The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Read: 15 May, 2018

I picked this book up without knowing a thing about it, except that I was somehow under the impression that it was autobiographical. In fact, I put off reading it for a while for that exact reason – I almost always enjoy Gaiman’s writings, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the author himself.

Some weird stuff started happening, but it was all fairly plausible. And I figured it was just some writerly hyperbole.

Then some really weird stuff started happening, and only then did I figure out that I was reading fiction. So that was a pretty fun trip!

On the story itself, I loved the realism of it – how well the mythology was integrated into the “real world” of the story. I would have liked a more active protagonist, and I think that the Hempstocks did a bit too much infodumping (two problems that could have solved each other, if the protagonist could have used all his reading about mythology to figure out some of what was going on), but it’s a small complaint.

Overall, this is a lovely little story with some surprisingly dark turns.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Read: 8 May, 2018

I read this with my seven year old. About half way through, he told me that the book was giving him nightmares. When I asked him if he wanted to stop, he said: “No. Like, good nightmares.”

And I think that just about sums up the book. Good nightmares.

The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

Read: 16 April, 2018

My kid is still an early reader, which means that he does best when there are pictures. Unfortunately, a lot of books for his reading level aren’t at his story level, so I’m always struggling to find things that will actually hold his interest while he practices his literacy. Turns out that graphic novels are perfect for this, because he can easily read books that are written for much older children, and therefore have more risque scares and complex plots.

The Witch Boy is exactly all of that.

The story is just scary enough to be a thrill, and I loved the message of being yourself – outside of social boxes like gender. This is a wholesome story to share with kids, and I loved the amount of representation the author was able to cram in.

Plus, we got a huge kick out of the fact that the main character is watching Steven Universe in one panel. My son literally squealed and ran the book over to show me when he caught that!

Having now read it myself as well, we’re both hoping that this will become a series.

Winternight Trilogy #2: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Read: 9 April, 2018

It’s really quite hard to imagine how a book could be more up my alley. I love the culture and the religion, I love the historical fiction aspects, I love the fairy tales… This book is absolute literary luxury for me!

Just to make it even better, I found that the pacing and plot were, if anything, improved from the first book.

I did manage to guess who Kasyan was almost immediately, but I still enjoyed seeing how that would play out. Especially as Kasyan kept going back and forth between threatening and ally.

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Southern Reach #2: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 17 March, 2018

Now out of Area X, the mysterious focus is shifted to the Southern Reach organisation. But while Area X was surreal and freaky, many of the issues at Southern Reach are human – such as inconsistent funding, personal loyalties and resentments, and the backroom politicking of faraway superiors. And while I’ve enjoyed books like that, it just didn’t fit the Lovecraftian tone set by Annihilation.

The other issue I had with the book is that it’s just so looong. Throughout almost the entire thing, the main character just circles the same set of questions without finding answers (or, even, more questions). So while the writing style is good, and the atmosphere is creepy, and characters are interesting, there simply isn’t enough there to sustain interest for that long. Annihilation worked, in part, because it was short. I feel like longer works, if they’re going to keep audiences engaged, need to either provide the occasional dog bone of an answers, or at the very least swap out old questions for fresh ones every so often.

And that, I think, is what my complaint boils down to. I think this would have been a much stronger entry for the series at 3/4 (or even half) the length.

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Southern Reach #1: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 5 March, 2018

My spouse started reading this before I did. When he was about halfway through, I asked him how it was going. He replied: “I feel like there’s this guy, right? And he’s got a shovel and this big pile of mystery, and he’s just shovelling the mystery onto me and trying to bury me alive.”

Having now read the book for myself, I have to say that’s fairly accurate.

This book is what you get if Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft had a baby together. A mysterious baby.

There’s the Zone (here called ‘Area X’), that all appears mundane enough except for this feeling of unease and an absence of people. And then there are people – people known only by their function – who are exploring the Zone. So that’s the Stalker part. Then there’s the hidden creatures of unspeakable horror that cannot be described, plus the increasing inability to sort reality from hallucination/hypnotic suggestion/insanity/dream, and that’s the Lovecraft part.

