Best of 2021: My Favorite Books of the Year

I’m not going to lie, this has been a pretty shitty year. Dealing with this pandemic is starting to take its toll and I think you can tell from my reading choices when things got better and when they got worse. But reading was, in fact, one of the small comforts that accompanied me throughout 2021, so let’s focus on the positives and celebrate all the cool shit I read this year. 🙂

To keep it organized (and to cram in more favorites, hehe) I’ve split this list into categories just like I did last year.


Favorite Books Published in 2021

Novels

Last year was absolutely insane when it came to SFF novels. This year felt like it’s keeping up rather well, with the only difference being that I’m way behind. There are quite a few books I think might end up being new favorites still on my TBR but here are the ones that I’ve already had the pleasure of reading and that all got 5 stars from me on Goodreads. Now that I look at them all in one place, I realize they couldn’t be more different!

All the Murmuring Bones by A. G. Slatter (Angela Slatter) was the first book that made me squee with joy in 2021. It’s part Gothic fairy tale, part family mystery, part coming-of-age female empowerment story and I loved it to pieces! Slatter has been a favorite of mine for a while now but this book, while keeping the fairy tale vibe her short stories tend to have, was a step in a new direction. It took me a while to find my way into the story but once I was there, I found it absolutely fantastic. I can’t wait for next year’s The Path of Thorns.

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey came next and I knew pretty early on it would be one of my top books of the year. The funny thing is that as I read it, every twist and surprise and every bit of character development cemented the book’s spot on this list. A not very likable protagonist, clones, questions of morality, how far science can and should go, questions of womanhood, a bit of light murder, and great twists until the very end make this one of the most exciting books of the year. It reads like a thriller but offers a lot of food for thought. And I just love Gailey’s writing and their complicated characters.

Nnedi Okorafor published a novella and a novel this year, the first of which (Remote Control) I liked but didn’t love. The novel, however, stole my heart. In Noor, we follow a young woman who has a lot of artificial/robotic body parts. This makes her something of an outsider and eventually she has to flee from the society she wants to be a part of. She meets with a different sort of outsider and together, they not only fight for their basic right to live (!) but also unravel a mystery of epic proportions. This book is short but it really has everything. Great characters, cool science and technology, a kick-ass plot, and deep emotional impact.

A Marvellous Light by debut author Freya Marske is something completely different. It’s a fantasy romance set in Edwardian England with one bookish protagonist and one sporty, impulsive one. But despite the romance being stunning (and quite, quite sexy!), Marske put a lot of effort into her world building and magic system as well. I loved the idea of cradling – magic spells require specific hand movements – and the way the magical society works in this story, and I especially love how women, who are considered too weak for difficult magic, use their powers quietly and show how powerful they really are. But, yeah, mostly I loved this for the romance, the sexual tension, and Edwin and Robin’s budding relationship. Can’t wait for the sequels.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He was my first YA crush this year. I was already taken with the author because of the amazing Descendant of the Crane but here she shows that she didn’t just get lucky with her debut but rather that she is someone to watch. This climate-fiction tale of two sisters who have been separated and are trying to find their way back to each other has layers upon layers and is hard to talk about it without spoiling. But believe me when I say that you’ll get great science fictional ideas, intricate characters with difficult emotions, many gasp-worthy twists, and a truly touching story about sisterly love. Plus a little bit of romance. Basically, it’s as amazing as the cover is pretty.

Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko didn’t get to me as quickly as the first book in this duology, but after reading for a while, I noticed how this tale of found/chosen family and heavy responsibility had sneaked into my heart again. I was struck by how well everything falls into place, how Ifueko managed to introduce a lot of new characters and made me love them as much as the old ones. There are still more surprises to discover. If you liked Raybearer, you will also like this book. The ending was just beautiful and I will forever be a Tarisai fangirl.

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen stole my heart and ran away with it like the thief that narrates this novel. This was one of my late-in-the-year five star reads that I totally didn’t see coming. It’s a loose retelling/sequel of the fairy tale The Goose Girl but it very much brings its own ideas to the table. First person narrator Vanja is the best kind of cocky, there are a lot of cool ideas to discover during this tale, and there’s an effortless diversity of sexuality to be found, all with an understated lovely romance, a kick-ass heist-filled plot that piles on the trouble but somehow resolves everything by the end. I am glad that we will get a sequel in (probably) 2023. I wish I could read it right now!


Novellas

My favorite novella of the year comes from none other than Catherynne M. Valente and it was The Past Is RedThis post-apocalyptic story set on the Pacific Garbage Patch – known as Garbagetown – is devastating and hopeful, expertly crafted, with characters that break your heart, prose that sings and dances, and even a great twist. It gave me all the feels and I’ll cherish and re-read it forever. Tetley Abednego is a protagonist who sees beauty in dirt and reminds us that oftentimes the world could be so lovely if only we learned to appreciate it.

Secondly, we have the very different but just as stunning Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente. Hey, it’s not my fault she wrote two brilliant novellas in one year, okay? This one is eerie and atmospheric and best enjoyed without knowing anything about it beforehand. Although the twist at the end is its climax, it has great re-read value because once you know what’s going on you can go hunting for all the clues that you missed the first time. And there are so many of them! Valente shows that she can jump between genres as if it was nothing, all while staying true to her beautiful prose.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow was another top novella, although it is much lighter than my other favorites. It’s Harrow spiderversing a fairy tale, in this case Sleeping Beauty, and it just worked although I think it will not be for everyone. The writing is easy and filled with references to pop culture and literature, the characters aren’t super deep, but the themes hit home nonetheless. Protagonist Zinnia suffers from a rare disease that will most likely kill her before she turns 21. When she accidentally lands in a parallel world where she meets an actual Sleeping Beauty type princess, things don’t go quite as expected. This was a fun romp, it had things to say about feminism and gender and choosing your own path and I unabashedly loved it even though I would have preferred it to be longer.

And let’s not forget Becky Chambers‘ latest novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built. This was both what I expected and also totally different, if that makes sense. The nonbinary tea monk protagonist felt so utterly relatable it hurt, and while their journey wasn’t filled with shocking moments or daring adventures, it was exactly the quiet, philosophical kind of book we’ve come to expect from Chambers. Then again, it also felt somehow new and fresh. The hopepunk setting, the slowly building friendship between human and robot, it all worked together beautifully and I need the sequel now.

