Poetry for Fans of Folklore: Catherynne M. Valente – A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

It’s been a great year for a Cat Valente fan. With two new novellas out (both of them fantastic!), I was more than happy. But I also had an itch for more so I picked up one of Valente’s older works, a collection of poetry and (very) short stories about one of my favorite topis: folktales.

by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Curiosities, 2008
166 pages
Poetry Collection
My rating:

Opening line: On your knees between moon-green shoots,
beside a sack of seed, a silver can, a white spade,
a ball is tucked into the bustle of your skirt:

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS by award-winning author and poet Catherynne M. Valente is a delightful collection of poetry, short fables, and fairy tales that explore myth and wonder, ancient and modern, with an introduction by Midori Snyder.

This is not going to be a proper review because I am simply not equipped to say anything qualified about this book. I don’t read a lot of poetry and there’s exactly three poets that I can say I love (Robert Frost, John Donne, and C.S.E. Cooney). I have no idea how to judge whether a poem is “good”, all I can go on is whether I liked it or not. And the reasons for that vary – mostly it’s just a feeling. But if a poem is inspired by a fairy tale, chances are I’ll enjoy it even if it doesn’t rhyme.

That said, I found many things to enjoy in this book. The language wasn’t my favorite – which is weird, because I adore Valente’s prose especially because it is so lyrical and poetic! – but I think I’m just not the right audience for this kind of poetry. So I read the poems more for the “plot” and the emotions they evoked but didn’t fall into the language as much.

I am, simply put, more of a prose reader so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed the little stories between the poems more than most of the actual poetry. They are little snippets or pieces of folktales rather than proper stories, most of them barely two pages long, but they reminded me also exactly why I fell in love with Valente in the first place. She not only has a vast knowledge of fairy tales, mythology, and folklore from all over the world, but she’s also been questioning them in her writing since forever.
Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across a “feminist spin on fairytale XYZ” but Valente has been doing that since the beginning of her career. She questions why Cinderella’s sisters and Cinderella should work against each other, whether Bluebeard’s wife is maybe okay being complicit with what he does, how a girl feels when she’s finally married her prince (and if maybe that was a mistake)… There’s a lot of food for thought there, in both the poems and the little stories.

I loved how these poems and stories nudged my brain to look at these well-known tales from different angles, to rethink what I’ve been told, but there’s also another theme that runs through the book like a red thread. Unsurprising to anyone who has read their share of fairy tales, they are often about terrible things happening to women and children. But in Valente’s Guide to Folktales, this gets amplified through the claustrophobic feeling running through each poem. She writes about women getting trapped by men, literally or emotionally, or being unable to escape their situation so very often that this book, despite its frequent feminist spins, gets a little depressing. That’s not a critique because Valente manages to describe these feelings of being trapped and powerless really well, but it’s a warning that this isn’t exactly a feel-good collection either.

One of my favorite poems, if not the favorite, was the one about Cinderella and her stepsisters as you’ve never seen them before. Again, it’s not a particularly happy tale but it encompasses the questions I’ve had about the fairy tale in just a few perfectly-chosen words:

Please, we are sisters;
out of the same striped pelt
did our father scissor our hearts.
Do this thing for me
your sister is afraid of the man
who loves her so much
he cannot remember her face.

“Glass, Blood, and Ash” by Catherynne M. Valente

As for inspiration, it’s not only well-known Western fairy tales, but also folklore and myhts from other places in the world. Valente does love herself some Greek underworld but she never shies away from looking across borders and seeing the rich cultures other places have to offer. I’m sure with a bit of background knowlege this book could be a treasure trove of Easter eggs.

I have no idea how to rate a book of poetry properly, so I’ll just go by my own level of enjoyment. And while this is far from my favorite Valente book, I did quite like it. It was an interesting glimpse into Valente’s earlier writing but despite its relative age, the book read very modern. It’s still relevant today and I’m sure fans of poetry will find it even better than I did.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

An Artist’s Life: Steven Brust – The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series has been on my radar ever since I caught sight of the first of those gorgeous covers (I mean look at the one below!). The only book I’ve read so far was the amazing (if super tough to read White as Snow), so it was time I  tried another one of these retellings. This one takes a (to me) unknown Hungarian folktale and weaves it into a contemporary story. As a fairy tale retelling, I have to say this failed pretty bad, but as a novel in general, I really enjoyed it!

by Steven Brust

Published by: Ace, 1987
Hardcover: 210 pages
My rating: 7/10

First line: You want to know what good is? I’ll tell you what good is.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom that lived in darkness, for the sun, the moon and the stars were hidden in a box, and that box was hidden in a sow’s belly, and that sow was hidden in a troll’s cave, and that cave was hidden at the end of the world.
Once upon a time there was a studio of artists who feared they were doomed to obscurity, for though they worked and they worked, no one was interested in the paintings that stood in racks along their studio walls.
Steven Brust’s fantasy novel The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars is a tale of two quests, of two young men who are reaching for the moon. And the sun. And the stars.

Greg is a struggling artist who shares a studio with some of his artist friends and still hopes tfor a break through, who wants so badly to create a masterpiece, a painting that will mean something. Until then, however, all he can do is pursue his art and hope for the best.

This novel was interesting first of all because of its structure. Each chapter is divided into several sub-chapters. The first deals with Greg’s past (his time at university, how he got to know his girlfriend, how he first met his friends, etc.), the second is about the present. Greg does karate and art. He spends most of his time in the studio and, at the beginning of this book, starts a new project on a large canvas, lovingly called “the Monster”. The other sub-chapters talk about how Greg approaches his new painting, about art in general, and – not to forget – about the Hunarian fairy tale Greg tells his friends. You may have guessed that this is the titular “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars”.

