Brother’s Ruin

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Sometimes I’ll search NetGalley for the names of authors I’ve read for something new and familiar at once. I recently came across Emma Newman’s new novella, Brother’s Ruin, and I decided to give it a shot.

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The last thing I read of Newman’s was Planetfall, a sci-fi that was a character focus on someone with a rather debilitating mental illness. With that experience, I was expecting this new novel, though in a different genre, to also be quite character focused.

Arguably, it was. And that was the problem.

Set in a Victorian London which prizes magic and others magic users, I was expecting stronger world-building. As it is, the reader is thrown right into the thick of it with it and I rather felt as if I had started reading at the second chapter, having missed some information. Plus, the synopsis of the book is actually quite misleading.

For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.

But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.

Totally not what’s going on. I understand not wanting to spoil the events of the book, but they’ve completely manufactured motivations there that don’t exist in the text itself.

The bulk of what bothered me is that I didn’t care at all for Charlotte past the opening sequence with the baker. Considering the narrative was so focused on her, it clearly became an issue. Though this was a short read, I wasn’t compelled at all to keep reading. Charlotte is the only character that’s really fleshed out, and she makes stupid choices. She takes it upon herself to take responsibility for other people’s errors without even discussing things with them.

She does it, of course, because she cares about them.

Because going behind someone’s back to solve their problems in secret is definitely what you should do when you love someone. Also, lying to the man you want to marry is acceptable. Of course.

This was a fast-paced story that I think I would have enjoyed better had it been novel-length and had time to really explore more of the world and the side characters.

As it is, I’m keen to pass – on fluttery feelings for a stranger, side characters who make dumb decisions, and a main character that looks like she’s going to be a magical prodigy. How many tropes can you fit into less than 200 pages?

It’s not likely that I’ll give the second volume a chance, but I won’t give up on reading Newman’s other work.

Have you read Brother’s Ruin? Any of Emma Newman’s other work? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

Down the Rabbit Hole

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I don’t request very many books on NetGalley – maybe one or two that catch my eye every three weeks or so, or books from authors that I love.

Often, however, I’ll “wish for” a title that’s not available to request. In the last few days I somehow seem to have been approved for everything I’ve requested! Down the Rabbit Hole is one of those titles. While it’s put me in a bit of a reading frenzy, I’m thrilled to have been given the chance and want to thank NetGalley and the publisher for granting my wish.

I only wish this book had lived up to my expectations.

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I love Alice in Wonderland retellings, most especially darker ones. I’m always eager to see what a new author can bring to an existing tale to re-invigorate the characters or setting. This author brought a sibling – the idea that Alice had a twin sister, Lacie.

The Alice that Crane introduces us to is unrecognizable. I rather think that was the point, but I don’t think she’s a well thought out character. Raised by the Red Queen, she’s become just as mad as her adoptive mother. She’s also become just as cruel – meting out the same types of punishments that their citizens have come to fear.

That doesn’t seem so bad, right? Wrong. When the book is narrated from Alice’s perspective, the only thoughts she has are about her forbidden love for a stable-hand, Landon, and constant thoughts about a very badly worded prophecy that involves the twins themselves.

This prophecy manages to drive the narrative forward at what feels like a snail’s pace while somehow almost never managing to address it directly. Then, when it is addressed, it was such an eye-rolling scene that I thought my eyes were going to stay stuck in the back of my head.

The idea of Alice being a twin is interesting, but Lacie’s voice is not much better than Alice’s. Before she falls into Wonderhills, her voice seems like any teenager. Believable. But afterwards, her character devolves into simply questioning everything around her without ever receiving or thinking of any answers. She also (surprise!) gets a love interest who she’s completely smitten with as soon as they lock eyes for the first time.

He’s also the man her sister is instructed to marry. Because love triangles improve everything. Yikes.

Honestly, I found the narrative confusing and pretty boring. Throughout the entire book, I wondered how much longer I had to be reading it. Though it was a short read, coming to the end was as much a relief as finishing an epic novel in old English. The writing was pretty messy, concepts jumbled, and characters uninteresting. Even the tease of a cool concept (Earth is a dreamland) was mentioned a few times but ultimately lost in the mess that was this book.

