Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise wasone of my anticipated reads for the first halfof 2015. The concept of the speculative elements in the form oSilvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise was one of my anticipated reads for the first half of 2015. The concept of the speculative elements in the form of magic fuelled by music was cool and the setting, both temporal and physical, were intriguing. The Eighties was an interesting time in history and though we often mock the stylistic choices of Eighties music stars, it’s undeniable that they also produced some fantastic classics. I was completely unfamiliar with Mexico City and true Mexican culture only having seen the Hollywood representations of both on TV and I doubt these are completely accurate. So I was interested to learn more about both through Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel. And while I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the novel and much of the story after finishing it I was largely left with a bit of a meh feeling. I wanted to love this novel so much more than I did and it’s hard to pinpoint why I didn’t. I just didn’t connect to it very strongly and I spent just as much time being annoyed with Meche, the main character, as I did rooting for her.
Meche is a complicated character. We meet her both as a teen with a troubled home life and as a grown-up woman who has escaped her less-than-happy youth and has made a life for herself on the other side of the world far away from her family. I found Meche-the-adult easier to relate to than Meche-the-teen, though as an adult she still has the rough traits that make her less than sympathetic as a teen. Given her situation at home, with a demanding and distant mother and a father who Meche worships, but who finds himself disillusioned with the life he’s found himself living, it’s no surprise that Meche is a less-than-happy teen, yet there is a darkness and ruthlessness to Meche that I found hard to swallow. The way she treats her best (and only) friends is painful to see and I just wanted to shake her out of it. In fact, I liked Sebastian and Daniela far better than I did Meche, which was unfortunate since Meche is the main viewpoint character.
However ambivalent I felt about Meche though, she did feel like a very honest portrayal of what it means to be a teen girl and I found Moreno-Garcia’s depiction of teens and their inner life very real. The awkward tension between Meche and Sebos’ close, comfortable friendship and the possibility of that friendship developing into more was exquisitely drawn. I loved how both of them wrestle with the question if they even want it to become more and that it is Sebastian who is so certain of his feelings. They also show that those we love best are also the ones we can hurt the most. I liked how Moreno-Garcia moved the resolution for this situation from the past to the present timeline and had Meche not only come to terms with her unresolved feelings for Sebastian, but also make peace with Daniela and sort out her issues with her parents and her father in particular.
All of this is set against the backdrop of Mexico City, which paradoxically didn’t feel like one of the biggest, most-densely populated cities of the world, but felt like a busy, mid-sized town, with a strong sense of community. I also liked the different liturgical traditions. I’m familiar with Catholic services here in the Netherlands, yet I’d never heard of the tradition of saying novenas for the departed. I’m used to a wake and a mass and that’s it. Also, the food! Signal to Noise has lots of food in it and it all sounds delicious. It’s weird, because I usually don’t notice food that much in books, but in this case I did, perhaps more than warranted. I wonder whether that was because it was set in a (culinary) culture I’m largely unfamiliar with or because I was just hungry when reading it or due to other reasons.
Signal to Noise is filled with music; Meche’s father is a radio DJ and is working on a book about music history, Meche is just about fused to her headphones, and of course music is the main source of magic in the book. I’m a child of the 90s, so in my student days we had tons of bad Eighties-themed parties and I was familiar with much of the English-language songs, though the Spanish-language bands were unfamiliar. Luckily Moreno-Garcia created a playlist of the most important songs in the book so even those unfamiliar with any of them could get a feel for the music. I loved the love of music that Meche exuded and the bond this provides between her father and her. I also liked that the music the trio use to create magic often reflects not just the stated desire they put into the spell, but also the true intent in their hearts. I also enjoyed that the book’s magic is never a truly neutral force, there always seems to be a malign edge to it.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel Signal to Noise is one that left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was a bit disappointed with the book, because I’d wanted to love it so much and I didn’t, not as much as I wanted. Yet on the other hand, I was quite entertained by the book, enough so that I’ve managed to write over a thousand words of review on it, which is on the long side even for me. Signal to Noise is a very well-written, literary fantasy dealing with growing up and forgiving others for not being who we want or need them to be. While the book didn’t work for me one hundred percent, I think that for those who do connect strongly to Meche this will be a killer read and I’m certainly glad to have read it.
I don’t know that much about New Zealand, other than it’s where the Lord of the Rings was filmed, there was a huge earthquake a few years ago and it’sI don’t know that much about New Zealand, other than it’s where the Lord of the Rings was filmed, there was a huge earthquake a few years ago and it’s where the kiwi bird is from. Oh and they have a lot of sheep. So when the author approached me about reviewing her collection of historical short stories set there, I was interested at once. Additionally, while I’ve been reading more SFF short fiction, I’d never yet read any historical short fiction, so I was interested to see whether short fiction in that vein would work for me.
The Settling Earth is an interesting collection. It is a slim book; the stories are short, but still tell a greater story by virtue of being interconnected. As such, the verdict on whether historical short fiction works for me is still out, as while these are short stories, which can standalone, once read in a collections they don’t actually feel as truly separate stories.
Some of the stories are heartbreaking, as we see several women put in untenable positions, due to their station in society. Also, the white man does not come off well in these stories. The main ones featured being either racist, abusive, self-centred, controlling, or a combination of any of the above. The Settling Earth offers a stark look at the reality of life as a settler wife or a woman on her own. The collection also shows the impact the settlers have on their surroundings. The collection offers a welcome added viewpoint from a Maori perspective in the story written by Shelly Davies, a writer of Maori descent, which I loved. Her male main character is by no means a saint, but his view of the people who have invaded his land is revealing of their nature and I love the active hand he takes in resolving the awful situation of some of them.
These ten stories form an interesting collection looking at nineteenth century life in a land we don’t hear enough about here in the Northern hemisphere. With The Settling Earth Rebecca Burns shows us a side of New Zealand we usually don’t see, looking beyond the green hills and the sheep. If you are at all interested in learning more about the settler experience in New Zealand, both for those who came to settle and those who were already there, The Settling Earth is a good place to start.
I love hidden worlds parallel to our own, as witnessed by my love for Emma Newman’s The Split Worlds and Lou Morgan’s Blood and Feathers books. So wheI love hidden worlds parallel to our own, as witnessed by my love for Emma Newman’s The Split Worlds and Lou Morgan’s Blood and Feathers books. So when I read the synopsis for Sue Tingey’s debut Marked when Jo Fletcher Books announced their acquisition of the story, my interest was immediately piqued. I was very lucky to have the chance to get an extra early look at Marked and I’m really glad for the chance, because Marked is a wonderful story.
The basic premise of Marked, that of a girl able to see ghosts, one of whom is her best friend Kayla, who has been with as long as she can remember, is great. It creates an interesting starting point as her abilities have turned Lucky into somewhat of a recluse, avoiding crowded places so she won’t run into the dead. She makes a living writing and sometimes consulting people who have a ghost problem. The status quo is disturbed first by an exorcism – or rather Lucky’s version of it – gone wrong and later by the arrival on her doorstep of a young man who pleads for her help. I was immediately captivated by Lucky’s voice. When I first received the book I had a quick glance at the first page and found myself two pages in before I knew it. When I sat down to read the book properly, the same thing happened. Tingey has a very comfortable writing style that draws you on and keeps you reading and Lucky’s voice comes through clearly. As a main character Lucky is easy to relate to and she has a wonderfully wry sense of humour. She’s also seemingly quite content with her life, so she isn’t really happy about having it shaken up. But she is also genuinely kind and when faced by a young man who needs help – the kind of help only Lucky can give – she can’t make herself turn him away, despite Kayla’s exhortations to do just that.
Marked has three main subplots: solving the mystery of who is behind the attacks on Lucky and Kayla, figuring out who Lucky really is and then there is the romance. The mystery of who sent the demonic assassin Henri Le Dent, or Henry Toothy Pegs as Lucky dubs him, to summon Kayla back to the Underlands reveals some pretty convoluted politicking in those Underlands. Following Lucky’s attempts at untangling all of the possible leads was a lot of fun. My one complaint with the story would be that there were a lot of misdirections and steps to retrace in this mystery plot and at times it became so complicated that it was hard to keep the lines of power and who influenced who straight.
In her attempts to figure things out, Lucky is inevitably brought to the Underlands, which was a setting that I adored. I loved that the Underlands were Heaven and Hell combined or rather there are no Heaven and Hell, there is just the Underlands. The Underlands are a cut-throat, “every daemon for themselves”-kind of place and affection, much less love, is a luxury most cannot afford. It is also in the Underlands that Lucky discovers her true nature and history, a discovery that very much distresses her. Her gradual understanding and acceptance of the situation was well-developed and lovely to see, especially once she realises that despite everything she dislikes about Underlands society, she loves the friends she’s made there.
Those friends are mainly her bodyguards, but also her best friend Kayla. I loved her bodyguards: Mr Kerfuffle, Mr Shenanigans (those names me giggle when we first meet them, because on first impression they should be the other way around), the wonderful, lovely dragon Pyrites, and of course Guardian Jamie and Death daemon Jinx. The latter two are the ones we get to know best, especially as they are the book’s love interests. Now stop rolling your eyes—yes it is a love triangle, but no Tingey doesn’t follow the trope. I actually loved how this triangle was resolved, which is a hard thing to do, because love triangles are always a hard sell for me. The interplay between Jamie, Jinx, and Lucky was delicious and I loved the way Tingey gave a big, fat wink to Jamie and Jinx’s natures in their physical appearances. While the romance was great and I loved seeing these relationships develop, the more interesting relationship – conflict-wise, that is – was the friendship between Lucky and Kayla. The angst Lucky feels when she discovers Kayla has lied to her, the trust issues, but the undeniable deep bond of affection that remains despite her anger at being lied to, they all served to make this friendship layered and feel very true.
The one problem with getting an advanced review copy of a book this early, is that it takes that much longer before I’ll be able to read the next book and in the case of Marked that is a big problem. I loved this book. The characters, the atmosphere, the banter, the romance, it all worked. Marked is a wonderful debut for Tingey and the start of what looks to be a great trilogy. At the end of the book, we leave Lucky in a good spot, but the battle is far from over, in fact, it has hardly begun. So I’m left with only the one question: “When is the next book out?” Marked will be out in May and if you’re a fantasy fan in general and of supernatural or urban fantasy in particular, I highly recommend you check it out when it does.
The Leopards of Normandy: Devil was one of my most anticipated reads for the first half of the year. William the Conqueror is a fascinating figure inThe Leopards of Normandy: Devil was one of my most anticipated reads for the first half of the year. William the Conqueror is a fascinating figure in English history. The effects of his taking over England on the English language was huge and one of the more interesting topics we studied in linguistics class—linguistics not being my favourite topic at uni. And while this era of European history is quite interesting due to its eventful nature, it is also one I don't know that well. Enter Devil and the chance to learn more about both William and this period of history. Devil was very much what I expected it to be, with some surprises and some elements that really bugged me. Despite these, I really enjoyed the story as much as I'd hoped to.