Sadly, these are (yet again) all Tor.com titles and I was determined to have at least one novella from a different publisher among my favorites this year. If you have recommendations, please leave me one in the comments.


Favorite Books Published pre-2021

Once again, I have to thank all the people who nominate books and series for the Hugo Award. The Best Series category, which is still pretty new, has been a treasure trove when it comes to backlist titles that aren’t old enough yet to be classics but not new enough to be the newest hot shit that everyone is talking about. Many of those in-between titles ended up on my list and that makes me super happy.

The Poppy War Trilogy by R. F. Kuang absolutely wrecked me and even though The Poppy War was a re-read, I’m counting it in this category, alongside The Dragon Republic and The Burning God. Because, damn! That’s right, that is the summary of my feelings.
But seriously, I don’t know what impresses me most. The fact that Kuang entered the scene with an unbelievably great debut, that she tackled a very dark period of history, that her characters are multi-faceted and flawed and believable, that her world building is impeccable, her writing engaging… I mean, at this point I’m just describing all the elements of a perfect novel. But you get the idea and I am forever destroyed by what these books have done to my poor heart.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune needs no explanation. Anyone who has read it will know why this heartwarming tale of found family ended up on my list, and people who haven’t read it have probably been told how this is a warm hug in book form a million times. It really is, though, and if you ever feel down and want a story you know is going to lift you up, make it this one. I can’t wait to pick up the book’s spiritual successor that came out this year, Under the Whispering Door.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler has convinced me that Butler will probably always end up on my Best of the Year lists, at least until I’ve read all her books. This is all the more impressive as the book in question is pretty much the opposite of the Klune in terms of atmosphere and vibe. Sure, Butler always conveys that shining bit of hope but the world and setting she uses in this duology is anything but nice. Still, one  of the most impressive and impactful books I read this year.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett was not surprising in any way. It’s fairly early Discworld but it does exactly what Pratchett always does so well. It holds a mirror up to humanity, with humor and heart and respect. This book made me laugh and cry, ponder and wonder, and most of all it made me miss Terry Pratchett all over again. As it tackles religion, which can be a… let’s say difficult subject, we should be all the more impressed how Pratchett managed to make fun of certain aspects of it without ever, EVER, disrespecting people or their faith!

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal is a bit of a departure from the first two books in her Lady Astronaut series. The plot happens parallel to the story of The Fated Sky, only this time we focus on Earth and the Moon colony as well as on a new protagonist, Nicole Wargin, pilot and politician’s wife and also super capable Moon survival person. This took a while to get going but once the story had taken off, I was reeling from all the amazing ideas. Whether it’s basic survival moves on the Moon or dealing with an eating disorder, or handling politics, it’s all there, it’s all done well and I ended up loving this book much more than I had anticipated.

The Interdependency Trilogy by John Scalzi was one of my biggest surprise hits this year. And my favorite volume of the three was probably the middle book, The Consuming Fire. I usually put a lot of Serious SFF (TM) on here but that’s not the only type of story I love. So this year, I’m adding this hilarious space opera romp by Scalzi because, while maybe not dealing with the deepest philosophical questions of humanity, it was just pure and utter fun! I adore Kiva Lagos and her filthy mouth, I loved the idea of the Flow and I simply enjoyed following all these characters as they are trying to save the world.

The biggest surprise, without a doubt, was how much I enjoyed Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. You may recall how much I disliked Gideon the Ninth, how I found it messily plotted, with flat characters (one exception being Gideon herself) and told in unnessecarily convoluted prose. The prose is still overly verbose and showy, but everything else about Harrow has taken me by storm. Damn, I want to know what happens next, how all these crazy revelations impact the world, and where this story will lead us eventually. And so I find myself actually happy that the trilogy has grown into a 4-book-series and that we’ll get Nona the Ninth in 2022. Yay!

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers was just lovely! I had really liked Small, Angry Planet but I bounced off Spaceborn Few for a long while (the ending turned it around but overall, my opinion was rather meh), so I didn’t have the highest expectations. And then Chambers just goes and tells not one, but two hearbreaking stories in one novel. My eyes were perpetually wet as I listened to this on audiobook and it is now by far my favorite book in the series.


I am not feeling too great about the pandemic at the moment (not that I ever felt great about it, but you know what I mean) but at least I am happy with what I read in 2021.

Top of my TBR: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen, Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune, Summer Suns by Lee Mandelo, The Chosen and the Beautfiul by Nghi Vo, The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2021 publications that I might have missed and should prioritize. 🙂

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

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

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Curiosities, 2008
Hardcover:
166 pages
Poetry Collection
My rating:
6.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Read-In-One-Sitting Creepiness: Catherynne M. Valente – Comfort Me With Apples

It is the mark of a great writer that can give us one hopeful, heartwarming post-apocalyptic novella and a creepy what-the-hell-is-going-on type novella in the same year. Cat Valente is such a writer and so she not only delivered two vastly different books this year but also succeeded in making them both work incredibly well. If you want to feel creeped out (but not in a jump scare way) or made uncomfortable by a book, if you need something you want to devour in one sitting, then this is for you.

COMFORT ME WITH APPLES
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Tordotcom, 26th October 2021
Hardcover: 112 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: The Following Agreement is made this first day of the first month between the members of the Arcadia Gardens Homeowners Association [hereinafter known as “the Association”] and the title-holders of 1 Cedar Drive [hereinafter known as the “Residents”].

A terrifying new thriller from bestseller Catherynne M. Valente, for fans of Gone Girl and Spinning Silver

Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze…

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

This novella is only 112 pages long and its wonderful creep factor hinges on not knowing what’s going on, so I will remain very, very vague in describing the plot and characters. In fact, if I’m being honest, I think you shouldn’t read this review at all before you have read the book. It’s best to go into it knowing as little as possible and enjoying how things slowly unravel, how your mind picks up on certain clues, and how it all comes together in the end.
But do make sure you pick this up when you have enough time to finish it. You won’t find a good spot to put the book down. It wants to be read in one go.

