Books: All The Birds In The Sky

25372801All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Published January 26, 2016
All the Birds in the Sky is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Seeming to transcend genre, (the closest match I could come up with is magic realism speculative fiction) the book deals with serious themes of nature vs. technology and climate change, through two outsider pre-teen protagonists who just might grow-up to destroy, or save, the world. While some building blocks of the story will feel familiar (boy meets girl, they’re from completely different worlds, etc.), All the Birds in the Sky is a unique novel that offers a lot to admire, including a two-second time machine, a matchmaking AI, and a snarky parliament of birds.

Beginning in childhood, All the Birds in the Sky tells the story of Patricia Delfine, a witch who can talk to animals, and Laurence Armstead, a science and technology genius, who builds a two-second time machine in middle school and tries to perfect artificial intelligence in his bedroom closet.  Set apart by their odd “witchiness” and aptitude for technology respectively, they are bullied and ostracized by their peers, and misunderstood by their parents. This adversity makes wary allies and then genuine friends out of Patricia and Laurence, despite their very different world views. They reconnect as adults in San Francisco, but Patricia and Laurence are on opposite sides of a war between science and magic set against the eco-apocalypse, and the fate of the world depends on them both. Probably.

I really loved Patricia. In a less-talented author’s story, I could so easily see her being relegated to the manic pixie dream girl role, but fortunately for the reader, in All the Birds in the Sky she’s a flawed character who lives a life independent of her love interests. Working crappy server/waitress types of jobs during the day, by night she tries to make up for past mistakes by using her magic to discreetly help people, in ways that include easing an AIDS patient’s pain and ensuring an addict can never use again. Patricia’s greatest struggle is that her large heart and desire to help everyone leads her to close-calls with the magic-users’ principle of enforcing humility through warning against aggrandizement, the principle of thinking too highly of yourself or your powers. I also loved that in times of panic Patricia remains calm and thinks practically, but she still feels very deeply.

I wasn’t quite as connected to Laurence, who comes off a little ungrateful and demanding at times, but he mostly won me over. The secondary characters are well-rendered, each feeling distinct and interesting, and I liked that most of the characters are shades of grey rather than solely good or evil. The author also casually includes a non-binary character as one of Patricia’s friends, which is fabulous to see in SFF.

Aside from the characters, I also really enjoyed the science vs. magic/nature vs. technology theme of the novel. Patricia, who can talk to animals, and Laurence, an engineering genius, are set up respectively as the embodiment of nature and technology, but although these concepts seem to be opposites, it turns out there’s more common ground than initially expected. Without giving away too much, the overarching idea seems to be that things are better when humans communicate and work together than when we act without understanding, which I think is important.

The prose is generally simple but effective for the story Anders is telling, and she sprinkles humour throughout, not in a Pratchett or Douglas Adams way where humour is the predominant quality, but I definitely chuckled from time-to-time.

I do have a few complaints. The assassin subplot that runs through the first part of the novel in the presence of creepy Mr. Rose is abandoned without much in the way of follow-up. I also found the end of the world came on very suddenly. Admittedly I can see how this would be the case. Mentions and vague threats about the impact of climate change are there in the background of the novel, just as in the present day, so a quick escalation to disasters that threaten the planet makes sense, I just didn’t see it coming and felt a bit blindsided as All the Birds in the Sky built to its climax. Ultimately though, these are minor complaints in a short, unique novel that’s well worth your time.


Books: Too Like The Lightning

26114545Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer
Published May 10, 2016
When I updated my progress on goodreads to 80% of the way through this 432 page book I still didn’t know whether I was interested in continuing this series – not exactly a ringing endorsement. As it turns out, taking a step away from the book for an extended weekend (it was both too dense for me to read between plays at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and physically too heavy a hardcover for me to carry around when I was travelling between venues on foot) brought some much needed clarity. I didn’t miss Too Like The Lightning when I put it down. Not even a little. Much like the first volume of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (not the odious second volume), it’s the kind of book that is clever and will appeal very much to a certain type of person. That person just isn’t me.

The story is told through a framing device, with Mycroft Canner recording his version of events for a distant future reader, but in the style of an Eighteenth century account. Throughout the story he maintains a dialogue with the reader, imagining our reactions to certain narrative choices. Through Mycroft’s eyes we learn about the 25th century. On the surface, this world is a utopia, where people can use a vast network of cars to travel to different continents in a matter of hours, lifespans have reached 150 years, nation loyalties are no more and so there is world peace. Fear of organized religion, caused by religious violence, has led the world to outlaw the public practice of any kind of religion, yet there are mandated weekly one-on-one sessions with sensayers, a sort of spiritual counselor who present answers to spiritual questions from multiple belief systems. Gender distinctions have become distinctly taboo so most use the neutral pronouns thee and thou, and there is an extreme form of censorship that requires complex labeling of all public writing and speech. Oh, and there’s a boy who can bring inanimate objects to life which threatens the very stability of the world.

Palmer has created the ultimate unreliable narrator in Mycroft Canner, a convict who has been sentenced in the 25th century way (based on an idea from Sir Thomas More that was never actually implemented), to wander the earth, without home or property, serving at the command of any citizen who needs labour. Allusions to the severity of Mycroft’s crime are scattered throughout the text. For example, the name Mycroft is no longer one that people use, and Canner’s identity is kept a secret from all but a select group of citizens. It’s more than halfway through the book before the reader learns exactly what Mycroft did and, as our narrator would no doubt say, “Beware reader! it’s gory!”

