S. L. Huang – The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist

This week, a little special edition from Book Smugglers Publishing arrived at my house and made lying in bed all day a bit more bearable. I know it was a limited print run, but I still find it so charming that the Book Smugglers included a personalised thank you note and a bookmark. The story itself was also wonderful, although it took me a while to get into it.

little-homo-sapiens-scientistTHE LITTLE HOMO SAPIENS SCIENTIST
by S. L. Huang

Published by: Book Smugglers Publishing, 2016
Paperback: 70 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Dr. Alan Zanga is to blame for this.

A dark retelling of The Little Mermaid from the author of HUNTING MONSTERS

I suppose if this is going to be recorded somewhere for posterity, I should set the record straight. The ghostwriter will probably cut it all, but hey, it’s the principle of the thing.

Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she still yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.

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If you’re remotely interested in fairy tales, you know that Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t exactly end the Disney way. Most of us know that and expect retellings of this story to be just as sad. But knowing that going in can also make us blunt to retellings of this melancholy tale because… well, we know the mermaid won’t be happily married to her prince, so why even get emotionally invested, right? S. L. Huang found the perfect way to bring back all the horror and gravity of what the protagonist does to become someone else, as well as twist the knife she puts in your gut right at the end. I can’t say it was a happy experience but it was damn well done!

Caddie Mbella has one passion in life: the study of the atargati (don’t call them mermaids!), a deep-sea species that baffles scientists all around the world. Caddie happens to be very good at what she does. In fact, she is the only one who can sing the way the atargati sing and is thus able to communicate with the “mermaids”. But of course, the government sticks their fingers in what could otherwise be beautiful science, kidnaps an atargati and keeps her in captivity for further study (and who knows what else). Caddie can’t bear the thought o fit and frees the atargati, knowing that from now on she has to live the rest of her life on the run. She takes that risk gladly, except without her studies, without the atargati, she has nothing left. A quick visit to a witch doctor, some DNA-manipulation, and you can see where this flipped Little Mermaid tale is going.

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There were several things that made me absolutely adore this retelling and one thing that bothered me a bit. I loved that Caddie is a lesbian kick-ass scientist (in case any Puppies are reading this: although there absolutely doesn’t need to be a reason for Caddie to be gay, it is truly important for the story!) whose passion for her job shines through in her entire narration. At first, it may feel a tiny bit like a lecture, but then again Huang is introducing a whole new species to her readers, and a bit of background knowledge is totally appreciated. The fact that Caddie delivered it only helped to flesh out her character while doing that crucial bit of initial world building. And the atargati are fascinating! They resemble human females just enough to have earned the name “mermaid” in the wider world, but they are sight-less, genderfluid species who communicate through underwater song. I found learning about them as interesting as Caddie.

However, that introduction was also my one issue with the novella (or novelette?). Because we have to learn all this information at the beginning, I didn’t really connect with the plot that much. My interest was there, but there was no emotional connection to either Caddie or the atargati yet and that made the book feel somewhat slow at first.

That all changes, however, when Caddie frees the captive atargati, has to go on the run, and eventually finds that witch doctor who can turn her into a sort of mutated atargati – with an expected life span of a few months, at best. That was where the emotional hooks finally took hold of me and it was also the first time since I was a kid that I truly felt how gigantic the decision Caddie makes really is – and how equally big the original little mermaid’s decision was (I mean, giving up your species is pretty heavy shit). As it becomes clear that Caddie has lost her purpose in life she pretty much agrees to go on a suicide mission, paved with pain and loss, for one chance to see the creatures she loves so much, live with them and learn from them. Remember when the sea witch tells the little mermaid how every step will hurt like she’s walking on knives? Oh, and how she loses her voice? Those bits are brilliantly incorporated into “The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist” and the loss of the voice especially becomes one of the most painful things for Caddie to endure.

S. L. Huang does a wonderful job of describing the underwater world of the atargati. Considering that Caddie is now missing both her sight and her ability to speak/sing, you’d think there wasn’t much left to tell. But I found the descriptions of atargati society fascinating! It was also the part of the story that let Caddie shine as a character and even offered a sort of romance. And then the ending came and it absolutely broke my heart! Even though I knew it wouldn’t end well – at least if it was a faithful retelling –  it still hit me really hard, like a knife being turned in a wound. I may or may not have cursed out loud while reading it…

All things considered, I really loved this version of The Little Mermaid, how it is both simple and clever in the way it translates the old fairy tale to a near future world. Iliked the author’s Hunting Monsters stories but I loved The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, and I am hoping very much she’ll give us more fairy tale retellings. So here’s my plea to the Book Smugglers and S. L. Huang: Please, can I have some more?

