Category Archives: reviews

The Wolf Hour by Sara Lewis Holmes

This post is part of the Wolf Hour blog tour, organized by Tanita S. Davis over at Finding Wonderland. You can check out Tanita’s interview with Sara Lewis Holmes and Charlotte’s review and interview now, and keep an eye out for the other posts during October!

Welcome, my little lambs, to the Puszcza. It’s an ancient forest, a keeper of the deepest magic, where even the darkest fairy tales are real. Here, a Girl is not supposed to be a woodcutter, or be brave enough to walk alone. Here, a Wolf is not supposed to love to read, or be curious enough to meet a human. And here, a Story is nothing like the ones you read in books, for the Witch can make the most startling tales come alive. All she needs is …
A Girl from the village,
A Wolf from the forest,
& A Woodcutter with a nice, sharp axe.

So take care, little lambs, if you step into these woods. For in the Puszcza, it is always as dark as the hour between night and dawn — the time old folk call the Wolf Hour. If you lose your way here, you will be lost forever, your Story no longer your own. You can bet your bones.

The Wolf Hour is a fascinating and odd book, although I don’t mean odd in a negative sense here. I often don’t enjoy fairy tale mashups (as opposed to fairy tale retellings, which I do often love) but Holmes has woven in some of the things I like best about fairy tales: the strange logic, the sense of foreboding, the vivid imagery. So, despite the fact that this story contains strands of several different fairy tales, it feels more like one complete in itself.

Set in a small Polish town, outside the great forest called the puszcza, The Wolf Hour is the story of Magia the woodcutter’s daughter, who longs to be her father’s apprentice and help her family survive. It is the story of three pigs. It is the story of a wolf named Martin. But it is also the story of a woman named Miss Grand, and of Magia’s family. In this book, Story is a powerful force, and one that is not entirely benign. Once you’re part of a Story, you’re in it for better or worse.

One of the things I liked about this book was how complicated the characters felt. Although fairy tales can sometimes feel simplistic, here Lewis doesn’t allow any of her characters to simply be good or bad. At first, we encounter them more as types than as people, but gradually they are shaded in and become much more complex. This included a revelation that I found personally a bit shocking and even upsetting; I wonder if a kid reader would find it more or less so. From Miss Grand to Magia herself, we see almost everyone in this book in shades of grey.

I did personally find that the pacing was a bit odd, since the story jumps ahead by several years at one point. But overall, I felt this one was very successful at recreating the feeling of a fairy tale, with fresh themes and approaches. Magia seems very alone for much of the story, without anyone to guide or mentor her. And yet, by the end the place she has found for herself feels earned and right. She and the other characters are caught in someone else’s story for a time, and they have to find their own ways out. I think this one will resonate with confident readers, especially those who are ready for some fraught plotting and moral complexity.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: Arthur Levine Books, 2017; middle grade fantasy

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

It kind of seems like everyone has either already read this book or already intends to, but I still want to talk about it because WOW.

Actually, I’m going to instantly contradict myself and say that this book probably works best for a particular kind of reader, one who has a strong tolerance for gory stuff and a willingness to trust the narrative a bit. Lee throws us right into the world and the characters, and both are complicated and demanding. In particular, the system of magicky science, or sciencey magic, is confuddling at first.

However! I also think that all of the disclaimers about the difficulty of this book, my own included, probably make it sound more daunting than it needs to be. If you are a reasonably astute genre reader, who’s comfortable with worldbuilding and weirdness, this shouldn’t be necessarily a tricky read. I certainly didn’t find it easy, but neither did it make me so utterly confounded that I wanted to scream (unlike, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, another recent read).

And ultimately this ends up being a very rewarding story. The characters and world are complex and compelling–while most of the characters aren’t exactly likeable, they certainly command attention. The exception here is Cheris, the main character: thoughtful and kind and competent as well as out of her depth through most of the book. The fact that she’s not completely overshadowed by Jedao, the murderous ghost that she’s forced into, uh, let’s say partnership, with shows Lee’s ability to write different kinds of characters convincingly.

I don’t want to be spoilery, but I do want to talk a bit about what I found to be a very impressive trick, which may give some things away. So if you absolutely don’t want to know anything about the rest of the book, here’s the place to stop. (For what it’s worth, this is one I completely avoided spoilers for and was glad I did.)

