Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

36332136Verdict: Breathtakingly beautiful.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Retelling, Fantasy(ish)

Published by Macmillan Audio, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Two mothers—a suburban housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—struggle to protect those they love in this modern retelling of Beowulf

From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildings—high and gabled—and the community is entirely self-sustaining. Each house has its own fireplace, each fireplace is fitted with a container of lighter fluid, and outside—in lawns and on playgrounds—wildflowers seed themselves in neat rows. But for those who live surreptitiously along Herot Hall’s periphery, the subdivision is a fortress guarded by an intense network of gates, surveillance cameras, and motion-activated lights.

For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot (heir of Herot Hall), life moves at a charmingly slow pace. She flits between mommy groups, playdates, cocktail hour, and dinner parties, always with her son, Dylan, in tow. Meanwhile, in a cave in the mountains just beyond the limits of Herot Hall lives Gren, short for Grendel, as well as his mother, Dana, a former soldier who gave birth as if by chance. Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren, and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him at bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.

A retelling of Beowulf set in the suburbs, Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife turns the epic on its head, recasting the classic tale of monstrosity and loss from the perspective of those presumed to be on the attack.

This was absolutely breathtaking. Again I am finding myself in the situation that a book is so very custom-made for me that my review will definitely not be objective in the least. There was very little chance of me not loving this – and I knew this after the first chapter. Maria Dahvana Headley had me hooked. This was incredible, so as usual in such cases, this will be a review filled with superlatives.

Maria Dahvana Headley loosely retells Beowolf but in the best possible way: setting it in today’s suburbia against the backdrop of an unnamed war abroad; I found it worked brilliantly but as I haven’t read Beowolf (although I did read the wikipedia summary in preparation for this book) I cannot speak to its success as a retelling. The fantastical elements are rendered in a way which makes in unclear what is real and what isn’t. I found the reading experience disorienting and claustrophobic (I mean this as an absolute positive).

The book mainly focuses on two women: Dana, a traumatized ex-soldier living off the grid with her son Gren, and Willa who is aiming to be the perfect suburban wife to her plastic surgeon husband and her son Dylan. These two women are one of the high points of this altogether impressive book. They are both flawed but compelling in the best possible way. They rage against the unfairness of their lives while simultaneously inflicting unfairness onto their sons. Willa especially was just my favourite kind of character: she is awful but has her reasons, she is believable while still being interesting, and her voice was impeccably done.

The way in which the Maria Dahvana Headley plays with voices and perspectives was another part that worked as if it had been written with me in mind. She mixes first person (for Dana) with close third person (for Willa) and passages rendered in a we-perspective (the mothers), always making careful use of repetition and imagery. Her sentences are breathtaking and the way her language flows just made my heart hurt while never sacrificing the emotional core of her work. I might have found a new favourite author.

Content warning: PTSD, war, loss of limbs and eyes, death (of children and spouses), animal hunting, miscarriage, abortion; (I am more unsure than usual if I mentioned everything, so if you have a specific trigger, please let me know so I can tell you)

This was the first book I read for my five star predictions.

Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

38606192Verdict: This made me so happy.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Pan Macmillan, July 12th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father is not a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has left his family on the edge of poverty – until Miryem intercedes. Hardening her heart, she sets out to retrieve what is owed, and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. But when an ill-advised boast brings her to the attention of the cold creatures who haunt the wood, nothing will be the same again. For words have power, and the fate of a kingdom will be forever altered by the challenge she is issued.

Channeling the heart of the original fairy tale, Naomi Novik deftly interweaves six distinct narrative voices – each learning valuable lessons about sacrifice, power and love – into a rich, multi-layered fantasy.

I loved this. Reading it made me happy and by the end I was positively squealing. I enjoyed Uprooted and I loved this one, so I might actually have to read everything Naomi Novik has ever written.

This is a very loose retelling of Rumpelstilzchen which incorporates parts of other fairy tales as well – so I was always going to love it. I am such a huge fan of books written in this fairy-talesque manner and if they than are set in snowy, frozen parts of the world I am in reading heaven. The book’s atmosphere of winter and rural communities and fairy tale was just executed brilliantly and the hints of other stories made me very happy. The prose is stunning and fluid, the world imagined is vivid and wonderful, and the main three characters were absolutely brilliant.

Unlike Uprooted, this book is told from multiple perspectives, which I mostly adored. I thought the women at the center of this book were wonderfully drawn and I adored them all for different reasons but mostly for their refusal to be something they are not. Especially prickly Miryem and clever Irina had my hearts. I loved how resourceful the two were with the opportunities they had. I do think that sometimes the other perspectives could have been used more sparingly. There was one scene in particular towards the end of the book where I thought the voice chosen was unfortunate.

First sentence: “The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.”

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Pan Macmillan in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: Starlings by Jo Walton

35909363Verdict: Uneven; partly wonderful, partly flat.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: January 27th, 2018

Published by Tachyon, February 23rd, 2018

Genre: Short Fiction.

Find it on goodreads.

An intimate first flight of short fiction from award-winning novelist Jo Walton (Among Others, The King’s Peace).

A strange Eritrean coin travels from lovers to thieves, gathering stories before meeting its match. Google becomes sentient and proceeds toward an existential crisis. An idealistic dancer on a generation ship makes an impassioned plea for creativity and survival. Three Irish siblings embark on an unlikely quest, stealing enchanted items via bad poetry, trickery, and an assist from the Queen of Cats.

With these captivating initial glimpses into her storytelling psyche, Jo Walton shines through subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. Through eclectic stories, subtle vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and magic—rising from the everyday into the universe itself.

