Review: The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

41910151._sy475_Verdict: Great world, mediocre writing.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Orbit, February 6th 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

I’m Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me:
1. Sobriety costs extra.
2. My services are confidential – the cops can never make me talk.
3. I don’t work for humans.

It’s nothing personal – I’m human myself. But after what happened, Humans don’t need my help. Not like every other creature who had the magic ripped out of them when the Coda came…
I just want one real case. One chance to do something good.
Because it’s my fault the magic is never coming back.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is a brilliantly voiced fantasy for fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Rotherweird or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and the debut novel from actor Luke Arnold – known for his lead role in Black Sails!

I should have loved this. The world Luke Arnold created here (post-magic, well-thought-out, imaginative) is absolutely brilliant. I adore stories that deal with the fall-out of an event that fundamentally alters the laws of the physical world (see N. K. Jemisin’s books and Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy for excellent examples) and this book does this incredibly – on a world-building level. I got the impression that Arnold’s imagination is endless and the way in which he thought out how this sudden disappearence of magic would influence different magical races worked really well for me. I also really like mysteries set in an urban fantasy kind of epic fantasy world. Sunder City is a brilliantly done fantasy city, with flavours of a darker Ankh-Morpork. But there were two big kinds of problems I had with this book – one that I think is a problem with the book itself and one which I have to admit has more to do with my own reading tastes.

First for the more “objective” criticism I had: I found the writing clumsy. This showed itself mostly in a pacing that was, frankly, abysmal. The story moved in fits and bursts to suddenly coming to an absolute standstill, with the backstory and the world-building integrated in heavy, heavy info-dumps. While it did not bother me as much as it could have if the word hadn’t been as fascinating, it led to the book feeling much longer than it actually was. The writing is also clumsy on a sentence-by-sentence level and filled with odd descriptions that took me out of my reading flow (examples: “My boots sucked up mud like hungry dogs in a pit of peanut-butter…”, “Thick smoke tunneled through my nose like an escaped prisoner…” or my personal favourite “The future of […] looked darker than a blackbird’s shadow at midnight”).

But ultimately my main issue with this book came down to the main character: Fetch Philipps is everything that annoys me with male protagonists in noir type stories. He is a guilt-ridden, alcoholic, direction-less, and unpleasant private investigator who is not snarky or intelligent enough to be interesting. He is also weirdly indistinct as a main character – he reads super young in the flashbacks and middle aged in present time, he reacts more to what is going on than being a more active player, his motivations are deeply selfish until they suddenly aren’t, and his narration never became a distinct voice for me (and additionally, I found it fairly male gaze-y). I admit that this has a lot more to do with my own reading tastes but he really did rub me the wrong way. He is also, and this is a petty issue, disgusting – there were a few scenes where he behaves in a weirdly disgusting way in order to intimidate (?) people (like when he downs the drink the bartender he is questioning spit in or when he drinks from an open bottle although other people informed him there were flies swimming in there).

Content warning: trauma, loss of a loved one, alcoholism, substance abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced copy and are subject to change.

 

 

Have I read my most anticipated releases of 2019?

Twice a year I post lists of books I am super excited about reading – and I wanted to see whether I have actually read those books and whether I liked them or not. My reading was fairly odd last year, so I am assuming I won’t have done as well as I did in 2018.

For the first half of the year I featured ten books I could not wait to get to.

  1. The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang. I LOVED this.
  2. The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. Sadly I could not get into this book. I am fairly sure that had more to do with my wonky reading mood during 2019 and I will try to read this again at some other point because I do love Anders’ writing.
  3. Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev. This seemed custom-made for me but somehow did not quite work for me.
  4. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. I hyped this up so much in my head and ended up bouncing off it, hard. I hated the casual violence too much to keep reading it.
  5. Long Live The Tribe Of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. This is SUCH a good memoir that I cannot recommend highly enough.
  6. Storm of Locusts (The Sixth World #2) by Rebecca Roanhorse. I loved this even more than I loved the first book in the series and will from now on read every adult book Roanhorse publishes. She is just brilliant.
  7. What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About ed. by Michele Filgate. I realized after adding this book to my list that the contributors include men – so I did not get to it yet but I am planning on buying it soon.
  8. The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West. The publication date kept being pushed back but I now own this and will hopefully get to it soon.
  9. No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder. I would like to listen to the audiobook of this but haven’t yet found it.
  10. The Dragon Republic by R. F. Kuang. I tried reading this for months but I was just not in the mental headspace to deal with its relentless bleakness and the brutality of the storyline. I am unsure whether I will ever be back in the reading mood for this.

I only read four of these books and DNFed an additional two. This is depressing.

For the second half of the year I named ten books I was super excited about.