Unsurprisingly, since she is a professor in the history department at the University of Chicago, Palmer’s first novel is heavily influenced by the eighteenth century Enlightenment period (especially the writings of Voltaire) and by humanist thought. It makes for a weighty philosophic read, but I thought the author’s ambitious emphasis on ideas hindered her plot development and her characters.

I had a number of issues with Too Like The Lightning. I found it slow moving, with more politicking than plot. I usually enjoy works that involve political intrigue, but I just didn’t find it very interesting here, perhaps because I didn’t have a strong connection to any of the characters, and therefore didn’t care which group came out on top. I liked the characters, I just didn’t fully connect with any of them and I don’t feel invested enough to continue the series and learn their fates. I was also disappointed that the story doesn’t stand alone very well. There are some books in a series where there are unfinished threads leading to the next volume of a series, but also a clear sense that a chapter of a larger story has finished. I didn’t get that with Too Like The Lightning.

For all this negativity, there are things I admired about the novel. It’s unique. I have never read anything like Too Like The Lightning before, and as much as I love the science-fiction and fantasy genre, it’s a rare thing to encounter a book that’s so completely different from anything that came before. The world building is also tremendous. To knock down the world we’ve known, one with gender distinctions, religion, and loyalty to nations, Palmer creates new systems of belonging for her 25th century setting.

Instead of nations there are seven supranational bodies called Hives, which people join based on their shared interests, rather than their place of birth, seemingly based on the idea that “what we choose means more than what is handed to us by chance.” Instead of families there is the bash’ system (derived from the Japanese “basho”) where individuals are born into a bash’ but often choose to leave and join or start a new bash’ in their twenties based on mutual interests and values.

The world is diverse, and the use of gender pronouns is unusual. The world claims to be a strictly gender neutral society where the usage of gendered pronouns is taboo, but Mycroft suggests that the world is not truly a gender neutral society, but just pretends to be gender neutral. He breaks this restriction on social custom often by including gendered pronouns in his narrative, and yet these correspond with his impression of how individuals fit his ideas of gender, not their biological sex. Cousins, the spiritual Hive of sensayers, are referred to with the feminine pronoun, even when they are biologically male, like Carlyle Foster, and the wolfish Dominic is given male pronouns by Mycroft despite being biologically female. I gather from the author’s answer to a question on goodreads that the intention is to make the reader feel uncomfortable and to present a world that has failed on the gender conversation, and given up too easily, but I don’t think this point comes across in the text.

All in all, Too Like The Lightning is a frustrating read. At its best it presents intriguing world building and visions of a possible future with a centrally controlled car system that makes traveling an ease. It also stimulates important thought about the place of gender, religion, and censorship in our world. However, it’s a confusing novel that’s sometimes downright incomprehensible, weighed down by its own ideas. Although I don’t think Too Like The Lightning succeeds in its ambitions, I can’t help but admire its creativity.

T5W: Books That Aren’t Set In The Western World

This week’s Top Five Wednesday is one that I have been looking forward to – Talk about books that are set outside of the Western World (so outside of North America and Western Europe) or if they are SFF, books that aren’t inspired by those places (so no medieval setting fantasy!)

Admittedly a lot of the fantasy, YA, and historical fiction I read is set in North America or Western Europe, but I’ve been making an an effort to read more diversely (and would love recommendations if there are books with diverse settings you think I should check out!) recently. In fact, some a few of the best books I’ve read this year are set outside of these places! For this week’s countdown, I’ve stuck to books that are very clearly inspired by or set in places outside of North America and Western Europe, not books that don’t seem to be inspired by anywhere in particular.

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

Pachinko1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Japan/South Korea)
Setting and history figure heavily into this multigenerational family saga, which takes place between 1910 and the late 1980s. Lee’s novel follows four generations of an ethnic Korean family living in Korea under Japanese rule and then in Japan itself. It’s a beautifully written book that doesn’t shy away from depicting the discrimination and hardship that Koreans living in Japan during this period, who were seen as foreign residents and shut out of many traditional occupations, faced. Knowing as little as I did about this time and place before I picked up Pachinko, the opportunity to learn about this period in history was part of the appeal for me. I was not disappointed. Lee has a wonderful ability to make history come alive on the page, and the details of a myriad of twentieth century Korean and Japanese settings are richly rendered in elegant but simple prose. What I really love about Pachinko though is how realistic its characters are. Although they make mistakes, most of them are hardworking people trying to make good, and it’s incredibly moving to be taken on a journey through their successes and failures. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction!

15q8eaf2. The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Russia)
Rarely am I hooked by a novel as quickly as I was by Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. This gorgeous debut, a medieval Russian folktale/fairytale about the winter king and a brave and wild maiden absolutely enchanted me. Arden writes with lyrical prose and uses imagery to richly recreate the world of medieval Russia with all of its magic. It’s a style of writing that appeals to the senses, and you can almost feel the residual warmth of the giant oven on which the family sleeps and the cold foreboding of the nearby woods as winter approaches. As someone who enjoys mythology and folktales, I love the way that she brings the spirits, from the meek domovoi and the steady vazila to the more mercurial rusalka, to life. Additionally, this book contains a new favourite character of mine in Vasya, a free-spirit who is happier riding a horse or playing in the forest than she is performing needlework. Watching her grow from an impulsive child to an honest, compassionate, and bold young woman, is a joy as a reader and I look forward to returning to medieval Rus’ and to Vasya’s story when the sequel arrives early next year!

