Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro

Book cover of Ordinary Monster with a gauzy blue background.

In 1872, a pair of detectives (Alice Quicke and Mr. Coulton) are searching the world for Talents – children with extraordinary powers.  They take their foundlings back to the Cairndale Institute, a school and home for these ordinary monsters.  There, the children learn how to use and control their unique abilities, along with all the other basic subjects any child would learn. 

When the story opens, there are two specific children for whom the pair are searching.  Marlowe is a young boy born under tragic circumstances. His skin sometimes glows blue and he can heal or melt others. Unbeknownst to him initially, there is some kind of smoke monster stalking him.  Charlie Ovid, a teenage Black boy living in Mississippi, heals instantaneously, though he still feels all the pain inflicted upon him. 

The Cairndale employees soon find their charges, but what should be a relatively straightforward task of installing the boys in their new home is anything but.  There’s the smoke monster, lichts, and other dark forces seeking Cairndale’s secrets.  It’s up to Alice, Coulton, Charlie, Marlowe, and a handful of other Talents to disrupt their plans, while facing their own darkness as well.

Ordinary Monsters is a huge book, which is fitting for a tale that travels between Europe, the United States, and Japan.  Overall, I liked all the world building and didn’t notice the length much.  There was one section with Charlie that I felt didn’t quite fit though.  It seemed like it was setting up something else or that instead of simply getting lost in the streets of London, Charlie accidentally wandered out of his book and into one of Dickens’ before finding his way back.  It didn’t destroy the narrative or anything and there were still some connections to the larger story, but it just seemed a bit out of place.

One of the things that really struck me about this book was how many times things seemed impossible or hopeless, but the characters chose to keep going or keep fighting anyway.  It’s a good reminder for all of us that sometimes we just have to keep going through, no matter how pointless it seems.  And maybe we won’t “win” or change what already happened, but there’s still a chance that we can alter the future enough that something good can come from it later.

I also really liked the historical setting.  It felt very realistic, even with the magic sprinkled all around the world.  Yet again, the Pinkertons popped up, but like in The Devil’s Revolver, they’re still a bunch of bastards.  Again, realistic.  Alice is definitely my favorite character, both for her ability to get the job done and her annoyance with the restrictions society places on her.  In some ways, she reminded me of Sara Howard from The Alienist (another book I greatly enjoyed). 

From what I’ve seen, it sounds like Ordinary Monsters is the first of a series.  While I’ll check out any sequels, I thought this worked well as a stand-alone novel.  It took me a bit before I got to a point where I didn’t want to stop reading. Once that hit, I was stuck in my usual tug-of-war between wanting to hurry through to see what happens next and not wanting it to end. 

So if you’re looking for a thick book with magical kids, Victorian settings, some globe-trotting mysteries, and humor mixed with some light horror, Ordinary Monsters may be for you!

Find it here.

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

The cover of When Women Were Dragons, with toy dragons set around it.

For Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony triggered this narrative” – with this dedication, When Women Were Dragons hooked me.  And it kept me so all the way through.  There are myriad themes in this book, which I’ll get to.  But at its heart, this is a book about rage and women experiencing and living that rage. 

You will tell people that you did not raise me to be an angry woman, and that statement will be correct.  I was never allowed to be angry, was I? My ability to discover and understand the power of my own raging was a thing denied to me.  Until, at last, I learned to stop denying myself.”

So writes a housewife from Nebraska, shortly before she dragoned in 1898, according to the opening document of the novel.  An ordinary housewife, married to an abusive and terrible man, spontaneously transformed into a dragon and flew away.  Sporadic dragonings happened throughout history, but authorities quickly squashed any news or evidence regarding it.  Until April 25, 1955, when hundreds of thousands of women in the United States, mostly wives and mothers, all transformed into dragons throughout that day.  Homes physically destroyed, families ripped apart, and a number of men eaten or immolated by dragon fire – it was a day that could not possibly be forgotten.