As a huge fan of fairy tales, I was quite surprised that I found myself more drawn to Greg’s life in the 80ies and his musings about art than about the fairy tale he tells. The story of Csucskari and his two brothers who set out into the world to restore light to the sky was nice enough, but it didn’t really capture me the way Greg’s struggles did. You see, he and his four friends share their studio and it’s getting pretty hard raising rent, also due to the fact that most of them don’t really sell any paintings. They paint and draw and sketch because it’s what they love to do but during this novel, they all ask themselves what’s the point. Shouldn’t they just quit? Get a day job with a secure income? Maybe waste their potential?

There isn’t even a lot of plot in this book. Greg and his friends are thinking about doing an art show, so they can get their paintings out into the world. But mostly, the story deals with their relationship with each other and with art. Greg talks a lot about what he wants to achieve, about techniques and light sources and I am making it sound super boring right now, but it totally isn’t!! I don’t paint at all, although I did just do my very first painting with acrylics (an art class I got as a gift) and it was a lot  of fun and also way harder than I expected. But even without any real knowledge about art history or craft, I found everything Greg had to say about it interesting. His troubles can be easily translated into any other art, be it writing, or dancing, or martial arts. He talks about hours of practice, about using what you were taught at school, about how ideas may come easily sometimes and sometimes just won’t come at all. Even if you’re not artistic in any way, I’m sure you will be able to relate because everything Greg struggles with is utterly human.

What I didn’t get was how the fairy tale was supposed to fit into the narrative. Sure, Greg has Hungarian roots and he tells his friends folk tales sometimes, which is why we get to read “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars” but it really had nothing to do with the main story. I guess if you put some effort into it, you can kind of see parallels between Csucskari’s quest and Greg’s search for meaning in his art and also the evolution of his new painting. But the connection isn’t really tangible. I enjoyed the fairy tale as such, especially because it was one I hadn’t read before, but I don’t think I’ll remember it for very long.

As for the characters, they are an interesting lot. I read several reviews that said Greg was a pretentious douchebag, and yeah, I guess to some degree he is. But I never had any trouble sympathising with him. The other characters remain rather pale, but as a group, the five artists felt real and believable. They critique each other’s art – sometimes that leads to them being pissed at each other, but it also makes them better at what they do. They chat among themselves, they dream together, they worry together, they fight and they make up. The present day passages are very dialogue-heavy so the characters come across mostly through what they say or choose not to say. Otherwise, we really only focus on Greg.

This book was not what I expected, especially as a fairy tale retelling. But I found it immensely entertaining, I learned a lot about painting and about art in general, and while I think the connection between fairy tale and real life was minimal at best, I’d recommend this to anyone who is involved in the arts and maybe wants to create something themselves. If nothing else, the book will make you feel understood and less alone.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Disturbing Poetry: Maryse Meijer – Northwood

Here’s one of those books that seemed to scream my name. Sold as “part fairy tale, part horror story” would have been enough, but the story of a love affair gone bad and a woman dealing with the aftermath was what sold it. It’s also a nicely short work that fits really well into my reading challenge and readathon plans. 🙂

by Maryse Meijer

Published by: Black Balloon Publishing, 2018
Ebook: 128 pages
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: I don’t want you anymore.

Part fairy tale, part horror story, Northwood is a genre-breaking novella told in short, brilliant, beautifully strange passages. The narrator, a young woman, has fled to the forest to pursue her artwork in isolation. While there, she falls in love with a married man she meets at a country dance. The man is violent, their affair even more so. As she struggles to free herself, she questions the difference between desire and obsession—and the brutal nature of intimacy. Packaged with illustrations by famed English artist Rufus Newell and inventive, white-on-black text treatments by award-winning designer Jonathan Yamakami, Northwood is a work of art as well as a literary marvel.

Okay, let me tell it to you true. When I opened this book, my very first thought was “Oh man, is this all in verse?”. And it’s not that I don’t like poetry in general, I just didn’t expect this book, which is called Nortwood: A Novella to be told in verse. So I went into it with a bit of discomfort, because I’m just not a fan of free verse and I don’t think the way the letters are arranged on the page can make up for any lack of talent. It’s an unnecessary flourish that mostly feels pretentious to me. All the more impressive, then, that this book turned my opinion right around.

While the style didn’t really gel with me (not even by the end), it also didn’t get in the way of the storytelling. And boy, what a story Meijer has to tell! You wouldn’t think a book this slim, and told in verse, could pack such a punch, but I had to put it down several times and watch cute animal videos on Youtube because it was just so tough to read and some chapters really got to me.

So what’s this about? A young woman goes to live in a hut in the wood to escape city life and focus on her art. There, she meets an older married man, begins an affair with him that includes a lot of violence (some or even most of it consensual? It’s kind of hard to tell). When the affair ends and she goes back to the city, she can’t let go and her obsession with him grows ever stronger. And thus Meijer takes us down a terrifying spiral with her protagonist, told in so few words, but so powerful that I couldn’t finish the book in one sitting. Even though at that page count, and with the way poetry is just quick to read, I should have been able to easily.

Poetry, much like visual arts, is very much a matter of taste. There are few poets that I like but those few, I love. Even with poetry that’s  not up my alley, I can often appreciate it for what it does, understand the work that went into it and see what the author is doing. When it gets too transparent, however, I get annoyed. Mariyse Meijer writes her poems as chapters, some of which are very different from others. The ones I disliked the most where the “artistically arranged” ones, where the font crawls across the page, where you definitely don’t get anything resembling a sentence, rather snippets of half-sentences. That just doesn’t work for me, so those chapters left me cold.

