June/July Wrap-Up

I haven’t written any reviews for the last few months, but I still wanted to look back briefly on my reading so far this summer and highlight some of my favourites. Since I haven’t written any longer reviews, here are some brief thoughts on each of the ten books I read in June/July:

Alice Payne Rides by Kate Heartfield  small 3 half stars
While slogging through The Raven Stratagem this month I really needed something fun and Alice Payne Rides fit the bill. Like its Nebula nominated predecessor, Alice Payne Arrives, this consequences of time travel novella is fast-paced, features a cast of engaging characters, and shows evidence of impeccable research as it includes historical mysteries like the disappearance of Arthur of Brittany.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Soloman  small 4 half stars
Unsurprisingly, this novel about the journey of a space ship organized much like the antebellum South is at times difficult to read. Dark-skinned sharecroppers from lower decks, like protagonist Aster, endure brutal treatment, deplorable living conditions, and pervasive casual cruelty from white upper-deck “owners”. An Unkindness of Ghosts certainly isn’t subtle, and the plot does meander, but the characters are unique, diverse in sexuality and gender (two of the lead characters appear to be written as non-binary, a minor character is asexual) and dimensional, and the world-building grounds this sci-fi treatment of American slavery.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (re-read)  small 4 half stars
If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but wished it was more diverse and faster-paced then rush to your local library/bookstore and pick up Sorcerer to the Crown. This book is so damned charming! The author comments on issues such as racism, sexism, and classism by depicting the microaggressions Zacharias Wythe, a freed slave and the newly appointed Sorcerer Royal, experiences courtesy of his peers, and the prejudice faced by Prunella, a half-Indian woman practicing magic. The tone of the novel is so much more light-hearted than this description suggests though. There’s wit, there’s magic, there’s romance. What more could you want?

The True Queen by Zen Cho  small 4 stars
While I found this sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown equally charming, the plot twists were a little predictable (and frustratingly the reader arrives at the answers before the characters do in almost all cases) so it didn’t quite enthrall me like Cho’s first book. What a delight to return to this world and these characters though. I loved seeing Prunella in power, enjoyed the deeper development of minor characters from Sorcerer to the Crown like Rollo, Damerell, and Henrietta, and I found Muna a sympathetic protagonist.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid  small 4 half stars
Taylor Jenkins Reid is one of the most compulsively readable authors I’ve ever encountered. Like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I found this book difficult to put down I was so engrossed. Formatted as a series of interviews with former members, friends, and family of a Fleetwood Mac-inspired fictional band, it evokes the 70s rock scene in LA with all the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll you’d expect, but there’s an emotional heart beating under all that glamour. I had trouble telling some of the male bandmates apart and kept having to flip back and forth to remember who was who, but other characters, like independent Karen, and of course Daisy and Billy, whose chemistry practically leaps off the page, drew me in.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong  small 4 stars
There’s no denying that this is a gorgeous book. Its language is as accomplished as you’d expect from poet Vuong and there are moments of great profundity but ultimately this just wasn’t a book that I connected with personally. The exquisite prose is to be admired though.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells  small 4 half stars
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells  small 4 half stars
I continue to absolutely love the character of Murderbot and its reluctant journey to explore its humanity. Often in science-fiction the non-human characters actively seek out human experiences. I think it’s rarer to see a character who so desperately would prefer not to bother with human interaction or experiences and yet can’t help being pulled in that direction.

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (translated by Molly Ringwald)  small 4 stars
Drawing understandable comparisons to other LGBT works like Call Me By Your Name and Tin Man, Lie With Me is a beautifully translated story of an affair between two teenage boys in France and the lasting impact of their time together. Although it doesn’t cover new territory, it’s no less poignant for that.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (re-read)  small 3 half stars
I thought that on a re-read Ninefox Gambit would be easier to comprehend, but alas I still found myself longing desperately for a glossary. It’s still too military sci-fi, a genre I have no interest in, to really appeal to me, but the characters of Jedao and Cheris are written so well and their dynamic is so engaging that it kept me interested even when I had no idea what else was going on.