Okay.

The thing is, Ninefox Gambit is all about trust and who we trust and who we don’t. And it’s also very much about Cheris’s relationship with Jedao–not an overtly romantic one, but incredibly, awfully intimate. Their dynamics as well as the world and the questions the story raises were so immersive that it’s not until I finished the book that I realized something. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, the reading experience mirrored Cheris’s own arc with regard to Jedao in a fascinating and entirely disturbing way. That is quite a trick to pull off, but Lee managed it so smoothly that I didn’t even notice.

In short, this book has a lot to recommend itself, and I’ll absolutely be back for the sequel.

Yoon Ha Lee previously:

  • A short story collection, Conservation of Shadows, which I HIGHLY recommend if you liked Ninefox Gambit and want more before Raven Strategem is out.

Other reviews of Ninefox Gambit:

3 Comments

Filed under book lists, reviews

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

There are lots of fine books in the world, but every so often there’s a book that just reaches out and grabs me in a very particular way: from start to finish, in a way that lingers long afterwards. The Winged Histories was one of those books, a thing so lovely that I’m still amazed by it, and moved by it in ways that I’m not entirely sure I can articulate.

I read Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria back in 2015 and I was excited when I heard there was a sequel coming out. The Winged Histories is actually a loose companion; it has a different feel and concern than the first book, but takes place in the same world and (if I’m right about this) about the same time as well. But whereas Jevick’s story is obviously about a stranger, and about a man, The Winged Histories is about four women in Olondria itself–though the issue of what is and is not Olondrian actually lies at the heart of the book.

The Winged Histories is divided into four sections, four books, four narratives from four different women. Each narrative has a different voice and perspective; they all sit near each other with the tension of stanzas in a poem, clearly connected and in conversation with each other, but not simply a continuation. The formality of the structure (each book has its own title, an epigraph which comes from within the narrative, and an impersonal relation of relevant history) contrasts with the incredibly personal nature of the narratives themselves.

Samatar is a poet, so it’s not surprising that I thought of poetic structure here, or that just now I thought of the connection between this kind of narrative and confessional poetry. That poetic quality is also very much on display in the sentence level writing which is so astonishingly beautiful in places that I can hardly stand it.

Also, the sense of history and politics and the way the personal and political interact with each other adds up to a world that feels so lived in and real. I believed in Kestenya and its desire for freedom; in the religion of the Stone and the complicated motivations of those who follow it; in the family dynamics that haunt the different stories. The balance of detail and scope can be a hard one to get right, but here it seemed right.

I know I pointed about above that this is a story about four women, but one of the things that I adored here is that it’s not just a story about these four women. There are men here, certainly, but there are women everywhere: mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, lovers. And they all have different views about the world and themselves and their place. One advantage of this overlapping narrative is the ability to show the tensions within a society, where the fault lines lie. This is not a story of simple female solidarity, by any means, but it is a story that’s centered on women and their lives, showing them in relationship to each other in a way that feel really true.

I kept putting this book down while reading it, not because I was bored, but because it was so much that I wanted to absorb it slowly. And I think the beginning could be a bit confusing, because Samatar drops us down into the middle of the world as Tavis herself experiences it. (There is a glossary in the back, which can help.) But mostly, I encourage setting the confusion aside and reading a little further, because the story here is wild and sweet and sharp and beautiful, with a sense of place and characters who make the work of reading entirely worthwhile.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Small Beer Press; adult fantasy

Leave a comment

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I was hovering on the edge of a reading slump when I read this one (symptoms of a reading slump: picking up and setting down a number of books, trying books you expect to like and finishing them with a grim sense of ennui, the inability to pinpoint exactly what you actually want to read) and I wasn’t really expecting this book to be the one to pull me out of it, but I was wrong.

This is a far-future scifi set on a group of distant planets belonging to the Coromina Group, an all-powerful corporation that operates a corpocracy. It controls everything about its citizen-employees and in turn supposedly ensures their lives are smooth and they have everything they need. Esme Coromina, the main character of Star’s  End, is the oldest daughter of the founder of the Coromina Group and his assumed successor. As the book opens, her father calls her in and reveals that he’s dying, asking her to find her estranged sisters. The story unfolds in alternating chapters between Esme’s third person current life and first person past narration.