But the slightly longer chapters, the ones that still don’t have complete sentences (because, hey, it’s poetry) but that tell a story, those were pretty amazing. Without me even noticing, I slipped into the story and watched with horror how the protagonist became more and more unhinged. Sometimes crude words are thrown into the otherwise rather… well, poetic verses, probably for shock value. Well, they did shock me but they also jarred me out of the narrative because they didn’t feel like they belong. I’m not sure that was the intended purpose but it definitely had an effect.

I felt the ending was also a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t really expecting anything – it could have gone either way. With our protagonist ruining her own life completely because of her unhealthy obsession, with her getting out of it, experiencing a rebirth of sorts. There were so many more possibilites, but the ending the author chose wasn’t really satisfying to me. This book built up so much emotion that the actual ending fell rather flat. But still, I am impressed that a book which I approched with a certain degree of prejudice managed to grab me the way it did and make me deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good


Jenny Moyer – Flashfall

You know how some books take a while got get going? How a boring or difficult beginning can be hard to read but then the pay-off makes it all worthwile? This is the opposite kind of book. Here, the beginning was the best part, and then it all falls into pieces and gets worse and worse. This will be a rather long review.

by Jenny Moyer

Published by: Henry Holt and Co., 2016
Hardback: 342 pages
Series: Flashfall #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: Caves make good hiding places.

Orion is a Subpar, expected to mine the tunnels of Outpost Five, near the deadly flash curtain. For generations, her people have chased cirium—the only element that can shield humanity from the curtain’s radioactive particles. She and her caving partner, Dram work the most treacherous tunnel, fighting past flash bats and tunnel gulls, in hopes of mining enough cirium to earn their way into the protected city.
But when newcomers arrive at Outpost Five, Orion uncovers disturbing revelations that make her question everything she thought she knew about life on both sides of the cirium shield. As conditions at the outpost grow increasingly dangerous, it’s up to Orion to forge a way past the flashfall, beyond all boundaries, beyond the world as she knows it.


Orion and Dram are best friends and cavers. They live in Outpost 5 and their job is to go into a cave and mine for cirium, a substance that is used by Congress in the protected city of Alara for a protective barrier against the flash curtain. If that sounds convoluted and clichéd, that’s because it is. Don’t expect any of this to make sense. However, good-natured as I am, I decided to just roll with it and enjoy the story on a different level.

Orion, our protagonist, is your typical YA heroine, and she is also quite obviously in love with her best friend Dram. They make a kick-ass team and their trips into Cave Nine were thrilling to read. If the author had stuck with that idea and run with it, this could have been a great YA book. But Jenny Moyer apparently didn’t know how to spread out her ideas (or other people’s ideas) and threw in everything and the kitchen sink, without regard for the plot or world building. While the beginning of the book is well-paced, introducing the progatonists and some side characters, there came a point where everything went to shit.

For conflict, Orion has to get into trouble, and I am totally okay with that because that’s what makes great stories. But her and Dram get transported, imprisoned, escape, get imprisoned again, sent somewhere else, escape to a new place, come back, get caught again – so many times and in such quick succession that any dangerous situation feels utterly ridiculous after a while. There also isn’t any sense of real danger because they conveniently get saved by some poor schmuck sacrificing themselves for them.

This actually bothered me a lot. At first, side characters who got some introduction blindly sacrifice themselves for these two teenagers without any hint of their motives. Later, the author just didn’t care anymore and randomly introduced new characters only to kill them off a few pages later so Orion can survive. In some cases, the sacrifice is relatable, but I got the feeling that the author wanted Orion so very much to be Katniss, with the same level of fame and respect from a rebellion that doesn’t even exist in Flashfall. But Orion is really not that special and, much more importantly, her story isn’t broadcast across the nation so nobody knows that she’s sort of uprising. All she does is break a sign. Why should random people – ones she’s only just met – blindly walk into death for her? And the amount of times that happens is just mind-boggling. It’s cheap and it’s bad writing and it weakens the entire story.

Another aspect that showed bad plotting was how convenient things were. Not just character deaths but other things as well. Like a side character is introduced only to give one vital piece of information to Orion and then never be mentioned again (or die in the next chapter). The same goes for tricky situations. They get out of them so easily and so quickly. Every plan immediately works, and if it doesn’t, just throw a side character into their death. Either way, the action scenes rarely took more than a page or two which gave the whole story a weird sense of time passing.

What makes things worse is the terrible world building. Where do I start? Oh, I know, let’s start with the map. I love maps in books because they usually give you a bit of additional information for the story and help you navigate an invented world in your mind while you’re reading. Not so in Flashfall. If anything, the map made things even harder to understand. To be fair, if all the artist had to go on was the descriptions in the book, there really wasn’t anthing to be done. Look here (click to biggify):

I wasn’t the only person who had trouble with this map or the descriptions in the book. Because the working of this world is never really explained, I tried to piece it together myself. But none of it made any sense! The flash curtain is apparently this radioactive wall of fog that kills regular humans, called Normals. Subpars, like Orion and Dram, can withstand the radiaton. They live in Outpost 5, I’m assuming that dividing line is the flash curtain – and the privileged Normals live in the city of Alara protected by that weird dome-like wall thingy. At least I think that’s what it is. However, there are also Normals living in Orion’s outpost – WTF? Why don’t they get sick? What is even the point of having them there if they can’t go down into the caves to mine for cirium? Oh yeah, and cirium is needed constantly for that protection dome/wall… I have no idea why. If there’s already a wall why would they need more cirium? As it turns out, the rich people are evil (who could have seen that coming?) and use cirium for other stuff as well. No spoilers although, trust me, you wouldn’t mind anyway.

