Book Review: Heartstopper volume 3

Picture of the cover for Heartstopper volume 3 by Alice Oseman. Image of two teenage boys holding hands while looking at a map.

Heartstopper volume 3 by Alice Oseman
Published February 6th, 2020

My library holds on Becky Chambers’ The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, Katherine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead, and the third volume of Alice Oseman’s graphic novel Heartstopper all came in at the same time, putting me in the enviable position of reading and reviewing the coziest, most heartwarming stack of all time! I read this volume of Heartstopper on a lazy Sunday and, sure enough, it is an absolute delight. If you have not already done so and you’re looking for a light read, please give this series a shot!

Charlie and Nick are now boyfriends and Nick has even come out as bisexual to his mom, but they’re not yet out as a couple. As Nick and Charlie try to decide how to tell their friends and classmates that they’re dating, things are made even more complicated by a school trip to Paris.

Before I picked this up, I wondered how well Oseman would be able to maintain tension and propel the plot forward as Heartstopper continues. I was wrong to ever doubt the great Alice Oseman because she’s accomplished it beautifully here! Centered on coming out, volume three is based on the idea that coming out isn’t just a “one and done” event, as is sometimes depicted in pop culture, but a continual process. Even though Charlie and Nick have supportive family members and a queer, inclusive friend group, they still struggle with when and how to tell their friends that they’re dating. This is especially challenging for Charlie, who was bullied by his classmates when he came out as gay and does not want to go through a similar experience or to see his boyfriend subjected to it. The stress of going through this experience does take a toll, and there are content warnings for this volume for discussion of self-harm and eating disorders.

For all the heaviness of the subject matter, there is so much joy to be had in Heartstopper. It’s there in the way they’re supported by the adults in their life (including a very cute C plot about the teacher chaperones), in stolen kisses and moments, in the way Nick and Charlie look at each other, and at being young and in love in the city of love.

In a welcome change of pace, volume 3 thrusts Nick and Charlie’s friend group into the spotlight and we see more of girlfriends Darcy and Tara, mutually pining Elle and Tao, and sweet Aled, and learn their backstories. The change of setting is also appreciated, allowing Oseman to illustrate Paris as seen through the eyes of her teenage characters.

Finally I want to say how much I love the fact that although bad things do happen in the Alice Oseman Universe, there is community and acceptance to be found, and support systems in place for those who need them.

TL;DR: Delightful continuation of Nick and Charlie’s story and the process of coming out as a couple to their friends amidst a school trip to Paris. It also fleshes out the backstories of this friend group in a satisfying way.

Book Review: Mister Impossible

Image of the cover of Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater.

Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater
Published May 18, 2021

In a (now deleted) tweet, Maggie Stiefvater referred to Mister Impossible as the “most Maggie” book she’s ever written. That may be, but it’s my least favourite of her works. Obviously I still liked it. My opinion may even change when the Dreamer trilogy is completed and I have a fuller understanding of the role this book plays in the series, but Mister Impossible felt like a middle book and left me frustrated rather than engaged.

I loved the first book in this series, Call Down the Hawk and thought it read as a very mature book, both in the way it expands our knowledge of dreamers and dreams through placing limitations on them and in the way it centers the growing pains and frustrations of characters going through that transitory post-high school period of their lives. Sadly Mister Impossible feels like a step backwards. I understand what Stiefvater is trying to do. I get that in order to grow and (hopefully) change, her characters have to undergo setbacks and be broken down, but when it feels like a chore to return to Ronan’s POV at all, and he’s supposed to be the protagonist, you know something’s gone wrong.

Ronan Lynch has always been a bit of an asshole (affectionate) but he’s such a mess (derogatory) in this book. Burdened with insecurities and abandonment issues (so, so many abandonment issues) he’s ruled entirely by his emotions and less than trustworthy individuals, following impulsive, reckless council while distancing himself from those he cares about. Even understanding that Ronan is going through A Lot, I had trouble connecting with this character who won’t help himself or let others help him.

