M.R. Carey – The Girl With All The Gifts

It is a rare occasion that I jump into a book knowing absolutely nothing about the story or author. The reason this showed up on my radar was Seanan McGuire raving about it on the SF Squeecast. She managed to make it sound juicy and fun without giving anything away and, having now read it, I believe the best way to experience The Girl With All The Gifts is to just dive in. The synopsis from GoodReads does an okay job, giving you a feel of what to expect without spoiling the little twists. Still, it doesn’t hurt to skip it.

girl with all the giftsTHE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
by M.R. Carey

Published by: Orbit, January 2014
Hardcover: 405 pages
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Her name is Melanie.

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her ‘our little genius’. Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh. Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favourite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.

Melanie’s world is small but beloved. Her entire world is made up of her cell, the corridor outside it, and the two doors at each end. One – the red one – leads to the classroom, a place where she learns about the world, about the laws of physics and mathematics, but especially about stories. Her favorites are the Greek Myths, and of those, her favorite is the story of Pandora’s box. The door at the other end of the corridor has been closed for as long as Melanie can remember…

Reading The Girl With All The Gifts is a little bit like poking through a tiny window into Melanie’s life. Over time, the window opens up a little and we get to see more of what goes on around her. But at first, we – like Melanie – know only her cell, the classroom, and the showers. It’s not too hard to guess why school children are kept in a bunker-like building if you read closely. Something devastating must have happened to the outside world and for an avid reader of SFF it becomes fairly obvious what the cause is.

However, there are more layers to this story than a simple post-apocalyptic how-to-keep-on-living narrative. Melanie is front and center for a long time. As the story opens up, chapters switch between her viewpoint and that of other characters, but Melanie remained my absolute favorite. Now it’s getting really hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. Let’s just say: This story uses a trope. A very, very well-known trope with a newish spin. I’m not particularly fond of this kind of book because it’s been done to death and there’s usually not anything new to discover. But The Girl With All the Gifts has one thing going for it that kept me hooked even after the mysteries were solved: Melanie.

Melanie sees the world through the eyes of a much younger child. Being approximately 10 years old, she may well be classified as a genius. Her hunger for knowledge is insatiable and she enjoys making connections. But even for a smart kid, being suddenly thrown into a vast world is overwhelming, especially if you’ve only heard about it in lessons but never experienced it for yourself. There is a good reason Melanie and her classmates were kept locked up. The side characters – Sergeant Parks, Helen Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, and young Kieran Gallagher – were all sympathetic and interesting in their way, but like I said before, none of them drew me in as much as Melanie did.

girl with all the gifts melanie
The plot as such starts out wonderfully intriguing. If you go in completely oblivious it’s a thrillride to figure out what is going on. Once certain truths about the world are established, however, the story drifts off into territory that is plastered with cliché. Melanie’s presence still lends it originality and enough to keep readers interested, but for me it was a little sad to see such a great idea end up more or less like any other story involving the same SFnal trope. Not that it isn’t well done. It’s just not something that I haven’t seen many times before.

As the characters meander through their devastated world, Melanie in tow, the focus of the story shifts toward problem-solving and exploring what it means to be human. I wasn’t bored exactly because I had come to care for the characters (even the despicable one) but my interest wasn’t anywhere near the level it held at the beginning of the book. This may all have to do with me not liking the central trope very much. That said, I was all the more thrilled to read the ending. I don’t think in all the movies I’ve watched, and books I’ve read, the make use of you-know-what I’ve ever come across an ending quite as poignant and sad and full of hope. It left me breathless.

MY RATING: 7,5/10  – Very good

Other Reviews (slightly but not really spoilery):

Karl Schroeder – Lockstep

This is my first Karl Schroeder book. I have his Virga series somewhere, but it’s always nice to try out a new author with a standalone novel. Lockstep started out really well, then became a bit bland and ended up drifting off into cliché-land. Better luck next time, I guess.

by Karl Schroeder

Published by: Tor, March  2014
Ebook: 352 pages
My rating: 6/10
Review copy from the publisher

First sentence: Two bright moons chased each other across a butterscotch sky.

When seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal finds himself lost in space, separated from his family, he expects his next drift into cold sleep to be his last. After all, the planet he’s orbiting is frozen and sunless, and the cities are dead. But when Toby wakes again, he’s surprised to discover a thriving planet, a strange and prosperous galaxy, and something stranger still — that he’s been asleep for 14,000 years.
Welcome to the Lockstep Empire, where civilization is kept alive by careful hibernation. Here cold sleeps can last decades and waking moments mere weeks. Its citizens survive for millenia, traveling asleep on long voyages between worlds. Not only is Lockstep the new center of the galaxy, but Toby is shocked to learn that the Empire is still ruled by its founding family: his own.
Toby’s brother Peter has become a terrible tyrant. Suspicious of the return of his long-lost brother,  whose rightful inheritance also controls the lockstep hibernation cycles, Peter sees Toby as a threat to his regime. Now, with the help of a lockstep girl named Corva, Toby must survive the forces of this new Empire, outwit his siblings, and save human civilization.

divider1The Lockstep: Hibernate for 30 years, let the robots extract resources from the planet, wake up for a month and reap the fruit of your (bots’) labor. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I still haven’t read nearly as much science fiction as I’ve read fantasy, so my mind is easily blown by science fictional ideas. This one may not have been exactly overwhelming, but it was a great starting point for a story, especially with the protagonist – Toby McGonigal – accidentally hibernating on a ship for 14000 years and waking up to an entire new civilization that he doesn’t understand. So far so good.

The novel starts out really well. Being thrown into a world thousands of years removed from anything you know will break your head a little bit. As Toby is trying to get a grip on what the universe is like now, how the Lockstep works, and also how he happens to be one of the most famous people in the world, I was happily reading along, enjoying myself. Karl Schroeder says on his homepage that he wrote this book purely for fun, and that comes across during those first chapters.

The thoughts about time and how quickly you can be thrown out of your life if you don’t live in the Lockstep, kept me interested almost until the end. You get an entire planet whose hibernation period has been reset as a punishment – they hibernate at different times and ratios from other planets, making trade impossible, and ageing the people much faster than any relatives that may be hanging around other planets. It’s quite a bit to think about and by far the strongest part of the novel.