So, what’s this about and why is it so great? Well, it’s about Sophia, who lives in Arcadia Gardens, an exclusive luxury residential area where everything is perfect. Sophia loves her husband, even if he’s often away for work, she loves her house and her neighbors, she enjoys her place in society and the life she has made for herself. That is, until something turns up that makes no sense, something that shouldn’t be here, something Sophia can’t let go…

Okay, this is as much as I want to say about the plot because one word more and I might just accidentally burst out something spoilery. But while this is a book with a pretty cool twist, that wasn’t even the best part. What I enjoyed the most was that constant feeling of knowing something is wrong but not being able to put my finger on it. I got ideas pretty quickly, as clues are literally everywhere, but I could never be sure if what I was imagining was the truth or just a theory (I got it right just before the truth was revealed in the book, so kudos for keeping me in the dark that long).
Sophia’s story is delightfully creepy, not because she faces monsters or anything – Arcadia Gardens is perfect, after all, how could there be monsters? – but because reading about it feels so incredibly uncomfortable. It reminded me of a certain movie which I can’t mention because that, too, could be a spoiler, but that movie also created this atmosphere of wrongness. If you enjoy being left in the dark for a while, solving riddles, playing with words, and paying attention to little details, you will have a blast reading this. And even if you do pick up on the hints, you won’t necessarily figure everything out by yourself so there is still that final twist.

That reveal at the end had been building up more and more and so it wasn’t this super shocking moment, but it fit so perfectly into what came before that I had to wonder why I hadn’t guessed it right away. It will certainly make a re-read all the more interesting. Knowing what to look for, I’m sure I’ll find a ton more hints and Easter eggs that I missed the first time.
Everything falls into place so well, everything suddenly makes sense where before I wanted to shout at the characters “What the hell is wrong with you, why are you like that and what kind of a messed up place is this Arcadia Gardens?!” And while Sophia is certainly a sympathetic protagonist, it was only there at the end that I truly started liking her and felt the impact of what she had found out. It’s amazing to me that I can follow a character with very little personality and then suddenly have a knife twisted in my heart that I didn’t even know hat struck me. Well done, Cat Valente, well done!

I have said pretty much nothing about this book even though I have so much to say. But I don’t do spoilers on this blog and this novella is impossible to talk about in any detail without spoilers. So you’ll just have to take my word for it, pick it up, and read that first page. You won’t be able to put it down until you’re done.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Post-Apocalyptic Pollyanna: Catherynne M. Valente – The Past is Red

I was lucky enough to get an eARC of this new novella so I’ve been sitting on these feelings for months. I am so happy to finally be able to scream into the world just how brilliant and clever and heartbreaking a novella Cat Valente has written. It comes out tomorrow and you should all read it!
Thank you to Tordoctom and Netgalley for the ARC. It made my spring infinitely better.

the past is redTHE PAST IS RED
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 160 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: My name is Tetley Abednego and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown.

Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.

The future is blue. Endless blue…except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she’s the only one who knows it. She’s the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it’s full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.
But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.


The attentive Cat Valente reader will notice that this novella’s title goes really well with a short story of hers called “The Future is Blue” and if you liked that story, you will be happy to know that this book is actually a sequel to it. The novella’s first part is a reprint of said short story, but part two is all new and continues the story of Tetley Abednego, the most hated girl in Garbagetown.

As with many of Valente’s books, I don’t quite know where to begin my gushing. There will definitely be gushing because although she has been my favorite author for a number of years now, she still proves that she can get better with every book, no matter how short. I had hoped for a big chunky novel from her this year, but if we get two great novellas instead (the second one that’s coming out is called Comfort Me With Apples and sounds super creepy), I’ll be more than happy.

Tetley Abednego lives in Garbagetown, a heap of garbage approximately the size of Texas, that floats around on the Pacific. Tetley was born as the elder of twins in Candle Hole. Her house is made of wax, her early childhood is defined by the smells of the scented candles that make up her neighborhood. But Garbagetown has a lot more to offer, if you have an open heart and Tetley’s surprisingly sunny disposition. To her, it’s the best place in the world. Granted, that’s not too difficult to achieve when the rest of the world is… well, ocean. You see, many years ago, humanity from before – appropriately called Fuckwits – majorly fucked up the planet and now everything’s dead and submerged and all that’s left is Garbagetown and maybe a few Misery Boats.

There are some things you just can’t ever get back. Years. Gannet birds. Hubands. Antarctica.

Tetley grows up in Garbagetown and we get to witness the most formative of her experiences, like catching her name (I absolutely adored that piece of world building!), kissing a boy for the first time, discovering that even in Gargabetown, there’s still something like classism, and of course, the Thing that leads to her becoming the most hated girl in Garbagetown. It’s the reason she wakes up every day to a new slur smeared on her door, to people beating her up, it’s the reason she has to just take it and even thank her violator. The short story just on its own is already brilliant. Filled with clever world building and deep insights into human nature, it draws you in with this mystery, jumping back and forth between times, and on the sly delivering some highly quotable lines – as Valente always does.

The second part, The Past is Red, continues Tetley’s story and uses the same flashback/flashforward style as did the short story. And while it’s always clear and obvious what time setting we are currently in, this storytelling device is so well employed that it provides a few good twists along the way. Valente builds up certain expectations, or at the very least suspicions about Tetley’s past – like her mentioning she was married but isn’t anymore, or her talking to someone called Big Red, or the fact that she now lives on a boat – but the blanks filled in by the reader aren’t necessarily the whole truth. Discovering what really happened was such incredible fun and made me go “Oh thaaaaaat’s why” a few times. There was gasping and grabbing of the head. There were moments that left me open-mouthed and even more moments when I told my boyfriend “This is so gooood”.

Apart from the amazing world building, which is all the more impressive considering it’s achieved in a matter of about 50 pages, I have to talk more about Tetley as a character. She’s not stupid, not at all, but she has a naive sort of love for Garbagetown and everything about her way of life. Her parents don’t really love her – all their love goes to her twin brother with whom she shares a close bond – but Tetley doesn’t let that bother her too much. She adores her home, she loves her society, although she still sees its inequalities. She is the kind of person who is simply happy with what she has. No envy, no greed, just a pure, unadulterated joy for life. And if you think living on a heap of garbage is terrible (as did I), I promise Tetley will change your mind! She will make you love Pill Hill and Electric City, Toyland and her native Candle Hole. She will make you just as excited about discovering an old tape as she will make you care about her Oscar the Grouch backpack. It’s a strange world, Garbagetown, but after reading this book, I’m kind of taken with it.