I have wanted to read Jo Walton’s novels for a while now and I can definitely say that after this collection of short stories that I am more excited than ever. As is sadly often the case with short story collections there were a few stories that did not work for me and a few poems that didn’t either, however, the stories I liked, I adored.

Jo Walton has a way of choosing pitch perfect voices for her stories and they all sounded completely different depending on the genre she chose. She tells stories in a vast array of genres: re-tellings, science fiction, straight up fantasy. Some stories are more of a cheeky joke (she admits so freely) while others are highly political (I happen to like that in my genre fiction). I absolutely adored the fairy tale that starts this collection (“Three Twilight Tales”): it feels like a fairy tale while being completely original and I never saw the ending coming. I found “The Panda Coin” to be the strongest of the collection: here we follow one coin through different hands. Jo Walton manages to create a believable science fiction setting in just these glimpses. “Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction” would have been a brilliant start to a novel and I wanted more from this than I got.

The stories that seemed to be more for her own amusement were the ones that did not quite work for me: Especially “Remember the Allosaur” and “Joyful and Triumphant: St. Zenobius and the Aliens” just felt like extended inside jokes to me.

I am glad to have read this because I am now more eager than ever to get to Jo Walton’s novels (where hopefully she won’t need to tell me after each chapter how she thought it up).

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Tachyon Publications in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1) – Katherine Arden

33797941My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Date read: November 18th, 2016

Published by Random House, Ebury Press, January 2017

Verdict: Beyond great.

Find it on Goodreads.

‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…

Atmospheric and enchanting, with an engrossing adventure at its core, The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman.

Do you know that fuzzy feeling when you find a book with a world so immersive that you don’t want it to ever end? This was a book like that for me. I absolutely adored it – and I am not quite sure if this review will at all be coherent, but I’ll try my best.

This was a book that I was super super excited to get to read early. I love books set in Russia, especially the North of Russia; I love Fairy Tales; I love the books the blurb compared it to. I only wanted to read the first chapter because I have loads of unfinished books already but I was immediately drawn in and did not feel like reading anything else. I absolutely devoured it and when I came up again I was a bit sad that the book wasn’t longer (especially because the last 3% were the glossary so the book ended a good 15 pages before I thought it would!). That so rarely happens with me!

The book tells the story of Vasya, a child whose mother was a bit other-worldly and who died giving birth to her. Vasya is different herself, being able to converse with household-spirits that nobody else can see. In true fairy tale fashion, her father remarries and the stepmother is, well not exactly evil, but one of the main antagonistic forces of this story. In a world where the new Christian beliefs are at odds with the older, heathen beliefs, this conflict comes to a head when a new priest is appointed to their little village and sets into motion a series of events that will have the heroine come face to face with arcane powers.

Set in the North of Russia with its seemingly ever-lasting winter, the author creates an atmosphere so believable, and enchanting, and surreal, and creepy, and beautiful, I could picture it every step of the way. Her characters are equally believable and even though they all fit the tropes of the genre, Katherine Arden adds little twists that make this story incredibly original and readable. One of my favourite of her decisions was the complete lack of romantic interest the heroine shows. She just wants to decide her life for herself; a difficult thing to do in a time when the two options open for her are a) marriage or b) joining a convent.

Overall, in case anyone missed it, I absolutely adored this book and its main character. I love the little nods to fairy tales I grew up with and I love the focus on making your own choices rather than just doing what is expected and/ or easy. The only slight negative I can find is that I found the ending to be rushed; but then again I just didn’t want the book to end, ever.

I received this book curtesy of NetGalley and Random House, Ebury Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!

Review: The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

905559My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Date Read: 19 July 2017

Published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2007

Verdict: Ticks all my boxes. Could have been better.

Find it on Goodreads.

High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness. Angry and alone, he takes refuge in his imagination and soon finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a world that is a strange reflection of his own — populated by heroes and monsters and ruled by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things.

Taking readers on a vivid journey through the loss of innocence into adulthood and beyond, New York Times bestselling author John Connolly tells a dark and compelling tale that reminds us of the enduring power of stories in our lives.

I am as surprised as anyone about my rating – I genuinely thought I would adore this book. So much in fact that I kept putting off reading it to ensure I’d get the most of it. On the surface, this book is perfect for me as it combines many of my favourite things: fairy tales, hidden worlds, adult books with children as the lenses through which to see these hidden worlds, re-tellings, a sibling relationship that feels real, imaginative world building and and and.

Don’t get me wrong, this book was perfectly alright; it is very readable and well-plotted. The characters and their relationships make sense, the world created is interesting, and the fairy tales are well integrated. I am still dissappointed because it could have been SO much better.

We follow David who is mourning his mother and feels betrayed that his father has found a new wife and had a child with her. He starts having seizures and seeing and hearing strange things until he finds himself in a new world – a world so very strange but still familiar, one where he has to fear for his life and will have to be braver than he has ever been.

See, that sounds just like my type of book. Maybe my expecation just were too high and I was hoping for it to be more like “Pan’s Labyrinth” – one of my all-time favourite movies. I thought the atmosphere could have been developed better to more work with the world detailed. I found the language to be too simplistic or not simplistic enough, I am not sure – if you are going to use different fairy tales to weave your tapestry your language needs to mirror those very closely or not at all. I reckon I caught most allusions to different fairy tales – I did grow up reading fairy tales, again and again and again – and this might actually have been one of my problems. The world felt very familiar to me and as such never completely original (I know that originality wasn’t the point, I still think it could have been fresher).

So yeah, kind of dissappointed but still a very readable book.

First sentence: “Once upon a time – for that is how all stories should begin – there was a boy who lost his mother.”