that a fantasy story is set in an alternative fictional world, typically with magical elements. High fantasy is sometimes called epic fantasy, and some of the hallmarks of this subset of the fantasy genre include a high page count, lots of characters, usually a quest, and, most importantly, an alternative or secondary world as opposed to the real or primary world. With high fantasy, there are usual global stakes involved—you know, good versus evil, saving the world, and all that.

In any case, I read enough to understand the world building and the mention of mythical creatures. It’s easy to spot the nods to Tolkien, Martin, Malory, Christianity, Beowulf, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is clear that Kristoff is a reader, and books and their myriad joys are mentioned on more than one occasion.

As an English teacher, I could easily identify the hero’s journey and so I was able to anticipate some of the twists. I probably don’t read enough fantasy to know whether Kristoff’s novel is cream of the crop or not though, but by my metric it’s great.

I’ve read some reviews that complained about the novel’s pacing. That wasn’t a problem for me. I read this book in a week and I very much looked forward to picking it up whenever I had the chance. There was lots of gory action and well-written fight scenes. There were lots of funny moments and also some truly heart-breaking moments.

I would suspect that when you are creating a world, lots of exposition is necessary – but I never felt as though Kristoff wasted time with backstory. Readers were dropped into a fully-realized world and I wasn’t too concerned with who everyone was beyond who is good and who is most definitely not. I have no clue how Kristoff managed to keep all the characters and the rules of this world straight, but it felt like a real enough place to me.

Books need stakes and Empire of the Vampire has them. The world has been dark for almost three decades, and part of this story is when Gabriel runs into someone from San Michon who claims they have found something that can finally bring an end to the darkness. Gabriel is on a vengeance mission, but he agrees to accompany the group. Cue the bloodshed.

If I have one niggle about the story, it’s the expletive-heavy insults like “you fuck-eyed little pig dick” and “fuck you, you little shitgrubber.” There’s a lot of swearing in this book. A lot a lot. I swear a fair bit myself, so when I notice it in fiction it’s past the annoying phase.

Still, I have to say that I had fun reading Empire of the Vampire far more than I expected I would. It’s the first book in a series and while I am generally pretty lazy about keeping up with series, I will definitely be spending more time with Gabriel de Leon.

Orbiting Jupiter – Gary D. Schmidt

I’m not sure if award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt’s 2015 novel Orbiting Jupiter is supposed to be Young Adult or Middle Grade, but either way it’s a terrific albeit heart-wrenching tale which I read in one sitting.

Jack is just 12 when Joseph, 14, comes to live on his family’s organic farm in Maine because his parents have a reputation for successfully fostering difficult kids.

…he won’t wear anything orange. He won’t let anyone stand behind him. He won’t let anyone touch him. He won’t go into rooms that are too small. And he won’t eat canned peaches.

[…]

“He has a daughter.”

Despite his troubled past, Joseph is not a delinquent. It is clear he’s been dealt a shitty hand, but his quiet determination soon wins over his foster family as well as a couple teachers at his school. Honestly, it was impossible not to like Joseph, which is what makes the story so tragic.

Another reason to like this novel is Jack. Although he is younger than Joseph and certainly far less experienced, his hopefulness and loyalty to his new ‘brother’ grounds the novel. He catalogues the times Joseph smiles (or almost smiles) and is constantly reminding Joseph that his name is Jack not Jackie, but their banter and their silences is certainly indicative of two boys who care for each other.

Orbiting Jupiter is a thoughtful, quiet and heart-breaking book and I highly recommend it.

Dark Rooms – Lili Anolik

As far as metaphors go, the dark rooms of Lili Anolik’s impressive debut Dark Rooms is apt. This is the story of Grace Baker whose younger sister, Nica, is found murdered in the cemetery which borders Chandler Academy, the private boarding school the sisters attend in Hartford Connecticut and where their parents are teachers.

Nica’s death leaves Grace reeling. Over-shadowed by Nica’s vivacious, doesn’t-give-a-shit personality in life, she now buckles under the weight of her death. She just wanted to “go to sleep [to escape] that total exhaustion, where even my face was numb, and none of the talk matter[ed] anyway because she was already dead dead dead.”

Someone is quickly blamed for Nica’s death, but when Grace discovers evidence which might actually exonerate him, she begins to dig deeper into her sister’s life.

Nica’s death sends ripples into Grace’s life. Her parents’ marriage falls apart and her mother leaves. Grace’s friends – well, Nica’s friends, including her boyfriend, Jamie (for whom Grace has feelings that perhaps cross the line of friendship) – rally around Grace, yet “there was a tension, a hostility even.” Grace escapes to college after graduation, but that’s a disaster, too.