***Seen on Stage***

The National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Merry Widow this June was a glittering delight. So incredibly charming that I seriously considered playing hooky from work so I could see it again with a second cast, The Merry Widow also marked one of the last performances of principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu before she retired from the stage. I’ve been a fan of Nan’s for awhile and seeing her dance the leading role of rich widow Hanna Glawari was definitely bittersweet. As thrilled as I am that I got to witness one of her final performances, she will be so very missed and I can’t believe I’ll never see her thoughtful Tatiana (in Onegin) or powerfully composed Paulina (in The Winter’s Tale) again. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Guillaume Cote, but he was unrecognizably good here, displaying a talent for comedy as the drunk Count Danilo and then partnering Nan beautifully in their romantic scenes later in the ballet. Jillian Vanstone was also winning as the young Valencienne and the set design and costumes deserve a mention for their sheer splendor.


But of course the highlight of June for me was finally getting to see Jeremy Jordan sing live! That’s one to cross off my bucket list for sure! The song choices in this Modern Broadway concert series highlighting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra left something to be desired, and I wasn’t as impressed with his co-star, Betsy Wolfe, as I was by Jordan, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. Jeremy Jordan is a charismatic, ridiculously charming performer with a tenor to die for and hearing those notes in songs like Santa Fe sung live was a treat.

If I’d seen The Lion King fifteen or twenty years ago I have no doubt I would have loved it. Seeing it as an adult, when its puppetry and design are no longer as innovative as they were when the musical debuted, I was less impressed. I’m still glad that I finally saw The Lion King though and I enjoyed it (there were great performances on this tour from the actors playing Timon and Pumbaa, from Greg Jackson as Zazu, and especially from Mufasa understudy William James Jr.).

I went to see Soulpepper’s production of August Osage County entirely for the cast and was not disappointed. The performances were simply stunning in this family drama. Samantha Brown (as live-in Cheyenne woman Johnna) played a character with little dialogue but held her own, subtly saying as much with her facial expressions and body language as any other character on that stage. This is very much a play about formidable, sometimes unlikable, women, and Nancy Palk and reliably great Maev Beatty were perfectly matched as manipulative mother and daughter. It’s a long play, but it never felt long. The humour sparkled and the drama and plot twists kept the audience enthralled.

I can’t say that the National Ballet of Canada’s summer mixed program Physical Thinking (comprised entirely of works choreographed by William Forsythe) did much for me. I liked it at the time but even a few months later I’m having trouble remembering the program.

With a day off work at the end of July, my mom and I purchased online rush tickets to see the Canadian cast of Come From Away. We’d previously seen the show during its pre-Broadway Toronto tryout in December 2016 and loved it but hadn’t been back since. I’d forgotten just how funny, heartwarming, and just plain enjoyable this show is! If you haven’t seen Come From Away yet, it’s now in Australia, London, New York, Toronto, and on tour across North America and I definitely recommend it as a great night of theatre.

***Life Updates***

I’ve been pretty scarce around these parts for the last few months and most of that is because my job has been keeping me busy. The public library branch where I work is perpetually short-staffed and while it means that I have been getting a lot of hours and experience, it also means a lot more responsibility. Lately I’ve found the sheer volume of work to be done really stressful and that coupled with existing mental health issues has left me feeling very drained. Some of the positions are starting to be filled so I’m hoping to have more of a system of support in the branch soon.

I am enjoying life as a Children’s Librarian though! I do a weekly Family Time session where I do half an hour of themed stories, songs, and rhymes, followed by a craft. Initially this was really daunting, but I’ve become more comfortable with it and I really enjoy seeing my regulars (a few of the kids hugged me last week, which was really sweet) and the crafts are going over really well! Last week we made ocean-themed suncatchers out of tissue paper, contact paper, and ocean animal silhouettes, and the week before that was glow-in-the-dark paper bowl jellyfish!

I’ve also been around less because my faithful 7-year-old laptop is on its last legs. Sometimes when I start it up it doesn’t charge even though it’s plugged in, and it’s always reallllly slow. I did buy a new laptop but haven’t had the time to set it up yet. Fingers crossed I can do that this weekend!

