Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

29774026Verdict: Everything I wanted it to be.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Bloomsbury, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

A world divided.
A queendom without an heir.
An ancient enemy awakens.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction—but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.

Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.

This book hit me right in my sweet spot when it comes to fantasy. I usually don’t enjoy these super long fantasy tomes but this one really worked for me. This book casually grounds itself in female characters and queer relationships in a way that worked exceedingly well for me. Shannon wrote a book nearly custom-made for me (there is nearly no miscommunication! People actually talk to each other honestly! There is no sexualized violence! The good guys are allowed to be good and are allowed to grow! There are many many wonderful women! Some carry swords, some ride dragons, and some are better suited to diplomacy! And it is ok that they are different! They are not compared to each other!). I adored every second of this 26-hour long audiobook and I am so glad I decided to read it.

This is a fairly traditional high fantasy book focussing of two very different parts of this fictional world: one where dragons are worshipped and one where dragons are reviled. We follow four different characters: Tané who is training to become a dragon rider, Niclays who is an alchemist living in exile, Loth who has been thrust into a dangerous diplomatic mission, and Ead, a handmaiden to the Priory of the Orange Tree, send to protect the Queen of Inys who would have her executed if her real faith was revealed. As a background to this, draconic creatures are stirring again, indicating that the Nameless One who nearly destroyed human society one thousand years ago might be returning. As is hardly ever the case, I enjoyed every single perspective – especially Niclays really grew on me in the course of the book. He is a deeply unhappy, spiteful man filled with regret and hatred – but he is humanized by his deep love for a man he lost many years ago. He is selfish and cruel but also so very lost that I could not help but root for him in the end. Tané is very much a hero with a proper hero’s journey, but I loved her earnest wish to do what is right. Loth worked best for me when put into situations with his sister or his queen – both of whom he loves dearly and honestly. My favourite perspective however was Ead: I do love kickass women who do what is right, no matter how difficult.

My favourite part of this book were the great variety of relationships Shannon depicts: there are romantic relationships and platonic ones, childhood friends and unlikely friends, sibling love and the love between children and their parental figures (biological and otherwise), friendships between humans and fantastical beasts, grudging respect and long-lived hate – I adored this. All to often the main focus of books is romantic love – and to have this facette of human behaviour be only one part of a great kaleidoscope of relationships really worked for me. I also really loved the main romantic relationship at its core: these two women were just wonderful together (skirting spoiler territory here).

I read this book as part of Wyrd & Wonder – a month-long celebration of the fantastic hosted by imyril @ There’s Always Room for One More, Lisa @ Dear Geek Place and Jorie @ Jorie Loves a Story. You can sign up here!

Content warning: Miscarriage, infertility, death.

 

 

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Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

38819868Verdict: Fun, fast-paced, surprisingly deep.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Doubleday Books, 2018.

Find it on Goodreads.

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…

I love books about siblings; a lot. So I was probably always going to enjoy this but I am still glad that this was indeed the case. This fast-paced novel about two sisters, one of which is a serial killer and the other her (un)willing helper, is deceptively shallow – but below the frankly addicting language and the exhilerating twists and turns, this is also a commentary on the roles women are supposed to play and the limited option they have. It perceptively shows the impact of abuse and power imbalance while showing a fun way in which this power might be taken back.

For me, the biggest strength was the way Braithwaite’s language flows. It is breathtakingly easy to read and the rhythm she achieves is wonderful – it makes absolute sense that the author is a spoken-word artist. I rarely notice language but here I was just in awe. Her sentences flow very nicely and make for a compulsive reading experience in the best possible way.

I enjoyed the sibling relationship at the core a whole lot; it read true to life (or rather as true to life as a dark comedy about a serial killer can ever be). Korede is alternately frustrated with her sister Ayoola and fiercely protective of her. I could really empathize with this feeling. This book also made me take a look at what I would do for my own siblings – and I have to be honest, Korede’s actions do not seem farfetched to me at all.

This is definitely a fun addition to the shortlist of this year’s Women’s Prize and while it is not my favourite of the books I have read of the longlist so far, it is heaps and bounds better than many books on the list and I am glad to see in advance. I would not mind if it won the prize as well – because I do think it is cleverly done in a way that makes it seem effortless, which is really difficult to pull off.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  5. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  6. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  7. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
  8. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  9. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  10. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (review)
  11. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

40908694Verdict: Fablesque and moving.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Speculative, Literary Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster UK/ Scribner, February 7th, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

The eagerly awaited new novel from the author of The Age of Miracles.