5yghvd3. The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy inspired by Ancient Egypt)
As much as I loved The Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate, my favourite N.K. Jemisin books so far belong to this lesser known duology. Set in the desert city-state of Gujaareh, loosely based on Ancient Egypt, the plot deals with Gatherers, who are Priests of the dream-goddess. Gatherers maintain order in this peaceful city by harvesting the dreams of citizens, healing the injured, and guiding the dreamers into the afterlife… whether they’re ready to die or not. When Ehiru, the most famous of the city’s Gatherers, is sent to harvest the dreams of a diplomatic envoy, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to drag the dreaming city into war. Fantasy that is based on a non-Western setting is still uncommon, and I have an interest in mythology, so I loved this unique duology. If you’ve never read anything by Jemisin before, she’s one of the best worldbuilders around and writes beautifully, so this series is worth checking out.

251507984. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (China)
This was my first Lisa See novel and I cannot wait to read more of her books! The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of Li-yan, an Akha ethnic minority girl in Yunnan, China and her family, who align their lives around the farming of tea. The arrival of a stranger in a jeep (the first automobile anyone in the village has ever seen) it marks the entrance of the modern world into the lives of the Akha, and Li-yan begins to reject the superstitions and rules that have shaped her existence. Setting is a huge part of Lisa See’s work of historical fiction, and she describes the Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, with care and in rich detail. Again, this was a place and time in history that I knew nothing about before reading this book, but I found it an engaging read and I rooted for Li-yan through her joys and her hardships.

271906135. And I Darken by Kiersten White (The Ottoman Empire)
Set in the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey and beyond), this gender-swapped YA alternate history of Vlad the Impaler sees Lada Dragwlya and her younger brother Radu held as pawns by the Ottoman courts. While Radu begins to adapt to their new setting, Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Part of the appeal of this duology for me was the fact that I’d never seen anything quite like it before, including the setting. Sure enough, I enjoyed the first volume in this series and will be reading the second part later this month.

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any recommendations for me on books set outside the western world that I should read? Let me know in the comments!

Books: The Refrigerator Monologues

32714267The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, Illustrations by Annie Wu
Published June 6, 2017

With sharp and pointed prose, Catherynne Valente riffs on the fates of women in superhero comics in The Refrigerator Monologues. This short story collection tells the stories, in their own words, of the six women who make up the Hell Hath Club, a support group where deceased girlfriends, wives, and others killed because of their association with a comic book hero or anti-hero, meet to share their stories. Although this quick read is often not subtle in its critique of the way women in comics are written, the stories are compelling and Valente’s unique prose fits this concept to a T.

In some ways Valente’s prose reminds me of reading a Neil Gaiman book. Both authors are fountains of unique, imaginative, playful, and sometimes dark ideas, who come up with worlds and concepts so wildly inventive and full of colour that I can’t begin to imagine what being inside their brains must be like. I’d previously read a few books in Valente’s Fairyland series and while I enjoyed the unique turns of phrase and creativity in her world, it didn’t quite capture me emotionally. Despite its short length, I thought The Refrigerator Monologues was more successful at getting me to connect with its characters.

The title plays on “women in refrigerators” or “fridging”, the term that comics writer Gail Simone coined to sum up the common trope in which female comics characters meet tragic ends purely to advance the (straight, white) male hero’s story and character development. As a critique of this lazy writing, The Refrigerator Monologues is incredibly effective.

These women are often just as, if not more, capable as their hero boyfriends. There’s the scientist whose formula creates her boyfriend’s powers, the woman whose own powers grow to such heights that her hero friends view her as a threat and seek to cut her down, and yes, an actual woman in a refrigerator, gruesomely murdered to send a message to her newly powered boyfriend. The voices of all six women are full of rage and regret, and no small amount of bitterness (generally justifiably, although it does make some of the chapters run together rather than stand as distinct voices). They are women who never had the agency in life to be at the center of their stories, to have stories at all that didn’t revolve around the male hero, but here in Deadtown they finally have the chance to share their version of events.

Paige Embry, Julia Ash, Pauline Ketch, Blue Bayou, Daisy Green, and Samantha Dane. They all feel real, and they’re generally well differentiated from one another. Despite all being women in comics who met similar unjust ends, their backstories are very different. I gather from other reviewers that there are echoes of actual comics women here (notably Gwen Stacey and Karen Page) but I wasn’t familiar enough with the genre to pick out these references (except Harley Quinn – that one was obvious even to those who have never read a Batman or Harley Quinn comic in their lives!). Comics knowledge is an asset, but by no means a requirement to enjoy this book though. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre understands the frustration of watching female characters used only to further the male narrative.

I’m not usually one for short story collections, but with The Refrigerator Monologues Valente creates six compelling stories that are seamlessly joined together through brief interludes in Deadtown. The world of Deadtown itself is subtly, but well, drawn and the comic backstories of each character are well thought through. The author has obviously worked hard to construct believably superhero and villain names that are not already in use, and plots and side characters that you could see truly existing as fully fledged comics in their own right.

It’s not a perfect book, I found the Pauline Ketch character grating, and although the critique of the way comics women are written is important, it’s a little heavy-handed. Still, this collection is worthy of admiration. The other women are engaging, their tragic fates induced the appropriate bitterness and pathos in me, and the world-building is tremendous. The Refrigerator Monologues is an insightful and creative read that most will enjoy.