Devil's story is less about William and more about his parents, Robert and Herleva. Churchill's tale shows us how they meet, how Robert becomes the Duke of Normandy and how their relationship shapes much of that Duchy's politics at the time. The relationship between Robert and Herleva was both a strong point and a weak point in the story. Their initial getting together bordered on the insta-love trope, though perhaps more correctly it should be called insta-lust, especially on Robert's part. While I certainly believe that true and lasting love can grow out of initial lust, there didn't seem much of a base or a development along those lines in their relationship. They met, they lusted and then they were in a full-blown, unbreakable, loving relationship, which felt a little unbelievable, certainly in the early part of the book. However, as the story went along and events took their course, their mutual devotion became more tangible and believable.
In fact, Herleva's position, not just as Robert's mistress, but also as William's mother, and the struggles it causes in Normandy on personal and political levels was written with lots of feeling. The scene at the end of part three, where everything inevitably falls apart, was so well-written and the build-up to that moment so well-paced and constructed that it made me not just cry, but ugly cry. In that moment all three of them – Robert, Herleva and William – just broke my heart; it's been a while since I cried this hard over a book.
Devil's narration is fragmentary, with viewpoints from many different angles and characters: Uncle Robert, Archbishop of Rouen, Aunt Emma, Queen of England, Dowager Duchess Gunnor, mother of Robert and Emma, Judith, Herleva's best friend and maid, the Bellême family, who have their heart set on gaining a ducal seat, just to name a few. Some viewpoints are singular in occurrence, others repeat and they are mostly so the reader can witness a necessary event where our core characters – Robert of Normandy, Herleva, Uncle Robert the archbishop and little William – can’t be present. One of my favourite secondary characters and viewpoints was that of Jarl the Viper. His was not only an intriguing role in the narrative, but also one with a twist I hadn’t expected. The fragmentary narration is an interesting way of story-telling, though it left me wondering what the significance of some of the story strands were. Especially some of the scenes with the Bellêmes, which seemed to be significant at the time seem to peter out towards the end of the book, unless they are a set up for book two, but that isn’t as clear from the ending of the story as I might have wished.
The book is riddled with political intrigue and the power balance between different parties is constantly in flux. The constant question remained how much of Robert’s actions were due to his undying love for Herleva and how much were seated in a desire to gain the upper hand and not be dominated by the Church or his uncle. It’s a question that never was fully answered, though I tend to lean to the former, even if that is probably wishful thinking. There was some major dynastic politics at work, not just on the part of Uncle Robert and the family matriarch Gunnor, but also on the part of the Count of Bellême in Normandy itself and on the part of Emma and Elgiva on the other side of the Channel. The politics formed an interesting counterpoint to the romance between Robert and Herleva, even when these elements interwove later on in the narrative.
Despite the problems I had with the book, I loved The Leopards of Normandy: Devil. Robert’s and Herleva’s love story is tragic, yet surprisingly knows an unexpectedly happy outcome. The glimpses we catch of the young William are intriguing and I look forward to seeing him growing into the man he will be in the next book. Even if I know that at some point there will be the Battle of Hastings, Devil ends some thirty-odd years before that fated day and it will interesting to see how and when Churchill will take us there.
The question "what if?" is one of the most powerful questions one can ask. It can spur exploration, invention, and new discoveries. But if “what if” iThe question "what if?" is one of the most powerful questions one can ask. It can spur exploration, invention, and new discoveries. But if “what if” is a stand-in for “if only" then it can become one of the most destructive questions a person can ask themselves, as it is often laced with guilt and regret. And in Rachel Teller’s case it seems as if her “if only” causes her entire life to unravel, but Rebecca Whitney’s debut The Liar's Chair shows that even if you live in a house made mostly from glass, what goes on inside can be largely hidden and that Rachel’s life hangs together from “if only”s
While The Liar’s Chair’s plot was gripping, the book was very much a character study of how a person could end up in Rachel’s situation. Rachel is a sympathetic main character, but for me it was a sympathy laced with pity, but also outrage and exasperation, because she does some awful things. What fascinated me the most was how someone who is evidently talented and competent at her job, creating a very successful business, can be so totally dominated and broken down by her significant other. Why would she allow him to treat her this way? Is there an underlying pathology or traumatic event in her past? Whitney reveals this beautifully. It’s at times painful to see what causes Rachel’s belief that she merits no better treatment and it made me angry too. There were so many points in Rachel’s life that could have been a “what if” moment and there were so many people who failed her, including Rachel herself.
Rachel is mostly surrounded by male characters; the women we encounter are mostly in the background or seemingly stuck in similarly unpleasant marriages. The only other significant female character is Rachel’s mum, who we mostly encounter in Rachel’s memories, and who doesn’t come off to well in her role as a parent. The three most important men in Rachel’s life are her husband David, her lover Will, and David’s business partner Alex. David pushed all of my buttons; he’s an awful man, who unfortunately, as is so often the case with abusers, comes of as charming to the outside world.
Early on, Whitney includes some great clues to his true nature, specifically through his treatment of his two dogs, the way he alternately cherishes them and ignores them and plays favourites with them, which is a cruel thing to do. Will was a far more likeable character, though he’s no snowflake; he’s a dealer and small-time criminal. Yet he has a kind heart as shown through his treatment of his little, old dog, who is cherished and pampered. Whitney utilises the treatment of animals, and dogs in particular, as a way to telegraph a person’s true nature, because there are several other characters who’s treatment of animals is commented upon.
Whitney’s writing is great. Her pacing creates a tense narrative, which consistently torques up the tension and increasing the speed at which Rachel’s life unravels. The ending was spectacular and I liked how Whitney slowed the story back down in the final pages, creating a satisfying ending. The Liar’s Chair is a great debut and if you enjoy a psychological thrillers in the vein of Gone Girl or The Life I Left Behind, then you should certainly give this one a try.
Last October I reviewed the first Ayesha Ryder novel, appropriately called Ryder. I really enjoyed this Dan Brown-esque tale with a strong political fLast October I reviewed the first Ayesha Ryder novel, appropriately called Ryder. I really enjoyed this Dan Brown-esque tale with a strong political flavour. So I was really pleased to be able to review the second book as well. Ryder: American Treasure is set six months after the first book and is very much a tale in the same vein as the first, a thrilling treasure hunt, following clues left behind by some of the great figures of history. Yet there were also some very big differences to the first novel.
First of all, there is Ayesha herself. While still the erudite scholar and researcher she was in the previous book and very much as capable as ever, she’s also gained a new vulnerability and seems somewhat more troubled than she was before, mostly due to the fact that the walls she’s built around her past self and the memories that belong with that life have started crumbling. Her memories are rearing their ugly heads, but they are not just awakening old grief and guilt in Ayesha, they are also rousing a side to her that has lain dormant for years; the cold-blooded, unflinching, and ruthless Fedayeen, who kills without thought on training and instinct. It made her less-polished and darker than she was previously.
Secondly, Ryder: American Treasure is far more R-rated than the previous book; there are some hot and heavy scenes in there. A liaison between two unexpected, political figures, but also between Ayesha and her sidekick for this book journalist Milton Hoenig, the latter pairing having a very fun dynamic, that hopefully we will see again. The scenes are not necessarily problematic, but they were somewhat unexpected in comparison to the previous book, which didn’t contain any racy stuff. Lastly, instead of one quarry, Ayesha has two treasures to find: the Ark and the American Treasure. I liked how Pengelley interweaves the trails of both hunts and creates some unexpected connections in their stories.
The political focus of the narrative is still on the Middle East and how much events there have influenced politics and history and still do. For the record, after last book’s events, the world Ryder is set in is more of an alternative history than a contemporary thriller. Pengelley manages to insert some very pointed commentary in his narrative though, showing how influential US politics are on the world and how much the outcome of American presidential elections affect the rest of the world. He also injects some levity in the novel. At one point he has one of his characters reading the latest Dan Brown, which I found hilarious. And there are several instances where Ayesha decides on what to do next and Hoenig starts groaning in protest before she’s even opened her mouth, which was funny as well, especially since it is essentially a role reversal from the usual action thriller, with Ayesha being the competent action hero and Hoenig being her sidekick.
Unexpectedly, T.E. Lawrence still looms large in the story. He is the backbone of the historical elements of the story, connected to all of them either directly or at a remove. I love how Pengelley manages to find holes in history to fit in his plot and hide clues and events. His love of history, the Interbellum period in particular, is clear on the page. He also manages to make me want to read up on the history of the era, something that to me hallmarks a successful historical element to a story, even if this isn’t necessarily a historical thriller.
Pengelley ends the book on a satisfying note and with a nice hook for the next novel. I look forward to discovering how Pengelley will develop Ayesha’s character and how her emerging memories affect her in the next book. And I look forward to learning whether her sidekick shows up again and whether we see more of the brilliant Lady Madrigal. If you like no-holds-barred, pulse-pounding thrillers with a historical slant then the Ryder series is one you won’t want to miss. I’ll be here for the next one.
Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series remains one of my favourite series ever. It’s got all the drama and sweepingness you might hope for in an epic faKate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series remains one of my favourite series ever. It’s got all the drama and sweepingness you might hope for in an epic fantasy setting, but with more than your average, garden-variety western medieval setting and world-building. It took me a while to start the series – I think Elliott was up to book four at the time – but once I did I couldn’t wait for the next instalment to come out. I’d always wanted to read more by Elliott, but somehow never got around to it. Going into her backlist seemed risky, because availability in the Netherlands was always a gamble – mind you, this was before I started ordering books of the internet – and with her latest completed series there were all the review copies that meant I never got around to buying them. All of this is a rather lengthy way of explaining why there was much rejoicing at Casa Librarian when I was approved for a review copy on Netgalley for Elliott’s short fiction collect The Very Best of Kate Elliott.
The set of tales gathered together in The Very Best of Kate Elliott is a fantastic collection, comprised of standalone stories, but also stories that tie into the worlds of her various series. There are two stories connected to the aforementioned Crown of Stars series, but also stories that were set in the universes of the Jaran, Crossroads, and Spiritwalker series. Surprisingly, while I enjoyed the Crown of Stars stories a lot, the stories that grabbed me most and made me want to read the original series yesterday are the Jaran stories, My Voice is in My Sword and Sunseeker. This is surprising because the Jaran series is straight up science fiction and I still tend to think of myself mostly as a fantasy reader. Yet these those stories, especially Sunseeker, resonated with me and the setting and universe just seemed a very entertaining one.
Two other favourites were Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine and The Queen’s Garden. What I loved about the former is that the protagonist is a mature woman. She has a grown daughter about to become a mother herself, and two more children and one on the way, and is one of the respected elders of the village. It’s not often – and in my opinion not often enough – that you have a woman approaching middle age being the hero of her own story. Anna is wonderful and in addition we get Uwe, whose character and the way Elliott approaches how she talks about him was great. In The Queen’s Garden we have two young women protagonists instead, but their expert politicking, plotting and negotiating and the way their society was structured was fascinating and I would love to learn more about this world.
Some of the recurring themes of Elliott’s work are inclusion, female voices, older voices, and intersectionality. It’s all there in most of the stories and largely goes unremarked upon by the characters themselves. These themes are also reflected in the non-fiction included in the collection. All four essays and the introduction challenge the reader, to do better, to challenge themselves and to do the work to see beyond our default, systematic cultural views. And reading these essays after the stories one can certainly see how Elliott does that in her fiction at every turn. While I enjoyed all four essays, and had in fact read all but one of them when they were published online, the first one, The Omniscient Breast: the Male Gaze Through Female Eyes, remains my favourite. I still think that the phrase omniscient breasts is genius and the essay is such a great explanation of what is meant by the male gaze and the necessity to challenge it in fiction, not to eradicate it, but to not make it the default anymore.