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Okay, okay, so I planned on reading the original Grisha trilogy before the Six of Crows duology but I just couldn’t stop myself. These two books are so beloved by the entire internet that I had to see what the fuss was about. While it’s not necessarily a great heist novel (for that, go try some Scott Lynch), it was actually a great story about wonderful characters, set in a lavish world. I was positively surprised.

six-of-crowsSIX OF CROWS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt & Co., 2015
Hardcover: 462 pages
Series: Six of Crows #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Joost had two problems: the moon and his moustache.

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge
A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager
A runaway with a privileged past
A spy known as the Wraith
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes

Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

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Oh boy, did I fall in love with that line-up of criminals! Leigh Bardugo introduces her six main players at the beginning of the book and although that takes quite a lot of time, not a single chapter could be considered boring, because the introductions happen right in the middle of the story. And at the same time, she gets a whole lot of world building done, without any info dumps or long explanations. Granted, I’ve only read Siege and Storm by Bardugo so far, but there is a definite improvement in character development, world building and pacing to be noticed between these two novels.

So the story begins with Kaz Brekker assembling a thieving crew to do one big job, and only the best of the best will do. His friend and thieving colleague Inej, known as The Wraith because she is basically a super cool badass ninja spy, is the first to be recruited. Shortly thereafter follow Nina, a Grisha Heartrender, Matthias, a drüskelle mountain of muscle, Jesper, the sharpshooter, and Wylan, a young man gifted with the building of explosives. It sounds like your basic fantasy Ocean’s Eleven but the huge difference is the focus on character.

Every character gets a proper introduction, showing us who they are, what their reasons for joining Kaz are, and why they do what they do. By no means do we learn everything about any of them right away, but we learn enough to be hooked and to get a clear image of their personalities. I cannot state enough how refreshing this is in a YA novel! Where you usually only get the main romantic interests to have any sort of distinguishing characteristics, with the other characters just standing in and saying their lines, here we have a whole cast of individuals. And they are beautiful in their diversity.

And it is also their diversity that helps flesh out the world Bardugo has created with almost no effort at all. Inej has a pretty dark past but she longs to return to Ravka and find her family, so in her chapters we see parts of Ketterdam that one would rather not, but that help make the place feel real nonetheless. Nina is also from Ravka, but she has her own reasons to remain in Ketterdam. Kaz is probably the centerpiece and it is his backstory that holds the most secrets and twists, and his knowledge of the Barrel lets us glimpse a side of the city that makes it feel like a real, vibrant place, filled with gangs and crime and gambling. Matthias also really grew on me because he’s got a pretty big internal conflict going on and his coming from Fjerda brings in a whole different culture that can clash with the others’. The only characters who remained a bit pale until the end were Jesper and Wylan, but they too got to shine eventually.

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Another thing I absolutely loved was the friendship between Inej and Nina. They don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other but whenever they get thrown together, you can just tell that they care about each other, that they share a true friendship. There is no jealousy, no forced love triangle where they fall for the same guy, and again – it’s just such a relief that YA novels dare to go without that old trope. That said, there is a fair bit of romance in Six of Crows and I am backing all of it. This is spoiler-free, so I won’t say who’s involved but maaaaaaan, some of those scenes were beautiful and sad and heartbreaking and lovely and all the things I want from a YA romance.

But even without the romantic aspects, it was just fun to watch the crew interact with each other. They banter, they bicker, they sometimes get along and sometimes not so much. They make plans, they stick together, they questions each other and are generally a chaotic bunch of criminals. But when one of them is in trouble, the others will move heaven and earth to help them and that’s what made it such a joy to read.

So I loved the characters and the way they interacted, I completely loved the world of Ketterdam and all the rest of the map I got to explore. Only the plot has some room for improvement. As someone who loves a good heist story, I do expect the heist to be clever and complex. And sure, I expect things to go wrong because where’s the fun otherwise. Here the characters showed great talent for improvisation but sometimes it felt a little too convenient, too much like handwaving a problem away. And the initial plans didn’t feel all that clever and relied quite a bit on coincidences. It was still great fun to read and mostly, I was pretty happy with the plot, as well as the balance between action and more character-focused chapters.

The ending was only partly satisfying, but I kind of expected that from the first part of a duology. But with the plots and sub-plots set up in Six of Crows I am now more than curious to see how it all ends in Crooked Kingdom. And I want to see my favorite couples get together because the author has totally wrapped me around her little finger and can play evil games with my heart. So everybody better survive and end up exactly the way I want them to… just sayin.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Marissa Meyer – Wires and Nerve

I have no idea why, as the publication date everywhere (including Amazon, where I bought this) is listed as January 31st, but my pre-ordered copy of the first Lunar Chronicles graphic novel arrived at my house on Monday and, naturally, I couldn’t keep my hands off if for a second. The short version is: This is just like the novels themselves, fluffy, sweet, not very deep, but a wonderful read to crawl inside and get lost in for an afternoon.

wires-and-nerveWIRES AND NERVES Vol. 1
by Marissa Meyer
art by Doug Holgate

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2017
Hardback: 238 pages
Series: Wires and Nerve #1, The Lunar Chronicles #5
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there were nine unlikely heroes…

In her first graphic novel, #1 New York Times and USA Today bestseller Marissa Meyer follows Iko, the beloved android from the Lunar Chronicles, on a dangerous and romantic new adventure — with a little help from Cinder and the Lunar team.