“I’ve been trying to catch up, but how do you catch up? It’s impossible. Now you’re asking me to rejig time for an entire world? How am I supposed to tell if that’s a good thing to do or an evil thing to do? Corva, if I can’t tell, then I’m not doing it. That’s all there is to it.

But let’s talk characters – you know how I feel about characters. It doesn’t take long until new characters are introduced rather haphazardly, some of the dropped again, leaving me to wonder why they were there in the first place. Kirstana, for example, a young girl with a slight crush on Toby (of course [insert eye roll here]) seems to exist merely to point out things in a world that’s completely alien to him. She has no agency, no personality, but great tour guide qualities. In fact, a lot of characters are used for exposition and not much else. Meh.

Corva, the only female character who is around for most of the novel, doesn’t fare much better. Yes, she does have a plan that doesn’t necessarily align with Toby’s own intentions, but she is as lifeless as the rest of the gang of stowaways who save Toby’s life at the beginning. Jay and Shylif each get one thing that could be defined as a character trait – if you define the term very, very broadly – but not a single character actually shows any depth. Hey, this guy makes things out of scrap material, he’s a maker. And this other one is on a vengeance trip because his heart was broken thirty years ago. Apparently, that’s all there is to these two as they never talk about or do anything that doesn’t fit with these “character traits”.

And that’s my biggest problem. Because, as the idea of the Lockstep is spun further, Toby discovers more and more truths about himself and his family. Now if I’d cared about Toby, these revelations could have touched me in some way. But seeing as Toby is as pale a character as the rest of them, they left me completely cold. And don’t even get me started on the “love story”. Of course, our one female character has to end up as a love interest. Karl Schroeder makes the same mistake most Hollywood movies make. Spending a week or so with a person of the opposite sex (and why does it always have to be heterosexual anyway?) does not automatically mean you have to end up feeling deep love for them. Hell, I spend a lot of time with all sorts of people and manage not to fall in love with them. It would have been really nice to have a female character who has a plan, who tags along with Toby, maybe ends up being friends with him, and then goes her own way – or even stays with him as a friend. But no, we get yet another forced and terribly executed romance.

In the end, things are resolved quickly and far too neatly. But by that time, I didn’t even care anymore. One more thing I’ve noticed – and I really don’t want to be one of those people who compare everything to Harry Potter – are the glaring parallels. Toby discovers a world that is completely new to him. He needs pretty much everything explained to him, then he finds out everybody knows him. Surprise, you’re famous! Seeing as he hibernated for a very long time, he expects all of his family to be dead. Surprise, the second: They’re not all dead! And just to round it off, he also happens to be one of the most powerful people in the world who can end all the Bad and Make Things Better.

This isn’t a terrible novel, but neither is it a very good one. I’d recommend it to people who want a light romp through space, a premise that is actually quite gripping, but a world peopled with cardboard characters. Because the idea appealed to me so much, I’ll be trying some other Karl Schroeder books. This one ended up being only okay.

MY RATING:  6/10  –  Okay

China Miéville – Railsea

Octopusses, trains, and garbage – that’s how you recognize a China Miéville novel. In this case, there is a distinct lack of octopusses but to make up for it, we get trains and garbage galore. The elevator pitch for this YA novel is “Moby Dick with trains instead of ships” but Railsea is so much more.

by China Miéville

Published by: Macmillan, 2012
ISBN: 0230765122
Paperback: 376 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

On board the moletrain “Medes,” Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea-even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict–a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible–leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

Sham is a young doctor’s apprentice aboard the mole train Medes but he’s really not that sure that this is what he wants to do with his life. Instead of helping doctor Vurinam or even hunting giant moles, a salvor’s job looks much more appealing. But Captain Naphi is obsessed with hunting her philosophy, a gigantic ivory-colored moldywarpe that bit off her left arm.
What starts as a riff on Moby Dick turns into something entirely different very soon. Yes, Captain Naphi desperately wants to kill that white mole and yes, Sham tags along because he happens to work on her train. But this gimmick has been given way too much attention in marketing this book.

China Miéville has always been playful with language and he continues that tradition with new verve. Any given review mentions his use of the ampersand instead of the word “and”. This includes the copyright page and the acknowledgements. Some readers may find it disrupting but I took to it immediately and quite loved it by the end. But it isn’t just this most obvious trick he plays on us readers. Take Abacat Naphi – an anagram for Captain Ahab – or words like nu-salvage and arche-salvage. Miéville’s language contributes greatly to his worldbuilding and should not be underestimated just because the ampersand is a bit obvious. Of course this is purely a love-or-hate question of taste. I am glad I am one of the ampersand-lovers.

railsea mole

©China Miéville

Of course, worldbuilding is done in more than one fashion and, let me tell you, this world is insane. I had a hard time suspeding my disbelief, especially in the beginning. Imagining a Robert Louis Stevenson story set on a train may sound plausible to begin with, but think about the concept of the railsea. Endless rails, running next to each other, intermingling, making it possible for trains to switch and steer and not just go straight ahead but turn in every direction at the turn of a lever. It is mindboggling and China Miéville deserves all the credit for making it believable.

I was also quite taken by the idea that the upsky is polluted to bits and populated by the most vicious flying animals you can imagine. The same goes for the earth – naked earth that’s not covered by rails, that is – you take one step on the earth and some creepy, crawling creature or other will burrow its way up to devour you. Let’s just say it’s not pretty. The only safe place to live is on islands off the railsea. These come with harbors and cities and trade, the way you’d expect it of terra firma. The railsea, on the other hand, is crawling with huge animals, mole trains, salvors, and – are you really surprised? – pirates!

