The Humans Are the Monsters: Sam J. Miller – Destroy All Monsters

Sam J. Miller has done it again. I read his YA novel The Art of Starving last year on a Greek beach and loved every page. Then I went on to his adult, Nebula-nominated work Blackfish City, which also blew me away. So it’s no wonder that I’m back for more Miller goodness, and it’s also no wonder that he has delivered a fantastic, heart-wrenching piece of fiction yet again. Just like the last time I reviewed a Sam J. Miller book, I have such a hard time because there is so much going on in his books, so many layers, so many details. I promise you I’ll do my very best not to drift off into fangirl mode.

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS
by Sam J. Miller

Published by: Harper Teen, 2019
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: “He’s sleeping on the front porch again,” my mom said, her voice sounding sad the way only Solomon can make it.

A crucial, genre-bending tale, equal parts Ned Vizzini and Patrick Ness, about the life-saving power of friendship.
Solomon and Ash both experienced a traumatic event when they were twelve.
Ash lost all memory of that event when she fell from Solomon’s treehouse. Since then, Solomon has retreated further and further into a world he seems to have created in his own mind. One that insulates him from reality, but crawls with foes and monsters . . . in both animal and human form.
As Solomon slips further into the place he calls Darkside, Ash realizes her only chance to free her best friend from his pain is to recall exactly what happened that day in his backyard and face the truth — together.
Fearless and profound, Sam J. Miller’s follow up to his award-winning debut novel, The Art of Starving, spins an intimate and impactful tale that will linger with readers.

This is the kind of dual POV story where you get two really different perspectives of the same plot. Ash is a young girl who lives with depression (a little better now, thanks to medication) and finds solace in her photography. For a school photography project, she wants to do something big, something meaningful. She just hasn’t found what it is yet.
Her best friend Solomon is a more tragic figure. Nobody knows quite where he lives now. After his mother was arrested, Solomon ran away from his stepfather’s and stepbrother’s house. Solomon also quite literally lives in his own world, a magical world where he rides an allosaurus, where groups of people can wield magic, where danger lurks around every corner.
When they were twelve years old, something happened in Ash and Solomon’s lives – something they have no memory of but whatever it was, it seems to have set off both their mental disorders. Ash became depressed, Solomon started living in Darkside. But now that Child Protective Services are looking for Solomon, Ash knows she has to remember what happened in order to save her friend.

This is such a magnificent story, both for its plot and characters, and for the way it’s told. In alternating chapters, we get Ash and Solomon’s perspectives. But seeing how Solmon lives in Darkside, not a small American town, we also get the story of two worlds. There are a lot of parallels in these worlds, but they don’t overlap exactly.
In Ash’s world, ugly things start happening. Someone spray paints swastikas on a Jewish girl’s house, there are menacing graffitis everywhere, people’s property is destroyed, and it appears that the High School football team knows what’s going on.
In Solomon’s Darkside, tensions between Othersiders (those who have magic abilities) and non-magical residents boil over. Othersiders are threatened, even hurt, in the streets. People want them gone for the alleged threat of their magic, and reading this felt very much like reading about a race war about to happen. For Solomon, no place is safe, but what’s worse, no place for Princess Ash (currently in hiding) is safe either and he has made it his life’s goal to protect her.

I loved this book from the very first chapter. Diving into Solomon’s mind for the first time was a bit of a shock because I didn’t know what to expect and I kept looking for exact parallels between his world and Ash’s all the time. Word of advice: Don’t. There are certain characters that live in both their worlds and certain plot elements that are very similar but there are characters exclusive to Solomon’s world as well. Other characters, such as Solomon’s stepbrother Connor, is a teenager in the real world but only six years old in Solomon’s Darkside. Once you’ve read this story, some of things in Darkside make more sense, but don’t expect all of them to be explained. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, there are whales in the sky and people riding dinosaurs!

But what was really interesting was how the two protagonists perceived each other. Ash may have depression in real life but her medication is helping and she is a functioning human being who has friends and schoolwork and a hobby. In Solomon’s eyes, however, Ash has been under a spell that leaves her unable to use her powers and mostly catatonic. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is how Ash’s depression manifests in Solomon’s world, but despite being quite obvious, I found it really well done. Solomon himself works just fine in his world but is seen as nothing but a weirdo in our world. People either pity him or look down on him, but other than Ash, not many actually care for him. Because a six-foot guy who says he rides around on a dinosaur… not what  our world would call healthy.

As tensions in both worlds grow ever stronger – more vandalism, more hate crimes, more uprisings in Darkside asking the Queen to banish all Othersiders – Ash suddenly grows closer to Solomon’s world than before. Although only through her camera lens, she can see what he sees. And she intends to use this power to uncover the truth about the football team, whom she’s sure is behind the vile attacks. Solomon, in the meantime, is getting through to Princess Ash more and more. She is coming out of her stupor and seems to slowly figure out how to use her powers.

There is so much to love about this book and although it feels like I’ve told you half the plot, trust me, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Not only are all the characters really well done but the writing is just the way I’ve come to love from Sam J. Miller. Not the same as in his previous books but with the same beautiful flow that lets you eat up chapter after chapter without noticing that you’re reading. I also have to mention how refreshing it was to read a YA book with good parents. Ash is a fantastic protagonist because she realizes that she’s not living in a story and therefore, may need help from others. She goes to her parents – and they listen! And they help! It was possibly the most wonderful scene of the entire book.

I do have to say that the event that both Ash and Solomon can’t remember became fairly obvious after a certain point. That doesn’t make it any less horrible or any less impactful on their lives. But it also raises the question of whether people are just born bad or become that way (and if so, why?). While Solomon stands up bravely for what he believes in Darkside, Ash cleverly does the same in our world. She is such a smart character and I can’t tell you enough how much I loved that. I can’t abide naive or stupid protagonists, so Ash being smart about her problems, asking for help when she knows she can’t do everything alone, and believing that people make a choice to be good or evil (or something in between) – it was a joy!

The only thing that was a tiny letdown for me was the ending. Although things are mostly resolved, questions answered, and Ash and Solomon’s friendship stronger than ever, I wasn’t quite sure I liked the bittersweet note of it. But – as with any Sam J. Miller book – this was quite a story and I may change my opinion on the ending as I think it over. And belive me, this book will stick with me for quite a while.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

 

A hot mess: Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

Ah, the dreaded disappointment of an over-hyped book that simply does not deliver. This book promised so, so much! Starting from that gorgeous cover, there was supposed to be a slow-burn lesbian romance, a rich world inspired by Malaysia, plus magic and a suspenseful plot. It’s actually quite amazing that none of those promises were kept and the writing was… let’s say sub-par as well.

GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE
by Natasha Ngan

Published by: Jimmy Patterson Books, 2018
Hardcover: 400 pages
Series: Girls of Paper and Fire #1
My rating: 3/10

First sentence: There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow. 

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
TW: violence and sexual abuse.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so very disappointed in a book! It started out quite well with an introduction to the world and its underlying mythology out of which the castes were born. There’s not much information but it makes you want to find out more an really dive into the story.
I don’t quite know where to start with why this book failed so badly for me, so I’ll just tell you in no particular order the problems I had while reading.

