Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

40820097Verdict: My heart hurts.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: YA Thriller

Published by MacMillan Audio, October 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

A missing girl on a journey of revenge. A Serial―like podcast following the clues she’s left behind. And an ending you won’t be able to stop talking about.

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

This book broke my heart. I listened to the ending of this walking to the garage to pick up my car. And I had to wait around a corner from it to gather my feelings and stop crying. Now, I am famously easy to cry but I don’t usually do it outside, so this really does speak to how hard this book hit me.

This book follows two perspectives, that of Sadie whose sister has been killed and who is single-minded in her pursuit of the murderer, and that of the podcast The Girls, where West McCray is trying to figure out what exactly happened to Sadie after she went missing. These dual perspectives are the book biggest strength and listening to the audio version of this is something I highly, highly recommend. It is produced with a full-cast and impeccably done so. As a result, for me the podcast element worked exceedingly well and I always wanted to follow this part of the narrative. Sadie’s narration is brittle and broken and full of spiteful strength, which I appreciated but also made for a stressful listening experience (and I don’t always deal well with stressful). Her life is on a collision course with something awful, you can just tell, and the loss of her sister is only the newest of a whole string of horrible events.

I haven’t read very many young adult novels this year but this one I can wholeheartedly recommend. It is compulsively readable, incredibly heartbreaking, and important. Courtney Summers manages to tell a great story while also keeping her eyes on the climate that makes these crimes against girls possible. She shows great restraint in never letting the political core overshadow the storytelling, but the core makes her book all that more impressive.

Review: Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

38633526Verdict: Just incredible.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by HarperVoyager, November 1st, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Our life is brief . . .

While on holiday at the beach with her mother, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov under the most peculiar circumstances. The teenage girl is powerless to refuse when this strange and unusual man with a sinister air directs her to perform strange and uncomfortable tasks. He rewards her efforts with a strange golden coin.

As the days progress, Sasha carries out other acts for which she receives more coins from Kozhennikov. As summer ends, her new domineering mentor directs her to move to a remote village and use her gold to enter the Institute of Special Technologies. Though she does not want to go to this unknown town or university, she also feels that somehow it’s the only place she should be. Against her mother’s wishes, Sasha leaves behind all that is familiar and begins her education.

As she quickly discovers, the institute’s ‘special technologies’ are unlike anything she has ever encountered. The books are impossible to read, the lessons maddeningly obscure, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, their families pay a terrible price.

Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of… and suddenly all she could ever want.

Sometimes a book is so custom-made for me that I am unsure whether I can reasonably recommend it to anyone or if the reading experience was incredible just because the book hit all my favourite things. This is one of those times. Combining some of my greatest loves in fiction: dark fantasy, inspired by Russian literature, set in the middle of nowhere with plenty of snow, combining boarding school tropes with unconventional storytelling, this book was everything to me.

This book follows Sasha, whose life is changed forever when she is approached by an otherworldly man who tells her she is stuck in a time-loop and the only way to change this is to get up at four in the morning (never missing a day) and nakedly swimming in the ocean. She does so every day, vomiting up weird gold coins afterwards. Returning home and to what she thinks will be normalcy, she is approached again, having to follow new sets of rules, always throwing up gold coins afterwards. She does not feel she has a choice when the man tells her she will be attending a rural university instead of the one she had planned for all her life.

This book is a wild ride, and for the vast majority of its duration it stays opaque and the reader is left in the dark just as much as Sasha is. I did not mind this one bit and I loved this introspective, weird book a whole lot. There is a menacing undercurrent here that is made even more spell-binding as we closely follow Sasha and her fears without ever really being in her head at all. I found the use of third-person narration worked really well here and made the book all that more compulsive for me.

While Sasha is definitely the heart of this book and I adored her prickliness and her focus and her love for her family, I have to admit my favourite characters were the two main teachers and her mentor, the latter one being so very fascinating and awful and just everything I wanted him to be.

I do want everybody to read this, for one thing because it is brilliant and one of the highlights of my reading but also for another, totally selfish reason, I want it to be successful enough that the second book gets translated as soon as possible. I want to spend more time in this world and with this characters and I have very many theories where this might go next.

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

Review: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

39690383Verdict: Fascinating portrait of a fascinating life.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

Published by Text Publishing, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst she discovered a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people.

Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humour in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy mark her out as a one-off.

This is an incredible portrait of a deeply complicated woman – and I adored it. Sandra Pankhurst owns a company specializing on trauma cleaning (after suicides and violent crimes but mostly for people with hoarding tendencies). Sarah Krasnostein followed her work for months and tells in alternating chapter of Sandra’s clients and her own, tumultuous life.