We follow Sham on an adventure that may at first seem like it isn’t even his but captain Naphi’s. But undecided as he may start,  he soon finds his own kind of philosophy and pursues it with every bit of passion he can muster. On this journey, he falls into the hands of pirates, meets salvors and railsea nomads, acquires a pet daybat (who is incredibly lovable), and helps two siblings find out the truth about their parents. A nice surprise in a novel that clearly follows the tradition of Melville and Stevenson was the presence of women. Not only do we get a female train captain, but we get the clever half of the Shroakes siblings, Caldera, several women harpoonists and a female salvor who isn’t nearly as cold on the inside as she lets on.
This is part adventure novel, part coming-of-age story, part science fiction and part meta fiction – and probably some other parts that I forgot. There is very much to love about Railsea.

©China Miéville

©China Miéville

One last thing I must mention is how the author breaks the fourth wall. Every so often, he will speak to us readers directly, taunt and tease us about that other plotline that has been dropped a while back and that we yearn to return to. In the very beginning, we zoom out of the image of a bloodstained Sham, turn back time, to begin the story where the narrator deems it appropriate. And like a polite and friendly story teller, he lets us in on some of his secrets. Close to the end, he explains that this could have been a very different tale. But in finest Miéville fashion, he is well aware that the story is not his alone and that we, the readers, have the power to create something new from it.

Had you been in charge you would, even had you started & ended in the same places, have described a different figure. A different “&.” But nothing’s done. If you tell any of this to others, you can drive, & if you wish, go elsewhere on the way. Until then, safe travels & thank you.

Railsea was a fantastic, fun, engaging read that I would put in the hands of any Miéville fan as well as people who are unsure about where to start. At 376 pages, it is one of his slimmer  novels and the ideas, while fantastic, aren’t quite as dark or wacky as in, say, Perdido Street Station. While marketed at “younger readers”, people of any age will find enjoyment in this story. Whether it is word play or worldbuilding, characters or adventurous plot that tickles you most, there is something in here for everybody. And – dare I mention it… – the ending is awesome!

MY RATING: 8,5  –  Quite excellent!

Second opinions:

Miyuki Miyabe – ICO, Castle in the Mist

Sometimes, I discover things backwards. As I’m participating in Worlds Without Ends’ Women of Genre Fiction challenge and have discovered great, great authors, I came across this little book called Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe. The review was favorable, the plot sounded intriguing, so I went out and got it. The author mentions right in the preface that this is a novelization (of sorts) of the eponymous PlayStation game. I had no idea and, honeslty, found it a bit off-putting. Novelizations (of movies or games) usually aren’t that good.
Then a few weeks ago, I found a used copy of the remastered PS-game of Ico and its companion The Shadow of Colossus – of course I bought it and started playing. After an hour, I knew I was going to give the book a chance. The atmosphere and story provide wonderful fodder for a gripping fantasy story.

ico1ICO: Castle in the Mist
by Miyuki Miyabe

Original title: Ico: Kiri No Shiro
Published by:
VIZ Media, 2005
ISBN: 1421540630
Paperback: 370 pages
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The loom had fallen silent.

When a boy named Ico grows long curved horns overnight, his fate has been sealed – he is to be sacrificed in the Castle in the Mist. But in the castle, Ico meets a young girl named Yorda imprisoned in its halls. Alone they will die, but together Ico and Yorda might just be able to defy their destinies and escape the magic of the castle.
Based on the video game filmmaker Guillemo del Toro (
Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) called a “masterpiece”, Japan’s leading fantasist Miyuki Miyabe has crafted a tale of magic, loss, and love that will never be forgotten.

The PlayStation game starts when a young boy with horns growing out of his head gets locked up in the Castle in the Mist as a sacrifice.  The story kicks off when he frees a girl, dressed all in white, from a cage in the tower. The book lets us know what happened before in what was probably my favorite part of the entire story.

Ico didn’t live in a vaccum before he became the sacrifice to the Castle in the Mist. He had a family, friends, and a village full of people who knew and cared about him. It was in these first chapters that I found my favorite character. Toto, Ico’s best friend, is determined to save Ico and, if it isn’t too difficult, save the world from the evil powers of the Castle in the Mist. He is proactive, he is lovable, and is a convincing young boy with a good heart and a slightly befuddled brain.

Once Ico gets locked up in the Castle – this is where the game starts – the story slows down by definition. Ico is alone and even when he finds Yorda, caged at the top of the tower, there isn’t much dialogue because Yorda doesn’t speak. Even when she does, he can’t understand her language. Descriptions of the two wandering through the castle follow. Some are almost a play-by-play of what you have to do in the game to get out of a particularly riddling room and as such, weren’t very good storytelling. They weren’t even very good as a game guide. Miyuki Miyabe tried to spice it up by the visions that haunt Ico whenever he touches Yorda’s hand, or that he sees randomly in the vast halls of the Castle. Still, the second part of the novel was hard to read and bordered on boring.

ico and yorda

In the third part, my interest peaked again. We get to see Yorda’s side of the story and, finally, other characters are involved. This peek into the past offers not only answers to some of the most pressing questions, it also shows Yorda – though isolated and essentially locked up in the Castle – surrounded by other people. It involves politics to some degree, more mysteries, danger and – YES – dialogue. I rarely find myself aching for dialogue this much, but in a book like this, it was a welcome change. Although this part focuses mainly on Yorda, her feelings, questions, and memories, I again found myself drawn to the side characters. The life they breathed into the story was much needed and kept me going for a while longer.

My biggest gripe was the amount of description. That’s the danger of turning a video game into a novel… the author seemed to feel the need to describe Ico’s surroundings in such detail that the readers know each part of the Castle as they saw them in the game. The problem is obivous. This leads to page-long descriptions of any given room’s layout, including chains hanging down from the ceiling which can be used for climbing up. In fact, details that – in the game – are there as a riddle for the player to figure out, aren’t really all that important for the plot. When Ico explores a cave by a waterfall for what seemed like 20 pages, I was close to giving up. I don’t need to know where exactly he puts his feet, when he takes a jump from which wall to which, what hanging vines help him swing from one rock to another… these are things that are intriguing in a game, where you actively play the protagonist and need to think in order to work these issues out. In a prose story, it slows the plot down to an almost-standstill.