***Coming up in August***

 I’m still desperately trying to find some five-star reads that blow me away. One step towards that is reading through my backlist of owned books. I have about 10 that I’ve identified and set on their own shelf, so I’m going to get through 2 a month until the end of the year. If you have any suggestions for books you think I’d love, send them my way!

For my one year anniversary of being a public librarian in May I wanted to do a sort-of FAQ/AMA about being a Librarian. It didn’t happen, but I think there’s enough crossover and curiosity with book bloggers and libraries/librarians that I’m still going to write a bit about my experiences and day-to-day life and answer any questions you might have. I’m also planning to do a series on places in Toronto for book lovers, so stay tuned for that too in case you ever find yourself in “the 6ix”!

The Mid Year Freak Out Book Tag 2019

I’m more than a little late on this one, but before July slips away I couldn’t resist filling out the Mid Year Freak Out Book Tag for the third year in a row. Honestly 2019 has been a disappointing year of reading for me so far. I’ve read a lot of great reads but very few that blew me away. With just five months left of the year there are only 4 books or series that I can see making my year-end list of favourites. I’ll have to step it up! But first, a reflection on the first half of the year in books:

Question 1 – The best book you’ve read so far in 2019
Hands down it’s Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. I very rarely read nonfiction, but this narrative nonfiction work about the disappearance of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, during the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles” is so engaging that I had trouble putting it down and have since recommended it to countless friends and coworkers. One of the most unsettling and informative books I’ve ever read, it contextualizes the events of the Troubles and the day-to-day existence and trauma of those who lived through this period. Say Nothing will haunt me for a long time to come.

Question 2 – Your favorite sequel of the year

Two of my favourite trilogies wrapped up this year. I can only imagine the pressure an author must feel to stick the landing of their series, but both of these authors brought their respective stories to a close brilliantly. Amnesty, the final part in Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier series focused on its characters to explore recovery from trauma and how to move on in a bittersweet but perfectly appropriate finale. Katherine Arden’s Winter of the Witch focused on Vasya, one of my favourite fictional characters, maturing into her powers and her slow-burn relationship with the Winter King. Although the pacing was at times uneven, I was engaged throughout and found the story deeply moving.

Question 3 – A new release that you haven’t read but really want to

Three new releases that have caught my attention, but that I haven’t picked up yet are:

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon – Measuring in at a whooping nearly 900 pages, this is a doorstopper of a book that almost feels like a throwback to the massive fantasy epics of 10-20 years ago BUT it’s written by a woman and the reviews I’ve read say it’s worth the time investment.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – This one got a lot of buzz as a clever, intricate sci-fi debut involving political machinations. All of these things appeal to me so I look forward to checking it out!

The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – I’m not sure it even counts as new anymore since it came out last October, but I’m still dying to pick this up! I LOVED The Traitor Baru Cormorant but wanted to re-read before moving on in the series and I haven’t done it yet. This year for sure!

Question 4 – Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – I feel like every book blogger is talking about this book! I keep checking back waiting for it to be added to the Toronto Public Library catalogue so I can place my hold, but honestly the buzz has been so overwhelming that I might just buy a copy because this book sounds right up my alley!

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang – Last year The Poppy War was one of my favourite books – a fantasy debut that was refreshingly diverse, was set in a brutal world, and featured a ruthless, not traditionally likable heroine. I look forward to continuing Rin’s story in this sequel.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo – At this point I will read anything Leigh Bardugo chooses to write, so I am all in for her adult fiction debut!

Question 5 – Your biggest disappointment


The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. I ADORE Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy and the standalone novel set in the same universe (Provenance) so my expectations were sky high for her first fantasy novel but I was just so damned bored! I strongly considered DNF-ing and only didn’t so I could write my review on how much I disliked this book. Others may find it experimental and brave but I hated it.

Question 6 – Biggest surprise of the year

My big self-set challenge for this year was so read the Nebula nominees, which included novellas. I’d previously always thought that novellas weren’t my thing, but it turns out I was just reading the wrong ones! I read some brilliant novellas this year. I had a good inkling that I would adore Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series since they’ve been so acclaimed and the summary really appealed to me, but I was surprised by how much I loved Kate Heartfield’s Alice Payne Arrives and Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. As a bonus, both authors are Canadian!