Because there are several really great twists in this story, I won’t say anything about the plot. But I promise that, unlike some Valente novels, there is a plot. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, it is vastly readable, even funny at times, and always clever. For people who haven’t read the short story, even the end of that is a knife stuck in your chest and I believe everyone should have the pleasure of being stabbed in the heart (metaphorically speaking) by Cat Valente at least once in their lives. The second, much longer, part of the book offers some more twists, none of which I saw coming (yay!) and all of which hit me deep in the guts. Like all the best stories, this one sneaks up on you. It makes you love the characters without even noticing, and then it reveals things that change everything. Afterwards, just leaves you there, not quite knowing what to do with yourself. I’m not making this sound pleasant, but that’s actually my favorite kind of reading experience. The one where you can’t stop reading but you don’t want the book to end. And once you’re finished, you feel deflated and alone, like you just lost your best friend.

In a book set on a post-apocalyptic, post climate change Earth, mentions of how gloriously humanity messed things up are to be expected. But Valente doesn’t go the obvious route here, either. She never outright says what exactly happened – we all know how things will get that far, how our way of life can and probably will escalate. We just keep doing what we’re doing now and we’ll go down in Gargabetown history as the Fuckwits who broke the world…

Seems like someone should have thought of a rule that goes Do Not Fuck Your Only Planet to Death Under Any Circumstances. Seems like that should have been Rule Number One.

I wish I could tell you more about all the other amazing characters like Goodnight Moon, Mister, or King Xanax, but I want to give as little about this book away as possible. Let me just say that, despite my extremely high expectations, Valente managed to surpass anything I hoped to get from The Past is Red. It is a book that should be depressing but is utterly, utterly filled with hope. Its protagonist goes from cheerful Pollyanna to a much more mature adult who just can’t shake that hope habit of hers. She lets us in on a world that, although strange to us, is normal to the people who live in it, and she shows us that you don’t need much to achieve happiness.

Laslty, let me gush about that cover by John Hendrix. It is not only eye-catching and just plain gorgeous, it’s actually filled with a lot of detail that’s important in the book. I can’t wait to hold the paper copy in my hands!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfect!

King Arthur But Confusing: Catherynne M. Valente – Under in the Mere #WyrdAndWonder Review

The day has finally come when I pick up a Cat Valente book and end up… not really liking it. To be fair, I believe this book simply wasn’t meant to be just picked up and read. It’s meant for people who know a lot more about Arthurian legend than I do, and those who want to really dive into those knight’s inner turmoil. Alas, at this point in my life, that is not me, so the very short version of this review is: I didn’t really get it.

under in the mereUNDER IN THE MERE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Rabit Transit Press, 2009
Paperback: 141 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5.5/10

Opening line: What damosel is this? What damosel is this?

Perhaps I am nothing but a white arm. Perhaps the body which is me diffuses at the water’s surface into nothing but light, light and wetness and blue. Maybe I am nothing but samite, pregnant with silver, and out of those sleeves come endless swords, dropping like lakelight from my hems. Will you come down to me and discover if my body continues below the rippling?

I thought not.
So begins the second release from the Electrum Novella Series, Under in the Mere, which takes Arthurian legend to the furthest limits of the imagination. Incantatory, labrynthine, and both playful and heartbreaking, Under in the Mere is a major new work from one of America’s premier writers of fantasy.

With full interior illustrations from renowned fantasy artist James Owen and Jeremy Owen.

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This little book was very, very hard to get! I have been on the lookout for copies for years and years before I finally found someone selling their used (but actually unread and super shiny) copy for more money than one should spend on a slim paperpack. But Valente is my favorite author and this was the last book of hers I didn’t have in my collection. Its subject matter – King Arthur’s knights – and the way it was made up – illustrated by James and Jeremy Owe also intrigued me. And did I mention it’s signed?
I knew that it was one of Valente’s older works and that those tend to be more labyrinthine, more word-focused, and oftentimes don’t have anything that qualifies as a plot. Well, that is pretty much exactly what this is. I do not recommend it for people who want to try out Valente’s writing to start here. Go with something more accessible like the Fairyland series, Deathless, The Orphan’s Tales, or the hilarious Space Opera.

So, what is this book about? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll try. It is divided into chapters, each of which gets a beautiful Tarot card illustration and deals with one person from Arthurian legend. There are chapters for the more famous ones, like Lancelot or Mordred, but also Dagonet, Pellinore, and the Lady of the Lake get their say. While all of the chapters have in common the purplest of prose – seriously, they’re almost poetry – some are easier to read than others. I admit that in certain chapters I caught myself finishing entire paragraphs, not knowing what I had just read. There are plenty of descriptions, enumerations, similes and metaphors galore, and apparently all the knights are made up of nothing but angst on the inside. If I read it right, that is, and I cannot guarantee that.

A handful of chapters stuck postiviely in my mind, though. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones that I understood best, either because I felt more familiar with the particular character’s story or because they were written in a less flowery way. Sir Kay was the first to truly grip me and the reason I kept reading the book at all. Although his story, like most of the others, doesn’t follow any kind of plot, he muses about what it means to be him, to be brother to one so revered and so famous as King Arthur. Although I couldn’t tell you any details about his chapter, I remember that it made me feel for the character and that’s more than I can say for most of the others.

Balin and Balan’s chapter was also great because although I’m sure I missed lots of references and easter eggs, I got the gist of their story. There wasn’t much of a plot here, either, but instead, their chapter leads you thruogh an emotional plot, with a nice back and forth between the two. Sir Bedivere, teller of the book’s penultimate chapter, is the only one where I could detect something resembling a plot. There are things that happen in this chapter and these things have an impact on Bedivere’s feelings and actions. His and Morgana’s chapter finished up the novel and made me close the book on a satisfied note, at least.

I found it really weird, however, that the characters were talking like you’d expect from Arthur’s knights but then they’d mention California. As I found most of this book convoluted and hard to grasp, I can’t tell you if I just missed some crucial piece of information or if this was just an artistic choice. Valente “set” this book in California, mentions parts of the landscape and the Pacific ocean, but I didn’t really understand why. Maybe this is a super cool idea that perfectly fits with the King Arthur legends but I was definitely not smart or learned enough to get it.