A brand-new life was settling around me. It was ugly and it was empty. but I was okay with it because, thanks to the drugs, I wasn’t really in it. Not really being in it, however, had its consequences.

When she returns home, she gets a job at Chandler and starts to unravel the story of her sister. She soon discovers that nothing in her life is as it seems.

Dark Rooms is a well-written, mystery with some interesting twists. Although the main character is barely out of high school, I wouldn’t call this YA, really, although I did read it from my classroom library. There’s a lot goin on and a lot of characters to keep track of, but I enjoyed my time with Grace (well, maybe ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word) and I would definitely read more by this author.

Seven Days in June – Tia Williams

I flew through the first 100 pages of Tia Williams’s novel Seven Days in June. Was this going to be 2022’s The Paper Palace? I wondered.

Nope.

Eva Mercy is the author of the best selling erotica series Cursed. She’s a single mom living with her 12-year-old daughter Audre in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Except for the fact that the fifteenth installment of her witch – in – love – with – a – vampire series is due on her publisher’s desk in a week and she’s run out of steam, she has a fabulous life. Well, she does suffer from debilitating migraines and she does have a complicated relationship with her mother, Lizette. But otherwise, life’s good.

Then, there’s Shane Hall, reclusive award winning author who now spends his time trying to mentor at-risk youth, giving them the support he never had as a kid. He’s recently sober and as part of his recovery, he feels there is one wrong he has to right and it concerns Eva.

He decides the best thing to do is ambush her – after fifteen years – at the State of the Black Author event.

When a horror-movie character sees a ghost, she emits a bloodcurdling shriek. Claws at her cheeks. Runs for her life. Eva was trapped onstage in broad view of New York’s literary community, so she did none of those things. Instead, her hands went completely slack, and her microphone slipped to the floor with a heavy thunk.

For Eva, this was “the moment she’d always feared” but also “the moment she’d always anticipated.” Although he is still devastatingly beautiful – because of course he is – seeing him again shoots Eva straight back to twelfth grade, which is the last time she’d seen him.

Look, I have zero complaints about well-written romance novels. There was lots to like about Seven Days in June. I liked that it was set in NYC; I liked the fandom aspect of Eva’s novels; I liked Audre even though she sounded more like a grown-ass woman than a twelve year old.

Once Eva and Shane are reunited, it’s just a sex romp, really because – sure – two hot thirty-somethings are going to get “groiny” with one another because they have chemistry and feelings and history. But where’s the tension?

Their week together as high school seniors was meant to be some big meeting of the souls, but it was mostly a drug and alcohol fueled week crashing in someone’s empty mansion. I mean, is that the stuff epic romances are made of? Something happened that week, but it’s explained with a phone call. That was one of my issues with this book, actually, all the plot points that just felt like a way for the story to pivot. Ty. Eva’s family ring. For me, the book tried too hard to be more than the sum of its parts.

Seven Days in June is a sometimes funny, decently-written romance about two beautiful people who have sex. A lot. It is not ground-breaking.

Writers & Lovers – Lily King

From my vantage point, a 31-year-old college grad should have it all together. Of course, that’s a ridiculous assumption to make especially given that the last thing I was when I was that age was together.

Casey, the first-person-narrator of Lily King’s novel Writers & Lovers, lives in what is essentially a potting shed, hiding from the creditors who are after her for defaulted student loans, desperately trying to finish the novel she’s been working on for the past six years, and trying to come to terms with the sudden and devastating loss of her mother.

Casey is aware that she is “not the youngest kind of adult anymore.” She has a crap job at Iris, a restaurant located on the third floor of a building owned by Harvard. She doesn’t get the best shifts and is shafted by her co-workers who are always “making sure everything is to their advantage.” Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry will recognize the hierarchy and kitchen shenanigans as King has written them here.

I look beat up. like someone who has gotten ill and aged a decade in a few months. I look into my eyes, but they aren’t really mine, not the eyes I used to have. They’re the eyes of someone very tired and very sad, and once I see them I feel even sadder and then I see that sadness, that compassion, for the sadness in my eyes, and I see the water rising in them. I’m both the sad person and the person wanting to comfort the sad person.

Working at Iris isn’t the only thing sucking the life out of Casey though. Shortly after her mother died unexpectedly, she went to a writer’s retreat and met Luke. It ended badly. Casey has been struggling with the double loss ever since.

King’s novel is a coming-of-age story, really. It is a story of the difficulties of navigating life when you are stuck, as Casey most decidedly is. Enter Silas and Oscar, two different men who offer two different opportunities. I very much enjoyed her journey, even though she seemed very young. I suppose I was once, too.