Let’s start with Lei, the main character who has golden eyes (which, like, makes her super special but not really). Rarely have I encountered such a bland, boring, hypocrictical, idiotically stupid protagonist. I’ll forgive a bit of naivete but by the end, I was so disgusted with Lei’s behaviour that – even had she single-handedly saved the world I wouldn’t have cared for her. She arrives at Court as the ninth chosen concubine to the Demon King – a fate she naturally and understandably despises. She is terrified of being called to the king’s bedchamber and constantly thinks that she wants to defy him. But unfortunately, Lei is all talk (or rather thought) and no action. She is super clumsy in her classes – which I guess is supposed to be endearing but really isn’t – but her only defiance is in really stupid ways. If you want to fight what’s happening, don’t be an idiot about it!
But what bothered me even more is that she has no personality. She constantly thinks she wants freedom in very grand thoughts and flowery sentences that want to be quoted so badly but aren’t really all that quotable. But that word “freedom” has no meaning other than “not being a Paper Girl” to her. Lei has no hopes or dreams. She misses her family, sure, but there is nothing that she dreams of, nothing she wants to do with her freedom should she ever get it. Why should I root for someone who doesn’t even root for herself? Who has no hopes, no dreams, not even a freaking hobby?! Lei is all wannabe Braveheart speeches and no substance.

As for the caste system, of which Paper caste is the lowest and the one Lei belongs to –  you could replace Natasha Ngan’s idea with any other three castes. The different appearances of the castes has no impact on anything. The fact that the Steel and Moon castes have animal features (some of which are terribly described and make no sense, btw) has no bearing on the plot or the world or anything at all. So why add such a feature when the entire world and story would have been the same if all people looked human? I had a lot of trouble imagining some of the characters. The Paper girls have a teacher, for example, who is part hawk. There is a lot of talk about her “beaky nose” but I still don’t know if it was an actual beak or just a slightly crooked human nose. Other demons have fur all over their body while yet others only have hooves or horns growing out of their head. There is no consistency and the descriptions are simply not good enough to get any clear image of what anyone looks like.

Which leads me to the writing in general. It became more and more unbearable the further I read. Words and phrases are constantly repeated! It felt like the author only ever thought up one way to describe a certain thing (a dress, a building , someone’s hair, etc.) and kept using that one over and over. The way Lei remembers things other characters said to her reminded me of a high schooler trying to reach a specific word count for an essay and using repetition as as filler. I swear I read the same two lines – a general threatening Lei’s family if she didn’t cooperate and become a Paper girl – twenty times! It was jarring to say the least. Readers usually don’t forget a line of dialogue from three pages ago, you don’t have to repeat it word by word to make sure we still know…

Even had the descriptions not been as repetitive, they were still not enough for me to create the lush world that was promised. Mostly, we get descriptions of clothing items and a bit about the court and all its splendor. But throwing in a few Malaysian-inspired words does not make for rich world-building. I have finished this book and still have no idea what it’s like to live there. There is barely any mention of the culture, of traditions, of the mythology that was hinted at so nicely in the beginning. The few times that information is given about the wider world, it comes out of nowhere, just in time when the plot needs it. This complete lack of foreshadowing makes this book read like a first draft rather than an edited, finished novel.

This review is already getting long, but we haven’t even talked about the romance. Oh boy, the romance. There is nothing slow-burn about it. Lei simply sees one of the other Paper Girls and thinks she is super beautiful and cat-like. Wren, the girl in question, also happens to be the best in all the classes and sometimes gives Lei long looks. And then, boom, they’re madly in love. Like I-will-die-for-you-love! That’s it. They barely have any conversations and when they do, the stilted dialogue makes sure the reader feels as uncomfortable as possible. I swear, if you read those lines out loud, you wouldn’t be able to stop laughing, it sounds so unnatural. It feels especially awkward when two girls swear eternal love for each other but haven’t even done small talk. Like what’s their last name? Their favorite food? What did they do before becoming Paper girls… Ah, I guess that’s not important, just as long as they will die for each other!

I do have to say that Wren, at least, was an interesting character! For the first third or so of the story, a mystery surrounds her and she has agency, other than  Lei. That mystery is revealed incredibly out of the blue, like the author made it up on the spot (see lack of foreshadowing). As for the other Paper girls, they are cardboard cutouts with a single attribute attached to them. There are the twins, the nice but naive girl whom Lei befriends, and others that you never get to know but are supposed to care for when bad stuff happens to them. Blue is the stereotypical mean girl with not a single shade of grey to her.
Now Blue’s character just made me sad, because it had so much potential. If this is supposed to be a feminist story, about girls sticking together, about women helping women, then the mean girl should at least have more than one layer. She gets this really interesting backstory that made me want read about her rather than Lei, but behaves only within the limited frame of “bitch”. If she does or says anything at all, it is mean and it harms Lei. It would have been so nice to see the girl that gives the others a hard time come around when it’s important. But sadly, no.
Even the king is just evil personified with no depth whatsoever.

Another thing that drove me up the wall was how stupid most of the characters behaved. So Lei learns a secret, one that must be kept at all cost! And what does she do? First of all, she talks with Wren out in the open, at the Paper court where she has no idea if anyone can hear her. And she doesn’t even talk in code, they spell out their plan clear as day. Secondly, Lei feels super superior for knowing this secret and honestly drops hints of “I know something you don’t” to her maidservant – a girl who is absolutely loyal to the king and the court and the whole Paper girl thing. I wanted to slap everyone in this book at least once. I’m okay with characters making mistakes, but being consistently stupid is not okay.

The next point is difficult for me to talk about because I have no personal experience with nor do I know anyone who has experienced sexual assault. I have, however, just recently read a book that dealt with this topic in an amazing manner (Deerskin by Robin McKinley – highly recommended!) and I was surprised with how different these two authors’ approaches were. Lei goes through something terrible, something unimaginable! And while there are some repercussions in the form of nightmares, that’s all there is. This thing that happened to her simply doesn’t come up anymore after that. She has a few nights of bad dreams and then – nothing.  I understand that everyone deals with grief differently, everyone has their own way of coping with things, but the complete lack of even mentioning this horrible thing felt off, especially because this is a first person narrative and we are constantly in the protagonist’s head.
What really bothered me though was how the story completely ignored the other Paper girls’ experiences. Except for Aoki, none of the others even gets acknowledged! Even worse, Lei gets called so very brave for refusing the demon king, for running away the first time he called her to his bed – BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS? Are they cowards for enduring, for doing the terrible things expected of them to protect their families just as Lei wants to protect hers? Again, I have no experience and am going simply by gut feeling here, but this made me extremely uncomfortable throughout the whole book. I wanted to hear the other girls’ stories so badly, for them to get a voice too.

That leaves me only with the plot. While it hits the ground running, once Lei arrives at court, nothing much happens. Lei gets dressed up nicely, goes to her classes where she learns to dance and behave like a proper lady or whatever, stares at Wren, and dreams about that elusive freedom which she wouldn’t even know what to do with. On the rare occasion something does happen to further the plot, it’s like a slap. It comes out of nowhere and leaves you slightly befuddled. As the world doesn’t make sense and we never get any explanation of how it works (why is there a king, how does he rule, what does that entail), you can never know what to hope for. Would the country be better off without the king or would a new one simply replace him even if there is no official heir – other than being a disgusting rapist, we don’t know much about him – or is there a sort of rebellion wishing for a democratic government? Why are there raids on villages, what does the king get out of it? What about the magic that is sometimes mentioned and then completely ignored again? As you see, it’s all really messy and incoherent.
Either way, at the end, a lot of things happen very quickly, and almost none of them make sense. On the one hand, the ending makes me very curious how the author will continue this story and it can only get better. But on the other hand (that’s a gigantic other hand), I really don’t want to do this to myself for another 400 pages, even if it does get a little better.