So here’s the thing. I am certain that if I knew more about Arthuriana, if I had more than The MIits of Avalon and Disney’s The Sword in the Stone to guide me, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more. Because I did catch little references here or there, either to classic works, mythology, or literature. I just don’t have enough background information about most of these characters for the references to mean anything to me. This just isn’t a book that you randomly pick up and enjoy. It requires study and knowlege and then I’m sure it has a lot to offer.

As much as it pains me to give a Valente book anything but a glowing rating, I rate books by my own enjoyment and I can’t say I had much fun reading this. Her language is gorgeous and she paints pictures with every sentence but all those pictures fell flat for me because I’m not (at this point in time, at least) the right reader for this book. Maybe in a few years I’ll have turned into a King Arthur scholar and I’ll give this a re-read. I doubt it, though.

MY RATING: 5.5/10 – Meh

#Wyrd and Wonder Day 12: Desert Island Reads

I’ve always hated when people ask me about my one favorite book or which 10 reads I’d bring to a desert island. Why are you putting me thorugh the stress of even thinking about this?! I’m not making you choose your favorite child, am I?
Well, for Wyrd and Wonder, I’m embracing the anxiety and I know that, whatever I post here, I will immediately regret at least half of my choices and think of different, better ones. Let’s do it anyway. Because this is fun. Right?

You can find the rules here. The very basic summary is: Choose 8 books, 1 movie/TV show and 1 luxury item/whatever you want to bring to bring on a desert island with you. TV shows include all episodes, movies include all volumes if part of a fanchise. Book series count as individual books unless there’s a bindup version (Lord of the Rings would count as one book, for example).

IMAGE CREDIT: pegasus image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

MY DESERT ISLAND READS… I’m not taking any chances here. Nothing that I haven’t read, unless it’s by one of my favorite authors.

  • The Tiffany Aching Series by Terry Pratchett
    Yes, there actually is an omnibus edition of these five books and you can imagine how happy I was that I didn’t have to choose just one Discworld book for my desert island. Although I would have loved to take all the Witch books.
  • Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine
    I’ve been meaning to re-read this book forever. It’s rather short but Valentine creates a whole world within its pages. It’s got steampunk elements, complex character dynamics, secrets and mysteries, and it’s about a wandering circus in a strangely broken world.
  • Flora’s Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce
    Choosing the middle book of a trilogy may seem weird but it’s my favorite. It has some really great twists, the characters have grown up a bit from the first book and I just adore Wilce’s world building and writing style. Her alternate California and clever protagonist Flora are just amazing.
  • The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales Angela Slatter
    I have read the first two story collections in this loosely connected series and they are both favorites of mine. This new one is probably just as amazing so I’m bringing it even though I haven’t read it yet.
  • Nation by Terry Pratchett
    Well, you can’t have too many Pratchett books and this one especially fits the island setting. It’s a non-Discworld book but it has made me laugh and cry and fall in love with its characters. Pratchett’s deep understanding of and compassion for humanity gets to truly shine here.
  • Bone Swans by C. S. E. Cooney
    For someone who doesn’t read many collections, I sure do love a lot of them. Cooney is a poet and it shows in her prose writing as well. Her tales are fantastical, bizarre, creepy, atmospheric, inspired by fairy tales but utterly original. I adore her!
  • The Fairyland Series 1-3 by Catherynne M. Valente
    Unfortunately, only the first three books exist in a collected format but I’ll take what I can get. I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of Cat Valente, her writing, her ideas, and especially what she did in this series. Infinitely re-readable.
  • In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
    Yeah, it kills me that there’s no edition with both volumes of The Orphan’s Tales but, fine, I’ll take the first and that’s that. Unless I should take Deathless instead?! Have I mentioned that I hate this game?

TV, MOVIE OR PODCAST… This is just mean. I want to go with a TV show, simply because more episodes means more hours of entertainment. But leaving Willow off the island? Or The Neverending Story? I guess the smart choice would be Friends but that’s not fantasy and I’m not that smart anyway. Battlestar Galactica (2003) and Deep Space Nine also aren’t fantasy so I guess I’ll just have to choose my perennial favorite Labyrinth. I’ve loved this movie since I was a child and I’m still not tired of it.

I CAN’T DO WITHOUT… I wanted to bring my boyfriend but he is far from inanimate and the rules say to bring only things. Favorite foods will only last until they’re eaten, so I think I’ll pick something more useful. How about one of those Swiss Army knives that can do practically anything? I can open coconuts, cut some wood, gut all the fish I’m catching… Yeah, I’ll go with that. 🙂

Star Wars Anthology – From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back

This Star Wars anthology retells the events of The Empire Strikes Back from different points of view. That much is clear from the title and – if you’ve read it – its predecessor, but for me this was a first foray into the world of Star Wars anthologies. I had read a few novelizations many, many years ago but other than that, I just re-watched the original trilogy a lot. To get stories from minor, sometimes VERY minor side-characters is such a cool idea that I couldn’t resist. The result was mixed but the positives outweigh the negatives.

FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
by various authors

Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 561 pages
Series: Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

From a Certain Point of View strikes back! Celebrate the legacy of the groundbreaking Star Wars sequel with this exciting reimagining of the timeless film.

On May 21, 1980, Star Wars became a true saga with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. In honor of the fortieth anniversary, forty storytellers recreate an iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back, through the eyes of a supporting character, from heroes and villains to droids and creatures. From a Certain Point of View features contributions by bestselling authors and trendsetting artists.

This is quite a big book and no way am I going to tell you about each single story and how I liked it. As with any collection of short stories, especially ones by different authors, I liked some, loved others, disliked a few and felt meh about a handful. I’d say that’s a pretty normal reaction to a piece of writing that is made up of 40 different people’s ideas and styles. Nobody is going to like everything, but then again, there will be something for everybody.

I admit I picked this up primarily because I wanted to read Cat Valente‘s story about the exogorth (that worm thingy in the asteroid field) called “This Is No Cave”. I had heard wonderful things about it and those early reviews weren’t wrong. It is astonishing that Valente manged to make me feel for this creature that gets a full 5 seconds of screentime and whose backstory never really crossed my mind. But she gives Sy-O a backstory and it totally worked. I watched Empire again just yesterday – I knew so many side stories now, after all, and wanted to see if I recognized all the characters from this book (I didn’t) – and I felt a bit of a twinge when Sy-O appeared because now I had seen that part of the story from their perspective. And things aren’t as simple as they may seem.

