I struggled to rate this for a number of different reasons. On the one hand, an #ownvoices novel that features a world of djinn and politics and characters of colour, Islamic religion and curses. On the other hand, a YA novel that doesn't really seem to break out of the same tired tropes we've seen before. Sure, you can put a veil on Nahri all you want, but that doesn't make her any less of a special snowflake protagonist with a super secret backstory and ~mystical powers~. Oh and a hot bad boy love interest.
See, what The City of Brass actually wants to be is a sleek, smart novel about a girl who finds out that her small healing powers are actually so much greater than that, who has to travel to a magical realm and claim her birthright, all the while assailed from all sides by foes and danger. It's supposed to be a book about how Nahri uses her street smarts to outwit a society of haughty djinn driven by blood purity and ancient squabbles. It's also supposed to be a book about a second son who trains in a religious order for a life dedicated to serving his elder brother, the heir to the throne, but who finds himself compelled to the protect the lives of shafit (half-djinn half-human), even at the expense of inciting conflict with his family.
Instead... instead you have Nahri, a young woman who's grown in Cairo and used her magical healing abilities to bluff, trick and steal her way to a life of relative freedom (albeit poor, but at least she's not married against her will!). Until she uses a spell she barely understands and ends up summoning a djinn, whereupon she learns that she might actually be the last known member of a family of powerful djinn which used to rule Daevabad, the City of Brass. So, armed with a Hot Badboy Bodyguard, Nahri must make her way across a desert and then survive court politics, all the while seemingly falling for a guy who treats her like dirt/gaslights her constantly and then somehow forgetting everything that helped her survive in Cairo. Meanwhile, Ali is the only decent person in an entire court of djinn, but that makes him gullible, so he spends a lot of his time trying to right his own decisions, only to have them blow up in his face. But of the main trio, he's the only one who comes across as a decent person; he doesn't do this out of gullibility and he actually changes and grows throughout the novel.
I see what Chakraborty wants to do, but it never feels like she allows her characters to truly fail. Dara is basically meant to be some bad boy we all root for, even though he's a millennia old djinn who crushes on a teenager (look, seriously, this shit was creepy when Edward Cullen did it and the years haven't been forgiving on this trope) and because he knows better he decides to treat Nahri like a child and she somehow accepts this and then crushes on him like a lovesick puppy. Even at the end, when Dara goes full on nuclear with his ridiculous jealousy, it's just creepy, it's not romantic. At all. (view spoiler)[When Dara and Nahri try to kidnap Ali and he comes completely clean about what he's been concealing from her, I damn near cheered. Because that's a mature response, not the bullshit that Dara pulls. And the fact that at the end Nahri still pines for him like a lovesick puppy was just... why. Why couldn't she see him for the manipulative ass that he is? I don't get it, I really don't feel like she grew, matured or learned anything at all. (hide spoiler)]
I don't hate YA as a genre. I try my best not to judge it by its cover, I try to think that not every YA novel needs to follow the ridiculous trope route. But sadly this time it does. I expected a lot more from The City of Brass and it just didn't deliver. I don't know how I feel about the sequel - on the one hand, the promise of a timeskip means that I can perhaps hope for some character growth. But if the endgame is really going to be Dara/Nahri, then I don't think I can really endorse that. Ultimately, I feel bad only rating it a two star, because I think we need more Muslim fantasy and we need more #ownvoices works. But The City of Brass just wasn't it....more
RTC while I pick up my broken heart off the floor, but wow, just wow. What an amazing end to the trilogy.
(also, after telling myself I'm totally notRTC while I pick up my broken heart off the floor, but wow, just wow. What an amazing end to the trilogy.
(also, after telling myself I'm totally not doing another reading challenge this year - Goodreads notwithstanding - I seem to find myself doing the r/fantasy bingo again because this book 100% fit a square in hard mode so...)...more
More like a 2.5 stars, which could seriously have been a 3 if Downing had stuck the landing
So here's another suburban thriller where are a nice familyMore like a 2.5 stars, which could seriously have been a 3 if Downing had stuck the landing
So here's another suburban thriller where are a nice family isn't all that it seems. First of all, let's move away from any and all comparisons to Mr and Mrs Smith because the characters aren't spies, they're serial killers. And this is all pretty much revealed in the first chapter, which grossly overestimates how fast-paced the rest of the book is. I started off thinking this would be the kind of thing that I would power through in a couple of days, but alas it was not quite able to live up to the hype that it starts off with.
Millicent and her husband are almost a picture perfect family, with their great big house in a gated community, their two children and a very dirty little secret: they enjoy killing together. They pick their victims together, the plan what's going to happen and then she murders them. It's a way to keep the spark in their marriage alive, until things start to unravel. Between their daughter Jenna's breakdown and their son Rory's own secrets, how much longer can Millicent and her husband keep at this before they're caught? Because surely, surely they'll be caught sooner rather than later, right?
I will give Downing this: the first chapter is insanely fast-paced and I was seriously waiting with bated breath to see what would happen next. But after that ridiculous setup, we find ourselves in a position where the plot slows right the way down and instead we're treated to a lot of domestic scenes, a subplot about the narrator's friends and tennis lessons (we never do actually learn his name and everything is told through a first person narrative, so some of the tension in the book is diminished because there's just no way Downing is going to kill her narrator, is there?) until the plot picks back up again. My major issue with the book is that I couldn't really connect with any of the characters and even if ultimately both Millicent and her husband are pretty bad individuals (like seriously, say what you will about her, but he wasn't exactly dragged along in this against his will or anything), I still wanted to feel something for them.
On the one hand, the narrator doesn't really elicit enough sympathy to be fully believable as a victim of his wife's devious machinations. On the other hand, we see so little of Millicent as a person (and we're never treated to her direct thoughts) that it's impossible to actually feel like she could be an actual human being. Her interactions with secondary characters feel forced, at best (the scene in the restaurant between (view spoiler)[Rory's girlfriend's parents (hide spoiler)] is a good example) and in the last third of the book she becomes even more of an aloof, almost emotionless individual. In the climax, it's like Downing completely undoes that image of a cool, collected and obsessive to a fault psychopath for the facile murderous rage. From such a promising build up, she really fails to stick the landing.
The epilogue itself, though it ends on a tantalising note, just feels like it ties up all the loose ends and also (view spoiler)[very neatly allows the husband to get away with accessory to murder through a neat little loophole that Millicent didn't plan for. So you're telling us that this woman spends so much time planning, plotting, perfecting everything and she somehow doesn't realise that her brilliant idea to frame her husband for murder would be undone through a technicality? (hide spoiler)] It feels a lot like Downing wrote herself into a sticky corner and couldn't write herself back out, which is a shame because I feel I ended up knocking off a whole star for that alone.
Would I recommend My Lovely Wife? Yes and no. It's fast paced, it's pretty damn brutal, none of the characters are really likeable but ultimately Downing just doesn't stick the landing for me.
Many thanks to Michael Joseph, Penguin UK and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
So here I am, reading my first ever Sanderson novel. Despite having his first Mistborn novel, The Final Empire on my shelves (both virtual and physiSo here I am, reading my first ever Sanderson novel. Despite having his first Mistborn novel, The Final Empire on my shelves (both virtual and physical) for something like 6 and quite a bit years and never getting around to reading it, I've been keeping an eye on his releases and his soaring popularity. So imagine my surprise when I was approved for his latest novel, a sci-fi YA adventure set on a world where humanity is trying to fight off an alien race called the Krell.
In Skyward, we are introduced to Spensa, a girl who dreams of being a pilot like her father. Humans have been driven to a planet called Detritus and forced underground by Krell incursions. Their pilots are their biggest asset and when Spensa's father commits the unthinkable and turns coward, her chances of ever flying are reduced to dust. But Spensa is committed and determined and when the Krell increase their fleet, she might just have the opportunity she's been hoping for.
This year I've been reading a few YA novels (and I have a few more to get through before I finish off the year) and initially, I thought there would be the usual tropes: a fiery, headstrong young woman who has the pedigree to be amazing at her dream, potential love interest (and maybe even a love triangle, that blight of YA novels everywhere) and a sort-of school setting. So imagine my surprise when Sanderson took some of those exact tropes and then pushed them beyond where most authors would stop. So while yes, Spensa is fiery and headstrong, there are times that she comes across as faintly ridiculous and the narrative doesn't excuse her. Similarly, the romance you thought was going to happen takes a sharp turn (view spoiler)[when Bim dies (hide spoiler)], which really surprised me.
Beyond this though, I actually found the story to be engaging, despite a little bit of a lull at the start. Once it gets going, there are action scenes to fill your boots with, really intense dogfighting scenes (and my word is Sanderson really good at this!) and some tough emotional decisions for Spensa to make. There is also the story of her father's cowardice and what truly happened that day, which provides a lot of tension, both internal and external; we see Spensa struggle with the prejudice of the past, with bullying from her schoolmates and others living in the caverns, but as more is unveiled about what truly happened that day, we also see a lot of her inner tension and conflict, which I really enjoyed. She isn't perfect and Sanderson goes to great length to ensure that we understand Spensa isn't about to pull something ridiculous out of a hat (or to be seen as clumsy/ditzy/imperfect and then turn out to be the most special thing in the galaxy). (view spoiler)[That she is indeed special is merely the culmination of hints throughout the book and comes with a history in-world that I didn't judge to be a cop-out or an attempt to somehow redeem Spensa. (hide spoiler)]
The "Sanderson avalanche" that others warned me about is definitely present here, but I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the tempo of the book. It manages to blend action sequences with truly heartfelt moments and plot development. The interactions actually feel human, layered and difficult and Spensa isn't always right. But there are some things I didn't quite like (the made up swear words, which I understand are also a Sanderson staple), like how the book ends, because I wanted more. I also hope we get some more backstory for Rig, who gets slightly sidelined once he fills his plot purpose. I actually really hope that (view spoiler)[there isn't a romance endgame for Spensa, either with Jorgen or Rig. (hide spoiler)] If only because of how it would make a real change to the way these things usually work in YA.
So, would I recommend Skyward? I would, despite the caveats, which ultimately are minor ones. I enjoyed the way he built out the world, I enjoyed Spensa and her story and I am eagerly awaiting the sequel. In the meantime, I think it will be time for me to finally delve into Sanderson's Cosmere works.
Many thanks to Orion, Gollancz and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
Many thanks to Harper Collins and NetGalley for the copy of this book.
How little it takes, I think, just some shadows, really, to make ourselves unkn
Many thanks to Harper Collins and NetGalley for the copy of this book.
How little it takes, I think, just some shadows, really, to make ourselves unknown to each other.
The Hunting Party is a book about terrible people going away on holiday for the New Year and one of them ending up dead. It's a book about growing up and growing apart, but with a very deadly twist. It reminded me, in a way, of Donna Tartt's The Secret History though without her flair for the poetic and the big sweeping vistas of New England in winter (that sense of alienation and the foreboding feeling that something dark is right around the corner), but also of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, which I remember reading and loving as a teenager. Instead, this story follows a group of Oxford friends who reunite for a New Year's Eve party in a lodge in the Scottish highlands. Cut off from civilisation and hiding secrets that could tear the group apart, they are all shocked when a dead body is discovered in the snow; it seems among them, there is a killer.