In her first graphic novel, bestselling author Marissa Meyer extends the world of the Lunar Chronicles with a brand-new, action-packed story about Iko, the android with a heart of (mechanized) gold. When rogue packs of wolf-hybrid soldiers threaten the tenuous peace alliance between Earth and Luna, Iko takes it upon herself to hunt down the soldiers’ leader. She is soon working with a handsome royal guard who forces her to question everything she knows about love, loyalty, and her own humanity. With appearances by Cinder and the rest of the Rampion crew, this is a must-have for fans of the bestselling series.

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There were a few things that Lunar Chronicle fans were still waiting for after the series ended. For one, some of the romances weren’t officially resolved. And Iko never got to be the center of the plot. Until now. Although all of our favorite heroes make an appearance, this is firmly Iko’s story. After the Revolution and Cinder’s ascension to the Lunar crown, Iko mostly helps her friend pick the right dress for the right occasion, but there is a lot of stuff still to do. Just because one evil queen was overthrown, the world doesn’t simply fix itself. And so starts Iko’s job as a secret agent.

We meet her right in the middle of some rogue wolf pack catching action and I knew I would adore this story as much as I did the novels. It doesn’t take long for Thorne and Cress to meet up with Iko, and from then on it’s a merry romp that alternates nicely between action scenes, slower, more exposition-heavy ones, romantic tension sub-plots, and adorably silly ones whenever Iko is in the same room as a frilly dress. If you’ve read The Lunar Chronicles you know exactly what I mean.

Although, information-wise, nothing much is added to what we already knew from the mail story, I really enjoyed getting some more background about Cinder’s struggle with being queen. This may bring us some slower pages where people talk a lot and explain stuff to each other but Marissa Meyer never forgets to add a bit of humor to keep things moving. If you’re worried that your favorite couple won’t be featured – don’t worry! Everyone makes an appearance, although to my utter delight, Cress and Thorne definitely took center stage. While it was wonderful seeing Cinder in her new position, she is on Luna and Kai is on Earth…

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My favorite parts (after seeing Cress and Thorne captaining the Rampion and just being wonderful) were the new romance that may happen for Iko. I even have a favorite page in which the author – and Iko – identify a romance trope and just roll with it. And it worked beautifully, both as the trope should and as a comment on its existence. That’s all I’m willing to say – you should all experience it spoiler-free and have as much fun as I did.

The plot as such isn’t super original, but our heroes have a nice new-ish threat to fight off and it gives them plenty of opportunity for doing what they do best: work as a team! When I started reading this, I kind of missed that it said “volume 1” right there on the spine, but the open ending didn’t feel too much like a cliff hanger. It was definitely a satisfying ending, although I am now painfully aware of how long I’ll have to wait for the sequel…

As this is a graphic novel, I want to say a little bit about the art. The style reminds me a bit of web comics you see and while this could have worked in a lavish, more detailed comic book style, I really enjoyed the simplicity of it. Not all characters look the way I want them to but they were all identifiable, they all look right and I felt that the artist managed to show their emotions really well, considering there isn’t a lot of detail. I also really loved the muted, blue color scheme and I honestly wouldn’t change this to full color if I could.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good fun!

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Here’s a page from the book that gives you an idea of what our heroes look like:

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Zoraida Córdova – Labyrinth Lost

So far, the #DAreadathon has brought me nothing but joy. My second read not only introduced me to a writer whose work I will definitely follow but also to a wonderful story set in a different sort of Brooklyn. Although Alejandra’s story is told, the world offers much more room for other characters’ tales. And I can’t wait to read those too.

labyrinth-lostLABYRINTH LOST
by Zoraida Córdova

Published by: Sourcebooks Fire, 2016
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: Brooklyn Brujas #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The second time I saw my dead aunt Rosaria, she was dancing.

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.
Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.
The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

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Alex lives with her mother and her two sisters in a Brooklyn unlike the one you know. The entire family are brujas with magical powers that differ for every family member. Little Rose has a sort of sight, Lula, the eldest sister, can heal people, and Alex… well, Alex is The Chosen One. Except she really, really, really doesn’t want to be. In order to escape her powers, to get rid of them, she does something dangerous and, naturally, it backfires.

What follows is essentially an adventure story in the underworld, filled with strange and magical creatures, dangers untold and hardships unnumbered (see what I did there?). Alex only has the mysterious and kind of annoying Nova for company and while he is good-looking and saves her life occasionally, he remains surrounded by secrets.