Imagine a world where sleep could trap you, for days, for weeks, months… A world where you could even die of sleep rather than in your sleep.

Karen Thompson Walker’s second novel is the stunning story of a Californian town’s epidemic of perpetual sleep.

I love literary fiction with a speculative twist (I don’t think anybody is surprised to hear that) and I heard absolutely amazing things about this book before starting it. The book does a wonderful way of depicting a potential world-ending plague without the bells and whistles of post-apocalyptic fiction. Set in a fictional college town in California where one after the other people start falling asleep and not waking up again, this book has a fairy-talesque mood that I just adored.

For me the book worked best in the overarching moments, when the narrative flits between different people and never comes close enough to add humanity to them. I found the prose in those sections stunning and the distance created worked really well for me. Here it read more like a parable than a classical science fiction book and I just loved this a whole lot. I adored how the authors opened up the closed narrative to give glimpses of the outside world and her depiction of the greater world’s reaction to the unknown illness was believable.

Karen Thompson Walker emphasizes the relationship between parents and their children, which I obviously enjoyed, but my favourite relationship was that between two sisters who were left alone after their doomsday-prepper father succumbs to the illness. Sibling relationships are a particular weakness of mine and those two sisters felt very real. I do think that the book was not always successful when changing gear from the birds-eye perspective to a more closely observed narrative style, but I enjoyed the reading experience immensely nonetheless.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster UK (Scribner) in exchange for an honest review.

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: The Book of M – Peng Shepherd

39899065Verdict: Fairly wonderful.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Speculative Fiction

Published by HarperCollins, June 28th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In the middle of a market in India, a man’s shadow disappears. As rolling twenty-four-hour news coverage tries to explain the event, more cases are discovered. The phenomenon spreads like a plague as people learn the true cost of their lost part: their memories.

Two years later, Ory and his wife Max have escaped ‘the Forgetting’ by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods in Virgina. They have settled into their new reality, until Max, too, loses her shadow.

Knowing the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to the person most precious to her, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up what little time they have left before she loses her memory completely, and desperately follows her trail.

On their separate journeys, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a mysterious new force growing in the south that may hold the cure. But neither could have guessed at what you gain when you lose your shadow: the power of magic.

A breathtakingly imaginative, timeless story that explores fundamental questions about memory and love—the price of forgetting, the power of connection, and what it means to be human when your world is turned upside down.

I love books that are not easily classifiable – and this is just that. It is speculative fiction but also incorporates a feeling of magical realism, it is a romance (and it is really not), it is just absolutely lovely. I adore the premise above all else: at some point in the not so distant future people start losing their shadows and with them, slowly but inexorably, their memories. First the small things but then bigger and bigger things until they forget to breath. With the loss of memories come weird powers: if a person without a shadow remembers something wrong, that thing becomes just so. Peng Shepherd uses this to create achingly beautiful scenes that edge on unsettling.

The book is told from four perspectives:

  • Orlando Zhang (Ory), whose wife has just lost her shadow and left him behind, is single-minded in his pursuit of his wife,
  • Max, his wife, is losing her memories and keeps recording herself speaking to her husband to make sure she does not remember him wrong,
  • Mahnaz Ahmadi, an Iranian archer, is stuck in Boston, far away from her family and most importantly her younger sister.
  • The Amnesiac has lost his memory in an accident and as such has a unique understanding of memory loss and its effects on sense of self.

My favourite parts by far were those concerned with Max – her journey into forgetting is mesmerizing and her resilience is wonderful. Spending time in her head made what was happening on a grander scale much more personal and affecting. I also loved spending time with Ahmadi – I love sibling relationships anyways and hers just made me weepy. The Amnesiac’s story at points had a feeling of fairy tale, which obviously I adored. My problem lay with Ory (and his perspective encompasses the bulk of this book) – he did not feel like a fully formed person to me. For most of the book he is single-minded in his pursuit of Max, never pausing, never considering her as a person in her own right, to be honest. I have some spoilery thoughts that might explain this but even so, I never really got along with his point of view – even though some of the most stunning scenes were from his perspective.