Star’s End does a couple of that I found interesting and liked quite a bit. Although it’s definitely science fiction and I found the SF elements plausible and interesting, it’s main focus is on the family dynamics and their ripples across the world. For all the planets, and technological innovation, and scifi warfare, it’s a very intimate story; at the same time, because everything the Coromina family does carries power with it, that very intimacy lies in an unresolvable tension with the wider implications and effects on the world.

It can’t be denied that in his family life as well as the planet, Phillip Coromina is a driving force. And yet the true heart of this books is Esme and her three sisters. In a way that reminded me of my beloved Girls at the Kingfisher Club*, Clarke shows a sisterhood that is complex and fraught, full of distance and tensions and misunderstandings, but which is for all of that as vitally real as can be. We can see Esme’s strengths and her flaws most clearly in the ways she deals with her sisters, and it’s in these moments that her struggle becomes the most palpable.

While I love books that talk about working against a system from inside of it (the Imperial Raadch books, for instance), Star’s End has a lot to say about the limits of that possibility. Esme’s desire in working to achieve her current status in the company has always been to become unlike her father, and to take the company in a different direction. She’s committed to that course already, in the changes she made while working in Planetary Management. But at the same time, the book lays her failures out starkly. And although the end is hopeful, the fact remains that the corpocracy is still in place; the system has not been demolished so much as made benign. Esme is not her father, and she learns over the course of the book how to be even less like him and more truly herself. The ending is hopeful and feels earned and true. But I think, quite deliberately, Clarke also wants us to see the gaps.

All in all, the combination of themes and concerns in this one really struck me, and I’m glad I read it! I really like intimate scifi, especially when it also has some interesting SF elements, and I’d like to read more of it.

* Obligatory, Jooooooooo, my heart

Book source: public library

Book information: 2017; Saga Press, adult scifi

4 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Oh my, what a feels-fest The Inexplicable Logic of My Life was for me! It’s Benjamin Alire Saenz’s second book*, following Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and, like the first book, is quiet and elegant but also packs a walloping emotional punch.

Now, I have seen a critique that the beginning of the book goes slowly. And I can see that as fair. But I can also see that the pacing is actually very deliberate, as Saenz draws us into Sal’s world and his emotional landscape. At the same time, this is not a book that’s ever going to be for a reader who’s primarily plot-driven. It’s not that nothing happens here–in fact, there are big, seismic life changes. But the focus remains firmly on the characters, rather than the events.

And in fact, a lot of this book is about showing care and complexity in portraying people who are often overlooked, like Sal but also Sam and Fito, also Sal’s dad. This is perhaps a bit of an emotional spoiler, but I’m still going to share one of my favorite quotes:

“It was exactly like Sam had said, about how we had to see people because sometimes the world made us invisible. So we had to make each other visible. Words were like that too. Sometimes we didn’t see words.”

Sal starts off alone, but he doesn’t end up there; he starts off in some ways invisible, but over the course of the book, he becomes seen. And I loved the family that grows–found families being one of my favorite things anyway, but especially here, where it’s not easy or simple but is true.

There’s a lot more going on, including identity, the repetition of family patterns and history, learning how to see your parents as people, grief, the importance of friendship. But what weaves it all into a cohesive whole is the strength of Sal’s narration, and his relationship to the world, to his friends and family, and ultimately himself.

* Kate has alerted me that this is in fact VERY WRONG–Inexplicable Logic being BAS’s FIFTH YA book.

4 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Every so often I try to convince myself that reading a bunch of ebooks is the way to get through my TBR list more efficiently, so I check out a bunch from the library (free! easy! look at me getting all these books to read!) and then inevitably read one or two before I forget about it and end up with an empty loan page again.

I went through that cycle earlier this month, and while I can’t say I was any more successful than usual, I did read We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I was going to say that it’s my first Shirley Jackson, but of course like many others I read “The Lottery” in high school. I’m convinced that this is a terrible time to read “The Lottery” and while I’ll stop short of saying that people are doing it on purpose, I do think it contributed to the fact that I’m just now reading any of Jackson’s other work.

Anyway, I loved WHALITC from the very beginning, because, I mean:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

(I too like Richard Plantagenet, but possibly for different reasons.)

