Review: The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3) – Rick Riordan

32508903My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: October 8th, 2017

Published by Disney Hyperion, October 3rd, 2017

Verdict: As always.

Find it on Goodreads.

In the third book in Rick Riordan’s epic Norse mythology series, Magnus and his friends take a boat trip to the farthest borders of Jotunheim and Niflheim in pursuit of Asgard’s greatest threat. Life preservers are mandatory for this wet, wild, and wondrous adventure.

The good thing about Rick Riordan’s books is that you always know what you get. They are light-hearted, funny, fast-paced, and just lovely to read. Having said that – I think he might be running out of steam here.

I will not even try to give a synopsis because, like all the books in the Percy Jackson universe before this, it’s basically: group of demi-gods (or Einherjar) get send on a quest, they go from place A to place B – get attacked/meet a monster/get challenged – escape, go to place C – get attacked/meet a monster/ get challenged – escape, go to place D – get attacked/ meet a monster/ get challenged – and so on and so forth. The recipe works; the books are all insanely readable and fun but, especially the later ones get a little bit stale. Not enough that I stop reading them, mind, but enough to make me hope that Rick Riordan will actually manage to wrap them up sooner rather than later so that they can end on a high.

What I love about these books is how obviously aware of his readers Rick Riordan is – and he tries to write characters that many people can relate to. I find that especially important in Middle Grade books. He seems to have such a lovely, positive world view and his books reflect that. They always emphasize friendship and being there for each other and being a good person. I like that.

I think one of the reasons this book did not quite work for me is the fact how very dark the underlying mythology is: don’t get me wrong, the Greek pantheon is filled with dark and twisted tales but also with goodness and hope, Norse mythology? Not so much. It is filled with the knowledge that the end of the world – Ragnarok – is inevitable. And this grimness does not quite mesh with the light-hearted voice of the series.

But still, I enjoyed reading this book and spending more time in this world that feels familiar, it is comforting to know exactly what to expect and I needed that.

First sentence: “‘Try it again,’ Percy told me. ‘This tme with less dying.'”

Review: Every Heart A Doorway (Wayward Children #1) – Seanan McGuire

255338961My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: September 29th, 2017

Published by

Verdict: Lovely little creepy novella, full of whimsy and magic.

Find it on Goodreads.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Guests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

I was having a week from hell at work (the weeks leading up to the winter term are usually like this) and needed something short and delightful to read. This absolutely fit the bill. Seanan McGuire has written a twisty little novella with a heart.

Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children is a boarding school for all those children who have travelled to other worlds and have come back not quite fitting in and longing to go back. Mostly those children are girls as they are more likely to get lost in a different world. Their parents want the best for them but cannot understand them or really know them and so these girls end up in this school, trying their best to either find their way back to the world they really feel at home or to find a way to find some approximation of happiness in this one.

The world Seanan McGuire has created here is absolutely stunning, from its well thought-out but cryptic system of categorizing the worlds the children have visited, to her understanding of how those worlds might shape visitors, to her wonderful asides that hint at larger stories worthy of being told. I adored the way she sets up here story and how she lets it unfold.

I did, however, find parts to be a bit clumsy. I cannot quite put my finger on it but I think it is the dialogue that feels unnatural and took me out of the story quite a bit. It is a problem I have encountered in her work before (I never did finish Feed for example): I often find her ideas to be mesmerizing and the execution then somewhat lacking. The characters themselves are interesting and feel like real, flawed people, but something in their interaction does not work for me. Here it did not bother me all that much because I found the world so brilliant. Which is why I cannot wait to read the next book in this (apparently losely connected) series of novellas.

First sentence: “The girls were never present for the entrance interviews.”

September 2017 Wrap-Up

September is usually a rather bad reading month for me – and this year was no exception. Partly because I spend the first half travelling (and catching up with my partner who is abroad for work for three months, so, I didn’t read at all); but mostly because the end of September is particularly busy at work. The next few months will be stressful as hell, what with my PhD kicking into high gear (wish me luck with my interviews!) and the beginning of winter term which is always crazy busy. I hope pleasure reading won’t suffer completely but I am not optimistic.

