My Thoughts on “The Dark Archive” by Megan Rosenbloom

A few months ago I picked up The Dark Archive by Megan Rosenbloom. I’m a big fan of morbid medical histories, and when I saw its lovely cover I knew I had to borrow it from my local library. Like any good nonfiction book, it taught me things and got me thinking.

This book is a deep dive into the curious study of books bound in human skin or “anthropodermic bibliopegy.” It’s a fascinating book that goes into the methodology of distinguishing real human skin books from other animal leather books, the history of how these books came about, and the eccentric characters who made and collected them.

 What really resonates with me as a librarian and history nerd are the discussions around the ethics of preserving or destroying such controversial material. I fall into the camp of thinking all history is worth preserving. Destroying what we find distasteful is the same as trying to destroy the past. We can’t reckon with things that we no longer have evidence for. This is especially important to me a black woman living in these United States.

Human skin books bring up uncomfortable questions for the medical profession. Most collectors were physicians in the 19th century who also provided the material leather from the corpses they managed to (ahem) acquire. In most of these cases, they were deceased patients or cadavers dug up by the local resurrectionist through unsavory means. These bodies are often unnamed, forever unknown. Their DNA was processed and scraped out of what remained of them. But still they remain, these nameless people immortalized against their will, their skin viewed as simple material to increase the value of their own collection. Their value remains in the illicit nature of these acquisitions, not the life they lived or who they were.

I like books that make me think. Medical history and its adjacent studies tend to do it for me. They make me question how things are.

If you want a good history lesson on this morbid medical topic, I say you should definitely give this one a read.

So Currently…In a book club

I joined a book club. I attended my first meeting back in April.

As the cloud of the pandemic (very) slowly disperses, I found myself wanting to connect with people again. These last two years made my general reluctance to interact with people develop into a halting hesitation fraught with perils. I wanted to take steps to combat this fear. To connect with people with mutual cause and interest.

I did try a few online book clubs but I could never commit to them. It was so easy to just not open up the video conference app. I needed to get out and go to a place. To make it an obligation that I put time, energy, and mileage into so I looked at a few book groups at my local library and picked one.

I chose the group based on the book title they were going to discuss. The first ended up being the Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. It’s a very thought-provoking book that I may talk about in more detail in another post. I was excited to talk about it.

But this was my first ever book group. Outside of school, I never sat down with a group of people to discuss my general thoughts on books so I was very nervous for the first meeting. I’m a bit embarrassed by the number of mini-pep talks I had to give myself before I made my way out the door to the library.

And…it was really fun! No one was more shocked than I was. I love hearing people talk with passion about an experience we all shared. I even shared a thought or two of my own which felt really empowering. I knew I would go again.

This book club is introducing me to titles that I would never pick up on my own. Here are some selections if you’re at all curious. I may talk about each of these at some length in future posts.

The Monster of Elendhaven

The Thing didn’t know who he was or where he came from. But in time he knew other things. How to steal, how to blend into the shadows, how to kill easy with the flick of his wrist. A genuine monster who couldn’t be killed. He called himself Johann, the monster of Elendhaven. 

This monster is drawn to the last of an old family, Florian Leikenbloom. He’s a sorcerer with a dark past and darker intentions. Together they seek revenge for the city.

I was first drawn to this book by its cover. I like a good monster story and this book hooked me instantly. It also didn’t disappoint. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht is a dark fantasy. It was dark, beautiful, and grotesque in all the right ways.

This novella packs so much into its 159 pages. It brings forth a lush fantasy world in Elendhaven, isolated in the north by a churning black sea rife with seals and monsters. It’s a society build up and cursed by industry. A rot fermenting deep in its waters and boiling up in plague. 

The characters were also really enjoyable. I liked how twisted the main characters were and how their darknesses feed off each other. I enjoyed every page.

My only complaint is that I wish this book was longer. I would’ve loved to see more of them and more about its magic systems. 