There are so many little things to love about Labyrinth Lost. The world-building was fantastic, not only in Los Lagos, the underworld, but also the bits about brujos and brujas living in Brooklyn circa now. The author doesn’t spend too much time talking about the gods and mythology, but just the right amount to give readers a feeling for what Alex has grown up believing, what kinds of magic work and how brujas live, their rituals and relationships. As a heading for each chapter, there is a little excerpt – usually a line from a poem – of the Book of Cantos, and athough you could completely ignore those and still read the main story, they are a lovely addition to the world building of this novel.

I also loved how certain words were in Spanish, although the map sort of threw me. Bone Valle was hard to get used to – I always wanted it to be either Bone Valley or Valle de Huesos or something. The mix of Spanish and English in one name or title didn’t sit well with my brain (it wants things to be organised and orderly, although I rarely give in to that urge in real life), but I adored that the gods’ names were all Spanish, that Alex’s full name is Alejandra, which her sisters sometimes shorten to Ale. Oh yeah, I should mention, even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish, the pronunciation of some words is explained within the text. Zoraida Córdova found a totally simple, yet elegant solution to that problem. Look how she does it (emphasis by me):

“This is what we do, Ale.” Ah-ley. My family nickname.

See? It’s so simple, the author does it several times throughout the book, and it works. There are no lengthy explanations, the readers aren’t left completely alone with a name whose pronunciation they might be uncertain about… I love it. It’s a tiny little thing but I love it. And that’s basically what makes this book so charming. An accumulation of tiny little things that all add up to something great.

Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Córdo

If I take one feeling away from this book, it’s a sense of family and belonging. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling that I totally wanted to hold on to. So… a little side-note, because I want to: I have loved the movie Labyrinth since I was a little baby. This is very likely the reason I jump on any movie, book, music album, or what-have-you with the word “labyrinth” in the title. Labyrinth Lost is very much like that old Bowie movie (oh, David Bowie :() in that it’s essentially about family. While Sarah, in the movie, in my opinion acts mostly because of guilt (sending your baby brother to the Goblin King is pretty harsh and will get you into SO much trouble), Alex in Labyrinth Lost acts more selflessly. Sure, she is also powered by her guilt because the whole mess is her fault and her family are suffering because of her. But she also really loves them and it is shown, over and over, throughout the book, how strong the bond between these family members is.

So, yay for family love. For still loving each other even if one of you makes a terrible mistake that almost gets everyone else killed. Not-so-yay for the obvious Nova story, but another sort-of yay for the friendship between Alex and Rishi. Rishi is the character you just have to love, even if you don’t want to. She is too wonderful and adorable and quirky to dislike. I think she was under-used as a character in the second half of the book but, hey, this is only the first book in a series. So I’m keeping my hopes up for more Rishi in the next volume.

Lastly, I have to talk about the characters. We mostly spend time with Alex, Nova, and Rishi and although they all have distinct personalities (and I adore Rishi), they felt a little superficial. Like each of them got three characteristics and that was the basis for all their actions. Alex did grow during her journey, and I actually liked Nova as a character, but there is definitely room for improvement. As for the side characters, I was surprised by how clearly Lula and Rose, Alex’s sisters, stood out in my brain. Those two, although we see very little of them, felt like real people, especially Lula. So I’m also hoping really hard for more about them in future novels.

Another huge brownie point goes to the author for (1) making her protagonist bisexual, and (2) for making the love triangle bearable and the conclusion satisfying. The romance was very understated and felt so natural… I am so not used to this in a YA book.

So although the story itself and the journey Alex takes is by no means original, Labyrinth Lost had so many small things going for it that I didn’t mind. The creatures the protagonists meet in Los Lagos feel almost like train stations they have to pass to get to the end boss, their adventures feel quite episodic. But none of that matters when I look at the bigger picture and at the insane amount of happiness and hope this book left me with. A book that you can close with a smile on your face and happy thoughts in your brain – that’s a great book if you ask me!

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Second opinions:

 

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Emma Donoghue – Kissing the Witch

Because of the Dumbledore’s Army readathon, my first book of the year was a fantastic and diverse read. I chose this book first because it’s short and I needed to start 2017 with a feeling of success. So, yay, for reading my first book on the first day of the year. And double-yay for it being a great read!

kissing the witchKISSING THE WITCH
by Emma Donoghue

Published by: Harper Collins, 1997
Ebook: 228 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Till she came it was all cold.