The main thing to bear in mind about The Hunting Party is that basically everyone in the Oxford group is an unlikable prat. The main POV characters are Miranda (the glamorous one), Katie (her best friend), Emma (the newer addition to the group), along with Doug, the gamekeeper Doug and Heather, the manager of the property, both of whom have their own demons and troubled pasts to run away from. The plot swings between the before and the after of the murder, as things escalate to a dangerous and deadly climax. Foley adeptly manages to keep you guessing about who the murderer might be and the revelation, though shocking, isn't completely unexpected - the clues are definitely there if you're paying attention.
By making everyone an irredeemable arsehole, it is, at times, hard to truly sympathise with any of them (though, it should be noted, that I don't think that the victim deserved their fate). This is a group of people blind to their privilege, making it obvious that none of them will come out of this unscathed. Even in their first person accounts, biased as you would expect them to be, it's clear that Foley wants you to dislike them, but also to cast a light on the kind of people that would embody the phrase, 'so this is how the other half lives'. Foley even manages, for quite some time, to keep the identity of the victim a secret, which was an interesting choice, even if the language was sometimes stilted and awkward; when Heather, the manager and the one who has most consistently referred to guests by their names, stops thinking of (view spoiler)[Miranda (hide spoiler)] by their name and instead starts using more generic terms, it doesn't at all feel natural.
There is also a subplot involving (view spoiler)[drug dealing and the handyman of the Lodge (hide spoiler)] which I genuinely couldn't care for. When you have a killer among a group of people who are cut off from the rest of the world, I feel that adds enough tension and drama, without some other thing to distract from what's happening. I wanted to see whether Foley would go somewhere really interesting with this, but she doesn't and it feels like a distraction, the sting from the end really taken out (mostly because I didn't care for that character at all and I genuinely don't see what it actually added to the final story). Speaking of, the ending is almost frustrating in how some people seem to get away, like (view spoiler)[Julian and his insider trading (hide spoiler)], but I would say from the perspective of how the murder plot pans out, it's reasonably satisfactory.
I sound like I'm putting the book down a lot, but I did find it an engaging read. I zipped through the novel, turning the pages on my Kindle frantically and only wanting to see what would happen next, worried I would miss my train stop. When it launches, it would make the perfect kind of novel to read in the haze of the Christmas excesses and the 'New Year, new you' mantras all over social media. Quick, zippy, dark and dangerous, making you appreciate your group of friends even more....more
Let me lay it straight out: I absolutely loved City of Stairs and its sequels. It was my first foray in Bennett's work and over aA strong 3.5 stars
Let me lay it straight out: I absolutely loved City of Stairs and its sequels. It was my first foray in Bennett's work and over a couple of years, I read the sequels and was delighted with his worldbuilding, his characters and his ability to put together a very tight plot, culminating in books that kept me reading deep into the night. So imagine my delight when I was approved for the first book in his new series.
Now imagine my disappointment when I found that Foundryside doesn't live up the the exceptionally high bar that City of Stairs set. Which isn't to say that this book won't do it for someone, but it didn't quite do it for me.
The city of Tevanne is a sort of steampunk(ish) version of Venice, reminiscent of The Lies of Locke Lamora, where magical scrivings keep everything going. It is a city that is ruled over by the rich Companies while outside the walls of their compounds, poor people try to eke out a living. Scrivings, in this world, are instructions that shape and change reality. They do everything from lock doors to keep carriages moving, they make weapons more powerful and deadlier and they are a closely-guarded secret of the four ruling Houses. The story kicks off when Sancia, a street rat, is asked to steal an artefact for a ridiculous sum of money. Her heist leads to something much bigger though and soon she's thrown into a race to save her life, keep the artefact out of the wrong hands and prevents perhaps the end of the world as she knows it.
Now, there are things that once again, Bennett does incredibly well. I really enjoyed Tevanne (the whole invented 'scrumming' swearing aside, especially considering that some of the language is fairly modern and 'goddamn' wouldn't somehow be out of place here), it felt like a city that was truly lived in. It's got character, it's got history and I actually enjoyed seeing it through the eyes of Sancia and of Gregor, the son of a campo leader (which makes him, in the world of Foundryside, something akin to royalty); they both relate to the world around them in vastly different ways and where Sancia only ever thinks about her survival (in ways that are revealed as the book progresses), whereas Gregor wants something perhaps more abstract but no less important (and no, I won't spoil what it is for you!). There is also history between the characters and the city (going now beyond just Sancia and Gregor as POV characters) and it's obvious that Bennett has situated Tevanne within a greater world and its lore; there is religion, there is magic, but there is also conflict and slavery, an ugliness and a grittiness that goes beyond just a grimdark novel. The world of Tevanne is not one that is very kind to its people, to say the least.
The magic system is intricate and detailed, and I really enjoyed the way it was portrayed. I've seen people compare it to the work of Brandon Sanderson, but as I'm not familiar with his work, I can't tell you quite how accurate it is. However, I really liked seeing how different characters reacted to it, from Sancia (who doesn't really understand quite how it all works) to the scrappers whose livelihood depends on it. I liked that Bennett didn't treat the reader to long and windy infodumps, instead showing us how scrivings are put together, how they can be manipulated and what a clever scriver can do with enough imagination. It ties in nicely with the mysterious Occidental empire, the hierophants and the devices that could make and unmake the world and it definitely piqued my interest.
Unfortunately, had this review only had the positives in it, I wouldn't have rated this below 4 stars. There are some big, bombastic action sequences in this (in perhaps almost direct contrast to City of Stairs which only, to my memory, sports a great dramatic ending), but there are also large parts where everything seems to drag. I found some of the middle parts to be especially... boring almost feels like too harsh of a term to use when speaking about Bennett, one that is perhaps a little bit unfair, but I didn't find myself under the same compulsion to keep reading as I had with his previous works. Don't get me wrong, I found the overarching plot interesting, but there were sections where it felt like Bennett couldn't quite decide how to get from one big action scene to the next; so we're treated to "planning sessions" where characters just seem to, well, chat and exposit. I didn't feel like there was much in the way of growth here (which is annoying, as I really wanted to 100% buy into the (view spoiler)[Berenice and Sancia (hide spoiler)] romance), which is a real shame, because Foundryside relies as much on its characters as it does its plot and action sequences to keep the whole thing chugging along.
There is a lot of groundwork being laid here. There are indications of things grander than at first glance. There are some genuinely nail-biting moments (particularly in the last 100 or so pages). Sancia is a brilliant character and I really liked how Bennett treated themes like PTSD, slavery, the impact of war and the dangers of hubris, because he made them all feel visceral and real. But it doesn't quite reach the heights that City of Stairs did, at least for me. Will I keep reading the sequels? I think I will. I am sufficiently intrigued that I really do want to see what happens next and I will hope that Bennett is able to once again strike the note that he did with his Divine Cities trilogy. ...more
Read as part of the r/fantasy Book Bingo Challenge 2018 for the "Any r/fantasy Goodreads Group Book of the Month" category. As I will be doing this inRead as part of the r/fantasy Book Bingo Challenge 2018 for the "Any r/fantasy Goodreads Group Book of the Month" category. As I will be doing this in Hard Mode this year and using only female authors, I will also list the requirements for that hard mode version. In this case, it's to also participate in the discussion and be reading the current book of the month, so I'm waiting for the final post to go up and be able to share all my spoiler-filled thoughts.
The Poppy War is the kind of book that I feel (and hope) will take 2018 by storm. It's a brilliant example of an inversion of tropes that manages to lull you into a false sense of security with its focus on the familiar before throwing you right into the midst of a war. It's a book that starts by feeling like a historical fiction novel (with mentions of legends and gods and fire shamans, but all within the context of being a myth, something to scare the children) and then it turns into something so dark, so gritty and so violent, I had to recover from the whiplash. And I absolutely loved it, because it's fierce and it's real and it covers an area and a time in our own history that I personally have never seen before in fantasy: the Opium Wars of China and the conflict with Japan (up to and including the Rape of Nanking).
The story starts off with Rin, a war orphan who lives with an abusive family peddling the highly illegal drug opium, and her attempt at escaping the futures her guardians envision for her: one where she is married off to further their illegal activities. So through sheer grit and determination (and not without quite literal pain), she studies for the Keju, the highly prestigious exam that would send her to Sinegard Academy and a freedom she daren't dream of. But, as it transpires, life at the Academy isn't quite what Rin expected it to be and soon, she learns the true purpose of the school: to prepare you for war.
So far so Harry Potter clone, right? I admit that I sincerely appreciated where the book went, but to begin with, I wasn't exactly blown away. The worldbuilding is top notch (and Kuang continues this throughout the novel, minor details that expand her world and characters, building a picture of a setting that feels lived in, with centuries of history and mythology behind it. The Sinegard chapters read like a darker Harry Potter, until you encounter the first sign this may not be going quite where you think it is: (view spoiler)[when Rin decides to sterilise herself rather than go through periods (hide spoiler)], a moment so grim and so brutal that showed me we weren't (and never had been) in Hogwarts anymore.
Then, about halfway through the book, as the action ramps up, the stakes get even higher and Rin is forced to face some harsh truths about her country's history, its actions in the war and the deeper truth of her own nature (not to mention that when the fantasy bits come in, everything is thrown off kilter in the most spectacular way). The ending is so amazingly over the top, so brutal, so unbelievable that I was left wanting more (and I don't know how I could possibly deal with this if this were actually a standalone novel) and I desperately want to know more about what's going to happen next. To Rin, to her world, to her friends and companions, because if we really are looking at a fantasy reimagining of China, some really horrific things are about to hit us (even more horrific than what we've experienced so far).
But The Poppy War does so much more than just explore the horrors of war; it tackles racism (and classism), it tackles magic, it tackles genocide in ways that are new and refreshing. It's a brilliantly written work of fiction, able to go from the mundane interactions over dinner to visceral scenes of brutality and death. It completely takes the tropes we have come to accept from a fantasy novel and flips them on its head. And it asks questions about humanity, about war and its repercussions, about the lengths to which regimes go in order to protect themselves from change (as well as related questions about how change should be enacted - how brutal should the revolution be, and in Rin's shoes, what would your choices look like?).
I loved this book and if Kuang can keep up the good work, I can easily see myself putting this in my top 10 series. It does so many things so well and all I can hope for is that others also notice this and ensure the hype trains keeps on chugging.
Many thanks to Harper Voyager and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
Sometimes, what are you really need after a really dry and boring read is something fast-paced and more on the side of popcorn than heavy mental liftiSometimes, what are you really need after a really dry and boring read is something fast-paced and more on the side of popcorn than heavy mental lifting. So The Marriage Pact slotted into that quite nicely and, for the most part, did exactly what I wanted it to.
Alice and Jake are a perfect couple, newly married, and in their joy and their hype, I guess, they join an organisation that's dedicated to maintaining the perfect marriage. Like Fight Club, the Pact doesn't talk about the Pact, and it has some very sensible rules: surprise your partner with thoughtful gifts; be focused and involved in your relationship; plan holidays together once a quarter and always answer a phone call from your partner.
But most importantly, never mention the Pact to anyone else.
