Review: ‘Under Rose-Tainted Skies’ by Louise Gornall

Under Rose-Tainted Skies_cover

I’m Norah, and my life happens within the walls of my house, where I live with my mom and this evil overlord called agoraphobia.

Everything’s under control. It’s not rosy — I’m not going to win any prizes for Most Exciting Life or anything, but at least I’m safe from the outside world, right?

Wrong. This new boy, Luke, just moved in next door, and suddenly staying safe isn’t enough. If I don’t take risks, how will I ever get out — or let anyone in?

This book, you guys. It’s the sort of Own Voices diverse book that I often hear about but don’t often seem to read, probably because of my obsession with urban fantasy novels. It is unflinching and in-your-face, told in the first person present tense — the style that gets the reader closest to the thoughts and actions of the protagonist.

Our protagonist is Norah. She has agoraphobia and OCD, suffering debilitating anxiety attacks when she has to leave the house or when things in her environment are out of order. She’s terrified of germs and overthinks things. Like, really overthinks them — and not just the things that most people worry about, but things that might seem tiny in the grand scheme of things but to Norah’s brain are critical. For example, there’s almost an entire page of dialogue where all of Norah’s increasingly anxious thoughts are about how the other person has a piece of hair stuck to their lip.

Norah’s conditions mean pretty much this entire book is set inside her house, and for a lot of that she is alone — but her mind is so busy all the time, and Gornall’s style is so engaging, that I didn’t really notice the lack of variety in the scenery. Occasionally we get glimpses of Norah’s sass, which made me laugh, but my favourite thing was Gornall’s cleverly descriptive use of comparisons, and the way she interweaves Norah’s symptoms (such as picking at scabs or chewing her nails) into the action seamlessly.

Take this example:

A vocal tic rolls up my chest, pushed by pressure, until it flops out of my mouth and I moan like Frankenstein’s monster.

Or this:

His smile sets my kitchen on fire.

I could go on for days with examples (I chose those two by opening the book random), but I want to talk about the “he” in question. Luke is Norah’s new neighbour, and he’s basically the sweetest thing. He decides Norah’s cute when he glimpses her through her bedroom window and soon realises she’s not what he expected — but curiosity, a good heart and an understanding of mental illness due to a family member having it mean that he persists in trying to get to know Norah when she’d probably prefer he didn’t.

Although Luke is possibly slightly too good to be true, I was pleased to see that he wasn’t your typical magic bullet trope. I won’t go into details of what I mean here, because I don’t want to get too spoiler-y, but Hollywood definitely has certain stereotypes about women being “saved”, shown the error of their ways by a man, and let’s just say that’s not what happens here. Yes, Luke does broaden Norah’s horizons (before she met him she really only had in-depth conversations with her mother and doctor). But she isn’t magically cured by virtue of his presence.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough, you guys — and also, before I finish up, take a moment to admire the pretty cover. There are three different-coloured versions of this cover, all in different shades of pink; I got the palest pink one and I love it!

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Five stars

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Review: ‘Wake of Vultures’ by Lila Bowen

Wake of Vultures

A rich, dark fantasy of destiny, death, and the supernatural world hiding beneath the surface.

Nettie Lonesome lives in a land of hard people and hard ground dusted with sand. She’s a half-breed who dresses like a boy, raised by folks who don’t call her a slave but use her like one. She knows of nothing else. That is, until the day a stranger attacks her. When nothing, not even a sickle to the eye can stop him, Nettie stabs him through the heart with a chunk of wood, and he turns into black sand.

And just like that, Nettie can see.

But her newfound sight is a blessing and a curse. Even if she doesn’t understand what’s under her own skin, she can sense what everyone else is hiding — at least physically. The world is full of evil, and now she knows the source of all the sand in the desert. Haunted by the spirits, Nettie has no choice but to set out on a quest that might lead to her true kin… if the monsters along the way don’t kill her first.

A historical fantasy about a half Native American, half African American bisexual girl who dresses like a man? This is the book I didn’t know I needed till I had it. Delilah S. Dawson (writing here as Lila Bowen) is one of my favourite authors, and I confess that I probably wouldn’t have picked this up if she hadn’t written it — not for any particular reason, just because I don’t usually read books set in the American Wild West (or a facsimile thereof). So Wake of Vultures would never have even crossed my radar.

And that would’ve been a tragedy, because Nettie Lonesome’s story is a cracking read. The action whisks you along, and it doesn’t get bogged down in self-reflection — though there is certainly a bit of that, as poor Nettie has received exactly no education and, as other characters keep telling her, has a lot to learn about people. Consequently, she is baffled by notions like bisexuality or why a woman would actually choose to wear skirts rather than pretending to be a man.

From my (admittedly white, non-American) perspective, Dawson/Bowen handled the issues of race and gender identity with tact. There’s no stereotyping — there are good and bad guys both white and “Injun” (as Nettie refers to them, given she was raised by whites; the phrase is something the author acknowledges is not PC these days but would have been accurate in the 1800s Texas that Durango is based off). Even the monsters have a range of good and bad types.

As far as the monsters go, if there’s a method to determining the ones we encounter then it isn’t made clear to Nettie — and therefore us — in this book what that is. There are vampires, harpies, werewolves, skinwalkers, the Cannibal Owl (a Native American bogeyman), dwarves and bludbunnies (a critter from Dawson’s steampunk series). I guess European-mythology creatures can emigrate just as easily as Europeans can!

I enjoyed the other characters, particularly Winifred — who is the first female Nettie really gets to know who is happy and proud to be female — and Sam Hennessey, one of her fellow Rangers. There is a hint of romance in the story, but if you only like your romance to include kissing scenes and heavy petting, you won’t find any of that here (the closest we come to a kissing scene actually made me cringe for poor Nettie and the other party). I actually liked that, though. Nettie is so confused by who she is and what she wants that if she’d jumped into the sack with someone it would’ve seemed very out of character.

I can’t wait for the next book in the series, Horde of Crows. The ending isn’t a cliffhanger per se, but it sure left me wanting more.

Five stars