Bizarre Historical Events Book Tag

Hey guys! Last month I came across this fabulous history-inspired book tag created by A Book Without End and just knew I had to do it. I love history, I even debated doing my Master’s in it or getting a professional degree in Public History before settling on becoming a Librarian, so the history love runs deep. What better way to learn about both bizarre events in history and books than with this incredibly fun book tag?!

|Emperor Elagabalus drowning his court in flower petals. Literally.| Name a book villain who would totally do this.

elegyThis sounds like it would fit The Empath, the fabulously dramatic, beautiful, but ruthless antagonist of Vale Aida’s clever fantasy novel Elegy. The Empath has long red hair and a billowing red cape, and the author’s tag for her character on tumblr is #drama emperor dervain teraille, so this is right up his alley!

|When King Philip II of Macedon sent the Spartans a lengthy threat of what he’d do if they did not yield to him, and they answered with a sarcastic one-word response -“if”| What hero/heroes would most likely answer like this to a threat from the antagonist.

SixOfCrowsApparently I like my heroes and anti-heroes snarky, because two immediately popped into my head: Breq, the brusque former Justice of Toren ship from Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series and everyone’s favourite teenage criminal mastermind, Kaz Brekker of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. Breq does not care at all what others think of her (she’d also fit the Alexander Hamilton fighting the entire party one) and is in the process of taking revenge against the emperor of the galaxy Annander Minnai herself, so I can’t imagine her being scared off by a lengthy threat. Kaz Brekker is just clever enough to call a bluff and to follow through on a crazy heist plan that can’ be done. He’s definitely the type to reply in this fashion!

|When Australia declared war on the Emus, and lost| A book that did not end up like you expected (in the terms of the plot).

22752127I didn’t really know what to expect from The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner and I spent the first half thinking, ‘okay it’s good but I don’t think it’s 4.26 stars on goodreads good!’ and then the last third of the book hit me like a train. I totally didn’t see where the book was going and I found it to be moving, well-written, and an excellent portrayal of depression. It’s definitely a book that’s somewhat inconsistent and rough around the edges, but it does all come together in that poignant last third of the book.

|Lichtenstein sending its army of 80 men to attack Italy and coming back with 81| A book you thought would be bad but actually ended up really liking.

23943137I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho when I first started reading it and for the first sixty pages I thought it would be simply a poor imitation of one of my favourite books, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But as I kept reading I found that yes, certainly there are similarities. Both are books about magic and magicians set in regency England. But I was quite charmed by Sorcerer of the Crown, which is ultimately lighter and fluffier, but also more diverse (both protagonists are PoCs, one a woman and the other a freed slave). Additionally, its diversity allows the author to comment on prejudice at the time.

|Alexander Hamilton challenging the entire democratic-republican party to a duel| A character who would totally do this.

112077I guess there are a few ways to take this, either a character who is all out of fucks to give and doesn’t care what others think of them, in which case Breq from Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword fits (that’s actually kind of the plot of the book – the world going but that’s not how it’s done! and Breq shrugging and carrying on), or an impulsive and stubborn character issuing a foolish challenge. The second meaning is definitely Will Scott in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings. He blunders right in, especially early in the book, without listening to advice and it’s endearing but also makes me want to facepalm. Oh Marigold.

|The Chinese setting monkeys on fire and launching them at British ships|  A book based on a great idea/concept

26409580Sure these days the YA dystopia is a genre in and of itself, but even within the genre there’s room for innovation and that’s what I found in Erin Bow’s The Scorpio Rules and The Swan Riders. The duology is set in a world where wars over water are common, but an artificial intelligence called Tallis has taken over and has an unusual way of keeping the peace. Tallis has taken a hostage from every world leader – their child heirs – and if any government declares war, their hostage’s life is forfeit.

|Emperor Caligula calling for an assembly just to tell everyone he could kill them all| A villain who just loves to gloat

6The first villain who comes to mind is actually Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Voldemort seems to love gloating over Harry, doing so in Goblet of Fire and waiting for his followers to arrive to kill Harry, and again in the final book when he believes that Harry has been defeated. Villains who gloat before they’ve actually done the deed really need to take a page from Adrian Veidt’s book…

|An old civilian woman aiding in the killing of their besieger King Pyrrhus by throwing a tile at him|
 A minor character you can totally imagine helping the heroes like this)
17378508I had trouble coming up with a minor character at first but then it hit me, Calla from The Raven Cycle quartet. I can definitely see bold Calla throwing a tile (or more) at someone who deserved it.

|When the US sent tanks, Special Forces, Tae Kwon Do experts, soldiers with M-16s grenade launchers etc., all just to cut down one tree| A book you really don’t understand all the hype around it.

22544764I never understood the buzz about Uprooted by Naomi Novak. I read it last year after it had been nominated for just about every major fantasy award, and assumed I would therefore love it and I just didn’t. I didn’t really like any of the main characters, I would have been more interested if Agnieszka’s love interest had been her pretty best friend from childhood instead of the (frankly) quite boring and rude Dragon, and I didn’t find it twisted fairytales or was enough of a unique spin on one to keep me interested.

|That one time in Prague when a Protestant threw a Catholic out of a window, only to have him survive by landing in horse shit which resulted in a large war| Favorite rivalry in a book (series)

JonathanStrangeMy favourite rivalry is not always antagonistic. In fact, it starts out as a teacher-trainee relationship, and develops into a partnership of equals, but quickly dissolves as the two magicians find that they have completely different methods and approaches towards performing magic. I’m talking, of course, of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I love the odd couple vibe of young, daring Strange and reclusive prickly old Norrell and the dependency of their relationship as the only two practicing magicians in England.

|That one time a bucket started a war| A book whose sole existence makes you question humanity (and the publishing industry). 

