Book Review: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for witching by Helen Oyeyemi

ore: Miranda Silver is in Dover, in the ground beneath her mother’s house.

This has to be the most unsettling book that I have ever read, with the possible exception of Let the Right One In although that is a completely different kind of unsettling. I have never read anything like it: Helen Oyeyemi’s writing is unique, and the sort of thing that one probably loves or hates without an inbetween. It is a story told by unreliable narrators: several of them, who are not always who they say they are. It is a story that crept up inside my head and squeezed my heart and promised not to let me go. It was not the story that it started out as, either. There are forms in which I have read this story before, and in which I am tired of reading it. I am tired, more than I can say, of the pretty thin fragile girl going mad while holding up all the things that nobody else can see and breaking breaking breaking while always looking beautiful – most girls are not fragile. Most women are not mad, but spitting furious (in my experience) and living with things that are not easily spoken of. I am tired of this narrative which has no space for the fury.

(And Miranda was not the only girl there: Ore was there, holding a whole different set of things, and Tijana and SPOILER I was glad that Ore left, that she did not stay to pick up pieces in a fight that wasn’t hers that would have tried to destroy her. Not glad that, again, the queer romance ended in tragedy and separation, but glad that Ore left and survived END SPOILER.)

White is for Witching was not quite this narrative. It went somewhere else. It was that story, told differently and compulsively and with layers and layers that I will probably be peeling back compulsively over the next week, month… It was about an angry house full of rattling histories and bigotry, and a family haunting and haunted. It was about keeping people out or letting them in and all of the ugly ugly things that get swept out of sight. It was about nationality and legacy and the things that get carried and the the things that are devoured and who belongs. Who really belongs, and what that means, and who gets to decide that and what right they have to do so. It was about all the things that Miranda Silver tries to devour or keep at bay; all the history bearing down on her and bearing down on Ore.

It was complex. I don’t think I can unravel it in just one review but it is worth reading, and worth reading again, and marking notes in the margins with pencils and listening to and thinking about the things that nobody wants to look at and why and the messy patchwork that makes up this country and all the everyday violence therein. And the ghosts, standing behind everyone.

Rating: read this book. Do not eat the damn apples.

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Book Review: The Book of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

la belle sauvage book of dust one philip pullman

Three miles up the river Thames from the centre of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadows, there stood the priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

I absolutely loved this. It has been a long time since I read His Dark Materials, which consists of some of my favourite books of all time. I briefly considered re-reading them before diving into The Book of Dust: volume one. In the end I was far too excited to wait.

It took a while for me to settle into this book – I was, I think, a bit too excited about it and couldn’t quite enjoy what was happening now because I wanted to know what would happen next. I became absorbed quite quickly, to the point where I cannot actually pinpoint when I stopped jittering about. Malcolm was, at first, a bit difficult for me to relate to. He grew on me as the story went on, and I think it helped that the point of view moved occasionally.

One of the things I’ve always really loved about His Dark Materials is the worldbuilding (especially in the first book, Northern Lights), so I was absolutely delighted to be returning to the same world. I had forgotten how much I enjoy Philip Pullman’s writing, the long lyrical sentences; the specificity of his dialogue and the richness of feeling. The story is set when Lyra is a baby, and it was exciting to get a sense of Brytain ten years before Northern Lights. Marisa Coulter turns up, which made me yell a bit – I’ve always counted her as one of my favourite villains.

There were some things that were tricky for me – I liked that His Dark Materials had a female central character, so I kept having to adjust for Malcolm being in the middle of it all. There were women in the story, quite a lot of them, but it’s just not quite the same. Of course, Malcolm’s Daemon is female, so there is that.

As for the plot – oh I was just swept away. I read this in two sittings over one day, and I could probably read it again next week. It was, in instances, very fairytale-esque. And relevant to current events in a somewhat scary manner.

I’m well aware that I’m not being particularly objective – it’s all very fresh in my mind and I sort of want to think about it all, re-read it, think about it all again and then re-read the original three books. I’d say it’s definitely a brilliant addition to the world, and I’m interested to see what happens with the other Book of Dust volumes.

Rating: read this book. Do your best to keep your head above the rising water.

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Book Review: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The FAte of the Tearling book cover

Long before the Red Queen of Mortmesne came to power, the Glace-Vert was already a lost cause.