The writing style is emotionally distant and clinical, which fits with the narrator’s character. Still, it’s very compelling. While there isn’t much action, the feeling of unease and suspense is well-maintained, and the book is short enough not to overstay its welcome.

I’m not sure how this story will work drawn out into a trilogy, and I’m even less sure that the mysteries can be solved in a satisfying way (as my spouse put it: “I’m worried this is going to be like Lost all over again”), so I’m a little wary of continuing on. But I did enjoy this one. And I also enjoyed that things decidedly are not wrapped up by the end, which has given the spouse and I plenty to talk about as we spin our own theories for what is really going on.

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Winternight Trilogy #1: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Read: 3 March, 2018

When I started dating a young Russian gent, I started dating his culture, too. I got into Russian music, I started reading Russian fiction, I started collecting bits and bobs of Russian folkart. And my poor, dear, Russian beau, who fled the USSR and would really rather put the whole Russian thing behind them, tolerantly humours me.

All this is just to say that The Bear and the Nightingale is right up my alley.

The writings style has something of a fairy tale flavour to it, which tends to keep a bit of distance between reader and character. This took some getting used to, after the intensely intimate books I’ve been reading recently. But it fit the tone of the story perfectly.

I loved how rich the world feels – at once historical and magical, fantastical and plausible. I also loved Vasya, is was such a charmingly wild thing, without it coming off like it the narrative was trying to hard.

Learn from my fail: There is a glossary at the back for the Russian terms used in the book. You don’t actually have to keep bugging your spouse with questions. Though you certainly can, if you want to.

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Tensorate #1: The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang

Read: 13 February, 2018

I loved this story for all the things it does differently – for its setting, for its take on gender, for its take on homosexual relationships, etc.I just wish that the author had taken more time with it all.

This is a short enough story as it is, made even shorter as we are whisked along on a whirlwind tour of the first 35 years of Akeha and Mokoya’s lives. The scenes we are privy to are important, but so much of the character development happens off-screen.

This is a fantastic start, but the series needs a lot more exploration. I hope that there’ll be more details filled in by the sequels, because this story has a lot of potential.

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The Djinn Falls In Love & Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

Read: 12 January, 2018

Overall, I found this to be a really solid anthology! There were a few stories that I didn’t like, and more that I think I just didn’t really get, but the proportion of great to not great is excellent.

“The Djinn Falls in Love” by Hermes

The anthology starts with a poem. Poems tend to be a little more ambiguous or open to interpretation, but I think it’s comparing the force of nature that is the djinn to the force of nature that is love. Whatever it’s about, it has quite a bit of powerful imagery packed into a rather short piece.

“The Congregation” by Kamila Shamsie

Starting off with a bang, this is one of my favourite stories in the collection. It starts as this beautiful, dreamlike queer love story between a human and a djinn. Then, unfortunately, the story keeps going and the love between the two young men is revealed to be that of two brothers. It’s disappointing that the story went so far, then shied away from what it could have been. It’s still a good story, though, with a strong fairy tale flavour.

“How We Remember You” by Kuzhali Manichavel

I feel like I don’t quite get this story. From what I could tell, it’s about a djinn living among people, but then he gets ill so the children kill him. I suppose it’s a commentary on something, or perhaps it alludes to other stories that I’m not familiar with? It’s well written, but I just don’t feel like I grasped what the author was trying to convey.

“Hurrem and the Djinn” by Claire North

This is one of those stories that’s frustrating because I wanted so much more – more exploration of the characters, more exploration of the world, more. Hurrem – a sultana believed to be using her control of djinn to manipulate the sultan – isn’t physically present in much of the story, yet she is present on every page. She is loved, and the ending reveals her to have remarkable strength and intrigue-savvy. I would happily read a whole book about her and the narrator, and the courtly forces trying to bring her down.