Sex/Life – BB Easton

I watched the Netflix series Sex/Life when it first came out — oh, who am I kidding, I’ve watched it more than once — and so when I came across the book on which the series is based, I thought – the book is always better so I purchased it.

BB Easton’s memoir Sex/Life: 44 Chapters about 4 Men has very little in common with the Netflix series, though. While the series actually traces one woman’s very realistic mid-life crisis (and I don’t even know whether or not it’s fair to call it that because although she’s married with two kids, she looks like she couldn’t possibly be older than 35. Still – she’s definitely having a crisis), the memoir recounts the story of the author’s sexual awakening with four different men – one of whom is now her husband. None of the other three could realistically be the Brad of the series.

One thing the book and the series have in common is that, like the series, the author is looking for a way to kickstart her married sex life. She loves her husband, he is “at least ninety percent perfect” and although he is gorgeous, and kind, a wonderful father and provider, “self-deprecating and tolerant of [her] bullshit” – he’s kind of boring in the sack. In fact, he is often not interested in sex, like, at all.

This is what compels Easton to do a deep dive into her sexual past, and these reminiscences end up in a journal which her husband discovers and reads, and which seems to kickstart his libido. That’s also like the series. (Except in the series, she’s mostly talking about Brad and none of the three dudes she talks about in this memoir are him – at least I don’t think they are. There’s Knight, a local skinhead she meets when she’s a teen. Knight introduces her to BDSM and body piercings. There’s Harley, the stoner with no brains and a penis tattooed on his head, and there’s Hans, bass player for a local band. Perhaps Brad is some sort of amalgamation of all three of these characters, which is unfortunate because Brad is way more sympathetic than any of these three dudes.)

Easton’s memoir is often funny, definitely raunchy but, strangely, it lacks the introspection of the series. What I appreciated about the series, which did not exist at all in the book, was Billie’s tumble back into her past. She loves her life, but she feels that she is missing something essential – something that makes her feel like herself. I think lots of women can probably relate to that. You’re a mom, and a wife, and especially when your children are young, you make a lot of sacrifices. Billie wants to know why she can’t have it all.

The series is also angsty as hell. Yes, sure, Brad is a “bad boy” and he breaks Billie’s heart – but when he suddenly reappears eight years after their break-up, it detonates a bomb in her life — a bomb that was waiting to go off anyway. I think the series does an exceptional job of walking that line many women traverse. Plus, it’s as steamy as heck.

So, I guess I have to thank Easton for writing Sex/Life as it provided the source material for the series, but the series is just way better, imho.

Every Summer After – Carley Fortune

Persephone “Percy” Fraser is thirteen when her parents decide they want a getaway from their busy lives as U of T professors. Instead of buying a cottage in Muskoka like many of their friends, Percy’s father chooses the less developed Barry’s Bay “a sleepy, working-class village that transformed into a bustling tourist town in the summer.” Barry’s Bay, her father tells Percy is “real cottage country.”

Right next door live the Florek boys, 13-year-old, Sam, and his fifteen-year-old brother, Charlie.

It took eight hours for the Florek boys to find me. […] They were clearly related – both lanky and tanned – but their differences were just as plain. Whereas the older boy was smiling wide, scrubbed clean and clearly knew his way around a bottle of styling gel, the younger one was staring at his feet. a wavy tangle of hair falling haphazardly over his eyes.

This is the beginning of Carley Fortune’s novel Every Summer After, which begins seventeen years after that first summer meeting, and then unspools with a series of flashbacks depicting Percy and Sam’s friendship over the course of six summers, and culminates in something so horrible that they haven’t spoken in twelve years. When Charlie calls Percy to tell her that their mother has died, Percy does the only thing she can do: she returns to Barry’s Bay, even though it means that she must see Sam again.

I hate to poo-poo on a novel that seems to be universally adored, especially a debut and by a Canadian to boot. And besides, I didn’t hate this novel – there were lots of things about the book I loved. So let’s start there.

I loved:

The Canadian setting. I am not familiar with Barry’s Bay (apparently a real life place on Kamaniskeg Lake), but Fortune did a terrific job of evoking a real sense of time and place. Anyone who has ever spent time at a summer house (on a body of water or just away from everyday life) will understand that feeling of time stretching. It’s all water and sand and sunburned noses, and barbecues and endless days.

The childhood friendship between Percy and Sam. Although her mother is reluctant, at first, to let her daughter hang out with Sam, the two are quickly inseparable, bonding over movies and sharing their hopes and dreams. Teenaged Sam and Percy are delightful, and so is their friendship – made official with the ubiquitous friendship bracelets of the time.