I finally finished this incredible trilogy, and oooooh do I have a lot to say! If you want to catch up, you can find my reviews of the previous books here and here. I am going to try to avoid spoilers, but there will definitely be some for the previous two books.

So, The Fate of the Tearling. Where to even start? It’s hard to review without describing the whole plot of this and the previous two books, because a lot of things get followed up and pulled together, some of which I had not even noticed being foreshadowed. Kelsea Glynn, now a prisoner, is being taken to Mortmesne; the Mace is trying to run the Tearling (he has the entire damn church to contend with); the Red Queen (we know who she is now!!!!) has an enemy other than Kelsea. And frankly, it looks like everything might go to hell in a handcart. The flashbacks from the past are increasingly important, relating to the present and possibly the future. We get to see the Tearling in its infancy, and watch as it inexorably seems to rip itself apart.

There were a lot of things I loved: this book has strong imagery, much of which has stayed with me. Kelsea and the Red Queen actually being in the same room and having conversations was fantastically tense. And I’m always going to enjoy a fantasy book with this many awesome and interesting women: Kelsea, the Red Queen, Andalie (a seer on the run), Aisa (Andalie’s daughter, learning how to use knives and swords both), Glee (Andalie’s other daughter, also a seer), Brenna (the witch), Emily (a slave in Mortmesne, spying for the Mace), Allie (barely in it, still liked her), Katie (from the past, bodyguard), Lily (part of the original Crossing)…..

The resolution, well, I’m trying to avoid spoilers but I did not see it coming. Honestly, I am going to have to splash out and buy this series, because I need to re-read the entire thing. I recommend it highly.

For those of you who are interested, there is going to be a rambly discussion post about this series in a day or so. It will be RIFE WITH SPOILERS, so be wary of that.

Rating: read this book, cling on for dear life!

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Book review catch-up: part two

Part two of the book review catch up – another four slightly random books for you all to enjoy.

The Just City

by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo Walton

She turned into a tree.

Another one by Jo Walton – this something else entirely again. Apollo and Athena decide, as an experiment, to provide support for humans trying to build Plato’s Republic. It is, as you can imagine, chaos. This book is well written. It is funny as well as thoughtful, exploring the consequences of not only trying to create a utopia but of trying to create that particular utopia. There were multiple POV characters, and the plot was spread out over numerous years as the city developed.

I wasn’t all that invested in the characters, emotionally, but I really enjoyed the challenge of making ideas fit into my brain, and thinking about all the different ways that things might happen and when I finished reading it I felt that my mind had had quite the workout.

Rating: read this, and see if you can come up with a utopia that survives contact with ten-year-olds!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel meets world

by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Dean Hale SHannon Hale

Doreen Green liked her name.

EEEEEEEEEEE! I LOVED THIS BOOK! I stayed up all night reading it, and laughing, and thinking “I should go to bed now” and then reading another few chapters and then it was ONE IN THE MORNING. This is a novel tie-in to the comic series, taking place when Doreen Green A.K.A Squirrel Girl is fourteen. And it is, in a word, delightful. It’s warm, funny, and fantastic. I love Doreen Green, that rare superhero with no tragic past who just wants to help. She’s great. And I love the format – there are little footnotes and text messages throughout. Her parents are wonderful and supportive. Her best friend Ana Sofia is deaf and brilliant. We meet Tippy Toe the squirrel for the first time. There are LARPers and robot parents and hysterical interactions with the Avengers (Doreen Green texts the Winter Soldier under the impression that he is probably a yeti who works with them).

There is just SO MUCH LOVE AND JOY TO BE HAD HERE!

Rating: READ IT READ IT READ IT *calms down* and then, yanno, imagine that you’re a squirrel…

 

Letters Between Gentlemen

by Professor Elemental and Nimue Brown, illustrated by Tom Brown

Letters Between Gentlemen

This was another “stay-up-all-night, just one more chapter okay make that two woops it’s one in the morning” read. I laughed on pretty much every page. At first, I wasn’t sure how the story was going to happen – the entire thing is told in correspondence between various characters and the letters seemed so completely random that I could not see how they were going to fit together. But happen it did, and somehow, against all logic, a brilliant narrative emerged. I bloody loved it! The characters were outrageous and brilliant. There were secret occult societies (with very similar names but quite different functions), rather intelligent mice, opium, explosions, deaths, some rather fun playing with gender and a hilarious detective story.  And tea. Quite a lot of tea. Altogether wonderful.

