Recent reads – magic, urban fantasy, Chinese sci-fi.

Ok it has been forever since I actually talked about the books I read recently. So while I have the willpower and the kids are taking a break and playing Lego, here are some thoughts!

 

sorcerycecelia

Sorcery & Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country – Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer 

I adored this epistolary story that was written separately by the two writers, in a kind of writing exercise – they didn’t plan out the plot, and Wrede wrote as Cecelia, Stevermer as Kate. And here, I have to add that I wish the title were different. Kate is just as an important character here, why doesn’t she get into the title?? Or just not put any of their names in the title and call it something else, like Sorcery & Crumpets; Sorcery, Tea, & Biscuits. At any rate, if you’ve never heard of this book, it’s set in 1817 England and there is magic. It was the first time I’ve read anything by either author, and am curious to see what else they’ve written. Let me know if you have a recommendation.

trailoflightning

Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1) – Rebecca Roanhorse

I’ve been drawn to more speculative fiction lately, escaping from our current reality you say? Why yes indeed. Roanhorse is another new-to-me author and she has set this series in the Navajo nation, with most of the world drowned beneath the rising tides. Maggie is a powerful monster slayer who lives alone, far from anyone else, but she needs help from a young and handsome medicine man as there is a strange new monster threatening her people. Maggie takes a while to grow on the reader, emerging from her isolation and learning to accept others. The introduction of Navajo magic and legends was quite fascinating, the pacing of the story was quick and just what I needed as a distraction from the world.

 

threebody

The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin

I had a really hard time with this book. Parts of it was quite fascinating but a lot of the science went way over my head and many times I wanted to give up. But at the same time, I wanted to know what was going on. It was clever and thought-provoking but honestly a bit too much of a slog for me at the moment. Will I continue with the rest of the series? I do not know at the moment. Definitely not in the near future…my brain is not ready. I need to read more fluffy floofy things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gideon the Ninth

This book is an absolutely brilliant, soul-sucking, bloody, batshit crazy yet completely absorbing read that has you holding your breath with every insane twist and turn of this roller coaster of reading ride.

It is impossible to really describe this book accurately but I’ll try.

Gideon the Ninth is set in a very distant future (perhaps?) in which there are nine houses and all of them deal in a kind of death-related magic. 

And there is to be a tournament in which each House sends a necromancer and a cavalier who is an expert at sword fighting (although there are clearly more advanced technologies around, these Houses feel very ancient somehow, including the tournament’s preference for the cavaliers to use rapiers). 

Gideon Nav is the cavalier (well, sort of, more like a sub really) to the Ninth House, to Harrowhark, with whom she has had a mutual hatred since they were young. But she has been promised freedom if she accompanies Harrow to this tournament to become a Lyctor. Lyctors are insanely powerful and work directly for the Emperor in his war against an unknown enemy (I’m guessing it’s to be revealed in the rest of the series). And guess what, this tournament takes place on another planet. And it turns out all the Houses exist on different planets. 

So yes, let’s see, there are necromancers, there are warriors, there are skeletons and death magics and they all take place on a galactic empire. And the Ninth House is the creepiest, the weirdest House of all, the kind which has people avoiding their gaze in case they inflict a curse on them or something (and yet dying to watch every little thing they are doing).  Sounds a bit insane but it is gloriously brilliant (and also insane). 

Ok so this might sound a bit too “out there” for some but this was for me, an absolutely compelling read. The crazy world building, the heart-thumping action, the dark whimsical magic, and that Gideon, that funny, irreverent humour, that hate-not-hate relationship with Harrow, it was everything. 

 

 

Review: Know My Name by Chanel Miller

I’ve been struggling with this, trying to figure out the best way to write about this book.

What can one say, what should one say, when reading this? It’s not an easy book to read, but it is such a brave and powerful book.

I soon learned that I couldn’t read this in bed, I couldn’t read this before falling asleep as it made me very tense, it made me grit my teeth while reading it, it made my head full of thoughts, angry thoughts, swirling around and keeping me awake instead of lulling me into a deep sleep. I learned to read it in the daylight.