Which leads neatly into my second biggest problem. Ico, though the hero of this story, is an incredibly passive character. Sure, he runs around the castle, looking for ways out, but he always – ALWAYS – has to be told what to do. He doesn’t discover any of the answers himself, he is either shown them through visions or by other characters. The queen, for example, reveals a great deal of her plans because she thinks herself safe. She didn’t come across as stupid, just overly confident.

ico and yorda climbing PS3

copyright @たきたて

I admit I feel the urge to cut the author some slack. I only played the game halfway through (because Yorda is not just helpless, she’s useless!) but there isn’t really much information in-game that can be used for a novel. As such, Miyuki Miyabe did a commendable job, giving the Castle, Ico, and Yorda a backstory that made sense in its own way. Of course, the characters are painted extremely black and white – so literally, in fact, that the queen usually appears wearing pitch black dresses, and Yorda being clad in all white. But that’s a problem I’m willing to forgive. Naturally, the hero is going to be good. In the game, we are playing him, and we’re the good guys…

My feelings are rather mixed. I absolutely loved the completely made-up bits, I loved the invented side characters and the mythology Miyabe came up with. I hated the endless descriptions. That’s as simple as I can put it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book, but I was enchanted enough to pick up another novel by the same author. One that came completely out of her imagination, without a bothersome video game to get in the way of good storytelling.

RATING: 6/10  –  Good.


Bennett Madison – September Girls

Neither cover nor synopsis would have convinced me of buying this book – our friendly neighbourhood Booksmugglers, however…. September Girls is surrounded by an interesting kind of buzz and seems to divide its readers into two rather extreme camps. On the one side, people call it incredibly sexist, and on the other, it is hailed as a wonderfully feminist book that examines gender roles and puts a spin on them. Wait, what?
This sounded like something I had to read myself, and boy, do I wish I hadn’t.

by Bennett Madison

Published by: Harper Teen, 2013
ISBN: 9780062201294
ebook: 352 pages

My rating:  3/10

First sentence: The summer following the winter that my mother took off into something called Woemn’s Land for what I could only guess would be all eternity, my father decided that there was no choice but for him to quit his despised job and take me and my brother to the beach for at least the entire summer and possibly longer.

In September Girls, Sam is spending the summer in a beach town filled with beautiful blond girls who all seem inexplicably attracted to him. But that’s not the only reason why he thinks the Girls are strange. They only wear flats because heels make their feet bleed. They never go swimming in the water. And they all want something from him.
Sam finds himself in an unexpected summer romance when he falls for one of the Girls, DeeDee. But as they get closer, she pulls away without explanation. Sam knows that if he is going to win her back, he’ll have to learn the Girls’ secret.


Having spent the last few weeks with this book, the overwhelming feeling I get at the end of it is relief that it’s over. I actually made it through… at a few points, I didn’t think I would. This book begged to be thrown against a wall, then suddenly showed a spark of imagination, then wanted to hit the wall again.

Many people have said it all comes down to interpretation, and that is absolutely true. (Read the following quotes from the book and tell me how many ways there are of interpreting them, exactly…) Between the chapters told by Sam and the short chapters from the Girls’ point of view, there is a world of differences. Not only are the latter actually well-written, they do examine stereotypes and gender roles, and they do so without being blunt or preachy. Not so the rest of the story. Here’s the (spoiler-free) plot: Sam goes to the beach. Tons of gorgeous, yellow-haired beauties want him. He thinks about All The Things. The mystery – obvious to anyone who reads the first chapters with even the most fleeting attention – gets “revealed”. Sentimental end. Nothing’s changed for Sam.

Let’s take a look at the handful of characters we get to meet in this strange book.
Enter Jeff, Sam’s brother, with one of his smart ideas about the beach full of Barbies.

“Oh, who gives a fuck,” Jeff  said. “The point is they’re hot and they’re here. I just hope they’re already drunk when we get to the party. I hope they’re ready for a piece of this.” He groped his croch obnoxiously […]

Mmh… yes, I can hardly resist. But let’s not be too hard on Jeff – he’s actually alright (because silent) most of the time. Instead, please also look at Sebastian, Sam’s absent best friend, who is a particular brand of asshole:

Sebastian always advised me to ask questions when in doubt. “Girls like to talk about themselves. If you can’t think of anything to say, just ask some dumb questions about nothing, and if you’re lucky she’ll go off and you won’t have to say anything else for another ten minutes and she’ll think you’re a great listener.

Apart from truly understanding women, Sebastian also would offer Sam this gem of wisdom. And don’t I love it when people use female genitals to describe a douchebag?

I actually thought about calling Sebastian for advice, but I could practically hear his voice: Wait, this is all over some girl? Don’t be such a fucking vagina, dude! I mean, dude! You go to the beach for a month and you turn into a human tampon.

Hell, even the women hate women. Here’s DeeDee talking about the bible:

“I like the parts about hos, even if they always come to a bad end. Eat a fucking apple, you’re a ho. Open a box, you’re a ho. Some guy looks at you: turn to stone, ho. See you later, ho. It’s always the same. The best one is Lilith – also a ho, but a different kind of ho. She went and got her own little thing going, and for that she gets to be an eternal demon queen, lucky her. No one likes a ho. Except when they do, which, obviously, is most of the time. Doesn’t make a difference; she always gets hers eventually.”

I understand that the author doesn’t share those views but created the characters to serve a purpose within the story. What that purpose is, other than to spit abuse at women, escapes me. Because 90% of the time, Sam swallows all the crap Jeff and Sebastian tell him, without reflection, without questioning it. In fact, he seems to think along the same lines, especially after his brother actually comes to care for Kristle, one of the girls (highlight by me):

After the brief initial foray into the subject of our insane mother, we were now pointedly avoiding all matters of substance, which included the topics of DeeDee, Dad, and Jeff’s recent queerification at the hands of Kristle.


The remaining 10% of the time, he realises that DeeDee is not “a ho” and also not like all the other girls – because she is SPECIAL! The only regular (read: non-supernatural) woman to play any role in this ridiculous story is Sam’s mother who is basically the Evil Feminist who left her family all alone because she discovered Facebook and Farmville and stumbled across the SCUM manifesto – yeah, Sam seriously blames Farmville for his mother leaving. Because, remember this, people who read this book: Feminists are evil and will all leave their poor family to cook and clean for themselves!