I wondered if the novel was supposed to be confusing, considering the story, but if that was the case it was just a bad decision as I got absolutely no enjoyment from it.

The secondary characters are one-dimensional and boring, and even when they had slight backstories I didn’t give them a second thought. Oh, Red Queen and White Queen had bad stuff happen to them? Mad Hatter is even crazier than assumed? Did. Not. Care.

If you’re looking for a stellar (or even vaguely good) Alice retelling, this is not the book for you.

Can you recommend a great Alice retelling? Let me know in the comments below!

Son of a Trickster

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Last year, I read only one magical realism novel and I lamented the fact that I hadn’t found more. This year, I’m starting with one in the hopes that it will bring more my way! Wishful thinking, maybe, but it certainly can’t hurt.

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First, much thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for giving me the chance to read this fantastic book pre-publication!

Son of a Trickster will be published on February 7th, and it certainly fits the bleak tone of the month. Jared, the main character, is a teen with a damn hard life. With a grandmother who thinks he’s a trickster in disguise and a mom bouncing around with a drug-dealing boyfriend, things are certainly not rainbows and roses.

Here’s the thing though: it works. It works so incredibly well. This is the most realistic magical realism novel I’ve ever read. The characters seem like they could have walked out of any small town, and the stoner community and mindset were super accurate. People sometimes have hard lives. That’s just the way it is. It was a great change to read about such a realistic teen who is also such a good person.

I think it’s also worth noting that Jared is Native American, as are most of the characters in the book. So is the author herself – which makes this an #ownvoices read that I was happy to pick up. I rarely get to read YA with Native protagonists, which is really a shame.

Characters were complex and believable. Everyone is dealing with their own issues and they often complicate each other’s lives without even trying. Jared’s mom has a mantra that is often repeated throughout – and rings both true and false.

“The world is hard. You have to be harder.”

I’ll say right out that this isn’t the book for you if you take a critical view of underage swearing, drinking, drug use or sex. Maybe you should reconsider what you know of teenagers if you think their lives don’t include those things though.

I was interested to see how the magic would function as I expected it to stem from Indigenous beliefs, and I was pretty mesmerised by what was included. (Those otters, though. For real.) I’m really eager for more! The small hints of the fantastic are included from the very start, but they never overwhelm the narrative. The clear existence of a mystical world just sitting alongside our own was pretty shocking, but in the best possible way.

(Also – Jared’s reaction to weird shit (read: magic) was always spot on. A+ to that.)

Though there was a focus on the ‘realism’ aspect of this book, it was still steeped in magic, even when the characters were blitzed out of their minds. Despite their utter strangeness, the magical aspects of the book were totally believable. They were perhaps more believable because the reader is left to focus on the aspects themselves rather than the ‘why’ behind them.

The strange short interludes in italics were an interesting addition to the book, and a welcome one.

I was ultimately satisfied with the ending of the book when I took some time to mull it over. I learned that this is the first in a series, which means that the elements of magic that were briefly touched on may get more screen time in the next book.

I can’t wait to read more from Eden Robinson, and considering this book, I know that she won’t disappoint!

Can you recommend any great magical realism? Have you read any of Eden Robinson’s other books? Let me know in the comments below!

While We Dream

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Just before the holidays, I broke one of my own rules about making requests on NetGalley. Generally, I avoid requesting self-published novels. I don’t believe that everything self-published is bad, but I also haven’t read any self-published books that I’ve enjoyed either. For that reason, I avoid reading them to spare myself an unpleasant experience and to avoid giving scathing reviews.

I came across While We Dream and my self-made rule went out the window. While I did have some problems with it, I also actually enjoyed this short story collection.

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While We Dream is a collection filled with short and speculative tales of science fiction. Many of the stories within had unique enough concepts that I’ve never before encountered them anywhere else. Le Dain’s writing is fairly to the point, with no unnecessary flourishes of prose to pad out the tales. Within these pages you’ll find tales of clones, ghosts, murder, and dictatorship. You’ll be entering worlds where doppelgangers roam free and your fate is decided by a series of pre-determined tests.

The story for which the title was named was perhaps the least original of the bunch, but also had the most emotional impact

My imagination was captured by many of the stories, but there was one important factor that stopped me from totally enjoying this book.

The dialogue was awful.