Alice Payne Arrives and its sequel are pure time travel fun with a lesbian WoC highway(wo)man protagonist who, along with her scientist lover, robs unsuspecting men who behave inappropriately towards women. What’s not to love?

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is an ecological novella that cleverly imagines how time travel technology could be used for profit, while exploring generational differences in a sensitive way. Also, it has an asexual secondary character!

Question 7 – Favourite new to you or debut author

I FINALLY read Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series of novellas and I have absolutely no idea why it took me so long. I AM OBSESSED. Snarky pretends not to care introverted robot who would prefer to be watching its favourite TV shows but actually cares a whole lot and has to keep saving its stupid humans? Sign me up!

Question 8 – Your new fictional crush


Question 9 – New favourite character

Hands down the answer is Murderbot. I adore Murderbot. I probably relate to it a little too much for it to be healthy. I will read anything Martha Wells writes about Murderbot. Runners up are Billy from Daisy Jones & The Six, who I found so empathetic and engaging, and Elma from The Calculating Stars. Her mathematical brilliance, drive to achieve her goals, ability to reflect on how she could do better when it came to women-of-colour and those from less privileged backgrounds, and her severe social anxiety made her such a well-rounded and interesting protagonist.

Question 10 – A book that made you cry

Once again, these two brilliant conclusions to trilogies. The emotional catharsis was A Lot. And honestly even the description for Amnesty when it was released was enough to make me emotional (DO NOT READ THE DESCRIPTION FOR AMNESTY IF YOU HAVEN’T READ AMBERLOUGH AND ARMISTICE, IT IS SPOILERY), so was there ever any doubt that the book would make me feel all the feelings?

Question 11 – A book that made you happy


The True Queen by Zen Cho. Sorcerer to the Crown was such a delightful read and I absolutely adored this sequel as well. It’s well-paced, with more plot twists throughout than Sorcerer to the Crown and the writing remains witty, often with tongue-in-cheek. The return of Prunella and Zacharias filled me with delight, and I loved the expanded roles of some minor characters from the first book, and the introduction of new characters like Muna, a young Malaysian woman in search of her sister.

Question 12 – Your favourite book to movie adaptation that you’ve seen this year

I don’t know if I’ve seen any to be honest! I don’t tend to watch a lot of films though.
Although not a movie, I’m very much looking forward to watching the adaptation of Good Omens.

I also started watching The Magicians this year and binge-watched the DVDs in record time for the first three seasons and it was my happy place. I absolutely loved it. And then season four came along and if you’ve missed what went down about the end of the season, including the shameful treatment of mental health issues, queer characters, the actors involved, and the fanbase then you’re lucky. It’s soured my entire view of the show to date and I haven’t been able to watch it back since, which is a shame because the weird and frequently ‘just for the hell of it’ weirdness of the show, the musical episodes, and the friendships between the characters were exactly what I wanted in a show.

Question 13 – Favourite book post you’ve done this year

It’s been a rough year for me with the winter that never ends kicking my SAD into high gear and then a summer that has been incredibly humid and stressful at work so I haven’t had the time or drive to blog. I’m hoping to write a few non-review posts in the next few weeks that I’m looking forward to as things finally quiet down for me at work.

I’m most proud that I completed my challenge of both reading and reviewing all of the Nebula nominees for Best Novel and Best Novella before the awards were announced. Read my coverage here.

I finally found the words to write a review of Amberlough, one of my favourite books.

And I’m honestly pretty pleased with how my less positive review of The Raven Tower turned out.

Question 14 – The most beautiful book you have bought/received this year

The Amberlough Dossier series have some of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen in my life. I also bought a keeper copy of Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside and I love the cover design on it.

Question 15 – What are some books you need to read by the end of the year

I’d really like to work through some of my owned but not read backlist of books. That includes reading Royal Assassin, the second in Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, The King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo, The Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road) by Pat Barker, and reading some of Mary Renault’s work for the first time.

As well as a few re-reads so I can continue with series – The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson and The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold – and a few classics. I’m hoping to tackle Rebecca (for the first time) and Frankenstein (which I haven’t read since I was 19) this Fall.

How’s everyone else’s reading year going? Are you having better luck with your book choices than I am? What should I add to my TBR that you absolutely loved and think I would too? Comment and let me know!