  1. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. I have not gotten around to this book yet but I am still super excited about it.
  2. The Need by Helen Phillips. Again, I did not get to this. I am currently trying not to buy too many books and also maybe a horror novel about pregnancy/ children is not the best idea at the moment. I still want to get to it at some point!
  3. I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi. I sadly did not love this. I found te reading experience difficult even if I can appreciate what Ikpi does on an intellectual level.
  4. Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. I thought this was absolutely brilliant. I listened to the audiobook which is my favourite way of consuming non-fiction.
  5. Shelf Life by Livia Franchini. I read but didn’t love this.
  6. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. I haven’t even bought this one yet. Middle Grade is just never the age range I get excited about.
  7. In the Dream House my Carmen Maria Machado. I am still waiting for the audiobook to make it to Audible Germany. I prefer listening to memoirs on audio.
  8. How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones. I can now read this! Once I buy it, that is.
  9. Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Diaz. Another one that I am beyond excited about that I did not even purchase yet.
  10. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I cannot believe I haven’t gotten around to buying this yet.

I only read three of these books and loved only one. This is even more depressing than the first part of this post. I really did not do too brilliantly on this – which was kind of to be expected, given how weird my reading year went. I hope this year will go better, most anticipated releases wise. (you can find my first post for 2019 here)

Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

41081373._sy475_Verdict: Really quite brilliant.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.

I am late to the party with this one – and I am so glad I can finally rave with the rest of the world. I thought this book was all kinds of wonderful. Told in four trios of what some have called short stories (though I would not necessarily agree with that assessment), Evaristo has written a snapshot of Britain in a way that I have not read before. She focusses on the interlinked lives of eleven black women and one black non-binary person in a way that worked exceedingly well for me. The book is much more a character study of these brilliantly drawn people than it is plot-driven, but I loved spending time with all of these women.

The first trio of stories remained my favourite until the end, particularly the very first story focussing Amma – I found her endlessly fascinating and her relationships to her daughter (second story) and best friend (third story) painfully realistic. Painfully realistic is in general how I would describe this book – it is in parts hard to read but it does remain a thread of hope without being sentimental. Most of that is down to how flawed and real Evaristo lets her characters be. She does not shy away from depicting these women behaving atrociously, often without realising. I do have to admit that the really flawed parental relationships became harder to stomach for me as time went on.

The language is another big draw here. I listened to the audiobook which gave the book a more non-fictiony type of feeling – but the way Evaristo’s language just flows is impressive nonetheless. Looking at quotes it seems like the language looks a lot more experimental when seen written on a page – I will have to reread this book eventually in print to see how different the experience is.

I loved this book a whole lot – everything about it just ticked a lot of my boxes. I was sad to be done with it and to not be able to spend time with this incredible cast of women. If this does not make the Women’s Prize longlist, I will be very sad.

Content warning: miscarriage, still birth, child death, sexism, homophobia, racism, spousal abuse, rape, gang rape, forced adoption, post-partum depression

Romance Mini-Reviews: A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh and Headliners by Lucy Parker

46299015._sy475_A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh

Published by Gollancz, December 5th 2019

I adore everything Nalini Singh does – so much that I read her newest book even though I rarely, if ever, read anything that could be categorized as either thriller or crime. And I am very glad I did. Everything I adore in her writing was present here, especially her wonderful hand with world-building. Obviously world-building in a real world setting is a lot different to world-building in a paranormal setting, but in the end Singh manages to portrait this small town at the end of the world in New Zealand with much the same flair as her more out there worlds featuring shapeshifters and angels.

The biggest strength of this book is the atmosphere she creates her; the place she portraits seems effortlessly creepy and stifling. Set in the rough West coast of New Zealand’s South Island (a place I was lucky enough to visit last year), her town and its inhabitants come to life in a really satisfying way. I also enjoyed the central romance, even though it did take the backseat to the mystery. These two people are damaged in their own way and find solace in each other – and I was so here for that.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: miscarriage, cheating, infertility, serial killing, stalking, arson

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

47826382Headliners (London Celebrities # 5) by Lucy Parker

Published by Carina Press, January 20th 2020

Of course I loved this. Lucy Parker writes the best romance novels and I have enjoyed every single book in this series. I was beyond ecstatic to receive an ARC of this book I could read over my Christmas break – because this is a Christmas novel at heart. Headliners follows on from the events of The Austen Playbook which for me had the advantage that the dual time-lines usually employed for hate-to-love romances was not necessary, dual time-lines being something I do not particularly enjoy in this genre.

As always, Parker’s characterisation is on point, the snark level is off the charts and the romance at heart is lovely and brilliant and so very funny. Sabrina is a wonderful character whose ambition never means that she sacrifices her own morals, while Nick is actually (underneath his douchebag front) nice and funny – even if he has to realize that ambition should not come before common decency. There were as usual incredibly funny scenes between scenes with genuine heart. Parker’s romances feel real in a way that I find rare in the genre. The romantic gestures are often smaller ones that feel incredibly true to life.