Soon though, it seems that the Pact goes just beyond a set of rules about valuing your spouse and Alice and Jake find themselves embroiled in a life of parties and a true sense of belonging. Until one of them breaks a rule and they find out that beneath the glitz and glamour, there are harsh punishments for those who transgress. Their perfect marriage is about to be put to the test in unimaginable ways.
I'll give Richmond this, she does manage to keep you reading, turning the page and wanting to know what happens next. I was certainly caught up in the story and the sheer amount of creepy cult-like behaviour that everyone indulges in. The story is told entirely through Jake's point of view, which does limit the amount of information the reader gets, but on the other hand, it makes everything feel much more claustrophobic. It causes certain situations to seem murky, confusing and hesitant, where you feel for Jake but also you feel his fear, his paranoia. Everything happens quickly and when things get really bad, they seem to escalate from chapter to chapter.
Which is also there the book seems to hit a wall. As things escalate, it seems to lose touch with reality. Some of the things that Pact gets up to, (view spoiler)[the level of involvement from literally every single person they encounter (hide spoiler)], the way it escalates to something that doesn't really make sense by the end... As I was reading this, I kept thinking that actually, this could be a really good read, a 4 star book and not just something I would recommend as 'popcorn for the brain'. Unfortunately, by the last third, it seems to lose itself in its own over-the-top cult stuff and I stopped feeling all that sympathetic towards both Jake and Alice. The ending, when it comes, is almost downright stupid. (view spoiler)[So between the choice of changing the Pact from the inside and making it less cult-like, less psychological experiment and more about going back to what it should have been (a support system), they decide to wander out into the desert and... that's that? They spend a night making goo-goo eyes at each other under the stars and then live happily ever after? And the Pact's new leaders never go after them? That after everything they put them through, Alice and Jake would just shrug and move on? (hide spoiler)]
I liked The Marriage Pact better when I thought it was going somewhere completely different. The book seems to really be heading that way and then veer off at the last second. I wanted to love it so much more than I did, which isn't that ringing of an endorsement. The focused POV did prevent me from connecting to Alice and I found some of the pacing issues in the middle to be... questionable. Yes, overall the book is a quick, zippy read, but Richmond goes from a breakneck pace to sometimes quite introspective parts, completely killing the pacing of the chapter. Jake's reasons for marrying Alice are, at times, quite a bit dodgy and I wasn't always entirely on his side.
However, this was entertaining and I did finish it in a couple of days, so I'll give it that. Would I 100% recommend? No. But if you have the time and inclination, you could zip through this in a few sessions. I just really wish that Richmond has seen it all through rather than back off at the last minute.
Many thanks to Penguin and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
I feel the only way to review this novel is to completely avoid anything to do with the plot. Not only because there areAn incredibly strong 4.5 stars
I feel the only way to review this novel is to completely avoid anything to do with the plot. Not only because there are massive spoilers headed in that direction (and one ought to experience The Ninth Rain without any spoilers), but because it's one of those novels that builds so well on what came before and to discuss that now would be to take away from what should be a fantastic reading experience. So instead, I want to talk in general about what this series does so well and why you should read it straight away (and then agonise with me over when the final book comes out).
I love the worldbuilding in this. It's intriguing and layered, it has implications for something far greater than what's initially presented. This starts off well in the first book, but it's built on even more in The Bitter Twins, exploring new angles, cultures and parts of the world. Sure, the book has a lot of revelations about the past, about Ebora and Sarn, but really, the most standout things, to me, were the ways in which Williams portrayed the variety of cultures and peoples that make up the world. Mythology, religion, belief, they are all key themes of the novel and I genuinely felt that everything was done without lengthy exposition, letting you piece it all together.
The characters themselves come alive on the page and for all that there are some clear good guys and bad guys, Williams doesn't just leave it at that. Vintage, we know from the first book, is very much on the side of knowledge and compassion and learning, but in The Bitter Twins, we see a side of her that feels bitterness and heartbreak. Without spoiling events in the second book, I was intrigued to see how she comes to terms with everything, not least of all her own age and mortality. It's a book about the choices these characters make and the consequences of those choices, but also about the feeling of inevitability that accompanies momentous decisions. Who hasn't felt regret at making a particular decision, who hasn't felt that once the decision is made, the only way forward is to keep on making that same choice again and again? Seeing that doubt, that confusion, that wavering, really humanises all the characters in this book. I like that Williams allows them to fail and solve these problems - the solutions are never easy or straightforward, the issues are not resolved by deus ex machina either.
What really shines through though is the relationships that Williams fosters between their characters. Whether it's love, family or enmity that drives them, they are all complex, diverse and interesting. I like the way backstories are revealed, in small increments, in ways that are far-reaching, even if the characters don't immediately see that. But I also like the interactions between all of them, the small moments of tenderness, the humanity of all of them. Williams, like Pratchett, is able to tap into the well of depth and humanity that exists in all of us and expose those dark corners of our mind, but also the infinite love, empathy and determination that we can be capable of. There are romantic relationships and familial ones and they've changed and morphed from The Ninth Raid, as people come to terms with revelations about themselves, sometimes not always for the better. Change is difficult, but it's also necessary and Williams portrays this in ways that really hit right at the core of what it means to be human (or not).
If Williams' humans are very reminiscent of Pratchett, then the weird and the horrific has far more in common with China Miéville's Perdido Street Station - the eldritch horrors that permeate this novel are so foreign, so alien, that I could feel their nastiness over my skin like a film. Like the moths in Miéville's novel, the monsters of Sarn are terrifying precisely because there is now something of a humane face on them. The big bad gets a voice, so their actions are all the more terrifying and visceral. The creatures are the stuff of nightmares and at time, it reminded me of everything that I found strange about the Borg. That hivemind, that oneness and connection, that single-mindedness, they're all here in the novel, shown from different angles, making you think that perhaps you're seeing this through warped perspectives. The sense of unease that permeates the book is one that stayed with me long after I turned the last page.
What started with The Ninth Rain continues with The Bitter Twins and for every question that is answered, another one pops up. However, I still found it an incredibly compelling read and I would thoroughly recommend that you immediately buy the first book so you can read this one too. As for me, while I wait for the third instalment to come out, I think I'll finally pick up The Iron Ghost and finish the Copper Cat trilogy.
Read as part of the Reading Women Challenge in the 'A book by a local author or recommended by a local bookstore' category.
Many thanks to Headline and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
What a proper delight this turned out to be, and what a great way to end the year (because I know I won't be able to to finish another book by the end of the day). In some ways, it's been a bit of a slow reading year for me, with this being only book 44 (when in previous years I've nearly reached 60). Between mental health struggles and a commute that is now 80% by bike, my reading has suffered quite a bit, which is a shame, because it is one of the things I enjoy most in life. Saying that, it was also a varied year of reading, where I really committed to some of the challenges I've signed up to (for example the r/fantasy Book Bingo Challenge 2017 (which I need to complete by April and which should, in theory, be completely doable), but one where I also read more non-fiction and genres like romance that I would normally scoff at). In some cases, I even enjoyed particular works without classing them as a guilty pleasure!
For 2018, I think the main challenge will be to stop joining so many reading challenges, because unless they all have a decent amount of overlap (and most do not), I really will struggle to finish. Even the bingo card has about 18 more books for me to finish and one of them is the doorstop of Gardens of the Moon, so you know... (I did, luckily, get a new Kindle Paperwhite from my fiance for Christmas, so I won't be breaking my wrists on a paperback copy of that one anytime soon). Now, on to The Ninth Rain.
I read The Copper Promise last year (funnily enough, also for the fantasy bingo reading challenge) and I liked Williams' characters, their banter and interactions and how much that book felt like a D&D novel. I ended up not getting the sequel on Kindle initially because of the price, but I've actually recently seen it drop, purchased it and I have a feeling I'll return to that trilogy sooner than I think. So when I was approved for a galley of her newest novel (and then its sequel!), I knew I had to read this as soon as possible.
In the world of Sarn, Ebora once stood head and shoulders above the rest. Its beautiful people (elf-like, with long lives and fantastic cultural riches) were the only one who could stop the invasions of the Jure'lia, a race bent on destruction. The great tree Ygseril would birth the war-beasts of the Eborans and with them, they repelled the invasions time and time again: for every invasion, a rain. Everyone thought the Eight Rain was the last and since, the Eborans have fallen as a race: wolves and weeds now stalk the streets of this once mighty city. Tormalin the Oathless will not see himself succumb to the slow death of his people and instead sets out to see as much of the world as possible.
So he enters into the service of one Lady Vincenza 'Vintage' de Grazon, a woman who is obsessed with learning as much as possible about the Jure'lia, exploring the relics of their Behemoths and fighting off spirits (and sometimes people). Vintage is a great character: sarcastic, with a love of wine and adventure and one who is undaunted. A large part of the world building comes from her letters and journal entries, which I actually really enjoyed; it's nice to see things through the eyes of one character, with their opinions peppering the descriptions and annotations. Because if there's one thing that Vintage doesn't do, it's hold back on her opinions.
Finally, there is Noon, a fell-witch, someone seen as poisoned and evil, who will spend the rest of her life in the Winnowry, good only for making a potent drug. Until she discovers something horrifying, something that will put her on a collision course with Vintage and Tormalin. For the Jure'lia are coming and the Ninth Rain must fall...
This is, for all intents and purposes, an incredibly detailed world, full of eldritch horrors. The Jure'lia are actually pretty damn creepy, bugs and creepy crawlies and terrifying hivemind queen. They burrow and consume and take over, a constant wave of destruction and death. The drones, taken over by the burrowers, with that ever-present smile on their faces? Creepy enough to make your skin crawl. And Williams never lets off, relentlessly reminding you of how creepy and horrible her creations are. There is an underlying sense of dread running in the background of the plot and for every action scene, every chase, there is the knowledge that there are far worse things in Sarn than fell-witches.
The Ninth Rain also maintains the fun parts about The Copper Promise, that aforementioned adventure and chase, that back-and-forth zippy dialogue. But beyond that, it's a lived in world, with its myths and legends, with its histories and cultural differences. They are sometimes only hinted at, but as this is book one of what I assume will be a trilogy, I hope we get more details from Williams in the sequels. It's exactly the kind of fantasy book I needed to end the year on: one that tries to (and succeeds in!) creating a fresh version of the adventure novel; the characters are great (and I love what Williams does with both race and sexual orientation in the book) and I got absolutely sucked into it. So much so that I've already picked up the sequel - I really can't wait to see what happens next.
Many thanks to Headline and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
When I first reviewed Everything I Never Told You earlier this year, I commented on the strengths of Ng's writing, her ability to deftly characterisWhen I first reviewed Everything I Never Told You earlier this year, I commented on the strengths of Ng's writing, her ability to deftly characterise the actors in her novels in assured strokes, but I didn't rate the book higher than 3* because I felt that some of the threads remained unsolved and that the fallout from some of the characters' choices didn't really get explored in any detail.
Little Fires Everywhere promptly puts all those qualms to sleep, because Ng has not only kept her strengths, she's managed to really improve on her weaknesses as well, to deliver a much more nuanced book. First though, I will say this about the setting: are we now seriously at a point where a book set in the '90s feels this dated? Pagers and the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton's presidency and small suburban life, everything that now seems a bit... old hat. How bizarre to think that this book takes place only 20 years ago but already some of the things that take place really could only happen because mass market access to the Internet hadn't arrived yet, that Mrs Richardson's research has to take place with old fashioned phone calls and driving around.