“Glass Lights” by J.Y. Yang

This story reminded me of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” – what if the djinn walked among us, leading ordinary lives, putting in their time at the office, having unrequited crushes? This one emphasised more the wish-granting aspect of the djinn, which turned it into an interesting commentary on pleaser personalities (people who spend their energies pleasing others at the expense of themselves). I mostly liked the story, though I do wish that it had gone a bit further with the concept. I also feel that the whole character backstory about the djinn grandmother was unnecessary, and the story would have been stronger with that trimmed off.

“Authenticity” by Monica Byrne

This was another one that I don’t feel like I really grasped. The idea of authenticity tourism is interesting and worth exploring, but I’m not sure how the story actually connects with that theme (other than the main character’s frequent repetition of the word). As for the plot itself, I don’t think I understood what the author was trying to say – especially in light of the “reveal” at the end. I feel like the film-making theme, and the direct experience versus in-person voyeurism versus on-screen voyeurism dichotomy are probably important, but the execution didn’t capture me enough to want to follow that thread.

“Majnun” by Helene Wecker

This was an interesting one that worked well as a short story. I usually either don’t like short stories, or they read like test runs for longer pieces, but this one was perfectly self-contained. A djinn converts to Islam and is faced with a former lover who is possessing a young man the djinn is trying to exorcise. What a great set up! The story has a solid narrative, an interesting conflict, and a satisfying ending.

“Black Powder” by Maria Dahvana Headley

This is a very dreamlike story that bounces back and forth in time, imagining that a djinn lived inside of a gun rather than a lamp. The dreaminess and the looseness of the narrative made it a little hard to follow, but I loved the imagery. The circle of skeletons with the broken tea cups, the bodies in a reactor meltdown turning into red and opalescent rock… just haunting.

“A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” by Amal El-Mohtar

This is another of those poetical-type stories that’s rather tricky to nail down. The literal story is about a second person “you” who transforms into several different birds, each time hunted by the “wizard-nation.” The impression I got was of the immigrant experience – each bird representing the types of immigrants and immigrant communities, and the wizard-nation being the consuming force of their new home. I have no idea if I’m on the right track, but I recognised a lot of those immigrant dynamics in the way the birds were described and the ways in which they were attacked by the wizard-nation. And if that’s the case, then the ending is rather uplifting.

“The Sand in the Glass is Right” by James Smythe

Interestingly, this is the first “be careful what you wish for” story in the bunch! And while the idea sounds painfully cliched, the execution is actually fairly descent. It’s told by the side characters, so the consequences of the wish are explored at a bit of a distance. It’s not my favourite story in the collection by far, but it’s a solid entry.

“Reap” by Sami Shah

This one is very powerful. The action of the story takes place in a small Pakistani village, and is told from the perspective of a narrator sitting in a military base in New Mexico. He’s observing the village from a drone, interpreting the heat signatures of its inhabitants, getting drawn into their lives in a removed, voyeuristic way. The whole set up is so interesting, and the story itself – though somewhat ambiguous due to events that happen outside of the drone’s visual range – is very compelling. The ending was a little weak, but I forgive it on the strength of the rest. And this is another one that works really well with the short story format!

“Queen of Sheba” by Catherine Faris King

This is an interesting origin story – showing us a young girl coming into her powers, then realising that she comes from a magical family. The problem is the format. This would have worked so much better drawn out, so we could explore more of the main character’s reaction to her newfound knowledge and powers. This could easily have been a whole novel, or maybe even a series.

“The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice” by E.J. Swift

I liked the worldbuilding in this one. I mean, putting the djinn in space? That is just awesome! The mystery plot worked really well for me, too, though the twist at the end needed something a little more. There’s a difference between an ambiguous ending and a story that wasn’t ended in the right place. This story was full of great ideas, but is another one that would have worked better in novel format.