Thirteen tales are unspun from the deeply familiar, and woven anew into a collection of fairy tales that wind back through time. Acclaimed Irish author Emma Donoghue reveals heroines young and old in unexpected alliances–sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always courageous. Told with luminous voices that shimmer with sensuality and truth, these age-old characters shed their antiquated cloaks to travel a seductive new landscape, radiantly transformed. Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off with the fairy godmother; Beauty discovers the Beast behind the mask is not so very different from the face she sees in the mirror; Snow White is awakened from slumber by the bittersweet fruit of an unnamed desire.
Acclaimed writer Emma Donoghue spins new tales out of old in a magical web of thirteen interconnected stories about power and transformation and choosing one’s own path in the world. In these fairy tales, women young and old tell their own stories of love and hate, honor and revenge, passion and deception. Using the intricate patterns and oral rhythms of traditional fairy tales, Emma Donoghue wraps age-old characters in a dazzling new skin.

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Twisted fairy tales are nothing new, not even genderbent ones, so it takes a bit more to impress me. Emma Donoghue doesn’t stray too far off the path in her versions of the most famous and well-known fairy tales. She revisits Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Rumpelstilstkin, and many more. The plot doesn’t change all that and the main hook appears to be that almost all fairy tale couples end up to be two women. Whether it’s Cinderella who falls for her fairy godmother or Beauty who discovers what is really behind Beast’s mask, if there is romance, it’s between women.

But that’s not what I found so amazing (although it is wonderfully refreshing). It wasn’t even the plot or the way Donoghue tells her stories that I found extraordinary. Even the structure of this collection is a fairly obvious one. At the end of each tale, the protagonist asks another character about their tale. They tell it and at the end of their tale, they, in turn, ask a character they met about their story. And so it goes on and on until the end of the collection. This has been done many times before and it has been done with fairy tales as well, but despite that, the structure drew my attention to something amazing.

We all know fairy tales are terrible to women and children. You can either be a beautiful but vapid princess, a fairy (godmother), or a villainous, jealous, evil female antagonist. And either way, horrible things will happen to you in a fairy tale. But what I had never noticed until now is how many fairy tales, especially Donoghue’s versions, have exactly two important female characters, the two who really carry the story, never mind the prince. Without the godmother, Cinderella would never make it to the ball. Without the witch, the little mermaid would just have to live without her prince. Without the jealous mother, Snow White would have grown up like a normal child. And since each story in Emma Donoghue’s collection invariably ends with one woman asking another about her story, it becomes obvious that every fairy tale has at least two female characters who do meaningful stuff. I loved that and I am going to pay closer attention when I read my next fairy tale retellings.

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What I didn’t like so much is how carelessly these connections between tales were made. You must remember that we meet each story teller in somebody else’s story first. So the horse in The Goose Girl apparently used to be Rapunzel – which is totally fine if you use some handwavium to explain that away (I mean, come on! Different species! Yet the damn horse only tells the Rapunzel story, not how it went from woman to horse… that’s a tale I’d gladly read any day.) but Emma Donoghue never does and never even bothers to mention the gaps between fairy tales. The little “connections” between these tales may sound nice enough and be useful as a sort of bridge between single stories but they make no sense whatsoever. And that makes them feel gimmicky and cheap.

But I never intended to read this collection as one larger story. I had no trouble enjoying every tale on its own merits, and these merits are pretty good. Donoghue writes beautifully and changes tone according to the tale told and who is telling it. As with any collection, I liked certain tales better than others, but I definitely enjoyed the variety. Sometimes we see things from the princess’ point of view, sometimes the villain’s. This is neither the most beautifully written I’ve ever read, nor the most original, nor the one with the cleverest twists. But I absolutely enjoyed every page of this collection and how it puts women front and center and allows them to take back the stories which have treated them so terribly.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

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Sarah Porter – Vassa in the Night

I am so glad that one of the last books I read in 2016 was this weird, atmospheric modern twist on Russian fairy tales. It’s by no means a perfect book but I fell in love with Sarah Porter’s ideas and the way she incorporates fairy tale elements into a world sort of like our own, just more magical.

vassa in the nightVASSA IN THE NIGHT
by Sarah Porter

Published by: Tor Teen, 2016
Hardcover: 296 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: When Night looked down, it saw its own eyes staring back at it.

In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now—but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling away again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters—and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair…

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The nights have gotten weird in Brooklyn. Vassa and her two stepsisters all know something is up, that the nights feel too long, that although they seem to drag on forever, time itself doesn’t slow down. But something is definitely not right. When Vassa storms out on a dare and walks straight into the local BY’s – a 24 hour convenience store whose parking lot is surrounded by heads on spikes (yeah, I know), that’s when things get going.

I loved every aspect of this story. In the prelude, we learn that something happened to Night, which explains the strange way nights behave for our protagonist. In the first chapter, we meet Vassa, a wonderfully practical girl, and her doll friend, Erg. This is where I started figuring out that this was going to be a weird book. Talking dolls, a supermarket whose owner beheads shoplifters, and nobody really batting an eye? When Vassa arrives at BY’s which is also supported on huge chicken legs, the connection to the Russian folktale couldn’t be clearer. BY stands, in this case, for Babs Yagg, the old and scary owner. And because Vassa isn’t all that careful, she gets herself into a big mess and has to work for Babs for three nights… however long those last.