“They were deciding whether I’d make a good victim: is her character upstanding, does she seem durable, will the jury find her likeable, while she stay with us moving forward. I walked out feeling like, You got the job! I did not want this job. I wanted my old life. But let him walk away? I could not let it happen. Pressing charges was my choice, they’d say, but sometimes you feel you don’t have one.”

As I read it, I kept thinking, but this is so readable. It reads so easily, it reads so beautifully. But really, why am I reading this at all? Why did this book exist? Because of Brock Turner, a man, a vile person who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on the campus at Stanford University. And a judge, who decided that putting this man in jail for six months was enough punishment for such a deed. He was released three months early.

As a review in The Atlantic put it: “When trauma is transformed into art, there will always be a paradox at play: The art’s existence is beautiful. But it shouldn’t have to exist at all.”

So many people have written about this book more eloquently than I can. So I’ll point you to Book Marks, which has already put together links to reviews of this book.

“His fault, her fault. How quickly victims must begin fighting, converting feelings into logic, navigating the legal system, the intrusion of strangers, the relentless judgment. How do I protect my life? From the investigators? The reporters? I was being equipped with a prosecutor, going into battle, but no one could tell me how to hold all this hostility, this wrecking sadness.”

What I can tell you is what I took away from this piece of writing. This is an important book by a brave young woman. This is also a brutal read. It is precise, unflinching, as Miller takes us through the whole process – being swabbed, photographed, examined all over at the rape processing rooms; and that ridiculously time-consuming legal process. I didn’t really follow the news at the time, so it was disheartening to see how the media portrayed both Miller and Turner.

“They counted my drinks and counted the seconds Brock could swim two hundred yards, topped the article with a picture of Brock wearing a tie; it could’ve doubled as his LinkedIn profile.”

Know my Name is powerful, heartbreaking and infuriating (teeth-clenching and all), and I am full of admiration for Miller who writes her story with such wit and determination.

 

 

Stargazing by Jen Wang

Wang wrote the fantastic The Prince and the Dressmaker, a comic with a wonderful message about acceptance and love, and so I was looking forward to this one, which seemed less fairytale-like with its cover of two young girls sitting together.

But similar to The Prince and the Dressmaker, this is a story about an unlikely friendship.

Moon Lim and her mother move into the granny flat behind Christine’s house, after Christine’s parents offer it to the struggling widow and her child. Christine isn’t sure about Moon at first, she’s rumoured to be free with her fists, she’s impulsive and rambunctious, while Christine is reserved and obedient, trying hard to please her parents. But they soon share a love for dancing to K-pop music and plan to join the school’s talent show.

Moon has a secret though, she sometimes sees celestial beings who want them to join her, so she says. Christine eventually learns what the reason behind that is. And that kind of surprised me, but later, when I read the author’s note about her own background, it made a lot of sense.

I really liked how Wang showed the diversity among the Chinese-American community. Christine’s family is what you would consider more typically Asian – hardworking, studious, plays the violin, attends Chinese school, strict parents, that kind of thing. Moon is more of a free spirit, she doesn’t know much (if any) Chinese, she’s vegetarian, and more drawn to the arts.

Stargazing is a great comic for kids but I think adults will like this one too. I definitely did.

Dystopian near-future or present? Reading A Song for a New Day

In A Song for a New Day, there is the Before, that is, before the virus hit, and before the terror attacks on large public gatherings. And then there is the After, when large gatherings like concerts and performances are banned.

Tied in with both Before and After is Luce Cannon, who had been on her way to stardom with her hit song Blood and Diamonds. And despite the ban on concerts, she’s persisting in playing live, via a series of illegal performances. Then there’s Rosemary Laws, who doesn’t quite know of life in the Before. She lives in a virtual world, in what is known as the Hoodspace, where she works her online job, helping customers with their drone deliveries. She isn’t good with crowds – or real live people in general – as she works in isolation on her parents’ farm. But a job opportunity comes up with a company called StageHoloLive or SHL to discover new musicians for their virtual reality performances. That means going out into the real world and finding them.