While I thought the book was a tad too long, overall I sped through this and cannot wait to see what Lucy Parker does next.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Mini-Reviews: Memoirs by Emilie Pine, Bassey Ikpi & Sarah Manguso

This last month I read three non-fiction titles about women’s embodied experience. The three books were very different and still fairly comparable to each other.

Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

42373438._sy475_I was so very hyped for this book – on paper it sounds like everything I love in non-fiction (themes of feminism and bodily autonomy amongst other thing) and it came so very highly recommended that I was very sure I would love it. I did not love it. It’s a perfectly fine book, interesting and important, but it also does not feel like it offers anything new. I found Pine’s language straight-forward and bordering on boring, and her ideas not particularly groundbreaking. This feels like a mean way of talking about a book that deals with so many important and heartbreaking things, but as it is, I found one of the later essays (“Something About Me” which wasn’t as polished but still felt the most real) by far the stand-out from this collection.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Content warning: infertility, miscarrriage, late still birth, alcoholism, drug abuse, rape, sexual assault

I am Telling the Truth but I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi

40222541One of my most anticipated reads of the year, this sadly did not completely work for me. I found it very difficult to spend time in Ikpi’s head – especially during the parts when her mental illness was not yet diagnosed. She unflinchingly shines a light on her behaviour without ever giving herself the benefit of filtering it through the lense of her later diagnosis. As part of her symptoms are irritability and self-hate, this made for a very difficult reading experience. I can intellectually absolutely appreciate what she achieves here, it also means that this is a book I am unlikely to ever read again.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Content warning: depictions of depression and manic episodes, eating disorders, childhood abuse, spousal abuse

The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso

11455027I love Manguso’s writing and have been rationing her non-fiction for figurative rainy days. Her memoir about her “lost” nine years of dealing with a rare auto-immune disease and subsequent mental illness, does everything her other books does as well. She writes the most exquisite sentences and her use of paragraph breaks is wonderful, but here she also manages to give such an honest and unflinching insight into her suffering that this might be my favourite of her books so far. The book gets fairly graphic in its descriptions of different medical procedures but the matter of factness and the glimpses of Manguso’s inner life made this a really satisfying reading experience nonetheless. Manguso is as navelgazing as ever – but I happen to really like that in her memoirs.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: detailed descriptions on medical procedures, involuntary section, suicidal ideation.

Favourite Books of 2019

I had a weird reading year – I mostly read romance novels which while they were just what I needed also don’t tend to stick in my brain for any length of time and I read very few SFF novels which usually comprise the majority of my reading. Thus compilling this list turned out to be a lot more difficult than usual – because I did not read that many absolute stand-outs.

Honorable Mentions:

Baiting the Maid of Honor by Tessa Bailey (my favourite of the many books of hers I read this year), A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (read with the best reading group), Almost Love by Louise O’Neill (too harrowingly close to my own experiences to be something I enjoyed while reading but too brilliant to ignore), the complete Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh (the stand-out reading experience of my year)

Top 10:

2575054610) Act Like It by Lucy Parker (review)

My absolute favourite romance novel of the year, this combines many things I love in the genre: snarky enemies-to-lovers, fake dating, hilarious banter, wonderful secondary relationships. I have since then read every single book in this series and I will do so until Lucy Parker stops writing them. Did I mention it is set in London’s West End?

40236964._sy475_09) Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

I did not read nearly enough short story collections last year (something I will try to remedy in 2020) but of those ones I read, this was hands-down my favourite. While I normally gravitate towards the more weird end of the spectrum, these hyper-realistic stories focussing on familial relationships worked incredibly well for me.

2977402608) The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (review)

I loved this – even though I rarely think any book needs to be longer than 400 pages, this 800 page tome captured not only my attention but also my heart. This is a love letter to women – in the best possible way in that the women in here are allowed to be flawed and different and absolutely wonderful.

3839105907) The Winter of the Witch (Winternight #3) by Katherine Arden (review)

My love for this series is well-documented and this final installment was no different. There is just something about Arden’s writing that makes me happy – her distinct sentence structure combined with her literary and real world influences make this series just custom-made for me.

44543851._sx318_06) Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden (review)

This is such a cleverly constructed memoir that came together with the final essay in a way that I found beyond impressive. While I did not love every single chapter, the overall book is near perfect.

3792049005) Storm of Locusts (The Sixth World #2) by Rebecca Roanhorse (review)

My favourite fantasy book of the year, I loved this enough that I am seriously  considering reading Roanhorse’s middle grade release from the Riordan imprint. I adore this post-apocalyptic urban fantasy grounded in Native American mythology more than I can say. This year will hopefully bring the first book in another UF fantasy series by Roanhorse and maybe if I am very lucky the third part of this series.