Whenever people spoke aloud they sounded completely unnatural. Except for in one instance, there are absolutely no contractions used in this book, even when conversations are casual or when children are speaking.

Though I did like the stories, I thought that this book fell short where most self-published novels do: the editing. Given a good edit with an eye for dialogue, I could easily see this finding its way to my bookshelf and those of my friends. Some of the stories within also seemed cut short before their full idea came through, and thus their full potential was never reached. A good editor could also go over this with the author to give him a sense of what to expand upon.

I’m not sorry I broke my own rule by reading this book, and I will certainly seek out Le Dain again should he self-publish or traditionally publish any other work. I do hope that before then, he finds an editor who can help him reach his full potential.

What are your thoughts on self-published novels? Are there any great ones you have to recommend? Let me know in the comments below.

Maresi

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Reading has occupied a lot of my time lately, but I haven’t been able to post reviews as the titles aren’t out for a few months yet. Expect a lot of advance reviews in the new year. In any case, I was excited to read a title that will be published on January 3rd of the new year!

Maresi first caught my eye on NetGalley because of its striking cover. That imagery though. Take your time admiring it, I’ll wait.

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Translated from Swedish, Maresi is the tale of a thirteen-year-old novice in the Red Abbey. A haven for women and girls, they’re taken in, educated, and stay on as Sisters or go out into the world with the skills they’ve learned. Men aren’t allowed on the isle, fisherman docking to trade and never setting foot on land.

As I’m all for female empowerment, the concept of this novel really appealed to me.

I’m always a little wary of translated works, as there’s really no way to know if the translation does the original justice. In this case, the writing was simple but lovely, evoking a fairy-tale feel that never wavered.

I loved the concept for this story, but it was definitely a simplistic one. The mythos of the world was very straightforward, and incorporated a few elements from modern-day pagan beliefs (or rather, old pagan beliefs). The Goddess as a triple incarnation of Maiden, Mother, Crone was the most obvious of these.

I found the characters believable and their interactions with each other seemed realistic. Women and girls of various ethnicities were represented here, though obviously they were purported to be from fictional places. Still, I thought that it was well done, especially the mention of Maresi having to learn a new language when she came to the Abbey. I really liked Dori and Bird, and I would have liked to see more of them and of the other secondary characters.

Even the most important of secondary characters were never really fleshed out. The reader only knows the most basic things about them and their personalities. Still, considering the story is being told in first person from Maresi’s point of view it was understandable that we didn’t know more. It also fits in well with the fairy tale feel of the book.

Despite that, Maresi and Jai’s friendship grew beautifully as the story went on. Similarly, we got to see more of the friendship between the girls and the Sisters as the book progresses. The actions of the First Mother, and of the Rose were particularly telling of the strong bonds created in the Abbey.

While reading, I thought that this would be a great book for middle grade readers. It was a tale of growing up, of sisterhood, and of learning what it means to be a part of something greater than yourself.

I was surprised to encounter sexual violence in this book, but I thought the non-explicit way it was written, and the way in which it was handled was well done. I think that all young people should learn about sexual violence and its repercussions, and this book would be a good vehicle to get the topic on the table in order to talk to them about it in a calm manner.

The magic elements in this book weren’t as pervasive as I expected at the beginning, but blew me away at the end. The author definitely has developed good ideas that I hope to see more of in her work. As it is, the symbolism and simple magic system worked incredibly well with the story. The Goddess worship tied in perfectly and was interesting as well, and it was cool to see it being validated rather than a myth believed only on the island.

Overall, I think this is a great choice for younger readers, or for older ones seeking a simple tale to sink into. It’s a slow paced and deliberate book reminiscent of a folktale. I look forward to reading the prequel, Naondel, and learning more about the founding of the Abbey.

For now, look out for Maresi at bookstores near you in the new year!

Can you recommend any books with a fairy tale feel? Let me know in the comments below!

Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation

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In late September I posted my fall TBR list, and I’m back today with a review of my fourth read from the list! When I added Invisible Planets to my list, I didn’t dare dream that I would get an advance review copy. To my delight that’s exactly what happened thanks to the kind folks at NetGalley and Tor. I haven’t posted in a while as I’ve been reading it slowly to enjoy it – plus I’ve been getting more hours at my fantastic new dream job… so I’m extra sleepy when I get home and writing has passed me by a bit.