But, and this is as surprising to me as it is to you, the Valente story was not my favorite in this anthology. In fact, three stories tied for my first place and they are all pretty different.
Django Wexler wrote “Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)” which delivers exactly what the title promises but with layers! Amara Kel is an Imperial pilot who knows how to stay alive. So far, at least. She lets us know her rules for survival not just by making a list but by telling us stories for each bullet point, stories that paint a picture of her life, her hopes and dreams, the woman she loves, and, almost as a side note, the events of Empire that happen to be going on at the same time. I loved everything about this story. The voice is lighthearted and funny, the protagonist is super easy to like, despite working for the Empire, and the story has a well-rounded ending. It got 4.75/5 stars from me.

Bildergebnis für faith in an old friend star warsJust like this next story, although for different reasons. “Faith In An Old Friend” by Brittany N. Williams is told from L3-37’s perspective, a droid-turned-part-of-the-Millennium-Falcon and for that alone, it feels more like a real part of Star Wars history, rather than just an aside to Empire. I had to look L3 up to remember exactly who she was but it honestly doesn’t make much difference whether you remember her or not. This story witnesses a few key events from Empire and while it was fun to watch Leia’s heartrate increase when Han is around, all while she pretends to dislike him, the heart of this tale was all about L3. Her history, especially with Lando, her consciousness, and her alliance with the rest of the Falcon’s droid brains. This story really touched me and it did a fantastic job of tying in movie scenes and quotes. Another 4.75/5 stars.

Lastly, “The Whills Strike Back”, the very last story in this anthology, ended up as my third favorite. It’s about the opening scrawl and that’s really all I want to say. It was hilarious and self-aware and made watching the movie again all the more fun.

So these three were my absolute favorites, but there were many more stories that I liked a lot. My overall problem with many stories in this anthology was that they were rather unimaginative. However, in the hands of a great writer, even a not-very-original story can be impressive. I’m thinking of Seth Dickinson’s “The Final Order”, a story which doesn’t exactly hold any surprises in store but which completely blew me away with its writing. I seriously have to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant soon if this is what Dickinson always writes like.
Charles Yu’s “Kendal” similarly impressed me, as did “Against All Odds” by R. F. Kuang. That wasn’t a surprise because Kuang is amazing but it’s still worth mentioning.
“A Good Kiss” by C. B. Lee was one of the few stories that stood well on its own. It’s about Chase Wilsorr, a human on Hoth who runs errands and feels like a loser because he’s not as heroic as, say, Luke Skywalker. He also has a crush on another man. Lee tells a full story here that happens during the evacuation of the Rebel Base at Hoth and while I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming, I loved how fun and altogether nice this story was.

I don’t want to focus very much on the stories that didn’t work for me. But I was a bit surprised to find some authors I knew among my least favorites as well as others that I hadn’t read yet but had been looking forward to. Mark Oshiro’s story wasn’t for me but I’ll probably still try one of their novels. Mackenzi Lee has written The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue which I found entertaining enough. Her short story for Star Wars left me cold and unimpressed.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed this anthology. Reading a story or two before bed was quite nice, even though some stories were better than others and even though at one point, I felt like we’d never get off Hoth. The stories are arranged in chronological order to fit the events of the movie. But given the amount (or lack) of side characters in any given scene, there are about a billion stories set on Hoth, hundreds on Imperial ships and in Cloud City, and a mere few set in different places. I understand why that is but I think that with a little creativity, more could have been done. I mean, there is a story here from the point of view of the cave on Dagobah! And remember Sy-O, the exogorth? Or the Millennium Falcon’s droid brains? Oh well, you can’t have everything I guess.

So would I recommend this book? Sure, if you like Star Wars. With most of the stories, I had no idea who exactly I was reading about but whether I ended up liking a story or not, it put me in a mood to watch the old movies again. I discovered some new authors that I’d like to read more of, and I enjoyed having a book to read in small increments. So unless you hate Star Wars, you can’t go wrong picking this up.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

 

Top Ten Tuesday – Favorite Bookish Quotes

Life has been a bit stressful lately, so I haven’t posted as much as I would have liked. But I’m still reading and catching up on 2020 releases, so you can expect new reviews soon. Pinkie promise!

Until then, I thought I’d participate in this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, which is all about bookish quotes. I dove deep into my reading history and, unsurprisingly, ended up with quotes from my favorite books and authors.

My favorite bookish quotes

LAINI TAYLOR – STRANGE THE DREAMER

Because Laini Taylor is a genius and Strange the Dreamer is full of beautiful quotes, I cheated and chose two:

“You’re a storyteller. Dream up something wild and improbable,” she pleaded. “Something beautiful and full of monsters.”

– Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor


CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE – DEATHLESS

It comes as no surprise that my very favorite author is featured on this list. She may make more than one appearance… Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless broke my heart in so many ways, it’s ridiculous. And while there are many lines in that book that I can re-read over and over again without them losing their power, here’s my favorites:

“You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast.”

– Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente


LAINI TAYLOR – LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES

And I have to add another Laini Taylor book. Her collection of shorter works Lips Touch: Three Times is the reason I gave this author another chance when I bounced off another of her books hard. I’m so glad I tried again because now she’s one of my favorites.

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“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.”

– Goblin Fruit by Laini Taylor


CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE – THE FAIRYLAND SERIES

So, every single one of the five volumes in the Fairyland Series is filled to the brim with quotable lines. I have chosen only a few to give you a taste. If you haven’t yet, go try and read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and then devour the rest of the series because it is filled with the kind of wonder you last felt as a kid, plus Cat Valente’s trademark lyrical prose.

Summer Reading: Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland Series — home | school | life

“A silent Library is a sad Library. A Library without patrons on whom to pile books and tales and knowing and magazines full of up-to-the-minute politickal fashions and atlases and plays in pentameter! A Library should be full of exclamations! Shouts of delight and horror as the wonders of the world are discovered or the lies of the heavens uncovered or the wild adventures of devil-knows-who sent romping out of the pages. A Library should be full of now-just-a-minutes and that-can’t-be-rights and scientifick folk running skelter to prove somebody wrong. It should positively vibrate with laughing at comedies and sobbing at tragedies, it should echo with gasps as decent ladies glimpse indecent things and indecent ladies stumble upon secret and scandalous decencies! A Library should not shush; it should roar!”