15839976How could I say anything else but Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy? I want to scream at the top of my lungs about how much I don’t understand the appeal of this series, especially given how blatantly misogynistic the books are. The female characters (which there are few of to begin with) are all there to be treated as sexual objects or love interests only. There are gratuitous rape scenes. There is the fact that the male protagonist’s wife is killed off in the first forty pages of the book purely to further the male character’s story and to give him man pain. The worldbuilding is shoddy at best, a strange hybrid of The Hunger Games, random Greek/Roman mythology, and a bizzare colour system. The protagonist himself is not at all likable, despite being a Gary Stu, and in general the book reads like a Michael Bay movie. Save yourself. Do not read this book!

|Julius Caesar being taken hostage by pirates, only to be angry at the low amount of money they demanded and made them demand even more money for his freedom| Some character who would definitely act like this if taken as hostage.

22637358I’m pretty sure this is Felix from Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series. When he’s in his right mind (so not half of the first book) Felix is an incredibly flawed protagonist. He’s vain in appearance, has a damaging view of himself as better than everyone around him (while secretly harboring the inner belief that his humble origins actually make him worth less than others), and he speaks in a deliberate upper class accent. I can definitely see Felix being offended at being offered for a low price.

|The Mexican president who was in office for only about 45 minutes| A character you just feel sorry for.

alittlelifeIf you don’t feel badly for Jude St. Francis in A Little Life, there’s probably something wrong with you. After surviving a truly horrific past of physical and sexual abuse when he was a child, Jude is physically and emotionally scarred. However he carries on, becoming a top-notch lawyer, and associating with a group of friends who respect and care for him. A Little Life is a bit of a reverse fairy tale though, or at least one of the oldet fairy tales without the Disney happy ending, where everything that can go badly does. For every good thing that Jude has in his life, something awful balances it out, and he can never fully escape his past, even when he is surrounded by people who love him.

|The General whose last words, before getting shot under the left eye, were “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”| Which character would most likely meet their end this way.

30319086I took this as a character who is so completely oblivious about what’s right in front of them and my answer is Oliver from If We Were Villains. I was going to say he’s the most oblivious character I’ve ever encountered, but Jerott in The Lymond Chronicles gives him a run for his money. I could see both of them being unaware enough of the world around them to get taken down like this.

I’m not going to tag anyone in particular, but this is a REALLY fun and unique book tag to do, so I highly encourage anyone who is interested to fill this out, pingback to Ella who created it, and feel free to consider yourself tagged and pingback to me too – I’d love to read your answers!

T5W: Children’s Books

For a nostalgic generation like mine, I can hardly think of a better topic for Top 5 Wednesday than Children’s Books. It’s easy to get sucked into the trap of recommending the same favourites week after week, so what a refreshing change to take a trip down memory lane and discuss some of my childhood favourites! In fact, I loved this topic so much that I’ve cheated (a little) and counted down my top 5 children’s series and listed my top 5 books that standalone as well. In no particular order, here are my selections:

Top 5 Series

90wtpzThe Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede
This quartet of books that turns fantasy tropes on their heads is one of my favourite childhood series. In it, Princess Cimorene, who is everything a princess isn’t supposed to be (tomboyish, tall, black haired), tries to infuse her life with more exciting pastimes than embroidery and dancing lessons by eliciting instructions from the kingdom’s chef, fencing instructor, latin instructor, and court magician, but when her parents decide that she must marry, Cimorene takes her destiny into her own hands by running away to become a dragon’s princess. Featuring secondary characters like Kazul, the intelligent female dragon Cimorene lives with, Kazul’s assorted dragon friends, Morwen the practical witch and her several cats, and later the somewhat preoccupied but good King Mendanbar, these books are a delight for any unconventional girl who would much rather live a life of excitement with a dragon than be a proper princess. The final book in the series, told in first person perspective (rather than third) with a different narrator, is a bit of a let down, but it’s still a great series overall.

zvtzzaThe Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander
It’s still baffling to me that other than the terrible Disney adaptation, no one has made these fabulous books into a feature film yet. Based loosely on Welsh mythology, the first novel in the series, titled The Book of Three, features Taran of Caer Dallben, an assistant pig keeper who wants to be a hero. Over the course of this coming of age saga, he grows up, seeks out his heritage, and confronts the Horned King and his terrible Cauldron-Born. The characters in this series are fabulous. Taran is a believable youth, rash and full of ideas about what it means to be a hero that he slowly sheds as he matures, the Princess Eilonwy of the red-gold hair is one of my favourite characters in literature, outspoken and honest she speaks mostly in unusual similies and metaphors, and beloved other characters like loyal Fflewddur Fflam, wise Prince Gwydion, and even Doli the dwarf. It definitely reads like a middle grade Lord of the Rings, but the elements of Welsh mythology are really interesting and I loved these characters and the journeys they go on together.