That didn’t mean people wouldn’t try.  Our narrator, Alex Green, was a young girl when her aunt dragoned, leaving behind a baby girl of her own.  Alex’s parents took the girl in and quickly set to work convincing Alex that her cousin Beatrice was her sister and always had been. Alex was not to ask questions or say anything about the dragons (who had flown off and disappeared) or her aunt (who didn’t exist, after all) or anything related to either topic.  But Alex remembered.

At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (infamous for its persecution of suspected Communists, giving us the likes of Joe McCarthy) sought to silence any attempt by scientists to explore the phenomenon in any greater depth.  Since the Mass Dragoning was too large to ignore, the government issued a brief, sanitized overview of the event, and then worked hard to make sure that everyone just let it drift in the fogs of history, out of sight, out of mind.  But there remained scientists determined to learn the truth.

The book follows Alex’s personal journey towards understanding, interspersed with testimony by the lead scientist hauled in front of HUAC. Barnhill does a great job of weaving in the cultural pressures to keep anything related to the feminine as quiet and hushed as possible. 

Dragoning is dangerous precisely because it is both closely tied to the feminine while also displaying emotions that are deemed distinctly unfeminine.  Rage is at the heart of dragoning, it seems.  Women’s rage over being kept in the home, of having little to no recourse against violent husbands or boyfriends, of being told that their sexuality should be limited to “wifely duties,” of constantly being told to take up less space, less, time, less sound.  A dragon is not less.  She is large.  She is strong.  She is powerful.  She can gobble up or incinerate those who would harm her.  She can come and go as she pleases.  She does not conform. 

In addition to these meditations on women’s circumscribed emotions and options in the 50s, dragoning serves as a metaphor for LGBTAQ+ experiences.  Many of the women who dragon saw it as a way to fully embrace their true selves.  The research papers sprinkled in make mention of dragons who people had previously seen as men.  Other individuals nearly dragoned, but in the end stayed human for a variety of reasons. Dragoning is both hugely public and intensely personal.

There was only one thing that kind of clanged for me in this book.  The dragons themselves.  By which I mean, the abilities and properties of being a dragon in this world wasn’t clear to me.  They seemed to be able to do and be whatever was most convenient for the moment.  While most dragons flew to remote places on Earth, some went into space, exploring the galaxy, apparently being able to fly well past the speed of light.  Maybe it’s all the sci-fi I’ve imbibed over my life, but for some reason, that irked me.  However, it is a very very very tiny thing in the grand scheme of an excellent book.  So to paraphrase the theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000 “just repeat to yourself it’s just a [book], I should really just relax!”

“You brought me here, gentlemen, in hopes of conquest – in an attempt to rein in this feminine largeness, to shrink it down and force it to acquiesce to your paternal control, to allow our culture to forget that any of this dragon business ever happened.  This, my friends, is an impossibility.  While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance.  Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been…

            “Personally, I think it’s rather marvelous.

So do I. 

Find it here

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

by Louise Erdrich

Cover of The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, with a beaded cross necklace and a small howling wolf on either side.

In Louise Erdrich’s book The Sentence, one character tells another about a sentence believed to kill the reader.  After thinking about it for a second she says, “I wish I could write a sentence like that.” So far, I haven’t died from reading her books, but Erdirch’s writing is powerful and moving. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a prime example of how her stories waft into your soul and make themselves at home for a time. 

The story focuses on Father Damien, the lone priest at an Anishinaabe reservation in North Dakota called Little No Horse. Father Damien, however —


— is actually a woman named Agnes DeWitt.  Agnes isn’t a trans character, but Erdrich does touch on indigenous beliefs and ideas regarding gender as Agnes navigates between herself and Father Damien.


The story bounces back and forth between Agnes/Father Damien’s beginning at Little No Horse in the early 1900s as a young priest and the present (roughly the 1990s). As Father Damien nears 100 years of age, the Vatican sends another priest to Little No Horse. His job is to determine whether one of the Native nuns, Pauline Puyat/Sister Leopolda, is eligible for canonization. This forces Father Damien to wrestle with his secrets and what he can or should share.  Both story lines are intriguing, but I definitely enjoyed the earlier parts of Father Damien/Agnes DeWitt’s life more.