It’s not just Ronan as a character but the POV chapters of the entire Dreamer trio that I find troubling. Maybe it’s because the Hennessy-Ronan-Bryde triad are just too similar to one another to create any sort of tension between them or growth. Hennessy, like Ronan, is something of a traumatized asshole dreamer with abandonment issues and Bryde, who was a mysterious leader in Call Down the Hawk, is here more of a shady mentor figure but he has all the personality of a slice of unbuttered toast. They’re just not a very interesting group to read about.

Even though the dreamer trio chapters contain the most supernatural elements, I wasn’t engaged by the leyline fixing/ecoterrorism committing quest. Large portions of their chapters feel like one giant training montage! Part of the problem is that so few of these acts occur in real time. I have literally no idea how much time passes in this book because Stiefvater keeps jumping over the action. Please Maggie Stiefvater, I’m begging you, just give us the action as it happens.

For all my negativity, there are many things about Mister Impossible that I really enjoy. I admit that I didn’t pick up on this until reading Stiefvater’s Reddit AMA and remembering the health issues she’s had over the last few years, but this series works really well as a metaphor for chronic illness. Both the dreamers (by nightwash, fading leylines, and literal people trying to kill them) and the dreams face limitations placed on them by society that prevent them from living full and authentic lives. It’s also appropriate that so many of the characters facing these limitations are, in one way or another, creators and that their art is impacted by being dreamers who can’t dream, dreamers who can only dream about one thing, or dreams who lack independence.

I love the character arcs of the book’s other trio: Declan, Jordan, and Matthew. For Declan, who was born old, the book is about carving out an identity for himself that doesn’t revolve solely around family caretaker and about experiencing actual human connection outside his family. For Matthew and Jordan, it’s about identity, feeling real, and confronting their mortality as beings tied to the lives of more reckless individuals. I also enjoyed the connection between Carmen Farooq-lane and Liliana. Yes, like so many readers I wanted more Adam. Not necessarily Adam and Ronan, just more Adam, and part of that is just Adam being my favourite TRC character and missing his level-headed influence here, but regardless I hope there will be more of an explanation for his absence/the choices he makes here provided in Book #3.

Stiefvater’s prose in both her Raven Cycle and Dreamer series is heavily stylized: you either like it or you don’t. I like it and it’s reliably good here in Mister Impossible. She’s also introduced a fascinating MacGuffin/bit of worldbuilding in this book and I look forward to seeing how it plays out as the series wraps up.

Speaking of wrapping up, the ending is a stunner! It changes the game, leaving me asking questions and craving resolution while deftly setting up the final book in this world. I don’t think Mister Impossible stands alone very well, but I hope that with additional context as the series concludes I will look back on it as an accomplishment rather than a disappointment.

TL;DR: Yeah, this is definitely a middle book. I just didn’t care about the Ronan/Hennessy/Bryde chapters but I loved the Declan/Jordan/Matthew ones and I think this sets up the final book in the series well.

Book Review: Black Water Sister

Image of the cover of Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
Published May 11, 2021
rated 4 stars out of 5

If you judge Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister by its drop-dead gorgeous cover, you don’t be disappointed. A fast-paced Malaysian ghost story about the bonds and complications of family, Black Water Sister is the perfect book to combat a reading slump. Even though contemporary fantasy isn’t always a subgenre I enjoy, I found Cho’s writing and worldbuilding engrossing, an impressive feat considering I was in the midst of my own reading slump at the time!

When new graduate Jessamyn “Jess” Teoh first starts hearing voices she chalks it up to stress. After all, she’s broke, jobless, closeted, and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. But when the voice in her head turns out to be the ghost of her estranged dead grandmother, a woman who was a powerful spirit medium for a mysterious deity in life, Jess must help settle a score or risk losing control of her body for good. Or, as author Zen Cho put it on Twitter, “A stressed zillennial lesbian fights gods, ghosts, gangsters & grandmas in 21st century Penang.”

The more I reflect on Black Water Sister the more I admire it. The book’s generally well-paced and never drags, though once or twice I wished the breakneck speed would slow down just a bit. I also appreciated the balance between action/plot development and quieter moments of family connection and introspection for Jess. Cho’s dialogue and sense of voice is excellent; she clearly articulates the different ways in which Malaysian-American vs. Malaysian characters speak, as well as the generational differences between characters. The writing is immersive throughout and I felt that I had a clear sense of culture and place, despite never having read a book set in Malaysia before.