The story takes place in Shaker Heights, a community that prides itself on order and careful planning, where everything is in its right place and all decisions are made by committee, where houses and driveways and gardens are neat and spotless, where all the children are fed by middle-class incomes and ambition and great dreams, geared for success. Into this placid community come Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl, itinerant artist and teenage child, who rent a house from the wealthy Richardsons. Soon, Pearl is a staple at their house, friends with popular Lexie, heartthrob Trip and quiet Moody (but not wayward Izzy). Mia, however, carries a secret with her, one that could easily upend the order of Shaker Heights and change things forever. When a court case over the custody of a Chinese baby splits the community, Mia and Elena Richardson find themselves on opposing teams and soon, everything will come to a head.
Like Everything I Never Told You, the story opens with a dramatic event (a house on fire) and moves backwards from there, through the lives of all these characters, the history of Mia and Pearl, the desires and fears of Elena Richardson and the way they have shaped her relationships with others in Shaker Heights, including her children. There were times when I found it hard to drum up much sympathy for her, because she comes across as someone who is, unfortunately, rather narrow-minded: she thinks she's nice to people and supportive, but really, underneath it all, she judges those women (like Mia, like Bebe Chow) who make choices she disapproves of and when she sets on a path to essentially "punish" them, it's hard to stop her. When she learns that (view spoiler)[Pearl and Trip are sleeping together (hide spoiler)], her immediate thoughts are on why her son would choose someone so... inferior, in her reckoning, so uninteresting and boring (as if she, herself, were not, as if her own daughter were not just a teenager too).
But I like the topics that Ng tackles here: adoption (particularly interracial adoption) and the racist overtones it carries, as well as the question of motherhood and second changes; teenage pregnancy and abortion and sex, which I haven't seen tackled in many of these contemporary novels (or rather not the ones I read, anyway); the question of what makes a family actually a family, whether love is enough to erase a child's ethnicity and whether money can paper over any differences, any conflicts. The suburban life in Shaker Heights does hide some ugly things beneath it and I actually enjoyed watching (view spoiler)[Lexie (hide spoiler)] come to terms with her choice, but also with the expectations that are set on her (and those around her). The manta of being raised "better than that" hides an inability to deal with failure, with mistakes or with normal teenage rebellion.
It's clear how much better Ng has got at her craft. I found Little Fires Everywhere to be much more engrossing and real than Everything I Never Told You. The characters are more vivid, the issues more visceral and although it's obvious where Ng stands on the issues she presents, she does allow her characters to be on the opposite side, without punishing them for it. Sure, the ending is a little bit "happily ever after", but I don't actually hold it against her. There are some strands left in an ambiguous state, but unlike her previous book, this didn't annoy me. I'm okay with not knowing everything. From the high standard of this novel, I look forward to seeing what Celeste Ng comes out with next.
Many thanks to Little, Brown Group and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
"Do you ever worry," she asked me, "that you're the madwoman in the attic?"
I find short stories to be incredibly fascinating, because they can be a
"Do you ever worry," she asked me, "that you're the madwoman in the attic?"
I find short stories to be incredibly fascinating, because they can be a great insight into a writer and the way they approach certain topics. Unlike novels, short stories allow for more concise narratives, for things to be intense in completely different ways. They're also much easier to fit into my busy schedule, as I can read one and then set the book aside and not feel I'm going to lose context when I go back to it. On top of this, Her Body and Other Parties is touted as a feminist work of fiction, so I was genuinely excited to get through this, particularly in the first few stories, some of which featured queer characters.
Machado isn't afraid to look at women even when they're not 'perfect'. The women of this collection feel human, they can be unreasonable and selfish, they want and have sex and their approach to love can feel as neurotic and as disconnected as the one of men. The fact that the collection starts with The Husband Stitch is nothing short of magnificent, because that story is absolutely amazing and I couldn't get enough of it. It's a retelling of "The Green Ribbon", a story you shouldn't read before reading Machado's (because it spoils the ending somewhat) and it touches on the ways in which men find they have almost a right to women's bodies. It's a story that absolutely chilled me, because so much of the narrator's experience is so similar to the stories I and my friends have gone through. It was touching and at times revolting and angering, which I feel was entirely the intention here.
From there we move into Inventory (a woman recounts all the people she's slept with as an apocalyptic plague sweeps the land) and Mothers, a strange tale with an air of domestic abuse about it. The former I enjoyed, but the latter, despite some striking passages (like the one below), was just a bit strange, the format just... confusing.
What I say: "Why did you leave her with me?" What I want to say: "This almost broke me, but it didn't. It made me stronger than before. You have made me better. Thank you. I will love you until the end of time."
Unfortunately, we then move into the absolute worst story of the lot and the one that single-handedly managed to knock a star and a half rating off this book (I was prepared, at that point, to give this 5 stars, hands down). Especially Heinous is an absurd retelling of the first 12 seasons of Law and Order: SVU, but with a whole bunch of weirdness chucked in. 272 episodes (retold as vignettes) of a series I've literally never seen before, but with added junk around characters, weird stuff that never went anywhere (though the girls with bells for eyes were admittedly creepy) and I absolutely couldn't care. It's just such a weird placement for it and I do feel that, had it been the last story in the collection, I would have skimmed through it/skipped it altogether. Now, I get that Machado is an American author and all, but before that point, her stories displayed a universal quality about them. This was just tedious and self-indulgent. What, exactly, was it supposed to convey? Misery?
The rest of the stories don't come quite close to the brilliance of The Husband Stitch. In Real Women Have Bodies, something strange is happening in a dress shop as women increasingly start to fade away. It's perhaps my favourite of this secondary lot because it felt like it could almost touch the brilliance of the first story (though not quite). This was a quote that both made me immediately want to highlight it and also perhaps flip tables:
They are talking about how we can't trust the faded women, women who can't be touched but can stand on the earth, which means they must be lying about something, they must be deceiving us, somehow. "I don't trust anything that can be incorporeal and isn't dead," one of them says.
Does that sound familiar?
The final couple of stories are also quotable, but I didn't find myself identifying as much with the narrator as in the original ones. In Eight Bites, Machado has an incisive look at weight and self-esteem, through a woman who decides to have bariatric surgery. It tugged at my heartstrings in all the right ways, at least to begin with, but then lost me as it tried its hand at magical realism and completely lost its way. Even though the line I quote below really struck me, right in the solar plexus, I wish it had ended differently, I wish it had carried through its momentum. It felt like it promised so much more and then fizzled out like a deflated balloon.
Even though I thought I was fat I wasn't; the teenager in those photos is very beautiful, in a wistful kind of way.
Finally, the last two stories of the collection; The Resident follows a writer who goes to an artist retreat and seems to slowly start losing her mind and Difficult at Parties, about a woman who deals with a sexual assault through porn. The former story is where the quote from the top of the review came from and again, although it had a strong start, it lost me by the end and I didn't really care for the ending much at all. It tries to take you on a magical journey between reality and not but... it feels really sterile. The second story is harrowing and again, I enjoyed the ending, but the sterility was too prominent. There was no emotional connection for me to latch on to, nothing to keep me wanting to read on.
Overall, I think having collections like Her Body and Other Parties is a valuable thing, because Machado does bring a great perspective. Not all stories resonated with me, but that's entirely a me issue, not an issue with the book. Would I still recommend it? Absolutely. To the right audience, I feel this could be a much more interesting read than I was for me.
Many thanks to Serpent's Tail and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
Where do I even begin with this review (without massive spoilers for the first book in the series)? By saying that if you haven't picked up Ninefox GWhere do I even begin with this review (without massive spoilers for the first book in the series)? By saying that if you haven't picked up Ninefox Gambit yet, you're doing yourself a huge disservice. By saying that Lee writes an incredibly engaging space opera, with enough of the familiar to make you comfortable (giant ships and battles, politics in space) and adding that element of the bizarre, the weird, the utter alien (the hexarchate structure, the calendrical doctrine) that, for me at least, it was never a question of not reading the sequel. Once I had turned the last (virtual) page on my Kindle copy, I was already itching to pick up this book.
The story of the raven general who sacrificed a thousand thousand of his soldiers to build a spirit-bridge of birds to assault the heavens.
When I first read that quote, I saved it because I really enjoyed the lyricism of it, but now so much of it makes sense, in hindsight. I didn't initially clock that (view spoiler)[Cheris was actually very much alive and not possessed by Jedao (hide spoiler)], though I did suspect it and I do wish that I had put more faith into my reasoning skills. This is exactly why I would be an Andan, my brain never cared for all that mathematical stuff. Which segues nicely into the other thing I really liked about Raven Stratagem: that we move from the very narrow focus on Cheris' perspective to several characters, among them a crashhawk (a Kel with no formation instinct to speak of) and Mikodez, hexarch of the Shuos faction. I feel that after very neatly setting everything up in the first book, this sequel is really Yoon Ha Lee's time to shine, where he really gets you invested in the politics of the hexarchate, where you get to see the seedy underbelly that's only hinted at in the first book.
All of a sudden, you also have to tackle questions of immortality (and what that looks like, considering the two examples we get are Nirai Kujen and Jedao himself) and whether the price is worth paying. On top of that we have to deal with plans to overthrow the calendar, something that can be best and most charitably described as heresy. If Ninefox Gambit set the stage for that sort of thinking, then this book takes it to the next level. There are plots within plots and games within games, there is suspicion and betrayal and manoeuvring for power and what I like most is that, as its core, this book is about choice and the freedom to even be allowed one in the first place. With the revelations from the end of the first book still fresh in my mind, I was fully on board for this premise.
I don't want to spoil a lot of the plot here, because so much of the tension relies on you going into this blindly and trusting that Lee will show you the way, which he does. It really also made me want to read the two related short stories (naturally featuring Jedao), The Battle of Candle Arc and Extracurricular Activities. Because once I was hooked by Jedao's story, I was ready to read as many books, stories and novellas that feature him as possible. Beyond this, I was also surprised by how much I already want to re-read the books; I was captivated from the start, but now that I've got the actual plot out of the way, I could go back and focus on the small hints of what was to come. It definitely is the kind of book (and series) I would gladly return to.
Overall, I can see this series going far (and indeed the first book was awarded the Locus Prize for Debut Novel, a very deserved award). It's got a great cast of characters, a very intriguing setting and it manages to strike that balance between action and politics. Its protagonists are all diverse and interesting individuals and the battles are pulse-racing affairs, so reading these books never felt like a dull moment at all. Honestly, I really hope that he's planning to add more than a third book into this series, because at this point in time, I seriously cannot see myself ever being by the Machineries of Empire.
Many thanks to Rebellion, Solaris and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
Oh it has been a long time since I've enjoyed a space opera quite like this. I loved Too Like the Lightning earlier this year, but I didn't give itOh it has been a long time since I've enjoyed a space opera quite like this. I loved Too Like the Lightning earlier this year, but I didn't give it a five star rating, because the whole thing didn't really pick up until about 40% of the way through. In that review I compared Palmer's work to The Quantum Thief, another book (and series) I loved, with an air of playfulness and intrigue that kept me turning the pages and obsessively refreshing the library reservation page, in the hopes that the sequels would be delivered faster. With Ninefox Gambit, I feel I'm on board for another space opera adventure, one that sucks you in from page one and doesn't ever let up. I will note at this point that I have read neither Ancillary Justice nor Leviathan Wakes, though they are both on the reading pile for this year (along with about 35 other books, but let it never be said that I am not ambitious when it comes to my reading...).