I was promised a stereotype-smashing, feminist, LGBT romance in a lush setting with an explosive plot (literally all phrases I got from blurbs of this book). Promises were broken. This series ends here, for me.

MY RATING: 3/10 (for the okaybeginning)

Mackenzi Lee – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

With a cover and synopsis like that, who could resist this book? I personally was hoping for some fun, light entertainment with a little bit of romance and a lot of bickering. Plus an epic road trip through Europe. While I didn’t enjoy the second half of the book as much as the beginning, it still delivered on most of those points and had me giggling for a few hours.

THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE
by Mackenzi Lee

Published by: Katherine Tegen Books, 2017
Hardcover: 513 pages
Series: Guide #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy.

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Henry “Monty” Montague is a scoundrel who gets into trouble very easily but has a lot more difficulty getting back out again. His relationship with his father is strained, to say the least. As a bisexual young man in the 18th century, his escapades – be they with young men or women – are not something his father approves of, especially since he was to inherit the estate. Until the baby brother came along, that is. Now Monty has one last chance to prove he can be a responsible adult – a Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and, much to their dismay, a chaperone who is to show them the wonders of all the greatest cities on the continent.

It’s hard to dislike Monty, despite his really being an irresponsible, ungrateful young rake. He cares about very little in the world (mostly himself, his secret love Percy, and copious amounts of alcohol), but you can tell right from the start that he has a good heart and just needs to grow up a bit. The Tour seems just the right time for that. While things start out pretty much as planned (by his father, that is), Monty gets into deep trouble pretty soon. He, Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity don’t even reach the halfway point of their journey when they are set upon by highwaymen, have to flee, discover truths about each other that they didn’t even suspect, and must work together as a team to get out of this adventure alive!

We’re not courting trouble. Flirting with it at most.

This book had everything I had hoped for at the beginning. Quippy banter, a budding romance between Monty and Percy, lots of fun adventures and not-so-fun danger. Things dragged a bit when the group reached Spain and begin an entirely new adventure, but because the characters were so lovely, I didn’t mind too much. Percy’s being dark-skinned may not be an issue for Monty or Felicity, but 18th century Europe has other ideas and it is frequently shown that even though he is an English gentleman, Percy faces a lot of challenges because of the color of his skin. Felicity, in turn, is sent to an finishing school from where she is supposed to emerge a skilled young lady. Skilled, that is, in the arts of singing, stitching, and other stuff she doesn’t have the least interest in. Monty is just Monty, wanting to drink and party and sleep with beautiful people. In the beginning, at least.

When someone close to him is revelealed to suffer from a disability, Monty’s thinking slowly changes. He realises what’s important in life, and who he wishes to be loyal to. As light as it may be, as funny as his scrapes are, this is truly Monty’s coming-of-age story and he doesn’t grow up all at once. It’s a slow process with more mistakes to make and misunderstandings to clear up. But I was very happy to see that, by the end, Monty had indeed grown. He’ll perhaps never be a gentleman of utmost perfection but he learns to do the right thing, and to consider the feelings of others – especially those he loves.

While the writing in this book wasn’t very special, I adored the dialogues and the more romantic scenes. Monty and Percy have a particular relationship that makes it maybe even harder to start something more than friendship than if they had serendipitously met on Monty’s Tour. Having grown up together, often sleeping in the same bed, sharing almost everything with each other, there is already so much intimacy between them, that it seems like such a small step to just fall in love. Mackenzi Lee did a beautiful job of letting these two find their way to each other slowly, through many obstacles, and start something more substantial than one of Monty’s flings.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I am so excited that there will be a second part following Felicity’s further adventures. She started out as an annoying side character but grew on me so much that I consider her as one of the gang. By the end, she is probably the most kick-ass of the trio (Hermione, anyone?).

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Second opinions:

Sad but beautiful: Adam Silvera – They Both Die at the End

I suppose everybody has their own coping mechanisms when it comes to loss and grief. That reading is one of mine may not be a surprise but I was myself a little weirded out by the fact that I found myself actively looking for books about death or people dying. Having already read The Fault in Our Stars, this one came to mind because everybody was talking about it and I really liked the cover. So, I tackled this adventure (if you want to call it that) and I got pretty much exactly what I expected. And for what it’s worth, it helped.

THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END
by Adam Silvera

Published by: Harper Teen, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Death-Cast is calling with the warning of a lifetime—I’m going to die today.

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

Mateo Torrez gets the dreaded call that everybody will get some day. He knows from the ring tone that Death-Cast is on the line, informing him that he has less than 24 hours to live. Death-Cast knows when people die. They don’t know how or when exactly, but within a 24-hour-frame, they know and let you know so you can make arrangements.

The synopsis (and title!) should have prepared me for at least some of what was to come but those very first pages already hit me in the guts hard. Many people don’t know when they die and they won’t be informed in a timely manner so they can say their goodbyes, maybe write a will, or give away their beloved dog to someone they trust. But with my own recent loss, it went somewhat similar. Doctors informed us my grandmother had “not much time left” – without science-fictional/magical companies – which are never explained, btw – that’s as close as we get in the real world. Everybody got to say their goodbyes, talk about what was going to happen after she was gone, she got to give away her stuff to her preferred people.
And just a few weeks later, I find myself reading about someone, an 18-year-old kid, with his dad in a coma and his mother long dead, in the same situation my grandmother was. Except he didn’t have a lifetime of memories to look back on. In fact, Mateo is such an anxious teenager that he didn’t leave the house much and lived more through internet forums, games, and books than through his own experiences. As a fanatic reader and a big fan of the couch myself, I can relate.

The other of the titular “both” is Rufus Emeterio, and his entrance into this story is a little misleading as to his character. He is in the process of beating his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to a pulp when his own phone rings with that terrible, dreaded ring tone. Recently orphaned himself, he only has his found family – consisting of his best friends and ex-girlfriend – to say goodbye to, but even that goes wrong. Rufus may be way more outgoing and open than Mateo, but the loss of his parents and sister left deep scars and changed who he was in a matter of heartbeats. Discovering who these boys were and what made them tick was the one part of the book that could be called fun, although the dark cloud of their impending death hangs over everything.

In a world where some big company knows when everybody dies, there is also an app for Deckers (people who already got the call) to make their last day count. The Last Friend App is supposed to connect people, have a last adventure, have a last night of wild sex, do whatever they please so they don’t have to be alone in their final hours. I kind of loved how touching this idea was, and how it uses technology for something good. But Adam Silvera has been on the actual internet and gives us glorious examples of all the messed up shit that can be found literally everywhere. When Mateo first tries the app, he gets messages that range from careless and insulting to immoral and disgusting. People looking to score cheap furniture from the soon-to-be-dead, others looking for sex without consequences, some looking to sell drugs, and yet others that just seem to be intrigued by the idea of chatting to people who are about to die – it’s all there and it’s all sickening.

But, as the cover suggests, Mateo and Rufus do connect via the app and, after getting to know each other a little and checking off Mateo’s to do list, they actually become friends. Mateo’s goodbye from his best friend Lidia and her daughter Penny made me cry more than anything else in this book. While Rufus tells his friends immediately that he is going to die and wants a funeral (while he’s still here) with eulogies and goodbyes and everything, Mateo keeps it secret, not wanting to burden Lidia or ruin their last day together. But that’s the thing about people who truly love you: they know when something’s wrong.