I absolutely love Jess. She’s deeply relatable as a character going through that awkward in-between phase of life where she’s graduated university but is still figuring out what she wants to do for a living. She also lacks independence. Jess’ isolation is keenly felt as she doesn’t have many peers her own age, is financially dependent on family (which limits her movements and prevents her from seeking therapy), by language (she understands Hokkien but doesn’t speak it fluently), and by the secrets she keeps from those she loves.

I have so many feelings about Jess and they all come down to me wanting this poor stressed lesbian to be happy and at peace! Her worst fears are about not being accepted by her family for her identity and that they will disapprove of her mixed-race relationship. She’s so protective of her family that she has taken on this burden of “protecting” them from who she is and feels guilt over the idea of leaving them, especially after her father’s cancer scare and their financial hardship. Jess’ journey to piece together the component parts of her identity, to reconcile her devotion to her family with her need to live authentically will resonate with many readers.

I also enjoyed the secondary characters. The titular Black Water Sister is an appropriately intimidating deity and the various gods each have distinct personalities. Jess’ family are well-fleshed out too, especially her ghostly grandmother without boundaries, Ah Ma, who is as strong-willed as Jess herself. Their conversations are a highlight of the book.

Unfortunately Jess’ relationship is less well-developed. The relationship is intended to be a secondary plot so it’s understandable that it isn’t a focus, but I wish we’d seen or heard more about Sharanya because I wasn’t all that invested in them as a couple.

One of the reasons I love this book so much is its subtly thrumming undercurrent of rage. Rage about homophobia, about feeling othered no matter where you go, about the way men treat women, and about capitalism and the way it chews up and spits out those who can no longer produce, no longer contribute to the economy. Despite all this anger, the overall tone isn’t what I would call dark. There are scenes of attempted rape, assault, and violence though, so please heed the trigger warnings!

TL;DR: I don’t always get along with contemporary fantasy, but Black Water Sister enthralled me even in the midst of a reading slump with its well-paced story, unique setting, immersive writing, and a heroine to root for!

The Mid-Year Freak-Out Book Tag 2021

The Mid-Year Freak-Out Book Tag is a well-loved annual tradition, allowing us to reflect on what we’ve read so far and what we hope to read for the rest of the year. I’ve read a solid 52 books so far this year and it’s a little refreshing to be so far ahead in my goodreads challenge (for once) so I can read some longer books this Fall!

Favourite Book That You’ve Read So Far In 2021

Picture of the cover of The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

I finished Simon Jimenez’ debut novel The Vanished Birds on February 2nd and it’s still my favourite book that I’ve read so far this year as well as a new all-time favourite of mine. Told through Jimenez’ lyrical prose, the book is about the devastating impact of both colonialism and capitalism on people and worlds, but it’s also about the choices we make and the relationships we hold dear. It’s the only book this year to actually make me cry; a book I immediately told my mom she had to read. The Vanished Birds is one of the most accomplished and moving debuts I’ve ever read and I need to thrust this at more people because it definitely hasn’t gotten the mainstream attention it deserves!

Favourite Sequel This Year

Picture of the cover of A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

Speaking of mind-breakingly good books about the impact of colonialism, there’s Arkady Martine’s stunning A Desolation Called Peace! I loved her Hugo Award winning A Memory Called Empire and far from having second book syndrome, I actually loved this even more than the first book in the series! Martine’s worldbuilding continues to be intricate and clever in this take on a first contact situation and the awaited reunion between Mahit Dzmare and Three Seaglass is fraught with all the complexities inherent in a colonizer/colonized relationship. It’s a stunning sequel, but it’s also a stunning book in general. If you liked A Memory Called Empire, you’ll love this.

New Release You Haven’t Read Yet, But Want To

Top of my list are The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo and Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison. I loved Vo’s Empress of Salt & Fortune and I’m extremely excited about her queer Asian-American fantasy retelling of The Great Gatsby. Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is one of my all-time favourite books and I cannot wait to read this sequel set in the same world!