Rating: Read it, and avoid mixing the opium with the tea…

Of Sorrow and Such

by Angela Slatter

Of Sorrow and Such ANgela Slatter

Edda’s Meadow is a town like any other, smaller than some, larger than many.

And now for something completely different; this is the only Angela Slatter book I’ve read, and I’m reasonably sure that it fits into her other works (though I don’t know where, and I have yet to get my hands on them). It is an odd gem. Witchy books are my kryptonite (along with dragony books, queer fantasy books, free books, books with magic in…), and this was an especially interesting one. Part of what stood out for me was that we were in this tiny setting – Edda’s Meadow – which at first appeared calm. But then there were faultlines hidden everywhere, movement beneath the surface and things just waiting. It was remarkably atmospheric.

As witchy books go, this is a challenging one due to a) things being shit for women and b) things being shit for witches. However, I enjoyed the writing and the worldbuilding, the ways in which magic worked here, and SPOILER the ending was not terribly terribly tragic. END SPOILER. There’s a lot that feels unique in here, though it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what…

Rating: read it. Do not make dolls from bread.

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Book review catch-up: part one

Hello! Oddly enough, I am reading less than usual at the moment, but have managed nevertheless to get quite behind on reviews. How these two things have managed to occur at the same time, I’m not entirely sure :s So here is a slightly random group of catch-up reviews, for your delight and delectation. Another round of catch-ups will be published next week, and then some more normal reviews and ephemera.

Tooth and Claw

by Jo Walton

tooth and claw front cover jo walton

Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he could fly to his new life in his old body.

This was an odd read. It took me a little while to get into, and then suddenly it clicked that it was really quite funny. Because, essentially, this is a send up/tribute to Austen, with dragons. Yes, you heard me, dragons. Very proper, very polite dragons who are bound by tradition and propriety and an odd host of biological strangeness as well as cultural norms. It was unlike anything I’ve read before, and on those merits alone I’d recommend it. Not the most brilliant thing out there, certainly, but with charm and wit. And dragons who wear hats.

Rating: read this, and then visit your milliner.

The Bone Dragon

by Alexia Casale

the bone dragon alexia casale

I rise up, towards the surface.

I did not realise quite what this book was about when I picked it up. It is not fantasy, not really. I’d give this one quite strong trigger warnings for abusive family situations, which are in the past and now escaped, but impact hugely on the story and on the characters. It may be that it shook me as hard as it did because I was not expecting it, but I would warn anyway. If that’s something you can read, then this is a very good book indeed. Strong imagery, very well imagined characters, and a reality that’s just a little bit malleable. Our narrator is a teenage girl, who has just had an operation to remove a dead bit of bone from her ribs. She is one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve come across in a good while. It’s harrowing and brilliant and disturbing, all in one innocent looking book.

Rating: go out into the night, to the bleached moon, and face the things you fear.

The Murdstone Trilogy (a novel)

by Mal Peet

The Murdstone Trilogy Mal Peet

The sun sinks, leaving tatty furbelows of crimson cloud in the Dartmoor sky.

Hah! This book! I loved it – a hilariously mocking love-letter to fantasy, to authors, and the industry as a whole. Philip Murdstone is a writer who made a niche writing fiction about slightly odd boys finding their place in the world. But his work is not selling, and he lives in a cottage in Dartmoor and feels miserable about having no money. He also really quite fancies his agent, who persuades him that the only thing to do is to write a swords and sorcery style book. Which he has no idea how to even start.

Cue a visitation from a rather rude and grubby being from a different world, who will give him a story in return for finding an amulet. And, well, everything snowballs from there. Fantastically. As readers, we’re really kept guessing about what’s real, what’s not, and what the hell is going to happen next. Incisively observed characters, very funny descriptions and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that I really appreciated. You won’t get all the jokes unless you’ve actually read some swords and sorcery fantasy, but I think it would still be pretty entertaining regardless.

Rating: read this,  and perhaps refrain from making agreements with grubby beings from other worlds.

The Palace of Curiosities

by Rosie Garland

The Palace of curiosities by Rosie Garland

Before I am born, my mother goes to the circus.

