1

Helen Oyeyemi – Mr. Fox

Even without certain campaigns, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird never stood a chance of getting a Hugo Award or even a nomination. Nonetheless, I nominated it because I loved it so, so much and that’s what the Hugos are all about! After reading that book, I bought everything else I could find by Oyeyemi. This wasn’t as up my alley as Boy, Snow, Bird but Oyeyemi is still an author I want to follow very closely.

mr foxMR. FOX
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Riverhead Books, 2011
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Mary Foxe came by the other day – the last person on earth I was expecting to see.

Fairytale romances end with a wedding. The fairytales that don’t get more complicated. In this book, celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

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Mr. Fox is a writer whose imaginary muse Mary Foxe has qualms about the way he tends to kill off his female characters. In a game of story-telling, the two of them weave fairy tales, play with Bluebeard, and explore their relationship. Then Mr. Fox’ wife Daphne joins in and the relationships become more and more complicated.

You can read this book as a short story collection or a fix-up-novel but either way, it’s never quite clear which parts are reality, which are stories, if Mary is real or just a figment of Mr. Fox’ imagination. Some stories are clearly told by one of the protagonists, others could be attributed to any (or none) of them. This mosaic novel is fairly complex – it needed full concentration to follow the plot, if indeed you can call it plot. I enjoy a novel that challenges me but Mr. Fox gave me headaches. Despite the fixed points of St. John Fox, Mary, and Daphne, it was difficult to find a red thread to follow. This did in no way diminish the pleasure gained from reading each short story on its own merits.

Oyeyemi’s language did not disappoint. I knew I’d discovered a new favorite after reading Boy, Snow, Bird. A writer who can weave such beautiful sentences just couldn’t have written a bad book! The style is lyrical, yet on a sentence level not overly drawn out. The complexity of these stories stems more from my attempt to ground them in reality somehow, which I probably shouldn’t even have tried. There is a fairy tale feel to each story, whether it’s the more obviously fantastical ones in which foxes dress in human clothes, or the more realistic ones (without talking animals).

mr fox alternate coverThe most interesting aspect for me was Daphne’s involvement in the strange relationship between writer and muse. At first, she feels threatened by Mary’s presence (who cares if she’s real or imaginary?), and she worries about her marriage to Mr. Fox. Daphne was an intriguing character who didn’t shy away from examining her own motives for marrying Mr. Fox, the way their marriage has gone so far, and the way she sees other women. When Mary and Daphne meet, I expected what TV taught me to expect – namely that the two would fight or bitch or put each other down. What Helen Oyeyemi did instead was pure, refreshing amazingness! In fact, all relationships between the three protagonists take interesting turns and subvert tropes. Especially the ending was  delicious.

What I was missing a bit was the exploration of Mr. Fox’ tendency to kill his female characters. Mary wants him to question his own motives but I didn’t really see this idea developed much further. The problem is that I’m not sure if I simply misunderstood some of the stories, if my language skills let me down and I missed some subtle nuances, or if Oyeyemi really didn’t want to pursue the topic any further. It took me quite a while to read the novel so it’s probably I who is to blame.

All things considered, I still enjoyed the read and will definitely pick up the rest of Oyeyemi’s books. If the next novel is just slightly more straight forward, I’ll be one happy kitten.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Other reviews:

(note: It appears I’m not the only one confused by this book. Big sigh of relief.)

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Laura Ruby – Bone Gap

Looking at the cover and description, you wouldn’t think this is speculative fiction. The reason I picked up Bone Gap was Ana and Renay’s discussion on their Fangirl Happy Hour podcast. Now I can finally go back and listen to the spoilery bits. I loved this book. A deceptively quick read, it really packs an emotional punch and explores some difficult themes through multi-layered characters. A fascinating read that will definitely make it into my years’ favorites list.

bone gapBONE GAP by Laura Ruby

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2015
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The people of Bone Gap called Finn a lot of things, but none of them was his name.

Bone Gap is the story of Roza, a beautiful girl who is taken from a quiet midwestern town and imprisoned by a mysterious man, and Finn, the only witness, who cannot forgive himself for being unable to identify her kidnapper. As we follow them through their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures, acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.

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Bone Gap is one of those flow-y books. You know the type. You plan to read just a few pages to see if it’s up your alley, and before you know it you are knee-deep in an adventure without hope of finding a convenient chapter to stop reading. Finn lives in Bone Gap, a small town where everybody knows everybody, and he is known by everybody as a bit of a strange guy. Never looks you in the eye, head in the clouds, very handsome, but distant. And ever since Roza disappeared, things haven’t been the same.

I don’t know how to describe this book in a few sentences, because it is about many things, despite its relatively small page count. It is about Finn growing up and learning things about himself, it is about Roza and how her beauty is a curse as much as a blessing. It’s about Petey, who thinks her face looks like a bee, and whose life is influenced by beauty just as much as Roza’s, and it’s about Sean, a young man forced to abandon his dreams and being, in turn, abandoned by the people he loves.

The tale unfolds through Finn and Roza’s eyes and while Finn does meet a magical horse, his story is still grounded in the reality of Bone Gap. Here, everyday problems are added to Roza’s disappearance – dealing with bullies, getting the girl you like to kiss you, finding a way to talk to your estranged brother… Finn has a lot on his plate, even without the guilt he feels. When Roza was kidnapped, Finn witnessed it but he is unable to identify the kidnapper, which leads most people – his brother Sean included – to not believe Finn at all. After the death of their father, the boys’ mother left them, so Sean was almost expecting to be left again, this time by the woman he loves.