She does come back but except for a few tattoos and a new passion for life, nothing much seems to have changed. I honestly don’t understand her part in the story. If there’s a lesson here, I don’t see it. If there is a message – feminist or otherwise – I didn’t catch it.

september girls kiss

If we leave all of these issues aside (and trust me, it’s hard to do) and simply take a look at the story, we won’t find much. My best guess is that this is supposed to be Sam’s coming-of-age tale, not just because he loses his virginity but because there is nothing else here. Reading 300 pages about a rich white boy’s problems in a voice that rivals Holden Caulfield’s is not my idea of fun. The only thing left is the “mystery”. Sam and Jeff see a naked girl stumbling out of the sea on their first night at the beach. Then, DeeDee drops this line (as a Disney fan, I actually smirked):

“Look at this stuff,” DeeDee said. “Isn’t it neat?”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the Girls are. They are all thin and blonde and beautiful, and for some reason they all have their eye set on Sam. Well isn’t this a 17-year-old’s wet dream? But the suspense (which isn’t there) hinges on this being a mystery, a secret to be discovered. For two thirds of the book, Sam is clueless, and when all is finally revealed, it is as anticlimactic as you can imagine – excepting, of course, Sam’s actual climax because he finally gets to use his magical penis (and I’m not kidding, it is magical).

The bulk of the story is Sam’s thoughts about the world, his penis, the beach, the Girls, and his penis. A lot of people had issues with Sam thinking about masturbation or his penis. I had no problem with that, whatsoever. It’s sad if I have to explain this, but everybody masturbates. It is a natural, healthy thing to do and I totally get that – as a 17-year-old boy – Sam sometimes just has the urge to be alone so he can have a quiet moment with himself… so to speak. I also didn’t mind the cussing, but then I never do. What did bother me was the overall style of the language. If characters use “like” as a filler in dialogue, that’s fine and probably accurate. But please, don’t use it in descriptions!

There wasn’t like a whole thing or anything.

The same goes for everybody saying “dude” all the time. Do people really talk like that? Even without the “dudes”, the language just didn’t make sense. The pseudo-poetic blah-blah got on my nerves pretty quickly but when I stumble across things like this, it’s all over (highlight by me):

[…]from blond to blondest, all with full, glossy lips and eyes that floated an inch in front of their faces, suspended in deep pools of liquid liner.

What? Eyes that float in front of faces?? That’s not poetic, that is just dumb.

Why, if I hated the book that much, did I continue reading then? Because, every so often, between two chapters of Sam’s boring, douchebag ramblings, there were these special chapters. Chapters told from the point of view of the Girls. In these short interludes, they talk about beauty as the only weapon left to them, they talk about learning to make themselves fit into this world they were thrown into. These chapters are the only thing I interpreted as remotely feminist, and had this been a story written in that voice, with these characters, dealing with the issues at hand in that way, I would probably have loved the book. Sadly, we get Sam.

Like I said above, I am glad it’s over and I don’t have to deal with the bland, two-dimensional characters anymore. If this was supposed to be a romance, it failed. I cared about none of the characters – except in the Girls’ chapters, where I cared about all of them – and couldn’t get behind the sudden outburst of love. Sam doesn’t really grow much, even though he says he did, and still enjoys his friend Sebastian’s pick-up-artist level hate for women.

Ultimately, the question I have to ask myself is: Do the few well-written short chapters redeem the blatant sexism, misogyny, lack of plot, and flat, douchebag characters? The answer, for me at least, is no.

THE GOOD: The chapters in italics, told by the Girls.
THE BAD: Read what I wrote above and take your pick.
THE VERDICT: A waste of time and money. An incredibly boring, pretentious story that spews hate for women on almost every page.

RATING: 3/10 – Really bad.


Second opinions:

Terry Pratchett – Nation

So… the blog is a bit Pratchett-heavy lately. The simple explanation is that I have finally discovered the man’s genius and my mood demands his particular mix of hilarious humor, social satire, and seriously clever, thought-provoking themes. There you have it! At this point, I’d read Pratchett’s shopping list, but because it is summer and I have a lot of his novels here (and unread), I went for the one with the prettiest and summeriest cover.

by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Doubleday, 2008
ISBN: 9780385613712
Hardcover: 410 pages

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Imo set out one day to catch some fish, but there was no sea.

Finding himself alone on a desert island when everything and everyone he knows and loved has been washed away in a huge storm, Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He’s also completely alone – or so he thinks until he finds the ghost girl. She has no toes, wears strange lacy trousers like the grandfather bird and gives him a stick which can make fire.
Daphne, sole survivor of the wreck of the Sweet Judy, almost immediately regrets trying to shoot the native boy. Thank goodness the powder was wet and the gun only produced a spark. She’s certain her father, distant cousin of the Royal family, will come and rescue her but it seems, for now, all she has for company is the boy and the foul-mouthed ship’s parrot.
As it happens, they are not alone for long. Other survivors start to arrive to take refuge on the island they all call the Nation and then raiders accompanied by murderous mutineers from the Sweet Judy. Together, Mau and Daphne discover some remarkable things – including how to milk a pig and why spitting in beer is a good thing – and start to forge a new Nation.
As can be expected from Terry Pratchett, the master story-teller, this new children’s novel is both witty and wise, encompassing themes of death and nationhood, while being extremely funny. Mau’s ancestors have something to teach us all. Mau just wishes they would shut up about it and let him get on with saving everyone’s lives!


When Terry Pratchett says in interviews that he gets better with every book, he is not lying. He seems to pour his heart and soul into his fiction, and while the writing has always been good, it became nothing short of remarkable in these last few books I’ve read. Whatever else you may think of Sir Terry and his sense of humor, nobody can dispute that he is a master storyteller who truly understands people and translates real humans onto the page.