If it isn’t obvious from this review, I really enjoyed The Very Best of Kate Elliott. It shows off Kate Elliott’s strengths and the themes she’s been writing about for the past twenty years. In my opinion though, this collection should come with a warning, because it is like a gateway drug. I knew I loved Elliott’s writing from the Crown of Stars series, but now I want to read ALL. OF. HER. BOOKS. I guess I have some catching up to do! Whether you are familiar with Elliott’s writing or not, this collection comes highly recommended, as it is a great introduction to her writing as well as a great retrospective.
Before The Door That Led to Where, the only book I'd read by Sally Gardner was The Double Shadow. I completely fell in love with that book, which notBefore The Door That Led to Where, the only book I'd read by Sally Gardner was The Double Shadow. I completely fell in love with that book, which not only offered an intriguing story and wonderful characters, but also had me put my English Lit degree to good use. Thus I was pleased to receive a review copy of The Door That Led To Where, not least because it was a fantasy book set in my favourite of all places, London and it had time-travelling to boot. The idea of a secret door to a different time or place is an old one, who hasn’t wished they had a magic wardrobe at least once as a child or to be able to cross to Platform 9 3/4? In Gardner's capable hands this premise led to a wonderful story that is not just about solving a murder, but about friendship, love, and the ties that bind.
What set the book apart from the get go is its voice. The story is narrated by AJ, our protagonist, and his voice is super clear and fun. He's very much a modern teenager with the associated slang included. Yet Gardner shows that teens these days aren't just all about the slang and the street, they are definitely able to shift register and quickly too, as we discover when AJ gets a job as a baby clerk at a prestigious law firm called Baldwin Groat. I really enjoyed this aspect of the story, the way AJ's best friends help him get ready to start his job and the scenes at the office and at court.
If mystery is at the centre of the narrative, then friendship is its heart. AJ’s most important relationship is with his best friends Slim and Leon. The three of them form a very close-knit support group that helps its trio of members through heartbreak, grief, misfortune and good times. I loved the bond between these three, even if it sometimes felt as if AJ felt that he was responsible for the other two’s well-being. With his father long since disappeared and his mother more interested in pleasing her new partner than caring for her children, AJ is somewhat lacking in adults that care for him. He does have someone looking out for him in the form of his downstairs neighbour Auntie Elsie. She was a wonderful presence in the book and I loved how she fit into the narrative. My one reservation was AJ’s troubled relationship with his mother and the way this is resolved at the end of the novel. It felt a little too much all's well that ends well, though that might just be my cold, cynical, black heart speaking.
One of the big draws of this story was the element of time travel to 1830s London. I loved both of Gardner’s versions of London. I found the differences between them not only well-drawn, but also an interesting juxtaposition between AJ’s always connected life in the ‘Electronic Jungle of Despair’ as Slim calls present-day London and the equally confounding though far more etiquette-regulated world of 1830. AJ’s ease with swapping between the two worlds was unexpected, but never truly unconvincing and I absolutely loved the way both Slim and Leon took to living in nineteenth century London. They took to the life as a duck to water and were truly children out of time.
The puzzle pieces of the mystery were fantastic and I really loved the story. The Door That Led to Where is very different from The Double Shadow, but just as entrancing. I got fully sucked in by the story and Gardner’s writing. She ends the book in a great way with a neat bow on top, but I was loathe to leave the book and was sad there wasn’t more to look forward to, because AJ was just such an entertaining protagonist. The Door That Led to Where is just a wonderful YA novel and has reminded me that I should really get on reading Gardner’s backlist.
Last year Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades was one of the big debuttitles of the year. Ienjoyed it a lot.I found it a return to traditional epicLast year Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades was one of the big debut titles of the year. I enjoyed it a lot. I found it a return to traditional epic fantasy, less of the grimdark, but updated to today. It was also a return to a traditional length, and Staveley’s second book is even bigger. Seriously, this hardback will kill a chihuahua when accidentally dropped on them from a height. With The Providence of Fire Staveley has gone bigger and better in all aspects.The book is just a fantastic follow up to a solid debut and I had a fantastic time with it.
One of the biggest complaints about The Emperor’s Blades was the limited amount of page time Adare gets. People felt she received short shrift and combined with the fridging of one of the other female characters his treatment of his female characters got some flack. Staveley more than made up for that in The Providence of Fire. Because there is lots of Adare this time around and she was fantastic. She takes matters into her own hand and does it in style. However, she’s still very much a daughter of her society and planning on handing power over to Kaden once she’s ended Il Tornja’s regency. It’s interesting to see her struggle with this sense of duty and her feeling of unfairness at the fact that she, who has all the right credentials up to and including the burning eyes of the Malkeenians, can’t take the Unhewn Throne because she was born a woman. Dare really comes into her own in this book, but she also takes some decisions and actions that place her just off to the side of the angels. I can’t wait to see how Staveley develops this potentially tragic heroine.
But however much I loved having more Adare in the book, Gwenna stole the show. In The Providence of Fire the three viewpoints of the siblings are augmented by a fourth one, that of Valyn’s Wingmate Gwenna, the Wing’s ammunitions expert. Gwenna is awesome. She takes no shit, she can blow things up and she’s volatile in more than one sense of the word. But she’s also extremely loyal and very brave and I loved seeing her take on what happened to her and Valyn and their Wing. Gwenna’s isn’t the only female character whose presence takes on more importance compared to the previous book. We see far more of the Skullsworn assassin Pyrre and the leina-apprentice Triste. I really liked Pyrre’s hedonistic presence and her almost casual disregard for her own life, which is of course not so surprising if you are in the service of the death god. Triste becomes very interesting, she turns out to be far more than just a pretty face meant to snare Kaden into a trap and she is at the heart f one of the bigger revelations in the book. The last new female character is Nira, sardonic, tough as nails and old as dirt. Dare meets her on the road and Nira takes Adare under her wing, judging that she needs guidance and the interactions between them and Nira’s history were absolutely wonderful.
Valyn, meanwhile, was still a great character too and I loved the way Staveley made him face up to his shortcomings. Valyn has to learn that failure is not just a question of making the wrong decisions; sometimes, even making the right decisions can lead to failure. At times his sense of being overwhelmed and under-equipped was almost tangible and made my stomach knot up. Though, to be honest, where his story line was my favourite in the previous book, it might have been my least favourite in this one. Kaden’s on the other hand was fascinating. His arc not only reveals much of Annurian history, but is full of political plots as well. Kaden truly moves outside of the box in his attempt at defeating Ran il Tornja, which I thought was a genius and unexpected move on his part.
In his recent Rocket Talk interview Staveley stated that he sought to give each of the siblings mastery of a skill, Kaden has command of his emotions, Valyn is a master of the physical, and Adare is in full control of her intellect. While these were very clearly delineated in book one, in book two there are clear shifts in power and in skills. We see Kaden learn more ways of defending himself, while Valyn wishes he could be more emotionally controlled like Kaden in some situations and Adare just wishes she’d have had some more military strategy training. All of them wish to have something one of the others was taught. I found this a great movement in the narrative and I wonder how this might help unite the siblings in the final book.
In The Providence of Fire the training wheels are off and the action accelerates from 0 to 60 in no time, escaping second book syndrome with ease; the plot thickens, the action ramps up, and the world building explodes. Staveley pulls reveal upon reveal out of his writerly hat and each reveal made me readjust my estimation of who to trust, of who were the good guys and who to root for. Staveley ends on some pretty big bombshells that can only provide great fireworks when they explode in the final book. The Providence of Fire is a fabulous sequel and now I only have one problem: book three is a year away. I can’t wait to find out how this story will end. The good news for any epic fantasy fan that hasn’t started the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne yet, is that you have two great books to read in the next year in preparation for that last instalment.
After 2013’s wonderful The Violent Century, which I loved, I couldn’t wait to readLavie Tidhar’s 2014 release A Man Lies Dreaming. Luckily I was in LAfter 2013’s wonderful The Violent Century, which I loved, I couldn’t wait to read Lavie Tidhar’s 2014 release A Man Lies Dreaming. Luckily I was in London the week after it was released, so I got to pick up a copy soon after release. And I’m glad I sprung for the hardback version as it’s a beautiful book, physically speaking. The cover is deceptively simple yet very powerful and evocative and is not a dust cover, but has laminated boards, in other words it’s printed directly on the boards. The novel contained within the covers is perhaps not so much beautiful as it is compelling. A Man Lies Dreaming isn’t an easy book to read, at least not for me, but it was absolutely engrossing.
What made book so hard to read, you might wonder? Its protagonist Mr Wolf, a.k.a. Hitler, is the book’s main character and for large sections its narrator as well and this made for a complicated reading experience. From childhood, I've been taught that Hitler and his ideologies embody all that is evil. There is no grey area there, Hitler equals evil. So for a book to have its protagonist be an alternate history Hitler, one that still believes everything the real Hitler believed, who is unpleasant, anti-Semitic, arrogant, suffers from a superiority complex, and is just in general a bit off, is a risk and is hard to pull off. Because, how can the reader relate to such a protagonist and read an entire book that focuses on such an unsympathetic and hateful character? In Lavie Tidhar's case by giving the reader a different character to focus her sympathies on – in the person of Shomer – and by making the mystery plot become ostensibly the core of the narrative. Almost every time I got too uncomfortable with Wolf's slurs, anti-semitism, and general misanthropy, Tidhar managed to just shift the narrative to Shomer or to create a diversion through a break in the case. In that aspect – and more generally – the book was impeccably paced.
The book has a strong Noir sensibility, reminiscent of Chandler and Hammett. As Shomer is a writer of shund – Yiddish pulp fiction; shund means trash in Yiddish – this isn't really surprising. You can find the usual dames and mobsters in the narrative and Wolf is your typical, hard-boiled gum shoe, apart from being who he is, of course. The mobsters pitted against each other are Jewish and Nazi’s. Many of the Nazi leaders have escaped now-Communist Germany and moved into the London underworld, using their old contacts to smuggle goods and people out of Germany. Only Wolf seems to have stayed on the right side of the law and even he isn’t much respected by the policemen he encounters. In fact, British politics are in upheaval because the British Union of Fascists led by Sir Oswald Mosley looks set to win the upcoming elections. Mosley’s ideas have gained traction in this alternate Britain and the Brits are becoming more and more resistant to immigrants and Jews. Additionally, political forces within the UK and the US are gearing up to take on the Red Scare now it has gained such solid footing in Germany.
Tidhar heaps layers upon layers of meaning; the exploration of revenge and most importantly redemption, the interesting ‘what if’ of whether the Second World War would have still happened if Hitler had lost the election to the communists in 1932, and the tragedy of Shomer’s story. But what stood out to me most, was the way that the commentary on what happened in the fictional then is valid for what is happening now. We are once again living in a world were there is a big opponent to unify against, though rather than the communists it’s Islamic extremists, and politicians once again are using popular dissatisfaction with their circumstances and their fear of a large conflict to whip up hate, fear and discrimination. There is Farage in the UK and Wilders here in the Netherlands, both of them loudly vilifying immigrants and wanting to close borders. Tidhar shows us two possible ways of how this might work out, directly in the case of Wolf’s alternate world, indirectly through Shomer’s framing narrative. Let’s hope that in our reality we will find a third, better way.