5p3ga9Redwall by Brian Jacques
Redwall was one of my favourite childhood books. I devoured this series about English woodland creatures for a couple couple of years at least before losing interest. I was also fortunate enough to attend a reading and signing in my hometown by the author Brian Jacques, before he passed away. I remember being impressed by his ability to recite multiple paragraphs off of a randomly chosen page of his novel verbatim. The first book in the series, Redwall, features a young apprentice monk mouse named Matthias, and his quest to recover a legendary lost weapon and save his tranquil home Redwall Abbey from the savage bilge-rat warlord Cluny the Scourge. I have no idea how these stand up years later, and I remember finding some books in the series stronger than others, but they were a huge part of my childhood and at the time I loved them.

el7fi9The Silver Brumby books by Elaine Mitchell
I read a lot of horse books as a kid, some of them probably less objectively good but enjoyable to a girl going through a horse phase, like The Saddle Club by Bonnie Bryant, and the Thoroughbred books, and other genuinely really good books like Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague, and this more unique take on the genre. The Silver Brumby is part of a series about the wild brumbies of Australia, and particularly a rare silver brumby stallion named Thowra (“the wind”) who eludes capture by man through his speed and strength. I’ve seen another goodreads reviewer describe it as a bildungsroman – but for a horse – and I think that’s very apt. If you too were once a horse girl (or boy) I imagine you’ll enjoy this series about the wilds of Australia and the wild horses who use their knowledge of the land to evade capture by man.

8133190The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery
I know I just wrote about these books for Canada Day but, like many Canadian girls, they played a large role in my life. I was about eleven when I fell headfirst in love with this series about a precocious orphaned redhead named Anne with an “E” who is accidentally sent home with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who wanted a boy to help out on their Prince Edward Island farm. Anne’s presence livens up their farm, bringing shy Matthew out of his soul as these two “kindred spirits” form a bond, and even practical Martha grows to love Anne. The rest of the series follows the maturing of this intelligent, dramatic, and adventurous girl as she becomes a teacher, falls in love, has a family of her own, and experiences heartbreak as World War One intrudes on their lives.

Top 5 Standalone Books

s5z18gThe Grand Escape by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Animal lover that I am, young me was enchanted by this cute story about two indoor tabby cats, Marco and Polo, who can’t resist the temptation of an accidentally left open door and escape into the outside world. Their search for food leads them to the cats of the Club of Mysteries, but before Marco and Polo can become members of the club, they each have to prove themselves by learning the answer to a great mystery, such as where do humans go when they’re not going to the vet? Or what is inside Betram-the-Bad’s dog house (Bertram is a cat-chasing Mastiff). Told entirely from the cats’ perspectives and illustrated, this is definitely meant for the younger set and I don’t know that it would hold any interest as an adult, but I loved the feline perspective on the human world and the adventures of Marco, Polo, and the Club of Mysteries cats.

2itslcyD’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire, Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
I think I was about ten when I received this book as a gift, and I can honestly say that it changed my life. My beautifully illustrated copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths is quite literally falling apart it is so well loved. This was my introduction to Greek mythology, a love that has stayed with me even now, at age thirty. I remember being a shy first year University student who, at the suggestion of a particularly kind professor, a woman who valued participation but understood that not all students were as comfortable with speaking out loud as others, said she wasn’t comfortable with speaking, and then I learned that the first book we’d be doing in class was The Odyssey. Up shot my hand for lecture after lecture. This book is why. I can’t think of a better introduction to mythology for children and I wish I had a more intact copy to flip through nostalgically from time to time!

28wkxvmThe Borrowers by Mary Norton
I first read The Borrowers as a child, but had the happy chance to return to it as an adult for a Children’s Literature course I took in University. The Borrowers falls into that wonderful category of fantasy where, as children and sometimes even as adults, we long for something hidden to be true. That desire to find an entrance to Narnia at the back of a closet, or a family of little Borrowers living under the floor. Focusing on Pod and Homily Clock and their daughter, Arrietty, The Borrowers sparks the imagination by imagining that little household items that go missing may, in fact, have been “borrowed” by a tiny family. In the Clock household, matchboxes double as roomy dressers and postage stamps hang on the walls like paintings. Although the life is comfortable, daughter Arrietty finds it boring and wishes she, like her father, could venture into the human world, but borrowers who are spotted by humans are never seen again…

i6kohtCharlotte’s Web by E.B. White
An obvious choice certainly, but it’s hard to put together a list of childhood favourites without Charlotte’s Web on it. I’m pretty sure this was a book that my mom read aloud to me and my younger brother, and as much as I loved reading independently, I always really enjoyed listening to my mom read to us. The book tells the story of a spider named Charlotte who decides to save her pig friend Wilbur, the runt of the litter, from the slaughterhouse by spinning words of praise into her web. Some Pig. Humble. Radiant, she writes, and Wilbur gains renown within the county. It’s a beautiful story of cross-species friendship and one that deserves its place among the classics of children’s literature.

2qm2o2hThe Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks
When a rebellious fairy named Tiki accidentally meets Jan, a human woman who desperately wants a baby daughter, Tiki finds it impossible to resist fulfilling Jan’s wish. But the Fairy Queen has strictly forbidden fairies from using their magic powers on humans. Already in trouble for breaking the rule against wearing jeans, Tiki risks the wrath of the Fairy Queen to grant Jan’s wish, and becomes the girl’s godmother. Every year on her birthday, Tiki leaves Bindi a special magical present, but this can’t continue undetected forever and Jan and Bindi must go to war with the repressive Fairy Queen to rescue Tiki. I remember being delighted by the special magical presents that Bindi receives each year, and by the magic of this story, which advocates individually.

Did you read any of these books as a child, or as an adult? What are some of your favourite childhood books?

The Mid Year Freak Out – Book Tag

The lovely Steph over at Lost Purple Quill tagged me in this book tag, which looked like a great way to review the highlights of my reading so far this year. Thanks Steph! I’m not going to tag anyone because I know this one has been making the rounds and I haven’t kept up with who has already been tagged, but if you want to do this, please consider yourself tagged!