My Rating:

[Goodreads Summary]:

The city of Elendhaven sulks on the edge of the ocean. Wracked by plague, abandoned by the South, stripped of industry and left to die. But not everything dies so easily. A thing without a name stalks the city, a thing shaped like a man, with a dark heart and long pale fingers yearning to wrap around throats. A monster who cannot die. His frail master sends him out on errands, twisting him with magic, crafting a plan too cruel to name, while the monster’s heart grows fonder and colder and more cunning.

These monsters of Elendhaven will have their revenge on everyone who wronged the city, even if they have to burn the world to do it.

Prosper's Demon

Prosper’s Demons by K. J. Parker is a curious little novella. It got a lot of things right for me.

The narrator is a morally gray exorcist of demons. Demons in this Renaissance-esque landscape possess people and make them do terrible things. Exorcist don’t negotiate. They do what they need to to extract them. It hurts the demons a lot but the results in the death of the possessed. There’s little room for doubt in these matters.

I’m a big fan of an emotionally questionable protagonist. The narrator of this story was witty and uncompromising in his duties. But the narrative seems to challenge him in the character of Prosper of Schanz who’s possession promises to bring some good to the human race. At least in the short term. Seeing him debate this with the spirit proper was some one the highlights of the book. That and his acerbic wit.

But that narrator also hurts the book, strangely enough. The reader is set firmly in his thoughts. The world wasn’t as explored as I would’ve liked and the spirits, Them, are hard to picture. That’s the point to a certain extent but they never really have any narrative weight due to how the narrator talks about Them.

I feel like I would’ve enjoyed the story if we were just one step outside his head. I want to get arm deep in this world but the narrator’s perspective never gives me a chance to relish the detail. I ultimately thought it was an OK book for this reason.

My Rating:

Book Summary:

The unnamed and morally questionable narrator is an exorcist with great follow-through and few doubts. His methods aren’t delicate but they’re undeniably effective: he’ll get the demon out — he just doesn’t particularly care what happens to the person.

Prosper of Schanz is a man of science, determined to raise the world’s first philosopher-king, reared according to the purest principles. Too bad he’s demonically possessed.

The Hunger

Though I love reading history, I’ve only occasionally dipped my toe in the realm of historical fiction. I’ve got nothing against the genre. I’m just quicker to pick up a nonfiction book delving into the topic than a fictionalized one.

But The Hunger by Alma Katsu, proved to be quite the treat.

I find the story of the Donner Party fascinating. The Donner Party is the true frontier horror story of a family caravan, hope set on starting anew in California, finding themselves trapped in the wilderness and the terrible winter of 1846-1847. As their supplies dwindle, people start dying of hunger and quickly turn against each other for survival. In the end, they’re forced to cannibalize members of their own party.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The human eating is a bit overblown in the collective imagination of this history compared to the true horror of being in a situation that you can’t escape. The animal in us lashes out when found in that corner. If you want to learn more, one book I highly recommend is The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis. It’s a near 500 book tome but the history is woven into a rich narrative that’s worth all the paper.

 It’s interesting exploring how Manifest Destiny gets corrupted by greed and how the hope turns in on itself. 

The Hunger by Alma Katsu explores these things and more. She takes a few liberties with the historical account but her choices breathes life into these characters.  Each character is escaping from something. Whether that be a certain situation or a dark secret. They pin their hopes on California to do away with their sins but they quickly realize there’s no escaping them.

There’s also a thrilling supernatural bent to the narrative. I won’t spoil too much but let’s just say there be monsters. I think the most compelling thing I found was how people are so quick to turn on each other and how strife ends being the main reason why most of the cast dies off. 

This was a brilliant horror story, dripping in dread. 

My Rating:

4 stars

[Goodreads Summary]

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?” 

Opposite of Always

Time Loops & Paradoxes, oh my!