May Wrap-Up

Is anyone else a little shocked that it’s already June 2019? Where have the last five months gone?

May was a bit of a whirlwind as I struggled to finish reading and then writing reviews for all of the best novella and best novel nominees for this year’s Nebula Awards. It was down to the wire, but I finished shortly before the awards went live! After consuming mostly science-fiction and fantasy for a few months I desperately needed a change, so I spent the last half of the month reading contemporary and historical fiction, but I’ve fallen behind again in my reviews.

Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield  small 4 stars + Review
All Systems Red by Martha Wells  small 4 half stars + Review
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette De Bodard  small 3 half stars + Review
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells  small 4 half stars + Review
Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee  small-2-stars + Review
The Submission by Amy Waldman  small 4 stars (RTC)
Runaways: That Was Yesterday by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Kris Anka  small 3 half stars (RTC)
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney  small 3 half stars (RTC)
The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea  small-3-stars (RTC)

Book of the Month: All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. The highlight of my Reading the Nebulas Challenge was FINALLY reading Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries novellas. Given the critical acclaim they’ve received and reviews from friends, I figured I would enjoy these, but I didn’t know quite how much! I’ve already begun enthusiastically shoving them at friends and family and can’t wait to read the other novellas in this series.

Least Favourite: Fire Ant. I support independent authors and those who write for the joy of it, but if you don’t want your work to be read critically and judged alongside other novellas, maybe don’t campaign successfully/game the system to have your work nominated for a prestigious award! Riddled with grammatical and spelling errors and about as generic a military sci-fi story as they come, this was not for me.


Seen on Stage: Indulge me for a minute while I RAVE about how fabulous and moving and important Soulpepper’s production of The Brothers Size was! Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who co-wrote the film Moonlight based on his own play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), the play is part of his Brother/Sister plays triptych combining Yoruba mythology with contemporary issues faced by African-American men. There’s a timeless quality to The Brothers Size and yet it feels so relevant in this day and age. The relationships between the three men, older brother Ogun, younger brother just released from prison Oshoosi, and Oshoosi’s cellmate and sometimes lover Elegba were rendered beautifully by actors Daren A. Herbert, Mazin Elsadig , and Marcel Stewart, respectively. The Brothers Size is intimate, sensual, heartbreaking, and powerful in its examination of brotherhood, freedom, and responsibility. It’s undoubtedly one of the best shows I’ll see all year and I desperately hope that Soulpepper decides to produce the other two plays in this triptych one day.

I also saw Next to Normal for the first time and loved it!  Musical Stage Company’s production starred the force to be reckoned with that is Ma-Anne Dionisio as Diana. Wow! Dionisio’s voice is stunning, and her anguish and anger about her condition were keenly felt in this tour-de-force performance. I loved that the Toronto cast was so diverse (Diana and her children are played by Asian-Canadian actors) and that the role of Doctor Madden, usually played by a man, was here played by the inimitable Louise Pitre! Stephanie Sy was another highlight of this production as underappreciated daughter Natalie. The set design seemed bland and uninspired for a show of this caliber though  and I found the actors playing Dan (Troy Adams) and Gabe (Brandon Antonio) didn’t have the strongest voices and failed to live up to the energy or emotion brought to the musical by the other performers. Seeing this so closely on the heels of another musical about mental illness, Dear Evan Hansen, I found the message in Next to Normal healthier and more relatable personally, and I was more moved by this production than by Evan’s duplicitous actions.

Coming up in June: I don’t have a set reading list for this month and I’ve paused most of my holds at the library so I’m looking forward to a less structured month of books. Sadly I am still lacking five star memorable reads this year, so I may be diving into my backlist and trying to find some books that I know I’m going to love to read this summer! Hopefully the weather will co-operate – we’ve had a cold and rainy May here in Toronto – for some outdoor reading!

What was the best book you read in May? What books will you be checking out in June? Let me know in the comments!

Nebula Awards Reaction/Wrap-Up

It came down to the wire but I read and reviewed all of the 2018 Nebula Award nominees for Best Novel and Best Novella before last night’s ceremony took place!