While I marvelled at the originality of the plot and the way Sarah Porter mixes folktale and modern Brooklyn. But there is also a lot going on under the surface. Vassa’s relationship to her doll Erg was as touching as it was strange, and until the end, I was never sure what exactly Erg was or why she was there, such a clearly magical object in Vassa’s otherwise magic-free life. As we get to know Vassa more, it also becomes clear that her family situation isn’t exactly easy. Sure, the stepsisters aren’t as bad as Cinderella’s but their family is still a broken one.

I wish I could tell you all the other little things and ideas that made this book so much fun for me, but at the same time, I want you to be as surprised as I was. Well, one thing I’ll tell you is how refreshing it was not to have some forced romance pushed onto a story that doesn’t need one. Vassa is a teenage girl and she does show interest in certain characters, but there is no relationship drama because – come on! – Vassa has no time for that shit. She has to save her neighborhood, maybe even the world, and trying to survive leaves little time for flirting or putting on fancy clothes. I LOVED THAT!

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A lot of reviews I’ve read complain about the book not making sense or the plot being too crazy. I didn’t have that impression at all. In fact, there is a beautiful internal logic to everything, although, sure, dreamwalking and speaking to dolls while working the night shift in a chicken-legged convenience store can be construed as slightly insane. And I concede that certain side characters didn’t really have a place in the story. I loved Picnic and Pangolin, I adored the swans, but like many others, I thought this would have been a better story if Bea was never mentioned. But her presence also didn’t do a lot of harm, so you know.

The one thing that I believe still hasn’t reached its potential is Porter’s language. There are already moments of greatness in Vassa in the Night, stuff you’d want to hang on your wall as an inspirational quote, but then there are also passages that weren’t impressive, just pure worksmanship. The words get the meaning across, but there’s nothing extra to them. The only reason I mention this is because I think Sarah Porter is the kind of writer who gets better with every book.  If you hadn’t guessed, I will be keeping an eye out for any new books from this author because although it wasn’t perfect, this book completely took me out of my world and into another and it’s playing with fairy tales. What more can a girl ask for, really?

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Best of 2016 – My favorite books of the year

One more week, then this miserable year will be over. I think 2016 has been tough on many people and a fresh start is much needed. At least when it comes to books, however, my year wasn’t that bad. I discovered a new author that I will probably love forever, I finally read one of Brandon Sanderson’s gigantic Stormlight Archive books, I finished a few book series I was reading, and I learned (yet again) that not all YA fiction that is hyped and marketed to death actually ends up being bad.

Here are my top books of 2016

(in no particular order)

It’s interesting that I read most of these books during the first half of the year. In summer, I took a break from reading and the second half of 2016 was pretty stressful so, again, I cut back on reading time. I’m also surprised that most of my favorite books of the year have either orange or blue-ish covers…

My happiest discovery of the year is easily C.S.E. Cooney. The woman is a genius with words and I have fall in love with her fiction hard.

Honorable author mentions must also include T. Kingfisher, Ursula Vernon’s pseudonym under which she writes retold fairy tales. I expected something cute and fluffy but was served a surprisingly dark, yet incredibly charming version of Bluebeard in her book The Seventh Bride.

I read a few series ending books, all of which managed to nail the ending to their story. Cat Valente’s Fairyland was the hardes to part with (to nobody’s surprise) but I also shed a tear or two when I closed The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. Plus many, many tears while reading Terry Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown. None of these books was perfect on its own but as they each had the tough job of ending a beloved series, they did a phenomenal job. I left all of these series satisfied, although with a major book hangover.

2016 was an excellent year for new books and I am still very much behind on reading sequels to books I loved and other new publications. But I fully intend to use the last week of the year (incidentally a week off work, muahahaha) for catching up. If you want to help me prioritize, let me know the one book published in 2016 you think I should read!

Happy Holidays everyone!

 

Paul Cornell – The Lost Child of Lychford

Remember how much I loved Paul Cornell’s Tor.com novella Witches of Lychford? Well, there’s a sequel novella out tomorrow that builds on everything the first story did so well and invents a whole new – and super creepy – danger for our three witches to fight. I received an e-ARC of this book via Netgalley. Thank you to the wonderful people at Tor.com!

THE LOST CHILD OF LYCHFORD
by Paul Cornell

Published by: Tor.com, 22nd November 2016
Ebook: 136 pages
Series: Lychford #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The Reverend Lizzie Blackmore slowly blinked awake, and found, to her surprise, that she was already furious.

