Surprisingly wonderful: Laini Taylor – Lips Touch: Three Times

This was a second-chance read for me. Unlike everyone else in the world, I didn’t like Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and it made me not want to read more books written by her. But I always give authors a second chance, especially if the book sounds intriguing enough. And now I am really confused because I loved this collection to pieces! I must give Daughter of Smoke and Bone another try, I guess. And pick up Strange the Dreamer of course.

LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES
by Laini Taylor

Published by: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009
Hardcover: 266 pages
Story collection
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave.

Three tales of supernatural love, each pivoting on a kiss that is no mere kiss, but an action with profound consequences for the kissers’ souls:

Goblin Fruit
In Victorian times, goblin men had only to offer young girls sumptuous fruits to tempt them to sell their souls. But what does it take to tempt today’s savvy girls?

Spicy Little Curses
A demon and the ambassador to Hell tussle over the soul of a beautiful English girl in India. Matters become complicated when she falls in love and decides to test her curse.

Hatchling
Six days before Esme’s fourteenth birthday, her left eye turns from brown to blue. She little suspects what the change heralds, but her small safe life begins to unravel at once. What does the beautiful, fanged man want with her, and how is her fate connected to a mysterious race of demons?

Oh, how I loved everything about this collection! Each story sets its own tone, weaves its own type of magic, and crushes the heart as only a true fairy tale can. The connecting theme of kisses – or at least lips touching – runs through these tales, and it shows that a kiss isn’t always the same thing.

In Goblin Fruit, Laini Taylor revisits Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem Goblin Market (of which I have a gorgeous edition here with an Arthur Rackham cover). The story begins with a sort of introduction into the tale we’re about to devour. And devour is the right word to describe what reading this felt like. The writing is beautiful – both like a fairy tale and very contemporary, but fusing the two effortlessly.

There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.
Them.
The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

Kizzy is just one such girl. Never the prettiest, living outside of town with her weird family, and definitely not on the school’s hottest boy’s radar. But Kizzy wants. And then Jack shows up and sweeps her off her feet, into the sort of fairy tale romance young girls dream of.

I adored this story for many reasons, and the writing is only one of them. But the way Laini Taylor managed to put teenage hopes and dreams into one character so realistically, it made me want to scream. YES! Yes, I felt like that. I’d hazard a guess that most girls reading this book weren’t the prettiest girl in their school/university/social circle, and that, yes, sometimes we resent ourselves for not being as (seemingly) perfect as that one girl who attracts all the men. In Kizzy, all of these feelings are present, but she never appears like a special snowflake kind of YA heroine. She doesn’t magically turn into a gorgeous babe, but – very naturally and understandable – she falls completely and utterly for the one (super handsome) boy who seems interested in her, who doesn’t even notice other girls. It’s a sort of teenage wish fulfillment story but, unlike some crap YA novels, it doesn’t end in a fairy tale wedding or some other bullshit.

Spicy Little Curses is set in India, where an English widow takes tea with a demon. If that wasn’t already cool enough, they have tea to discuss and trade souls. Estella wishes to save children from death by natural disaster, and Vasudev the demon just wants as many souls as he can get. So they discuss and they barter. And a curse is born.

At the British parties in Jaipur, gossip swirled wild on eddies of whiskeyed breath.

The story then focuses on the cursed child, a girl who was given the most beautiful voice in the world but anyone who hears it immediately falls down dead. Because Estella is no fool, she made sure the little girl wouldn’t kill everyone around her by crying. And Anamique grows up silent. There is a romance, there is more beautiful language, but most of all, there is a tortured young girl whose entire life is based on belief! Anamique restrains herself, she refuses her greatest pleasure – music – and grows up almost as an outcast. People think of her as a simpleton because she never speaks. The descriptions of her life were incredibly hard to read, because her desire to sing, to enjoy music through her voice, not just the piano, broke my heart.

But framing Anamique’s story is still the tale of Estella, by far the coolest and most bad-ass widow I’ve ever read about. There is a surprising amount of world building and great side characters, considering the story isn’t very long. There’s magic and demons, longing and love, and playing tricks on the devil, which is always fun.

Hatchling is the longest of the three tales in this collection, and while not my favorite still excellent. It’s about Mab and her daughter Esmé who are more than they appear at first glance. Teading this is a lot like a dream, or like following the White Rabbit into its burrow where you fall deeper and deeper into this other world, without really noticing the borders. The tale begins with with little Esmé’s eye turning from brown to blue, her mother panicking because of that, and fleeing from London with her daughter. But they are being followed by mysterious beings, one of whom may not be the enemy.

We later learn Mab’s story, why she is running away, why she is so fiercely protective of her daughter. And it’s a tale of terror, let me assure you. Mab grew up, we find out slowly and with much horror, among a group of immortal demons, the Druj. They are fascinated by children, not being able to reproduce themselves or, indeed, age. So the way Mab grew from a baby into a child into a young woman entertained the Druj queen for a while. And then, after an already terrifying childhood, things get worse.

Apart from Mab’s story, we also learn more about the Druj and their rituals, their magic, their shape-shifting from one of their own, Mihai. It is pretty clear from the start that Mihai is not quite like the others, but the way his story unfolds, bit by bit, sometimes hidden away, was just fascinating. While Esmé and Mab’s running away from the Druj hunters is a framing story, it also ends up bringing the three sub-plots together and making a beautiful whole.