What I love about taking part in a reading challenge is that it challenges you to read books you may never otherwise have picked up and to evaluate their merits. In particular, reading the novella category challenged my prejudices about the genre and broadened my horizons.


The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark  small 4 stars + Review
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
by Kelly Robson  small 4 stars + Review
Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield  small 4 stars + Review
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard  small 3 half stars + Review
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells  small 4 half stars + Review
Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee  small-2-stars + Review

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang small 4 half stars + Review
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse  small 4 stars + Review
 by C.L. Polk  small-3-stars + Review
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller  small 3 half stars + Review
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik  small 4 half stars + Review
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal  small 4 stars + Review

Best Novella
My Favourite: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells, but I was rooting for Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson. Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series continues to blow me away, but she won Best Novella last year with All Systems Red, so I was really hoping Kelly Robson would take it.
Predicted Winner:
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark. The Black God’s Drums rightfully got a lot of buzz for its combination of steampunk, Yoruba mythology, and an alternate history of the United States into an enthralling adventure.
Actual Winner:
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard. Although I felt the mystery fell a little flat in this homage to Sherlock Holmes, I adored the world-building and the sheer imagination and originality of this story.

Best Novel
My Favourite:
 The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. The Poppy War was one of the best books I read last year. It’s a brutal read that may not be for everything, but it was unlike anything I’d read before and I adored it.
Predicted Winner:
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. The Nebulas don’t often reward debut novels and they tend to pick science-fiction over fantasy. Consider the fact that Naomi Novik, another strong contender, already won Best Novel a few years ago for Uprooted and we’re left with Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history of spaceflight.
Actual Winner: 
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. No surprise here, but it’s a great novel and feels very timely, both in its exploration of the struggle for gender equality and it depiction of mental illness, so I’m very happy with this result.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of the winners? Would you have selected differently? Let’s chat in the comments!

Congratulations to all of the nominees and to the winners! The full list of 2018 Nebula Award Winners can be found here.

Books: Spinning Silver

36896898Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Published July 10, 2018
I grew up reading books on world folktales and Greek mythology more than the popular fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why Naomi Novik’s twisted fairy tales don’t resonate with me to the extent that they have with other readers. Quite frankly I found the hype over Nebula Award winner Uprooted baffling, but it’s easy to understand why Spinning Silver is so beloved. Novik’s loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, is a winning feminist fairy tale about women who refuse to lie down and accept their fates, but who forge their own futures through bravery and wit.

Told through multiple perspectives, Spinning Silver is primarily focused on three women – Miryem, Wanda, and Irina – each of whom must rewrite their fate. When Miryem’s mother falls ill, she takes over her father’s moneylending business and soon proves adept at collecting outstanding debt. As her shrewd ability to turn a profit grows, she’s approached by the frightening Staryk King, an otherworldly being who promises to make her his Queen if she can change Staryk silver into gold three times over. Wanda works as a housekeeper for Miryem’s family in order to pay off her violent alcoholic father’s drinking debts, yet she soon realizes that she is better fed and treated away from home. Finally, Irina, a duke’s daughter, is a disappointment to her father, who does not expect her to make a brilliant match. To her dismay, Irina unexpectedly winds up married to the Tsar, whose cruelty she witnessed when they were children. Yet the Tsar conceals a dark secret that threatens to harm not just Irina, but her people as well.

All three women serve as protectors who watch over those who can’t take care of themselves, yet not solely in a traditional motherhood role. Miryem hardens her heart and does what she must to provide her sick mother with food and medicine, Wanda earns a wage working for Miryem’s family and begins learning Miryem’s form of magic (numbers) in order to protect her two brothers, and Irina uses her wits to protect her faithful nurse and to hold her country together when it’s threatened by the creature possessing her husband.

What really resonated with me though was the fact that these women, who have been commodified by the men in their lives know their own value and set their own price. Miryem says as much to the Staryk King, setting a value on her services greater than he bargained for, while Wanda and Irina too know what price their loyalty and particular gifts should command.

I also loved the role that Miryem’s Judaism plays in the novel. Her culture, her traditions (including observing Shabbat), and her people hold such importance for Miryem and it grounds her character nicely in the narrative.