As I mentioned before, Orion and Dram “visit” lots of other places as well, some Outposts, some cordons, although the main difference seems to be the vicinity to the flash curtain. The vague and really cheap explanations as to why people are in the cordons at all didn’t help with the world building either. It appears the elite is also really stupid if their secret evil plan is doing what they’re doing. To make things more confusing, we later find out a bit more about Alara and its inhabitants. Like that they have drones and helicopters. Which don’t go with the set-up of the world AT ALL. Everything is jarring, nothing fits together, even distances don’t make sense. The speed at which Orion travels between cordons makes it feel like distances on the map aren’t very far apart. But that doesn’t go with the descriptions of the caves’ vastness.

Very little thought went into the world building. The most effort was probably put into substitute curse words which also don’t make sense. People curse with “fire” or “flash me” – at least “flash me” goes with the general world. The flash curtain is a menace, a danger, so using it as a curse is fine. But why would anybody curse with “fire” ? Fire doesn’t have special meaning in this story, it’s not like fires have to be avoided at all costs because cirium is super flammable or anything. I have no idea where it comes from and it threw me out of the story every time it came up.

But the saddest part was the plot. As I said, it started off so well. I didn’t expect a great work of literature here, just some fun adventure with a romance thrown in or something.  And at the start, the book really showed potential. We see Dram and Orion in action doing their job and being damn good at it, we meet their families and friends, the way they live. They go into cave nine, meet some dangers and get out of them by themselves and by being a great team. However, that seems to have been the only consistent idea the author had, because once the world gets opened up and she tries to show us the bigger picture, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is no plan. The world makes no sense, Orion’s fame makes no sense, the mindless idiots dying for her make no sense. Throw in some magical people – Conjurors – who can manipulate the elements, throw in weird sub-societies in different outposts and cordons, incredibly convenient hints for the protagonists to find, really lame plot twists and a story that, in terms of character development and world building leaves you exactly where you started and you’ve got a hot mess named Flashfall.

In the end, I have more questions than answers. What even is the flash curtain? Why is it a straight line on the map? Why do Normals live with Subpars in the outposts if Normals aren’t resistent to the radiation? Why would anyone work for the protected elite in the first place? How does the world at large work? Why is there magic, why are the powerful people trying to stop Conjurers from using it? Why would they not let scientists work on a cure or a protection against radiation sickness? None of it makes sense. What’s even the point of having outposts and cordons, especially if some of them seem designed only to kill people in ridiculous ways? Why would a city even be built that close to the Flash curtain if it’s such a straight, nicely contained line? Why has Orion never seen the sky? If everything’s so full of clouds and radiation, how do the Normals even survive? What the hell is any of this about???

The ending isn’t really any better. Things work out super-conveniently for Orion again and we get an incredibly cheese last scene but there wasn’t even an attempt to make readers want to read the next book in the series. I can only assume that the many favorable reviews were written by people who still have hope that it gets better, that all those questions are answered in the sequels. I do not have that hope and I feel no need at all to continue torturing myself with a series that is so self-indulgent, so unfocused, and by an author who so clearly doesn’t have a plan.

For a well-executed romance and the nice beginning I’m giving this a handful of points. For starting well and leaving me angry, it’s not a big handful.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

P.S.: If anyone has read this and can explain any of the things that were unclear to me, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I am genuinely interested if it was just me being an idiot while reading.








Benjamin Alire Sáenz – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This is not fantasy. It has become rare for me to read anything not at least related to the SFF genres, but after reading rave reviews, seeing all the glittery awards stickers on the book cover, and swooning over the cover in general, I had to get it anyway. I don’t regret reading this one bit and you should pick it up too!

aristotle and dante


Published by: Simon & Schuster, 2012
Ebook: 368 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.

A lyrical novel about family and friendship from critically acclaimed author Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.


Ari, short for Aristotle, is angry and unhappy. He is a teenager who has no friends, and admitting that is not easy. One day, at the swimming pool, he meets Dante who is open and happy and can teach Ari how to swim. A friendship evolves, but it’s not the kind that only lasts a summer. You can’t forget Dante just because summer is over…

It’s easy to dive into this book because the writing style is just so clear. It makes you remember what it was like being a teenager, when you question everything, especially your own place in the world. Because of the great writing, I was hooked long enough to fall in love with the characters as well. I took a while to warm to Ari, but Dante was an immediate character crush. As different as these two boys may seem at first, it becomes clearer and clearer that they have a more things in common than they thought. And I swear I don’t just like them because they talk about books and art.

The plot starts as out as your average lonely boy spends a lonely summer and surprisingly makes a friend, but things really kick off when there is an accident. Not only does this leave the protagonists physically hurt, but it also opens up all sorts of side plots, about Ari’s parents, about his brother (who’s in prison), about Dante and Ari being separated because they go to different schools. It was that moment, when I realised Ari would have to be without Dante for a few months, that I realised how much I had come to love them, how much I wanted these two to always be together, to always be friends. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is sneaky like that. There I am, reading page after page of a beautiful friendship, thinking I’m distant from the plot, taking it in in an almost clinical way. And then the author threatens to separate these two boys and shatter the world I had come to love. That’s some great writing right there!