A Man Lies Dreaming is a fascinating narrative. It has left me wondering about Tidhar’s award-winning novel Osama and whether and if so how there are many thematic similarities between these two and if so, which ones. I guess this means I’ll have to scare myself up a copy of that one too. In the meantime, A Man Lies Dreaming is a must-read for anyone that likes books that make them think; it is complex, with plenty of meaty themes to mull over. I hope this book gets the critical acclaim and awards attention it so very much deserves....more
This is a first on A Fantastical Librarian: a picture book review. Henry Herz’s Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes contains fourteen rhymes all playing offThis is a first on A Fantastical Librarian: a picture book review. Henry Herz’s Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes contains fourteen rhymes all playing off well-known nursery rhymes. Since we’ve been reading lots of picture books with the girls, I thought this one would be fun to review as it is not just a children’s picture book but also heavily indebted to D&D’s monster manual for its monsters. This means that all geeky parents who at one time or another have slung the dice, be they tangible or virtual, will be entertained by Herz’s reimagined children’s ditties.
Abigail Larson’s illustrations suit the subject matter well, being reminiscent of traditional D&D art, but in her own distinct style and with interesting colour palettes. I like her spiky line art and the little details she drops into the background of the illustrations. My favourite illustrations were those accompanying Little Witch Muffet, Sing a Song of Six Sprites, and Manticore, Manticore.
Of course, I couldn’t review a picture book and not ask Emma, my four-year-old, for input. She basically liked all the the pictures with female characters in them and the rhymes set to ones she actually knows in Dutch. Her favourites were Little Witch Muffet and Mary Had a Hippogriff, because they both featured a girl and she recognised the rhyme.
Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes was very entertaining and a fun book to read together with Emma. If you’re a geeky parent wanting to share some geekiness with your little ones or you just loves picture books and geeky things, then this is certainly one to check out. In the mean time, I’ve been instructed by Emma to purchase the book, because ‘we need to have this, because I like it.’ I guess that’s a pretty good endorsement right there.
em>City of Liars and Thieves, Eve Karlin's debut, is a historical novel based on the first recorded murder trial in New York. Just for this fact alem>City of Liars and Thieves, Eve Karlin's debut, is a historical novel based on the first recorded murder trial in New York. Just for this fact alone it would have been fascinating, but it is also a snap shot of the run up to one of the most hotly contended Presidential elections in US history, which makes it even more interesting. To be fair, I didn't know much about either Hamilton or Burr, but I did know about the continual issue with water supply in Manhattan and I was interested to see how they tied into this.
In the prologue to the narrative, which is told from her point of view, Caty says that this is as much her story as it is Elma’s, but in my opinion it is more her story than Elma’s, as Elma remains curiously nebulous. She’s present in the narrative, but even then she is marked by her reticence and emotional distance. I never really got a feel for her and certainly not to the extent that I found myself caring about Caty. She feels displaced by her family's move to New York and only slowly adjusts to city life. Her struggles with adjusting and keeping hold of her faith – she's a Quaker – make for an interesting backdrop to how she perceives events. Caty certainly is an interesting narrator, though her bias clearly colours the narrative. Her instant distrust of Levi makes for a somewhat telescopic focus on him as Elma's possible killer, so much so that it is easy to miss certain other clues and alternate interpretations of events.
The novel only really comes vividly alive once Elma disappears; Caty’s rage, guilt, and grief singe of the page. What I found interesting about the days between her disappearance and when Elma's body is found, is the extant to which the search for Elma is a community effort. While there is some official sheriff's involvement, it only comes after Elma has been gone for days and the search has been ongoing for a while. There is a true sense of community in the Ring's neighbourhood, very different from what you might expect from what was even then a relatively large city. Once Elma is found the narrative moves to the court – there wasn't much of a police investigation – and I really enjoyed this look at how court cases worked at the time. Surprisingly, not much seems to have changed in over two hundred years; then, as now, there were the judge, the prosecutor, the defence attorney, and twelve jurors, and that was all that was needed to pronounce justice. What has changed is the standards these people are held to, there are conflicts of interests, heavily biased jury instructions, and other elements that these days would have been cause for an immediate mistrial.
What also features more openly in the second half of the book, but is present throughout, are the political shenanigans of that era. It truly is a fascinating look at the political situation. Karlin shows how convoluted, partisan and corrupt politics were at the time. Politics, business, private interests, they all run together and one is used to further the other. Arguably, this is still the case, as evidenced by the multiple corruption case, insider trading and other stories in the news, yet these days the behaviour tends to be less blatant and far more frowned upon—then it was just a fact of life. I liked how Karlin tied the murder to the conspiracy around the Manhattan Water Company as this was a problem then, but still is now. Even if the water supply is well-established these days, it still remains a vulnerable point in Manhattan’s infrastructure. It’s one of the island’s weakest points and in times of increased threat to US national security New York City’s water system is always one of the municipal organisations to be given extra protection.
City of Liars and Thieves is an enjoyable mystery and provides a fascinating look at early New York society. It’s an intriguing case, but one that unfortunately doesn’t have a clear resolution historically speaking. Karlin has chosen to give the reader a sense of closure through the theory she posits, but for the true Elma Sands there was no such justice. Karlin’s debut is a sound, well-structured narrative with a clear sense of style. My only niggles would be that not all the characterisations were equally strong and the pace tended to be a bit slow in the first part of the novel. But those certainly shouldn’t stop you from picking up City of Liars and Thieves, especially if you are interested in the history of New York City.
The author of Holy Cow doesn’t really need an introduction, does he? Especially for all my fellow geeks who grew up on X-Files (Mulder <3’s ScullyThe author of Holy Cow doesn’t really need an introduction, does he? Especially for all my fellow geeks who grew up on X-Files (Mulder <3’s Scully 4EVA!). But I was rather surprised when I was handed the proof copy for Holy Cow with the comment that David Duchovny had written it. I didn’t even knew he wrote! It turns out that Holy Cow is his debut novel and it is a solid debut. It is also very much a book that either works for you or it doesn’t. It approaches some serious real world issues through a humorous lens and its success will depend on whether you can appreciate Duchovny’s – by way of Elsie’s voice – sense of humour and the stances he takes on the issues he addresses.
While at times Duchovny laid it on rather thickly, I found Holy Cow quite funny. It’s very punny and quite self-aware, making fun of itself and the publishing business. Elsie keeps interjecting comments about how her editor wanted her to change certain passages to make the book more palatable to a larger audience. Elsie’s voice is distinctive and she was a rather down-home cow. I really enjoyed her character and the way she told her story. She doesn’t go on her adventure alone though, she’s accompanied by two of her farm mates, Tom the turkey and Shalom the pig. I found both of them quite entertaining, especially smooth-talking Tom, but at times they also made me wince. This is mostly down to Shalom. Holy Cow might be offensive to some, as it features some fairly heavy-handed stereotypes, especially in Shalom, who spouts Yiddish at random. Duchovny is an equal opportunity offender, poking fun at everyone and everything, yet Shalom’s characterisation made me a little uncomfortable.
For me the best thing about Holy Cow were the interactions between Elsie, Tom and Shalom. I loved the inventiveness of these three as they manage to get themselves across the globe and the way they have each other’s backs. Duchovny takes his protagonists full circle, yet giving them the chance to follow their dreams and become more than they were. Over the course of their journey, Elsie, Tom, and Shalom all realise that what they held to be true about themselves and the world should maybe be turned just a little and be looked at in a different light—as Tom tells Joe the Camel (yes, thatJoe the Camel) in Israel, they are in need of ‘ze paradigm shift’. The other element that stood out were the interior illustrations done by Natalya Balnova who also drew the cover. They were charming and funny and a great addition to the narrative.
In the relatively slim novel that is Holy Cow, Duchovny touches upon animal rights, humanity’s innate need to divide into ‘us vs. them’-camps and to feel superior to others, and concludes that perhaps the biggest animals are humans themselves. Yet he does so with a wink and a smile, letting a spoonful of sugar help the medicine go down; Elsie never gets overly preachy to her audience. Holy Cow is very much a ‘your mileage may vary’-book, as I think you either enjoy it or you don’t depending on whether you connect to the humour in the book. I did and I had a lot of fun with the novel. It made me chuckle out loud, but it also made me think. This modern day dairy tale is well worth giving a try.
Sleepless is Lou Morgan’s first YA novel. She published numerous short stories and her previous two novels, Blood and Feathers and Blood and FeatherSleepless is Lou Morgan’s first YA novel. She published numerous short stories and her previous two novels, Blood and Feathers and Blood and Feathers: Rebellion were fantasy books published by Solaris. Having massively enjoyed those, I was curious to see what Morgan would do writing horror and horror aimed at a young adult audience at that. She wrote a freaking frightening book, that’s what she did. Sleepless is a seriously nerve-wracking roller coaster of a tale, with a serious And Then There Were None-vibe combined with some old-school horror movie feels and stirred with a spoonful of modern technology.
The story is told from the perspective of Izzy Whedon.The last to arrive at Clerkenwell and to join her band of friends, she’s a girl with a nebulous past, which she often references, but never quite reveals. I really loved Izzy as a character. What makes her extra interesting that Morgan positions her as an increasingly unreliable narrator; not just due to sleep deprivation and paranoia, but also due to her reluctance to reveal the reason she came to Clerkenwell. It adds an ever-increasing amount of tension to the narrative that made it hard to put the book down.
Izzy is part of a group of eight friends and while they are all individuals, some stand out more clearly than others. The one we see most of in addition to Izzy is her best friend – and maybe, possibly more – Grey. They live in the same building and have known each other ever since Izzy moved in the year before. I love their friendship, which is fun, has great banter, and has meaning both to Izzy as a character and to the plot. Noah is the brains of the outfit. None of these teens are slobs when it comes to smarts, but Noah beats them all. He’s the loveable know-it-all, which is a character type I have a real soft spot for. Kara, Mia, Dom, and Juliet are all a little less defined, but the last character, Tigs just stood out in stark relief. Tigs was a character I loved to hate. I absolutely disliked her within the first chapters and then thought “Well you know absentee parents, the kid can’t help her upbringing. She’s a wounded soul , etc.” trying to somehow explain why she is so unpleasant. But no, Tigs is just a spoiled, bratty, mean girl and revels in the fact.
There is one more important character in the narrative, though it is a place rather than a person. What I really liked about the setting is that the Barbican, the complex where Izzy and her friends live, becomes a character in its own right. This estate for the wealthy in the centre of London felt so surreal and isolated even if it was in the heart of the city. To me Barbican had always just been a tube stop, one I’d never yet gotten off at and Morgan really made the place come alive.
The plot of the book was fascinating. It is as much a murder mystery as it is a conspiracy thriller as it is a horror story. And in the end all of these elements take a backseat to staying awake and staying alive. Because sleep, who knew right? I mean, as a parent to two small children, one of whom is still a toddler, I do get the bone-tiredness of not having slept properly in weeks. However, that a lack of sleep could so seriously screw up your entire biological system, essentially short-circuiting your nervous system, was something I didn’t know. And apart from being completely terrifying, it also made me appreciate that we’re now at the point were broken nights are an anomaly rather than the rule.
