Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton

The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around.

Sometimes, there are books that stare straight into my heart and soul and reflect them back. For me, this was one of those. There is probably no such thing as a perfect book; Among Others, however, was exactly the right book at the right time, and that is not something to be underestimated. It rekindled my appreciation and love for libraries, it spoke a lot of my truths, and it allowed me to remember my sixteen and seventeen year old self with more compassion and understanding than I’ve ever managed. So, obviously, this review is enormously biased and I am well aware that this book may not be for everyone.

It’s 1979. Mor, who has lived her whole life in the Welsh Valleys surrounded by a varied and sprawling family, among fairies and wilderness and magic, has been forced to live with her (somewhat useless) English father whom she has never met and who promptly sends her to boarding school. Her twin sister is dead, her mother is mad and possibly evil, and she is alone. Among Others is written as a diary, as Mor turns to books and journalling, observing the world around her with sharp eyes and a certain dry humour while trying to make sense of what happened, what is happening, and how to move on. The fairy/magic aspect of the world is some of the most convincingly real that I have ever come across; odd and earthy and tied to the landscape, relating to the “real world” in strange ways. Mor is an unreliable narrator in the way that most grieving people are, and the story just… unfolds. Slow, unhurried, and yet still at times shocking, heartrending and heartwarming. If I was told tomorrow that I was only allowed one book for the rest of my life, it would be a close call between Among Others, Unquenchable Fire, and the dictionary (but which dictionary?!).

Rating: Read this book. Go to the library.

Book Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling

Kelsea Glynn sat very still, watching the troop approach her homestead.

I picked this up thinking “Oh this seems like a reasonably straightforward, returning sovereign type fantasy thing”. I was very happy to be proved wrong! It begins much in the ‘returning-sovereign-will-save-the-land’ vein, in a seemingly high fantasy world with the rightful heir to the throne (Kelsea Glynn) having been raised in a cottage in a wood somewhere by Carlin and Barty Glynn. A troop of soldiers arrive to take her to New London to be crowned, and then… Well, then everything flies wonderfully off the hook. Not so abruptly that it’s jarring; but we slowly realise that no, this is not a typical high fantasy story. It doesn’t actually look as though Kelsea is even going to make it as far as New London, let alone get crowned, because the Regent (her uncle) has formed an alliance with the Tearling’s scary neighbour (Mortmesne) and is sending assassins after her. There are killer hawks! There are guild assassins and bits of magic and a sort of highwayman bandit type who might be helpful.

Kelsea is also realising that she has been consistently lied to about, well, something… She does not know what. And that she is lacking a lot of experience and knowledge. And that her guards are lying to her as well. She’s a fantastically tenacious protagonist, who starts out with a good knowledge base but little experience and then learns really fast because it’s learn or die and Kelsea has decided that she’s not going to die before she even gets to her throne. The scene when she does finally get crowned is exhilarating and the story doesn’t end there!

The worldbuilding is also excellent – I could babble about it for hours. I’m going to avoid that though (because spoilers) and just say that it’s one of the most interesting fantasy set-ups I’ve seen in a while. The politics all weave together with the history and the brutality of feudal-ish lifestyles and the tension between the state and the church. Excellent, so excellent. A fantastic story about a new ruler coming into power, set against a brilliantly conceived world – I am eagerly waiting for the sequel to come back to the library.

Rating: read this book. Aim to be half as hardcore as Kelsea Glynn.

Book Review: The Second Mango by Shira Glassman

The second Mango by shira glassman

Once upon a time, in a lush tropical land of agricultural riches and shining white buildings, there was a young queen who spent the night tied up in a tent, panicking.

Note: the visual above is not the cover, but as I couldn’t find an image for the cover my copy has, I’m using it as the closest thing.

I LOVE this book! It’s warm, a bit silly and full of goodness. There are some proofreading blips, and a few layout problems, but honestly I am forgiving those completely because this book this book this book! It’s basically the book I dreamed of reading when I was about eight and started realising that, in the fantasy books I enjoyed so much, there were an awful lot of women who needed rescuing (I found Tamora Pierce shortly after this). Although there are bits in this book that my eight-year-old self would have thought were gross and that would not have been appropriate at that age (read – sex happens).