Ari’s relationship with his father was another strong point, and one that left me at the edge of tears. Ari’s father doesn’t say much, he has nightmares, he never talks about his time in the war, although it has clearly changed him as a person. While Ari desperately tries to have a father-son relationship (of any kind, really), his father just can’t open up. As the novel progresses, we learn just how hard Ari’s father tries and how difficult it is for him to be what Ari wants him to be. Theirs is a difficult relationship but none the less beautiful for it.

aristotle and dante

I make it sound as if this book is nothing but an examination of relationships – don’t let me fool you, there is plenty of plot! But it’s the relationships that show off just how damn good the writing is. Benjamin Alire Sáenz doesn’t tell his readers what the characters are feeling, he shows us. Through their actions, their choice of words, their emotions, we get to know them deeply and care for them. In stories about teenagers, the parents are usually conveniently absent. Not so here. Both Ari and Dante’s parents are a constant presence, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to hear Dante say that he loves them. They are wonderful people and their love for each other and for their son just oozes out of every scene.

When it becomes clear that Dante is in love with Ari, I was a mess of emotions. Because what if Ari didn’t love him back? At least not that way? Ari’s narration is much more telling than he might like. He has many things to be angry about. His silent father, not knowing anything about his brother, his lack of friends and direction in life – but he most definitely can’t be angry about having met Dante. That said, Ari being the narrator gives an intimate glimpse into his brain. We see the things he hides from others, from his parents, from Dante. But – whether because he spells it out or by omission – we also see the things he doesn’t let himself know, the things he denies himself. He may tell himself that he doesn’t want or need friends, but you can just tell that this is a lie he tells himself to make life more bearable. It made me love him all the more.

I have been rambling about this book for quite a while and I’m sorry for the lack of coherence. Take it as a sign of quality of the book. Because anything that can make me feel so wretched and so good within a matter of a few chapters can’t be bad. In fact, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of those books I’ll remember for a long time. It sticks with you, in all its beauty. Its quiet moments and its loud ones, the subverted tropes, the wonderful love story, the discovery that a messed-up family can still be the best place in the world, it’s too beautiful to put into words. Which is why I’ll stop here and urge you to read the book. There’s a reason it has a billion award stickers on its cover.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Truly excellent!


For reviews that are actually structured and make sense, check out these second opinions:

Caitlín R. Kiernan – The Drowning Girl

Why did I read this? The fault lies with three parties. Number one is this post on Tor.com where The Drowning Girl is mentioned by several people as their favorite read of 2012. Number two, and this one convinced me to get the book, was the Writer and the Critic podcast. They offer in-depth discussions of books which means spoilers, so I only listened to a little bit of that episode but it made me want to go and grab this book so badly. Number three is that it is now nominated for a Nebula Award. That gave me the last nudge to pick up the book I had already bought. And here I am, two days later, not quite knowing how to rave sufficiently and still keep some semblance of eloquence…

drowning girlTHE DROWNING GIRL
by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Published by: Roc, 2012
ISBN: 1101577193
ebook: 352 pages

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: “I’m going to write a ghost story now,” she typed.

India Morgan Phelps-Imp to her friends-is schizophrenic. Struggling with her perceptions of reality, Imp must uncover the truth about her encounters with creatures out of myth-or from something far, far stranger…

dividerIt is hard to put into words what this book is about. Even the narrator has a difficult time explaining it. India Morgan Phelps, called Imp, comes from a line of insane women. Both her grandmother and her mother ended up killing themselves and Imp herself is taking medication for her schizophrenia. In an attempt to make sense of the events that happened to her over two years ago, she writes down her “ghost story” and lets us in on her very personal haunting.

This book was SO GOOD. You can tell whenever I use all caps that a book really got to me. I dare you to pick this up and put it back down. It’s one of those books that make you forget you should sleep and notice at three in the morning that you are still reading. Imp’s voice, as confused as it is at times, drew me in quickly. I was spellbound and couldn’t tell you what kept me reading more eagerly. Trying to get to the end of Imp’s ghost story? Figuring out what really happened? Seeing all angles and sides of Imp’s flawed memories? Either way, this was better than any thriller I’ve ever read.

quotes greyIf I’m not writing this to be read – which I’m most emphatically not – and if it’s not a book, as such, then why is it that I’m bothering with chapters? Why does anyone bother with chapters? Is it just so the reader knows where to stop and pee, or have a snack, or turn off the light and go to sleep?

(c) Michael Zulli

(c) Michael Zulli

The narration as such was also intriguing. Imp doesn’t do linear. She’s not always clear about things; of some events she has a dual memory. She interrupts herself,  inserts stories she wrote, pieces of poetry, descriptions of paintings and references to artists (both real and fictional). By doing this, the author managed to mix myth with reality, fact with truth (and they are not the same thing, as Imp will be quick to tell you) and give the story other fascinating layers. I’m a sucker for great characters and I love mythology. There are so many things to be discovered here that I couldn’t pick out what I liked best. This book begs to be re-read, because although I regonised some poems, “Gloomy Sunday” and some other tidbits of art, history, and mythology, I am sure I have missed more than I can count. Despite its complexities, Imp’s voice is easy to follow. The hard part is keeping things straight as the ultimate unreliable narrator tells us she doesn’t even know what is fact and what is only truth.

quotes greyI didn’t set out to appease the Tyrrany of Plot. Lives do not unfold in tidy plots, and it’s the worst sort of artifice to insist that the tales we tell – to ourselves and to one another – must be forced to conform to the plot, A-to-Z linear narratives, three acts, the dictates of Aristotle, rising action and climax and falling action and most especially the artifice of resolution.

