A Blade so Black, by L.L. McKinney

I wanted to love A Blade So Black, an Alice In Wonderland inspired urban fantasy with a black protagonist. I REALLY want to love it. I TRIED to love it.


I didn’t love it.


A Blade So Black is about Alice, who attends high school in Atlanta by day and battles the monsters who enter our world from Wonderland by night. Her best friend, Courtney, gushes, “You’re like a black Buffy!”


“Thanks? Or just Buffy. Whatever.” Alice replies, before reminding Courtney that Buffy (as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) died “repeatedly.”


On the night of her father’s death, Alice encounters a monster from Wonderland. She is saved by the mysterious Addison Hatta, who trains her to fight Nightmares (the monsters). Alice struggles to maintain her friendship with Courtney, please her protective mother, and deal with her feelings of attraction for Addison and for her friend Chess. Eventually Alice has to go on a quest through Wonderland and our world for Reasons.


I appreciated the fact that this book is not an origin story. Frankly, I’m pretty sick of origin stories, and a well done story that drops you in the middle of the action can be thrilling. However, because this book begins after Alice has been in action for a while, everything is either left unexplained or explained in awkward exposition. The imagery in Wonderland is neat, but the individual scenes never add up to convey a sense of a world. The plot isn’t hard to understand (Alice has to Fight the Monsters and Find a Thing) but there’s no sense of how events will really affect either our world or Wonderland, or how or why events happen the way they do, or why I should care. I have a high tolerance for “Because Magic” as an explanation and even I got fed up. Alice has to use her “Muchness” to find The Eye which will lead her to The Heart so she can cure Addison of a poison left by the Black Knight’s Vorpal Blade, and all of this involves politics from a war that I as the reader have no investment in and know very little about. Never have I cared so little about so many shiny things.


There’s a similar problem with the characters. The only character I actually cared about was Alice’s mother, who I found relatable. The conflict between Alice and her mother is left unresolved, to my frustration. For me the most suspenseful question in the book was whether or not Alice would remember to take the meat out of the fridge by noon. Most of the characters are barely characters at all – there’s very little sense of their personalities or inner lives or motivations. Addison has a mysterious past and eyes that change color. Courtney is white, funny, and high maintenance. Each one is a list of traits, and a list of traits doth not a character make.


In the same way that Wonderland is made of distinct set pieces that don’t feel cohesive, Alice is made of character traits that don’t add up to a whole person. I loved the fact that she’s a geek who creates cosplay and who feels like an outsider among other Black teenagers because of it. However, she comes across a collection of emotions (afraid, upset, ferocious, and very occasionally relaxed) and traits (she likes Sailor Moon and Buffy, she straightens her hair, she loves her mom) instead of an actual person. What does she want to do after high school? What are her goals? The story spends so much time bouncing from scene to scene that Alice is never allowed to just be a person. Everything is tell, not show. The one scene in which Alice came alive to me involved her goofing off with her best friend in the cafeteria. Maybe the book needed a few more scenes like that in which nothing much is happening except for people being themselves.


All throughout the book, characters refer to the death of another Black teenager, Brionne. I kept thinking that Brionne’s death would tie in to Wonderland, as well as the death of Alice’s father. However, they never do, at least not strongly. Instead Brionne’s death serves as a constant reminder that Alice will always be in danger, if for no other reason than the color of her skin. This is a powerful aspect of the book, but I wished it had been tied in to the rest of the story more closely.


I liked the parts. Alice being geeky, Alice’s mom trying to get a grip on things, Wonderland being a pretty and terrifying place – these were all cool pieces. The problem is that the pieces never came together. I care a little bit about Alice, but not a lot. I don’t care at all about the other characters. I don’t care about politics in Wonderland or Alice’s love life or what will happen after the cliffhanger ending (yep, one of those). It was a worthy effort that just never clicked with me.


Between the Lines Book Club: Lehman Brothers Backstory

between the lines book club logoBetween the Lines Book Club will be meeting on March 23rd at Arden Dimick Library from 10:30-12. Our book this month is Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue.

Behold the Dreamers involves the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the effect this collapse has on its executives and their employees. Here’s a refresher on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which was liquidated in 2008.

Lehman Brothers was founded in 1844 by immigrants from Bavaria. First based in Chicago, the company’s headquarters moved to New York in 1870. Lehman Brothers grew to the point of being the fourth-largest investment bank in the US. In 1997, they entered the business of mortgage origination, which is “the process by which a lender works with a borrower to complete a mortgage transaction, resulting in a mortgage loan “(Wikipedia).

According to my best friend, Wikipedia, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in 2008. IT was the largest bankruptcy filing in US history. Essentially, Lehman Brothers had become a hedge fund as opposed to an investment bank, and the subprime mortgage crisis wiped out its capital. The bankruptsy has massive repercussions for the economy, yet the company’s head executive walked away with 480 million dollars (the amount is contested). Executives continued to reap multimillion dollar bonuses right up until the proceedings concluded.

According to Wikipedia:

Lehman’s bankruptcy was the largest failure of an investment bank since Drexel Burnham Lambert collapsed in 1990 amid fraud allegations. Immediately following the bankruptcy filing, an already distressed financial market began a period of extreme volatility, during which the Dow experienced its largest one day point loss, largest intra-day range (more than 1,000 points) and largest daily point gain. What followed was what many have called the “perfect storm” of economic distress factors and eventually a $700bn bailout package (Troubled Asset Relief Program) prepared by Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury, and approved by Congress. The Dow eventually closed at a new six-year low of 7,552.29 on November 20, followed by a further drop to 6626 by March of the next year.

In other words:

What. A. Mess.