I won’t go into the details of what Mateo and Rufus do on their last day because the things themselves are actually meaningless. Sure, there’s a little VR adventure, going out of their comfort zones in different ways, opening up about their secrets, and talking about their lives and the ones they’ll leave behind. What really matters – and we all know this already, deep down – is the people you love. Thinking about death and dying, I mean really thinking about it, is hard enough, but doing it when you’re only 17 or 18 is just heartbreaking. Five stages of grief aside, it just feels so unfair! There wasn’t enough time to experience so many things. And I don’t mean big stuff like travel the world or see your grandkids grow up. Even little things like fall in love for the first time, get your first kiss, graduate from school, have sex. Plus, all of the more individual stuff, no matter how silly. If I died tomorrow, I would never find out how A Song of Ice and Fire Ends which may well be the least of my worries, but still!

It’s a bit slow to start but once the book finds its footing, it is a powerful story that hurts a little more with every new chapter. Apart from Rufus and Mateo’s point of view chapters, we get others from side characters. People the two boys meet on the street, their friends, people who work at Death-Cast… They are short chapters, but they flesh out the world a bit and remind us that Rufus and Mateo aren’t the only ones in it and not the only ones suffering. Many others got the call the same night they did, and someone had to make those calls. Famous people die too. Money does not equal happiness. People react very differently to finding out they’re about to die… Lots of small in-between chapters make this novel more accomplished, more than “just” the story of two teenagers who are about to die. They also give more meaning to Rufus and Mateo’s last day because they show that little things have an impact on others, whether it’s giving money to a beggar, smiling at someone on public transport, or any of a million other tiny things you might do without even noticing.

I half-expected this book to be cheap, to use teenage death, which is obviously a big tear-jerker, as a selling point. But I doubt that the author intended that because of how delicately he handles the topic. The boys’ last day doesn’t go perfect. They don’t get to do all they wanted to. They get to do some of it. They even get to experience new things, discover something about themselves, grow so much in such a small amount of time. And the more I read about them, the more I found myself hoping (just like they did themselves) that the title was just there to mislead us readers. They were going to make it, somehow. Death-Cast made a mistake, they can change their apparently pre-destined fate. And I won’t tell you what does happen at the end, whether the title is true or a lie, because I think that little bit of uncertainty, that sliver of hope, is not only what made this story richer. It’s also what keeps us going every day.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

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Eternally hopeful: Mishell Baker – Phantom Pains

It’s no secret that I usually steer away from Urban Fantasy. But that only means the type of Urban Fantasy with scantily clad women on the cover, usually looking over their shoulder, carrying some kind of weapon, and with the title written over their wrapped-in-leather butt. But Mishell Baker makes Urban Fantasy so much fun! Even with the most broken (literally) heroine you can imagine, The Arcadia Project series takes you on wild adventures and leaves you just hopeful of the future, whatever it may bring.

PHANTOM PAINS
by Mishell Baker

Published by: Saga Press, 2017
Ebook: 416 pages
Series: The Arcadia Project #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Here’s the thing about PTSD: it doesn’t understand the rules.

Four months ago, Millie left the Arcadia Project after losing her partner Teo to the lethal magic of an Unseelie fey countess. Now, in a final visit to the scene of the crime, Millie and her former boss Caryl encounter Teo’s tormented ghost. But there’s one problem: according to Caryl, ghosts don’t exist.

Millie has a new life, a stressful job, and no time to get pulled back into the Project, but she agrees to tell her side of the ghost story to the agents from the Project’s National Headquarters. During her visit though, tragedy strikes when one of the agents is gruesomely murdered in a way only Caryl could have achieved. Millie knows Caryl is innocent, but the only way to save her from the Project’s severe, off-the-books justice is to find the mysterious culprits that can only be seen when they want to be seen. Millie must solve the mystery not only to save Caryl, but also to foil an insidious, arcane terrorist plot that would leave two worlds in ruins.

Millie Roper has a job, regular therapy sessions, and her life mostly under control. After her adventures with the Arcadia Project, a bit of routine seems like just the thing to make her forget what she’s seen, and who she’s lost. But – as stories go – she is dragged back into Arcadia business soon enough where she has to fix a whole new mess. And of course she wouldn’t be Millie if she didn’t add an extra layer of messiness to an already difficult situation. But that’s exactly what makes these books so much fun.

Phantom Pains picks up only a few months after the end of Borderline and while Millie is still struggling with her old demons and disablities (prosthetic legs, BPD, plus the newly-added PTSD), she is still the Millie I fell in love with. The hopeful one who knows herself all too well and doubts her every emotion, but believes in herself when it counts. She combines intelligence, humor, and pragmatism in the most sympathetic way and I hope I’ll get to read many more books featuring her. If more Urban Fantasy progatonists were like Millie, I’d actually read the damn things.

But Millie’s life has changed in another major way since we last saw her. She knows and is in contact with her Echo, Claybriar, and as much as I love their relationship, it is super complicated! If, after her suicide attempt, Millie hadn’t been put together with metal screws and plates, she wouldn’t be Ironbones – basically poison to the fey but also WHAT A COOL NAME. Touching Claybriar, which she desperately wants to do, hurts him and also makes his facade disappear, showing him for the faun he really is. To say that their relationship is interesting is a huge understatement. Add to that the fact that they both sleep with other people (non-romantically), plus Millie’s complex relationship with Caryl, and you’ve got the makings of a thrilling story, even without the added crazy magic.

This book advances a lot more than just Millie as a character, though. The entire world of the Arcadia Project opens up, introducing us to the head of the Project herself, as well as some very high up people from Arcadia. I had a blast getting to know these new characters and learning more about the world Baker has created. It’s always appreciated when it’s not just vampires and werewolves but anything else. And if that anything is internally consistent and has some sort of magic-logic to it, all the better.  There are also some huge revelations to do with this particular magic that turn the entire world upside down but which I can’t go into detail because spoilers. But let me tell you, I had a really stupid look on my face when I read that chapter, and I felt about as confused and lost as Millie did.

One thing about side characters: I absolutely loved loved loved Brand! If this book went my way, there would have been an additional 50 chapters, all involving Brand, preferably in combination with Tjuan. He added a weird but delightful sense of humor to the horrible things that were going on. You know, fate of the world at stake and all that, but at least I can laugh about and with Brand. Tjuan was already there in the first book but I really liked how we finally learn a bit more about him and how his character gets more depth. The same goes for Claybriar and Caryl. I don’t want to spoil anything here but even characters that don’t show up a lot feel like real people.

The diversity in this series is amazing! There’s Millie to start with, but everyone working for the Arcadia Project usually has some sort of disability or disorder. In addition, there is an Indian woman and a trans man, and (because I know someone is going to say it) it’s not ticking off diversity points from a list. It feels organic and normal and wonderful simply because the characters are all different, and all in different ways. Whether it’s a schizophrenic POC, or an Indian straight woman, or a bisexual woman with Borderline Personality Disorder, these feel like real people to me and I want to get to know every single one of them better. Even the dicks.

The plot was – just as I expected – always entertaining, never shying away from unexpected twists and turns, maybe even more action-packed than in the previous book without sacrificing character development. Pretty amazing, right? The ending was both great and terrifying, because I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next book, and (if you couldn’t tell already) I’ve come to really care about these characters. However, I am now in for the long haul, and hope that Mishell Baker gets the chance to write at least 10 more Arcadia books. Buy this book, people! You know you want to.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!

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Madeline Miller – The Song of Achilles

Like a lot of people, I’ve never read the Iliad. I know the basic story from school and those Greek Myths CDs I had as a kid, but I’ve always lacked the gumption to actually pick up a copy and read the whole damn thing. But you don’t really need to know anything about the Iliad to enjoy The Song of Achilles – in fact, this made me want to go straight back to those Greek stories and I may just pick up Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe García McCall soon, which retells the Odyssey.