It’s December in the English village of Lychford – the first Christmas since an evil conglomerate tried to force open the borders between our world and… another.
Which means it’s Lizzie’s first Christmas as Reverend of St. Martin’s. Which means more stress, more expectation, more scrutiny by the congregation. Which means… well, business as usual, really.
Until the apparition of a small boy finds its way to Lizzie in the church. Is he a ghost? A vision? Something else? Whatever the truth, our trio of witches (they don’t approve of “coven”) are about to face their toughest battle, yet!
The Lost Child of Lychford is the sequel to Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford.

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There is something utterly magical about how Paul Cornell draws you into his story within a few short sentences. It’s been a while since I read the first book but I immediately felt back at home in the small town of Lychford, and with the three resident witches, Judith, Lizzie, and Autum. A new evil is threatening their already stressful lives, what with Lizzie preparing for her first Christmas as the reverend, Autumn trying online dating, and Judith… well just being Judith and dealing with the demons she’s been dealing with for a while.

If, like me, you have forgotten certain bits about the first book, don’t worry. They are called back into memory easily, without bogging down the plot. And I absolutely loved the plot. All three witches get into serious trouble and the way Cornell wrote their descent into strange behaviors was so expertly done, I couldn’t pick any specific scene where the changes first happen. Like the witches, I only noticed something was way off when it was already too late!

Great characters in shitty, seemingly impossible to get out of situations is the best thing you can give to a reader. Whether it’s a little ghost boy following you around or the borders of reality turning all wobbly, a lot is going on in Lychford but Cornell juggles it all beautifully. There is not much time in a novella to explain things or slowly build up a threat, so I was really happy with the dread I felt at the dangers our witches have to face.

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There were some truly creepy moments in here and the ghost boy is not the reason. Halloween may be over but if you want a little treat with just a hint of scary and a lot of heart, this book is for you. It was more the things that weren’t said that gave me the creeps. The way that the protagonists’ minds are warped means that we readers also get an unreliable version of events.

While not as much time is spent on introducing the characters – we know them already, after all – the plot is fast-paced and doesn’t let off until the end. The ending includes a crowning moment of awesome for one of the witches (not telling you which) as well as the hint of more to come. There are epic villains to be defeated and borders between worlds to save, and I for one hope that Paul Cornell and Tor.co will give us many more adventures with Judith, Lizzie, and Autum, these three witches who are so very different and work together so well.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Brandon Sanderson – The Bands of Mourning

I can’t believe it. I am actually all caught up on a Brandon Sanderson series. Granted, it’s only one of his many book series and I still have a prequel-novella to read but novel-wise, I am up to date. And now I have to wait first for the next book to come out and then for Graphic Audio to adapt it. Ah, the beautiful agony that is waiting for books…

bands-of-mourningTHE BANDS OF MOURNING
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Tor, 2016
Hardcover: 447 pages
Series: Mistborn #6
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “Telsin!” Waxillium hissed as he crept out of the training hut.

With The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self, Brandon Sanderson surprised readers with a New York Times bestselling spinoff of his Mistborn books, set after the action of the trilogy, in a period corresponding to late 19th-century America.
Now, with The Bands of Mourning, Sanderson continues the story. The Bands of Mourning are the mythical metalminds owned by the Lord Ruler, said to grant anyone who wears them the powers that the Lord Ruler had at his command. Hardly anyone thinks they really exist. A kandra researcher has returned to Elendel with images that seem to depict the Bands, as well as writings in a language that no one can read. Waxillium Ladrian is recruited to travel south to the city of New Seran to investigate. Along the way he discovers hints that point to the true goals of his uncle Edwarn and the shadowy organization known as The Set.

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Vin’s story is long over but her victory over the Lord Ruler has left its marks on the world. It also left physical relics, such as the fabled metalminds which the Lord Ruler used to make himself practically immortal. Wax and Wayne get tangled up in another adventure that has them search for these Bands. Marasi, Me-Laan, and even Steris, get to be part of the crew and they pick up some new friends – and enemies – along the way.

As in Shadows of Self, it felt like a number of sub-plots were being juggled, but juggled rather hectically and without as much planning as in the first Mistborn trilogy. Where plot strings beautifully wove together to create a bigger whole at the end, here it feels like every book introduces new side plots, new political factions and character side stories, only to unceremoniously drop some (Wayne’s attempts at redemption, or his obesseion with their weapons supplier, for example). Others feel like they should have been foreshadowed way earlier but were instead thrown in quickly and info-dumpy to prepare for the scenes to come.

But I was pretty forgiving of that because of the sheer creativity that is coming from this author. After having explored this world and magic system for five books (of not inconsiderable size) I loved how Sanderson still manages to find a new way (or several, really) to use this type of metal magic. There is very little I can say without spoiling but if you’ve come this far in the series you already know that there’s always another secret.