Books read in September:

  1. The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin: 4 out of 5 stars (review to come closer to the publication date)
  2. Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan: 2 out of 5 stars.
  3. The Relive Box and other stories – T. C. Boyle: 2 out of 5 stars.
  4. Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson: 4 out of 5 stars.
  5. Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire: 4 out of 5 stars.

Favourite of the month:

The Immortalists. It has THE best prologue you can imagine. It had me hooked and glued to the page. The first half is stronger then the second but overall I highly recommend it for anybody who likes stories about siblings, or magical realism, or stories about growing up, or stories about magicians.

Man Booker List update:

I am not doing very well. I am still reading Underground Railroad which is still beautiful but still devastating.

I am not very happy with the shortlist. I have no intention reading Elmet or History of Wolves unless they win – both books don’t sound like anything I would enjoy. I cannot believe Underground Railroad is not on the list and I adored Solar Bones way to much for me to be happy about its exclusion. It was such a good book!

Currently Reading:

Too many books to list. I am a bit fickle and cannot convince myself to stick with one book.

This Wrap up is kind of sad – I really hope to get back into the groove soon.

But on a positive note: I went to South Africa and I cannot recommend it enough. Also, I never knew how much I love elephants. They are brilliant. And otherworldy. And a little bit scary.

Review: Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson

23848559My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Date re-read: September 29, 2017

Published by Flatiron Books, September 2015

Verdict: I adore Jenny Lawson.

Find it on Goodreads.

In LET’S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED, Jenny Lawson baffled readers with stories about growing up the daughter of a taxidermist. In her new book, FURIOUSLY HAPPY, Jenny explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

According to Jenny: “Some people might think that being ‘furiously happy’ is just an excuse to be stupid and irresponsible and invite a herd of kangaroos over to your house without telling your husband first because you suspect he would say no since he’s never particularly liked kangaroos. And that would be ridiculous because no one would invite a herd of kangaroos into their house. Two is the limit. I speak from personal experience. My husband says that none is the new limit. I say he should have been clearer about that before I rented all those kangaroos.”

“Most of my favorite people are dangerously fucked-up but you’d never guess because we’ve learned to bare it so honestly that it becomes the new normal. Like John Hughes wrote in The Breakfast Club, ‘We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it.’ Except go back and cross out the word ‘hiding.'”

Jenny’s first book, LET’S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED, was ostensibly about family, but deep down it was about celebrating your own weirdness. FURIOUSLY HAPPY is a book about mental illness, but under the surface it’s about embracing joy in fantastic and outrageous ways-and who doesn’t need a bit more of that?

I adore Jenny Lawson and her wit and humanity and bravery and just sheer weirdness.

This was one of the first memoirs I read when I decided to read more non-fiction (which by the way, brilliant decision on my end) and when I needed something fun and quick to read on my flight from hell back from holiday (I just have the worst luck when it comes to flying, but this time really took the cake) this seemed like the obvious pick. And I am so glad to have decided to re-read this. Jenny Lawson is an absolute hero – and beyond hilarious. I have so much respect for her honesty and her vulnerability and her bravery, but its her wit that lifts this beyond many of the other memoirs I have read since reading this.

Jenny Lawson is painfully honest about her struggle with mental illness – and the picture she paints s not pretty. I have so much respect for the fact that she gets up time and time again and that she found a way to deal with her illness. I cannot even image how hard that must be at times. I adore her manifesto of living “furiously happy” and I adore the strength she shows.

This time around I also really appreciated her relationship with her husband a lot more than the last time – he is the straight man to her weirdness and the picture it paints of their relationship is just beautiful. I love when people are happy with their spouses.

So, yes, brilliantly done memoir with humour and wit but also raw and honest pain. Which seems to be just my favourite type of memoir (not sure what that says about me). Also, she makes taxidermy sound a lot more fun than I thought possible.

First sentence: “Dear reader, Right now you’re holding this book in your hands and wondering if it’s worth reading.”

Review: Nine Continents – Xiaolu Guo

34496930My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: 28 August 2017

Published by Grove Atlantic, October 2017

Verdict: Wonderfully readable and immersive memoir. Highly recommended!

Find it on Goodreads.

Xiaolu Guo is one of the most acclaimed Chinese-born writers of her generation, an iconoclastic and completely contemporary voice. Her vivid, poignant memoir, Nine Continents is the story of a curious mind coming of age in an inhospitable country, and her determination to seek a life beyond the limits of its borders.