I do have a few minor quibbles. The familial connections that Novik crafts are rich and compelling, but I wished we had seen more of the friendships between women in the text than we did. I also found the male love interests somewhat underwritten, a detail that kept me from fully investing in the romantic relationships between characters. It’s worth noting that all of the characters grew on me by the end though.

The prose is well-crafted throughout and Novik makes excellent use of fairy tale tropes to weave her original tale. Admittedly the conditions under which I finished Spinning Silver (desperately trying to make it to the end before leaving for Vermont the next day) were not ideal and may have influenced my opinion, but I didn’t find the climax of the book suspenseful or tense enough to rate this a full five stars. Still, I really loved this one and if it can win over even someone like me, who isn’t big on fairy tales, I can only imagine how much readers who adore fairy tales must love this book.

Books: Witchmark

Witchmark RD3 fixedbleeds new dressWitchmark by C.L. Polk
Published June 19, 2018
C.L. Polk’s debut is a syrupy sweet queer romance that defies categorization. Combining medical mystery, adorable gay romance, and family drama into its post-WWI inspired historical fantasy, many readers will find that it strikes just the right balance. If you’ve been reading my reviews for awhile though, you’ll know that descriptors like ‘cute’ and ‘sweet’ are rarely selling points for me. I loved the idea behind Witchmark, but found its surface-deep treatment of serious issues, like PTSD in veterans, disappointing and its romance too cloying and underdeveloped to satisfy.

Witchmark’s protagonist is Miles Singer, a man with few choices. Belonging to an influential family of mages, he is doomed, either be committed to an asylum or enslaved as a living battery for his more powerful sister to draw upon. He goes to war to escape and returns home under an assumed name, where he practices medicine in a hospital and discreetly uses his magic gift for healing to aid ailing veterans. When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing abilities, he puts his freedom at risk to investigate the patient’s murder.

Doctor Miles Singer is the kind of hopelessly naive protagonist that makes you want to put your head in your hands multiple times over the course of the book, but his compassion and stubbornness won me over in the end. Even when his decisions made me want to wring my hands, they were understandable because his family and friends are so obviously his blind spot. The romance at the center of the book is appropriately adorable, but I found the love interest comparatively underdeveloped and wished that Polk had invested more energy into the relationship so it didn’t walk a fine line between romance and instalove.

What Witchmark does extremely well is communicate its themes. Polk offers important commentary on how soldiers returning from war with mental health issues are frequently ignored and mistreated. Freedom/agency and the lengths to which we’ll go to achieve and then to maintain our ability to choose is a key theme. There’s also some interesting discourse about the needs of the many versus the needs of the few argument and how this perspective is used by the privileged to justify mistreating the underclass, “for the good of society”.

It isn’t the only Nebula-nominated debut novel, but to me Witchmark is the only one that feels like a first novel. The ideas are definitely there, but Polk’s writing style is still developing. The book also suffers from uneven pacing. The opening chapter is gripping, but Polk loses momentum after that, focusing on the day-to-day banal existence of her characters rather than continuing to develop the plot and build suspense. The result is a book that I enjoyed while I was reading it, but that I wasn’t compelled to continue once I had set it down. In contrast, the last 50 pages or so gave me tonal whiplash as Polk seems to scramble to bring everything together in the book’s abrupt climax.

This is sounding overwhelmingly negative so let me stress that I did *like* Witchmark, I just wanted more from it. I wanted the deep dive into the issues characters in this world face, more detailed world-building that puts the climax in context, and more developed secondary characters. What I got was a fluffy romance with some fantasy aspects and interesting commentary on agency.

Although Witchmark wasn’t ultimately for me, I can see why it has its fans. There have been too many recent reminders that when it comes to media representation of queer relationships, happily ever afters are still, sadly, a rarity. Witchmark provides that much needed happy ending and more; It is pure escapism right when we need it most. It didn’t move or transport me the way I hoped it would, but I still admire the attempt.