The ending to Sleepless slayed me and left me a little shell-shocked. I thought it was a pretty gutsy ending for Morgan to pull off. In fact it was so captivating, I almost missed Emma’s school run, because I just HAD to finish the book before school and work. I loved Sleepless and the novel shows Morgan can really write anything she sets her mind to. Also, while Izzy is nothing like Morgan’s protagonist from Blood and Feathers, Morgan’s voice is quite consistent across both worlds. It reminded me how much I enjoy Morgan’s writing and now I want even more! Fingers crossed there’ll be a new book to look forward to in the foreseeable future.
I had read and enjoyed Alex Bell’s Lex Trent Versus the Gods in 2011, but never managed to scare up acopy of its sequel Lex Trent: Fighting Fire withI had read and enjoyed Alex Bell’s Lex Trent Versus the Gods in 2011, but never managed to scare up a copy of its sequel Lex Trent: Fighting Fire with Fire. Thus I was really pleased to get another chance to read more of Bell’s work with Frozen Charlotte. It’s quite a move away from the Lex Trent books, which were very much fun adventure books for younger teens. In comparison, Frozen Charlotte is quite dark and has a completely creepy notion at the base of it: a house haunted by dolls. It is Victorian Chucky turned to eleven.
Having read a little more horror in the past year, I’ve come to the conclusion that for horror to be effective, a connection to the characters is crucial; how can you be afraid for someone if you don’t care? In that sense, Sophie is a fantastic protagonist. I really liked her voice and her story. Sophie’s kind and funny, with a sharp edge. I love her friendship with Jay and the way that Bell portrays it throughout the novel, notwithstanding the fact that Jay is practically absent from the narrative after the first chapter. Sophie’s grief feels real and her determination to get to the bottom of what happens at the start of the book was convincing.
To do so, Sophie goes to Skye to stay with her Uncle James and her cousins, while her parents travel abroad. She lands in an interesting household. With a mother hospitalised due to her grief over losing her daughter and a father who is trying to lose himself in his work, the household is mostly held together by the elder two siblings, Cameron and Piper. In fact, Uncle James made me want to scream, because I just wanted him to come out from behind his easel and take responsibility for the care of his children. The sibling dynamics between Cameron, Piper, and Lilias were great, even if sometimes a bit twisted. Rebecca’s death affects all of these family members differently and it was fascinating to see how each of them coped, or didn’t as the case may be.
I felt a pervasive sense of dread throughout the story and I kept shifting my suspicions about who or what was responsible for the frightening occurrences. At first I was wondering whether the dolls were a manifestation of Rebecca, a hallucination, or their own spectres, but increasingly it felt as if these Frozen Charlottes possessed a consciousness and I started wondering where they came from and whose consciousness had invaded them. I really loved the captions at the start of each chapter, which combined make the ballad of Fair Charlotte which tells the tale of a girl who freezes to death on the way to a ball due to vanity, which also hinted at a possible source of the dolls.
Frozen Charlotte has a great ending, satisfying and at least for most of the characters quite hopeful, even if the epilogue made me just go “No, no, no, don’t do that!" With Frozen Charlotte Bell delivers a chilling story, a proper haunting ghost tale. It’s a story I really enjoyed, though I’ve put my girls dolls in the back of their toy cupboard for the time being. Just to make sure…
When I started Tomorrow and Tomorrow, I was a bit unsure as to what to expect. Was it a murder mystery? An SF novel? A dystopia? It turned out the booWhen I started Tomorrow and Tomorrow, I was a bit unsure as to what to expect. Was it a murder mystery? An SF novel? A dystopia? It turned out the book is all three. Thomas Sweterlitsch delivers an immersive and thrilling tale of a man whose barely patched-together existence comes crumbling down around him when he discovers a murder in the City Archive that its perpetrators would rather stay buried with the city it happened in. The narrative is fascinating, though at times a little hard to follow. But staying on its tracks paid off beautifully in the end.
With any dystopia its success is largely dependent on the believability of its world building, in other words, do I believe how we got here. In Tomorrow and Tomorrow the narrative was largely successful in convincing me. On the one hand, the background is somewhat sketchy as to how the world got to the point that Pittsburgh happened. Yet on the other hand, the fact that society is focused on sex, religion, and crime to the extent that it is, feels like a logical extrapolation of current focus. Also the development of internet culture and hardware into a cranial and retinal implant, called Adware, a permanent Google Glass so to speak, doesn’t feel all that far-fetched. In fact, this seems to be becoming more and more a staple of near-future SF.
The biggest example of the immersive and permanent nature of the online world in Dominic’s future is The Archive, which is a freaky mixture of what all the official and unofficial surveillance might mean in the future, allowing us to rebuild entire cities digitally for as far back as we have footage. Yet it is also a touching tribute to the victims of the bombing of Pittsburgh, though one I’m not sure I would want to visit if I was a surviving loved one, even if I absolutely understand how one could become obsessed with it in the way Dominic does.
The immersive nature of Adware is both a feature and a bug in the narrative. While its possibilities are fantastic and give Sweterlitsch lots of ground to play in, the way the online and meatspace tend to intermingle in the narrative can be quite confusing; there were times I had to reread a passage once or twice to figure out where we were exactly. Combine this disorienting element with the fact that for part of the novel Dominic is a drug addict and thus a somewhat unreliable narrator and things got a bit surreal and hard to follow. Yet, this surreality also strengthens Dominic’s characterisation and makes for a fascinating reading experience. It makes for a densely layered narrative, sometimes literally as Dominic overlays the different realities on top of each other and layers in extra senses.
The murder plot that sets the entire story in motion is diabolical in nature and contained several reveals and unexpected connections I really enjoyed. Dominic investigates the murder and the connected leads through a mixture of old-fashioned gum shoe surveillance, digital spelunking, research skills, and creative lateral thinking, but mostly through grit and staying power. Sweterlitsch makes his investigation fascinating by mostly skipping over the more boring bits, but I really liked this non-traditional approach to a criminal investigation.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow doesn’t have a traditional all-is-resolved, all-is-well happy ending. Sweterlitsch certainly resolves the mystery and all loose ends; there is certainly the sense that Dominic has finally reached a place from which he can heal and let go the debilitating grief for his wife and child. Yet, he also loses much and doesn’t get away from what happens during the book without permanent scars. Thomas Sweterlitsch’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow is an intelligent, dark, and gritty thriller that sketches a future I hope we’ll never see, but one that manages to fascinate from start to finish.
When I received a review copy for Binary I was super stoked as its predecessor Gemsigns topped my 2013 favourite debuts list, by a mile I may add. AnWhen I received a review copy for Binary I was super stoked as its predecessor Gemsigns topped my 2013 favourite debuts list, by a mile I may add. And then I was hit by a gigantic case of book fear—the fear you get after being swept away by an author’s book that their next book couldn’t possibly live up to your expectations. And thus Binary languished on my to-read-pile, until last Christmas, when I gave you my heart kicked myself in the behind and told myself to get it in gear and pick up this book I’d wanted to read so badly before it was out. Thank you past-me, because I have to admit that Binary was fantastic and every bit as good as I could have wished for.
Binary is set several years after Gemsigns and features a mix of old and new characters. Of course, Aryel Morningstar and Dr Eli Walker return, as does Gemsigns’ antagonist Zavcka Klist. We get added viewpoints from Rhys and Sharon, who are great new voices. Sharon Varsi is a norm DI, who married Mikal, who is the manager of the Squats, the gem community in London. Her viewpoint has a sort of police procedural flavour to it as she investigate the alleged theft of genestock from the European Gene Archive. I loved her character, she has a certain unflappableness that I enjoyed. Rhys, the other new main viewpoint character, is Aryel’s younger foster brother and a tech wizard. He also needs to discover how to cure the attacks he’s been suffering from that leave him weakened and sore. In addition, he has a wonderful and lovely romance. At first I was a bit taken aback by the pace of the relationship, but then I realised that they’d been communicating online for ages, so it wasn’t a case of insta-love trope.
There are several great secondary characters, but my absolute favourite was Herran. His genes have been manipulated in such a way that he’s brilliant with anything digital, yet he suffers from severe communication difficulties and exhibits behaviours that in this day and age would usually be associated with severe autism. Saulter develops his character beautifully. In her piece on the exploration of disability in Guardians of the Galaxy focussing on Groot and Drax, Sarah of Bookworm Blues talks about how Groot is limited by his vocabulary, but can communicate broadly via body language and verbal cues. Once one learns to understand these, he can be quite expressive. Herran’s development feels quite similar. In fact, Rhys even notes on meeting him in meatspace that Herran is far more fluent in a digital format. But throughout the narrative he becomes more and more eloquent as more point of view characters learn to understand his language, while Herran also expands his arsenal of non-verbal cues. I just really loved Herran; he’s a gentle, loyal soul and one that is far more devious and nimble than many around him expect.
With the Declaration and the delivery of Dr Walker’s report in Gemsigns, societal changes were set in motion that were analogous to Abolition and the end of segregation rolled into one. Almost five years on things are changing but not as fully or as fast as desired. Mixed couples are becoming more common, but they are nowhere near accepted yet, something illustrated in how Sharon is given the cold shoulder by many of her colleagues for marrying Mikal. The latter is sworn in as the first gem city councillor at the start of the novel, but even during his inauguration doubts are voiced by the civil servant swearing him in, albeit not aloud. Yet at the same time there is also a growing sense of glamour attached to gems, such as Lyrriam and Gwen who are hounded by the paparazzi – who sadly aren’t a phenomenon humanity has gotten rid off even over a century in the future – not to mention Aryel who is still held in atavistic awe by many.
The gillungs, water-adapted gems, have taken their settlement money and created their own underwater habitat tech, which is very successful and becoming quite profitable, something that’s an interesting development as it seems that this is tech that isn’t human gemtech-based and as such is a new area of research. I also liked that something I had noted in my review for Gemsigns – that all information technology was basically almost the same as in our day, because all R&D had gone into gemtech – was actually a plot element in Binary, when this research is rebooted. The outlawing of human gemtech – as opposed to agricultural gemtech – has created a vacuum for the gemtech companies who need to scramble to find new products to develop so they can be competitive again. Saulter really took this economic side-effect of the Declaration into account, which I enjoyed.
If Gemsigns asked what makes us human, the big question central to Binary is where do we draw the line? A question most clearly expressed in the quandary Sharon and Mikal find themselves in when it comes to having children. The fertility issues they run into, cause them to ask themselves if they are modifying the embryo’s anyway, which is actually gem tech, where do you stop? Do you limit to enabling pregnancy with a viable embryo? Do you tweak out the markers for genetic diseases? Do you perhaps go as far taking out some of the more outré physical manifestations of gem parents? And if you do, what message does this send to your child? It’s a fascinating dilemma and one which isn’t as far removed from our own society as one might think, given even modern day worries about designer babies.