Overall, I adore the way Peng Shepherd structured her book – I am often a huge fan of multiple perspectives and here they are handled expertly and with a brilliant sense of timing. I thought her language flowed beautifully and her imagination is just breathtaking, many scenes unfolding cinematically in the best possible way. Her use of imagery and colour really added to this already wonderfully layered story.

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

Review: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

29069374Verdict: My heart hurts.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Graphic Novel; Horror, Noir

Published by Fantagraphics, February 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Set against the tumultuous political backdrop of late ’60s Chicago, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is the fictional graphic diary of 10-year-old Karen Reyes, filled with B-movie horror and pulp monster magazines iconography. Karen Reyes tries to solve the murder of her enigmatic upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, a holocaust survivor, while the interconnected stories of those around her unfold. When Karen’s investigation takes us back to Anka’s life in Nazi Germany, the reader discovers how the personal, the political, the past, and the present converge. Full-color illustrations throughout.

I adored my reading experience with this. I don’t read enough graphic novels because when I do, I more often than not love every second of doing so. This one was particularly stunning

I am also struggling with reviewing graphic novels because I find describing what works for me very difficult. In this case I could not stop staring at the wonderful way it is all laid out. This is Karen’s story and she happens to tell it in a series of scribbles in her notebook and the graphic novel mirrors this. I found the art beyond perfect for the story. I especially adored her renderings of classic paintings that were just a wonder to behold. I spent hours looking up the originals and comparing them to Emil Ferries renditions. I have seen people reacting negatively to the art but I thought it was just perfect. I loved the little splashes of colour and the way different people were drawn in different styles.

Karen’s neighbour, a woman who has survived the Holocaust, has died and Karen is convinced something is amiss. So she does as one does and dresses up in classic detective gear to try and solve the case. But at the core, this book is mostly about Karen growing up and trying to find a place for herself. Her relationship to her older brother is wonderfully drawn and his character intrigues me to no end. I also found the way in which the flashbacks to Anka’s experience during World War II were incorporated, extremely well done and I thought the book dealt with this period in time that literature has used extensively in a really interesting and nuanced way.

Beware though, because this book is dark. Very very dark with themes of not only xenophobia and anti-semitism but also of sexual assault and forced prositution and homophobia and everything else nasty. But if you can stomach these things, this is well worth your time. I cannot wait for the next book in the series.

Review: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

35448496Verdict: Unsettling, beautifully written, wonderfully vague.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Hamish Hamilton, May 24th 2018

Genre: Literary Fiction

Find it on Goodreads.

Imagine a world very close to our own: where women are not safe in their bodies, where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter. This is the story of Grace, Lia and Sky, kept apart from the world for their own good and taught the terrible things that every woman must learn about love. And it is the story of the men who come to find them – three strangers washed up by the sea, their gazes hungry and insistent, trailing desire and destruction in their wake.

Hypnotic and compulsive, The Water Cure is a fever dream, a blazing vision of suffering, sisterhood and transformation.

This book.

It is so very difficult to describe this book, which is I think one of the reasons why the blurb is so vague. This is the story of three sisters, growing up on an island with their parents where something is obviously not quite right but many things remain vague for the whole book. It is never clear whether the stories their parents tell them of the rest of the world are true or not. I personally adored this vagueness and the hypnotic and introspective way this story unfolds.

Sophie Mackintosh’s prose is lush and evocative; her sentences are breathtakingly beautiful and she spins her metaphors in such a brilliant way. Imagery of water is threaded through the whole book, changing meaning and implication depending on the narrator and the context. I adored that.

The author plays with voices and perspectives in a way that I obviously loved. I am a big fan of stories told, at least in parts, in a “we-“perspective and Mackintosh wields that difficult voice expertly. She switches perspectives in just the right moments and allows her narrators to be unreliable without loosing authenticity.

At the heart, this is a story about sisters (nobody is surprised that I love that) and their disfunctional relationship. The way in which flashbacks into their childhoods were integrated is brilliant and effortless and left me always wanting more while being able to fill in some blanks myself – I love it when authors trust me enough to do just that. I found the parts that examined their love and the way their parents broke them to be by far the strongest, whereas the storyline with the men washed ashore did not always work for me.

I thought that the pacing in the middle dragged a little, but the beginning and the ending were pitch-perfect. I cannot wait to see what Sophie Mackintosh does next, because I will definitely reading it.

First sentence: “First we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.”

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