Anyway, Queen Shulamit is a lesbian and also severely gluten intolerant. She goes on a quest to find love with Rivka and Rivka’s dragon-horse. Rivka is not the love interest; she is an epic mercenary and they become best friends. I just love it! There’s wonderful friendship, there’s silliness, there’s epic battling and positive queer representation and a fantasy world with Jewish roots and dragons and wizards. It’s so clear that the author really, really enjoyed herself when writing this, which lead to me really enjoying reading it. The characters were really clear, and I liked how their different strengths worked together.

It’s not the most polished book out there, but personally I thought it worked that way. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is absolutely mine.

Rating: read this book, dance with glee!

Book Review: The Good, The Bad and The Smug by Tom Holt

the good the bad and the smug by tom holt

The good guys are good and their hats are white as snow.

This book deserves a laugh track. I’m not sure how to review it: I wish I had recorded myself reading it and you could just have a video of me laughing a lot. It’s wonderful. A bit Pratchett-esque in terms of humour, but very different in other ways. It’s also apparently part of a series…? I just googled and I’m now confused, but I read this as a standalone and it worked for me. I really hate when books are not labelled as being in a series *grumble grumble grumble*

Anyway, there is: Mordak, king of the Goblins, who is trying so hard to get the goblins to understand the idea of New Evil (it’s like Old Evil, but a bit sneakier and with better PR); there’s a man who might be Rumplestiltskin really messing up the human economy (because he spins straw into gold, and then the price of straw goes up, the soldiers want paying in silver and the princes start plotting to set fire to each others’ straw); there’s an elf who just wants to be the editor of The Horrible Yellow Face (formerly The Beautiful Golden Face), which everyone agrees is the best paper around on account of how it never prints facts (journalists don’t). Unfortunately, Mordak now owns all the newspapers so they can only print what he wants (an act of warfare against the Elves, obviously). And there’s a quest to find the truth, if only anyone could figure out what that meant. And where the goblins are disappearing to. And why the Dark Lord is crying about curtains and trying to design a logo for evil (his choices are a rose or an oak in a field. For those who don’t know, the rose is the Labour party symbol, the oak in a field in the Tory party symbol. This kind of stuff happens all the time and I loved it).

Bits of it fell flat, and there’s a whole portal thing going on that I don’t quite have time to explain but which I enjoyed. Overall, this was a decent read. Nothing mind-blowing, but good for a quiet night in.

Rating: read this book. Finally understand the financial crash! (I’m not joking)

Book Reviews: announcement and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I have read a lot of books recently, however I’m struggling a bit to find time to write “proper” reviews of them (super busy with work and writing a new story). So I thought I’d do a series of bite-size reviews of around 250 – 300 words each, just until I have more time again. I’m sure there will be some longer ones mixed in there! I hope you enjoy 🙂

Let us begin!Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I powered up the transporter and said a silent prayer.

This is an incredible book. Short, at ninety pages, but full. Bursting, almost, with ideas and skill and craftwork. I believe I described the other Nnedi Okorafor title that I’ve read, The Book of Phoenix, as being a cataclysm. This is a quieter book, but no less powerful. Binti is of the Himba people, and she is leaving her home and her planet to attend Oomza Uni, which flies in the face of tradition. Please note that I am not knowledgeable about the Himba people, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of the representation in this book.

It’s hard, really, to know what to say because there is so much contained in this slim volume. Binti is a fantastic protagonist; completely believable in her characterisation. From the first sentence I am drawn in and intrigued: I want to know who she is, where she’s from, where she is going and why. And I empathised with her, to the point of snarling “what the f*ck?” under my breath when a stranger in a public space touched Binti’s hair without asking (which I know is a real problem, and a whole other subject deserving of lots of space because it’s so not okay, ever, to grab a stranger’s hair!) and yelped out loud, and swore some more at other distressing points (this is me trying to avoid spoilers) and cried when Binti lost her friends. Messily. There was snot, people. The world building was also excellent, and very impressive; creating such a real science-fiction world in a mere ninety pages must, I imagine, have been quite hard (also one spoiler: spaceship fish!). I cried at the end as well, because this is such a beautiful novella and I want more. Luckily there is more, and I’m just waiting on my next payday to buy the sequel.