This book starts with a tragedy. Mau is in the middle of his manhood ritual – getting safely back home from the Boy’s Island – when the wave strikes. It is the biggest wave he has ever seen and he only survives because he is in a canoe when it hits him. The Boy’s Island? Gone. Mau returns to his home to find his entire tribe – the Nation – gone. The last survivor of his people, he sends their dead bodies to the sea and grieves. But there is another human on the island. Daphne, whose true name is Ermintrude (but who’d want to be called that?), survived the wave aboard the Sweet Judy, a ship now stranded on the island, and mostly in pieces. Mau and this strange, white ghost girl have to try and build up a new Nation, and new lives for themselves.

The culture clash is expected but deftly handled. Neither Mau’s gods nor Daphne’s prim manners are portrayed in a way that makes them seem superior. They have each grown up in their own culture and now they have to find a way to understand each other and question what they’ve been taught all their lives. For Daphne, it may begin with not wearing 7 layers of clothing and actually showing her naked toes to strangers (gasp), for Mau – ever since the wave wiped out his family – it is the Big Question. Do the gods really exist? And if they do, how could they have let this happen?
As they both struggle to come to terms with their beliefs and their loss, more survivors appear on the island and a new, albeit small, Nation comes alive.

nation pratchett

There is so much beauty on these pages and I am not sure where to begin. Daphne and Mau are wonderful protagonists. Mau’s self-doubt – for he is not a boy but never went through the proper manhood ritual, so he believes himself to have no soul – and Daphne’s keen scientific mind are not really all that different. The themes in this book may be obvious, but the characters are still at the center of the story, and I continued reading as much for Mau and Daphne as I did for the valuable life lessons. Pratchett doesn’t hit you over the head with a hammer of science. In this alternate Pacific Ocean nation (and it is alternate), neither Daphne nor the author find Mau’s culture and belief to be ridiculous or primitive. Yes, Daphne likes proof for the supposed miracles she sees – such as poison turning into beer – but she takes Mau’s gods seriously. This is a wonderful story that shows that different isn’t inferior – and to wrap this message in a wonderful, emotional, and funny story is the best way to deliver it.

The characters are vivid and real, they have gone through something terrible and deal with the aftermath in their own way. Mau thinks about giving himself to the darkness, Daphne tries to act the brave, proper lady. But inside – and the reader knows this – they are hurting and wondering about the future. As they slowly build their lives on the island, ideas start popping up. I loved the protagonists most of all because they enjoy thinking and through that learn more about the world and about themselves.

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

Little asides like this may at first strike you as comic relief, a little fun to lighten the serious tone. But the thing that struck me over and over was that, despite being funny, there is so much truth in it as well. That is how people evolve, that is how inventions are made – by somebody doing something seemingly stupid or crazy, being brave, and discovering something new about the world. And in working together, amazing things can be achieved – such as the construction of a new Nation, even if it is different from the one before.

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

Any book, for me, is carried by its characters and their growth. Both Mau and Daphne go through immense changes, not only because of the wave but out of sheer necessity. Daphne’s courage in the face of tragedy goes to show just how much she has grown. When this young girl with a passion for science performs an amputation, even Mau is surprised.

“[…] Those captives were treated very badly.”
“And you’ve been sawing the bad bits off them?”
“It’s called surgery, thank you so very much! It’s not hard if I can find someone to hold the instruction manual open at the right page.”
“No! No, I don’t think it’s wrong!” said Mau quickly. “It’s just that… it’s you doing it. I thought you hated the sight of blood.”
“That’s why I try to stop it. […]”

I have a fondness for pratical people and maybe that is why Tiffany Aching speaks to me so much. One thing I’ll definitely take away from this is that Terry Pratchett is made of Magic. I hope he will continue to write for many, many years and share his wisdom about humanity with us, in the shape of fantastic stories, peopled by lovable, wonderful characters.

Nation has also been adapted for the stage and while I’ll probably never get to see it, the pictures look beautiful. Of course the actors look much older than I picture the characters but I love how small details have been taken into account. On the right, Daphne – still rather proper in her dress – is wearing the grass skirt the Unknown Woman made for her. And Mau is trying out trousers in order to understand what makes trousermen so excited about them (turns out he’s quite fond of the pockets, if nothing much else).

Terry Pratchett's Nation (stage play)

This is marketed as one of Pratchett’s books for young people and while it definitely can be read by children and young adults, I believe it is even more suited to an adult readership. I remember, as a child, I read books for the pure pleasure of story. I didn’t care about messages, or the exploration of themes, or even world-building. I watched characters I liked do things that were interesting, and on that level, Nation succeeds. But it is the message that form the heart of this novel, it is the encouragement to think for yourself, and to go through the world with open eyes and an open mind.

THE GOOD: Wonderful characters who live through a sad but beautiful story. Brilliant exploration of serious themes with just a pinch of Pratchett’s trademark humor.
THE BAD: Takes a while to get into, some story elements (the Navy plotline) could have been left out.
BONUS: The filthy-mouthed parrot.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended to Pratchett lovers or newcomers, to scientists and religious people, to those who have suffered through loss and pain, and those who are simply interested in a good story.

RATING:  9/10  – Beautiful. Close to perfection.divider1

Second opinions:

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This was underwhelming. Not only has this book been hailed as Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys, it has also received ridiculous amounts of press during the last months. Even people like Neil Gaiman aren’t immune to being overhyped. I consider myself a fan of his work, but despite his fame and renown, I am still aware that even a great author can sometimes produce a mediocre novel.

ocean at the end of the laneTHE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE
by Neil Gaiman

Published by: William Morrow, 2013
ISBN: 0062255657
Hardcover: 181 pages

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm.

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.


When our nameless protagonist and narrator first returns to the pond behind his childhood friend’s house, we are first forced to learn about his incredibly boring, mediocre life. I was worried that the entire book would continue along those lines but, thank Neil, the narrator slowly startes to remember certain evens that occured when he was seven years old and had just met the girl named Lettie Hempstock. It was around the time his cat got run over by a man who was later found dead near Lettie’s house… Once we read the childhood memories and the strange things that happened to the protagonist as a boy, the story starts to kick off. The monsters were suitable scary and wonderfully strange. In Ursula, Neil has created a truly terrifying thing that manipulates its way into the family and leaves the protagonist almost completely helpless, at her mercy. It was these moments that were the strongest and most adult ones in the book and the author does a fantastic job of capturing that feeling only a child can know, that feeling of knowing you are right and equally knowing that nobody will believe you. When he seems to be trapped in Ursula’s powers, he can only watch her take over his family more and more.