Reading this book in today’s COVID-19 panicked world, I can so easily see this happening, and in a sense, it has, in parts of the world. Cities in Hubei province in China have been locked down. A live fashion show in Italy was altered in that models walked the runway to an empty theatre and the show was live-streamed. Travelers in a hotel in Tenerife have been quarantined.

And I wonder, how far will this go?

Could life end up like in A Song for A New Day?

I really enjoyed the music aspect of the book and wish there could have been a soundtrack to go along with it! Pinsker effortlessly captures that magic of being in a concert, amidst a sea of fans all singing the lines together. She’s a musician herself and her love for music is evident throughout.

Rosemary is a fascinating character, having lived all her life on the farm, she’s not used to, well, people. And when she begins her new job, she has to attend concerts, be among a crowd, take public transport. Life in the After means isolation booths in restaurants, and interstate buses. It means drones delivering you everything you need. Imagine growing up in that and never being out and among other people besides your family. This new job requires such growth from her and Pinsker gradually coaxes it out, nothing too shocking or dramatic, and in the end, satisfying.

A Song for a New Day is an entertaining and immersive read that will stay with me for a long time.

The Girl Who Reads on the Métro

Which booklover can resist a book about books? A book about readers? And also ticking some boxes for me, a book written by a woman, and translated into English from French.

And then it begins with one of my favourite quotes, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” by Jorge Luis Borges. 

We begin on the metro where Juliette spends her commute watching people who are reading. There’s the man in the green hat reading a history of insects. The young woman reading romance novels whose eyes begin to tear around page 247. Juliette prefers watching readers to reading her own book. 

One day, Juliette steps off the train at a different stop, takes a walk around the strange neighborhood, and finds herself at a house with the front door wedged open with a book. 

There she meets Soliman whose house is full of books. And book passeurs come by, they deliver books to people. Not just randomly, but people they have watched, followed, until they can sense the book that person needs. 

And it all sounds kind of lovely, the way I’m describing it, but while I expected to be enchanted by this book, I just wasn’t. Although I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe because she doesn’t seem to really do much as a book passeur. And maybe because I didn’t really feel much of a connection to any of the characters. Maybe I was looking for something more whimsical. 

This book wasn’t quite for me but maybe it will be for you.

Comics: The Girl from the Other Side; Nancy

THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE: SIÚIL, A RÚN vol 2

First read of the year is a strange one. Also it’s the second volume in the series as I started and finished the first one on the last day of 2019. A series I hadn’t heard of until browsing the library’s ebook catalogue and the cover just stood out for me.

Who is this strange creature and why is this little girl with it? I also loved the stark colors. And the inside, like pretty much all manga I’ve read, is only in black and white. 

There is a fairy tale-likeness to this series. A young innocent girl separated from her family and into the house of this beast with horns. But he is no vile monster. He looks after her, feeds her, and cares for her. She calls him Teacher. But she can not touch him for those who touch these beasts are cursed. 

The curse itself isn’t really explained much in the first two volumes but it is horrible enough that people have died, villages emptied, and armed soldiers sent to look for this possibly cursed young child in the woods.

A fascinating series with beautiful artwork

NANCY BY OLIVIA JAIMES

Book 2 of 2020 is another comic. This one also one I hadn’t heard of before. Apparently it started in 1938 and was at its height in the 70s (in over 700 newspapers). Growing up in Singapore, our one newspaper was (and pretty much still is) The Straits Times and they didn’t carry Nancy. Or at least I don’t remember that they did. I remember they had Sherman’s Lagoon and Baby Blues. Probably Peanuts.

So it was another case of browse the ebook catalogue and oh this looks fun and hit download.

And what a delight this was. Seeing the cover I expected an older comic so I was thrilled to see how phone addicted Nancy was – and also soon realized this was the new Nancy. One that was published from 2018 with its first-ever female author who goes by the pen name Olivia Jaimes.

And Nancy is such a hoot. She’s grouchy and she’s sassy. And it was such an absolute delight to read. I just loved every page of it, especially those meta ones!

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

This is THE LIGHT BRIGADE by KAMERON HURLEY.