Merricat’s voice is a huge strength in this one: calm and assured, deeply observant and also scattered and naive. I’m a sucker for a good narrative voice and it’s all over this one, from that opening paragraph to the end. And it works perfectly for the delicious creepiness of this story, with its silences and refusal to look full on at the truth. There’s a slipperiness of both memory and time here which relies on but is also in tension with Merricat’s confidence in her own history and reality.

One strand of this story is the eerie mirror-wrongness of the familiar and nostalgic. For instance, rather than a homey or quaint village, the one here is a locus of hatred and suspicion and eventually violence as seen through Merricat’s eyes. Though she’s certainly not a reliable narrator, I don’t think we’re meant to discount this particular aspect.

Similarly, the rituals and routines of the Blackwoods, the insistent return to the minutiae of their family history and customs, may at first call up a sense of warmth and continuity. But it becomes apparent, in the that slipperiness of memory, that the reality is darker and fiercer. We start to see the family members, both present and remembered, almost like mechanical figures going about their patterns whether they want to or not.

At the heart of the story is the bond between the two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine. It’s Constance that Mary Katherine loves best, and it’s the threat of Constance leaving with Charles that sets into motion the final bits of the plot. But as we come to realize the truth that lies behind all the careful rituals and rules, we see that this bond becomes something both beautiful and terrible.

(I also felt  the fact that a woman had written this very strongly. It’s in the details of everyday life and the careful inheritance of care for house and contents, but it’s also in the particulars of Constance and Merricat’s fear and vulnerability.)

The true trick of this one is how right it seems while reading. There’s humor, there’s a sense of embattled pride and self-reliance. There’s a sense of wonder and almost-magic that we see in Merricat’s love of her home and her land, her imagination and observation. It’s only when the story is over and the ebook returned that the wrongness of it becomes apparent. The bits that don’t add up, the bits that suddenly add up all too well, the bits that hang there waiting for a resolution. It’s one of the truly creepiest things I’ve ever read, because for so long Jackson manages to make it convincing.

So! I’m planning to read The Haunting at Hill House next and then that biography of Jackson that came out recently. But–to bring things full circle–I checked them out as ebooks and they’ve since expired.

Other reviews:

2 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Star Wars: Razor’s Edge and Rebel Rising

rebel risingI have to admit that I haven’t historically been a big reader of Star Wars tie-ins, despite loving the movies. But I’ve read several I liked recently, starting with EK Johnston’s Ahsoka.

Martha Wells’ Razor’s Edge has the advantage of being written by an author whose books I really, really like, and of being about Leia (my favorite character). I was initially slightly disoriented because for some reason I thought this took place after the end of the original trilogy. It’s actually between New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It’s a relatively standalone adventure, featuring space pirates plus some fun banter between Han and Leia.

I really liked the way Wells shades in Leia’s competence–she’s shown to be a great negotiator and diplomat–but also her vulnerability–she feels incredibly responsible for the survivors of Alderaan. It’s a Leia that fits the movies while also giving an added sense of interority to the quippy Princess. This is enjoyable, although I didn’t feel that it ever reached the emotional depths of Wells’ strongest character work (Tremaiiiiine). At the same time, Razor’s Edge is a solid and thoughtful look at echoes from Leia’s past as well as her growing competence and strength.

While Razor’s Edge was published as an adult book, Beth Revis’s recent Rebel Rising is being published and marketed as YA. Telling Jyn Erso’s backstory, interspersed with scenes from Wobani, it goes a long way towards making her a slightly more coherent character than Rogue One was able to achieve.

This Jyn is shattered by the loss of her parents and then by subsequent loss after loss after loss. It’s grim, but we really do come to see the reason of her lack of hope. And we also see her talents as well as the training that made her one of Saw’s best fighters.

Saw himself emerges as a complex figure, and the book does a nice job of showing how his distrust and paranoia grow over Jyn’s years with him. I can’t say the male/female ratio is better than in Rogue One, but we do see a bit more of Lyra’s importance to her daughter, which is nice. (I still long for the AU where Lyra’s the scientist the Empire wants.)

There are a few inconsistencies that bothered me a bit, and the story felt long in places. Despite those quibbles, Rebel Rising is a solid YA that gives us better insight into Jyn and her motivations and background.

2 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews, Uncategorized