Not every book that features a child protagonist is automatically a children’s book. But this is sold as an adult novel and it just isn’t. I would consider neither the tone, themes, language, nor even the scary bits particularly adult in nature. It is not as creepy as Coraline, not nearly as deep and moving as The Graveyard Book, and the one thing that I kept coming back to was that it read more like a stretched-out short story. In the acknoweldgements, Neil Gaiman admits that it started out as just that – if I had any say in it, it would have remained a short story. Because the plot is very, very thin, the story straight-forward and simple. Bad comes into the world and has to be kicked out again somehow. And then there’s (what I’m guessing is supposed to be) a twist at the end that reminded me very much of Coraline.

ocean at the end of the lane 1And that’s another thing. I am so sad that, at least in this book, Neil Gaiman has nothing new to show us. Every little thing that I considered good and interesting about this story, has been there before in one of Neil’s other books – and usually done better. The hunger birds, the mysterious people who seem to use magic but don’t bother explaining themselves. The protagonist who is incredibly gullible and just does what he is told. Even the name Hempstock (maybe even the family) has appeared in The Graveyard Book. It would have been nice to get at least one shiny, new Neil Gaiman thing – that’s what I had been looking forward to.

To be fair, there is a budding exploration of certain themes, such as the importance of money to humans, that would have been intriguing to follow. But these themes are merely scratched at and then dropped completely. The other theme would probably be the protagonist’s coming-of-age but I would also dispute that he does. He is a strange character, one that gets fleshed out and becomes three-dimensional in the quieter chapters, when he thinks about books and his kitten – only to lose all personality as soon as other characters show up. From convincing little boy to cardboard stand-in.

There were a few things I liked about the book, most of all the abovementioned Ursula-the-housekeeper, who could have sprung straight from a nightmare. But also little paragraphs, here or there, where Neil managed to uncover a truth about the world and touch me with his writing, like this comparison between adults and children.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.

And, of course, I have to be honest and admit that – had this been my first Gaiman novel – I would have been quite impressed with the weird nature of his monsters. They are never just giant spiders or ghosts under the bed. They are strange and old and have agendas of their own. Whenever the monsters took center stage, I was all in, I sucked up the words and was terrified at how lightly the protagonist took some of the mysterious things happening to him. That worm-thingy, and Ursula, did their job well and creeped me out in an enjoyable this-is-only-a-story-worms-can’t-really-do-that-can-they way.

In the end, I am left disappointed, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed certain chapters of this little book very much. I have a suspicion that those were the chapters that made up the original short story…

THE GOOD: Great monsters, creepy scenes, the occasional beautiful line.
THE BAD: A rehash of old ideas, a plot that felt forcibly spread out, a strange sometimes-real, sometimes-bland protagonist.
THE VERDICT: If you’re a fan of Neil’s work, you will read this anyway. If you’ve never read anything by him, you may like it a lot more than I did (not knowing that all the ideas have been used in his prior novels already). And if you’re looking for a quick read, pick this up, sure, why not? If it hadn’t been so short, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

RATING: 6/10 – Okay

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

It is shocking that it took me well into my twenties to finally pick up and read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only do I consider it required reading for anyone who calls him or herself a fan of SF literature, but it also features on pretty much every single reading list I’ve ever followed. I now see why and feel quite smug about finally being in the club of Atwood-readers. I intend to stay.

handmaids taleTHE HANDMAID’S TALE
by Margaret Atwood

Published by: Vintage Digital, 2012 (1985)
ISBN: 9781446485477
ebook: 336 pages

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now…everything has changed.


How does one go about reviewing a book that is not only considered one of the best ever written but was published a full year before one’s own birth? I suppose one doesn’t. Then again, what I do here in my little bloggeress haven is really only putting my impressions into writing, not fully reviewing books (I believe that’s only possible with spoilers and I avoid them so you guys can enjoy the books I recommend in full). It took  me a long time to finally read Margaret Atwood’s probably  most well-known book and I’m happy to say that, again, the WWE Women of Genre Fiction Challenge gave me that last push.

The story throws us into a world not too far in the future where women are separated into castes with specific purposes. There are Wives, whose job is fairly obvious – they are married to important men – there are Marthas and, because humanity has a lot of trouble procreating, there are the Handmaids. Offred, the first person narrator, is one such Handmaid and as such is given to a childless family in order to give them a baby. I won’t go into detail of how this is done but you will get to see the “ceremony” in the book.

Margaret Atwood leaves it, I believe intentionally, vague for a long time what happened in the past that has led to such a sinister society. We get only glimpses of how the system works but slowly, the narrator fills in the blanks to create a full picture of horror. Offred, whose real name we never find out (she is just that, the Handmaid “of Fred”), supplies us with flashbacks of her time Before. What impressed me the most is probably how the author managed to make me feel so strongly for the character, almost missing her past with her, even though all we get are little snippets of that happy family life.

The narrative has a beautiful flow to it and certain sentences completely hit home. They don’t even have to be about important dramatic issues, they just happen to be a string of words, tied together in a way that is both poetic and meaningful. These sentences come up at random and without warning, they struck a chord with me on so many levels that I have to be impressed, if not by the plot or characters, at least by Margaret Atwood’s prose. That said, both the plot and the characters were also brilliant.

copyright @ Erin McGuire

copyright @ Erin McGuire

Many people I’ve talked to find Offred too passive. She is integrated into this new society and just tries to do her job and stay alive, dreaming about what her husband and her child might be doing – if they’re still alive, that is. There is an underground movement and Offred is aware of it, yet she never joins them. Personally, I completely understood her. Fear makes you numb, it keeps you even from trying to break out of a life you loathe with all your heart. The will to survive eclipses any hope for a better society you may have. So Offred is happy about the small victories she is allowed in her structured, anonymous life. Until the Commander, the man who is supposed to plant a baby inside of her (there’s nothing romantic or sexually arousing about it, trust me) invites her to visit his room alone…

This book may be older than I am but, oh God, has it impressed me. It is clearly as relevant today as it was when it was first published. Apart from telling a gripping story of one woman’s struggle to survive and keep her sanity, it deals with issues that, in our society, haven’t been resolved. It is about gender and sexuality, about equality (not just of men and women but of religion as well). It never whacks you over the head with a hammer, just gives you enough to make you think for yourself. That is what a great dystopia is supposed to do. Hold a mirror up to current society and say: Look, if we keep going this way, we may end up like this.