Most Anticipated Release For The Second Half of 2021

Picture of the cover of She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

I’m a big library user but I have pre-ordered Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became The Sun from my local indie and I cannot freaking wait! It’s been pitched as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles, is being raved about by other readers in my circle with similar tastes and by authors whose books I loved so I think this will be right up my alley! Honourable mention to Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate, because I adored the world-building, voice, and general fun of A Deadly Education, the first book in her ‘magic school but it’s constantly trying to kill you’ series, and debut author Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light (pitched as Red, White, & Royal Blue meets Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) because the pitch sounds great and because I follow Freya on twitter and we share a lot of fandoms and favourite tropes.

Your Biggest Disappointment

Picture of the cover of Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

I loved Jeff VanderMeer’s standalone Borne, but I found Hummingbird Salamander a preachy, pointless read. I never understood the motivations of the protagonist, and what she’s going to such extremely lengths for, which made it difficult to watch her throw, quite literally, her entire life away. Her treatment of her family is callous and she makes wild jumps to flimsy conclusions and this is treated as totally normal??? I just didn’t care about any of the characters or anything in this book.

Your Biggest Surprise

Emma by Jane Austen

I really wasn’t expecting to spend the first half of the year reading through the Jane Austen catalogue, even though I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time in 2020 and loved it. Then I was invited to a Zoom book club of friends old and new and I couldn’t imagine a more helpful environment in which to explore Austen’s works. I didn’t love all of her novels, and I must admit that I am apparently a Basic Bitch because Pride and Prejudice remains my favourite, but I loved the discussions we had and the different insights into and interpretations of the text we shared. It was such a rewarding experience and I’m looking forward to continuing with this book club in its new iteration going forward! Keeping with the Austen theme, perhaps the biggest surprise was just how much I loved Emma on a second read. A friend and I read it in January, and although I liked it and had a feeling it would improve on a re-read, I had no idea how much. Emma is definitely one of my favourite Austen books and a favourite classic.

Favourite New-to-You or Debut Author

After 5 years of predicting I would love Daughter of the Forest but never actually reading it, Rick’s #BookTubeSpin1 pushed me into Juliet Marillier at last and I read feverishly, finishing this 500+ page book in just a few days. I’m really looking forward to reading more of her Sevenwaters series soon!

Obviously I was shook by Simon Jimenez’ beautiful debut The Vanished Birds and will definitely be reading his future novels. I also thought The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya was pretty much flawless.

Honourable mention to E.J. Beaton for her impressive political fantasy debut The Councillor, Kim Bo-Young, whose book I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories was beautifully translated into English by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu, and Kate Elliott for her gender-swapped Alexander the Great space opera, Unconquerable Sun.

New Favourite Character

It’s probably Mr. Knightley and Emma! Emma is supposed to be famously the heroine who Jane Austen didn’t think people would like but even though Emma is spoiled, elitist, and manipulative, I think intentions matter and Emma means well. She means to match up matrimonial minded friends and at the same time to not lose those close to her, which is very relatable. Emma grows so much over the course of the novel and she’s intelligent, loyal to her family and friends, and capable of kindness and remorse. I love her and I want her to be happy. I know commonly swooning is reserved for Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth, but I loved Mr. Knightley’s quiet kindness, his perceptiveness, and his regard for Emma and for her/their family. Theirs is a true match of equals who were friends first and I adore each of them separately and their relationship with one another.

A Book That Made You Cry

I just love The Vanished Birds so much folks!

A Book That Made You Happy

Bless Martha Wells for gifting us with Fugitive Telemetry, a Murderbot murder mystery novella, during the pandemic. I relate so hard to Murderbot and it’s always a joy to read about it. I read my first K.J. Charles historical romance book with Slippery Creatures, which gives us enigmatic withdrawn Kim and stubborn disaster bi bookseller Will Darling working (and more!) together (sometimes). I’ve been saving the rest of the series but I think I have to dive in soon. Reliably excellent Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper graphic novel series that expands on the relationship between Nick and Charlie, two characters from her YA novel Solitaire, is charming and hopeful and lovely.