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This book also took me on quite an emotional joy-ride. Not only was there a lot going on and it was a thrill to follow the characters as they solve problems each in their own way – I will never forget Spoiled Tomato – but I have also come to love all of them for being who they are. Marasi has grown into herself and trusts as much in her instincts as in statistical data, Wayne is slightly more serious, although you still mustn’t take away his hat. Ever! And Wax, who has been through so much, is put through hell once more. The biggest surprise was Steris, in her cold mathematical manner, who showed kindness and courage and creativity in the face of danger. So yeah, I love that gang!

One more aspect took me by surprise, in a very positive way. I had only read one romance penned by Sanderson and while I liked it, many people found it silly. Here, however, we find romance in an unlikely place and I was quite surprised at how much I rooted for this particular couple to work things out. It also shows a deft hand at writing character – Sanderson may have shown us certain aspects of these characters in the previous books, but that doesn’t mean we truly know them. In The Bands of Mourning, almost all of them got to show a different side of themselves and it was great fun to discover how amazing this group truly is.

The very end, of course, dangles a new bit of information in front of our noses, only to end in a cliffhanger. The main story of The Bands of Mourning may be resolved, but Wax’s tale is not over yet, and in the big picture, we have only seen the slightest glimpse of what the Cosmere has to offer.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Here are my opinions on all the previous books in the series:

 

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Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

It’s October and that means creepy books. And what better way to deprive myself of some sleep than picking up a Shirley Jackson book? Horror movies don’t do much for me anymore, even the ones that try to avoid all the old tropes. But books? Put a well-written scary book in my hands and I’ll jump at every shadow in my bedroom and suspect the fridge noises of being a monster intruder, trying to eat my soul or something. This was scary, okay. I actually got really scared at night. I’ll tell you the embarrassing details below.

haunting of hill houseTHE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
by Shirley Jackson

Published by: Penguin Classics 2013 (1959),
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

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Ah, Shirley Jackson! After watching all the horror movies out there, and expecting every jump scare, every evil horror twist, there are still things that make me scared enough to keep me from sleeping. The Haunting of Hill House has all the trappings of a haunted house story, fully furnished with strange noises in the night, writing on the wall, cold spots, and doors that seem to close themselves. But in Shirley Jackson’s hands the haunted house truly comes to life and shows us many more layers of horror than we expected.

Dr. Montague wishes to examine Hill House for supernatural activities. He invites, for that purpose, three other people. Luke, the future heir of Hill House, Theodora, a quirky, self-absorbed young woman, and Eleanor, shy and mysterious and with no confidence in herself. Throwing these four in an old creepy house together was a stroke of genius. The focus is definitely on the two women, with Eleanor being sort of the protagonist. I found the relationship between her and Theo both fascinating and terrifying. What starts as an instantaneous BFF vibe, with Theo declaring that they must be sisters because they get along so well, turns slowly into a darker thing. Friendship turns into admiration, which turns to jealousy, envy, disgust even. What made it so fascinating was that all these emotions were completely relatable in the beginning. It only gets strange when you realise you can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t.

There is no first person narrator, so we’re not in any one person’s mind. But Eleanor is definitely the character we follow most closely. She is scared of Hill House from the get go, and for good reason. I shouldn’t have been as creeped out as I was. After all, this is your average, things-that-go-bump haunted house. But for some reason, I always managed to read the pleasant, daylight chapters during the day. At night, before bed, when I had some time to really get into the book, it was always night in the story as well. And we all know that’s when shit goes down. And shit did go down. A strange knocking on a door wouldn’t even merit an eye roll in a horror movie, but when you’re reading about it, and about the characters’ reactions, there’s no way to skip. You can’t close your eyes because when you open them again, you’re still at the same scary spot – you have to work through it.

I managed to read only scary bits three nights in a row – the last night I woke up my partner and made him hold my hand because I was convinced the shadows in our bedroom were moving strangely… yeah I know. But a book that can do that to me, a grown woman who absolutely does not believe in monsters under the bed or ghosts or whatever, that must be a great book. It really, really got to me. The descriptions of the scary parts were amazing, but what made it even better (or worse) was the psychological layer.

Without spoiling, something isn’t quite right with the characters. It might be the house, it might be insanity, it may be an unreliable narrator… I don’t know. The not knowing but constant suspecting, guessing, and trying to reason made this even more compelling. While Luke and Dr. Montague remained pale background characters, Theo and Eleanor are a riddle, each on her own and as a pair. Their behavior, especially in light of the mysterious events, is erratic at times and really bitchy at others. Eleanor’s past is another thing of interest. We don’t learn too much about it, but my imagination filled in the blanks with all sorts of horrors. Seriously, this is one of those cases where an active imagination is not your friend…

Despite the lack of sleep I am really glad I read this book. Shirley Jackson is a master storyteller! I don’t even mind her ambiguous, open-ish endings because with this book it’s the journey that counts.  You don’t work your way to a great reveal or twist, it’s about enjoying every page along the way. And although this book messed with my mind, I did enjoy the experience. If you’re looking for a good read for Halloween, pick this one up.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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