In Binary Saulter reveals some really big truths about both Aryel’s and Zavcka’s pasts, ones which were very surprising, especially the truths about Zavcka. These truths will also have far-reaching consequences for the future and I can’t wait to discover what they will be in the final book in this series, Regeneration. Binary has confirmed Saulter is one of the most interesting new voices in SF and a must-read author. If you haven’t discovered this series yet, I highly recommend you check it out, because it’s one of the most thought-provoking series currently being published.
When I was contacted about reviewing Jennifer Brozek’s new short story collection Apocalypse Girl Dreaming, there were two things that sprung to mind:When I was contacted about reviewing Jennifer Brozek’s new short story collection Apocalypse Girl Dreaming, there were two things that sprung to mind: I remembered hearing her on the SF Signal podcast and really enjoying the episodes and I remembered reading her Valdemar story in Under the Vale and liking her angle of looking at those who are rejected for Collegium instead of the ones who are Chosen. So I was pleased to get the opportunity to read more by Brozek and discover what else she had written. It turns out Brozek is a versatile writer as at home in fantasy as she is in military SF or the Weird West and everything in-between.
The stories in Apocalypse Girl Dreaming can be split into four groups. The first are the stories set in Brozek’s Mowry universe. These are the stories relating the adventures of Eric Hamblin and Joseph Lamb, two gun slingers in the Weird West. I really enjoyed this setting and the characters of Hamblin and Lamb. Over the four Mowry stories included in this collection you get a real sense of who both of these men are and there is even some character development over the course of the stories, not just within each separate story. It’s a setting I’d love to read more in.
The second group are stories set in the Kendrick universe, which is also the setting for Brozek’s urban fantasy series The Karen Wilson Chronicles, book four of which is due to be published this March. There are only two Kendrick stories in the collection and they are both very different, filling in background to the main universe rather than linking together closely. I enjoyed these stories as they were entertaining in their own right, but they didn’t give me the clear sense of the setting that the Mowry stories did.
The third group are the stories set in the Kember Empire universe, which is Brozek’s military SF space universe setting. And I adored it. The stories share clear connections, there are five Kember Empire stories in total, and create a really interesting world which I would love to explore more. I really loved the character of Natara Kintares who is a young space cadet and everything you’d expect from such a character; she’s fun, headstrong, somewhat reckless, and very brave. I’d love to see a novel starring her at some point, because I need more Natara and Kember in my life.
The last group are nine separate stories, though two of these are tie-in stories to Mercedes Lackey worlds. They cover a broad range and overall I liked them. Unsurprisingly, I loved both the tie-in stories. Mercedes Lackey is my crack and I love the worlds she’s built, whether it’s Valdemar, her Dragon Jouster universe, or her Elemental Masters series. Brozek includes one story set in Valdemar, Discordance, which was the story I’d read before, and one set in the Elemental Masters universe called The Price of Family. I really liked this one, because it looks at the less pretty side of elemental magic and the moral dilemma’s its practitioners face.
Three other stories I want to mention are Eulogy for Muffin, A Nightmare for Anna, and The Bathory Clinic Deal. These stories stuck with me for different reasons. Eulogy for Muffin was such an unexpected story, what with the adoration of the pig statues and the fact that this isn’t just about humouring the kids’ needs to say goodbye to their departed pets. A Nightmare for Anna, was a twisted fairytale and I love how well Brozek incorporated the fairytale elements and managed to make what is a tragic story have a bittersweet ending. The Bathory Clinic Deal was just heart-breaking. The choices its protagonist has to make to protect his little sister and to take care of both of them are hard and his conviction that he would be the one to beat the odds is at once admirable and soul-crushing.
Apocalypse Girl Dreaming was a strong collection of stories and certainly shows off Brozek's versatility as a writer very well. I had a great time with the stories in this book and I look forward to reading more of Brozek’s work in the future.
Confession time: I’ve had a review copy of Colette McBeth’s Precious Thing sitting in my to read pile for over a year. And every time I picked it up aConfession time: I’ve had a review copy of Colette McBeth’s Precious Thing sitting in my to read pile for over a year. And every time I picked it up and put it down because there were all of these SFF and historical fiction titles I wanted/needed to review first. However, when I visited Headline in October, they basically told me I had to read The Life I Left Behind, as it was just that good. And since I’d resolved to read more crime books this year – as I loved the ones I read last year so much, I thought McBeth’s second might be a good title to start 2015 with. It was, because The Life I Left Behind was an enthralling read, one I just couldn’t put down and which kept me awake long after I turned off the lights.
The book tells the story of two crimes, an attack that left its victim in a coma for days and changed forever after and a murder. Two crimes that seem only connected through their perpetrator, but turn out to be far more closely linked than first assumed. Since it’s revealed in the first chapter, it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Eve is the dead woman from the blurb on the back of the book. I loved her voice; she’s brutally honest, tenacious, idealistic, and kind. She’s a vibrant presence in the narrative. Eve’s voice is omniscient, she’s the one who gives us all the viewpoints other than that of Melody and the DI in charge of the investigation into Eve’s murder. She’s also done much of the leg work towards solving her own murder for DI Rutter.
In some ways The Life I Left Behind reminded me so much of Serial, the podcast phenomenon that obsessed so many people in the last months of 2014. Eve’s investigation of Melody’s attack was very much in the vein of what Sarah Koenig did in the case of the murder of Hae Min Lee. At times it was uncanny. Then again it shows how well-written and researched the book is, because Eve follows all the steps a good investigative journalist would follow and asks all the right questions. Following Eve’s steps was a fascinating process, especially in the way McBeth reveals the things Eve discovers; partly through Eve’s recounting them when the investigation into her murder reaches the same point and partly through others reading her research into Melody’s case.
Melody’s storyline isn’t primarily about finally finding out who really attacked her all those years ago. To me, it’s far more about her reclaiming her life and her self confidence. I liked the arc McBeth plots for Melody, who when we meet her, is living a shadow life cloistered in her isolated house in the country, haunted by the person she used to be, and desperately keeping up appearances for the sake of those around her. When Eve is found murdered, ostensibly by the same man who attacked Melody six years before, everyone expects her to shatter and collapse, yet the opposite happens. I loved the way McBeth lets Melody rediscover her inner steel and take back her life.
The third viewpoint character is DI Victoria Rutter, who is our official eyes within the investigation. I liked her; she’s your typical hard-working police officer, torn between the demands of her job and those of her family. Her guilt over the times the job wins out over her children is palpable, yet she never apologises for wanting to do her job well. There are four other important characters in the book: Melody’s fiancé Sam, her best friend Patrick, Eve’s best friend Nat, and David, the man convicted of Melody’s attack. Due to his being Melody’s fiancé, Sam is one of the more important secondary characters and I just hated his guts. He’s such a pompous douche and just so, so wrong. While we don’t see that much of Patrick and David they are key characters in the book since David is who sets the whole plot in motion and Patrick always has Melody’s back. My favourite of these four, however, was Nat. Eve’s best friend and confidant, he’s just lovely and the way he and Melody connect and form a friendship is essential in her getting back control over her life.
The Life I Left Behind was a riveting read, with an ending that knocked the breath out of me and had me turning pages frantically to find out how it all resolved. McBeth creates vivid characters enmeshed in a complex web of mystery and lies, which she unravels with skill and an expert sense of pacing. If you enjoy intricate psychological thrillers or were as obsessed with Serial as I was, then I can’t recommend The Life I Left Behind highly enough. In the mean time I’ll be moving her previous novel Precious Thing up the review pile, because even if it is half as good as this one, it’ll be a great read.
When Hodder & Stoughton announced their acquisition of the The Hollow Gods trilogy, I thought it sounded amazing and as the first reviews startedWhen Hodder & Stoughton announced their acquisition of the The Hollow Gods trilogy, I thought it sounded amazing and as the first reviews started rolling in I couldn’t wait to actually read it, as some of my favouritereviewers loved it. And once again my trust in them was proven right, because Smiler’s Fair was an amazing book. It is epic, it is grim – the prologue is just brutal – it is complex, it has a fascinating world and slips in elements of diversity almost without calling attention to it.
I loved the world Levene created. With much of the original populace of the continent decimated during a war between Mizhara, the goddess of the Sun, and her brother Yron, the Moon god, the land has been colonised by the Fourteen Tribes and the people of Ashane. The original inhabitants of the land have all retreated up North and into the Moon Forest. This means that there are a number of interesting different cultures in the book and while we get glimpses of most of them, it’s only the Ashane and the Dae that are really explored in depth. I’m hoping we’ll learn even more about the other tribes and about the Moon Forest folk in the following books, because the glimpses we had, were certainly interesting.
All of these people, of all colours and creeds, gather at the Smiler’s Fair, a city that is packed up and moved almost monthly and which offers its visitors every pleasure and vice imaginable. Smiler’s Fair, like most of the other human habitations, remains mobile to avoid drawing the Worm Men, human-like monsters who live in the dark and kill humans for food. I loved how Levene used this premise to create a unique way of building a community. It’s one that is always in flux – your neighbour one day might different from your neighbour the next – and one that brings specific challenges and solutions, such as building houses on tracks or building them on water and having them dragged along by mammoths. Yet all of these communities revolve around a fixed location, be it a lake or a mine; the Fair is the only one that has a circle that covers the entirety of the continent, which makes it an excellent focal point for this story.
The narrative is epic in scope with lots of characters. It’s true that there are familiar tropes aplenty in the book, the above blurb alone would yield at least five and probably more if you ran it against TV Tropes, but that is kind of the point. Because Smiler’s Fair seems very much in conversation with works that have come before. Krish is essentially your traditional farm boy with a prophesy attached, yet Levene turns the trope on its head through the choices Krish makes towards the end of the book. The same goes for Dae Hyo’s quest for revenge; he does not get the usual epiphanies about forgiveness or letting go his rage, no Dae just stays angry.
My favourite characters were Dae Hyo, Krish, and Eric. The interaction and the bond between Dae Hyo and Krish is classic epic fantasy and very enjoyable, while Eric was just special. I loved Eric’s arc, from his following his heart to journey beyond the Fair to his sojourn up North I really enjoyed his story. Eric is a mix of cynical male prostitute and doe-eyed romantic, which sounds antithetical and sounded work, but does so really well. Eric is also the reason we meet Rii, who I found one of the most fascinating creatures of the book. She’s basically a huge, talking bat, but she stole every scene she featured in. Hopefully, she’ll return in the next book. In fact, Levene creates more fascinating wildlife in the form of the carrion mounts, which are huge, rider-carrying vultures, the previously mentioned mammoths, and the monstrous beasts from the Moon Forest.
The two characters that left me most conflicted were Marvan and Nethmi. Nethmi starts out as a familiar figure: the daughter without agency who is traded away for political reasons against her wishes. I loved that Nethmi gains agency throughout the novel, yet she also takes a turn for the scary, which I found hard to swallow. It left me wondering about what clues I’d missed early on for her to change this drastically. Marvan on the other hand reminded me a lot of The Following’s Joe Caroll. He’s the same sort of compellingly disturbed and eerily charming. And like Joe with his cult members, Marvan's treatment of Nethmi was frighteningly manipulative. It’ll be interesting to see how these two return in the next book and what their role in the story will be.