Your Favourite Book To Movie Adaptation That You’ve Seen This Year

An image of actors Jessie Buckley and Josh O'Connor (as Romeo and Juliet) kneeling on a stage surrounded by dozens of lit candles.

Does The National Theatre’s filmed adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley count? It was gorgeously shot, the text well edited I thought since it’s considerably trimmed from Shakespeare’s text, and the acting was wonderful. Such a beautiful and devastating production.

Favourite Book Post That You’ve Published This Year

Maybe my Top 5 Series I Need to Finish (none of which I have made any progress on so far this year) and my reviews of The Lost Apothecary and Brown Girl in the Ring?

The Most Beautiful Book You Bought Or Received This Year

Cover of The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

Self-explanatory. How gorgeous is this cover for Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful?

What Are Some Books That You Need To Read By The End Of The Year

Cover of The King Must Die by Mary Renault

I’ve been planning a buddy read of Mary Renault’s The King Must Die with a friend and I keep pushing it back and now she’s pushed it back a few months but I’m dying to read some Mary Renault, it must happen! Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has been on my list for literally years. I also need to continue some of the series I’m reading before I forget them, so continuing Eden Robinson’s Trickster series and Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series are priorities. I also bought a 900+ page book (The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard) off of a twitter rec so I need to actually read it.

That’s it for this year’s tag but please let me know what you think in the comments! Are there books I should add to my reading list for the second half of the year? How has your reading been so far?

Book Review: The Black Tides of Heaven

The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang
Published September 26, 2017
rated 4 stars out of 5

Set in an alluring world of elemental magics, gender fluidity, and rebellion, the first novella in Neon Yang’s Tensorate series held me spellbound. Even before I finished The Black Tides of Heaven I was running to my computer to place a library hold on its companion work, The Red Threads of Fortune!

Born to an imposing mother who views them as pawns in her power-machinations, twins Akeha and Mokoya rely on each other and are inseparable. But while Mokoya develops a rare prophetic ability, Akeha is the spare, the twin who struggles to find their place in the world and the agency to live a fulfilling life.

At the core of the book is the profound connection between Akeha and Mokoya. I absolutely loved their sibling dynamic and empathized with their closeness in childhood and the pangs of anguish as their paths diverge. While I found Akeha, the queer twin always in their sibling’s shadow, the most relatable, I’m sure part of this is because Akeha is at the center of the book and I look forward to seeing more of Mokoya’s point-of-view in The Red Threads of Fortune.

Limited by the constraints of the format’s shorter word count, the secondary characters are less well-developed. I wish the relationships with our central twins’ mentors, lovers, and other family members had been given more depth.

A highlight of the reading experience is the gender fluidity in this text. The Black Tides of Heaven is set in a world where individuals are genderfree and may be referred to by they/their pronouns through adolescence until they choose their gender and are confirmed as male or female. There is the appearance of freedom in this, yet characters feel pressure to be confirmed, to make a binary choice upon entering adulthood. Families may also apply pressure to confirm as a specific gender. This conveys an outsider status on those who choose not to confirm, or who make a choice that is not the expected one. There is a quiet rebellion in choosing to live authentically.

It’s very clear that Yang has put a great deal of thought into the worldbuilding and the world is about as intricate and richly imagined as is possible for a novella. The Black Tides of Heaven works very well as a novella but a greedy part of me wishes it was another 50 pages or so because there’s certainly enough story, detail, and intriguing characters here to flesh out a full-length novel without feeling bloated.

TL;DR: Part of me wishes it was longer to more fully-develop the world and the secondary characters, but this is a thought-provoking, richly-developed read with a central sibling relationship that tugs at the heartstrings.