Roza’s story, on the other hand, reads like a dark fairy tale – this is what grounds the book firmly in the fantasy genre (no matter how many times the print “magical realism” on the back cover). It’s not a retelling but the fairy tale I was most reminded of was “Beauty and the Beast”. Except in Bone Gap, a real girl gets thrown into an awful situation and she really has no interest in turning her captor into a prince. Even before her kidnapping, Roza’s life was hard, and the way she reacts to the terrible things happening to her, is part of what makes her so wonderful. I loved this character to pieces and she only gained more and more respect as the story continued.

bone gap bee

I was surprised at the many ways in which this little book broke my heart. A few chapters in, I already cared deeply about Finn, Sean, Petey, and Roza. Then the author throws a few twists our way that are big enough to shatter worlds. Terrible things happen to Roza, so awful in fact that all the other characters’ problems should appear ridiculous in comparison. But Laura Ruby, with her flowing prose and lyrical style, managed to make all characters feel equally important. I had so much compassion for Petey who is considered ugly by the people of Bone Gap, I understood Finn’s guilt about letting Roza be taken, I got why his brother Sean behaves the way he does. The characters and their actions are utterly believable, even when confronted with the fantastic.

This is a magical book whose pages just fly by without you noticing. I read it in a hammock on the beach, in one sitting, and afterwards felt like waking up from a dream. A dream of a Polish girl too beautiful for words (who is not portrayed as arrogant or a villain or a bitch), a young boy trying to find his place in the world, a girl very conscious of the power of beauty (and her own perceived lack thereof), and a man lost and abandoned and desperate.

Rounded with a perfect ending (and Roza’s most badass moment of awesome!) that subverts the tropes of fairy tales, this was a wonderfully engaging, emotional book. It had just the right amount of fairy tale flavor, lovely writing, and a cast of amazing characters. Another excellent publication of 2015 – this is a strong year for speculative fiction with original ideas and character depth.

MY RATING: 9/10  –  Close to perfection!

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Other reviews:

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Naomi Novik – Uprooted

Sometimes, special books come from unexpected places. I had read the first two Temeraire books by Naomi Novik and, while liking the first one, didn’t like them enough to continue the series. There was something missing that I couldn’t put my finger on, so I pretty much dismissed the author as “just not my cup of tea”. Then I won an ARC (which turned out to be a beautiful finished hardcover – THANK YOU, Macmillan! Really, it’s beautiful.) of this fairytale-esque new novel and it took exactly one sentence for me to fall in love.

uprootedUPROOTED
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover: 437 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.

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This has to be one of the best opening sentences I’ve read in a long, long time and Uprooted is my favorite book of the year so far. The first chapter does exactly what a good beginning should do. It establishes a world, it introduces the main character, and it sets its hooks firmly into your mind and makes it impossible to stop reading.

Every ten years, the local wizard, called the Dragon, chooses a girl from Agnieszka’s valley and takes her away to his castle. Nobody really knows what he does with them, although they all say he never laid a finger on them. Agnieszka is the right age to be chosen but she isn’t worried. The entire valley knows that her best friend Kasia – beautiful, talented, brave – is the most likely choice. But of course things don’t go as expected and Agnieszka is chosen instead of her childhood friend.

The first few chapters are a bit misleading as to where the story will go. The mood of the novel screams Fairy Tale right from the start, so I thought I’d get a sort of Beauty and the Beast retelling. But while Agnieszka’s first months in the tower are spent cleaning, cooking, and bickering with the Dragon, her presence seems to irritate him more than excite him. She is clumsy, constantly gets her clothes dirty, and stubborn. It’s a match made in heaven. Despite their dislike for each other, Agnieszka slowly learns some magic from the wizard, and we readers learn what his “job” is in the first place (more on that later).

One aspect that made this book so great is Agnieszka’s development as well as her relationship with the Dragon. I understand some people’s criticism of the romantic sub-plot, but it pushed so many of my buttons that I couldn’t help but adore it. These two spend most of the novel bickering, arguing, and generally disagreeing – but it is their differences that make them so compatible. While the Dragon works every spell meticulously and by the book, Agnieszka takes a more intuitive approach and shows amazing talent. But it is only when they work together that their greatness can shine. In fact, her actions are what drives the plot, unlike so many reactive fairy tale heroines.

So Agnieszka is a wonderful protagonist and I loved her cleverness and fierce loyalty, the real main character of Uprooted is the Wood. Its menacing presence can be felt on every page, and the magician’s job becomes much more interesting once you know just how evil that Wood really is. Sometimes, it takes people, sometimes it gives them back, but they are never the same. Other times, it kills anything in its path, it eats entire villages, it ruins people’s lives with disease or madness. As an antagonist, this was one of the more original and disturbing ones, and I completely loved how the Wood’s influence was shown. The author made sure that, once the characters venture into the Wood, her readers are properly scared of what they’ll find there.

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Naomi Novik manages to pack an impressive amount of plot into the 400 pages of this book. Some reviewers mentioned that a trilogy would have been more suitable, but I like Uprooted just the way it is. It builds its world slowly, then relies on Agnieszka’s actions to be the catalyst for change. Her friendship with Kasia is what sets in motion the actions that will lead to a thrilling climax. I loved how front and center this friendship between women was in the novel, but it is also the one part that I had issues with. The fact that Kasia and Agnieszka are friends is explained in the very first chapter, and while we’re told that they’ve spent their entire childhood together and are very close, there wasn’t any time to show us this friendship before Agnieszka gets taken by the Dragon.