Ninefox Gambit opens with a war against heretics, with a formation led by one Kel Cheris, a brilliant mathematician who seems slightly wasted on the "blunt instrument" that many consider the Kel to be. As it transpires, she is a member of a faction that makes up the hexarchate, a group of people who lead the empire through a strict calendrical doctrine (now, for some people, this stops being about hard sci-fi and starts turning into fantasy, so make of that what you will; for my part, I considered this to be a sci-fi book through and through and I didn't particularly care that the calendrical doctrine as such wasn't really explained at all and could easily be boiled down to magic). Yoon Ha Lee has very handily provided a cheatsheet of all the factions and everything they stand for (along with their allegiances), but I would absolutely recommend leaving this until the very end, because of all the spoilers involved. I agree with him that it would have been ace to have it included with the book, but it's still a useful resource for future reference (especially once I pick up the sequel, Raven Stratagem).
Kel Cheris executes an 'exotic' formation, one that gets her noticed and sends the rest of her troops off for reeducation. However, her approach also makes her a prime candidate to retake the Fortress of Shattered Needles from the heretics and when she's given a choice of weapon, she chooses the mad general Shuos Jedao, renowned for killing two armies in a grand battle, one of them his own. Jedao is now bound to Cheris, but she finds she cannot wholly trust him -- how much of what he's telling her is real and how much is part of his unhinged mind? What caused Jedao to go insane and why is he still helping the Kel who imprisoned him, so many centuries ago? As for Cheris, will her training as Kel, her formation instinct (inability to refuse obeying an order), can she truly resist Jedao and his mind games? At every step, she struggles to believe him and use his expertise without allowing herself to trust him too much. Against this backdrop, greater political machinations are taking place and there is more to the Fortress of Shattered Needles than just heretical calendars.
I absolutely love the way Yoon Ha Lee structures his story, the way the perspectives shift and how little I found myself trusting Jedao. It's apparent that his work on short stories is well known among the sf/f community but he's somehow managed to completely elude my notice. Ninefox Gambit is his debut novel and I only learned of it through the controversy when it lost out on a Nebula award to All the Birds in the Sky, which I actually want to read for this year's r/fantasy bingo challenge. I'll be honest: at this point in time, it has a lot to live up to, because I was absolutely blown away by Yoon Ha Lee's debut. At about 43% through the book, I was completely on board the hype train and I genuinely did not want it to stop. The hour lunch break spent reading this did not feel like enough.
I like a sci-fi book that throws me straight into the story and lets me discover the plot alongside the other characters. I like the fact that things can be confusing (we are, after all, in the middle of war), but most of all I like the characters and their stories. From the servitors to minor Kel commanders who only appear in one scene, Lee is exceptionally good at sketching these characters and actually giving them a personality, little quirks to humanise them. He doesn't shy away from the horrors of war and he reminds you, the reader, and Cheris that they are not merely numbers, no matter what Jedao would have you believe. In this, as in many other ways, this really sets up not only the rest of the trilogy but also the real possibility of re-reading. Knowing the end, I definitely want to make my way through this again, just to see whether I can spot the twists and actually get a greater understanding of the text that way.
Ninefox Gambit is definitely worth reading and I genuinely cannot wait for the sequel (later this month!).
Many thanks to Rebellion, Solaris and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
I am a huge fan of new weird. I absolutely adore China Miéville and I bought The Stars Are Legion in a recent Kindle sale (I have actually yet to readI am a huge fan of new weird. I absolutely adore China Miéville and I bought The Stars Are Legion in a recent Kindle sale (I have actually yet to read The Mirror Empire but I love Kameron's Twitter and I'm actually planning on reading her God's War for this year's r/fantasy bingo challenge), but I really fell in love with the genre through Perdido Street Station. I then read Annihilation and decided that I really needed to keep an eye on VanderMeer's work (I had, years ago, added City of Saints and Madmen to Mount ToBeRead because I liked the blurb and then promptly forgot his name in among the hundreds of other authors). I keep meaning to go back and finish the Southern Reach trilogy and now thankfully my library has the other two books in the series, so my work will definitely be easier in that respect!
Along comes Borne however, to remind me exactly why new weird as a genre appeals to me. There's everything you could want here: a post-apocalyptic world, with a shadowy Company and its genetic refuse left in the wake of its destruction. There is biotech, weird tech, things that are alive and not quite. Plus a giant (and I mean giant!) bear that can fly. The story is told through Rachel's perspective, a young woman in her late 20s who cannot remember much of the past and who comes across a creature on the side of Mord (the giant bear). This creature, neither plant nor animal, she names Borne, because she was the one who had borne him, and soon it turns out that there is much more to Borne than meets the eye. From here, VanderMeer slowly unveils his world, one of survival and bioluminescence and a forgotten past, a world populated with people you cannot trust. Behind all this stands the ruin of the Company and all the evil that poured forth from there.
In a lot of ways, this reminds me of Annihilation. VanderMeer gives you just enough information to keep you going and with Borne, Rachel and Rachel's lover Wick all hiding secrets, it's all very frantic and fast-paced. I wanted to keep reading but I would also stop and savour the writing. Rachel acknowledges the existence of the reader (in a very nice postmodern twist) and she addresses you directly, wanting you to pay attention and see if you can keep up with the narrative. For me, this is the perfect kind of book to re-read because although it's a finished work in its own universe (my understanding from reading other reviews is that it could easily fit into the larger universe of Area X/Southern Reach, so I really need to read the rest of that series), it definitely has enough twists, turns and hints that I definitely want to go back and read it through again.
I was completely captivated by the worldbuilding because it hits all the buttons I love in my post-apocalyptic fiction: the sense of an ending, a world I can barely recognise, strange life that isn't plant or animal and glows with its own light, a childhood and innocence that characters cannot return to (and indeed every single time Rachel spoke of her parents, my heart constricted and I felt for her, with the revelations in the Company really bringing everything up a notch). There are themes of self-identity and personhood, with questions raised about how much a person can be both a person and a weapon, about what it truly means to be able to understand your place in the world, especially when it's like nothing you remember. VanderMeer's city is one of monsters and men, giant flying bears and mutated children; it is a city that will eat you alive and it is permeated with a sense of dread, one that crawled all over my skin, like a disease.
Even now, on this hellish plain under the dead moon, headed for an open grave, some part of me felt I owed Borne.
Borne is the kind of story that stays with you long after you've finished it. It is creepy in a unsettling way, but it is also human and humane. It tackles a lot of issues and it does so well, keeping you on your toes and guessing right to the end. Best of all, it is a finished story, though as I said I would gladly return to this world. After all, my second favourite type of post-apocalyptic fiction is actually getting to watch the entire world go to hell. If VanderMeer is the one to take me on that particular journey, then so much the better.
Many thanks to Harper Collins UK, 4th Estate and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
Okay, wow. I'd heard a lot about Megan Abbott's work, her ability to tap into the dark recesses of teenager girls' minds, to probe those places that aOkay, wow. I'd heard a lot about Megan Abbott's work, her ability to tap into the dark recesses of teenager girls' minds, to probe those places that adults want to pretend don't exist. I knew about Dare Me and The Fever and even You Will Know Me, but I never felt drawn to reading them. I read The Girls and Girls on Fire last year, but in light of this book, I almost feel that I should revise those rating, because You Will Know Me blows them right out of the water. There might actually be something to all the Abbott hype after all.
Devon Knox is a gymnastics prodigy, the centre of her parents' Eric and Katie's lives. Everything they do is consumed by the need to see Devon succeed: all the practices, all the work, all the money and the second mortgage, all that ambition and desire and drive encapsulated in one teenager's extraordinary body. There are no lengths they wouldn't go to for her. But then a violent hit-and-run accident leads to an investigation and the lid is blown right off this can of worms. What's inside is a twisted world of secrets and lies and mystery, of things sacrificed and left unspoken, of marriages that hang on by a thread. How well do you truly know your daughter and what is she really keeping from you?
Where do I even start with this? The plot is full of twists and surprises, a tightly-wound coil that you need to make heads and tails of. It kept me on the edge of my seat, wanting to know what would happen next, always what would happen next. I was enthralled by Abbott's ability to tap into the idea of small town politics, the way the booster parent clique operated, each portrayed in brush strokes that nevertheless made them come alive. All mothers with dreams, grand dreams for their daughters, with the same goal in mind: to become elite, to become part of the national team, to be an Olympian. Katie, in contrast, seems almost to hold back a bit, to want Devon to want these things, while at the same time ignoring her younger son Drew (who sees more than he lets on, who keeps being dismissed and overshadowed by his sister's brilliance, who made my heart ache with tenderness). Eric, on the other hand, is able to deftly organise fundraisers and meets, always finding ways to make money for the gym, to bring in the best equipment, to ensure that Devon is never distracted by anything.
That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself.
At the core of this novel is Devon, sixteen and in the throes of teenage years, a strange mesh of woman and child, her body pounded by years of hard discipline. Abbott wastes no time in portraying that effect, the strength in her limbs and the fluidity of movement, the broken calloused palms and the taunts that follow her, the petty comments from other teenagers, reducing Devon to nothing more than her body. But she's also somehow outside of the narrative for large parts of it, the reader never truly allowed inside her head. Instead, we see Devon through Katie's eyes, through Eric's reactions, through Coach T and the booster parents, the rest of the gymnasts, someone wholly out of this world, someone they all want to live through vicariously. She is everything to them, which means she can't be the one thing in the world she actually is: a teenage girl.
Abbott's real skill though is in her ability to go beneath the surface, to get inside the world of teenage girls and to treat them like actual fleshed out humans, rather than just a butt of adult jokes. It is, it transpires, a world very much like the adult one, with jealousy and self-esteem issues, with sex and drama and desire, all interwoven with that level of ambition rarely seen outside professional sports. These girls are real and they are just as flawed as I remember myself being, just as intense, when everything truly was beautiful and nothing hurt. Abbott is able to expose those dark parts of ourselves, those hidden nooks and crannies, in ways that reminded me of Gillian Flynn. I was hooked from the beginning and at no point (not even the book's poor formatting would smash entire sentences together) did I feel I want to stop. It was intense and thrilling and very, very real.
Ultimately, the plot and the accident/hit-and-run/maybe murder, that's just the catalyst for the real story that Abbott wants to tell. Her ability to make everything seem sharp and focused, to paint a vivid picture and keep you guessing up until the end is not to be understated. As a rule, thrillers either really capture me (the Flynn phenomenon) or I find them stodgy and uninteresting (the B.A. Paris problem). Abbott definitely falls into that first category and I will be looking into her past works in the near future.