4012199304) The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang (review)

Hands-down my favourite non-fiction book in a year where I did not read enough non-fiction by a long-shot. This book is impeccably structured and unbelievably needed. Wang’s way of talking about her struggle with Schizoaffective Disorder is brilliant – and I not only felt like I learned a lot, I also really enjoyed my experience listening to this book.

3633213603) The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (review)

I loved this so. I love her wonderfully flawed and actually quite awful women, I love the way Headley plays with language and perspective, I love the way she modernizes Beowolf and made it feel both modern and universal.

3847022902) The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (review)

This was my favourite from last year’s Women’s Prize shortlist by far and the one book that single-handedly made me excited about the list again after I spent a lot of time being rather underwhelmed. It’s another mythological retelling, this time a lot closer to the original myth but brilliant nonetheless.

3613638601) Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney (review)

No contest. I love this a nearly unhealthy amount. Everything about this book worked for me. I have listened to the audiobook twice this year and I will forever read everything Rooney writes.

 

Bookish Resolutions for 2020 (and a look at my 2019 resolutions)

As with every single post for months now, I am super late with my end of the year posts. I have a few things I want to talk about over the upcoming weeks – and had absolutely planned on publishing my favourite books of the year today, but there is something about the first day of the new year that makes me want to shout resolutions from the rooftop, so I am doing that instead.

I had a weird reading year where I pretty much stopped blogging and instead of reading my normal rooster of genres (memoirs, short story collections, literary fiction, and loads and loads of SFF), I pretty much exclusively read romance. I forgot about my reading resolutions (except for the big one) until checking them again earlier this week – but I did surprisingly well on them (mostly because I had fairly low-key resolutions for 2019).

2019 resolutions:

Read 100 books.

This I managed no problem at all. I read 128 books – the largest number since I started tracking my reading in 2015.

Keep writing reviews.

This I did not do even in the slightest. I gave myself permission to write short reviews for some books in 2019 and then did not even manage that. Part of that has to do with the pace in which I finished romance novels, part with how impossible I find it to properly review said romance novels, part (a rather large part indeed) with how very much pregnancy stole my energy for anything that wasn’t strictly necessary.

Post around two to three times a week.

Oh well.

Read by whim. (AKA request fewer ARCs)

I actually really did that – and while I loved it, it also meant that I went often for the immediately gratifying but ultimately forgettable romance novels that I inhaled – and now there are very many that I could tell you nothing about.

Only read books by women and non-binary authors

I did it (as far as I know). While I enjoyed this experiment and think that it did overall not change all that much about my reading – it was also a flawed idea from the beginning. Gender is not the only thing influencing marginalizations – obviously. Comparing apples and oranges and all that. I naturally gravitate towards books written by women and I cannot see that changing and I don’t see myself reading literary fiction by white men anytime soon – but there is so much exciting SFF and non-fiction written by MOC that I missed out on – and this feels like a stupid by-product of an idea that was more of a fun way of challenging myself than anything else.

2020 resolutions:

Read 100 books

I debated on this when I set my Goodreads reading challenge earlier today – I usually manage 100 books fairly easily and I am not above slotting in a graphic novel if I fall behind and feel like being ahead again. But (and this will be a running theme) I cannot predict how having a child will change my reading pace, my concentration, and my willingness to prioritize reading above a social life (I won’t be working for most of the year and maybe then will actually want to meet up with people? I don’t know!). But my friend Rachel had a very good point: picture books. So 100 books it is.

Keep my blog running

While I have come to realize that the way I have been running my blog up until this year won’t be feasible for the foreseeable future, I still want to keep it. I like having a blog, I love the bookish community, and I like having a hobby for the first time since graduating high school. In whatever form I can manage, I want to keep this part of myself active.

Read the Women’s Prize Longlist

Reading (most of) the Women’s Prize longlist last year was my reading highlight – by far. I had so much fun with my dedicated group chat and being this immersed in the litfic bookish community was fun. I intend to do this again. My (lovely wonderful future) child timed their probable arrival perfectly, which means that I will be off work from the middle of April onwards and hopefully should have finished the longlist before I fall of the face of the internet for a while.

Be kind to myself

Things will probably change this year – and I want to make an effort to be kind to myself and accept that my reading and my blog will be different. If I want to read only romance novels, I will read only romance novels. I do not want to put any pressure on myself that feels unnecessary and I am hoping to just let myself be and enjoy this space I have built for myself in any way I can.

Do you have any bookish (or non-bookish) resolutions for the upcoming year? Also, thank you all for still reading my (sporadic) posts.