Books: Fire Ant

39359011Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee
Published March 22, 2018
Fire Ant is both the last of my Nebula Award reads for this year and the least accomplished. It’s readable and there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, but Fire Ant is your garden-variety military sci-fi tale of a plucky underdog who is selected to join an elite squad and must prove herself to her superiors and to her fellow pilots. Generic and predictable, Fire Ant is the novella equivalent of a popcorn movie; enjoyable enough while you’re reading/watching it (if you don’t think too hard, that is) but difficult to remember as soon as it’s over.

Floribeth “Beth” Dalisay is a member of the Off-Planet Worker underclass who has, by virtue of her 4″6 height, become a pilot for a mega-corporation that sends tiny one-person ships on missions of exploration. On a routine contract to search new solar systems for natural resources and/or habitable planets, Beth encounters a hostile alien presence who begin firing on her. Some fancy flying saves Beth’s life, but when she reports her encounter to the company, they ground her ship and impose financial penalties for equipment losses. Luckily the Directorate Navy is interested in Beth’s skillset and enlists her as a Navy fighter pilot.

I suspected Fire Ant wouldn’t be something I’d enjoy. There’s the rare exception (Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is a clever, complicated, and well-characterized example of the genre), but military science-fiction (MilSF) holds very little appeal for me. Like many examples of its genre, Fire Ant offers an abundance of action, military procedure, and space battles, but is woefully short on characterization. By half-way through the novella I had started to skim, the extended training exercise descriptions and battle scenes making my eyes glaze over.

How, I wondered, does such a mediocre novella make it into an otherwise impressive slate of Nebula Award nominees? The answer seems to be through playing the voting system. A closed Facebook group of independent science-fiction and fantasy writers, including Brazee, put forward a list of authors with eligible works that they encouraged their members to vote for – and it worked! 6 of the works they suggested have been nominated for awards this year.

Undoubtedly a nomination will increase the visibility of a work, but I wonder if this approach doesn’t do as much harm as it does good. Sure I wouldn’t have picked up Fire Ant at all if it hadn’t been nominated for Best Novella, but when a work isn’t anywhere near the caliber of writing demonstrated by the other nominees in its category, it suffers by comparison.

Unfortunately, Fire Ant feels amateurish. Published under self-publishing imprint Semper Fi Press, I caught multiple spelling and grammar errors in Fire Ant that suggested it could use a more comprehensive edit. I don’t want to take away from anyone’s passion. I certainly haven’t written and published a book, so I have a great respect for those who follow their dreams and become a writer, but when you not only put your book out into the world, but then push to have it recognized by one of the most prestigious awards for science-fiction and fantasy authors, you open yourself up to criticism.

Books: Artificial Condition

36223860Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
Published May 8, 2018
An apology to an underappreciated format:

Dear novellas,
I misjudged you. I erroneously assumed that your limited page count couldn’t possibly deliver the emotional depth or satisfying character arcs that I so desired. I stubbornly maintained this view and neglected to read novellas even when I knew that a short story or slender work of fiction could pack an emotional punch. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to see the light, but I’m a convert to the format and ready to spread the word!

After being, quite frankly, a little stunned by just how much I loved All Systems Red, the first in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series of novellas, I couldn’t wait to see where Murderbot’s journey would take it next. I was not disappointed! Artificial Condition picks up shortly after the events of the first book and follows Murderbot as it undertakes a mission to learn more about its past, specifically the incident at a mining center where it went rogue.

Like the first book in the series, Artificial Condition examines humanity and what it means to be human through the point-of-view of its decidedly not human main character. Murderbot’s discomfort with altering its physical appearance and behaviour to appear more human (a safety precaution so it can explore the mining facility while escaping detection) is keenly felt, even as it also recognizes the drawbacks of being a construct.

Although Murderbot’s crew don’t appear in the story, there are plenty of new characters to get to know and love, such as Murderbot’s latest clients (three naive, but well-meaning humans, including one who uses gender neutral pronouns!) My favourite new addition though is a bored, super intelligent research transport vessel named ART who is capable of being every bit as snarky as Murderbot itself. A scene where ART is emotionally compromised by a fictional media serial was both amusing and relatable.

Artificial Condition enables Wells to expand on the broader world that’s only hinted at in the first book, while deftly exploring themes of found family, choice, and freedom. It’s a brilliant continuation of Murderbot’s personal journey and a compelling, well-paced thriller that offers no easy answers.