At my job, I’ve been challenged to read middle-grade and young adult novels for some friendly competition. In these last few weeks, I’ve read a ton of interesting titles. I tend to pick up books that obviously has its heart on its sleeve (I Wish You All the Best) or something with a rather quirky high concept. 

Enter The Opposite of Always.

I love when a narrative plays with time. It’s why I’m such a diehard for Doctor Who and Russian Doll. But that’s not all The Opposite of Always is. If that were the case, I would find the narrative tedious as the reader is forced to see the same events over and over again. 

Jack King falls in love. He has the most amazing months with Kate Edwards but then she dies. But then he gets another chance to save her when he travels back to the moment they met on the stairs. 

Each step back in narrative provides another layer to the story. There’s the love story. There’s Jack’s friendships with Jillian and Franny. There’s Jack’s unrequited feelings for Jillian. There’s Franny’s relationship with his father. There’s Jack’s obsession in getting it right. When he thinks he gets it right, he fails in other ways time and time again. Seeing how Jack’s decisions influence these events and his relationships kept me hooked into the story. 

Now, was there a bit of tedium. I can’t deny that. Though each loop was different, we did end up going through some of the same events. This book could’ve been 50 pages shorter admittingly. 

But the heart of this story, Jack’s love for Kate and his willingness to do anything to set things right kept me reading. He’s not perfect. He makes a ton of mistakes. But seeing him push through and how ardent he feels about all the people close to him just had me cheering for him.

My Rating:

[Goodreads Summary:]

When Jack and Kate meet at a party, bonding until sunrise over their mutual love of Froot Loops and their favorite flicks, Jack knows he’s falling—hard. Soon she’s meeting his best friends, Jillian and Franny, and Kate wins them over as easily as she did Jack.

But then Kate dies. And their story should end there.

Yet Kate’s death sends Jack back to the beginning, the moment they first meet, and Kate’s there again. Healthy, happy, and charming as ever. Jack isn’t sure if he’s losing his mind.

Still, if he has a chance to prevent Kate’s death, he’ll take it. Even if that means believing in time travel. However, Jack will learn that his actions are not without consequences. And when one choice turns deadly for someone else close to him, he has to figure out what he’s willing to do to save the people he loves.

On The Come Up [Review]

 

On the Come Up

On the Come Up is a coming-of-age story about Bri who wants to make a name for herself in the rap game like her father, Lawless. She stands out in her first rap battle and a song that propels her into infamy. And between all that, she and her family find themselves struggling to make ends meet as she gets swept up in an incident involving racial profiling at her school.

On the Come Up is an excellent follow-up for Angie Thomas. I didn’t think I would like this one as much as I liked The Hate U Give but I was pleasantly surprised. The book tackles some of the same themes of poverty, discrimination, negative stereotypes and the tightrope many black and brown kids have to walk in inner-city communities.

The book does an excellent job illustrating the inherent poetry of rap, showing Bri’s process of coming up with rhyme and flow. Bri wants to make it and feels like she must compromise aspects of herself to make it in the rap world. This is a running theme throughout the book. Bri is labeled many things– a drug dealer, hoodlum, ratchet, loud black woman–which are forced upon her by people outside herself. Bri knows she isn’t any of these things. She can be headstrong and quick to anger but based on these universal traits, she’s labeled as something to suit the interest and biases of others.

“So who are you?”

“What?”

“Who are you?” [Jay] repeats. “Of the millions and billions of people in the world, you’re the only one who can answer that. Not people online or at your school.”

The book deftly tackles what it means to be yourself. This is especially powerful for people of color who sometimes find themselves trying to avoid definitions imposed by others and society at large. I loved the nuance that Thomas uses to tackle this struggle.

I wholeheartedly loved this book!

My Rating

4 stars

[Goodreads Summary]:
Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s homage to hip-hop, the art that sparked her passion for storytelling and continues to inspire her to this day. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; of the struggle to become who you are and not who everyone expects you to be; and of the desperate realities of poor and working-class black families.