Many thanks to Pan Macmillan, Picador and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
I struggled a lot with this one and I feel that's due to two main things: one was a reading slump the likes of which I've never reaMore like 2.5 stars
I struggled a lot with this one and I feel that's due to two main things: one was a reading slump the likes of which I've never really experienced (I don't think I've ever really felt this much of a slump, to the point of near indifference); the other was the fact that for the vast majority of the book, the main POV character is Madeleine and hers was the perspective that really dragged down my overall enjoyment of The House of Shattered Wings, so I would be lying if I didn't say that I very nearly gave up on the book when I saw that. However, let it not be said that I'm completely heartless or a quitter (after all, I so rarely give up on anything when it comes to books) and by the last 25%, I really was enjoying myself quite a bit more. De Bodard manages to tie in everything in a very unexpected climax and actually, I would again be lying if I didn't admit that my interest in any further books in this setting has most definitely been piqued.
As the title suggests, The House of Binding Thorns is all about Hawthorn. After the events of the last book, loyalties are being tested and characters trying to rebuild from the ashes find themselves being asked to pay too great a price for their hearts desires. There is scant mention of Silverspires here and actually I quite enjoyed the attention shifting away from them. If there is any intention of a third book, then de Bodard clearly will be able to choose from quite the array, be it Lazarus (the House ruled by a human rather than a Fallen) or the new one introduced in this book, a newcomer to the world of intrigue, politics and death that is Paris after the magical war. There is also a larger focus on (view spoiler)[the dragon kingdom (hide spoiler)], something I definitely enjoyed. I liked the descriptions of the palaces and its inhabitants, I liked the links between it and the world of south east Asia (most notably Vietnam), I liked that de Bodard made them all very fierce contenders with the power and magic and influence of the Fallen-ruled Houses. In that respect, it's a very interesting clash of cultures, one I really enjoyed reading about. There are a lot of nuances here, about being an immigrant and hiding from the dominant culture, about the lives of the Houseless (also mostly Vietnamese immigrants) and the squalor of living in what amounts to slums, while those who do have have a House find that, if nothing else, they at least have protection and a hot meal, both things that de Bodard immediately paints as being vital to survival in Paris.
There are new characters introduced in this book, alongside old faces and again, bar Madeleine, I did like them. There's Philippe again, living with the weight and the guilt of the choices he made at the end of the last book and though he plays a far less prominent role in this than in the first book. There are new characters from the (view spoiler)[dragon kingdom (hide spoiler)] and I liked the exploration of the differences between their magic and that of the Fallen, something that is exemplified masterfully in the ending of the book. A part of me feels that the setup is very much towards these two worlds working together to rebuild Paris, to show cooperation and to heal the wounds that the power struggle left wide open.
It's also interesting to see de Bodard tackle relationships (both platonic and romantic) between humans and Fallen -- where this is mostly just touched upon in the first book with Philippe and Isabelle (and his nature isn't one I would strictly call human), the existence of Berith and Françoise is one that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We know from the first book that humans can wield Fallen magic through angel essence (and its addiction and side effects are still a key point in this sequel), but what about long-term exposure? Both Selene's and Asmodeus' lovers are Fallen, but could they (would they) fall in love with a human? I also liked the fact that this human/Fallen affair is tackled through the eyes of lesbians, with all the prejudices that come of it. Françoise's struggles with the Annamite community I found to be incredibly interesting (and heart-rending), in a way that I don't see a lot of fantasy explore. I really hope that any sequels that may or may not happen do still follow her, even if she isn't as much of a central character.
I do wish I could have given this book a higher rating. The pacing is much better than The House of Shattered Wings, there is far less of that repetition that really ground my gears and perhaps without the reading slump I would have easily given this a 4 star rating. Madeleine is far too prominent for me to be able to truly enjoy the book and although I was initially interested in her story and how she would cope with the aftereffects of the angel essence addiction, by the end I dreaded every time she appeared in the chapter. For a book that's ultimately not that long, this really hindered my enjoyment of it. Would I still recommend the two Dominion of the Fallen books? I would, it's an interesting concept, it's a really interesting setting and most of the characters feel genuine and complex, with conflicting desires and goals. My reservations about Madeleine aside, I would still pick up Aliette de Bodard's next book. ...more
I have a huge soft spot for Nigerian literature. Whether it's Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart or the wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, returning to Nigerian literature is more often than not like soaking into a very warm and fragrant bath. The language is exquisite, the themes feel like old familiar friends (patriarchy in Nigerian society, the importance placed on family and familial relationships, Nigeria's troubled civil life and military dictatorship, to name just a few) and I find myself fascinated by a culture I can only marginally relate to.
Stay with Me very neatly slots into that same category and the fact that it's been shortlisted for this year's Women's Prize for Fiction is proof that quite a few critics also rate it (normally, I don't really feel that overwhelming critical reception is a big deal for me personally, but in this case, I was quite pleased; whether or not it actually wins it is another matter entirely). It is, like a lot of other Nigerian books, a treatise on family and love set against the troubled background of Nigeria in the '80s and '90s. Yejide and Akin are happily married, deliriously in love since the day they first laid eyes on each other and eagerly awaiting a child. But after two years of trying hopelessly, Akin's family insists that since Yejide is clearly unable to bear him children, he must find a second wife. That decision, and its consequences, will have devastating effects on their marriage. Stay with Me is a story of betrayal, despair and jealousy.
The story is told in alternating point of view chapters between Yejide and Akin, their own interpretations of facts an illuminating glimpse into their personalities. Yejide is a childless mother and her father holds her personally responsible for "the great love of his life" dying in childbirth. She is shunned by her step-mothers and step-siblings and finds herself alone, which in a culture like Nigeria means more than just being denied sympathy or care or even affection. Yejide forges her own path in life and when she and Akin meet and fall in love, she is adopted by his family, seen as the herald to a glorious future filled with children. Until those children fail to materialise, until the burden and the disappointment is placed on Yejide herself and Akin's family insist that the obvious solution is a second wife.
If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love.
Adebayo's novel doesn't hold back, it packs a punch and relentlessly throws you from crisis to crisis. I really felt Yejide's pain and Akin's secrets blanketing them and shutting them out from the rest of the world. Even with Funmi around, it always felt like their marriage was never meant to include anyone else, that even with all their grief it was never about simply "fixing" it by adding more people. However, as tragedies transpire and secrets are laid bare, it's obvious how much holding back can hurt, how even when there were insurmountable gulfs between them, both Yejide and Akin waited for the other to take the next step, to start the reconciliation process. I wanted them to have a happy ending (of sorts) but as the book progressed I struggled to see how that could be achieved. (view spoiler)[The ending itself feels rushed and just a little bit saccharine. That Timi would have no ill feelings towards her mother, that she could just forgive like that... I wanted something a little bit more from Adebayo here, I wanted that reconciliation to be properly examined rather than left as a question mark. (hide spoiler)]
But I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us and reveal to us the better versions of ourselves.
I liked the way Adebayo included the turmoils of Nigerian independence into the background, how it affects both Yejide and Akin, while also almost mirroring the lies and betrayals in their own marriage. I liked that she tackled other issues in Nigerian society, from the prevalence and devastation of sickle cell disease to the importance of education and the lengths that these women would go to in order to ensure that their children lived a much better life. I could empathise with that struggle, I could genuinely see why Yejide felt the way she did, why she made the choices she did, even when I disagreed with her approach.
Overall, this is a very nuanced and poignant book. The ending knocked off a star in my eyes, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who likes domestic dramas, Nigerian literature or wants to read what I count as an 'entry level' book set in that culture and society.
Many thanks to Canongate Books and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
I also did a review of this on the Streetlamp Halo blog, here.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for the copy. This is based entirely oI also did a review of this on the Streetlamp Halo blog, here.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for the copy. This is based entirely on the first 150 pages in this sample excerpt.
Anyone who knows me well knows how much of a soft spot I have for urban fantasy, especially if it's set in London. Whether we're talking Neverwhere, Kraken, Un Lun Dun or the works of Ben Aaronovitch, I will devour anything that involves a bit of magic in a city I've been living in for over 3 years now. So imagine my joy when this book came up on NetGalley as a suggestion and proudly on the cover, it talked about parallel magical Londons: there is Red London, where Kell, an Antari (or traveller between worlds) comes from, a city and world rife with magic, White London, a world ruled by fear, where magic is scarce and people fight for scraps, a world ruled with an iron fist, Grey London, our own world in the time of Mad King George III, magicless and cut off and Black London, a place no one talks about, where magic and power fought for domination, only to ultimately destroy everything and force the doors between worlds to be closed.
Kell is a messenger, bringing correspondence between worlds and occasionally dealing in illegal trafficking swapping small trinkets from one world to another. But he is marked as an other, and his alienation from the Royal Family of Red London does cause him grief. Meanwhile, in Grey London, Lila, a thief and pickpocket, dreams of the day she will rule the seas as a dread pirate. When Kell gets dragged into dangerous waters and is injured, he finds himself in Grey London, only for Lila to pickpocket him. And that's where my sample ended.
There are a lot of good things about this: the worlds feel different and there is a lot of effort put into the background of the world. It's all very slowly revealed, which kept me going and reading, dreading the next stop on my commute (and if that's not a recommendation, then I don't now what is!). Kell is an intriguing character, torn between his loyalty to Red London and his desire to feel like he could belong, if only he weren't marked as an Antari. The writing is well done and I genuinely liked some of the secondary characters, whether we're talking about the sadistic Dane twins of White London or Rhy, the Crown Prince of Red London and (maybe? hopefully?) an out and out unashamed bisexual character, which would be amazing if true!
But there are also drawbacks: the Kindle format is infuriating, with the maps completely disjointed and broken, to the point where they were an annoyance more than anything else. There were also random symbols scattered throughout the text and sentences would break off in weird places to go to a new line. I really hope this isn't what the Kindle version will ultimately look like, because I can't imagine many people would be as patient as I was. Secondly, Lila feels a little bit too much like a trope. She's a thief, but she's not a bad person, and she has dreams and hopes and aspirations, too! She only steals from the rich, honest! She thinks Georgian ladies who simper are weak and pathetic and she dresses like a boy! It just... maybe it's the fact that she was only in the excerpt for less than a third of the pages, and her introduction felt a bit abrupt, but I really couldn't warm to her. If she and Kell end up a romantic couple (which seems to be the M.O. in YA fantasy novels), then I will be disappointed. Begrudging friends? Sure, we need more friendships based on different genders! But romantic interest? Yawn.
Now, it's probably unfair to be quite so harsh on only the first 150 pages of a book. But overall, I did have fun, I read it all in one day, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of YA and (urban) fantasy. I will be keeping an eye on the incoming novels to my local library and if this is on the list, then I'll definitely get my hands on it. Just avoid the Kindle version, if you can. ...more
A bit closer to the 3.5, but it could have been 4 had it not been for one thing (which I'll explain below)
I must admit, when I was invited to read andA bit closer to the 3.5, but it could have been 4 had it not been for one thing (which I'll explain below)
I must admit, when I was invited to read and review this book through NetGalley I wasn't quite sure how I was going to feel about it. I hadn't read the author's debut novel Behind Closed Doors but I had seen the reviews about it and the inevitable comparisons to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, because I guess any book with a female lead is fair game for that these days. Now, The Breakdown isn't really like either of those things, but it was a breakneck read and I absolutely tore through it in two days (even though I'm a much quicker read on the Kindle, this is fast even by those standards).