There are parts of the book that felt a bit long or drawn-out, but in the end, I wouldn’t change anything about it. People have expressed different opinions about the ending. I loved it. It doesn’t really give us an answer or a resolution to Offred’s story, but it gives us something better. Hope.

THE GOOD: Fantastic writing, characters and a world that are fully fleshed out, that terrify and make you think. All in just a few pages.
THE BAD: One slow part just around the middle. If you got that far, however, you will no doubt push through it.
THE VERDICT: With the current craze of YA dystopian novels, it is refreshing to remember what a dystopia is all about. Margaret Atwood is a magnificent writer who only whet my appetite with this little novel. That teaches me: The classics, even the recent classics, are worth picking up when fed up with what’s currently published. Most highly recommended!

RATING: 8,5/10  Truly excellent


China Miéville – Un Lun Dun

I got interested in China Miéville first, not because of his fiction, but because of his public speaking. Interviews or panels – whatever he said fascinated me and made me want to get to know him as an author. When Perdido Street Station blew me away, I knew I wouldn’t stop there. I picked Un Lun Dun next because I wanted to see how somebody as wordy as Miéville would write a novel for young adults. He pulled it off beautifully – then again, I don’t know what else I expected.

un lun dunUN LUN DUN
by China Miéville

Published: Pan Books, 2011 (2007)
ISBN: 0330536680
Paperback: 521 pages

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: In an unremarkable room, in a nondescript building, a man sat working on very non-nondescript theories.

Stumbling through a secret entrance, Zanna and Deeba enter the strange wonderland of UnLondon. here all the lost and broken things of London end up, and some of its people, too – including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas, and Hemi the half-ghost boy.
But the two girls have arrived at a dangerous time. UnLondon is a place where worlds are alive, where a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, where carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets… and a sinister cloud called Smog is bent on destruction. It’s a frightened city in need of a hero…


Zanna and Deeba are best friends so it is not unusual that they stumble into a huge adventure together. As it becomes clear that Zanna is the Chosen One and the prophecies say she will save UnLondon from the threatening Smog, this book becomes more than just a wanky portal fantasy. Any girl who has ever been the designatet ugly and/or fat friend will easily sympathise with Deeba. She is a loyal friend who tries to be accepting of her friend’s important role. But constantly standing on the sidelines is no fun. Which is why I rooted for her from the word go.

What makes this book readable for younger people is that the language is tuned down quite a bit. There are still big and sometimes difficult words but their meaning is usually clear from the context or explained in the text. That is a huge bonus right there, because that is how children learn new words. Or if they’re as swept up in the adventure as I was, they’ll probably just read over them. Either way, the big words do not distract from the flow of the story.

un lun dun binjaChina Miéville must have a vast imagination. The things he came up with in this book, the creatures and people that live in the abcity, range from hilariously original to absolutely bonkers. There are binja (bins that are ninjas), smombies, and unbrellas. UnLondon is what happens when all the trash and things people throw away in London congregates and creates an entirely new city and culture. Any moil – which is anything mildly obsolete in London – helps make up the stuff UnLondon is made off and there is something fun and new to discover on every page. I also would never have exptected to grow quite so fond of an empty milk carton. But yeah, that little thing totally grew on me.

quotes grey“My dad hates umbrellas,” said Deeba, swinging her own. “When it rains he always says the same thing. ‘I do not believe the presence of moisture in the air is sufficient reason to overturn society’s usual sensible taboo against wielding spiked clubs at eye level.'”

The themes explored and issues raised are fairly obvious but I loved how Miéville managed to show the complexities of politics in a manner that every child can understand. People who seem to be good aren’t always really good. But they’re not automatically bad either. Some are being lied to, some are doing the lying, others are double-crossing or plain greedy. By putting all of this into the context of the UnLondon society with an obvious and easy-to-identify main antagonist, I believe this shows kids that a little conviction can go a long way. And that not everything is necessarily as it first seems.

That said, Miéville takes on tropes of fantasy books and turns them on their head. We learn how the adventure is supposed to go, throw caution and rules into the wind, and do it our own way. To which I can only say: This is awesome!

Of course, un lun dun illustration china mievilleUnLondon is not only made of cool stuff. There are dangers galore which make for great action scenes. But there at least as many great characters with their own lives and back stories that offer us some moments of rest and good old fun. Because this is a YA book, we are introduced to them quickly and don’t necessarily spend a lot of time seeing their character development but they are all sympathetic and lovable. Some of them even get their own illustrations, all of which I found wonderful and adding to the atmosphere of the abcity. Deeba is an engaging and clever heroine-by-accident who makes mistakes but learns from them, as all good rolemodels should. I find myself wanting to read about all the other abcities as well. After all, there is Parisn’t, Lost Angeles, and – my personal favorite – Sans Francisco.

THE GOOD: A fantastic, fun world to discover by following great characters. Quick, short chapters, a fast-moving plot, language that is easy enough for children to read but not talking down to them.
THE BAD: As an adult, I would have liked more depth – basically I would have read the grown-up version of this. But this is a YA book and as such it was superbly done.
BONUS: Curdle, the milk carton.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended, clever fiction for young people that raises issues without lecturing, wraps them into an adventure and makes the imagination soar.

RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Caitlín R. Kiernan – The Drowning Girl

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

drowning girlTHE DROWNING GIRL
by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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

My rating: 9/10

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Michael Zulli

(c) Michael Zulli

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:  9/10  Close to perfection


Second Opinions