Erdrich weaves in a lot of themes and ideas throughout the book.  Obviously, gender/gender identity plays a significant role.  While Agnes embodies a male persona as Father Damien, she embraces her woman-ness as Agnes in the quiet, empty spaces of her life.  But many of Father Damien’s Ojibwe friends recognize that there is something different about him; unlike Euro-Americans, however, they have a background and tradition that allows them to articulate and understand that difference. 

Erdrich also gorgeously explores the mysteries of faith.  Throughout his tenure at Little No Horse, Father Damien writes letter after letter to each Pope for nearly a century.  Yet until the Vatican sends a priest to investigate the miracles of Sister Leopolda, he receives no answer.  It suggested the very nature of prayer – petitions and questions and begging for guidance to which there is never an answer. Agnes/Father Damien have a few instances in which they feel to be in direct contact with the Divine – and yet, it is only a moment followed by decades of silence. 

Despite his position as a missionary, ordered to bring the Word of God to the “heathens” of the reservation, Father Damien quickly finds himself accepting Anishinaabe beliefs. Often he finds those beliefs to be of greater value and comfort than Catholic dogma.  While Catholicism remains a grounding system for Agnes and Father Damien alike, they see the value of Anishinaabe traditions and spirituality and see no reason why those should be cast aside.  As other priests flit in and out of Little No Horse, they seem scandalized at Father Damien’s potential blasphemy. And yet, they also stand in awe of his faith.

Through all of this, Erdrich includes a variety of important historical events, from the 1918 flu pandemic to the horrific legacy of forced boarding schools for Native children to the starvation that regularly occurred on the reservations as a result of the U.S. failing to live up to its treaty obligations.  It is an incredible story of how people continue to survive and thrive, despite all the trauma, all the pain, all the hurt.  And not only do they survive, but they continue to love, to believe, to live.  Yet the story does not downplay the very real, long-lasting effects of those traumas either.  Each character must find a way to live with or drown in those hardships as well. 

I cannot recommend Erdrich’s books enough.  The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a great place to start.  Although my understanding is that some of her earlier books include some of the same characters, I have yet to read them. I never felt like I was missing something as I read this one though.  Go and enjoy.  

Find it online here.

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

by Silvia Morena-Garcia

Book The Daughter of Doctor Moreau set among green leaves and branches.

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells, is one of those stories where even if you haven’t read the book, you likely know the broad strokes of the plot: a crazed scientists conducts horrible experiments on a remote island, resulting in strange human/animal hybrids.  There have been movies and references and even a Simpsons parody. But you can ignore all of those and dive straight into Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s reimagining take, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau.  It is a spellbinding tale, centering Doctor Moreau’s heretofore unknown daughter as she navigates the dangers coming her way. 

Carlota Moreau is a smart, stubborn, and curious young woman.  The natural child of Doctor Moreau, she has never traveled outside her father’s estate, Yaxaktun, in the remote Yucatán Peninsula. Her only human contacts are her father, his patron Hernando Lizalde, Ramona the servant woman, and the various mayordomos brought in to oversee the estate.  But those are far from her only companions.  There are a host of hybrids, the results of her father’s experiments, whom she knows and loves.

As our story begins, a new mayordomo, a British man named Montgomery Laughton arrives at Yaxaktun. The isolation of Yaxaktun, and the Yucatán in general, make it difficult to find hired help.  As Ramon explains to Carlota, it is not a place for people who want to be found.  But that seems to suit Mr. Laughton just fine. 

Six years later, however, more newcomers arrive at the remote estate and very quickly, the isolated routines of Yaxaktun begin to fall apart. There is more to this island her father created, and Carlota will seek the truth – whatever the cost. 

The book switches between Carlota and Montgomery’s perspective.  This effectively gives us a good background into both and understanding for their motives.  At times, the story loops back on itself so we get both characters’ insights into the exact same scene.  Had this been overdone, it might have been frustrating, but Moreno-Garcia uses it sparingly and to great effect. 