Season of the Tower

tower card from Rider-Wait-Smith deckOnce a month I’ll be doing a post related to the study of Tarot. If you are interested in a reading, contact me at sessarego1@gmail.com!

I am right smack in the middle of my 40s. I have a daughter who is about to learn to drive and then go to college, all my health issues hit a low point at once, and everything in my house broke at the same time, making the body/house metaphor both overly literal, uncomfortable and expensive. The nature of everything, from my garbage disposal, to my bank account, to my physical abilities, to my marriage, to my parenting, is changing. ‘Tis the season of the Tower.

The Tower is a card that signals not just massive change, but a crumbling of something that was already built – a career, an actual building, a relationship, or anything else a person has spent a great deal of time making and felt safe within. Midlife is famous for Tower moments. People get divorced in midlife. Their addictions peak in midlife. People move. They look into the rest of their lives and say, “Fuck this shit.” They make drastic choices. The nature of the choices we make when confronted with The Tower determines whether the Tower card is a positive or negative card.

The idea behind the Tower card is that the Tower is a strong building on a faulty foundation (think of all the divorces in which onlookers say “They seemed so happy together!”). Perhaps the original foundation was always flawed, or perhaps it was fine a first, but over time it developed cracks that weren’t attended to because they seemed so small.  Now a single bolt of lighting can bring the whole edifice down. That which seemed safe and stable became an illusion, and is now a wreck.

Tower card from Zombie Tarot

Zombie Tarot, by Paul Kepple and Stacey Graham: Looks like someone forgot to lock a door!

The Tower is a disaster card, but also an opportunity card. Knowing that the foundation was based on something dishonest or unstable, how will you rebuild? Knowing that you’ve had half of your life to learn things, how do you want to incorporate those lessons into the last half of your life? The next card in the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot order is The Star, a card of calm, insight, and renewal.

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, The Star


My advice to those, like myself, who find themselves in the season of the Tower is not to panic. Breathe in and out. Put yourself in a Star frame of mind. Be honest about this season and how you got here and use that to make your next safe creation one that will last.

Between the Lines Book Club: Behold the Dreamers

between the lines book club logoBetween the Lines Book Club will be meeting on March 23rd at Arden Dimick Library from 10:30-12. Our book this month is Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue.

Behold the Dreamers is a novel about Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon, and his family. Jende gets a job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive in 2007. When Lehman Brothers collapses, Jende and his wife struggle to maintain their marriage and their jobs.

Behold the Dreamers received critical acclaim when it was published in 2016. For reviews, check out these links:

New York Times


Washington Post

And here is a lengthy interview with author Imbolo Mbue following the book being selected for Oprah’s Book Club:




Heartstone, by Elle Katherine White

cover of Heartstone, featuring yellow dragon
I can guarantee that the vast majority of my readers will stop reading this review and race off to one-click as soon as I finish the following sentence:
Heartstone is a loose retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set in a fantasy world with talking dragons. Go ahead. I’ll wait.


Aliza, her parents, and her sisters live in Merybourne Manor. The youngest sister, Rina, was killed by a gryphon. Her father hires a group of Riders (as in: dragon riders, the most elite social class) to get rid of the gryphons. The Riders are led by Alastair Daired, who is taciturn and snobby. Aliza’s sister, Anjey, is instantly attracted to Daired’s affable best friend, Brysney. However, for Aliza and Daired, it’s intense dislike at first sight.


There’s a lot happening in this book. We get a fairly faithful rendition of the plot of Pride and Prejudice, complete with embarrassing dancing and a wayward younger sister (Leyda). We also get an action-filled fantasy novel complete with sparring sessions, fights between riders on both horses and dragons against packs of gryphons, and threats from an ancient and mighty foe. With all this commotion there’s not enough time for leisurely character development, but the basic character arcs come through fine as Aliza learns to question her first assumptions and Daired learns to stop being such a snob. The world feels real and lived in, and did I mention that the dragons talk? And have opinions on matchmaking and social issues? I loved that!


So why am I not crazy about this book? For one thing, I had a hard time keeping track of the characters. There’s the usual Pride and Prejudice characters, but most have very different names and often very different trajectories. Then there are dragons, hobgoblins, and other creatures, many of which are distinct characters that must be kept straight. Then there are class distinctions. All you really need to know is that Daired is elite and Aliza is not, but I wanted to know more about the social structure and all these words (for instance: Tekari, Rangers, Riders, Shani, Nakla). All of these words are explained somewhere in the text, but the world is so interesting that I would have liked just a bit more of it.


Also, the book opens by introducing hobgoblins, a small but sentient species that lives in gardens. They are supposed to cute and maybe not too bright. Although Aliza refers to a hobgoblin as her “friend,” she’s also patronizing. Daired calls them vermin and kicks one. Even though he treats them with great respect later on, I could not get past his initial attitude. There is too much racism in the world for me to be amused by what amounts to the same thing in a fantasy context. It’s a very common trope in fantasy but it just drives me up the wall.


I did enjoy the way some of the more irritating characters from Pride and Prejudice are redeemed in this retelling. Aliza’s best friend marries an irritating, self-absorbed, pompous idiot – who turns out to be a truly loving husband and father. Charis, Daired’s mean friend (standing in for Catherine Bingley in the original novel) is mean for sure, but also a kickass warrior who truly cares about her family and about Daired. Best of all, no one makes fun of Mari, Aliza’s introverted and well-read sister who saves the day through scholarship.
This is a well-built fantasy with a well-written romance at its core. It does have flaws, but the writing is solid, the action exciting, and the dragons are amazing. The sequel, Dragonshadow, came out on November 20, 2018. Those of you who one-clicked at “Pride and Prejudice with dragons” will not be dissapointed!