The one complaint I would level against Smiler’s Fair is that its build-up is very slow. Much of the first part of the novel is introduction of characters and setting without any clear indication of the overarching plot. It is only later in the book that the larger story becomes clear and the narrative begins to pick up its pace somewhat. Yet, to be honest I didn’t mind this slow build-up at all. There is so much going on, on so many levels, and there is so much to see in Levene’s world that I just had to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Smiler’s Fair is a fantastic beginning to The Hollow Gods and I can’t wait for book 2. The paperback for Smiler’s Fair is out tomorrow, so start the year off right and pick up this stunning epic fantasy. You won’t regret it.
In a nice cyclical move, the penultimate book I review in 2014 is the sequel to the second book I reviewed this year. Full disclosure: Liz de JagerisIn a nice cyclical move, the penultimate book I review in 2014 is the sequel to the second book I reviewed this year. Full disclosure: Liz de Jager is a dear friend. This doesn’t mean I haven’t read this novel critically, because I have. Besides, she would kick my ass if she thought I’d cut her slack. But for the sake of transparency I thought it important to mention it upfront.
Vowed is the second book in De Jager’s Blackhart trilogy and returns us Kit a number of months after the ending of the last book. Having physically recovered from her ordeal at the end of Banished, Kit has not escaped unchanged, both magically and mentally. Her magic has bloomed and become for more powerful than it was before, while her heart remains somewhat the worse for wear after the events of the previous book and her separation from Thorn. Now located in London, the irrepressible Kit is working the family business and taking on assignments on her own. This brings us to the case at the heart of Vowed. Because this case she can’t work alone. Her employer demands she work together with Dante Alexander, a member of the Spook Squad. And Kit is not amused with this development.
I loved the set up for Vowed. As I mentioned in my review for Banished, I was left wondering where on earth Vowed would take Kit’s story as Banished didn’t really leave a hook for the next book, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started Vowed. But Kit’s situation at the start allows for an almost episodic treatment of the story, not quite the monster-of-the-week format Buffy employed to such good effect, but a similar independent, but clearly linked structure. It also means that one does not have to read Banished to understand Vowed.
Vowed’s biggest draw, like the previous book, remains Kit Blackhart. I just absolutely adore her. She’s such a fun, interesting character and she does one-liners with the best of them. The way she’s trying to come to terms with what happened with her and Thorn made me ache for her, especially when she finds herself drawn to Dante and immediately starts feeling guilty over it. She swings between wanting to hide under her duvet and dealing like a boss, and it just felt really genuine. De Jager also manages to develop Kit’s relationship with her family beautifully, even if we only see her cousin Kyle and Aunt Letitia “on screen”. But through the things Kit says about her family and the telephone conversations she has with her uncles, the reader gets a true sense of kinship and a close-knit family bond, which I loved. And of course there is Kyle. I was stoked to see him as much as we do, because he is my favourite of Kit’s cousins. I love the geeky genius boy.
Kit isn’t just close to her family. There is also her best friend Aiden, one of the Garrett pack. I love their friendship and the way that they are straight with each other and able to be angry with each other without it meaning the end of the friendship or being a big major drama. Also their howls of laughter whenever anyone suggests they might be more than friends is hilarious and never rings false. During Vowed Kit becomes close to her unwanted partner as well. She and Dante warm to each other and I liked their dynamics. It helps that Dante is a lovely guy with a fascinating secret. I look forward to see how his character is developed after the discoveries he makes in this book. I hope he gets to stick around, because he makes a great partner for Kit.
The case Kit and Dante have to solve is creepy and complicated, leading them to discover awful things about the way the world works and how sometimes we are powerless to stop them. I liked the way the investigation also allows us to see more of Kit’s world and the creatures within it, such as Milton’s, the club she frequents, and its numerous supernatural visitors or Professor Imelda Thorpe, historian and anthropologist, and Kit’s go-to source on ancient pagan practices. I loved the breadth and scope of De Jager’s supernatural world and the best thing about it is that it feels as if she’s only shown us a quarter of Kit’s world.
My one criticism of the book would be the fact that I figured out the identity of the Raggedy Man quite a bit before Kit and Dante did. I don’t like feeling smarter than the protagonists of a book, I want to be in the moment of discovery with them. Then again, I know there are plenty of people who love beating the main character to the punch in solving the mystery, so this complaint is definitely of the YMMV-variety. In addition, the discovery of the Raggedy Man’s identity was only the first step in locating the children and the resolution to the mystery broke my heart.
With Vowed De Jager has upped her writing game considerably; her strong voice remains and the story is even more tightly plotted. Unlike at the end of Banished, this time there is a clear hook into the next book Judged. I can’t wait to see where De Jager will take Kit and company after the explosive ending of Vowed, but I know I will be there for the ride. You don’t have to read Banished before picking up Vowed, but I recommend that you do, because it add to the depth of the world and why miss out on a great story? Vowed is a high-octane, massively entertaining read, which had me laughing out loud more than once. Now when is the next book out? Because my Grabby Hands of Want™ are aching for it.
Before I say anything about the actual story of Lagoon, I have a PSA for publishers: if you want me to check outyour books give them a Joey Hi-Fi coveBefore I say anything about the actual story of Lagoon, I have a PSA for publishers: if you want me to check out your books give them a Joey Hi-Fi cover. I’ll never not look at a Joey Hi-Fi cover. His work is just amazing! </fangirlrant>
Of course, while the cover certainly drew me to the book, Nnedi Okorafor is an author I’ve long meant to read, as she’s one of the names that always pops up in discussions of writers of colour and especially those writing in English. When I discovered the synopsis for Lagoon I was immediately taken with the book because it sounded both fun and exciting. It was those things, but it was also a searing examination of humanity and the way we treat each other and the world around us.
Lagoon was a kaleidoscopic story. While the main narrative focuses on three protagonists – Adaora, Anthony and Agu – there are several secondary characters and even smaller bit parts that weave in and out of the story and connect to each other in unexpected, but remarkable ways. Where else would you encounter chapters from the points of view of a swordfish, a tarantula, and even a stretch of highway? I loved these unanticipated viewpoints, because they’re not meant as entertaining asides to the story, they are an integral part of it and Okorafor makes the most out of them. Her writing is wonderful, with a great use of dialogue and the different languages spoken in Lagos. She writes entire dialogues in Pidgin English, which I found fascinating, trying to figure out where the words came from, but then I’m an unapologetic language geek, so I would like that.
The three main characters, Adaora, Anthony, and Agu, who I took to calling the three A’s in my head, are three strangers brought together seemingly at random on the night the strange events related in Lagoon begin with the arrival of a loud sonic boom. Each of the three A’s is more than they seem at first blush. When we meet them they are already different from the norm, due to their situations in life, yet they turnout to be even more exceptional than we thought. We learn their histories during the course of the novel and they are really special. The one thing that bugged me about this is that we never learn why them and whence these powers come. I know that not everything can or has to be explained, but I would just have loved to understand more about it.
Of the three A’s Adaora was my favourite. She’s fearless and has such a sense of responsibility. At one point in the book she has to make the tough decision to send her children to safety and that scene just grabbed me by the throat because it was such a brave and heart-breaking choice to make. Her struggles with being a strong, liberated woman, married to a man who is ‘born again’ and would perhaps rather see his wife in a more submissive position were also interestingly handled. I like the fact that her husband Chris is juxtaposed with Agu. Agu is a soldier who was beat up for trying to prevent his squad mates from assaulting a woman and as such is quite opposite of Chris in his behaviour towards women and Adaora in particular. I loved Agu’s strong moral compass and his ability to stay true to it in the face of threats. Of the three, I connected to Anthony the least. His character intrigued me, but for me didn’t resonate as strongly as the other two.
There is a fourth A, but she is set somewhat apart from the first three. She is Ayodele, the woman who comes from the sea, but is not of this planet. Ayodele, a name given to her by Adaora, is the alien ambassador sent to negotiate with Nigeria’s president to facilitate her people’s move into Lagos. I loved Ayodele and her species. Okorafor created a kind of alien that is not just a human with a weird forehead or strange eyebrows, but a species that is intrinsically different from humanity and isn’t even equivalent to human biology. They also don’t come to conquer Earth, they seek to co-exist alongside humanity and to make our planet better. This creates a strange mix of creature that are terrifying in aspect, but whose intentions aren’t frightening at all. Yet while their intentions seem benevolent, their alien outlook on life and morality has them react in ways that would only serve to frighten people more. They are change incarnate and humans never deal well with change.
Okorafor doesn’t flinch away from the seedier side of life, showing the slums as well as the gated communities of Lagos. Her affection for the city leaps from the page and infuses the book. Despite this, there are also indictments for those elements that in the West are always closely linked when thinking of Nigeria: its systemic corruption and 419 internet scams, also known as Nigeria scams. The personification of this corruption is Father Oke, Chris’ priest who is more interested in his own material well-being than the spiritual well-being of his flock. His arc in the book was interesting and I liked how it ended. I also liked the scenes in the internet cafe with the 419 scammers, their utter contempt for their marks was so well-written. To be honest, I think most internet-savvy people would share their disdain; I know that on a certain level I do as well, because how naive do you have to be to fall for such a message? At the same time it illustrates how willing bad people are to take advantage of the kindness and naïveté of others and isn’t that exactly what Ayodele was meant to discover? To balance this, there is the wonderful speech given by the President, which voices his frustrations at not being able to effect change in the face of corruption.
With Lagoon Okorafor has written an interesting first-contact story with a very entertaining twist. The novel ends on a note of hope, a tenuous one, but tangible. The aliens have brought change, just by dint of their arrival, if nothing else, and life in Lagos or elsewhere on Earth will never be the same. I massively enjoyed Lagoon and I’ll certainly need to find more of Okorafor’s works in the future.
On the one hand there’s Lucy. Born into privilege, with all she might want at her disposal, yet when we meet her she is lonely and home alone as her parents have jetted off on holiday to Paris and her brothers are both away at university. Yet while she may be lonely, Lucy is in no way a tragic figure, in fact she’s quite funny. While her story is bookended by her meetings with Owen, much of the book sees her moving away from New York and living outside of the US. I loved her discovery of life abroad and away from her safe NYC haunts. Though at one point I wanted to just shake her parents when Lucy has the courage to express her desire for more time with them, especially on their travels and they react as if she’d only had to ask. How could she have known? Why didn’t they just ask the children!? That just made me mad. Lucy was already at home in herself at the start of the novel, but she finds her place in the world through the course of the novel, with Owen only being part of that development, not the catalyst.
Owen is the Downstairs to Lucy’s Upstairs: the son of her building’s property manager, he lives in the basement of her high rise. His home situation is less financially and emotionally stable than Lucy’s, especially with his dad still in deep mourning after the loss of his wife and Owen’s mum. I really empathised with Owen’s feeling of responsibility for his dad, having to cover for him at work and feeling guilty at possibly moving away for university after graduation. It always breaks my heart to see a child feel that way and Owen was no exception. I liked though that over the course of the novel, and during their trek across the United States, Owen’s dad comes out of his mourning fugue and he and Owen rebuild their lives and their bond.
Smith does banter extremely well and the dialogues between Lucy and Owen are wonderful, as are Lucy’s brief scenes with Liam. I didn’t like Owen’s scenes with Paisley as much, as they seemed somehow ephemeral, though perhaps that was the point, seeing how that situation comes to an end. Something that struck me with all of Smith’s books and with this latest one in particular, is how visual they are; they feel like they would translate to film very well. Besides the great banter and lovely emotional beats, Smith’s smooth writing makes The Geography of You and Me an extremely engaging story, one that is hard to put down before reaching the final page.