“Message in a Bottle” by K.J. Parker

Like many of the stories in the collection, this one had some fabulous worldbuilding – the science, the plagues, the monastic orders, the bureaucratic limits to magic… all fantastic! And I really enjoyed the most of the story. The problem is with the ending, which takes an ethical non-question and tries to pass it off as an actual question. If the plagues are destroying humanity anyway, there’s absolutely no downside to releasing something that *might* be more plague, and all the benefit to releasing something that could be the cure. So the main character comes off less like someone paralysed by fear and more like whine and irrational jerk.

The djinn connection is a bit tenuous. There’s the bottle with its morally ambiguous contents, and there’s the face in the mirror. There’s also a rumour mentioned early on that someone gained knowledge from a demon. But there’s nothing concrete to relate this story to the theme of the collection.

“Bring Your Own Spoon” by Saad Z. Hossain

Again, we get some fun worldbuilding – this time it’s post-apocalyptic. I liked the idea of the djinn’s chaotic nature being used to help those on the margins of society.

“Somewhere in America” by Neil Gaiman

I saw this one on-screen in the TV adaption of American Gods (which I enjoyed quite a bit, by the way). Knowing everything that would happen didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the excerpt at all, even though I did have images from the show in my mind while reading. The excerpt works pretty well as a short story, albeit with an unnecessarily ambiguous ending. We still get the conflict, the pivotal moment, and the change – a full arc in a handful of pages.

“Duende 2077” by Jamal Mahjoub

Yet another story with fantastic worldbuilding. The story itself is pretty good too, but again, we have that issue where it’s setting up something so much bigger than the short story format allows. This one isn’t post-apocalyptic, per se. More like post-western civilisation. There’s plenty of humanity left, but the dominant culture is Arab. I really want to see this explored in greater detail!

“The Righteous Guide of Arabsat” by Sophia Al-Maria

A horror story about a religious young man in an arranged married totally failing to see the humanity of the – frankly, awesome – wife he suddenly finds himself with. It’s a cautionary tale about failing to prepare young people for their future relationships. It’s also rather horrifying, so major content notes for domestic abuse and violence against women.

“The Spite House” by Kirsty Logan

Something of a meditation on the concept of spite, using a djinn as a vehicle. The spite house is a house built to spite someone, a house that isn’t functional for its inhabitant, a house that is only suitable for a djinn who is used to living in cramped spaces. It’s a pretty good story – not one of my favourites, but a solid addition.

“Emperors of Jinn” by Usman T. Malik

This is another one that made me feel like I’m missing something. A group of children play around with a book about jinn. One of the kids has a sister who has been locked away because she’s been possessed. The whole thing felt like it had a deeper message to it, but it escaped me.

“History” by Nnedi Okorafor

I really liked this one. It’s like a superhero origin story, but told from the perspective of the ratioactive spider. This is one that would have worked as a longer novel, but also ties up neatly as a short story – a rare phenomenon.

A Gameknight999 Adventure: Terrors of the Forest by Mark Cheverton

Read: 9 January, 2018

This book apparently follows from the Herobrine novels, but doesn’t require that they be read. My son wanted to jump straight to Entity303 and, while past events are frequently mentioned and impact the current book’s plot, they are explained enough to get a feel for what’s happening.

I went into this not expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised. Considering that it’s a novelisation for a game without either plot or in-game lore, it seems like the kind of thing that would be banged out for a quick buck. And, it’s true, the came wasn’t exactly revolutionary – the plot is fairly simple, the character arcs lack subtlety, and there’s quite a bit of repetition. But at the same time, it was just fun. I enjoyed reading it, my son enjoyed listening to it, and since we’re playing the twilight forest mod on our family server at the moment, it was really cool to go find places and mobs we’d just been reading about.

My edition could have used some better editing. There were quite a few typos and even an instance or two where characters were addressed by the wrong name. But, overall, I was actually fairly impressed. This book is candy, but it’s healthier candy than a lot of what’s available.

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