I took a while to warm to this story, especially because the other two had set the bar so high, but when I did, I felt fully at home in the cold world of stone spires where the Druj live. The characters were fantastic, even the ones you would normally see as a villain in a fairy tale. Nobody is only what they seem, everyone has at least one more layer that we get to discover, and probably many more layers we don’t see. But they all felt like real people, even the Druj. My favorite part of this story was how Laini Taylor played with imagery and colors. The Druj’s icy blue eyes, Mab and Esmés red hair, the monsters’ pale arms… wolves, eyes, ravens, and cages. I absolutely loved this.

So, all things (and stories) considered, I have nothing to complain about. This book is beautifully written, with a nice design and lovely art, and a way of weaving myth and fairy tale into three very different settings and eras. All the while, Taylor offered up a riveting plot wrapped in exquisite language. Send more of this, and send tons of it!

MY RATING: 8,5 – Excellent!

Look at more gorgeous art by Jim di Bartolo;

 

 

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Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home

I was far from the only one who fell in love with Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti two years ago. Now, the long-awaited sequel has finally arrived and almost lives up to its predecessor. When I started reading it, I thought it would be a sort of standalone novella, but it’s not. In fact, it ends in the middle of the plot, which is the main reason why I didn’t love it as fiercely as I did the first book.

HOME
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Binti #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “Five, five, five, five, five, five,” I whispered.

The thrilling sequel to the Nebula and Hugo winning Binti.
It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.
And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.
But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.
After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?

As the title suggests, this is the story of Binti coming home after spending a year at Oomza University. This homecoming is fraught with emotion, not only for Binti herself, but for her family, her hometown, and her entire planet.

Binti and Okwu may have found a way to live together in peace, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is quite as open to change. Seeing Binti in her new life as a student was pure joy. Seeing her come home, accompanied by Okwu as the first Meduse allowed on Earth, less so. On the one hand, Binti is still dealing with PTSD from the events that led to her friendship with Okwu and the end of an age-long war. On the other hand, Binti is now confronted with her clashing wishes – being part of her culture, making her family proud, being a Himba, but also wanting to continue her studies, see more of the world, find her own place.

I was a bit surprised that the tension left by Binti’s disappearance took so long to break. At first, her family are simply happy to see their daughter again. And then the shitstorm breaks loose and all the pent-up resentment, jealousy, and condescension rain down upon Binti. And that doesn’t even take into account her new “hair” which seems to have a mind of its own because of her bond with Okwu. In fact, I both loved and hated reading about the reactions to Okwu. You can tell that most people try to be civil, keep an open mind, but that in their hearts, they are either afraid, mistrustful, or straight up hateful toward the Meduse. It made the difference between Binti’s university life and her home town all the more stark.

Home was again filled with beautiful writing, especially when it comes to descriptions of Binti experiencing her home. Whether it’s walking through the desert, showing Okwu the lake, or using maths for meditation – Okorafor makes the most use of her words and manages to build an entire world in less than 200 pages. Skill like that always impresses me in writers. Conjuring up pictures in your readers’ minds is one thing, but doing it in short stories or novellas is quite another and Okorafor got that skill down!

Over the course of this story, Binti has a lot on her plate. At times, I felt like she was being torn apart trying to please everyone but not losing herself in the process. She also learns new things about herself, her family, where she comes from, and where she might want to go. Her travels with her grandmother were lovely to read and expanded the world Okorafor has created for these novellas. I don’t want to give anything away here because discovering these things with Binti was so much fun and you should all experience it for yourselves.

The ending is the one thing that I didn’t love unreservedly because, unlike the first instalment, this book ends on a cliffhanger. Sure, a part of the story is told and there is a definite arc, but just as something really exciting and dangerous happens, the book is over. Had I known this before, I would have waited for the third book to come out, so I could continue reading. But considering that my only gripe with this story is that it ended too soon and that I now have to wait for the sequel, that still leaves an amazing book which tackles big themes without sacrificing story or character. If you haven’t guessed it, I am now eagerly waiting for the third book, The Night Masquerade.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Second opinions:

My First Favorite of the Year: Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale

I was incredibly worried I wouldn’t like this book. Everything about it seemed to scream my name and I was excited for it months before its publication. The cover was gorgeous (I have the US cover, although I like the UK version as well), the description sounded perfect, the early reviews and blurbs made me expect a magical realist tale of medieval Russia, with a strong-minded protagonist, Russian folklore, and beautiful prose. And – for once – the hype was completely justified and I got exactly what I wanted.

bear-and-the-nightingaleTHE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 322 pages
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

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Bees and Books and Keys and Trains: Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

A sexually transmitted city. Four protagonists, each hurt and broken in their own way, and a ton of gorgeous imagery, lush descriptions of an amazing city, and Valente’s trademark poetic prose. Yes, I am about to tell you again why Cat Valente is one of the best writers out there and why I love her so, so much!

palimpsest-origPALIMPSEST
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Bantam, 2009
Paperback: 367 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: On the corner of 16th street and Hieratica a factory sings and sighs.

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

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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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