Book Review: Elatsoe

picture of the book cover for Darcie Little Badger's Elatsoe set on a background made up of the Asexual Pride Flag colours with the words Ace Book Review

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
Illustrations by Rovina Cai
Published August 25, 2020

As an Ace reviewer, I’ve been making an effort to read more books with Asexual rep lately, so I was thrilled to come across Elatsoe, a contemporary YA fantasy about Ellie, an asexual Lipan Apache girl, and her ghost dog BFF! With its emphasis on friendships and family and its inclusion of Lipan Apache traditions and cultural practices, Elatsoe is a unique read with a lot of charm, but I was a little disappointed by how young it skews and found myself mentally aging the characters down as I read.

Shortly after Ellie’s ghostly canine companion has a fit she gets the call – her cousin Trevor was killed in a car accident. That night Ellie has a dream about Trevor in which he tells her “A man named Abe Allerton murdered me. Don’t let Abe hurt my family.” Knowing that his daughter is gifted with the family’s secret knowledge of “ghost-calling”, her father agrees to help her find Abe Allerton and bring him to justice.

There are still so few books with asexual characters, and especially asexual protagonists, that it’s always a joy to come across one. I absolutely loved the (ownvoices) Ace rep in this book! Stories about questioning and coming out are incredibly important, but it was such a welcome change to read about an ace character who is secure in her identity and is never pressured by other characters about her asexuality.

Putting aside her aceness for a second though, Ellie is a wonderful protagonist in her own right. Using her ability to raise the dead, she has called the ghost of her dead springer spaniel, and all-around Very Good Boy, Kirby, and is working on long fossilized animals like trilobites. Ellie is determined but compassionate, and her friends, family, and animal companions rally around her in turn, especially her Himbo cheerleading best friend Jay.

Perhaps the strongest feature of Elatsoe is its seamless inclusion of Lipan Apache cultural practices and traditions, such as cutting hair short after experiencing a loss or not revealing a burial site to those who are not kin, in ways that are not only interesting in their own right but serve to propel the plot forward. I also loved the tales of Ellie’s illustrious maternal sixth-great-​grandmother, Elatsoe, now known as “Six-Great”, who travelled the land saving people from supernatural creatures and from dangerous settlers. The book also engages with the historical and current treatment of indigenous people in a meaningful way. We watch Ellie seek out justice in a world that’s stacked against her and witness the microaggressions she is subject to on a daily basis.

Elatsoe is set in a United States where magic and the supernatural exist in different forms and are acknowledged. I was intrigued by this world with its Fairy Ring Transportation Centres, cursed vampires, and ghost mammoths, but I didn’t necessarily find the world-building cohesive. I absolutely loved Little Badger’s take on vampire mythology as it relates to Indigenous people though and it resulted in a moment where I actually pumped my fist in the air!

At the risk of losing followers, I confess that I am not a dog person at all BUT this book managed to get ME choked up about a dog!

Grief is an overarching theme and Little Badger tackles loss and moving on in a compassionate and affecting way. I also want to shout out the ethereal black & white illustrations by Rovina Cai which begin each chapter.

My biggest issue with this book is how young it reads. As a thirty-something reader I know I’m not the target audience for Young Adult, but I would say Elatsoe straddles the border between older middle grade and younger YA. Have you ever read Six of Crows and mentally aged the characters up? I was doing the exact opposite here. If someone had told me 17-year-old Ellie was 13 I wouldn’t have even blinked. There’s also a very Scooby Doo vibe – at one point a villain even refers to the characters as “meddling kids!” None of this is inherently bad, it just wasn’t for me.

TL;DR: A moving exploration of grief featuring a brave, but kind asexual protagonist and her ghost dog BFF. I loved the Indigenous cultural aspects, the gorgeous illustrations, and the focus on friends and family, but the mystery plot was a little underwhelming and it reads very young YA/middle grade.

May and June Wrap-Up

Can you believe we’re halfway through 2021 already? Bonkers. Anyway, I had a couple of decent reading months, finishing 8 books each month but I’m still lacking in titles that I know will be new favourites of mine. My goal for the rest of the year is to prioritize books I suspect I will adore instead of reaching only for the new and shiny.

“Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen 3.5 stars
“A Desolation Called Peace” by Arkady Martine 4.5 stars
“Fugitive Telemetry” by Martha Wells 4.5 stars
“Hummingbird Salamander” by Jeff VanderMeer 2.5 stars
“Call Down the Hawk” by Maggie Stiefvater 4.5 stars
“Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe 4 stars stars
“I’m Waiting For You: and other stories” by Kim Bo-young (trans. by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu) 4 stars stars
“Henry VI part 2” by William Shakespeare 4 stars stars

“A Hero Born” by Jin Young (trans. by Anna Holmwood) 3.5 stars
“Persuasion” by Jane Austen 3.5 stars
“The Black Tides of Heaven” by Neon Yang 4 stars stars
“Emma” by Jane Austen (re-read) 4.5 stars
“Black Water Sister” by Zen Cho 4 stars stars
“Elatsoe” by Darcie Little Badger 4 stars stars
“The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison (re-read) 5 stars
“Sorrowland” by Rivers Solomon 4 stars stars

Yearly Total: 47/60

Favourite: This was a big few months of familiarity winning out for me. I’m a big re-reader but I had never re-read The Goblin Emperor before and it was such a pleasure to return to after 5 years. I would die for Maia. Speaking of re-reads, I got so much more out of Jane Austen’s Emma than I did 6 months ago and it’s definitely one of my favourite works in the Austen canon. I was also wowed by A Desolation Called Peace, which I loved even more than the first book in the series, Hugo Award-winning A Memory Called Empire. Returning to the world of The Raven Boys series with Call Down the Hawk I found it a much more mature book in some ways. Finally, when in a slump there’s nothing quite like the latest Murderbot to bust you out of it and, sure enough, Fugitive Telemetry was an absolute delight.

Least Favourite: I wanted so much to love it but I spent most of Hummingbird Salamander wondering what the point was and by the end of the book I still didn’t have a satisfying answer. I just couldn’t understand the character’s motivations and her choices are so out there that it effectively ruined the book for me.

Next Month: The Jane Austen book club I’m a part of is transitioning to read paired classics and contemporaries; First up? Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea! I’m currently reading Marija’s beloved chicken book (Brood by Jackie Polzin) and Maggie Stiefvater’s Mister impossible, and I’m slowly making my way through P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, which sadly isn’t grabbing me the way I hoped it would. My library hold on The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, the last in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, is also in transit, so I am looking forward to that!

***Stage on Screen***

“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Roundabout Theatre Company – “The Importance of Being Earnest” is my all-time favourite play so when I saw that this 2011 production filmed from the Broadway stage was available to stream, I jumped at the chance to see it again! I originally saw the film 10 years ago but frustratingly it has never been released on DVD like other filmed performances. Wilde’s dialogue pops and Santino Fontana and David Furr are wonderful as Algernon and Jack, respectively, while Brian Bedford is larger than life as Lady Bracknell. Watch it (for a fee) here.

“Jeremy Jordan: Carry On” – The fastest way to get me to spend money during this pandemic is to announce that Jeremy Jordan has a new streaming show, but Carry On exceeded all expectations. Unlike Jordan’s previous concerts, which have included limited intervals of storytelling or banter between songs showcasing his glorious tenor, Carry On takes the audience deep inside Jeremy Jordan’s experiences as a new father and delves deeply into his tumultuous upbringing. It’s an incredibly moving show, combining humour and songs with heart-wrenching stories. Highly recommended.

“Dressed as People: a triptych of uncanny abduction” at the Ottawa Fringe Festival – I may write a full review for this soon so it’ll keep it short and just say for now that I enjoyed this trio of gloriously queer monologues with supernatural elements written by three Canadian SFF authors (Kelly Robson, Amal El-Mohtar, and A.M. Dellamonica), and performed by Margo MacDonald!

What was your favourite book read in June? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: A Hero Born

Image of the cover for A Hero Born by Jin Yong

A Hero Born by Jin Yong
translated by Anna Holmwood
Published Sept. 2019 (first published 1957)

Rated 3.5 stars out of 5

Since his first novels were serialized in Hong Kong during the 1950s, Jin Yong (pen name for author Louis Cha) has had a similar impact on Chinese pop culture and fantasy as the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling have here in the West. Yong is not the first writer in the Chinese genre known as wuxia (literally translated as “martial hero”), but his Legends of the Condor series is one of the most acclaimed and popular wuxia works of the twentieth century.