But the author makes up for that minor flaw by making Kasia in important character throughout the novel. You’d expect her to be nothing but a memory in Agnieszka’s mind, to maybe be mentioned once or twice, but you wouldn’t expect her to turn into a badass heroine in her own right. Kasia’s development was as gripping as Agnieszka’s and I loved seeing them work together as a team.

uprooted USThe Dragon… oh, the Dragon! This may say more about me than it does about the book, but I adore grumpy guys as romantic heroes. The Dragon was a Mr. Rochester of sorts, albeit a bit more cold-hearted and distant. As I said, Agnieszka spends most of her time disagreeing with him, and even when he should be proud of her or magical abilities, all she gets are off-hand remarks that sound more like criticism than praise. So the sexual tension is pre-programmed and I will go on record and say that the romantic scenes were butterfly-inducing, sexy, and beautifully written. I wouldn’t have minded more of that…

Uprooted is a stand-out novel that can be enjoyed on many levels. It’s a fairy tale (Baba Yaga! Evil Woods! Magic!), it’s a story about place and belonging, about friendship and bravery, about politics and talent. Much like The Goblin Emperor last year, this book stole my heart and I already look forward to reading it again.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

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Second opinions:

 

 

 

 

4

Theodora Goss – In the Forest of Forgetting

I came across Theodora Goss’ name via TV Tropes. Searching for “Mythpunk”, a term coined by Cat Valente (you can see where this is going, can’t you?), Goss was mentioned as a good example of mythpunk writers. It’s easy to see why I pounced on her books once I’d heard her mentioned in the same breath as my favorite writer and even recommended by her at one point. Pouncing was a good decision, I now have another favorite to add to my list!

in the forest of forgettingIN THE FOREST OF FORGETTING
by Theodora Goss

Published by: Prime Books, 2006
Hardcover: 284 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: This rose has twelve petals.

A collection of sixteen postmodern gothic fairy tales from award-winning author Theodora Goss, first published in 2006 by Prime Books and finally made available as an ebook by Papaveria Press. These stories are a treasure for all of those who are already passionate about Theodora Goss’s work, as well as for those who have yet to discover it.

Theodora Goss’ first major short story collection showcases such stories as “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” “Lily, With Clouds,” “In the Forest of Forgetting,” “Sleeping With Bears” and many more. Also includes an introduction by Terri Windling and cover by Virginia Lee.

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I should have seen this coming but I am utterly, utterly in love. Theodora Goss is my new writer crush and this collection more than impressed me. I expected mostly fairy tales and mythology played with in interesting ways, and I did get that. But there is so much more to be found here. What struck me most was the stories’ readability. Unlike Valente’s prose, Goss writes almost as if she were sitting across from you, telling you these stories out loud. I planned to read a story or two per night and that worked for the first two days. After that, I ate up the rest of the collection in one sitting.

In the Forest of Forgetting-Tangerine-lilac.inddThe first story, “The Rose in Twelve Petals”, does exactly what it says on the tin. It plays with fairy tale tropes but, while enjoyable, didn’t surprise or overwhelm me. Except then Goss takes on cancer as a subject, and communism, and racism. Don’t think for a second that any of these heavy topics are used like a hammer or for preaching, no, they are gently played with. Goss wraps heavy themes in light words and lets her readers make up their own minds about what it all means. Both “Lily, With Clouds” and “In the Forest of Forgetting” were powerful yet very different stories about cancer, although the first one is much more about ignorant, arrogant sisters with no room for imagination. It’s also about art and how it can change a person’s life. I adored these stories so, so much.

But then “Miss Emily Gray” came along and completely swept me off my feet. Its teenage protagonist gets a little more than she hoped for – for a long time, you can’t be sure if her father’s new wife is an evil stepmother, a wicked witch, or a misunderstood lady. But it is a lot of fun finding out. I also think, Goss writes teenagers extremely well.

“Look at Alice, and Ozma. Literature, at least imaginative literature, is ruled by adolescent girls.”

Until I let Google enlighten me, I didn’t know that Theodora Goss is a Hungarian American writer – but I might as well have guessed. There are several stories that are set in Hungary or feature Hungarians (sometimes Hungarians living elsewhere) and that convey a real sense of place without long lectures or exposition. With that come references, some more obvious than others, to the Soviet Union and Communism’s effect on freedom in general and art in particular. Sometimes, it’s just a throwaway line that sets the scene, sometimes we get a fuller image of how artists were restrained in their creativity. These snippets all paint a full and bright picture – which is why this book counts as a stop on my literary world trip.

I am haunted by ghosts, invisible, impalpable: the ghosts of silver spoons and margarine tubs, the smell of paprikás cooking on Sunday afternoons. The ghost of a country.

However, this is only a small part of the collection’s diversity. One story,  “A Statement in the Case”, is a statement given to the police about a rather mysterious death, we discover distant memories of a dying ballerina in “Death Comes for Ervina”, and there is a recurring character in several stories who I suspect may not be entirely human…

As much as I loved the stories that explore culture, art, death, and cancer, it will always be one particular kind that speaks to me most: the one about the other world, existing just next to ours. In “Pip and the Fairies“, Philippa, the heroine in her mother’s childrens’ book series, returns to her childhood home after many years of being a rich and successful actress. She remembers what inspired her mother to come up with “Pip” and her trips to fairyland – or was it the other way around? Did her mother’s books create her memories? We can’t know for sure but whether it’s all pretend or real magic, it’s wonderful to read.