Imp’s relationship with Abalyn interested me at least as much as did Eva Canning. From simple thoughts – like which first meeting with Eva was the “real” one – I moved on to different theories and ideas. I love being strung along by a crafty author. I do not need to know where a story is going to enjoy it. Guessing and making up theories are more fun to me than being told straight up what happened. Caitlín R. Kiernan seems to be one of those authors who let her readers do part of the work in creating a novel. She serves us enough description and information to fuel our own imagination – and her descriptions of the painting The Drowning Girl or Eva Canning’s eyes were brilliant, to say the least – but it is the parts that are not described, only hinted at, that make this truly terrifying. In reading this, you are creating your own myth, your own personal haunting and it is as terrifying as it is beautiful.

What did I think? This was a gem of a novel! It was scary and disturbing, filled with magic and myth and magnificent prose that rivals any of the classical Gothic ghost stories. Caitlín R. Kiernan takes well-known tropes of speculative fiction, blending horror, fantasy and psychological thriller elements, and creates something entirely new. I have not read any of the other Nebula nominees for 2012 yet, but it’s going to be damn hard to keep up with this one.

The Good: Fantastic prose, the best use of an unreliable narrator I have yet seen, an atmosphere as creepy as it is intriguing.
The Bad: If you need to know where you’re at in a story, if you like to follow a red thread or a clear story arc, then this may not be for you. I urge you to give it a try anyway.
The Verdict: Like a siren song, this book sings you into a trance and won’t let go until you’ve turned that last page.

Rating:  9/10  Close to perfection


Second Opinions

Review: Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day

Being my first Ishiguro novel, I knew nothing going into this. People had warned me of its slow pace, its quiet prose, but I honestly didn’t expect a book barely 300 pages thick to take me this long to read. Still, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I might even be tempted to pick up other books by this author.

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published: Faber & Faber, 2005 (1989)
ISBN: 0571225381
Pages: 258
Copy: paperback

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.

In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.

Fans of a good period drama will surely love this. If you’re at all interested in the downstairs part of Downton Abbey, this is a book that, in exquisite prose, gives you an insight into a servant’s life that you simply can’t get from TV. This is a very slow-paced, quite book, that comes alive not through action or even “things happening” but has a flow to it that I find hard to describe. I had a hard time getting into the story at first but once I relaxed into the style, it was a revel from then onwards.

Stevens is a fascinating protagonist. Every aspect of his private life is secondary to his being a great butler. His own family, the chance for love, his health, and his opinions – nothing matters if they obstruct, in any way, his master’s comfort. He goes into some detail describing what makes a butler great and it is in his memories and musings that we see not only how deep his devotion is but we find out why he chose to live a life of truly passionate service. Stevens believes that, in being a great butler and providing an important gentlemen with as many comforts as he can, he helps a little bit in shaping the course of the world. Realising how small the part he plays is only makes him prouder to be part of it at all.

There are a few side characters here, and they all feel very fleshed-out and real. But the focus lies clearly on Stevens – and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. While reading, my inner psychoanalyst was rejoicing at such an interesting subject. Reading about and understanding Stevens’ subtlety was a pleasure that I didn’t expect.  His peculiar relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, is described in even quieter tones but gives more room for thought.

Perhaps it is indeed time I begin to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.

In short, this is the story of a man who has devoted his life to his vocation and, looking back at it, ponders about the remains of the day – and whether it was all worth it.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language, an insight into an old school butler’s life, and one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve ever read about.
THE BAD: Takes a long time to get going and stays very subdued. Nothing for impatient readers or fans of lots of action.
THE VERDICT: A touching and magnificently written work of literature that will stay with me for quite some time.

RATING: 8,5/10  Quite excellent

Yann Martel – Life of Pi

Well, I’ve avoided it for long enough. Despite all the praise and the Booker Prize, the religion-factor was keeping me from reading this book. I didn’t want yet another story trying to convert me to whichever faith. But the movie trailer and the consistently ongoing great reviews changed my mind. And I’m incredibly grateful.

by Yann Martel

Published: Penguin, 2002 (2001)
Pages: 367
Copy: paperback

My rating: 8,5/10
Goodreads: 3,8/5

First sentence: My suffering left me sad and gloomy.

The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes.
The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea…

This book surprised me in many ways. It did not – as the author’s note claims – make me believe in God. But it did make me believe even more in the power of storytelling, of writing, and of creating. We get to know Pi Patel right from the beginning, witch the origin of his name. The first third of the book deals entirely with zoo animals, Pi’s childhood, and his pursuit of all religions available to him. If only all religious people were like Pi… I will make myself very unpopular by saying this, but I – as an atheist – believe that organised religion, the way it exists now in our world, is simply terrible. It accosts for so many wars and evil deeds that I find it hard to believe it all stems from the belief in a God that preaches love and truth and friendship. Something can’t be right there…

I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.

But back to the story. Once Pi and a handful of zoo animals are stranded on a lifeboat and commence their incredible journey on the Pacific, I was drawn into his story and caught myself in a state of tense emotion. I cared about Pi, as I cared about Richard Parker. I loved (and hope Hollywood won’t mess this up) that the friendship between Pi and the tiger wasn’t cheesy or unbelievable. They didn’t cuddle up to sleep at night, the tiger didn’t allow Pi to pet him. It was a carefully balanced act of peace, all set around the rules of animal life. It may not make for as soppy a story as some people might like, but I adored the lack of Coelho-like pseudo-meaningfulness. This is just about a boy, pushed to the limits of survival, dealing with a Bengal tiger the only way you can deal with one – on its own terms. These are terms of territory (read: mark it by peeing), and domination.