Earlier this year the entire series became available in English for the first time and BookTubeSpin#2 pushed the first book in the series, A Hero Born, up my TBR. So what did I think? Although I found Anna Holmwood’s translation rocky and had trouble adjusting to the writing style, I was hooked by the fast-paced action-adventure story!

Wuxia, and its fantasy counterpart Xianxia, are fairly new to me; Only through shows like The Untamed and Into the Badlands and in novels like Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, have I dipped my toe into storytelling inspired by the genre, so I loved the chance to see where some of the popular wuxia tropes began. In A Hero Born alone I counted at least 15 of this viral list of common wuxia tropes/settings! For anyone interested in learning more about the history and politics of wuxia I highly recommend this Tor article by Jeannette Ng.

A Hero Born earns its status as a kung fu epic. Set against the broader backdrop of the Han Chinese people trying to repel invading Manchu (or Juchen) forces from the north in the turbulent twelfth century, it’s the beginning of a multi-generational family saga, populated with vivid characters, interpersonal conflict, quasi-magical beasts, and, yes, tremendous martial arts.

At times it can be challenging at to visualize the fights taking place between characters as they use moves with names like Returning Horse, but others, like Goose Lands on the Sandy Bank and Trident Searches the Sea By Night are easier to imagine. The series has been adapted for television and film multiple times and I look forward to tracking down at least one subtitled adaptation to watch the story play out in a more visual format.

Not to paint A Hero Born with a Western lens, but it bears similarities to a Western bildungsroman as its young naïve hero grows through childhood ordeals, develops his skills, and yes, falls in love. Guo Jing is such an endearing dumbass with a heart of gold that you can’t help but root for him. He’s not naturally skilled at martial arts, but he practices and learns from his shifus and he is quick to step up and chivalrously defend those who are being unjustly persecuted. I did side-eye Guo Jing A Lot when he gave his magical red horse away to someone he’d only known for a day, but at least he proves to be a good judge of character.

Considering the books were published in the 1950s, I was pleasantly surprised by the female characters! Women are not always relegated to the wife and mother roles but are active and often skilled fighters. A major antagonist is a (pretty terrifying) woman and Guo Jing’s love interest is more than a match for him with her abilities.

It took me about fifty pages to feel properly into A Hero Born, which is mostly my fault in adjusting to the stylistic elements of the book and trying to wrap my head around a large cast of characters, but wow did it pick up quickly. So. Much. Happens in this book and rather than run out of steam the plot twists and turns only increase as it goes on to end with a cliffhanger.  

Those who have trouble following large casts of characters and keeping track of character names will be relieved to hear that there is a glossary at the start of the book.

Most of the issues I have with A Hero Born come back to the writing and I honestly can’t tell how much of that is genre conventions that I, as a Westerner, find new and need to wrap my head around and how much is the translation. There’s a very staccato rhythm to the prose that makes it easy to read and even easier to skim, but it lacks the beautiful lyrical quality that is common to so many of my favourite books. Holmwood’s translation is constantly telling rather than showing and it took me a long time to feel invested in any of the characters, in part because so little of the characters’ motivation or internal thoughts are conveyed on the page. The reader doesn’t even get to see how a character is viewed through another person’s eyes!

A major complaint from Chinese readers picking up this English edition is the literal translation to English of the characters’ names. For example, Huang Rong becomes Lotus Huang. It’s not my place to comment on this, but I do find the inconsistency in character names odd. Why change Guo Xiaotian to Skyfury Guo but use Guo Jing instead of Serenity Guo?

I get the impression that Holmwood’s overall translation is a very literal one, which makes the story read in a clunky and abrupt way. Translation duties on the series are shared, with Gigi Chang translating the second book in the series, so I’m interested in seeing how her translation compares. I’d like to keep reading the series sooner rather than later but I don’t know that it’s a priority for me.

TL;DR: A fast-paced, kung fu epic with a likeable himbo protagonist but it’s let down by translation that’s overly literal and clunky.