This is the sort of thing people like: the implication that, despite their minivans and microwaves, if they found the door in the wall, they too could enter fairyland.

The collection ends with a beautiful tale about teenage girlfriends who decide one day to become witches and take lessons with Miss Gray. Their adventures tie together some of the previous stories, but can also be read on their own. Considering that these stories all somehow fit together, I’m sure I missed at least half the connections and clues, reading a story here and there, without giving much thought to the bigger picture. But that just makes me look forward to my first re-read even more. Theodora Goss lets you travel across borders, both real and imaginary, and leads you through story after story in a light, conversational tone. She is like Cat Valente’s less flowery sister. I’ll see you after I’ve bought her entire backlist of books.

MY RATING: 9/10  – Close to perfection!

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Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Šejić – Rat Queens Volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’rygoth

I’ve been waiting so long for this. Re-reading the first volume was entertainment enough for a while but I am so glad I finally got to join the Queens for another adventure. They are as kick-ass as ever and even though the art has changed, the story is still superbly funny.

Rat Queens 2RAT QUEENS: THE FAR-REACHING TENTACLES OF N’RYGOTH
by Kurtis J. Wiebe

Illustrated by: Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Šejić
Published by: Image Comics, 2015
Paperback: 128 pages
Series: Rat Queens #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Damn it, Sawyer!

This booze-soaked second volume of RAT QUEENS reveals a growing menace within the very walls of Palisade. And while Dee may have run from her past, the bloated, blood-feasting sky god N’rygoth never really lets his children stray too far.

Collects RAT QUEENS #6-10

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While readers had to wait quite a while to find out what the Rat Queens did after saving Palisade from a bunch of monsters, only one night has passed in their world. If you remember, there was a party, and we begin this second collected volume with its aftermath. More precisely, we see who exactly every one of the girls wakes up to the next morning.

The story is pretty simple this time. Big Bad threatening the city and everyone who lives in it, the Rat Queens come to the rescue and get in quite a bit of danger. All the while, they retain their snarky, no-nonsense policy of awesome. The tone is probably what I love best about this. Neither of the girls has trouble cursing or calling genitals by their name (sometimes even referring to actual genitals).

Not only the dialogue is snappy and unafraid, the pictures follow suit. Unlike in TV-land, where people have sex while wearing all their underwear, the Rat Queens appear appropriately naked when things get steamy. I love how this story doesn’t focus on sex but rather shows it as an integral part in everyone’s lives. Violet, Dee, Hannah, and Betty have bigger fish to fry but hey, when they get the chance to sleep with someone they like, they’ll fucking take it! After all, they never know if they’ll survive the next adventure. Betty also still happily tries any new drug she finds and the effects are hilarious.

rat queens and their weapons

What makes this book especially interesting are the tentacle-induced flashbacks. We know Violet shaves her beard but now we actually get to see why she started. Man, I wish my hair looked as good as Vi’s beard… A glimpse into Hannah’s past was even more intriguing but this is getting close to spoiler territory. Let’s just say, I was surprised and not surprised at the same time and I’m not quite sure how to feel about the revelations yet. But Rat Queens being what it is, the comic never takes itself too seriously, so I shouldn’t either.

Arat queens violet is awesomenother thing any careful reader will notice is the change of art mid-volume. I missed this bit of news when it happened, but Google tells me Roc Upchurch was arrested for domestic violence and Kurtis Wiebe decided to continue the series with a different artist. Stjepan Šejić does a fantastic job, although the change is quite visible. Having fallen in love with the art as much as the story, I felt a certain stubbornness and refusal to like new things. I didn’t want a different Hannah. I wanted my Hannah (if you can’t tell, Hannah is my favorite). But I must also pay all sorts of respect to Šejić who not only kept the characters reconisably the same while making them his own, but also for improving some of them. It may be due to the story line or the art or both, but Violet was the star of this volume in my eyes. The picture on the right is too perfect for words and describes Violet better than any piece of prose could.  And since Šejić kept Sawyer just the way I like him, I am now okay with him taking over the series.

Despite the revealing (sometimes literally) flashbacks, there is clearly still a lot to discover. Secrets want to be let out, backstories want to be told, romances want to develop (or break apart), the city needs to be re-built (only to be wrecked again, I’m sure). I sincerely hope the next volume won’t be quite so long in the making because I still can’t get enough of the Rat Queens. May they fight, may they drink, may they fuck, and may they curse Gary to their heart’s desire. I’ll be right there, following them.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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2

Catherynne M. Valente – The Boy Who Lost Fairyland

I drew it out as long as humanly possible, I really did. Any new Cat Valente novel is like Christmas to me, and the only reason I gave in and finished this book (at 4 in the morning, mind you) is the knowledge that two new Valente books will arrive in my mailbox sometime this year. Thanks, Cat, for being prolific and brilliant and full of magic.

boy who lost fairylandTHE BOY WHO LOST FAIRYLAND
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2015
Hardcover: 256 pages
Series: Fairyland #4
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, a troll named Hawthorn lived very happily indeed in his mother’s house, where he juggled the same green and violet gemstones and matching queens’ crowns every day, slept on the same weather-beaten stone, and played with the same huge and cantankerous toad.