– The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente

 

“A book is a door, you know. Always and forever. A book is a door into another place and another heart and another world.”

– The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente


TERRY PRATCHETT – REAPER MAN

And another infinitely quotable writer appears on this list. Terry Pratchett was a treasure and a fountain of insight into human nature. The fact that he holds up a mirror to our society with humor only makes his books better! Reaper Man is one of his books that touched me particularly because even though Death takes a vacation in this story, his job is never really done, is it?

“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…”

– Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett


THEODORA GOSS – IN THE FOREST OF FORGETTING

I discovered Theodora Goss via Cat Valente because they both write mythpunk. The short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting blew me away with its imaginative stories, deep themes, and of course, beautiful quotes.

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

Pip and the Fairies by Theodora Goss


MAGGIE STIEFVATER – THE RAVEN BOYS

Maggie Stiefvater is one of those author who can pull you into a story that you follow along nicely, and then she hits you with a line so perfect it’s like a punch in the guts. But, you know, in a good way. I urge you to read her entire Raven Cycle, and then throw in the Scorpio Races and have your heart torn out. Because why should it just be me. I would have added my favorite quote from that book as well but it’s the very last line and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

“Gansey had once told Adam that he was afraid most people didn’t know how to handle Ronan. What he meant by this was that he was worried that one day someone would fall on Ronan and cut themselves.”

– The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater


TERRY PRATCHETT – NATION

Come on, let me have another Pratchett quote! This is a non-Discworld novel so if academic wizards, headology-using witches, or cynical city guards aren’t for you, pick this one up. Nation has so many layers and all of them are beautiful. Ever since I read it, I’ve been giving this book as a gift to everyone I could think of.

“Someone had to eat the first oyster, you know.
Someone looked at a half shell full of snot and was brave.”

 

“Take one strip of the vine lengthwise and yes, it needs the strength of two men to pull it apart. But weave five strands of it into a rope and a hundred men can’t break it. The more they pull, the more it binds together and the stronger it becomes. That is the Nation.”

– Nation by Terry Pratchett


YSABEAU S. WILCE – THE FLORA SEGUNDA TRILOGY

This criminally underread trilogy is such a gem! Flora Segunda, Flora’s Dare, and Flora’s Fury are the kind of books that make you feel like coming home after a long trip. You fall into this world’s alternate Calfornia and follow young Flora and her best friend Udo on crazy adventures. There’s twists and turns and quite a few emotional moments. Wilce’s use of language is quite brilliant and sets this series apart from other Middle Grade/YA tales.

Paperback Wonderland: August 2013

“I lit the lantern, ate a bar of chocolate, put on dry socks, and felt much better. You’d be amazed, said Nini Mo, how much dry socks matter.”

– Flora’s Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce

 

“It’s like Nini Mo said, They may be snapperheads, but they are my snapperheads.”

– Flora’s Fury by Ysabeau S. Wilce


GENEVIEVE VALENTINE – MECHANIQUE

This was one of those surprise books that I didn’t expect too much of and then it swept me away with its prose, its intricate characters, and the story it tells. Putting it on this list makes me want to re-read it immediately. Mechanique was so good, you guys! And it didn’t get nearly the attention it should have.

One day the wolf was wild enough to run into the forest near their camp, hunting something only it could sense. A week later when they pulled down the tent, the wolf had not come back. “Call it, if you want,” Boss told Jonah. “We’ll wait.”
That night Jonah stood for an hour at the edge of the camp, looking into the darkness of the woods. He came back empty-handed.
Ayar frowned. “It didn’t come?”
Jonah said, “I didn’t call.”

– Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine


 

Who Knew This Would Be So Much Fun: Catherynne M. Valente – Minecraft: The End

I have never played Minecraft. I know of the game’s existence and I’ve seen some of the very impressive buildings people have created in it, but I still have no idea what the point of the game is. It just never appealed to me. But when my favorite author writes a Minecraft novel, there is simply no way around trying it. And holy smokes, it turned out to be excellent fun!

MINECRAFT: THE END
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Hardcover: 256 pages
Series: Official Minecraft Novels #4
(but can totally be read as a standalone)
My rating: 9/10

First line: It is always night in the End.

For as long as they can remember, the twin endermen Fin and Mo have lived in the mysterious land of The End. On the outskirts of the great enderman city of Talos, they explore ancient ruins under the watchful gaze of the mighty ender dragon. They have everything they need in the end ship they call home, and know everything there is to know about their world—or so they think until the strangers from another dimension arrive.
The invaders are called humans, and they’ve come to steal artifacts and slay the ender dragon. Fin and Mo are ready to protect their home from the trespassers, but when they come face-to-face with the humans, they discover that they aren’t as prepared for battle as they’d thought. Caught off guard, the twins are trapped in the middle of a war between the endermen and the humans, with the future of their home at stake.

For someone like me, with no familiarity with the game whatsoever, the entrance into this world may have been a tad harder than for those of you who’ve played Minecraft. But Cat Valente does an excellent job in setting up the world, describing the countryside, the endermen, and of course ED – the Ender Dragon. I did look up shulkers on the internet, but even that wouldn’t have been necessary.

Fin and Mo are two outcast enderfrag twins who live on a ship with their shulker Grumpo (who is indeed very grumpy) and a lot of loot. Their only true friend is Kan, another enderman who isn’t fully trusted by others because unlike all other enderman, his eyes aren’t magenta, they are green. You can see why it’s easy to love those three. Everybody loves an underdog, and Fin and Mo are even more likable because their biggest desire is to just fit in, to belong somewhere, to have an End of their own. With their parents gone – presumed dead by rain or human in the Overworld – they are by themselves, however, and forbidden to train with the other ender children.

When a portal to the End is opened, many endermen come together and decide how to deal with the coming threat of a human army, bound to destroy them and their beautiful chaotic way of life. When some humans do show up, however, things turn out quite different than expected, and Mo and Fin find themselves not just between the fronts of two warring sides, but also questioning everything they know about themselves and the world. And there’s a zombie horse. That I completely and utterly fell in love with. If that isn’t a sign of great writing, I don’t know what is. But Loathsome the zombie horse will always have a place in my heart.