The novel’s structure. I am a sucker for novels that jump back and forth between past and present. We know that something horrible happened and we know we’ll eventually find out the reason for the estrangement, but I love a novel that strings us along. For me, the parts of the book that were set in the past were more successful, though.

Which brings me to the bits that weren’t quite as successful for me.

Percy and Sam in the present. It’s Charlie that calls Percy to let her know about his mom and, of course, Percy doesn’t hesitate; of course she will return to Barry’s Bay. When she gets there, though, despite the wedge between her and Sam, he’s pretty much the first person she runs into on her walkabout the town, and for me, that reunion lacked any tension. Honestly, I was expecting angst out the wazoo, but instead

…he takes three giant strides toward me and wraps his arms around me so tight it’s like his large body is a cocoon around mine. He smells like sun and soap and something new that I don’t recognize.

I think we all expect that the couple will end up together, but I sort of also hope that they’re going to have to work at it a little harder than these two do. Their adult conversations (and they’re 30 now; Sam’s a doctor!) are very reminiscent of the conversations they had at 16-17.

And what did Percy do to cause the rift in the first place? Careful readers will figure it out pretty quickly and yes, people make mistakes. It’s just that – they didn’t speak in 12 years. That’s a long time for things to be resolved as quickly and easily as they are.

That’s my only gripe about the book, really. (And some of the writing is kind of Erotica 101-esque.) I would definitely read something else by this author and I would definitely recommend this book if you want a quick, sweet and sometimes steamy beach read.

The Nothing Man – Catherine Ryan Howard

When Eve Black was just twelve, someone broke into her family home in Cork, Ireland and killed her parents and seven-year-old sister, Anna. Nearly twenty years later, she has written a book about the event and its connection to several other unsolved crimes in the hopes that perhaps the perpetrator will finally be caught. That book is The Nothing Man.

Catherine Ryan Howard uses the book within a book format to unspool the story of this “nothing man”, who torments his victims with menacing phone calls before showing up to their houses in the middle of the night. Eve’s true crime account reads exactly like that: a survivor’s story fleshed out with information painstakingly gathered from police reports, and information provided by people closest to the case.

And then there’s Jim Doyle, a just-past-middle-aged security guard who stumbles across the book at the big box grocery store where he works. The book’s existence throws Jim into a tailspin.

Once he knew the book existed, Jim could think of nothing else. It was a ring of fire around him, drawing nearer with each passing moment, threatening to torch every layer of him one by one. His clothes. His skin. His life. If it reached him it would leave nothing but ash and all his secrets, totally exposed.

The biggest secret of all is that he is The Nothing Man. (Not a spoiler.) As he reads the book – or, I should say, as we read the book, Jim becomes more and more unsettled. His crimes stopped after the Black family, but Eve’s book has awakened something in him and it’s an itch Jim has to scratch, but first he needs to know what Eve knows.

The Nothing Man is clever and fun to read, even while it makes the point that our fascination with true crime neglects the impact these events have on the victims and their families. We all know the names of the famous serial killers, but do we remember the names of any of the people whose lives they took?

Although Howard’s book isn’t really a thriller (because we know whodunnit from the beginning), it’s still a page-turner and watching Eve and Jim play their cat-and-mouse game makes for an entertaining read.

Reader, Come Home – Maryanne Wolf

There’s lots of Maryanne Wolf’s book Reader, Come Home, that I did not understand. Y’know, science-y stuff. I read this book, written as a series of letters addressed to readers, with my highlighter in hand and I found it extremely compelling. Wolf is a scientist with a particular interest in how the human brain learns to read and how digital media is impacting our reading lives, in particular, the lives of young readers. As a person who spends a fair amount of time on line, but does the bulk of my reading the old fashioned way, I found her research and observations fascinating. And, of course, as a teacher who is very committed to getting my students to read for pleasure, I found her insights alarming.

Instead of ‘reviewing’ this book, I will just share a few of the many things Wolf offered that either reinforced my own feelings or provided food for thought. Although I didn’t understand a lot of the brain science stuff, Reader, Come Home was accessible and easy to read and I think should be required reading for literacy teachers and anyone else who is at all concerned by the way people consume digital media. That said, Wolf isn’t anti-digital. I think we can all agree that there’s no turning back the clock on the way digital media has taken over our lives. She offers a thoughtful compromise that takes into account our dependence on our smart phones and tablets, and while she isn’t an alarmist necessarily, her research definitely reveals some alarming insights.