The story follows Cass, a young woman who takes a shortcut during a storm and nearly stops for another woman who's broken down. However, she drives on and when she learns the next day that the woman has been brutally murdered, she feels a tremendous amount of guilt. Coupled with this are the strange phone calls she keeps receiving, with an ominous presence on the other end of the line, plus the little things she keeps misplacing and forgetting. Is Cass really losing her mind or is the killer out to get her?
I will give Paris this, I couldn't really put this down. I wanted to know what was really happening, if Cass could lose her mind so easily or if something far more sinister was at play. Through first person narration, we're dumped straight into Cass' brain and all her guilt and anguish at not having stopped for the murdered woman is thrown right in our faces. On the one hand, I could completely sympathise with it, particularly as she lies to her husband Matthew about it. On the other, there really wasn't anything she could have done, was there? A woman, alone, on a deserted road with no mobile signal in the middle of a thunderstorm... None of it is particularly helped by the fact that Matthew just seems so damn reasonable and I mean, we've all forgotten things right? Everyone's misplaced things before or ordered things without remembering, right? And hey, if you're run down and worried about a murder happening close to where you live, that's gotta be even harder...
Ultimately, this is a book about gaslighting and mental abuse, the insidious forms it can take and how women are constantly belittled and doubted when it comes to their own health. I was shocked by how easily it was (view spoiler)[for Matthew to manipulate Cass into actually believing she had early onset dementia, about how she just trusted him to make the best decisions for her, about how he used all her fears against her in such a calculated, callous way (hide spoiler)]. I was actually surprised by how much I ended up doubting her and her version of events. So in a lot of ways, I am actually glad that Paris tackles this subject, particularly as it isn't one to always see the light of day in these sorts of novels. I was fully prepared, at this point, to award the book four stars.
Then I read the last 10% of the book and it completely soured everything for me.
Not because I got half the answer right, not at all. I could have lived with that. It's the extreme rush with which everything is explained, how all the pieces fall into place and I almost want to say the near deus ex machina that (view spoiler)[leads Rachel's phone to be stolen out of her bag and handed over to Cass (hide spoiler)]. For something that had been so clever up to that point, this actually felt like a bit of a slap in the face. It was all resolved, the murderer confesses and everything just ends fine, no worries, nothing at all. I was actually quite annoyed by this, because it felt like Paris almost got bored writing this novel and wanted to get it all over with. The resolution happens, the end, all is well. There are absolutely no repercussions from (view spoiler)[Cass barging in on Jane's husband's life or her weird revelations about the stormy night, the calls she's receiving or anything of the sort (hide spoiler)] and although I could see that Paris was hinting at potentially something more, that entire plot thread just gets dropped.
This is the sort of book that will probably appeal to people who really like the thriller genre. I didn't outright hate it myself, but I was so close to really enjoying it, so to feel that snatched away right at the end left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. On the other hand, this is a fast, punchy read, full of twists and turns. With the summer coming up and longer days to lounge by the pool, this might just make the perfect accompaniment.
Many thanks to Harlequin UK and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
I am no stranger to difficult reads or sci-fi books. I like having my brain bent in unexpected ways, it's why I loved Embassytown with such a fierce pI am no stranger to difficult reads or sci-fi books. I like having my brain bent in unexpected ways, it's why I loved Embassytown with such a fierce passion. I like having my expectations dashed (in a good way) and my prejudices challenged. I'm no stranger to a challenging book and for something that only clocked in at 400-odd pages, it feels criminal that it took me nearly a month to read Too Like the Lightning, especially on the Kindle where normally I am a much faster reader. I cannot blame cycling commutes, lack of time in the evening with my marathon training nearly coming to an end (just over two weeks to go!) or distractions from a new video games console. The truth is, Palmer's debut novel nearly broke me.
Too Like the Lightning is both a fantastic and a challenging debut. Its narrator is Mycroft Canner, telling us their story from a future as alien to our current way of seeing as the Enlightenment Age would feel about about us. This is a future in which religion has been abolished, in which we have flying cars and technologically-generated abundance, in which even mass murder can be, in a way, forgiven, so long as you dedicate your life to becoming a Servicer, someone who roams the world performing useful deeds. It is a world in which nations have been dissolved and people choose one of seven Hives, based on interests, a world in which gender markers and pronouns have been made illegal and language is policed, everyone referred to as 'they' (a concept that I understand is also a key point in Ancillary Justice, another book I need to get round to reading this year). Beyond this, there is a whole slew of concepts and ideas to battle, to understand, to wrangle into a semblance of cohesion and because Palmer doesn't hold your hand at all, it can get very confusing very quickly.
To me, the book genuinely hit its stride about 40% of the way through, which is a tall ask for most people. How can I recommend something that is, by turns, frustrating and convoluted and I nearly gave up. Trying to read for an hour before bedtime did absolutely nothing for me or my level of comprehension, so I found myself floundering. It's not helped that Mycroft is such an unreliable narrator (and as the levels of his depravity are revealed, it's hard to keep an open mind towards him, particularly as he arbitrarily decides how and when to gender characters -- with carers being relegated to female pronouns and the leaders referred to as men, even when their biology would indicate otherwise) and Carlyle, though interesting in his role as sensayer (the future equivalent of a priest or religious man), is not always enough to carry a scene. The politics are all entangled and incestuous, as Palmer clearly hints at the fall of this age of Enlightenment (and indeed, this book and its sequel Seven Surrenders are meant to be seen as one work).
But how can I possibly recommend this book by asking readers to hang out till nearly halfway through? It's strange, because I found myself comparing its difficulty level to The Quantum Thief, a book and series I absolutely adored, but there was a hint of playfulness in that first book that I found was decidedly lacking here. This is high stakes politics and a world so foreign I didn't quite know where I stood. Everything seems to be couched in layers and layers of deception and it's hard, at times, to keep things straight with Mycroft: not only is his narrative ostensibly being 'censored', but he's also prone to make subjective observations, including inserting his own comments about what he believes my reaction would be, leading me to frustrating moments where I wanted to shake him to his senses (again, I'm sure this is entirely intentional on Palmer's part).
The second half of the books is much zippier, the world revealing itself, the key players becoming more and more entangled as they aspire to keep their positions of power. The climax, the revelations, Saladin's entire existence, pretty up the whole of the last Martin Guildbreaker chapter... I was racing through the pages, all the pieces sliding into place and I was so annoyed that the Kindle version isn't available in the UK, because right there and then I was so ready to just read it, I needed to know what was going to happen. The house of cards is most definitely falling and I really want to see how everything will line up, how Palmer intends to manage all this.
Overall, I think this is a very clever book with a lot of twists and turns, managing to put in one hell of an emotional punch in its last few chapters. On the other hand, it can be quite slow to get going, it expects you to remember a zillion names and connections and for a while, the Mycroft and the Carlyle storylines are slightly parallel, until they converge to an incredible crescendo. Bridger remains the wildcard, the unknown in all this mess, the miracle worker who could bring about war and destruction. The parallels with J.E.D.D. Mason are staggering, but I feel I'm missing out on some of the detail (particularly as this isn't a book I read on a religious daily basis), so perhaps one thing I ought to do is attempt the re-read before I pick up the sequel. It also assumes that you're at least familiar with the names of the main cultural players of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Delacroix, de Sade, Rousseau) or that you're very willing to open Wikipedia at least. Palmer is actually a historian and teaches at the University of Chicago (along with being heavily endorsed by Jo Walton), so you know that foundation is solid at least.
Too Like the Lightning is one of the cleverest books I've read since Rajaniemi's Jean le Flambeur series, but it is not an easy read. Stick with it, though, and you may find yourself surprised.
Many thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
Assisted suicide as a topic is one that I care a lot about. Not just because Terry Pratchett was such a huge proponent but becauseA strong 2.5 stars.
Assisted suicide as a topic is one that I care a lot about. Not just because Terry Pratchett was such a huge proponent but because it is something that I've considered for myself, in future. However, it's a topic that needs to be considered in a respectful manner, not least because although the decision should always rest with the patient, there are ethical implications for those with degenerative conditions, not to mention the existence of greedy people in the world. As far as I'm aware, this is the first book I've personally ever read dealing with the topic.
Steven Amsterdam draws on his experience as a palliative care nurse in his portrayal of Evan, an assistant to the first "assisted suicides" after they become legal. He is there to give the patient their dose of Nembutal and provide some measure of support for the families (largely in protocol-driven dialogue, meant to completely emotionally detach the nurse from the patient). His friends have no idea what he does and his mother Viv is slowly deteriorating from Parkinson's disease. Soon however, Evan discovers that there are limits to his own morality, that there are places even he is not willing to go and, as he finds himself facing his mother's mortality, he is left who wonder who will provide the support for him at the end.
I actually quite enjoyed Evan and what Amsterdam does with his character. He swings between being a very involved narrator to almost clinical detachment, depending on what he's describing. His interactions with his mother are filled with a sense of helplessness and fear, mostly because of her approach to her disease and her decision not to let it hold her back. With his partners Lon and Simon (because yes, Evan is both gay and involved with a couple in a triad, something I was incredibly pleased to see), he is equally gushing, though he does not tell them exactly what his job entails, afraid of their judgement of him. But when it comes to his patients, he is somehow removed, almost not wanting to imagine that he might find himself in that position with Viv. Throughout the novel, we slowly piece together the kind of relationship he has with his mother, the heartbreak that her death would cause but also their weirdly codependent relationship.
The Easy Way Out is, by turns, humorous and thoughtful, but I also found it a tad meandering. There are some implications of assisted suicide discussed, but not in any meaningful way. Evan's stubborn approach to his patients and the ways he deals with their grief and pain (constantly evaluating his performance around them) got a bit samey after a while. It's not helped at all that Nettie (his supervisor) isn't a very fleshed out character. There is clearly history for her in terms of the procedure, but the narrative never goes anywhere with it. I similarly felt that although the inclusion of Lon and Simon is great, their relationship outside of Evan is a complete mystery. Again, this is slightly assuaged by the fact that everything in told in first person perspective, but I also found Evan's lack of interest in them slightly appalling, particularly considering the fact that they are nothing short of supportive in everything they do for him.
I think the third issue I have is with the ending. I'm going to put the rest behind a spoiler cut. (view spoiler)[Throughout the novel, Viv is constantly shown to be chaffing at the ropes of authority, treating the nursing home staff and their rules with disdain. For such a fiercely independent woman to end up relying on her son for care is something she clearly isn't happy with. But for Evan to then go against her wishes because of some "connection" he seems to make with her, for him to just completely ignore her decisions for her own body just because he could... I was angry. I was angry and disappointed because until then, I had actually had a very good opinion of him. I genuinely believed, right until the end, that he would keep his word to Viv. And while you could argue that he has the spare Nembutal dose at home, he could have done what she actually asked of him. (hide spoiler)] I think what bothered me the most about Evan (view spoiler)[and his reluctance to give Viv the Nembutal (hide spoiler)] is that throughout the novel he doesn't have any such crisis of faith with anyone else. That simply doesn't happen, so to have it appear right in that moment somehow cheapened the whole thing for me.