1. The Best Book You’ve Read So Far In 2017
PachinkoI could choose a couple of books here, but I’m going to go with Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I fell in love with this moving tale of a multi-generational Korean family living in Japan between 1910 and the 1980s. The prose is eloquent yet clear, the characters are incredibly likable, and I loved learning about this period and place in history that I knew so little about. Pachinko was recommended to me by Rachel @ Pace Amore Libri (thank you Rachel!) and was a monthly pick for a bookclub we’re both in, and I couldn’t be more thankful. This is one book that I would recommend to just about everyone!

2. Your Favourite Sequel This Year
AConjuringOfLightMy other five-star read so far this year is V.E. Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light, the final book in her Shades of Magic trilogy. Like any final book in a series, A Conjuring of Light was a book I both couldn’t wait to get my hands on and read with anxiety that it wouldn’t live up to expectations, or that the plot wouldn’t wrap-up in a satisfactory way. I shouldn’t have worried – A Conjuring of Light was everything I hoped it would be and more, although bidding goodbye to the characters I so loved was difficult.

3. A New Release That You Haven’t Read But Really Want To
I’ve been looking forward to Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue since a friend gushed about it a few months back. Fortunately it’s in transit to me from my local library, so I’ll be able to read it later this month!


4. Most Anticipated Release For The Second Half Of The Year
25528808Another one that I’ve heard rave advance reviews of is E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing, which will be published on October 3, 2017! I was already excited about reading this book before I read anything by Johnston. Now that I’ve read and loved Exit, Pursued by a Bear, I cannot wait to get my hands on this one!

5. Your Biggest Disappointment
There are a few books that all turned out to be disappointments for me, mostly for the same reason: they had great concepts and gorgeous covers, but the execution didn’t live up to the promise of the material. Those books are:

->  Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst – This was a textbook example of great concept, poor execution for me. The author switches genders of the typical prince-princess story to give readers a lesbian couple, but plays every other trope straight for a very conventional story. The book also lacks almost any world-building, so it’s fun at the surface level but cracks start to show as soon as you look at it with a closer eye.
-> Everfair by Nisi Shawl – I admired the ingenuity that went into this alternate history/steampunk Belgian Congo novel, but it’s a debut novel and it showed. Everfair reads more like a series of vignettes than a novel with a plot, and often skips over action scenes with important moments happening off the pages of the book. It also never grabbed me emotionally.
-> The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich – It wasn’t a bad book. I gave it 2.5 stars and even enjoyed reading it since it was a short enough read that I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time, but the world wasn’t thought through and the author didn’t seem to know whether it wanted to be a unique YA dystopia or a pure satire. This lack of direction meant the execution was sometimes sloppy.

6. Biggest Surprise Of The Year
Swing Time was the first Zadie Smith novel I’d ever read, a book I picked up mostly because of the dance theme I’d read was a big part of the novel. I think that’s a bit misleading, dance doesn’t play nearly as heavily into Swing Time as I expected, but I still REALLY enjoyed the book, rating it a solid four stars. This was a very pleasant surprise because after requesting the book from my library I read some goodreads reviews, even from people who enjoyed the book, that didn’t recommend it as the best choice for a Zadie Smith newbie and I had started to second-guess my decision. Fortunately, Swing Time worked for me, and I hope to read more from Zadie Smith in the future.

7. Favourite New To You Or Debut Author
15q8eafOne of my favourite books of the year to date is Katherine Arden’s exquisite and evocative historical fantasy The Bear and the Nightingale. It was a hell of a debut, with prose that hooked me from the very first page and characters I fell in love with, especially Vasilisa, a protagonist who is wild and brave but also compassionate towards others. This book made a fan out of me. I will happily read anything else Katherine Arden releases into the world… especially the planned sequel (set for release in early 2018)!

8. Your New Fictional Crush
30319086I don’t know that I really have one? But I think the closest would be James from M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains. James was one of my favourite characters in the novel. He’s studious, constantly looking through his books, and works hard to earn his success. He’s a terrific actor, who usually plays princes and heroic roles, and he’s well liked by his friends. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s also described as handsome, although from a biased source (his closest friend Oliver). I also have a giant girl crush on Irene from Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library. A competent librarian spy who uses precise grammar and practical quick-thinking to complete her missions? Sign me up!

9. New Favourite Character

A toss-up between Breq/Justice of Toren in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series and Vasya in Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. Breq is an enigmatic presence initially, brusque and determined to complete her mission of vengeance, but always fascinating and resourceful. A music-loving millenia old spaceship AI inhabiting the body of a single human “ancillary”, in Ancillary Sword, she’s diverted somewhat from her vengeance and relishes trying to help out the victims of inequality on one planet and challenging the presiding ideas about class and what is respectable. Arden’s Vasya is introduced as a child, but even as a girl she’s singular among her family because she can see the household spirits and interact with them. Free-spirited and bold, Vanya is also kind, trying to help those around her and obviously caring deeply for her family and her siblings. Caught between doing what is expected of her as a woman and doing what’s right, she’s a new favourite character of mine.

10. A Book That Made You Cry
30319086Well, although A Conjuring of Light certainly made me tear up, as did Pachinko and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and the end of City of Miracles, the only book so far this year to make my I Actually Cried shelf on Goodreads is M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains. I suspected I would enjoy the book, but I really didn’t expect the novel to be as moving as it was! Even when I could guess where the plot was going, I cared about the characters enough that the narrative still tugged at my heartstrings, and I loved the ambiguous ending.