When a young troll named Hawthorn is stolen from Fairyland by the Golden Wind, he becomes a changeling – a human boy – in the strange city of Chicago, a place no less bizarre and magical than Fairyland when seen through trollish eyes. Left with a human family, Hawthorn struggles with his troll nature and his changeling fate. But when he turns twelve, he stumbles upon a way back home, to a Fairyland much changed from the one he remembers. Hawthorn finds himself at the center of a changeling revolution–until he comes face to face with a beautiful young Scientiste with very big, very red assistant.

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What? A Fairyland book without September? Or at least, mostly without September – if you’d told me that I would come to love a book that doesn’t feature all my favorite characters from the series, I would have laughed at you. No matter how great Valente is, I expected this to be the black sheep of the series, the least favorite child, the book I loved slightly less than the others. But Valente highlights her talent by making me love Hawthorn, Tamburlaine, Blunderbuss, and Scratch just as much as I do September and her friends.

chapter oneHawthorn is a troll. The Red Wind whisks him away (what’s with those winds?) and sends him – now a Changeling – into the human world where he has to learn the rules of Being Normal. These first chapters are especially heartbreaking to read when you know (or were yourself) a child with “too much” imagination, a child who is constantly reminded by adults that Life is Serious Business and that inanimate objects don’t talk and don’t have names. Hawthorn, now called Thomas Rood, struggles with the strange rules of Chicago, the Kingdom of School, and with the other kids who seem to do Normal so effortlessly. Hawthorn’s Rulebook is one of the most original, heartbreaking, beautiful, and accurate things I have read in a long time.

Fore more than half the novel, we don’t get to see September at all, but we do meet new characters. Tamburlaine stole my heart within minutes, and Scratch the grammophone is adorableness personified. If, after reading this book, you don’t feel an urge to learn to knit and make yourself a woolly wombat, you missed how awesome Blunderbuss is. Instead of a book spent missing September, Ell, and Saturday, I got a whole new cast of lovable characters who live through a particularly evil version of hell. School is fun for very few people but when you know you don’t belong because, deep down, you know you are different, everyday school problems get magnified by a gazillion.

But this wouldn’t be a Fairyland book if we didn’t go to visit Fairyland. We meet actual fairy queens, King Crunchcrab (who’s tired of kinging) and some old friends. The ending was a bit rushed. After so much careful build-up, slowly introducing Hawthorn and Tamburlaine and an unruly baseball, the end offered an action-packed but rather abrupt stop – although it does leave us with an interesting cliffhanger that opens up all sorts of cool ideas for the next book.

It also wouldn’t be a Valente book if it weren’t full of beautiful quotes. Her lyrical language turns mundane objects into adventures, a school building into a kingdom, and teachers into evil dictators. Her words aren’t just words, they paint pictures, they carry scents and sounds, they remind me why I love reading so much.

Sometimes, magic is like that. It lands on your head like a piano, a stupid, ancient, unfunny joke, and you spend the rest of your life picking sharps and flats out of your hair.

Or take this set of Blunderbuss’ wombat rules. It is very much like Hawthorn’s rules for the Kingdom of School, but Blunderbuss being a combat wombat (just hold on a moment and take in how cool that is!), there is plenty of humor whenever she speaks. I loved her to bits.

Look Both Ways Before Crossing a Wombat Bigger Than You. If You Find Mangoes, Make a Whistle Through Your Teeth So We All Can Have Some, Too. All Wombats Are Created Equal, Except for Gregory. No Wombat Shall Be Enslaved, Left Behind, Abandoned, or Unloved. Not Even Gregory. […]

I never did figure out what’s the matter with Gregory but something entirely different is revealed in this fourth Fairyland book. We find out who the narrator of these stories is, and I absolutely loved it. This is going to have interesting consequences for the final volume and gives me hope that our world is a little more magical than we first thought.

Considering that this book clearly sets up the grand finale – The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home – it was superbly done, without any of the set-up-novel mistakes many other series make. It isn’t only there to set up later events. Instead, we get a fine story that can stand on its own two legs but that’s also a puzzle piece in the bigger story. Now I can’t wait to find out how it all ends, even as I look to the final book with dread.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

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Bout of Books 13.0 – Wrap-Up

So I’ve made it through another Bout of Books read-a-thon. For the first time, I participated in a read-a-thon during a regular work week and I knew I’d have limited amounts of time for reading. Surprisingly, this was my most successful read-a-thon yet.

Bout of Books
The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 11th and runs through Sunday, May 17th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 13 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. – From the Bout of Books team

Wrapping things up

Let’s look at the goals I set myself and see whether I reached them:

  • Finish 2 books
    • Catherynne M. Valente – The Boy Who Lost Fairyland
    • Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan
  • Finish 1 audiobook
    • Brandon Sanderson – Elantris
  • Read 1 other book

During the last week, I finished:

I started or continued reading:

  • Theodora Goss – In the Forst of Forgetting
  • Catherynne M. Valente – The Boy Who Lost Fairyland (finished by now)
  • Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan

I should have expected this (I know myself, after all) but while I stuck somewhat to my plan, I mostly grabbed new books by mood. Trying to draw out the fourth Fairyland novel, I picked up Theodora Goss’ story collection. And all of a sudden, some of my 2015 reading challenges came to mind so I had to throw Malinda Lo’s Ash into the mix. Anything to make the Valente last longer…

I did finish my audiobook and I achieved my primary goal of finishing two books. I could have easily finished the third one but because it’s Cat Valente, I decided to keep a chapter or two for later. (It didn’t last all that long, my review will be up tomorrow evening.)


