Summer Catch-Up

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After disappearing for a summer far too packed with work, I’ve returned with more reviews! I thought I’d kick things off with some mini reviews of what I’ve been reading in my absence. While being less prolific than usual, my choices have run the gamut from non-fiction to comic books and I’m happy I’ve kept to my goal of stepping outside my YA comfort zone.

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I’ve never been much of a poetry reader, but I greatly enjoyed this collection. While I wouldn’t categorize Kaur’s work as traditional poetry, it resonated deeply with me. I felt a kinship with many of the experiences she alluded to, and I’ll certainly be revisiting it when I’m in a pensive mood or I need a good cry in the bath.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman

A book with this title was too intriguing to pass up, and it turned out to be a quick and easy read. While enjoyable enough, I found the essays to be a mixed bag. My favourites in the collection were those speaking of Serena Williams, Nicki Minaj, and Hillary Clinton. Still, even in my favourites there was a lot of repetition of ideas and regurgitation of source information. The author spent more time quoting other sources than she did forming her own ideas.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer

Centered around a teenage Diana, this novel was supremely enjoyable. While not a part of any current DC canon it was a great story with lots of fun and feeling! Diana was a greatly sympathetic character, but she was also a very believable teenage girl. The friendship she forges with Alia was really moving – and their distinct personalities and lives complemented each other. The supporting cast of characters was well developed and Bardugo sets an adventurous pace that makes it easy to read through without stopping. I can’t wait to read more of the DC Icons series and of Bardugo’s work as well!

 The First Bad Man

This book was recommended to me by a friend, and it was utterly bizarre. I found all the characters unlikable and strange. Everyone is clearly dealing with their own issues. The protagonist is clearly suffering from a mental illness, and an unusual one at that. It was interesting to see the world from her perspective. I spent a lot of the novel being frustrated with her, and yet I still wanted to know how the story would turn out. Still, it isn’t something I would re-read.

 That’s all for now, but I’ll be posting more regular content from here on out. What have you been reading this summer?

Canada Reads: Nostalgia

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The shortlist of this year’s Canada Reads contenders was announced on January 31st. This year, I’m trying to read all of them before the show airs. I managed to get tickets for two of the days and I am absolutely thrilled!

For those of you who aren’t Canadian, or who haven’t heard of Canada Reads, it’s a TV special that airs each year and takes the form of a debate. A different question is chosen every year, and each CanLit pick is defended by a Canadian to stay in the competition and become the yearly winner. Every episode whittles out one book.

This year’s question is: “What is the one book Canadians need now?”

Reading Nostalgia with that question as the lens I understand why it was chosen this year, even if I didn’t find it very enjoyable.

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The essence of the book is that humans have basically found a way to become immortal. Available mostly to the rich, you can be crafted with new parts to live your youth once again or extend your life. The catch is that the bulk of your memories must be wiped, as a way to retain the memories of more than one lifetime has yet to be discovered. New memories will be manufactured for you – of your childhood, family, and seminal experiences, and you’ll never know which ones are false. If you’re lucky, your past self will have left you a nest-egg to start your new life with.

Lucky refugees who manage to cross the Long Border are also ‘granted’ new lives by the government, with the assumption that their original memories and personalities will prevent them from assimilating into their new society.

Nostalgia centers around Doctor Frank Sina, a man who specializes in Nostalgia – patients whose old memories are beginning to leak into their new ones. He becomes intrigued and then obsessed with a new patient of his, Presley. The novel follows Dr. Sina as he deals with his dysfunctional relationship with a ‘BabyGen’, his budding friendship with a pro-death protester, and his (very slow) realization that he and his new patient may be more connected than he thought.

The concept of this book really appealed to me. Somehow though, it felt as if I was waiting the entire novel for things that never happened. It took more than half the book for the cause behind the extreme poverty and political situation surrounding Maskinia to be explained. The issue of refugees and poverty tourism were brought up, but never dived into with real depth.

The ‘long border’ and the state of affairs in Maskinia were talked about mostly through the context of Holly, a reporter who is missing and presumed dead. Everything said about Maskinia I took as speculation, until suddenly it wasn’t. That was pretty unsatisfying in my opinion.

While so many political and philosophical issues were touched on (this is also a post-racial society) they were never given any room or time to grow.

I would have enjoyed Nostalgia better had the author chosen to focus on one or two key topics rather than piled a whole bunch of stuff in there and stirred it together.

I think that this book does address topics that Canadians need to think about now. However, I also think that the quick overview it gives of many issues is not enough. It made me think, but my thoughts were focused more on how much Sina could be trusted as a narrator rather than any of the issues introduced in the narrative.

This book was okay, but I’m reserving judgement on it’s Canada Reads chances until I’ve finished the other contenders.