THE SONG OF ACHILLES
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Harper Collins, 2011
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My father was a king and the son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders.

The legend begins…

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

The Song of Achilles is told by Patroclus and follows him from childhood to the battle of Troy. Patroclus is a prince who is exiled after an accident that kills another boy, so he loses his name and princedom, and he also has trouble coming to terms with the other boy’s death. He also meets Achilles, famed to become aristos achaion, the Best of the Greeks, a hero and the son of a goddess. A connection starts blooming between these unlikely friends that soon turns into more.

This is definitely one of those slow burning books, where for long stretches at a time, nothing much seems to happen, especially if you expect epic battles. But the way it focuses on characters and the relationship between Achilles and Patroculs kept me entertained for the full 400 pages without a problem. Madeline Miller writes beautifully, letting her characters’ actions speak for them. I loved it so very much when Patroclus looked at Achilles and described him in his mind – without getting cheesy or overly descriptive of his body parts, he paints the picture of a god and makes it all the easier to understand why he loves him.

I can smell him. The oils that he uses on his feet, pomegranate and sandawood; the salt of clean sweat; the hyacinths we had walked thorugh, their scent crushed against our ankles. Beneath it all his own smell, the one I go to sleep with, the one I wake up to.

Apart from the wonderfully done romance, I was also intrigued by the setting and society in this book. Having next to no experience with stories of Ancient Greece that aren’t specifically about the gods, I was quite surprised at certain aspects. There are a ton of princes, bringing shame to your family is the worst, gods can be appeased with sacrifice… While I expected all of this to some degree, the way Miller incorporated these things into the story felt organic and natural, like it’s just part of these guys’ lives.

Another highlight was definitely Odysseus, the sly man. He may only show up a couple of times before he joins in the war on Troy, but I swear he steals every scene he is in. Despite being a side character in this particular story, he has the air of a protagonist and you can tell – even if you don’t know about the Odyssey – that this guy is going to go down in history as a legend. Whenever he showed up, I started smiling and waiting to see what he would come up with next.
Similarly interesting was Achilles’ relationship to his mother, Thetis, and her as a character in general. She never makes a secret of her dislike for Patroclus, and Achilles stands between them, silently but certain of his choices. See, this is what I meant when I said it’s a slow-moving book. The interesting bits aren’t so much in the action scenes (although there are some of those at the end in the battle of Troy) but in the little moments between characters, in what they don’t say, but what their body language conveys. Making body language come to life in a novel is no small feat but I saw every scene so vividly before me that I caught myself speculating on why somebody’s shoulders slumped at a particular moment, or why Achilles stands so tall and proud.

I did feel that the last part of the book dragged a bit with the Trojan war going on what felt like forever. Since Patroclus is not much of a fighter, he spends the days at camp and develops a beautiful relationship with Briseis, a woman taken as spoils of war (yeah… that was a punch in the face, women being handed around literally as prizes). It’s not that stuff doesn’t happen, it’s just that Patroclus is best when Achilles is around, and Achilles is kept grounded by Patroclus. They are such a beautiful couple, in every way imaginable, that I already felt sad long before Achilles’ prophecied death.

The very end held a few surprises in store, which is all I’m going to say on that matter. But after following these two men through most of their childhood into adulthood, I closed the book with a feeling of deep satisfaction and some warm fuzzies in my stomach. This is a beautiful story and I see why it has won all sorts of acclaim when it came out. I will not soon forget Achilles and Patroclus, and no matter how many retellings of the Iliad I read or see, they will always be a couple in my mind.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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#ReadDiverse2017 – A Recommendations List (Part 3)

Here it is, the third and final part of my recommendations for the Read Diverse 2017 challenge. As I mentioned in part 2, these are books and authors on my TBR, so I have no idea if they are any good. But I’ll tell you a little about the books and what made me decide to buy them. Whether it’s a particular buzz word or a setting or a character that drew me in, it may do the same for you.

(even more) diverse authors to read

SILVIA MORENO-GARCÍA

Every book Moreno-García has published so far immediately jumped at me and begged to be read. The reason I still haven’t is that same old tune – too many books, too little time. But I mean, who could resist Mexican noir vampires or a story set in 1980ies Mexico City, involving music and being sold “for fans of Stranger Things”.
Silvia Moreno-García is a Mexican-Canadian writer and she seems to be full of excellent ideas. I’ll definitely be reading Signal to Noise this year and watching out for any new books she publishes.

Books on my TBR: Signal to Noise (I’m including both covers, one of which definitely gives that Stranger Things vibe) and Certain Dark Things.

ROSHANI CHOKSHI

I won’t lie, it’s the covers that drew me in first. But, on closer inspection, it turns out that The Star-Touched Queen is a retelling of the Hades and Persephony myth with a fairy tale flavor. So how could I not buy it? The second book is a companion novel, rather than a sequel which gives Chokshi extra bonus points. Plus, there’s the Book Smugglers story “The Vishakanya’s Choice” which has an Indian setting. Seriously, everything Roshani Chokshi writes sounds up my alley, so I should really get started on reading.
Also, check out her blog – she does make-up based on book covers and characters and it is GORGEOUS!

Books on my TBR: The Star-Touched Queen, its companion A Crown of Wishes and “The Vishakanya’s Choice”.

MIYUKI MIYABE

Miyabe is a Japanese author who writes a lot. In a lot of different genres. And I have actually read one of her books, although it was a novelization of a video game (remember Ico in the Mist, anyone?). Since I really liked the stuff that Miyabe made up, but didn’t like the “retelling” of the game so much, I knew I’d have to try her original fiction. There are gargoyles, sisters saving brothers, and portal fantasies – all things I enjoy. Plus, put a girl with books on the cover and I’m guaranteed to want to read it. I hope that this reading challenge will give me the final nudge to finally pick up one of the books I own and properly discover this author.

Books on my TBR: Brave Story, The Book of Heroes and the recently released The Gate of Sorrows (which is a sequel of sorts so don’t start there).

CORINNE DUYVIS

Much like with Silvia Moreno-García, I have immediately bought Corinne Duyvis’ books when I first discovered them but haven’t read any yet. She is a Dutch author who co-founded and edits Disability in Kidlit (if you don’t know this, definitely check it out) and was herself diagnosed with autism. From what I know of her books, they all feature diverse characters with disabilities and some really original science-fiction/fantasy ideas.
In Otherbound, whenever the main character closes his eyes, he sees through a mute girl’s eyes (and vice versa, I think). On the Edge of Gone sounds darker and more adult with a full-blown apocalypse.

Books on my TBR: Otherbound which features a mute character, and On the Edge of Gone, a post-apocalyptic story with an autustic character.

NICOLA GRIFFITH

Here’s a more established author who I am ashamed to have never read. She has written highly acclaimed novels and a ton of short stories, some of which I own but never seem to get to… My plan is to read Hild this year which not only sounds amazing but also features a bisexual protagonist. Griffith is married to a woman and from the Goodreads tags, I have deduced that pretty much all of her novels feature queer characters.

Books on my TBR: Hild which – from cover to synopsis – pushes all my happy-buttons, Ammonite and Slow River. All standalones. Plus the short story “Cold Wind”.