I Thought I Was Cheated An Ending

There be spoilers, however, slight below. You’ve been warned!

I was tempted to be upset with All the Boys I’ve Loved Before when I finished it. The book just ends with no major resolution to love plot line.

After a good day of stewing, I took a step back and asked myself, ‘What was the point of the book?’ Not in a derisive way but in a general curious way. What did the author want to accomplish or what was supposed to shine through for the characters? Was the point for Lara Jean to end up with someone or was it something more than that. I reflected on how she changed over the course of the narrative and whether her main narrative still works without tying up this important knot.

Lara Jean lives in a world of fantasy. She has fanciful ideas of love and romance. She writes love letters to dispel crushes, locking her feeling away with pen and paper and a vintage hat box. But over the course of the narrative, her notions of love are complicated. When her deepest feelings are revealed to those boys of the past, they’re dredged up again. This is further complicated by her relationship with her older sister, Margot, the reality of hour relationships change and evolve, high school politics–the works! It’s through this whirlwind of events that she snags herself a ‘pretend’ boyfriend to ward off another. She gets to know her heart and the complexities therein.

The ending, in this context, makes sense. Lara Jean ends the book with a vague sadness. During the time of beginnings that is the New Year, she couldn’t explain why she was sad to her younger sister, Kitty. During the course of the narrative, Lara Jean emotionally matured. And that maturity leads to the inevitable truth that nothing ever lives up to fantasy. Doesn’t make it any less amazing or beautiful in its own way but it does disabuse you of notions of the perfect romance and happily ever after.

I used to tell myself that I just wasn’t into romance novels, movies, etc. But All the Boys I’ve Loved Before made me root for a romance that was fraught and made me sad that I didn’t get it. The book recognizes the bittersweetness of relationships, not just romantic ones. It made me crave more and that is the ultimate compliment I could give to a book, nay, any piece of media.

Furyborn [Review]

Furyborn is a 2017 YA dark action/adventure novel by Claire Legrand. When two queens rise, the gate will fall. The story is told from two perspectives. There’s Rielle, a girl from Celdaria gifted with the power to control all the elements. After causing the fire that killed her mother when she was five years old, her father and a young member of the church, Tal, teach her how to hide and control it. One thousand years in the future, Eliana is living under the tyranny of the Undying Empire. She’s the Dread of Orline, a bounty hunter for the empire who tracks down its enemies. She’s skilled with a blade and a body that can heal from most damage. The story switches between their perspectives through the onset of war, rebellion, and self-discovery.

There are a ton of things I love about this book. I love how Legrand writes her characters. They were complex in ways that I haven’t encountered in a long time. Rielle and Eliana are the “heroes” of their respective narratives but they also deeply flawed and deeply human. Rielle, as she tries to earn the designation of the Sun Queen, tries to show herself as noble, pious, and in control to inspire her people as the threat of war looms over them. But she’s also impulsive and has an underlying darkness that tempts her towards vengeance and murder. Eliana describes herself as, first and foremost, a killer. She does what she has to do to survive and buries any feelings of compassion or guilt for her actions to prevent them from swallowing her. Even when faced with the consequences of her actions, she shows little remorse and even lashes out. The plot of both of these storylines hinges on the ascendency of a Sun Queen who will guide their people to light, and the Blood Queen who will bring ruin. They’re either one or the other. Perhaps both?

My main complaint with this story is that this story drags in a few places. When switching back and forth between both Rielle’s and Eliana’s perspectives, the stakes at times aren’t quite even. The trials are a good example of this. I found myself asking why these trials were important. They seemed more padding than anything. I was acutely aware that this story was the first part of a trilogy. Enough of a story to entice but not enough to satisfy. This wasn’t a major issue to my enjoyment of the overall narrative however and actually made me curious where the story would go.

Overall, I quite loved this story. I say pick up this book if you want to read a kickass story with lots of high action, high stakes, and an interesting cast of characters that experience it all.

My Rating

4 stars