Sandra, who was born as Peter, adopted by a deeply dysfunctional and abusive family, married young and had two children before leaving her family. She is a deeply complicated person and a completely unreliable narrator as she freely admits to having forgotten large parts of her life due both to her own trauma and drug abuse. Krasnostein manages to painting a wonderful portrait nonetheless. I especially admire that she let Sandra be contradictory and difficult without trying to paint a coherent picture: because Sandra’s life does not lend itself to coherence and her contradictions are fascinating. She is able to extend an utmost sympathy to her clients, while at the same time being callous in the way she talks about her ex-wife, who she left without any financial assistance and who had two raise her two sons on her own. She was part of the LGBTQIA-scene before it was legal and now supports conservative politicians. She is empathetic and lovely to people she hardly knows and has not spoken to people she was close with in the 70s in decades.

My favourite parts were in the present, following Sandra and her empathy while dealing with her clients. I appreciated the way in which Krasnostein painted vivid pictures of very difficult living situations while avoiding sounding voyeuristic. The women Sandra became has my utmost respect even if she has done some horrible things to get there. Her life story is an interesting and in parts harrowing one, and it is a story that is well worth knowing.

The audiobook is extremely well done and I cannot recommend it high enough. The narrator, Rachael Tidd did a wonderful job letting Sandra come alive in my ear. I think the excellent narration lifted this book to a definitely four-star read for me.

Lastly, I do feel the need to point out that this book contains some seriously harrowing scenes; there is one rather lengthy and detailed rape in the middle of the book that might be triggering for some readers.

 

Review: City of Broken Magic (Chronicles of Amicae #1) by Mirah Bolender

Verdict: Very slow, interesting worldbuilding, weak characters.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Tor Books, November 20th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn’t control. An infestation that ate magic—and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling.

Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.

Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last—and only—sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

I really am not that great at predicting which books I will adore. I was so sure I would love this because at the surface it does so many things I appreciate in books; but I also found its pace fairly slow and, more importantly, some of the narrative decisions when it came to the characters unfortunate.

Set in a partly industrialized fantasy setting (something I happen to really enjoy), this story follows Laura, newly employed Sweeper working for what is basically a bomb-squad but for monsters (awesome, right?). The world and the premise are brilliant – but the way this story is told might have worked better in a different medium – I would love this as a video game for example. Laura and her boss have to banish different monsters, always trying to find new ways to do so. These scenes, while exhilerating in the beginning, did start to feel a bit stale fairly soon. When the newest team member arrives, the story lost steam for me even more. I found Laura’s reaction to him deeply troubling in its lack of empathy and also not quite fitting for her character who before has not displayed this much selfishness.

I did really love the world but did not always appreciate the world building itself. There were many super interesting ideas floating around but they never felt organically integrated into the story. Ultimately the world building happened mostly through info-dumping and slowed down the pacing even more.

While I in theory appreciate the commentary on women’s roles in this society, I found its discussion in the text fairly obvious and not all that original. Laura is quick to assume everybody’s reaction to her is down to them being sexist and while that may well be the case the reader was never shown the way sexism is integral to the society but is rather told so. One major problem I had in this context was that while we were told that women were only allowed certain jobs, we were shown many women in powerful positions without anybody reacting to that at all, indicating that this is in fact normal for the society. This made Laura seem particularly thin-skinned and her reaction often overblown.

I received an arc courtesy of NetGalley and Tor Books in exchange for an honest review.

Series-Review: Hidden Legacy (Nevada Baylor Trilogy) by Ilona Andrews

This year really is the year for Ilona Andrews books for me. I speed-read this trilogy within 48 hours and loved every second of it, I mean, except for those godawful covers (seriously, why do the covers have to be so bad?!). I just love the way the Andrews tell their stories, I adore how they create their worlds that feel lived in and plausible (within the parameters of the story), and I might try and read all their other books before the end of the year.

As this is a series review I cannot promise to avoid spoilers, so beware if you plan on reading this.

Burn for Me

I needed something fast paced and fun and have been relying on the Andrews to deliver just this. I adore the world they have created here: some time in the last two hundred years a serum was discovered that led to people developing magic powers. As these powers are genetic, Houses with specific powers have emerged and changed human society in lots of different ways, subtly and overt. Nevada Baylor is the head of a family led PI firm and gets drawn into house politics in general and Mad Rogan’s world in specific. I adore female PIs in urban fantasy and Nevada is just a wonderful character overall. I like that she has a loving and stable family, I found her strength wonderful, especially because she isn’t prickly, she is just no non-sense. And the male love interest did not make me want to claw my eyes out. I had so much fun here.