KAMERON HURLEY

It’s strange because I’ve been reading Hurley’s non-fiction for years now, but I never actually read any of her novels. Most recently, I read her non-fiction collection The Geek Feminist Revolution which exceeded all my expectations and I highly recommend it! But since Hurley always writes interesting female characters, many of whom are queer or bisexual, it’s time I tried one of her novels. I’m unsure whether to start with God’s War, the first of a trilogy, The Mirror Empire (another trilogy starter), or The Stars are Legion, which is a standalone space opera from what Goodreads tells me.

Books on my TBR: The Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy and The Mirror Empire.

And just because it’s always fun to have a list of books to look forward to (read: not yet published), here are some diverse titles on my wishlist that will be published later this year:

  • Mackenzi Lee – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
    A bisexual young gentleman’s road trip in the 18th century? With magic? Sign me up!!
  • K. Arsenault Rivera – The Tiger’s Daughter
    Interesting setting, queer protagonist, and a seriously gorgeous cover – that’s all it takes to get me interested.
  • Jy Yang – The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune
    Beautiful covers, non-binary author from Singapore, and published by Tor.com – these books are bound to be amazing!
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Wild Beauty
    I just have to read this book. It’s tagged as GLBT on Goodreads, but it was cover and synopsis that did it for me.
  • Julie C. Dao – Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
    East Asian setting, Vietnamese-American author, PLUS a retelling of The Evil Queen legend.
  • Tochi Onyebuchi – Beasts Made of Night
    Nigerian-flavored fantasy featuring sin-eaters. Just take my money.
  • Melissa Basherdoust – Girls Made of Snow and Glass
    An LGBT fairy tale retelling sold as “Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber” – that’s all I know but that’s totally enough.
  • Aditi Khorana – The Library of Fates
    An Indian author writing a coming-of-age story steeped in Indian folklore. Yes, please!
  • Leena Likitalo – The Five Daughters of the Moon and The Sisters of the Crescent Empire
    A Finnish author writing a Russian-inspired story about the Romanov sisters. Definitely sounds like not-your-average fantasy duology.

 

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#ReadDiverse2017 – A Recommendations List (Part 2)

I am so happy that my first recommendations post got such positive feedback. Thank you to everyone who commented – you have no idea how much joy it gives me when others pick up the books I love. I do a little happy dance every time somebody says they’re trying a new-to-them author because I recommended them. So because you guys seemed to like it and I have so many more diverse authors that I’d like to recommend, here is part 2 of my Read Diverse 2017 recommendations.

Note that I haven’t read as many books by most of these authors (one exception) which is the reason they didn’t make part 1 of my recommendations series. I’ll add covers to the most well known books by them but my recommended starting points are also based on what other people have recommended.

(More of) mY FAVORITE DIVERSE AUTHORS

SOFIA SAMATAR

I have only read one of Samatar’s short stories and the lovely A Stranger in Olondria which won a lot of awards and was nominated for more. It’s a book that I’d recommend also to people who don’t read or like fantasy all that much. While set in a fictional world, it has very few fantasy elements. Okay, there is a ghost, but the meat of the story is one man’s coming-of-age tale while discovering new places. The protagonist is also an avid reader and a lover of stories and history, so any book lover should feel right at home. Plus, the language is just beautiful and the story is very immersive.
Sofia Samatar has Somali and Swiss parents and taught in Sudan. I’ll try and find the interview where she talks about her travels and all the places she has lived but her interest in different cultures definitely shines through her fiction.

Recommended starting point: A Stranger in Olondria or, for the short story crowd, “Selkie Stories are for Losers” (which you can read for free).

KAZUO ISHIGURO

Here’s another one for those of you who don’t read much fantasy or science fiction but wouldn’t mind a little taste of it. Ishiguro is definitely in the literary camp and of the books I’ve read, only one can be called sfnal in any way. But he is a skilled writer who will definitely make you cry. Just give him 200 pages and get the tissues ready. In The Remains of the Day, he tells the life of a super dedicated butler which sounds boring but – trust me – isn’t. There are revelations in that quite book that left me seriously emotional.
Similarly, in Never Let Me Go, the revelation is kind of obvious from the start but while reading you try and pretend it’s not true. This is the book with a sci-fi bend to it, although the characters are so much front and center that it doesn’t matter what genre you normally read.

Recommended starting pointNever Let Me Go because the slightly larger cast makes it a faster read than The Remains of the Day, although I do recommend reading both (and you can watch the movies afterward) . The Buried Giant is still on my reading list, but as Ishiguro writes only standalones, you can pretty much start anywhere.

ZORAIDA CÓRDOVA

I discovered Córdova because I was actively looking for diverse reads and her wonderful novel Labyrinth Lost didn’t disappoint. It’s about brujas and the underworld and lots of cool stuff, and it features a bisexual heroine. The author was born in Ecuador (as far as I could find out) but grew up in New York – her book is flavored with Latin American mythology which made me like it even more. I look forward to the next Brooklyn Brujas book very much.

Recommended starting point: Labyrinth Lost, or the first in Córdova’s mermaid trilogy, The Vicious Deep.

KARIN LOWACHEE

Lowachee should be way better known than she is. Again, I have only read one of her books so far but after finishing Warchild, I immediately went out to get all her other books. Warchild is a science fiction story that focuses on character rather than space battles (although there are some of those, too). As a young boy, Jos’ ship is attacked, his parents killed and he is kidnapped by a space pirate. He is later trained to be a spy in the intergalactic war that is going on. Mostly, this book is about how war can shape humans. If you’re worried going into the story because the first chapter is written in second person, don’t worry, it’s only one chapter but I found the narrative choice gave it even more impact.
Plus, there will be a new book in that series coming out soon, The Warboy.

Recommended starting point: Warchild, which is part one of a loose trilogy (different characters in all the books), or the standalone fantasy novel The Gaslight Dogs.

KAREN LORD

Of the three books I read by Karen Lord, I adored one, liked another, and really disliked the third. But that may well be a matter of personal taste and I still want to recommend Lord because she is such a fresh voice in today’s SFF publishing. Her debut Redemption in Indigo retells a Senegalese folktale (which is much more interesting than the billionth version of Red Riding Hood) and reads very much like a bit of mythology.
My favorite book of hers was The Best of All Possible Worlds which took me a couple of attempts to read, but once I got into it, I was into it! It’s about the remnant (exclusively male) population of an eviscerated planet, trying to find a culture similar to theirs to so they can find wives and keep their own bloodlines and culture alive. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and also a little bit of a love story. The book I didn’t like was its sequel, The Galaxy Game.

Recommended starting point: Redemption in Indigo if you like some mythology and a fairy tale feel, or The Best of All Possible Worlds if you prefer a roadtrip of cultural discovery in a science fictional world.

ZEN CHO

I discovered Zen Cho before her wildly popular book Sorcerer to the Crown came out. This Malaysian writer has been publishing shorter fiction for a while now, and I’d say her most standout quality is charm. Her characters, her writing, her stories are just utterly charming. They don’t have the emotional impact I would like but there’s something about them that makes it hard to put her books down. My first read was The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, but I fell absolutely in love with Prunella Gentleman of Sorcerer to the Crown. Practical women for the win, especially if they can do magic!

Recommended starting point: Sorcerer to the Crown or the short story Monkey King, Faerie Queen which you can read for free or even download for your e-reader.

JACQUELINE KOYANAGI

So Koyanage has only published one book so far and I am still waiting for a sequel to that first novel. But I highly recommend it, especially if you’re reading it for the Read Diverse Challenge. Koyanagi writes queer women of color, protagonists with disabilities, and polyamorous relationships. All of that you get in Ascension, a pretty cool space adventure with lots of kick-ass characters and excellent world building. She suffers from chronic illness herself, and I felt that this experience showed in her protagonist, Alana. Alana’s condition doesn’t feel like a “characteristic” to make a character stand out, it feels like it’s part of who she is, a thing she lives with every day. In short, it felt real. Definitely check out this book!