Challenges

This time, I didn’t set myself a goal for challenge participation because I didn’t know how much time I would have – and I’d rather spend my free time reading. However, I did participate in three challenges as well as one Twitter chat!

The Cover Color Challenge was a lot of fun. It put me in the mood for rearranging my bookshelves and sorting them by color. The Modern to Classic Challenge was much more difficult. Picking a book published after 2005 that may last the ages and still be read in 100 years time? I went for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but it’s anyone’s guess which books will really survive the test of time. And Pratchett is well known, well loved, and he published a lot of books that transcend genre barriers. The final challenge I participated in was “take a picture of your favorite bout of books read” (I forgot the official name) and I quickly picked Jolies ténèbres – because I was still reading The Boy Who Lost Fairyland and felt I should choose a book I had finished during the read-a-thon.

The Twitter chat was wonderful. It’s a crazy, fast-paced event with some easy questions and some really hard ones. Picking your favorite mythological creature was practically impossible. Picking a favorite genre was much easier. But it’s mostly the interaction with other readers and bloggers, their answers and the discussions that grow out of them, that make the chat worthwile.


I don’t know about you but I’m ready for the next Bout of Books…

1

Brandon Sanderson – Elantris

After my massive book hangover caused by the Mistborn Trilogy, I thought a nice little standalone title would be just the thing. I’m using the word “little” in its widest sense here. Elantris wasn’t bad by any means but it didn’t compare to Sanderson’s later books. Despite the huge commitment, I’ll probably stick to the long epic series in the future.

elantrisELANTRIS
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Tor, 2005
Paperback: 638
Audiobook: 27,5 hours
Standalone
My rating:
6,5/10

First sentence: Elantris was beautiful once.

ELANTRIS WAS A PLACE OF GLORY
The capital of Arelon, the home to people transformed into magic-using demigods by the Shaod.
But then the magic failed, Elantris started to rot, and its inhabitants turned into powerless wrecks.
And in the new capital, Kae, close enough to Elantris for everyone to be reminded of what they have lost, a princess arrives. Sarene is to be married to unite Teod and Arelon against the religious imperialists of Fjordell. But she is told that Raoden, her husband to be, is dead.
Determined to carry on the fight for Teod and Arelon’s freedom, Sarene clashes with the high priest Hrathen. If Hrathen can persuade the populace to convert, Fjordell will reign supreme.
But there are secrets in Elantris, the dead and the ruined may yet have a role to play in this new world. Magic lives.

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After the Mistborn trilogy, any Sanderson book was going to have a hard time keeping up. If it hadn’t been for Graphic Audio, his first (published) novel would have been my last choice for the next Sanderson read. But you know how I feel about the full cast, unabridged amazingness of Graphic Audio. A standalone novel – as opposed to three books with three audio files each – presented a welcome opportunity (at least for my bank account). I apologize in advance for any misspelling of names (ugh, the names!) because I only heard them spoken out loud and didn’t read along in the paperback.

Elantris used to be a city of gods until one day it wasn’t anymore. Anybody afflicted by the Shaod is now exiled to Elantris, to live there in eternal pain, or die of madness. Raoden, prince of Arelon, is perhaps a bit too much of a hero, right from the start. In Elantris, he immediately questions the status quo and starts a revolution. To be fair, the status quo is chaos, murder, theft, and pain – so Raoden represents what any sane person would do in his place. With the help of Galladon, who unfortunately grows into a stereotypical sidekick, Raoden turns Elantris upside down and helps its people find some peace and happiness within its grimy walls.

On the outside, we follow Princess Sarene, Raoden’s betrothed who finds herself minus one husband (believing him dead when he’s really in Elantris) and has to navigate the politics of the court. Likable as she was, her character was very overdrawn – the intelligent girl pretending to be dumb in order to manipulate people into trusting her? The beautiful girl who also happens to be a master swordfighter? Yeah, Sarene is cool but at times I found her skills and accomplishments a bit too perfect, too forcefully surprising. She is WonderWoman, she can do anything! A flaw here or there would have been nice.

art by Alain Brion

art by Alain Brion

As far as plot goes, this book took a long while to get going and never really found its focal point. We see Raoden convincing the Elantrians to work together and make a better life, we see Sarene manipulate her way around court to make the king see reason and save the land. There is also a religious war going on in the background, an element that I found completely unnecessary. But I guess if it’s Epic Fantasy, it needs some kind of war and religion seems as good a reason as any. Once Raoden sets his mind to figure out Elantris’ secret (why did Gods suddenly turn into sickly immortals, doomed to eternal suffering and all that), other plot strings are dropped. Sarene takes her sweet time to get into any contact with Elantris and only then do things really get interesting.

The novel clearly has pacing problems, with the ending being full of events and action sequences, the beginning an undecided build-up and introduction of characters who aren’t all that important. It is clear that Sanderson has honed his craft since he wrote Elantris and because of that, I actually find nitpicking this novel quite fascinating. The overly perfect protagonists, the random scenes that don’t have any impact on later events, the characters who quickly peek in, then either drop away, or are revealed to be somebody else – which, by the way, didn’t really have the impact it should have. Neither revelations about Sarene’s family touched me in any way, nor the secrets Galladon reveals to Raoden. They felt cheap, forced in for shock value, but left me utterly indifferent. It feels like Sanderson was still trying out his plot-twisty ways to find his footing. Well, he must have found it some time after writing Elantris.