Yann Martin has a fresh, youthful writing style that makes the story both easy to read but also hits home when intended. Who would have thought that a lifeboat, a boy, and a tiger in the middle of the Pacific could entertain me so much. And for so long? Pi’s character is lovable throughout the story. His application of logic, of reason, made me like him all the more. So people can believe in god (or gods, whichever you prefer) and not lose sight of how the world around them works. Pi is not a zealot, he is not bitter about other religions, he accepts all gods and all manners of faith, because they serve one simple purpose. They help him to live. His belief doesn’t hurt anyone, it doesn’t even show – happily, the author did not go overboard with spiritual musings and pretend it was god who saved Pi’s life. No, Pi’s accomplishments are his own, and neither author nor fictional character attribute it to any deity.

“We don’t want any invention. We want the “straight facts”, as you say in English.”

“Isn’t telling about something – using words, English or Japanese – already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?”


“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

This book may have one of the most perfect endings I have read lately (along with N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms). And you see how much it affected me by the way I talk about a fictional character as if he were real. Life of Pi is a book that I didn’t want to read. It will stay with me for a long time and, apart from useful survival tips if caught on the open sea in a lifeboat (with or without the tiger), it showed me once more how powerful a story can be.

THE GOOD: A highly original story with lovable characters, not a boring page, wonderful writing, and a perfect ending.
THE BAD: The blurb is slightly misleading. The story starts quite a while before the lifeboat.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended. I don’t care who you are, what you believe in, or where you come from. If you like stories (or even if you normally don’t), this book is for you.

RATING: 8,5/10  leaning towards a 9

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David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Alright, I admit it. This book has been sitting on my shelves for years and years. It was the trailer for the upcoming movie that gave me the little nudge I needed. Even though, in my defence, I was planning on reading this in 2012, as my TBR-list-competition will tell you. It took me the better part of a month and overall, it was worth it. But in the end, I did miss that little spark…

by David Mitchell

published: Sceptre, 2004
ISBN: 0340822783
pages: 529
copy: paperback

my rating: 6,5/10

first sentence: Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.

The first thing I noticed about this book, and indeed the trailer, was the structure of the story. As the chapter titles will tell you, we are told six very different tales that are connected like a set of matryoshka dolls. We get half of each story, then jump into the next. Once we’re through all six story-halves, each of them is finished in reverse order. As each of the stories’ first half ends with somewhat of a cliffhanger, I could barely stop reading.

What made this novel great for me was how the stories bled into each other – in both directions, sometimes even connecting to more than one previous story – and how cleverly this was done. While it starts very subtly, the hints become more and more obvious and by the third story, you find yourself looking actively for clues as to how this story is connected to the first two. Really, David Mitchell could have written about anything. I had fun just making these connections. And by the time you reach the end, there are many.

As for the stories, I’d really have to judge each one on its own. I did not like all of them equally. Adam Ewing’s journal was terribly boring, Robert Frobisher’s escapades were a little more fun. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Luisa Rey mystery. Timothy Cavendish’s story was at times great and at others convoluted and weird. An orison for Sonmi-451 would have made such a great story, I would have read an entire book just about her. Sloosha’s Crossin, the middle story that ties them back together was interesting and had some great moments but the language was such a challenge and disrupted my reading.

Speaking of language: Each of the stories is written in a very unique style, appropriate to the time it was written and the person telling it. Ewing’s journal from early 19th century read completely differently than, say, Luisa Rey’s story, set well into the 20th century. Perspectives range from first person narrative letters to third person, to plain dialogue. This diversity shows off Mitchell’s talent and his gift with language. Again, I didn’t like all the styles but they set the tone for each story so perfectly that I couldn’t help but be impressed.

What I’m taking away from this book is a bunch of interesting ideas and themes. Consumerism, racism, humanity, and the search for truth are all to be found here. I particularly liked how the stories progress in time and we see how the world changes when the characters from the first stories are long gone. Sonmi-541’s tale was, in this respect, probably the scariest. A corpocracy of this kind is my worst nightmare. Maybe I just reacted so strongly to it because we’re already on our way there…

My pet peeve with this novel was the ending. By the time we figured out the main idea, the way all the stories are really connected (and it’s quite obvious early on), I’ve been waiting for a big bang. I needed some sort of a revelation that I hadn’t guessed at or at least an extra chapter that gives me a little something to remember this reading experience by. But no. Mitchell simply finishes his half-told stories and that is it. I guess we can’t always have last sentences like Guy Gavriel Kay in Tigana.

THE GOOD: Great language throughout, smaller stories cleverly intertwined. It’s a pleasure to find all the clues.
THE BAD: Easy to figure out. Not all stories were equally interesting, the ending left me hanging a little.
THE VERDICT: Recommended with some reservations. If you enjoy large stories and are willing to commit, if you like fix-up novels, interconnected fiction and authors who turn language upside down, then this is for you.

RATING: 6,5/10Very good with tiny reservations

Unsure if this book is for you? Watch the trailer on Youtube.

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Jasper Fforde – The Woman Who Died A Lot

I’ve been a Fforde fan since the first book in his Thursday Next series. Reading these books is like coming home to a fun, crazy, upside-down universe peopled by all my favorite literary characters and then some. While I hold the first four books (and their bigger story arc) dearest, I think it’s brilliant how Jasper keeps coming up with new things and make them as quirky and whimsical as ever.


by Jasper Fforde

published: Hodder & Stoughton 2012
pages: 432
copy: ebook
series: Thursday Next #7

my rating: 7,5/10

first sentence: The Special Operations Network was formed in 1928 to handle policing duties considered too specialised to be tackled by the regular force.