Recommended starting point: Ascension, the first book in the Tangled Axon series. Hopefully, there will be a second book soon.

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE

You didn’t think I’d write any sort of recommendation list and leave out Cat Valente, did you? As a bisexual author, Cat writes diverse characters in all her books. Here’s a podcast with lots of recommendations of LGBT+ books that made my wishlist grow quite a bit. Valente is incredibly prolific and while I have read most of her books, it’s difficult to recommend where to start. I will give you pointers that may help you pick the right book for your taste. But all of her books feature characters of all shapes and colors (literally! There are blue characters…) and genders and sexualities and physical abilities.

Recommended starting point(s): For the YA/MG lovers out there and those undecided, the best place to start is with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making. It’s the first in a (completed) series, so you can continue reading once you get a taste.
If you want something more grown up, and more difficult to read, you can pick either of these:

  • Deathless: A standalone fairy tale retelling set during WWII in Leningrad. It’s got lovely, lyrical language, beautiful imagery, Russian folklore, and lots of that fairy tale flavor.
  • Palimpsest: A standalone novel about a sexually transmitted city (no typo, that’s really what it is). It’s not exactly fast-paced, but focuses on character and imagery. Beautiful book, but not for everyone’s taste.
  • Radiance: This is AMAZING! The story of a disappeared film maker set in a pulpy version of our solar system. You can live on all the planets, Hollywood is on the moon, etc. But the best is the way it’s told: through interviews, movie script pages, different narration styles. You kind of have to read it to see what I mean. But it is pretty much a perfect book.
  • The Orphan’s Tales: This duology is difficult because of its structure (stories within stories within stories) but it has the most diverse cast I’ve ever read about. It reads like an alternate 1001 Nights and feels very much like folklore and mythology.
  • Six-Gun Snow White/Speak Easy/Silently and Very Fast: Three novellas if you just want a taste. Six-Gun Snow White is a Snow White retelling set in the Wild West with a biracial Snow White. It’s heartbreaking and kick-ass and very poetic.
    Speak Easy is set in a hotel in the Roaring Twenties where every room hides a secret, the basement is a portal to hell (or a really great party, depending on your stance) and there’s a great twist at the end.
    Silently and Very Fast is a more abstract novella about an AI coming to terms with its existence. It has some fairy tale elements to it but less plot than the other two novellas.

That’s it for my second round of recommendations. In the next and final part, I will tell you about the diverse authors on my TBR that I haven’t read yet. I hope this list was helpful and my favorite writers find new readers because then they’ll write more books and that will be great for all of us. Happy reading!

 

 

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#ReadDiverse2017 – A Recommendations List (Part 1)

It’s officially May and I’m still very much enjoying the Read Diverse 2017 Challenge because it helps me discover so many great books. Some people post Diversity Spotlight posts every week and I like those well enough, but they are always too short for my taste and not as useful as I’d like. I want longer lists of recommendations, and not just a list of book titles and the Goodreads synopsis, but a reason to pick those books up. So, although I could collect tons of points for the Read Diverse challenge by recommending only three books at a time, I thought I’d throw my favorites at you in a few longer posts, contaning lots of books.

MY FAVORITE DIVERSE AUTHORS

N. K. JEMISIN

If you haven’t heard about Nora Jemisin, then (1) where have you been these last years and (2) you are so lucky because you’ve got a ton of great books ahead of you. Jemisin writes fantasy, but unlike anything you’ve read before. There are no elves and dwarves, no European mythology, no setting that’s a blatant copy of medieval England. Her characters are usually people of color, and race and gender play a large role in most of her books. But it’s her original ideas that make her books so addictive to me. Humans controling gods, a thing called Dreamblood, people who can feel and alter seismic activity? It sounds wild and it is, but Jemisin also manages to create believable fantasy worlds, peopled with fleshed-out characters who are flawed and beautiful and heartbreaking.

Recommended starting point: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or, if you feel adventurous and up for something heftier and darker, The Fifth Season.

HELEN OYEYEMI

This is for you if you prefer a more “literary” type of fantasy fiction. Oyeyemi’s writing is gorgeous, no matter what you call it. She plays with fairy tales and folklore, turns tropes on their heads, and above all, writes diverse characters in all her stories. In Boy, Snow, Bird (my favorite of hers) she uses the Snow White fairy tale to examine race and gender during the 1950ies. Her short story collection What is not Yours is not Yours is filled with all sorts of diverse characters. Whether it’s skin color, sexual orientation or gender identity, Oyeyemi tells stories where everybody gets a voice. I found Mr. Fox quite difficult to read so I wouldn’t recommend to start with that. I still have quite a lot of her books to read myself and I look forward to each one of them.

Recommended starting point: Boy, Snow, Bird because the language and structure are easy to get into, or What is Not Yours is Not Yours if you want to try short stories first.

NNEDI OKORAFOR

Okorafor has recently been very successful with her novella series about Binti, a young Himba woman who goes to a renowned space university and accidentally brings peace between two formerly warring alien species. It’s a wonderful novella series and I highly recommend it, but my first book by Okorafor – and the one dearest to my heart – is Who Fears Death, a story so powerful and gut-wrenching I will never forget it. Okorafor also writes short stories and YA novels, so there’s something for every taste.

Recommended starting point: Binti for a quick and wonderful introduction, Who Fears Death if you’re up for dark post-apocalyptic stuff, or Kabu-Kabu for short stories that are much lighter.

NALO HOPKINSON

Hopkinson is one of those authors who effortlessly make two ideas come together and turn into something new and beautiful. Her books are heavily influenced by Caribbean folklore, they are sometimes set in Canada, and they mostly feature women of color as protagonists. But Nalo Hopkinson also does amazing things with language. If you read Midnight Robber and don’t fall in love hard, then I’m sorry, but we can’t be friends.

Recommended starting point: You could start with Hopkinson’s debut novel Brown Girl in the Ring which is accessible enough but (comparatively) not that good. I recommend Midnight Robber and if the language puts you off, go for the short story collection Falling in Love With Hominids.

ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON

I admit to having only read one book by Alaya Dawn Johnson so far but that book was so wonderful that I have been buying her other books since then. My recommended starting point is fairly obvious in this case – start where I started, because apparently it gets you hooked. Johnson’s writing in The Summer Prince did so many things on so many levels. On the one hand, it’s a YA romance story, set in future Brazil, featuring a graffiti artist protagonist. But on the other hand, there is so much going on in this world on a politica, world-building, social level. I am still amazed that such a short book could convey this amount of detail.

Recommended starting point: The Summer Prince! Or Love is the Drug, which won the Andre Norton Award.

 

CAITLÍN R. KIERNAN

I read very little horror but when I feel like it, Kiernan is my go-to woman. Her books are beautiful mind-fucks in which you rarely know what’s real and what’s not, sometimes can’t trust your narrator, and will definitely see some crazy shit. But, you know, in the best of ways. Kiernan also writes amazing characters who suffer from mental illness, as she mentioned on her blog she does herself*. Of the books I’ve read, both featured lesbian protagonists and both led me into a beautiful labyrinth of creepy imagery, folklore and myth. It’s like the horror movies you love to watch even as they follow you into your dreams. Also, this woman has written a LOT of books and short stories.