The relationships between characters were my favorite part to follow, in part because the world-building didn’t do it for me, and the naming conventions were atrocious. The world is your generic fantasy map with different peoples living in different countries. Some cultural differences are shown but none of them revolutionary or original. Religion obviously plays a part but other than using different gods’ names for cursing, the main characters weren’t very religious. The names really take the cake, though. I looked up how to spell some of them and never in a million years would I have thought the someone pronounced “tell-rhy-eye” would be spelled “Telrii”. Sure, it makes linguistic sense in a way, but it goes so much against my instincts that I would never have managed to read an entire book with names like this. Having them read to me was fine but reading myself would have tripped me out of the narrative every time.

The ending came in two distinct parts for me. On the one hand, the secret about Elantris is out of the bag, on the other hand, Sarene and Raoden reach the conclusion of their character arcs. While the revelation about Elantris didn’t elicit more than a shrug and an “okay”, I actually loved how Sarene and Raoden developed and grew closer together. They didn’t grow as separate characters so much (being perfect from the get go) but they did get to know each other and form a believable bond. I would have liked more information on their floating companion magic-roboty-creatures but maybe the author saved this bit for a sequel?

Altogether, this wasn’t a bad book. I am certain that I would have liked it less if I hadn’t listened to the audio version and even that didn’t grab me as much as Mistborn. However, I’m now on a quest to read All The Sandersons and this is one more book to strike off my list. On to more books in the Mistborn universe!

MY RATING: 6,5/10 –  Okay

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Second opinions:

5

Malinda Lo – Ash

Sold as a Cinderella retelling with a lesbian twist, Malinda Lo’s Ash didn’t really deliver what it promised. There is very little Cinderella about it and the elements that were wedged in felt forced and unnecessary. This was kind of a mess.

ashASH
by Malinda Lo

Published by: Hodder, 2009
Paperback: 291 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: Aisling’s mother died at midsummer.

In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love—and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.

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We all know the story of Cinderella, the girl used and abused by her stepmother and stepsisters. Forced to do all the chores and live as a servant to her family, hers is the ultimate rags-to-riches tale. If you needed to boil Cinderella down to its essence, that would be it: going from nothing to everything, whether that “everything” comes in the shape of a prince or otherwise.

Malinda Lo’s book is sold as a retelling of the Grimms’ tale but has so little in common with it that I kept wondering… why wouldn’t author and publisher simply market this for what it is: An original fairy story. After all, there’s no shame in coming up with your own ideas rather than re-hash a well-known fairy tale. But you see, when I’m told I’ll get a “Cinderella retelling” and I end up with something completely different, I feel disappointed and angry. Not because that something is bad in and of itself but because I feel tricked. I bought this believing one thing, only to find out I have been fooled.

The elements that connect Lo’s story to Cinderella are so flimsy and unimportant that they might as well not be there at all. Aisling – or Ash – loses her mother at the beginning of the book. Her father promptly remarries and, a few weeks later, dies of an illness. The stepmother and two stepsisters are mean and make Ash clean the house. Except as readers, we are only told that they are mean and we don’t ever actually witness Ash doing chores. In fact, Ash seems to have a very easy time getting away from home, doing as she pleases – where’s the terrible Cinderella life? Then the story takes a highly convenient turn when stepmother and sisters spend extended amounts of time out in the city – so Ash has even more free time on her hands, which she spends in the Woods, meeting up with Sidhean, a handsome fairy man. Her life sounds pretty damn comfortable to me.

ash2All of this is made worse by Ash’s utterly wooden character. In the beginning, she is still somewhat believable. A young girl who misses her mother terribly, is scared for her sick father and terrified of the new stepmother, Ash is a child stricken with grief. But as soon as she hits puberty, Ash becomes a blank piece of paper on which the author forgot to write something. She keeps meeting up with Sidhean in a hinted romance. I can recall at least one scene with sparks flying – although these sparks were pretty one-sided. Ash doesn’t show any emotion, except for blushing frequently, and remains cold to Sidhean’s advances. If there’s one thing I cannot stand in a protagonist, it’s passivity. Ash didn’t take any action, unless you count going to the wood to wait for stuff to happen, to wait for others to speak to her, to wait for somebody to tell her what to do. It’s both boring and annoying to watch.

Enter the huntress. If I hadn’t read Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, I might not have noticed at all, but seeing the same thing happen twice in as many books, it stood out to me how only ever one of the “love interests” appears. The author really took the easiest route for her love triangle (if it can be called that). When Ash first meets the huntress Kaisa, Sidhean disappears for just the amount of time it takes Ash and Kaisa to form a sort of friendship. The inconvenience that might arise, should both potential love interests appear at the same time, is simply avoided – and with that, any conflict that might have made the book interesting. In addition, the friendship between Kaisa and Ash is strange in nature. They go riding together (again, since when does Cinderella have time to spend entire days doing whatever she wants?), they talk very little, Ash blushes a lot. No romance in sight. Until – BAM! – at the end it’s True Love Forever! Any points this story may have gained from ignoring the prince and going for the huntress are lost in an avalanche of pointless insta-love.