Here are just a handful of things Wolf says that gave me pause:

There would be many things that would be lost if we slowly lose the cognitive patience to immerse ourselves in the worlds created by books and the lives and feelings of the “friends” who inhabit them.

*

Without sufficient background knowledge, the rest of the deep-reading proccesses will be deployed less often, leading to a situation in which many people will never move outside the boundaries of what they already know.

*

…the average person consumes about 34 gigabytes across varied devices each day. Basically, that’s the equivalent of close to 100, 000 words a day.

*

…”skimming” is the new normal in our digital reading.

*

…consider the increasing unease of many English professors in universities and in high schools that growing numbers of their students no longer have the “patience” to read literature from the nineteenth century and early half of the twentieth century.

*

I have begun to question the cognitive loss of not being willing, or perhaps in the future, even able to navigate the demands of the complex concepts in denser prose.

*

…student writing is deteriorating [and] we must ask whether current students’ diminishing familiarity with conceptually demanding prose and the daily truncating of their writing on social media is affecting their writing in more negative ways than in the past.

*

In a 2015 RAND report, the average amount of time spent by three-to five-year-old children on digital devices was four hours a day. […] These issues become more intensified for older children, as the hours spent in front of screens double and triple to twelve-plus hours a day among many adolescents.

If you are even remotely interested in the impact of reading in the digital age, Reader, Come Home offers much food for thought. As a reader, I found it both horrifying and reassuring.

Alone Time – Stephanie Rosenbloom

As I contemplate my retirement, I am also thinking about the places I would like to visit – not a bucket list, per se, but a wish list. (Bucket list always sounds so ‘end of days’ to me.) The last time I traveled was pre- pandemic when I went to Italy with three of my best friends. At the end of our time together, I tacked on a week of solo travel, just to see if I would like it. Could I navigate unfamiliar places and enjoy my own company? I wondered.

My selfie game is not strong, I realize. 🙂

Stephanie Rosenbloom’s book Alone Time seeks to answer the very question I was trying to figure out back in 2018. Can I go it alone? Turns out, I could and it was kind of amazing. After two of our party of four headed back to Canada, my friend Sheila and I went from Amalfi to Verona, a city I had always wanted to visit. Then, after she left to return home, I went to Bologna, another Italian city I hadn’t yet been to. After a few days there, I made a pit stop in Paris, a place I had never visited but thought, since my flight was routed through there, I should at least stop off and see the highlights. I fell in love with the city of lights and can’t wait to return.

Rosenbloom had an epiphany about solo travel while on assignment (she’s a journalist) for the Travel section of the New York Times. She was in Paris to write a story called “Solo in Paris.” She could write whatever she wanted.

Each morning I left my hotel in the 9th arrondissement, just east of the apartment where Proust wrote much of Remembrance of Things Past, and didn’t return until I had gone some twenty miles in whichever direction whim and croissants (and olive fougasse and pistachio financiers) took me.

Without having to consider anyone else’s agenda, Rosenbloom was able to see “le merveilleux quotidien” (roughly translated to ‘the marvelous everyday life’). It was this experience that encouraged her to consider more solo travel, and it’s these adventures that she shares in Alone Time.

Over the course of the book, Rosenbloom shares her experiences in Paris (another visit), Istanbul, Florence, and New York. (She’s a New Yorker, but as someone who has played the game of tourist in my own city, I appreciated her home town’s inclusion in the exercise.) Alone Time isn’t just a travel memoir, though. Rosenbloom talks a lot about the benefits of being alone, and of slowing life down to savour the minutiae of everyday life. Without an itinerary, she’s able to go where she pleases and stop when she wants, and that is something that definitely appeals to me.

Alone Time also encourages one to follow their passions. When you travel alone you only have to please yourself. For me, that would probably include visiting all the bookish places and I know that probably isn’t all that exciting to other people. I know that when we were in Amalfi, there was a handmade paper-making museum not too far from where we were staying. It wasn’t interesting to anyone but me, so I went by myself.

I very much enjoyed Alone Time. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that I am introverted at heart. I love people and as a teacher I have no problem standing in front of a class, but I really enjoy quiet time. The older I get, the more I crave time alone with my books and a cup of tea. Rosenbloom’s book appealed to that part of me who, after a lifetime of pleasing others, just wants to please herself. Solo travel is definitely a way to do that.

Rosenbloom calls her book “a love letter to loners, to witches and shamans, to those who cherish their friends, spouses, and partners, yet also want alone time to think, create, have an adventure, learn a skill, or solve a problem.” It’s all that, and more.

Highly recommended.