11. A Book That Made You Happy

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. The best way to describe these books, particularly the first of the Wayfarers series, is that they are Hufflepuff books. They’re books that are comfortable and cozy, without ever feeling manipulative or overly fluffy. They’re books about people being nice to one another and how you choose your family and protect them. Although they both have somewhat rushed and overly neatly tied up endings, I loved reading both books and they definitely made me happy.

12. Your Favourite Book To Movie Adaptation That You’ve Seen This Year
elle-hidden-figures-margot-lee-shetterlyI can’t judge on a comparison level since I don’t think there are any where I’ve both read the book and seen the movie this year. I haven’t read the book, but I saw the Hidden Figures movie about female African-American mathematicians employed at NASA, who play integral roles in launching the program’s first space missions. The movie was fabulous! It made me smile and I loved all of the leading characters. I’m not much of a non-fiction reader, so I don’t know if I’ll ever read the book, but I enjoyed this immensely.

13. Favourite Book Post That You’ve Published This Year
I was pretty proud of the books I ultimately came up with for the T5W topic ‘Books For Your Hogwarts House’. I selected books that seemed quintessentially Ravenclaw to me, and my choices seemed to go over well!

14. The Most Beautiful Book You Bought Or Received This Year
AConjuringOfLightIt has to be A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab! I adore the covers on this series, and this beautiful hardcover is no exception. The online bookstore was selling signed editions for only fifty cents more than an unsigned edition, so my copy is signed by the author too!


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

So so many! Some Rachel recs are definitely on this list – especially East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. I also REALLY need to start reading Robin Hobbs’ series, so I think those are the top of my list!

Books: Tash Hearts Tolstoy

29414576Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee
Published June 6, 2017
A story of internet fame, friendship, and family, Tash Hearts Tolstoy is an enjoyable YA contemporary read that offers more in the way of plot tension, both from internal and external factors, than some of its fluffier YA peers. Admittedly YA contemporary is not my genre, but I was won over by Tash Hearts Tolstoy, admiring the creativity and determination of its seventeen-year-old protagonist, the depiction of an underrepresented sexuality, and the realistically rendered characters, who each have quirks and flaws.

The book is told from the perspective of Natasha “Tash” Zelenka, co-creator of an amateur webseries based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina called “Unhappy Families”. Tash wants nothing more than for the show to find an audience, but when it’s mentioned by a superstar vlogger, she gets more than she bargains for as the show suddenly takes off. Although she loves the positive comments and attention the series is getting, Tash dwells on the few negative reviews it receives and feels pressure to deliver the series to a satisfying end. When “Unhappy Families” is nominated for a prestigious Golden Tuba award, her cyber-flirtation with fellow nominee Thom Causer has the potential to become something more, but only if she can figure out how to tell her crush that she’s romantic asexual.

At a time when we’re finally seeing better representation for people of different races, religions, and sexualities in books, TV, and movies, asexuality is still woefully under depicted. I can count on one hand the number of explicitly asexual characters I’ve encountered in fiction, let alone ace protagonists, and I can’t tell you how important I think Natasha “Tash” Zelenka will be for asexual teens. To be told that they are valid, that they’re not broken, and for romantic asexuals (who experience romantic feelings but aren’t interested in sex) to know that it’s possible to have a relationship and be loved for who they are is crucial. I loved that Tash is sure of her sexuality and not willing to compromise again on sex, but she’s also struggling with labels and with how to explain her feelings and lack of them to others.

As someone who generally doesn’t read a lot of lighter novels, I was relieved to find that while Tash Hearts Tolstoy is certainly still a positive book, it has a little less fluff and a little more grit to it than some other books in the genre. The characters here have a lot to deal with. Money is an issue, illness, changes to the family structure, concerns over which university to attend, internet fame and internet hate, and arguments with family all play a role in the story, as well as the more typical YA concerns of relationship drama and group dynamics.

I loved that the characters all felt so real to me. Tash is endearing, a protagonist who is creative and takes the initiative to begin a production company with her friend and embark on adapting a classic Russian novel into a more accessible contemporary web series. She has goals, passionate interests, and even makes a habit of talking to a poster of scowling young Leo Tolstoy that hangs in her room. This kind of history crush is definitely something I can understand (I have definitely never talked to my print of William Pitt the Younger addressing the House of Commons, nope not at all).

I also liked Tash’s friends and family. George, who seems like a bit of a prick, is definitely conceited but he also has moments where he comes through. Tash’s best friend Jack is calm and collected, able to remain clear-headed on set when Tash is overcome by emotion, but Jack is also not demonstrative, and can be prickly and tactless. Each character is distinct and flawed, yet their good qualities also shine through.

Just because I don’t watch any webseries doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the effort, creativity, and dedication that must go into making one, and Tash Hearts Tolstoy offers a fascinating glimpse into the process. I really enjoyed reading the descriptions of scheduling, adapting scenes, and even worrying about things such as continuity, while constructing a popular webseries.

The rather large downside is that even this novel with an asexual protagonist has the obligatory YA love triangle. When will our society be free of the love triangle plot device?! I don’t think it was necessary here, and a meeting with one point of the triangle that is obviously influenced by the kinds of skeptical comments asexual people sometimes receive (but how do you know you don’t like sex until you’ve tried it? etc.) struck me as a little forced. Also, as nice a symbolic gesture as it is, I found a late in the novel decision Tash makes to be rather silly, all things considered. My complaints are minor though in the face of this enjoyable book that offers important representation and characters that I wanted to spend more time with.