Speaking of the prince. He is yet another example of why this just doesn’t work as a Cinderella retelling. Prince Aidan is mentioned by the stepsisters as a prize to be won, and Ash actually does go to a ball in a blue dress and dances with him. Except these scenes were utterly pointless. They didn’t advance the plot, they didn’t show Ash’s character (except how incredibly passive and boring she is). Had the entire section been cut from the book, the story would have remained the same. So I kept asking myself – why put them in at all? Just so this can be called a “Cinderella retelling”?

To be fair, there are some elements of Ash that I found interesting. Instead of retelling a fairy tale, Lo created her own world with its own fairy lore. The fairy folk, old beliefs, and superstition are much more central to the plot than anything to do with Cinderella, at least in the beginning. There is a strong undercurrent of old faith versus new beliefs that could have made for a great story all on its own. But trying to bridge the gap between original fairy stories and Cinderella, the author doesn’t fully commit to either of them, leaving a half-finished blob of a novel in her wake. The one point of conflict – a fairy contract (you know these are tricky!) – is resolved so ridiculously easily that I actually laughed out loud.

To me, every aspect of this story was badly executed. The characters are bland cardboard cut-outs, there is little to no plot, it is not a retelling of Cinderella, nor does it fully stand on its own feet. The romance is undetectable – with poth potential partners – and the writing doesn’t stand out, either. None of these were bad enough to make me throw the book across the room in a fit of rage, but I don’t know if my total indifference isn’t worse.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Bad

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Second opinions:

As always, here are some other people’s opinions to see if the book may not just be the thining for you. Make sure to check out these reviews as I seem to be pretty alone with my negative opinion. Sometimes, a book is just not for you.

2

Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët – Jolies ténèbres (Beautiful Darkness)

It’s no secret that I love the French and the way they treat comic books. This graphic novel kept being recommended to me by various engines (Goodreads, Amazon) until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. After browsing a few reviews, I was sold. Don’t let the cute art fool you, this is one hell of a dark story!

jolies tenebres

JOLIES TÉNÈBRES
by Fabien Vehlmann

English title: Beautiful Darkness
Published by: Dupuis, 20019
Hardcover: 96 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: He’s coming! He’s coming!

Kerascoët’s and Fabien Vehlmann’s unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale is a searing condemnation of our vast capacity for evil writ tiny. Join princess Aurora and her friends as they journey to civilization’s heart of darkness in a bleak allegory about surviving the human experience.  The sweet faces and bright leaves of Kerascoët’s delicate watercolors serve to highlight the evil that dwells beneath Vehlmann’s story as pettiness, greed, and jealousy take over.  Beautiful Darkness is a harrowing look behind the routine politeness and meaningless kindness of civilized society.

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beautiful darkness“Anti-fairytale” is the most accurate description I can think of, so well done, blurb-writers.  With a cover like that (or the English one, pictured on the right), and warnings about this story’s darkness, it isn’t hard to imagine that the larger of the two characters pictured is probably a human body. This suspicion turns into fact after only a handful of pages – and that’s when the real horror begins.

Aurore had just invited Hector for tea when suddenly reddish goo drops down on them and Aurore barely makes it out of her home – the now dead girl’s body –  onto dry land. She ends up next to the corpse of her former apartment (if you can call it that) along with many of her friends and acquaintances, all of whom look like dolls and puppets and things from a child’s toy collection – or a child’s imagination… Together, they try to build up their civilization from scratch, collecting food, building shacks, and keeping good manners alive.

All of this sounds very cute and the drawings and colors give the same impression. The decision to write a story in such stark contrast to its art was a brilliant one if you ask me, as it hits all the more home when these creatures cannibalize each other, send someone to certain death, or watch others succumb to illness without so much as batting an eye. To give you but one example of the seriously dark twists, have a look at this hungry ballerina trying to get some food by pretending to be a baby bird:

jolies tenebres birds

There are scenes far worse than this, believe me. As the young girl’s corpse decays and the seasons change, fewer and fewer of the little pixies are left. But this isn’t merely a collection of cute little creatures dying left and right (though it is that too), it’s the story of Aurore, the good-hearted girl at the center of everything. Despite her best efforts to build a society, to keep everyone fed, to be fair, and to establish friendly relations with the neighbouring woodland creatures, she has to learn that life sometimes just sucks and stabs you in the back whenever you’re not looking.

Starting as a lovely, innocent, even naive young girl, she ends up as a princess of revenge. Although I liked her best of all, the other  characters are worth mentioning too. Take the guy who seems to do lots of work but secretly “delegates” every job to some other poor soul. Or the pretty princess whose selfishness threatens to kill half the population. Or the disfigured cast-out whose fate just makes me want to cry. Also, the baby everybody seems to have forgotten. The birds, hedgehogs, bats, and ants are the opposite of what you’d find in a Disney movie. Not only do they refuse to sing, they will gladly gobble you up if you cross their path. Not to forget about other human-sized folk that might live nearby… The characters in this story show just how quickly people are willing to turn on each other in a difficult situation, how fast we devolve to base survival insticts, how easily we’re willing to kill.

jolies tenebres aurore

Beautiful Darkness can be read as a series of terrible events, or as the brutal coming-of-age tale of one young fairy tale creature. An interesting theory is that the dead girl’s personality literally spilled out of her after dying, and that the little pixies represent aspects of who the girl was – her naive dreams, her romantic hopes, her secret cruelties… But whether you read it in little chunks or devour the entire book in one sitting (I dare you not to!), it is exactly the anti-fairytale it promised to be. And as I still tremble with horror, I already catch myself eyeing the book to pick it up and give it another go.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Absolutely excellent!

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