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As soon as I learned of Invisible Planets, I knew that I wanted to check it out. I’ve been more into science fiction lately, but reading diverse authors is also very important to me. Add in the fact that Ken Liu was the translator and I was absolutely sold on this book.

It certainly didn’t disappoint!

The book begins with a preface by Ken Liu giving a little bit of background on the stories included in the anthology. He also speaks about how “any broad literary classification tied to a culture (…) encompasses all the complexities and contradictions in that culture.” He goes on to say some very interesting things that me think and appreciate the stories that followed even more. His note about translation at the end proves that the reader is in the right hands. (Don’t skip this introduction!)

Before each author’s stories is a short biography in which Ken Liu tells the reader about their accomplishments, styles, and the broader contexts of their work. A very necessary addition to the text, especially if you’re going to seek out more of the authors’ work.

First up were Chen Qiufan’s stories – the first wasn’t to my tastes, but the subject matter was interesting. The other two I did enjoy. The mix of realism with slightly sci-fi elements was compelling and Chen’s writing was concise, not a word wasted. He also authored one of the essays at the end of the anthology, which definitely illuminated some of the story themes seen here.

Next up was Xia Jia, who turned out to be my absolute favourite of this anthology! Her beautiful prose and imagery were both fantastical and absolutely believable. These were the kinds of beautiful stories I enjoy reading aloud based purely on their lovely construction. In saying that, they were also the kind of soft science fiction that I’ve craving lately, though she describes her own work as ‘porridge SF’.  A tale of a boy who lives with ghosts, the story of a mechanical dragon-horse, and a story of innovation turned to an entirely new purpose round out her section. She also authored one of the essays in the book about what it is exactly that makes Chinese science fiction Chinese. I would buy this book for her stories alone.

Then came Ma Boyong, whose addition to this anthology was an eerie tale that was a nod to Orwell’s 1984, but also a commentary on a censorship regime that was published here in its original form rather than the altered one it was given to get past a real censorship regime. Now there’s an interesting twist, no? This tale straddled the line between bleak and inspiring, and I would have loved to see it as a novella to find out what happens to the main character.

Hao Jingfang is the author of the story for which the anthology is named, and it is certainly well deserved. She tells a tale of scores of planets that left me aching for more. Her small glimpses into these other worlds revealed an incredible gift of imagination and of storytelling that is again revealed in her next story. Her second story is a dystopian gem about a Beijing that folds up only to unfold again to reveal a city of vastly different demographics.

Tang Fei’s story of an unusual call girl was enrapturing. The surreal nature of the story was compelling, and this is another tale that I would love to see expanded as a novella or even a full novel.

Cheng Jingbo was next, with a fairy-tale like story that took some thinking to comprehend. The imagery was intensely unique, as was the concept itself.

Liu Cixin was last, though he is recognized as the leading voice in Chinese science fiction. His first story was an adaptation of a chapter from his novel ‘The Three-Body Problem’. It was ‘hard’ science fiction, of the kind that brings in undoubtable scientific elements. Not to my taste, but those who enjoy the works of the science fiction ‘greats’ will like this. The last story in the anthology was one that again showcased the wonders of science, but also the wonders and failings of mankind. Liu also authored an essay that explores the history of science fiction in China.

All together, I found this anthology absolutely fantastic. I would recommend it to anyone looking for not only science fiction, but also new authors to look out for. This is going on my favourites shelf and I’ll be following most of the authors within in the hopes that more of their work will be translated and made available in English. And of course, Ken Liu’s incredible skills as a translator mustn’t be overlooked. Every writer within clearly had a style of their own that was not lost to a change in language.

Thanks again to NetGalley and Tor who gave me the opportunity to explore these incredible new worlds!

 

Savant

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I’m back with another review of a NetGalley find, this time a science fiction novel due to hit shelves in early October.

Savant is a book centered around an ‘Active’, an outlying individual who helps power the Shield that protects the Earth from unwanted prying eyes. When Active Tobe is caught in a probability loop it affects the well-being of the Shield, and thus, the entire world.

While I’m happy to report that I enjoyed this book, it wasn’t quite what I expected.

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Continue reading Savant