Xiaolu Guo has traveled further than most to become who she needed to be. Now, as she experiences the birth of her daughter in a London maternity ward surrounded by women from all over the world, she looks back on that journey. It begins in the fishing village shack on the East China Sea where her illiterate grandparents raised her, and brings her to a rapidly changing Beijing, full of contradictions: a thriving underground art scene amid mass censorship, curious Westerners who held out affection only to disappear back home. Eventually Xiaolu determined to see the world beyond China for herself, and now, after fifteen years in Europe, her words resonate with the insight of someone both an outsider and at home, in a world far beyond the country of her birth.

Nine Continents presents a fascinating portrait of China in the eighties and nineties, how the Cultural Revolution shaped families, and how the country’s economic ambitions gave rise to great change. It is also a moving testament to the birth of a creative spirit, and of a new generation being raised to become citizens of the world. It confirms Xiaolu Guo as one of world literature’s most urgent voices.

Absolutely wonderful memoir by a woman beyond impressive. She talks about alienation and perseverance, about loss and art, about growing up and finding herself, and everything in-between.

Xiaolu Guo’s life sounds like something out of a movie: born to an intellectual who had spent time in a labour camp and a mother who was part of the Red Guard (yes, her parents met in prison), given away at birth, and then given back to her grandparents (both analphabets; her grandmother of a generation where having your feet bound was normal; their relationship scarily abusive), ripped away again to go and live with her parents, she manages to attend an elite university for film-making and then to win a scholarship to study in the UK – a country that became her home. Her book is a piece of art itself.

I adored the way she plays with language; her not writing in her mother-tongue (as she has been doing for a while now) just adds to the immediacy and the sense of alienation. The further back in time she goes, the more fragmented her language becomes. When she comes closer to finding her place in the world and the person she can be, the sentences get longer, more assured. I adored this.

At the centre of her memoir are her relationships: with her artist father who influences her in a myriad of ways but cannot (or will not) protect her from her mother’s harshness and her brother’s scorn. But also her complicated relationship with China and how it influences her art and what she can and cannot write about. She writes about censorship – both external and internal and how this made it impossible for her to be the writer she knows in her heart she can be. She also writes about not fitting in anywhere and how she puts this into pieces of art. This is what makes this book both personal and universal – underneath all the cultural differences there is this common human theme of wanting to be true to yourself and of experiences of alienation but also homecoming in a foreign country. I appreciated this.

First sentence: “So many times I’ve seen England from the sky.”

I received an arc of this book curtesy of Netgalley and Grove Altantic in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!

Review: The Age of Perpetual Light – Josh Weil

34496925My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: 31 May 2017

Published by Grove Atlantic, September 2017

Verdict: Absolutely stunning short stories.

Find it on Goodreads.

This is an absolutely stunning collection of short stories; brilliant, enlightening, poignant, and very very sad. The eight stories in this collection are all a wonder to read but some stories did not quite work for me. Maybe if the brilliant stories hadn’t been so fantastic I would have been more lenient; as it stands, this a near perfect collection – but not quite enough for 5 stars for me.

Josh Weil tells stories set in transitory moments – where something, often some invention, changes everything about a person’s life, for better or for worse. Be it the advent of electric light in a rural community in the middle of nowhere in the US or the invention of satelite mirrors that end night as we know it in exchange for never-ending light (and productivity).

There were two stories that particularly moved me and that once again showed me what a brilliant medium the short story can be:
“Long Bright Line” – about a woman who always feels observed and at the side line finding her calling and her destiny in her brilliant art. Weil manages to paint such vivid pictures of the art she creates that I felt a profound sadness at the fact that it doesn’t exist. Juxtaposed with the advent of air travel and the way women were left out, her story was an absolute wonder.
“The Point of Roughness” – about a husband whose relationship with his wife is forever changed when their adopted daughter turns out differently than he hoped. It is a story about love and loss and about unhealthy obsession and about how some people are unable to deal with change. This story made me reel with emotions and unable to look away. It is beyond stunning and one of the best pieces of writing I have read in my life.

The stories all had a profound effect on me. I adore the way Josh Weil makes his characters come alive in the few pages we get to spend with them and how every single one of them felt unique and real, even if exaggerated in their current situations. His language is vivid and unique and full to the brim with feeling and beauty and metaphor. I am beyond impressed with this book.