The beginning of this novel is mostly spent setting up the world and characters, and for that I was immensely grateful! With no knowledge of the Minecraft world or any of its lore, I could still just dive in and slowly learn what there is to know. I quite loved that endermen serve the Great Chaos while humans are said to be creatures of Order (what with putting blocks on top of each other quite neatly to make buildings and beds and other such nonsense). We get to meet the dragon ED, who is a whole mystery unto himself and seems to know a lot more than he lets on, we see the adorably hateful Grumpo whom I also loved despite his constant comments about hating everything and everyone, and the music-loving Kan, who desperately wants to learn what’s wrong with him and his eyes. And then the story truly kicks off.

One of the elder endermen – a cruxunit named Kraj who is known for telling long, sprawling tales that nobody wants to hear – mentions that the human army might already be assembled in the End, hiding as spies among all the real endermen. Because when humans put a pumpkin on their head, endermen cannot distinguish them from their own people. And then the twists start coming! I won’t give any of them away, but assuming you have spies among your own trusted people is such a great trope that Valente uses and turns on its head several times here. But trust me, things are never what you expect. All my suspicions were wrong and I am so happy when a book offers plot twists that seriously surprise me.

I can’t even express how much I loved this story. The characters grew on me, the mysteries became more and more intriguing and every time we learned something new, more questions popped up that kept me turning the pages. Valente paints a surprisingly vivid landscape considering there isn’t all that much to describe in the End, but I felt like I was there and I felt just as torn as Fin and Mo, trying to decided who were the monsters and who were the good guys. Or if it’s even as simple as all that.
There is action and adventure, there are trips to different places, secrets to uncover, there is magic and potions and clues all along the way. And there are two young endermen still just looking for their place in the world.

The ending is a thing of pure beauty. Don’t let anyone spoil this for you, because the surprises just keep on coming. I sat there with my mouth literally agape, surprised and thrilled that the story had gone the way it had. You can tell Valente trusts her readers – be they middle-grade kids, young adults, or adults like me – to follow along and wrap their heads around what’s happening. But she definitely doesn’t dumb her plot down because this is supposed to be for children and I love that so much!
If you’d told me that someday I’d read a Minecraft novel, let alone end up loving a Minecraft novel, I would have laughed at you. Not because I look down on the franchise but simply because Minecraft has never really caught my interest. But this story is such a perfect adventure with great characters and fantastic worldbuilding that I can’t help but give it a high rating. I loved every page and I can only imagine people familiar with Minecraft will love it even more.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfection!

Eurovision in Space: Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

I read this book in July 2018 and I adored every page. But – as with many of Cat Valente’s books – I find it very difficult to write a coherent review. Some of my Valente reviews are gushing, fangirly, quote-filled posts that I hope will convince some people to pick up her books. But I would understand if you guys just think: “That girl is crazy, but good for her for liking this book, I guess.” and moving on with your lives. With Space Opera, Valente garnered a much-deserved Hugo Award nomination (although I’ll repeat what I’ve said many times before: She should have been nominated and won for her novel Radiance!), so I’m giving this reviewing thing another try.

SPACE OPERA
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Saga Press, 2018
Hardcover: 294 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.

A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.
A band of human musicians, dancers, and roadies have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.

Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes are a has-been glam rock band, currently in sort-of-retirement. But when alien life pops up on Earth – all over the place, all at once, I might add – and informs us that we have to compete in an intergalactic music competition to prove our sentience and, therefore, our right to continue living on as a species, Decibel is ripped right out of his stupor and has to make music again.

There is a reason why this book has been compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and that reason is very simple (and if you read the first sentence above, you’ll know it). The style is similar, it has a silliness to it that will remind anyone of Douglas Adams’ hilarious trilogy of five, and it is filled to the brim with ideas, with original alien species, with deep thoughts about life and what makes humanity worthy of living. But like any comparison, it’s not exactly the same. Any book by Cat Valente will feature her signature style, although I admit she departed quite far from it for this novel. But you’ll still get flowery descriptions, long sentences,  clever inside jokes, and references to real-world things. Except, you know, with a wink and a smile.

Do not expect a very plot-heavy book. Stuff happens at the beginning and at the end. In the middle, the time where Decibel and the Absolute Zeroes prepare their intergalactic musical number, is spent mostly with character development, world-building, and ruminations about what makes life worthwhile. That could go either way for you, but I personally loved it. I don’t need big epic things to happen on every page, or at least not in every book I read. Discovering all the crazy aliens Valente came up with felt pretty epic to me. While some of them are just weird creatures – like giant, talking flamingoes – others are not corporeal at all. I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, but rest assured that there are a lot of aliens to be discovered  and that some of them are absolutely hilarious, especially if you remember Microsoft Word from The Olden Days. 😉

But despite the humor, this book also has depth. Decibel Jones is a Bowie-esque has-been rock star and that alone would make him an interesting enough character study. But the band is missing a member and figuring out what exactly happened and why is a nice sub-plot to the main story that may help readers who want more plot get over that rather quiet middle part. I  loved getting to know Decibel and slowly finding out why there is so much tension between the band members and what went wrong in their past.

As this is marketed as “Eurovision in Space”, you can be sure that there will be an epic competition of music (in its broadest definition) at the end. If you go in knowing that the song contest only happens at the very end of the book, maybe I can keep you from being disappointed. The way I read this book, I loved the journey to the ultimate plot climax as much as the ending itself. Even if I hadn’t, the ending would make it all worthwhile.

Because it is nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, let me say that it’s at the top of my ballot (I know, shocking, right?). I don’t think it will win because as with any humorous book (especially humorous science fiction or fantasy), it’s polarising. People either love it or bounce off it hard. And I get it. I came to this book totally biased because Cat Valente is my favorite author of all time. All I can do is recommend it to you and give you a heads-up of what to expect. If you’re in the mood for something funny but with depth, a wild ride through space (with red pandas!) or if you liked the “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOOOOOT” episode of Rick and Morty, then you should give Space Opera  a shot. And then, of course, go on to read everything else by Cat Valente.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!