4 out of 5 stars

White Hot

Set soon after the events of the first book, the mystery around the conspiracy deepens, when Nevada is hired to find the killers of Cornelius Harrison’s wife. Again, she butts heads with Rogan, and again she is in over her head. But she is still wonderfully strong and principled and Rogan starts developing a proper personality. I adored this so very much. I sped through it in record time and I am just so very invested in their relationship. This is a big strength of Ilona Andrews’ books: the love story at the core is always one I root for to no end and this one is my favourite so far. While I think Kate Daniels (from the other series I binge-read this year) is the better character with the overall more compelling arc, I found Curran often a bit unbearable. Rogan on the other hand really worked for me: yes, he can be difficult but he really tries to be a better person for Nevada.

4,5 out of 5 stars

Wild Fire

When I started this book, I was already on a bit of a high – and I adored this so much as well. I like how Nevada always tries to be the best person she can and how she trusts the people in her life to know what they are doing. I like how her relationship to Rogan is, if not completely without its jealousy, ultimately one of deep trust. For me, my favourite part of this book was the family dynamic at its core. I spent many a page cheering this wonderful family on and their banter made me snicker. I am very excited to read the next trilogy in this series and to know where everything goes next. I also have a theory about the cliffhanger at the end that I am hoping to be correct about. Because I would love this.

4 out of 5 stars

 

Review: Vengeful (Villains #2) by V. E. Schwab

40139338Verdict: Glorious.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Published by Titan Books, September 25, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Eli Ever and Victor Vale were only medical students when their mutual discovery that near-death experiences can, under the right conditions, manifest extraordinary abilities.

They were best friends, and rivals, and then enemies. They were dead, then alive, and then—Eli killed Victor, once and for all.

Or so he thought—but Sydney Clarke felt otherwise, and used her own superpower to tip the scales. Now, a trio hides in the shadows, while another takes advantages of post-death life to take over the city of Merit.

If there can be life after death—will there be calm after vengeance, or will chaos rule?

I adored this, thankfully. I had been looking forward to this book ever since it was announced ages ago because Vicious is by far my favourite book Schwab has written. This seems like a series she has written for herself as a reader and it shows, there is just something gleefully, unapologetically Schwab here, that I for one happen to adore (and I am obviously not alone in this).

This series is set in a world where specific near-death experiences lead to people becoming super-powered. The first book follows two former friends (Eli Ever and Victor Vale) with super powers as they plot and set their powers and other people’s powers against each other. This book follows directly after the ending of the first one. Again the book is told unchronologically and leads towards an inevitably and action-packed conclusion. Unchronological storytelling is one of my very favourite things in books, so I was always going to enjoy this.

I had an incredible amount of fun reading this. I do think that sometimes the characters do not feel like real people, which in the end I did not mind because it fits the overall mood of this book. Especially the two newly introduced female characters are over the top in the best way possible. Marcella’s behaviour in particular filled me with giddy glee and I loved the way she chews the scenes – I could practically see her every move. I am often a fan of over-powered women in my speculative fiction and her and her unapologetic egotism just really tickled me.

I also have some theories and therefore really hope that there will be further installments of this series to prove me right. I find the world Schwab has created here wonderful and there is so much potential for further stories set in it. She left just enough loose ends to make me hope for more and resolved enough for this book to stand on its own.

______

I read this as part of Sci-Fi Month: you can find further information and other people participating here.

Review: A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel

16158505Verdict: Vicious, weird, wonderful.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Magical Realism

Published by Riverhead, 2013

Find it on Goodreads.

Major new literary talent Ramona Ausubel combines the otherworldly wisdom of her much-loved debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, with the precision of the short-story form. A Guide to Being Born is organized around the stages of life—love, conception, gestation, birth—and the transformations that happen as people experience deeply altering life events, falling in love, becoming parents, looking toward the end of life. In each of these eleven stories Ausubel’s stunning imagination and humor are moving, entertaining, and provocative, leading readers to see the familiar world in a new way.

In “Atria” a pregnant teenager believes she will give birth to any number of strange animals rather than a human baby; in “Catch and Release” a girl discovers the ghost of a Civil War hero living in the woods behind her house; and in “Tributaries” people grow a new arm each time they fall in love. Funny, surprising, and delightfully strange—all the stories have a strong emotional core; Ausubel’s primary concern is always love, in all its manifestations.

I have lamented before how difficult I find reviews for short story collections, even the ones I love. And it is a shame because I want to do this justice: I loved this. Ramona Ausubel has written the best short story collection I have read this year and I want to convince as many people as possible to pick it up.

This collection is pretty much custom-made for me: it combines lyrical language and stark imagery with themes of family, lost and found; the stories are weird and poetic and in parts disturbing, but they are also so very beautiful and profound. The stories center families in such a wonderful way while also being incredibly unique, I am just so in awe.