The BookWorld’s leading enforcement officer Thursday Next is four months into an enforced semi-retirement following an assassination attempt. She returns home to Swindon for what you’d expect to be a time of recuperation. If only life were that simple. Thursday is faced with an array of family problems – son Friday’s lack of focus since his career in the ChronoGuard was relegated to a might-have-been, daughter Tuesday’s difficulty perfecting the Anti-Smote shield needed to thwart an angry Deity’s promise to wipe Swindon off the face of the earth, and Jenny, who doesn’t exist. And that’s not all. With Goliath attempting to replace Thursday at every opportunity with synthetic Thursdays, the prediction that Friday’s Destiny-Aware colleagues will die in mysterious circumstances, and a looming meteorite that could destroy all human life on earth, Thursday’s retirement is going to be anything but easy.

Thursday Next is back!

From the very first clipping of fake non-fiction from Thursday’s world, we’re back in this place of madness, time travel, plocking dodoes and literary detectives. Jasper Fforde’s writing is always on point and his humor reminds me a lot of Douglas Adams – but with a voice still his own. This book is utterly readable for its quippy language, its clever jokes and Jasper’s numerous ideas. Fforde’s books – be they in the Thursday Next series or the Nursery Crimes – are richly imaginative and filled to the brim with mad ideas. So far, juggling multiple story lines and subplots has been a piece of cake for Japser and usually, the reader got to focus on one main story with the sub-plots being little bonus stories on the side. This time, the author threw a little too much at once at his readers.

In the beginning, the pacing is all over the place. Fforde starts us off with all of his plot threads, introducing us very shortly to each of them (and some sub-plots) and doesn’t really give us much time to reacquaint ourselves with characters that have been minor so far but became more important later in the series. Or to wrap our head around each story line. The start of this novel feels rushed at the same time as drawn out. Sounds weird, I know. But since I coulnd’t really immerse myself in any plot thread, I only started really liking it towards the middle. This is when each thread gets a little more time and depth and we get clues (and some really awesome twists) about what’s going on and how desaster might be avoided. By half the novel, I was completely invested again and wouldn’t put the book down for anything.

I have to say though, and I’m an attentive and avid reader of Fforde’s work, the announced Smiting of the GSD and the very probable impact of a meteorite got mixed up in my brain a lot. Tuesday Next is building an anti smiting shield and I had to remind myself that this was for the Standard Deity’s smiting, not the meteorite. This also came around towards the end because the Smiting of down-town Swindon by the Standard Deity needs to be averted too, and of course our Thursday has a hand in it.

There were things I didn’t like. Fforde took out two of my favorite things about this universe – the BookWorld and time travel. Sure, his reasons are fun (in a silly way) and he does manage to make the story compelling in the end, but I miss the Thursday whose father would pop up out of nowhere from whenever in time. The Thursday who’d meet with the rest of Jurisficion in Norland Park and be there for Heathcliff’s crowning moments as most tragic romantic hero. While both the BookWorld and time travel are still mentioned, I missed actually following Thursday into literature. With the Zone (reminded me a lot of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic which I’ve just recently read), Fforde won my heart back, though. Not only was the idea of a zone full of messed-up time hilarious, but the execution (and the very neat illustration) made it probably my second favorite chapter in the whole book.

My faovrite chapter, and favorite sub-plot, was the story of Thursday’s second daughter Jenny. Aornis Hades (remember that bitch?) implanted Thursday with a Mindworm, thinking and remembering a daughter that never existed. Whenever she’s reminded of the Mindworm, she realises it’s only Aornis, manipulating her memory. Unfortunately, these moments of lucidity only last for a little while until the Mindworm wins back over. Now that is a fascinating idea and I particularly enjoyed how Jasper Fforde decided to resolve it.

What’s truly missing though is the one thing that made the other Thursday Next books perfect instead of just great. The references, hints and journeys into literature. Sure, there is one chapter on Enid Blyton fundamentalists that made me chuckle but Thursday’s world used to be defined by literature. Reading and books and Will-Speak-Machines used to be on every page. Except for being a librarian and occasionally holding a book, Thursday is now living in a mushed up science fiction rather than a meta fiction universe. This doesn’t diminish Jasper’s writing in any way, it just disappointed me and made me think nostalgically of the therapy sessions the cast of Wuthering Heights went through or the Cheshire Cat and inimitable Miss Havisham. None of that here, so this is only just a very good book instead of a great one.

The individual endings to the other plot lines also fell a bit flat for me. Some were surprisingly anti-climactic and one (the Smiting) was really stupid.

Like any Jasper Fforde novel, this is well worth the read and while I get the feeling that he’s trying a little too hard to reinvent himself with every new book (since First Among Sequels), he still counts among my favorite authors. The set-up for the next novel in the series also promises more interesting and insane ideas to come.

THE GOOD: Funny, full of ideas, wonderful characters, great dialogue and, come on, we have our Thursday back.
THE BAD: Flat ending, a little confusing and badly-paced at the beginning.
THE VERDICT: If you’ve read this far in the series, you do NOT want to miss it. While different than the other TN books, Jasper still delivers his usual quality.

RATING: 7,5/10  Very good book!

The Thursday Next Series:

  1. The Eyre Affair
  2. Lost in a Good Book
  3. The Well of Lost Plots
  4. Something Rotten
  5. First Among Sequels
  6. One of Our Thursdays is Missing
  7. The Woman Who Died a Lot