The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Read: 22 June, 2017

In a post-apocalyptic world, civilization has reformed around a a collection of rules – strict regulations govern mining, weapons, technology… and citizenship. Those who develop special abilities are suppressed and imprisoned in detention centres, unless they can escape.

Ashala is written in the standard first person YA voice. It’s done well, but the voice isn’t a particularly strong one.

The plot is your average “main character is the leader of an underclass group that is rebelling against the status quo” format, and the main character is your standard “her strength is that she is just such a good leader, but she struggles with her desire for revenge” character.

It’s all fairly bog-standard, but it’s well executed. The twists are somewhat predictable, but the reveals are fun. I would have liked some more time with a few of the side characters, but I suppose that’s what sequels are for.

All in all, this book follows the YA template fairly faithfully, which fans of the genre will appreciate and haters will dislike. But while Ashala isn’t bringing much new to the table, the execution is solid. If you want to read YA, this is an excellent choice.

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Earthsea Cycle #2: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin

Read: 1 June, 2017

I remembered less of Tombs than I did of Wizard. I think I may have read Wizard more than once as a child, and maybe that’s why.

But while I remembered details, plot points, of Wizard, it’s feelings that I remembered from Tombs. The image of Tenar walking through a dark subterranean corridor, her fingers brushing along the walls to either side. That fear of the dark itself – as a living creature.

And I think it reflects the different kinds of stories these are. Wizard is your classic hero’s cycle – the mentorship, the call, the journey, the discovery, the return. It’s a beautifully imaginative story in many ways, but it’s skeleton is straight out of Joseph Campbell.

Whereas Tombs is slower, more meditative. It’s almost a sort of character study, focusing on a single individual faced with a single choice, and leading us through the process of her making it. It is a metaphorical dark maze as much as it is a literal one.

In many ways, it’s also a more complex story than Wizard. It has more going on under the surface.

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The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola

Read: 30 May, 2017

I read this second due to the strange publishing choice to put Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in reverse order.

For the first half of the story, I liked Drinkard quite a bit more than My Life. The story was certainly more lighthearted (a lush encounters the supernatural while on a quest to find a palm-win tapster who could work fast enough to keep up with his alcoholic appetite vs a little boy gets lost in the supernatural world while trying to escape inter-tribal violence), and generally reads more like a trickster story. The titular drinkard gets into scrapes, then performs some feat of cleverness to get himself back out again, all the while behaving rather amorally.

But then Drinkard becomes a lot more like My Life, where the character seems to bumble through a parade of supernatural experiences, each time suffering “punishments”, before being saved or escaping by luck. Which is totally fine, but 300 pages of “and then there was a ghost with a thousand mouths! And then a ghost that was all red! And then a ghost that was all smelly!” is a little bit much. Especially without a cultural lens for understanding these different creatures.

Overall, I enjoyed both stories. I found them to be interesting and imaginative, and I really enjoyed the very oral writing style (though it was a bit of a challenge to follow at times). I only wish that I’d given myself a little more downtime between the two stories.

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My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola

Read: 23 May, 2017

For some reason, my copy of the book includes both My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and The Palm-Wine Drinkard, but in the wrong order. I didn’t realize that I was reading the second book first until I had already finished it.

I don’t think it matters too much, except that there are a few “wink at the camera” mentions of a Palm-Wine Drinkard that I assume I’ll get once I read the first book.

The story follows a young boy who, escaping from some inter-tribal warfare, finds himself in the Bush of Ghosts. There, he wanders around for twenty years among the ghosts, suffering various trials and tribulations, until he finally finds his way home.

The writing style is a bit of a challenge – it’s written in a very “oral” style, complete with some colloquial grammar. It meant that I had to slow down my reading, letting the voice in my head narrate, or I would get lost.

The narrative is very loose and episodic. Just as the main character visits numbered towns in no particular order, so his adventures themselves could have been arranged in just about any order.

I found the story very interesting. It isn’t character driven, by any means, as the main character only really serves as a vehicle to explore the Bush. But the ghosts he meets are imaginative and interesting, and it was always fun to see how he would get himself out of the various “punishment” situations.

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The Change #1: Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith

Read: 15 May, 2017

Like most people, I have a bit of series fatigue, and have been trying to aim for more stand-alone novels. But then I accidentally picked Stranger up after seeing it recommended somewhere, not realizing that it was a series until I started writing this review.

This is an ensemble story, beginning with a scavenger (called ‘prospector’) coming upon a small town. He tries to fit in while each of the other characters deal with their own drama and the regular dangers of their environment, while their own local Lord Humungus brews up dastardly designs on the town.

The most obvious thing about this book is it’s diversity. There are many different ethnicities, many religions, many sexual orientations and types of romance… This is a book that is chock full of diversity.

It does read a little odd at times. This town, that seems to be so inclusive (except, of course, along the Changed/Norm axis), has preserved its distinct ethnicities for generations. It also feels almost a little collectionist, in the “one of each” style of diversity.

But, you know what? This is not a complaint. Maybe I’d count it against the book if diversity were so common that it were humdrum. But I don’t live in that world, so I will clutch to any book that intentionally and thoughtfully gives as many people as possible a character they can identify with.

I really really loved the romance triangle in this book. I don’t want to spoil it, but this is how love triangles are done right. When the romance stuff first started and it was clear that a potential conflict was coming up, I groaned because I have just been through this love triangle biz far too many times and I just can’t even. But then it resolved, almost immediately, and to great satisfaction, and it was wonderful.