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Grove Atlantic in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!


Review: The Relive Box and Other Stories – T. C. Boyle

34121921My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Date read: September 20, 2017

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, October 2017

Verdict: Unpleasant characters, derivative storylines.

Find it on Goodreads.

In a nutshell:
Unpleasant characters in situations of their own making feeling sorry for themselves while screwing others over.

I do not think there was a single main character in these stories that was not seriously unpleasant, self-important, arrogant, and whiny. While this might not be a problem for other readers, I have recently come to accept that I do like my characters to have some redeeming qualities. This is especially true for short stories where you only have a limited amount of time with the characters. For the stories to resonate, I have to have some understanding for the characters. These did not feel real in the sense that I sure hope that people are more well-rounded than this (call me hopelessly optimistic if you will).

I also found the stories’ plots left a lot to be desired; the premises felt derivative and not inventive enough to distract from the characters I found unpleasant. Here I enjoyed the more speculative stories more than the realistic ones. This is especially true for the last three stories: these did not work for me and I finally gave up and skim-read the rest.

I have been reading a lot of short fiction this last year; it is a genre I have found a whole new appreciation for. When short stories are done well, they pack an unbelievable punch – but on the other side, if the stories do not work for me, they absolutely do not work for me. This time, I struggled. A whole lot.

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!

Review: Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

34467031My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Date read: 10 September 2017

Published by Scribner, October 2017

Review: Disappointing, rambling, disjointed.

Find it on Goodreads.

Manhattan Beach opens in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to the house of a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. Anna observes the uniformed servants, the lavishing of toys on the children, and some secret pact between her father and Dexter Styles.

Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that had always belonged to men. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. She is the sole provider for her mother, a farm girl who had a brief and glamorous career as a Ziegfield folly, and her lovely, severely disabled sister. At a night club, she chances to meet Styles, the man she visited with her father before he vanished, and she begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life.

Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes in New York, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America, and the world.

That was disappointing. I adored A Visit from the Goon Squad; it was one of my favourite books of last year, so you can imagine how beyond excited I was to read this book – I took my sweet time starting it to be able to read it at the just the right moment, I was so sure I would love this. But I didn’t. I enjoyed the first chapter and was ok with the ones following – until around page 150 – when I realized that I have no idea what the point is, what the book is about, what I am supposed to feel. The book is both too narrow and too broad and as a result left me feeling slightly bemused and more than a little disappointed.

The book tells three wildly differing stories: Anna’s story and her struggle to find her own place in a world made for men; her father’s story and his problems with the mob; and Dexter Styles’ story, a nightclub owner with ties to the mob and to high society. These stories are intertwined and related but seem to be set in completely different genres. While I enjoyed Anna and her interactions with her sister and the men she works with when she becomes the first women diver at New York’s harbour, I thought the whole gangster story line was both superfluous and infuriating. If it had been cut, the book would have been 250 pages shorter and much better for it.

The jumps in time (which is something I often enjoy) underscored the rambling feeling of this book; they made it near impossible for me to care about what was happening because important events were glossed over or told in an aside. People would disappear, just to reappear in time for them to be needed for plot related reasons; some things made no sense for the characters involved; some plot twists came out of the left field and were left unexplained.

It seems like a book with very many different ideas and many different themes to explore that never manages to become a cohesive whole.

First sentence: “They had driven all the way to Mr. Style’s house before Anna realized that her father was nervous.”

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Solar Bones – Mike McCormack

34656398My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: 26 August 2017

Published by Canongate, 2017

Verdict: A wonderful, wonderful look into one man’s life.

Find it on Goodreads.

Marcus Conway has come a long way to stand in the kitchen of his home and remember the rhythms and routines of his life. Considering with his engineer’s mind how things are constructed – bridges, banking systems, marriages – and how they may come apart.

Mike McCormack captures with tenderness and feeling, in continuous, flowing prose, a whole life, suspended in a single hour.