A while ago, I started reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, and failed to finish it. Part of this is my personal difficulty with collections of short stories. This novel reminded me of many of the things I enjoyed in that collection – in fact I would have said that this novel is perhaps what I wanted The Bloody Chamber to be. It was weird, and definitely happening in the realm of fairytale. It was a love story, sort of, between monsters. The Palace of Curiosities had a sharp descriptive style that I liked, and alternated POV between two characters. I was completely immersed in this odd underworld of Victorian London, with the lion woman and the undying man. It was luscious and sensual and dark and odd, and I very much enjoyed it. In fact, my only complaint was that the last sentence was really awkward, and having enjoyed the rest of the book so much, I found that annoying. Still, this is something of a feast.

Rating: read this, and be wary of the circus…

And that’s all for now – until next time, keep well.

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Book Review: The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

the invasion of the tearling erika johansen

The second Mort invasion had all the makings of a slaughter.

BEWARE SPOILERS!

This, you may have guessed, is the sequel to The Queen of the Tearling. And it is amazing! One of the main points about the fantasy world that has been created here is that, although it looks pretty typical human high fantasy at first glance, it is revealed throughout the first book that actually, these people are descended from fugitives from our world. Or our world some years forward with horribly believable dystopian trappings. A revolutionary called William Tear led the Crossing (what they were crossing is a reveal in this book, so I’m not telling).

This means that the Tearling (and presumably other kingdoms and queendoms) has this interesting juxtaposition of technologically being about able to make a basic cannon, but having historical records of x-ray machines. I love it. This book really deals with that part of the story, as Kelsea starts having visions of a woman who is somehow connected to the Crossing. At first, I was a little impatient with these flashbacks as I just wanted to know what was going to happen: Mortmesne is invading! We’re getting clues about who the Red Queen is! Please just tell me what’s happening! However, after a slightly awkward section I quickly became hooked, and it started becoming clear that the flashbacks were important and also forwarding the plot.

Kelsea herself I found challenging in this instalment, but nowhere near as challenging as a lot of teenage sovereigns in fantasy can be. And I think I was meant to find her challenging, and to question her judgement and her decisions. Other characters certainly did. I loved the intrigue, the back and forth between church and crown intensifying, the preparations for this totally hopeless invasion, Kelsea’s weird magical powers starting to make more sense…

The end was, well, I had a hunch about the ending. And I was half-right. And it was a massive cliffhanger (Kelsea you redeemed yourself bigtime) and I have been waiting on tenterhooks for the final book to come into the library (which it finally has). So, if you are interested in some slightly brutal, fast-paced, interestingly-built fantasy with WOMEN, I recommend this series.

And if you have read it, I would love to chat about it with you! I have so many feelings about this series!

Rating: read this book – do not make deals with the demon in the fire.

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Book Review: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, cover design Helen Crawford White, images by Buffy Cooper, Trevillon images, Miloje, Shuttershock, Vertyr, pavila

They say the day the Governor arrived, the ravens did too.

This is a stunning book. Bittersweet and wonderful. Set in a historical not-quite-here world that reminded me a bit of His Dark Materials in atmosphere, this is the story of Isabella, her father, her best friend Lupe, and the island of Joya. It’s ferocious and beautiful and strange. The story is fantastic – the plot is a bit chaotic at times, but to me that felt realistic and I liked it.I also really enjoy stories that have friendships between women or girls front and centre, which this did: Isabella’s main motivation is to find her best friend, Lupe, who has gone missing. Seeing as Lupe is the Governor’s daughter, she is generally unpopular with the rest of the islanders.

And that was another thing: I don’t think there is a single white character in this book. Not one. And it is a story that manages to be about (among other things) colonialism without that being the sole focus. Quite the feat. In this sense, it reminded me (odd as it may seem) of The God of Small Things, in that the politics were simply there and happening and impacting on people’s lives without being shoved into your face. The Girl of Ink and Stars is meant for middle grade readers, which is reflected in the writing style (although Kiran Millwood Hargrave is also a poet and it shows in a good way). I found this to be a genuine emotional journey, with touches of myth and magic and a lovely voice. But definitely have tissues on hand.

Also, for those of you who enjoy that kind of thing, the inside covers (I know that I know what these pages are called, just can’t remember) have beautiful colour illustrations, and there are map motifs on the edges of all the inner pages.

Rating: read this book: journey to a volcano, cry.

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