This is YA, and perhaps even on the younger side of that bracket. There were times when it felt a little extra kiddy, maybe even late middle school-ish. It was still a perfectly enjoyable read for this 32 year old, but there was a certain naivete to the narrative that reminded me that I’m not the intended audience. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to the 12-16 crowd, though. It’s a very enjoyable read with great representation, interesting worldbuilding, meaningful conflict, and some great messages scattered along the way.

Some of that naivete is in the worldbuilding – little details that feel off. Like when a town of about a thousand people, a town that rarely gets visitors and then only one or two at a time, has street signs. I grew up in a town about that size and most of our streets didn’t have signs. They probably had names, though I never knew them. Places were referred to as “by the bakery” or “next to so-and-so’s house.” Small towns get by perfectly well on relational descriptors, and yet these are completely absent in Las Anclas.

While part of a series, Stranger does work as a stand alone. There are plot threads that don’t get resolved, but not in a terribly unsatisfactory way. I’d say it’s a safe book – fine for people who might be feeling a bit of series burnout, but with the option of continuing the story if desired.

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How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Read: 1 May, 2017

My copy’s cover boasts that this story is “now a major DreamWorks Animation film.” That’s a lie. There is a DreamWorks movie with the same title, and even the main characters have the same names, but it’s not the same story. At all.

That was rather unexpected.

But not unwelcome. The movie was a wonderful story about a friendship between a boy and a dragon that sort of crammed in a thing about a Big Bad to be defeated at the end because I guess the screenwriters felt that they needed a grandiose climax but couldn’t be arsed to write a second draft in which the two plots actually make sense together.

Whereas in the book, there is a Big Bad, but it’s better integrated into the story. And, perhaps more importantly, it actually makes sense.

Unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling the book. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless in the movie tugged my heartstrings in all the right ways. But in the book, the two don’t really seem to have much chemistry together.

It didn’t help that the only human female in the whole book was the main character’s mother. I get it, “boys don’t want to read about girls”, but what do you think teaches them that? Sure, the movie crammed in your normal Stock Strong Female Love Interest #3, but at least she was there. It was a start.

I also had trouble with the narration. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t find the rhythm of the text, and I kept stuttering and stumbling over myself while trying to read it out loud. The writing just didn’t have any poetry in it.

There’s a whole lot of your typical boy media “gross-out” stuff, like references to snot and belching and such. I can imagine those being a hit for some kids, but mine couldn’t care less. I can see how this book might hit a lot of a kid’s interests and become a family favourite, but it just wasn’t working for us. Maybe in a few years…

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Earthsea Cycle #1: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Read: 24 April, 2017

The first book in the Earthsea Cycle gives us the origin story of Ged – a boy with promising magical talent who, in a moment of weakness, makes a terrible mistake that shapes the rest of his life.

I first read this book as a young teen, and I was surprised by how much of it I could remember. The unleashing of the shadow thing, in particular, was still vividly in my memory. It was particularly interesting to revisit scenes that have stuck with me all this time and to go “uh, so this is where that’s from…”

This was written in an era when fantasy was still very much tied to oral storytelling – “Tolkienish”. It makes the narrative pace very fast, as we get little more than brief sentences to cover weeks and even years of the story’s chronology. That doesn’t mean that the story’s pace is fast, though. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it does drag a bit as Ged travels around the world and meets with largely unconnected side quests.

The style also adds a distance between the reader and the action. Rather than seeing the action, we are told about it. This used to be standard in fantasy, but a book written like this now wouldn’t get anywhere near the same reception.

That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It’s beautifully written, and the worldbuilding is magnificent, but it does mean that people who aren’t either at peace with older fantasy genre conventions, or who have adjusted their expectations to the newer expectations of the genre are going to struggle with the book.

All that being said, it fully deserves its place in the canon, right alongside Tolkien for its worldbuilding and lyrical narrative. And for me, specifically, it’s wonderful to visit again with an old friend.

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Lumberjanes #3-4: A Terrible Plan & Out of Time by Noelle Stevenson & Shannon Watters

Read: 23 April, 2017

The first two volumes meandered toward a single plotline that was resolved. In these two, we get a few different mini plots that hint at the big mystery of the Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types.

These stories are satisfying on their own, and only some involve defeating big scary monsters (the first story in A Terrible Plan is simply the girls telling scary stories while sitting around a campfire), with no need for any big-p Plot. That said, though, we do get some more information on the camp, and on the mysterious Bear Woman.

Mostly, though, the story is about the friendships, and that’s where it delivers. I also love the inclusion of various sexualities and gender identities.

The art style fits the tone of the series perfectly – it’s cartoony, fairly expressive, whimsical. It’s not photorealistic, sometimes it’s even a bit first draft-y, but it always fits the mood of the panel well.

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Lumberjanes #1-2: Beware the Kitten Holy & Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis

Read: April 7, 2017

This is the high energy story of the young women of cabin Roanoke, who follow a bearwoman into the woods and are attacked by three-eyed foxes, and things only get stranger from there.

There’s very little downtime in Lumberjanes. Monsters fly out from every direction, the characters are constantly active, there’s loads of yelling… The downside to this is that the mystery never really gets time to build, there’s no pause to wonder what might be happening. It’s just action, action, action, reveal. It’s not my favourite pace, but it works.

The artwork is somewhat unrefined, but it fits the tone of the story and has a certain character to it.

Essentially, Lumberjanes is what it is, and it is that well. The reveal – which I won’t spoil – was a bit of a let down, only because I’ve seen it too often, but all the elements of the story worked.

This would be fantastic as a “baby’s first graphic novel”, for ages 7-10.

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The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

Read: 13 February, 2017

How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

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