Wonderfully and intricately structured in a way that demanded my full attention this is a portrait of a man’s life told in a single contemplative hour. Mike McCormack tells his story in a single sentence without proper punctuations and in places bending the rules of grammar to the limit – and it works absolutely beautifully. This lends the prose an immediacy and a poignancy that mesmerized me. This quiet novel tells of a quiet man – an engineer thinking about his life and the things important to him: his wife and two children; but also meditating on other things, politics, finance, art, the importance of ritual, and many things more. The flow is disjointed, jumping between times and topics and the result is a portrait of a man that feels complete but at the same time as if there could be so much more to him then even meets his inner eye.

I went into this book only knowing of its structure and nothing about its plot – and I am glad I did. I loved discovering more and more of the man Marcus Conway is and how he became that way.

This quiet but impactful little novel took me completely by surprise with how unpretentious it felt while reading and how much I enjoyed reading it (let’s be honest here: it could have been a pretentious mess in hands less talented). I am so very glad the book is longlisted for the Man Booker Prize because I don’t know if I had read it otherwise.

Normally I would now give you the first sentence. But given that the first sentence is also the only sentence I will end this review with one of my favourite passages that just glows with the love Marcus has for his wife:

coming upon her unawares like that, my wife of twenty-five years sitting in profile with her hair swept to her shoulder and her crooked way of holding her head whenever she was listening intently or concentrating, I saw that
a whole person and their life
cohered clearly around these few details and how, if ever his woman had to be remade, the world could start with the light and line of this pose which was so characteristic of her whole being, drawing down out of the ether her configuration, her structure and alignment, all the lines and contours which make her up as the women she was on that day

Wrap up: August 2017

I have decided to start doing monthly wrap-ups … and the first month I already didn’t manage to put it up on time. Sometimes being a responsible adult with a job really blows. Here’s to being on time maybe next time…

Books read in August:

  1. The End We Start From – Megan Hunter: 4 out of 5 stars
  2. City of Blades (The Divine Cities #2) – Robert Jackson Bennet: 4 out of 5 stars
  3. Exit West – Mohsin Hamid: 4 out of five stars
  4. Magpie’s Song (IronHeart Chronicles #1) – Allison Pang: 3 out of 5 stars
  5. Tales of Falling and Flying – Ben Loory: 4 out of 5 stars
  6. Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance – Ruth Emmie Lang: 3 out of 5 stars
  7. The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3) – N. K. Jemisin: 5 out of 5 stars
  8. Solar Bones – Mike McCormack: 4 out of 5 stars
  9. Nine Continents: A Memoir in and Out of China – Xiaolu Guo: 4 out of 4 stars

Favourite of the month: The Stone Sky … Obviously. I adore N. K. Jemisin and she absolutely stuck the landing here. It rare that I rate the last book in a trilogy as high as the first. She is a gift to all of us who love fantasy.

Man Booker Long List Update:

I only managed to read two of the long list this month (Exit West and Solar Bones). While I enjoyed them both, I loved Solar Bones more. Surprisingly, because this could have been so very very pretentious.

Currently reading:

  1. Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan: I was super excited about this book; I loved “A Visit from the Goon Squad” a whole lot, but I have to admit I am struggling a bit. I am about 60% in and I don’t really get what the book is supposed to achieve.
  2. City of Miracles – Robert Jackson Bennet: I got distracted by “The Stone Sky” but will pick this up again sooner rather than later.
  3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead: This is the book I am currently reading from the long list. I think it is devastatingly beautifully written but it is also endlessly bleak.

Sneakily Reading*:

  1. The Relive Box and Other Stories – T. K. Boyle: It’s ok… Nothing groundbreaking and filled with unpleasant characters.
  2. The Girl in The Tower (The Bear and The Nightingale #2) – Katherine Arden: I was too excited to finally have the arc in my hands to not at least read the first few pages. I just adored the first book.
  3. Riot Days – Maria Alyokhina: I want to love this, but I am not getting used to the fragmented style of writing.

*as in I haven’t added it on Goodreads yet.

To read soonish:

I am not good with TBRs as I am a fickle reader and can only read a book when I am in the mood. But the following books are arcs I need to get to soon:

  1. The Uploaded – Ferret Steinmetz: YA Sci Fi is always hit or miss for me, but this one sounds intriguing.
  2. Black Jesus and Other Superheroes: Stories – Venita Blackburn: I requested this on the strength of the title alone. How could I not?
  3. Fever – Deon Mayer: Sounds intriguing but is very long. I don’t know if I have the attention span at the moment.