I first read Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s The Gods of Jade and Shadow.  I quickly fell in love with her writing style and her characters.  I’ve since read The Beautiful Ones, Certain Dark Things, Mexican Gothic, Untamed Shore, and Velvet was the Night, her previous book before The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. Pick any of them and jump right in – they don’t disappoint! Moreno-Garcia does a fantastic job of creating amazing settings for her characters to inhabit and giving her heroines (and other characters) a plethora of emotions, motives, virtues, and vices.  Weaving in romantic story lines can be tricky, but she handles them deftly and beautifully. 

I also really appreciate the glimpses of Mexican history that she peppers through her novels.  In the background of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, the rebellion of Mayans against European and Mexican forces lurks, with some of the hybrids whispering the name of the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective) leader.  While Carlota has the privilege of long ignoring politics and social issues, the hybrids do not.

And where Wells focused on issues of the search for knowledge and abuse in the name of science and man’s desire to dominate his environment and the creatures around him, Moreno-Garcia uses the hybrids to dissect issues of colonialism, racism, and labor exploitation.  As Hernando Lizalde explains early on in the book, he is only supporting Doctor Moreau’s experiments because the hybrids could be the key to the labor issues on the haciendas.  The Indians, he explains, can no longer be trusted in light of the rebellion, and with the end of the slave trade and the poor track record of European laborers, a “home grown” labor force designed for exploitation seems to be the perfect ticket.  While the doctor agreed to such a use, it is clear he has his own motives for his experiments.  But are they any better?   

Overall, I highly recommend The Daughter of Doctor Moreau.  And then the rest of her books. 

Find it online here.

The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath

Cover of The Devil's Revolver

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a free e-copy of The Devil’s Revolver for the purposes of review.  That doesn’t change my opinions, but I probably wouldn’t have read this/been aware of it otherwise.  Just in case that counts as influence for some. 

American western meets fantasy is a fun world that The Devil’s Revolver drops us into.  We meet Hettie Alabama, a 17-year-old young woman preparing to enter a shooting competition to earn her family some money.  She lives with her parents, her younger sister Abby, and “Uncle” Jeramiah.

Things haven’t been easy for the family.  Hettie’s older brother, Paul, died protecting her from knife-wielding stranger years earlier.  Money is tight.  And perhaps most concerning for Hettie is Abby’s habit of slipping out of the house to wander down to the river to talk with friends no one else can see or hear. Such a habit is soon to garner unwanted attention.

Hettie can’t do much about two of those things, but she is a talented shooter. She enters the competition, determine to tackle the money issue.  Little does she know, however, that this decision will set into motion a chain of events that will lead her all over the West with a revolver that doesn’t miss, doesn’t run out of ammo, and doesn’t shoot without a cost.

McGrath does a splendid job introducing us to the rules of this world without any kind of exposition dump.  Within a few pages, we learn that magic is a regular part of life, but not everyone is gifted.  Most people use talismans and protection spells, but those cost money.  A government division seeks out children who show signs of being gifted, another concern for Hettie.  It seems clear that Abby has some kind of power, but no one in the family wants to risk her coming onto the government’s radar.  There are magical monsters roaming the terrain and plenty of human ones as well.  Aside from the magic, though, much of the rest is familiar to any Westerns fans. 

I really liked the character of Hettie.  While a talented shooter and a dedicated sister, she also still acts like most seventeen-year-olds.  There were a few situations where she makes choices that, as a reader, we can see are tricky or a trap, but if it was me at 17 and I didn’t know I was a heroine in a book, I would’ve likely done the exact same.  She can be rash and hot-headed, but her heart is in the right place, even with a demon-possessed revolver in hand. The other characters that move into her orbit are fun and interesting as well, but Hettie is definitely my favorite.

There are some aspects of the world and the titular revolver that remain unexplained or feel a bit underdeveloped, but I think it’s because this is just the first book in a series and you have to leave some questions and loose ends for the next story to take. 

Overall, this was a fun read with interesting characters and a cool take on Westerns.  Worth checking out!

Find it online here.