Have you read Nostalgia? Do you think this is the one book Canadians need now? Let me know in the comments below!

Shadow and Bone

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I’ll admit that I’m late to the party on this one, seeing that it was published five years ago and already has a sizeable fan base. As I was searching the library for a new read, the spine caught my eye. It and the cover are gorgeous, and I’m glad it stood out.

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Objectively, this book was standard YA fantasy fare. There’s a simple magic system with rather straightforward world-building. There’s a heroine in love with her best friend, but intrigued by a mysterious stranger.

Well, standard fantasy fare or not, I loved this book.

Some of it was Ravka, the setting that immediately called to mind the stark beauty and culture of Imperial Russia. Some of it was Alina’s voice, and her growth as a character. Maybe it was even the premise of someone discovering within themselves an incredible power that they hadn’t suspected was there, as overdone as that seems to be.

I enjoyed the side characters and their development as well. The Darkling, Baghra, and Genya had interesting storylines that I hope to see more of in the rest of the series.

I didn’t think I would like Alina’s feelings for Mal, but the way they were handled were realistic. I think I liked this book so much because I found people’s emotions and motivations so believable. The characters could have walked right off the page.

From the moment I picked up this book I was absolutely hooked. I was so immersed in the story that I couldn’t put it down. While I usually dislike first person narration, I didn’t find it to be irritating at all. Instead, Bardugo’s writing had me glued to every page.

Alina’s voice was clear and compelling. I was emotionally invested in her journey, in her self-discoveries, and in the friendships and relationships she forged throughout the book.

If you’re looking for a rather incredible take on a straight-up YA fantasy, this is the one for you! I’ve already begun reading the second book as we speak.

Have you read Shadow and Bone? Did you think it was too over-hyped? Did you love it like I did, or not like it at all? 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!

A Darkly Beating Heart

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Though things have been busy lately, I really have been remiss in posting here consistently. So I have for you today another book review! Yet another NetGalley pick, I chose this one because of its cover and the interesting blurb on the back.

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This book follows Reiko, a Japanese-American teenager, after she’s shipped off to Japan to stay with her cousin’s family in the hopes that it will help her learn to control her emotions.

Reiko is a character who is filled with anger. Its pretty much brought up on every page, which has led some reviewers to give this book a pretty hard knock. They find it annoying and unrealistic (poor little rich girl, sent off to Japan…) and couldn’t sympathise or identify with her character.

I don’t agree.

There are aspects of this book I didn’t like, but Reiko’s anger wasn’t one of them. I was happy to see a character in her situation, that is, struggling to comprehend and express her emotions (or lack of). In reading, it was my understanding that Reiko was dealing with a mental illness – something she struggled to refute as she was medicated and committed to a psychiatric facility. In her mind, she simply wanted revenge – to hurt those around her as she perceived she had been hurt.

Reiko’s anger leads to an interesting supernatural situation as she and her companions visit the historic village of Kuramagi, preserved to reflect the nineteenth-century Edo period. After discovering a strange stone in a hidden shrine, Reiko finds herself living the life of Miyu, a young woman living in the Edo period itself. As Reiko struggles to piece together what is happening she bounces between bodies and timelines.

Her actions are often foolish, her impulses upsetting, her attitude reprehensible. But guess what: she’s a teenager.

I really enjoyed the supernatural aspects of this story, and I would have loved if that were expanded upon. As it was though, I didn’t like that the convergence of Miyu and Reiko was given as the cause of Reiko’s anger. It seemed like an easy out for the author and I really expected something more. Living happily ever after without emotional labour, consequence, or therapy seems very unlikely to me.

I also wished to see more of Miyu’s life, and to know what happened to her when Reiko inhabited her body. It seemed a bit laissez-faire for time-travel, though I did like that people in Reiko’s life noticed the strangeness about her later on in the book.

If you’re looking for an okay quick read with a character in a state of emotional upset that also involves time travel, this is the book for you.

Have you given this book a try? Have you read any fantastic books set in Edo-period Japan? Let me know in the comments below!

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter

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Sometimes when a book comes out, I’ll take a peek at the cover and synopsis and be really into it. I’ll put it on my ‘to read’ list on Goodreads and tell myself that I’ll borrow it from the library when it makes it there.

And then I’ll forget about it completely.

That is exactly what happened with the book. It was published in 2013 and I wanted to read it so badly – but didn’t remember until a co-worker picked it up at work last week.

It took me three years to getting around to it, and I wish I had read it sooner!

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The Mad Scientist’s Daughter didn’t fit in with my spooky October reads, but I decided to go for it anyway.