In the end The Geography of You and Me isn’t about love at first sight, it’s about growing up, about the people that move into your head and linger there, asking you to imagine what could be, about exploring all the possibilities. I love that Smith ends the book not on a happily ever after, but on an ‘we’re here now and we’ll see what happens next’. It’s what I’d like to call a realistic happy ending, because how many people live happily ever after with the person they fall in love with at seventeen? While The Geography of You and Me isn’t my favourite of Smith’s novels – that title still belongs to This is What Happy Looks Like – I had a wonderful time with the book. If you’re a fan of Smith’s or you’re looking to read a fun and charming YA romance, this is a book you’ll want to read.
One of the most buzzed about anthologies of 2014 was Twelfth Planet Press’ kickstarted title Kaleidoscope. Edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios,One of the most buzzed about anthologies of 2014 was Twelfth Planet Press’ kickstarted title Kaleidoscope. Edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, Kaleidoscope collects twenty YA stories around the theme of diversity. Diversity of gender, of sexuality, of origin, ability, and race; it’s all present in Kaleidoscope. The result is a wonderful book filled with wonderful stories, some of them funny, some scary, some heart-breaking, but all of them engaging and emotionally touching. None of the stories disappoint, there wasn’t a single dud for me, but the following five were my favourites.
Tansy Rayner Roberts - Cookie Cutter Superhero After I finished Cookie Cutter Superhero, I immediately took to Twitter to ask Tansy Rayner Roberts whether there would be more in this world, because I adored this story. Joey, its main character is wonderful. A teen selected to become part of Australia’s Superhero team, she worries about how her missing hand will affect her tenure as a superhero and whether she’ll be the only female hero in the group. I totally loved what Roberts did with the story and happily the answer I received to my query on Twitter was positive: Roberts is definitely planning to do more in this world.
Faith Mudge - Signature Signature was catnip to me. Centred on a bookstore with the awesome name Nightingale and Priest, this story was a great variation on the Rumpelstiltskin tale. Its protagonist Priya is kickass. I loved the rest of the people at Nightingale and Priest as well, but Priya was something special. This is the third story by Mudge I’ve read and so far she’s three for three. I really enjoy Mudge’s writing and Signature was no exception. The way Priya comes into her own in the course of the story was wonderful. I look forward to reading Mudge’s next story!
Karen Healey - Careful Magic Healey’s treatment of OCD was fantastic. Embedded in a world where magic users are classed either Order or Chaos and most teens identify as Chaos workers, her main character Helen is the exception to the rule and is a declared Order worker. Yet the fact that she’s an Order worker doesn’t seem to be the cause of the fact she’s clearly dealing with OCD. Healey captures the unease, unrest, and even full-blown panic when Helen’s routines are broken very well. As someone who has mild OCD as well, I identified strongly with Helen and I loved how she works with and around her ticks. Careful Magic was a great story one that shows that OCD is more than just having to things in threes or in a specific order.
Sofia Samatar - Walkdog Written in the form of a research assignment for school, Walkdog is a strangely compelling and deeply touching exploration of what it means to fall in love and how hard it is to see the one you love hurt by the rest of the world just for how they look. The genuine anger Yolanda feels not just towards the bullies, but towards Andy as well, is as ugly as it is realistic, born as it is from a sense of helplessness. I loved Samatar’s play with the form of the story and the language in which Yolanda writes her report, which is hardly flawless, but conveys this girl’s personality clear as crystal.
Amal El-Mohtar - The Truth about Owls The Truth about Owls is a gorgeous story about grief, acceptance of loss, and letting go of anger and guilt. El-Mohtar’s writing is gorgeous and almost melodic; it made the story sing for me. Anisa’s connection to owls and, after meeting Blodeuwedd, to Welsh and the Mabinogion was a great concept and the mix of owlish factoids and Anisa’s story worked really well. I’ve enjoyed previous stories I’ve read by El-Mohtar, but I think this may be my favourite of hers yet.
Kaleidoscope is a fantastic anthology, with an important central theme, one that is fitting for the year that saw the rise of We Need Diverse Books and the broader discussion that’s become more visible in the larger SFF community. I truly loved this collection and it’s one that deserves to be widely read and I hope to see some of its stories on award ballots next year....more
Full disclosure, I like Edward Cox. We're friendly online and I was lucky enough to meet him last year in Brighton. The synopsis for his debut The RelFull disclosure, I like Edward Cox. We're friendly online and I was lucky enough to meet him last year in Brighton. The synopsis for his debut The Relic Guild sounded great, but you never know, right? Thus it was with a bit of trepidation that I started reading Ed's novel, because what if I didn't like it. Well, I’m pleased – and relieved – to say that while I had some issues with the narrative, The Relic Guild didn't disappoint and on the whole I had a great time with the story.
So let's just start off with the issues I had. These were mostly centred around the world building and the lack of a map. I know, how cliche to whine about the lack of a map, but in this case it would have really helped me because I spent a large part of the novel just having trouble figuring out where I was and visualising how Labrys Town looked. I couldn’t get to grips with the scale of the town and its surrounding labyrinth and though we do get some sense of the numbers and size of this universe about a third of the way in, I kept running up against how to visualise my surroundings. There is magic, but also ‘modern technology’ in the form of magic-powered pistols, trams, reflector helmet, and CCTV observation, yet society and the rest of their surroundings don’t feel modern, they feel more like a renaissance era setting. It was only once I decided to just go with it and had some good chunks of reading time to get stuck into the narrative, that I really got immersed in the story enough to not worry about how I should see it in my head and just follow the characters.
The story is told in two timelines, one during the Genii war and one set forty years after. In both timelines the central characters were young women. Clara, in the present timeline, is a new beginning for the Relic Guild and is our way into this mysterious organisation, while Marney is our window onto the past. I loved both of them for different reasons. Clara is very much the newbie drawn into the Guild and trying to find her feet and learning to accept her power. Hers is very much a coming-of-age story, while Marney already knows these things. If Clara is an apprentice Guild agent, Marney is at least a journeyman. Marney’s story is far more about figuring out why the Guild does what it does and how she fits within that mission.
There is some overlap between the agents we see in the two timelines, notably Samuel, Van Bam (I’m sorry but that name just makes me giggle), and Hamir. I found it fascinating to see them in these two incarnations; while it was a great way to get to know them better, it also created questions about how they ended up as they did. There are several agents we do not encounter in the present, the most important of which is Marney’s mentor Denton. I really liked this gentle, kind old man and the interaction between him and Marney.
The Relic Guild’s plot is well-constructed. I loved how the past timeline informed the current, allowing the reader to understand what is happening along with Samuel and Van Bam, but before Clara. I found both timelines equally compelling. They both centre on the same mystery, but where in Marney’s time we start with the question of who the culprit was, in Clara’s time we know who the culprit is, it just isn’t clear what he’s doing exactly. In Marney’s time they are trying to stop a war, while in the present they just might start one if they don’t stop a catastrophe from happening.
I enjoyed The Relic Guild tremendously. The characters were wonderful and their stories compelling. Cox leaves both timelines on a cliffhanger and with plenty of questions about our characters left unanswered. Such as what did Marney implant in Clara's mind? What happened between Marney and Van Bam? How did the Genii war truly end and who is on the other side of the portal? I can't wait to crack open the next book and find answers to these questions. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll also get my map. With The Relic Guild Cox delivers a strong debut and I look forward to reading more of his writing....more
**spoiler alert** The Kill List, Nichole Christoff’s debut thriller, is a gritty and entertaining mystery and I had a great time reading it. I loved i**spoiler alert** The Kill List, Nichole Christoff’s debut thriller, is a gritty and entertaining mystery and I had a great time reading it. I loved its lead character Jamie Sinclair and her main co-stars Lieutenant Colonel Adam Barrett and FBI Agent Kevin Jaeger. The chemistry between Jamie and Barrett in particular was wonderful. Yet there was also one big thing that bugged me about the narrative and while it didn't affect my enjoyment of the story, I did find myself pondering it while thinking about it after I finished the book. Discussing it here might be considered a spoiler for an aspect of the book – I don’t think it impacts on the mystery, so much as on character development – but in any case, be aware the next paragraph might be slightly spoilery!
The thing that bothered me so much was Jamie's infertility. Not the fact that Jamie is unable to bear children. Nor that this is incredibly painful for her, because she does want children, and that it broke up her marriage, but the fact that it is used as her motivation in the cases she will or won’t accept and the decisions she makes regarding her love life. And of course, the fact that her infertility has been used to make her feel a failure by some very important people in her life. She blames herself for the break-up of her marriage, because she feels it was caused by her infertility, not by the fact that her ex is a borderline abusive boor. Shouldn't Jamie, or any woman be more than her reproductive status? Perhaps this is exactly the point Christoff was trying to make, but I found myself very conflicted by the way the issue was focussed on, even if Christoff depicts Jamie’s feelings and sadness very compellingly and I really felt deeply for Jamie and empathised with her.
That issue aside, I really enjoyed The Kill List. Jamie is a fun protagonist, who is very capable at her job, and is genuinely kick-ass. At the same time, she has some major issues, ones that I found interesting, even if problematic (see above) and I liked that she was forced to deal with some of them head on in this novel. Not only does she have to face the ex-husband who left her broken up, she also has to deal with the cold-hearted father, who chose his side over hers. Yet there is also some more pleasant things on the horizon for Jamie, like Lt. Col. Adam Barrett. Jamie and Barrett have amazing chemistry between her and Barrett and I really liked the way their relationship evolved. Christoff depicts them as mature, adult people, who both have a past and the accompanying baggage, yet they both recognise a good thing when they see it. I loved Barrett, I thought he was an interesting character beyond his love interest status. His past experiences, especially those while serving overseas and the events of what happened when he returned, have shaped him and not always for the better, yet he is a good man. One character I really hope we’ll learn more of in future books is Jamie’s assistant Matty. An army veteran, he was a fun character and I really wanted to know more about how he and Jamie got to know each other and what his story was.
Christoff's focus on PTSD and the effects tours of duty have on the military and their families was fascinating and quite heartbreaking. We often learn about the times when it goes wrong explosively, but we rarely learn about the cases where people really struggle with PTSD, are hurt by it, but find a way through together, perhaps not always to a happily ever after, but at least to a semi-normal life. Another aspect she highlights is that of those who are left behind briefing when a soldier loses their life on the battle field, their anger and grief, and their need to know why and whether their loved one’s death had meaning. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to lose someone that way, but I think Christoff conveyed the emotions well.
The Kill List’s plot was interesting. There were in fact not one case but three and they all connect in unexpected ways. There were some tightly knotted twists in the story and while one character didn’t surprise me with his duplicity, the way he was connected to the case was very, very surprising. I also liked how Jamie’s prejudices and memories of both her ex and the base where she grew up, colour her judgement and serve both as a help and a hindrance in the investigation.
I really had a good time with The Kill List and I am very much looking forward to the second Jamie Sinclair book. I can't wait to discover how things develop between Jamie and Barrett. If you like your mystery sautéed with a good helping of romance, The Kill List is definitely one to check out.