Recommended starting point: The Drowning Girl, definitely. It is plenty weird, but Imp’s voice is one you can follow, I got super involved in her story and that ending is just perfection. For a darker, creepier, less optimistic start, go for The Red Tree. Or (although I have yet to read this myself) try her latest novella, Agents of Dreamland, if you want to start with something shorter.

YOON HA LEE

Okay, so I’ve only read one book by Lee so far but hey, it’s a Hugo finalist this year and for good reason. Lee’s writing is superb, especially when it comes to characters. I have also heard excellent things about the short story collection Conservation of Shadows. Lee is a trans man who doesn’t want to write about trans characters. Read more about him in his own words in this article at The Book Smugglers. But most of all, read Ninefox Gambit.

Recommended starting point: I have no idea, honestly. I started with Ninefox Gambit which took quite a bit of brain power and persistence. But if I can do it, so can you.

MISHELL BAKER

Here’s another author that stole my heart with only one book. I read Borderline not so long ago and, expecting very little from this Urban Fantasy (because no matter how hard I try, I am full of prejudice when it comes to certain sub-genres), I was blown away. With an amputee suicide-surivor, BPD suffering protagonist, you’d think it’s all a bit much. But Millie was a perfect heroine. Perfect not in the sense that she never messed up – quite the opposite. She was perfect because she felt so real, she makes mistakes, she apologises, she tries to make things right. She’s also just a really cool person that I’d want to be friends with.

Recommended starting point: You really don’t have much choice here. Assuming you don’t want to start with the second book in a series, I suggest you start with the brilliant Borderline. Or try one of the author’s short stories (none of which I know yet).

 

That’s it for my first recommendations post. I hope many other challenge participants continue to recommend books as well, especially SFF books. I see lots of contemporary YA out there and I’m thrilled that this genre is getting more and more diverse, but me, I am always on the lookout for new fantasy writers to discover. So throw them at me, people! And happy reading.

 

 

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Austin Chant – Peter Darling

I stumbled across this book via the Read Diverse Books challenge and because it’s a sequel/retelling of Peter Pan with a grown-up Peter who falls for Hook, I had to read it. While I thought the story had several problems with plot, pacing, and the ending, there were some truly enjoyable parts. Plus, it’s a really quick read if you’re looking for a short retelling of a beloved children’s classic.

peter-darlingPETER DARLING
by Austin Chant

Published by: Less Than Three Press, 2017
Ebook: 164 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: James Hook was bored.

Ten years ago, Peter Pan left Neverland to grow up, leaving behind his adolescent dreams of boyhood and resigning himself to life as Wendy Darling. Growing up, however, has only made him realize how inescapable his identity as a man is.
But when he returns to Neverland, everything has changed: the Lost Boys have become men, and the war games they once played are now real and deadly. Even more shocking is the attraction Peter never knew he could feel for his old rival, Captain Hook—and the realization that he no longer knows which of them is the real villain.

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This book is both a sequel and a sort of retelling of the original Peter Pan. Peter is returning to Neverland after spending ten years in the real world. He is grown-up, he wishes to forget everything that happened in London, and simply wants to return to being the proud and insolent youth we all know. But Neverland has changed, as have the Lost Boys, as has Captain Hook.

The first few chapters deal with Peter finding the Lost Boys at peace with the pirates, and with their new leader Ernest, a quiet and thoughtful young man. He also finds Hook, bored out of his mind, and ready to rekindle the war between them. This part of the story was my least favorite. It felt like the story didn’t know what it wanted to accomplish, the pacing was incredibly off, switching between not-so-well written action scenes and boring moments without any impact on the overall story arc. Additionally, we are told Peter is ten years older, but he still acts exactly like the original Peter Pan, the child who would not grow up. So the dialogue felt jarring at times and I had trouble imagining a 20-something man (or even a 16-year-old) saying the things he says and behaving the way he does. But what has always made Peter into who he is was his power to forget. The fairies take care of that and give him back his memories – and that’s when the Peter of this book began to feel like a proper character.

With Peter’s reemerging memories come a few flashbacks to what happened during his ten years at home. Peter grew up as Wendy Darling, making up stories of who he really is, the magical boy Peter Pan. The flashbacks were so short and far between that I wasn’t sure why they were included at all. Each scene was over before it could begin properly and, yes, the gist of it (Peter Pan being a transgender man) gets through, but there was no time to really understand what Peter’s life was like. It felt very superficial – maybe parts of those scenes were cut during editing for whatever reason, but all the flashbacks felt like they were cut in half. Either make them proper scenes or even full chapters, or leave them away completely. Personally, I would have liked to find out more about Peter’s life in London.

peter-darling

The Neverland plot also takes a considerable time to get rolling. At first, it’s all exposition and fighting Hook, running away, fighting Hook again, talking to the Lost Boys, and getting to know Ernest, their new leader. I was also quite confused about Ernest as a character. I immediately liked him and felt he had a lot of potential, especially in balancing impulsive and battle-eager Pan. But he was only really present for the beginning of the story (and shortly at the end), but had no actual role to play. Again, either use the character or leave him out completely. The way it is, a great character was wasted… unless there’s a sequel planned which will feature him more prominently. I don’t know, I’m just guessing here.

The real heart of this story, for me, was the romance between Hook and Pan. Once these two are stuck together and have to kind of get along to survive, that’s when I got really interested. Their relationship was intriguing and tense and need I mention how much I love Hook?  It was especially his humor and his confidence that made him shine as a character. Peter also got a chance to grow as a person and understand his own feelings a bit better, but Hook stole the show on every page. Their romance was really well done and I loved reading about these two people realising how they felt about each other.

The writing was competent, but there were moments when it drifted and got really bad. The best written scenes were the ones filled with sexual tension between Hook and Pan. The battle scenes were boring to read and felt more like a transcript of a movie scene. Some of Peter’s moments of introspection made me cringe. They read like a child’s journal entry rather than a proper narration. As for the descriptions of Neverland and Peter’s surroundings, I felt like the author was trying to be poetic but the effort showed too much, so most metaphors fall falt for me. On the other hand, the dialogue was fun to read, and each character had their own distinct voice. Hook was definitely the shining star, in every possible aspect.

Another interesting thing that didn’t get nearly enough time to be explored was Neverland itself as well as its inhabitants. Austin Chant turned the Neverland fairies into insect-like creatures, although they are never fully described. But add a few too many eyes here, a couple of antennae there, a creature with lots of legs, and you get the idea. I loved that he came up with something new to make Neverland feel interesting, instead of just going with the world created by J. M. Barrie. But the fairies and a story about an old pirate captain are the only original additions to the world building. And, much like the flashbacks, they weren’t present nearly enough for my taste. See, there’s good stuff here, just never enough of it, which makes me kind of happy (because yay, good stuff) but also disappointed (what, that was it?).

Without spoiling anything, I have to say I wasn’t a fan of the ending. It felt rushed and didn’t adress some open questions that are really important to both protagonists. With a story that actually took care to show things aren’t black and white, that explores complicated relationships and features a protagonist still so unsure about himself, the ending felt like a cop-out, a happy end for the sake of a happy end, but without showing us how things work out. Maybe Chant is leaving room for a sequel, in which case I’d be more forgiving for ending Peter Darling this half-heartedly.

Because of the romance, the amazing James Hook, and the bits of original worldbuilding, I quite enjoyed this read. But I don’t feel the urge to pick up any of the author’s other books. If he writes something longer, where he takes more time to explore his characters and scenes, and where the pacing is a bit more balanced, then you can count me in.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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Other reviews (mostly more favorable than mine):

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