My favourite stories (in a collection where there was not a single story that I did not enjoy) were the very first story, “Safe Passage” about the end of a life which I found heartbreaking and heartwarming (First sentences: “The grandmothers – dozens of them – find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there.”), and “The Ages” about young love which I found incredibly moving (First sentences: “When the girl and the boy moved in together, they had sex in the bed and everyone could probably hear it. Houses were pretty close together and there were a lot of open windows.”). But like I said, the stories are all very strong and if you can stomach a little weirdness (well, ok, a lot of weirdness) I would absolutely recommend these stories.

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

25079993Verdict: Heartbreaking and hilarious.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memor

Published by Vintage, 2012

Find it on Goodreads.

This memoir is the chronicle of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser drawer; about growing up in a north England industrial town in the 1960s and 1970s; and about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also a book about literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can guide us when we are lost. Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I do not know why I haven’t picked up a Jeanette Winterson book earlier. I loved this a whole lot and cannot wait to read more of her books. Jeanette Winterson tells the story of relationship with her mothers; both her biological mother and her adopted mother. I listened to her tell this story on audiobook and I cannot recommend this highly enough. Winterson infuses the story with her wry tone and wit and it was just a wonderful listening experience.

The family she is adopted in are conservative to no end and especially her mother (who she almost exclusively calls Mrs Winterson throughout the book) is often horrible to her. Listening to Jeanette Winterson detail the abuse she suffered would have been unbearable if she didn’t manage to always infuse her story with a sense of optimism. This sense of reflection was what struck me the strongest about this book. While Jeanette Winterson does not have everything figured out by a long shot, she is eloquent and wise and often deeply funny and this made this memoir a joy to read.

I will now definitely have to read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, a semi-fictional account of Winterson’s life to see how she transformed her suffering into wonder.

Review: Ongoingness – The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso

22244927Verdict: Glorious.

My rating 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Creative Non-Fiction, Memoir

Published by Graywolf Press, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

In Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso continues to define the contours of the contemporary essay. In it, she confronts a meticulous diary that she has kept for twenty-five years. “I wanted to end each day with a record of everything that had ever happened,” she explains. But this simple statement belies a terror that she might forget something, that she might miss something important. Maintaining that diary, now eight hundred thousand words, had become, until recently, a kind of spiritual practice.

Then Manguso became pregnant and had a child, and these two Copernican events generated an amnesia that put her into a different relationship with the need to document herself amid ongoing time.

Ongoingness is a spare, meditative work that stands in stark contrast to the volubility of the diary–it is a haunting account of mortality and impermanence, of how we struggle to find clarity in the chaos of time that rushes around and over and through us.

I adored this. When it arrived, I just wanted to have a peak at the first page and suddenly I was a third of the way through. There is just something hypnotizing about Sarah Manguso’s writing and I cannot wait to pick up more of her books.

This is a book about a diary, without any quotes taken from that diary at all. As such it is obviously an incomplete text – but some reason I cannot even put into words it spoke deeply to me. Sarah Manguso kept a diary, obsessively so, for years: “I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination – so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.” Until she stopped. She writes in short, fragmented paragraphs about a text the reader cannot access – and everything about that just worked for me so very well.

I found this book mesmerizing and deeply moving; her language is precise and no word is obsolete, which is often my favourite type of language. I cannot quite give it five stars, as it is super short and maybe could have been fleshed out more. But on the other hand, every sentence of this book hit home.

Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

31445891Verdict: fun premise, disappointing whole.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Published by tor.com, 2018

Genre: Alternative History

Find it on Goodreads.

In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.

One of my reading resolutions for this year was to read more novellas – and I tried, I really did, but I am not so sure the format works for me. Which is why you should take my rating maybe with a grain of salt because it might be a genre thing. But, I struggled here and if the book had been any longer I do not think I would have finished it – but the length itself is also possibly the biggest stumbling block I had.

This is an alternative fiction Western – a world where Louisiana imported hippos, both a source of meat and as a form of transportation. Winslow Houndstooth and his crew are running a scheme involving a crime lord and feral hippos. I like that premise but I don’t find it clever enough to sustain the weak plot. The plot never has time to breath as we rush from scene to scene and later death to death. The story is quite gruesome and there are a few running gags that did not quite work for me as a result.

The characters could have been fun but there is not enough room to get to know them and as a result their actions often come out of the left-field. I did like how diverse the crew was, but there could have been done so much more here. The characters never came alive for me in a way that would have made me root for them.

This is not the worst thing I have read and it did keep me moderately entertained on a plane but I will not be continuing with the series.