A book I hadn’t heard of before going over the Tor.com reviewers’ best books of 2019.

Some years ago, if you’d have said “military sci-fi” my answer would have been, what? no!

But this was fascinating! Mars and Earth are at war and Dietz has signed up to fight. He’s part of a team that is turned into particles of light and then beamed at lightspeed to wherever they’re ordered, sometimes Mars. But something keeps going wrong with his drops, he seems to be joining his team at different times and situations. And soon he learns the truth behind it all.

It is an intense read. So much happens and the reader is trying to puzzle it out along with Dietz. I’ve seen a few reviews since that talked about this book being a new take on Starship Troopers, which I don’t know about as I’ve not seen the movie or read the book. So I’ve come into this as a reader who doesn’t really know much about more classic SF or military novels.

But what I really liked about this book is the way she constructed her future world. Where there are no nations, just corporations. Where you are either citizens or not. And if not, you have no rights and privileges. You are a “ghoul”. Dietz is a one of these “ghouls”, once an inhabitant of São Paulo which has been wiped out by the Martians.

What a read this is. It is brutal and bloody. It discusses politics and capitalism that, while set in a future society, rings so relevant and true to our current one. Loved it.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

For a long time I had Atwood on a pedestal. I mean she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale!

Then I read Angel Catbird and it was a bit sad and embarrassing (please don’t read it). So it has been a while since I’ve read anything by Atwood (not counting the brilliant graphic novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale).

I was however curious about The Testaments.

Please note I will attempt to make sure there are no spoilers in this review and as such, I won’t talk much about plot (here’s the the Goodreads synopsis) but the storyline takes place 15 years after the first book.

First of all, if this were written by a YA author as her version of what happened to Gilead I probably would have applauded it.

But this is Margaret Atwood we are talking about, and so I had high expectations.

I don’t mean to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did. I liked (or liked despising) the fact that we were back in Gilead and hearing from Aunt Lydia. Lydia was a great character and it was especially interesting hearing from her perspective.

The story was fast-paced, very plot-driven, and it ended up being a quick read despite its 400 pages. But I felt that her young teenaged character in the non-Gilead world wasn’t convincing. Some of what she said sounded odd. And really, I was disappointed that we don’t hear from Offred.

After I read the book, I saw a review that remarked that The Testaments picks up plot elements from the TV series and I wondered, what have I missed out on since I haven’t seen the TV show? And to be honest, after learning about that, I was a bit pissed off. Is this a sequel of a book or of a book and a TV show? Did I need to get a Hulu subscription in order to learn what I was missing?

So after it all I feel that this book, while readable and entertaining, was, for me, not very satisfying. It brought me back into a familiar world with hopes of answers but I wasn’t wowed by it.

Sudden Traveler by Sarah Hall

 

 

“We are, all of us, sudden travelers in the world, blind, passing each other, reaching out, missing, sometimes taking hold.”

Reviewing a collection of short stories isn’t an easy task. With a few exceptions, short story collections tend to feel like they need to be read over a longer time than it takes to read a book. For example, read one story, take a break and go read something else. Then come back to another story after that breather.

And in a collection such as this slim volume by Sarah Hall, a lot of breaks are needed, as the stories take on such varied settings, some weird and otherworldly and a bit experimental, some more rooted in the every day. Is that why the title is such? That as we read the stories, we are, too, “sudden travelers”, having to switch our perspectives completely?

For these stories are set in Turkish forests, Cumbrian villages, some that seem more like dreamscapes with weird transformations.

There is no doubt that Hall is a great writer. The stories are full of beautiful writing. For myself, as I am not much of a reader of more experimental turns, I was more drawn to her more ‘real’ stories like Orton and, especially the penultimate story, Sudden Traveler. And her writing pulled me in deep to those stories, tears falling, even, for one of them.

So while I stumbled during a couple of stories, unsure of where these pieces were leading me, the end result was worth it.

 

 

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and

publisher Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this book.

Check out the rest of the tour stops here

Grab a copy of this book: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
 
Find out more about Sarah Hall: Website and Facebook