Mathematics is something of a theme, as Binti primarily got into Oomza Uni with her incredible mathematics score. I really struggle with maths, but the novella is still completely readable and enjoyable and I actually found myself thinking things like “Hmmmm, maybe maths isn’t so bad, maybe I should go learn more maths”. And aliens and friendship and and and and I have to shut up now or I’ll just squeee.

So to conclude, brilliant main character, excellent writing, excellent story about growing up and making choices (and lots of other things) and more to come!

Rating: read this book, learn about equations.

Book Review: Saints and Adventurers by Frances Gapper

saints and adventurers by frances gapper

On the day my brother died, when I was fourteen, a grey, wet, windy day in late August, my grandmother drowned the cat.

This is another one of the Women’s Press books that I’ve managed to get my hands on. It’s a story of grief, madness and menstruation; a work full of transformations. In many ways, it was very much of its time. And then again, the book was just full of characters that I recognised – people from my life who had snuck into the pages and were waving out at me.

It’s told by Jenny, who is growing up after her brother’s death. Her mother will not talk about her feelings, is a tightly controlled and deeply angry woman. And her grandmother is the opposite in so many ways; a Corsican wise-woman plying her trade in Surbiton. It’s a dizzying portrait of adolescence, of all the different ways to go mad. There are angels that turn up and cats that die and a father who simply has no idea and spends all his time writing a book about butterflies and emerging only when the tea runs out.

There are many moments when I laughed out loud. And many when I cried. Jenny’s best friend, Alicia, is starving herself and recites poetry backwards. Her mother retreats into a world she can control. Her grandmother drowns cats and fixes electrics and talks about blood and death and magic. Jenny’ sort-of boyfriend is endearing, in a hopeless way; his parents are Freudian psychoanalysts and tried to raise him to be normal (it backfired). And Jenny is lost and wandering, trying to grow up and not knowing how or what it means.

It’s a rich, rich work that spoke to me very deeply. It didn’t offer solutions or even take clear sides. Here was a family being a family, which is a much more complicated endeavour than most people think. There’s religion and sex and all the strange things that get thrown up during adolescence and a wry sense of humour that will suddenly turn in on itself, laughing at the notion of the book. Spirits and ghosts and humans. Basically, I really really enjoyed this book but it’s very hard to review!

Rating: read this book. Climb a hill and scream.

Book Review: Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap

hurrican heels art by denise yap

A long time ago, in the space between dimensions, two beings were formed from the matter that filled the hearts of every living thing.

So this is one big story, told in five short stories from the points-of-view of five female friends. Who happen to have magical powers and save the world on a semi-regular basis. Yes it’s magical girls! I have to admit to not having watched or read many magical girl stories at all, but this book was brilliant and I still enjoyed it, although I probably missed some of the trope subversions.

One of the great things about this story is that the women have, at this point, been fighting the forces of darkness for ten years. And those forces are actually terrifying: strange grey monsters that appear out of nowhere to wreak havoc. There’s a real, tangible sense of fear. If things go wrong, people will die. As a reader, there’s a definite feeling that even if there is a fairytale ending, it might not be one of the good ones.

The five characters are all really strong, very different from each other with their own internal struggles. I wasn’t very well when I read this book, so a lot of the details were lost in the fog of a SuperMassive Headache (I’ll just have to read it again), but there’s a general impression of “awesome” that remains. I especially liked the fact that all of the women were having normal, growing up and being an adult difficulties as well as saving the world difficulties. One of them, wonderfully, was an anime nerd who loved magical girl stories – it sounds cheesy but it worked really well.

So, here we have a fab book with five main characters – all women – who kick arse and take names and manage to stay friends (and in some cases, girlfriends), with some great illustrations by the author’s sister. It’s touching and honest and heartwarming. I mean, what’s not to like?

Rating: Read this book. Put on your magical earrings and beat up some monsters (we’ll go for drinks after).

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