This book tore out my heart, ripped it into a billion pieces, mashed it back together and stuck it right back into the gaping hole in my chest.

In short, it was fantastic.

I always forget how much I enjoy reading about robots and the questions of sentience and rights that their presence often prompts.

The main character is Cat, who the reader sees grow from a small child to a woman over the course of the book. When we first meet her, she’s basically been allowed to run wild and discover life on her own in the gardens and woods behind her home. Both of her parents are scientists, her mother having given up her career to be a housewife, and her father tinkering away on projects in their basement.

One day, her father comes home with a strange man that she believes to be a ghost. Years later, she learns that he is in fact a robot. He becomes her tutor, her constant companion, and her friend.

Cat is not a perfect person. She has a boatload of issues and she’s honestly a complete jerk sometimes. But as I watched her grow up I understood the circumstances that led her to make various (arguably terrible) decisions.

Finn, the robot, is also an interesting character. Though he is a machine, Cat’s father treats him as a person – part of the reason he’s earned the moniker ‘mad scientist’ among the general population. Cat’s mother is always either vaguely disapproving of him or outright upset about him.

As the book progresses, Cat learns about Finn little by little. It changes her opinion of him, and it changed mine too, but in different ways throughout the book. Cat is an interesting character, but because she is a flawed character, her narration is narrow in that we only see what she sees. This is especially the case with every type of relationship she has in the course of her life.

I felt so many things reading this book. Anger, hopelessness – and for the better part of it, immense sadness that built a painful lump in my throat that just wouldn’t leave.

Robots are a fact of life in the setting – machines made to work, originally prompted by an unnamed Disaster that wiped out a great deal of the population. Sometimes referred to as ‘automata’, they cannot feel or form attachments, and are a basic facsimile of humans. Sometimes they’re faceless, or there are lights in their facial features. Many humans (those deeply religious) believe them to be abominations and run the gamut from lobbying against them legally to viciously tearing them apart in the streets.

Despite the fact that robots are pervasive, this is a story about being human. It’s a tale of messy emotions, of making friends, of working with your hands, of being normal and defying norms, and of love.

What does it mean to be human? This book is a journey that basically explores that question.

I wouldn’t class this as straight up science fiction as I usually think of it. More a ‘soft sci-fi’ character study.

But no matter your genre preferences, if you’re looking for a beautifully written story this is the book for you.

Just read it. Just do it.

Do you have any similar recommendations for me? Beautiful books that stayed with you long after reading them? Tales of robot or AI sentience?

Recommend them to me in the comments below!

 

The Blackbird Singularity

 

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In my last review, I touched a little bit on book covers and how they can influence my choice of reads. When I have the freedom to choose a book without paying for it, I’m more likely to step outside my comfort zone. I might choose a book based solely on a cool cover or title, as well as abandon my favourite genres in search of something different.

That’s how I came to choose The Blackbird Singularity as my next read on NetGalley.

Cool cover? Interesting title? Non-genre fiction? Yes to all of the above.

And it turned out well, as I ended up really enjoying it.

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Vince and Lyd are expecting a baby. Thus, Vince who is often fog-headed due to his medication, decides to stop his medication in order to be a better provider and a better partner and father.

This book’s account of stress-induced bi-polar disorder was incredibly well done. Every decision made by Vince seems entirely justifiable in his own head. Yes, he deliberately stops his lithium. Yes, this is clearly not a good idea. The decisions he makes as his disorder rears its head are strange at times, and inadvisable at best at others. He’s definitely an unreliable narrator of the best kind – he believes everything he sees is actually happening, and as the reader I couldn’t help but be drawn in.

Struggling with the loss of a child, lack of employment and creative fuel, and in-laws who think he’s completely useless, Vince certainly doesn’t have things easy. His relationship with Lyd was horribly strained, and I felt for them both. Trying to rebuild what they had seemed nigh on impossible, and they simply didn’t know how to communicate with each other.

The oddities of Vince’s mother and her new family, as well as the Serge and Gloria disaster were interesting, as was Jamal’s character. I thought it was telling that Vince seemed to have no problem identifying messed up lives and emotions in other people’s lives, but not in his own. I thought it really helped showcase how insidious bi-polar disorder can be.

Vince’s fixation on the blackbirds in his back garden was really compelling, and I continued reading to see if it would evolve into mania or change in some way. I thought the book being separated into trimesters was well-done, and I liked the excerpts of text at the beginning of each chapter.

As the book wound up to its (seemingly inevitable) end, I was on the edge of my seat.

I think Wilven did a great job of portraying mental illness without patronizing or romanticising, while still giving the reader a story they’ll want to finish. If you’re looking for a read that explores relationships, loss, and the attempt to get your life together while it seems to be falling apart, this is the book for you.