There isn't enough real discussion about the implications of assisted suicide and in fact Evan spends most of his time thinking about his relationship to Viv and to Lon and Simon than he does on the ethics of his job. For that reason alone I feel that the use of first person perspective is somewhat... wasted here. He simply accepts it all, there is no moral quandary, there we go. Even when there is a hint of conflict (with Simon, for example), it's just glossed over, Evan simply lies about his job and we're done. The same pattern repeats with Jasper's Path and I dunno... I just wanted something to tell me these characters are human and have actual opinions around assisted suicide that they care enough to defend.
Overall, it's a fairly easy and straightforward read, but I wish the author had done more with some of the moral and ethical issues in the book.
Many thanks to Quercus, riverrun and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
I am not, by and large, a huge fan of crime/thriller novels. I find them excepI also took part in the Darktown blog tour on my blog, Streetlamp Halo.
I am not, by and large, a huge fan of crime/thriller novels. I find them exceptionally formulaic, gruesome and depressing. I have, on occasion, been known to give in to hype and blast through books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl. It's mostly because of the hype and while I am glad to have read those books, it didn't immediately turn me into a crime reader. In my mind, for every book like the ones above, there would be some James Patterson ghostwritten nonsense that I couldn't stand. It means I have probably missed out on some great books, but I take the risk.
So normally I would have gone straight past something like Darktown, but the synopsis (and the upcoming Jamie Foxx series) really made me pause. Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948 it follows the story of the first black police officers. However, it's clear from the onset that they are definitely not equal to their white counterparts. They can't arrest white suspects, drive squad cars, conduct investigations, they can't even operate out of the same building, instead being relegated to the basement of the YMCA. They are not allowed to patrol outside of Darktown, the black area of Atlanta, and everyone, from other black people to the white residents of Atlanta, believes that this is a mistake. However, when a young black woman, last seen in the company and car of a white man, turns up dead, Officers Boggs and Smith decide they simply can't let this slide. They face distrust from the black people who knew her, opposition from other white policemen and even threats to their own lives, but they persevere. Soon, they come up against an old-school cop who isn't afraid to express his opinions on the new black officers (spoiler: they're very racist) and his younger partner, who seems to be willing to reach across the racial divide.
This is a fast-paced, compelling read. It's the kind of book that really pulls you in and doesn't let go, to the point where I raced through the last 40% or so in one afternoon, eager and desperate to know what would happen next. There is corruption, violence and racism in Atlanta and for Boggs and Smith, deciding to take on this case puts them in the (quite literal) firing line. Mullen deftly paints the picture of the Deep South as a place that doesn't welcome "uppity Negroes", a place where racism and the Klan still reign supreme despite some advances in the rights of black people (most notably the right to vote). Even the most progressive characters in the book see this as a "separate but equal" thing, with an underlying current that these changes might bring about the fall of Atlanta as they know it. For Boggs and Smith, there is always the question of whether it wouldn't be easier to head north, to Chicago, where things might be better for black people. The threat of violence and death is ever-present and Mullen is able to create this undercurrent of fear and worry throughout the chapters which follow the black officers.
For the most part, the main characters (Boggs, Smith, Dunlow and Rakestraw) are all made to shine in their own way, with their own sets of complex fears and motivations. To an extent, this falters somewhat towards the end, particularly in Dunlow's case. I think Mullen rushes the ending a little bit, particularly after the slow build up of the preceding chapters. There are a lot more cliffhangers, but where before they all came naturally from the story, this time it's more around he said/she told him/unexpected action as the format. It got very wearisome, bunched up in the last 5% of the book. Some of the actions at the end of the novel also seem somewhat... rushed, as if Mullen really wanted to see this through now. I will say though, that will probably make for quite compelling television, as it all escalates to the season finale.
There is an element of the theatrical to all this, of the adaptation-that-will-be. This isn't necessarily a flaw, either, because it means that the writing is, for the most part, taut and tight and urging you on. The action scenes are gut-wrenching and spaced out enough that it doesn't turn into an exposition-encounter-exposition-encounter type of novel. There are secrets and revelations, jostling for power and the feeling that if this experiment fails, the city of Atlanta would be happy never to try again.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book and I feel it's a good crime novel (again, coming from someone who doesn't read crime). It has its flaws and issues, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book and if anything, I'm really looking forward to the adaptation now. There is also the air of a sequel around it, with enough mysteries left unsolved that we could see the return of Boggs and Smith. If that happens, I'll definitely be reaching for the sequel.
Many thanks to Little Brown and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
2016. The year I suddenly read books about weird cults. Where Foxlowe was set on the moors of Yorkshire and had everything couched in hints and asid2016. The year I suddenly read books about weird cults. Where Foxlowe was set on the moors of Yorkshire and had everything couched in hints and asides, the memories of a faulty survivor, The Girls is based on the Manson cult and murders and follows Evie Boyd, a girl in the 1960s, who joins Russell and his cult, becoming involved in something so much bigger than herself.
This is a book that reflects that frantic period, the drugs and drinking and parties, the sense of being part of something cosmic, the ease with which someone like Evie (not particularly bright or pretty, at times with more money than sense) just gets drawn into something like this. Partly, it felt as though she didn't have any other choice except to go ahead with everything that Russell proposed, drawn in the wake of Suzanne's intensity and incandescence, like a satellite in the wake of a giant planet. I identified strongly with Evie, the restlessness of youth and the passion of teenage years, that desire to be noticed and lovely, to belong and be wanted by those you are in thrall to.
We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.
At times, a lot of the passages read like something out of Gone Girl, the words about Cool Girl, except this time it's a teenager saying those words rather than an affected, early 20-something woman who wants to fit in. I liked what Cline did with the atmosphere of the book, the heat of the Californian sun seemingly coming out of the pages (I read this during a huge British heatwave and I felt that cloying sun both in my head and on my skin). I liked what she did with the relationships between the characters, how she doesn't shy away from the unsavoury passages about men having sex with these girls, as if their age didn't matter (Evie is 14 in this book, remember), as if their words on "free love" and "moving beyond the self" would apply to anyone but themselves. The girls are all in thrall with Russell, following him around and doing his bidding without questioning anything at all.
They didn't have very fall to far - I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board.
However, I couldn't bring myself to give this five stars, because I just didn't think that the way the whole murder plays out makes sense. (view spoiler)[Somehow, Evie manages to avoid being tainted by the events, because Suzanne pulls her out of the car? Why would she do that? Evie's own answer is unsatisfactory, because at no point in the story did I feel that Suzanne cared enough to try and save Evie. She used her, for the money and for fun, but there was never any friendship there, any affection or anything to indicate that she would suddenly have a change of heart. (hide spoiler)] Somehow, I kept expecting that Evie (view spoiler)[would still be involved in the murder, as a simple eyewitness on the shadows, truly seeing with her own eyes. (hide spoiler)] I also felt that the book kind of fizzled out, the ending abrupt and completely out of the blue. There was no resolution (perhaps intentionally) but neither was there a feeling that Evie had reached a point where she could make peace with herself and the past.
I thought that loving someone acted as a kind of protective measure, like they'd understand the scale and intensity of your feelings and act accordingly. That seemed fair to me, as if fairness were a measure the universe cared anything about.
Still, The Girls is an accurate portrayal of the intensity of teenage feelings and friendships, the feeling of first love and dependance, of wanting to be loved and wanted, to belong and to have somewhere to call home. I loved Evie and I pitied her, I wanted to save her and I wanted to watch her make choices that felt, at times, inevitable. The Girls is a brilliant summer read and one I would really recommend you pick up as soon as you can.
Many thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more
Books about cults can go one of two ways for me: they can be cheesy and corny and utter dregs, or they can be horrific in a very low-key, background wBooks about cults can go one of two ways for me: they can be cheesy and corny and utter dregs, or they can be horrific in a very low-key, background way that nevertheless pushes the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and leaves you feeling a bit dirty and unsure of where the sympathy should truly lie. And Fowlowe is very much of the latter category and the more engrossed I became in the story, the more horrified I felt.
Foxlowe is a place somewhere on the moors where the Family live. Green is an ungrown, a child, being brought up in the commune, under the Leaders Freya, Richard and Libby. Alongside her is Toby, whose mother Valentina is a member of the Family and together they seem to enjoy a relaxed, idyllic childhood based around free running and lack of structured education. However, the triangle between Freya, Richard and Libby proves, at times, to be completely toxic and Freya's obsession with ensuring Green's unwavering affection often drives her to what can only be described as abusive acts. When Blue is brought into the Family, there is immediate tension and slowly, things start escalating. After all, the Bad easily gets under the skin of children and sometimes, not even the Standing Stones can save them...
What I loved about Wasserberg's writing is her ability to really get at the heart of an issue without being in any way moralising. By showing you everything through Green's eyes, you find yourself torn between the sympathy you feel at seeing so much denial and the ambivalence of feeling and guilt; how much of Green's actions could be placed at Freya's feet? She is a child, yes, but none of the other adults really get involved in that aspect of her parenting and although (view spoiler)[she is Richard and Freya's daughter (hide spoiler)], it is Freya who seems to lead the punishments at Foxlowe. The opening sequence, describing the Spike Walk and the way Green denies herself any anger towards Freya for making her go through it is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It's a completely uncomfortable scene and it really sets the tone for the rest of the novel. I found myself lurching between abject terror that seemingly no one would ever stand up to Freya and her cruelty and a sense that some of Green's choices, particularly when it comes to her relationships with Toby and Blue, are completely intended, that she is well aware of the consequences and yet insists on making that choice nonetheless.
I also really liked the structure of the novel, the way one moment becomes the breaking point of the Family (though for Green, the signs had been there, writ large, for a very long time) and the way in which Green's life splits between the Before and the After. Watching her try to adapt to a life outside Foxlowe, outside her Family, is disturbing and overwhelmingly sad. I felt that Wasserberg really got it, really understood that feeling of alienation and portrayed Green's vices in a candid way, one which invites forgiveness. Because yes, by that point I very much wanted to forgive Green and yet, and yet I found myself constantly pulled back, particularly when (view spoiler)[she returns to Foxlowe and sees Toby, who hints at the fact that Green's memory of the events leading up to Blue's death could be extremely unreliable (hide spoiler)]. In fact, that entire middle section is one mired in confusion, as Green struggles to reconcile the consequences of the After with her memories of the event. It's there that it becomes abundantly obvious that she is not to be trusted with her own account of Foxlowe.
The ending is a chilling one, particularly once the events which broke up the Family come to light. I found myself putting my Kindle down and staring into space for some times, worried that I had misread that final sentence. I like the ambiguity of it but I also dread it and I think it is perhaps the single most terrifying scene in the entire book. It's made doubly so by the fact that (view spoiler)[Green seems to have recovered somewhat (hide spoiler)] only to be pulled back, as if, of all the Leavers, she is the only one who could never truly escape Foxlowe. And neither could I.
Would I recommend Foxlowe? Yes, I would, because it is a creepy, oppressive novel about a creepy, oppressive cult and because reading about the Family, you are left with the firm belief that they see nothing wrong with their way of life and never consider the consequences of the children ever wanting to become Leavers. It's also the kind of book that does well on a re-read, allowing you to spot the smaller details now that the plot is familiar. This is a terrific, terrifying debut and one you should get your hands on!
Many thanks to Harper Collins and NetGalley for the copy of this book....more