Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Read: 9 October, 2018

Karen Memory has all the fixings for an amazing story – Wild West steampunk featuring lesbians and Bass Reeves and a mecha-sewing machine? Bring it on!

Unfortunately, while I liked just about every individual component of this book, the whole didn’t work for me. Whatever it was, something about it didn’t click, and it took me forever to read.

Part of it is that I struggled to imagine a lot of what was being described. I understand that the built up roadways are based on the way Seattle was built up, but I just couldn’t picture it. Similarly, I have no idea what the sewing machine is supposed to look like. I know what sewing machines look like, and I know what mechabots look like, but the two combined? Whatever tinkering the characters were doing, I just don’t understand how the proper use of a sewing machine could involve getting into it, nor why it would have been equipped with arms and legs.

The book still gets four stars because, as I said, there was so much awesome there, even if it didn’t work for me.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Read: 9 September, 2018

A little while ago, I had friends over for dinner and one casually mentioned The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a favourite. So, of course, I made a mental note and tracked down information about the book and now have read it. Because my love-language is apparently knowing people’s favourite books, even if I never talk to them about the books or even mention that I know.

Amusingly, I mentioned to the same group of friends that I had started reading it, and her wife said, “That sounds familiar.” Clearly, she has a different love-language.

I loved this book. I could complain about it being a bit saccharine, but, honestly, I needed that to recover from the sprinklings of horror. I truly enjoyed Juliet’s humour and getting to revel in goodness for a while. That goodness never seemed particularly naive anyway, given the backdrop of World War II with its “Todt workers” and malnutrition and fascist policing.

The format worked really well. There are moments where characters are telling each other things that they already know for the reader’s benefit, but I was enjoying it all so much that I hardly noticed.

I was a little worried that the epistolary format would get dropped once Juliet actually went to Guernsey, but the authors had cleverly established the characters of Sidney, Sophia, and Susan before that point, so format could continue seamlessly.

There is romance, but it’s understated. Front and centre are the friendships, the history, and the piecing together the missing Elizabeth McKenna’s story. The “will they, won’t they” could have gotten annoying, especially as the two characters refuse to actually talk to one another in favour of making wild assumptions, but it’s so far in the background that it only feels joyful when they finally come together.

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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Gaius Ruso Mystery #7: Vita Brevis by Ruth Downie

Read: 15 October, 2017

Ruso and Tilla head to Rome, their new baby in tow.

I like that Downie changes up the scenery every now and then. Britain is great, but it was nice to see Gaul in Persona Non Grata, and it’s lovely to see Rome here. And while Downie doesn’t exactly do vivid detail, the city certainly managed to come across satisfyingly noisy, dirty, and smelly.

As usual, the mystery is something of an afterthought. The main attraction is Tilla and Ruso, and now their expanded household. Adding Mara and the two slaves creates a whole new dynamic – not to mention nearly tripling the number of people Ruso has to support… somehow.

Narina has a lot of potential as a character, particularly with her tribal background. In Rome, Tilla seemed willing to ignore the traditional dislike between their tribes because Narina was, at least, from Britain. By the end of the book, the two women seem to have formed something of a friendship as they co-parent and face the dangers of Rome together. But I imagine that going back to Britain will highlight their tribal differences, and perhaps put a strain on their relationship. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

The series is still going strong, and I can already see the threads of many new interesting plotlines starting, so I don’t see me losing interest any time soon.

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Fatty Legs by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton & Christy Jordan-Fenton

Read: 17 July, 2017

Olemaun desperately wants to learn how to read. So, despite her sister’s warnings and her father’s fears, she demands to go to the Outsider’s school.

The story of Olemaun is told in a very straightforward, factual manor. There are the hardships and the bullying from a nun nicknamed ‘the Raven’, but there are also sweet moments, such as her few interactions with the nun nicknamed ‘the Swan’. It’s a very human story.

With its simple narrative style and many illustrations (including a number of photographs), this is perfectly suited to early chapter book readers. This would make a perfect introduction to the issues surrounding residential schools and cultural genocide.

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Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Read: 18 July, 2017

This was a beautiful little story about two old women who are left to die during a famine, but who work together to survive and thrive.

It’s a well written story with great flow. The two old women have distinct personalities and the narrative does a great job of bouncing them off each other. My only nitpick is that the two old women had to prove their worth by surviving in harsh conditions in order to buy back their place in their tribe. While they came to be respected for their wisdom after this, the underlying idea that their wisdom should be valued because they managed to survive implies that their accumulated wisdom and experience would not have had worth if they had been but a little older or a little sicker.

But values aside, this is a lovely story of resilience and mutual support, and the moral lesson at the forefront is that all members of the tribe are valuable – not just the “productive” ones.

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The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

Read: 5 July, 2017

In the summer of 1895, thirteen year old Robert Coombes murdered his mother.

I loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which used the murder of a three year old boy as a narrative structure to look at how police and detectives functioned in Victorian society (particularly where the process of investigation of upper class households by lower class detectives ruffled class sensibilities).

The Wicked Boy doesn’t have the same impact. At first, I thought it was looking at the scandal of ‘penny dreadfuls’, then it look at the criminal justice system, then it looks at the treatment of mental illness, and then it veers off entirely to go over Australia’s participation in World War I.

I enjoyed every part of The Wicked Boy, but it didn’t have the same satisfying impact without the broader point. It ended up just being about this one boy, with broader issues only mentioned as interesting asides.

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Trickster, edited by Matt Dembicki

Read: 11 April, 2017

This is a fair collection of trickster stories, each told by a different storyteller/artist team. Given the anthological nature of the book, the quality does vary quite a bit, though only one or two of the stories were what I would consider poor. For the most part, they were interesting, well told, and well illustrated.

As each story is illustrated by a different artist, each has its own style – and these can vary quite a bit, from Marvel-like to Ren and Stimpy. For the most part, I found that the art style meshed fairly well with the tone of the story.

From what I’ve read, these stories are somewhat sanitized. There’s nothing in here that your average parents wouldn’t want their kids – even fairly young kids – reading. There’s nothing approaching the crueller/raunchier trickster tales I’ve come across. I assume that this was deliberate to keep the collection fairly universal, but it may give an overly clean impression to readers who – like the editor – weren’t familiar with First Nations stories prior to encountering this volume.

I was fairly impressed by the geographical breadth of the anthology. There is even a Hawaiian story, which I don’t often see in collections of North American First Nations stories.

Overall, I found that the quality does vary quite a bit from story to story, but the collection is worth checking out.

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Thomas Cromwell #1: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Read: 9 April, 2017

I’ve tried and failed to read so much historical fiction because the writing quality often just isn’t there. Ever genre has its standards, and it seems that historical fiction got its from the “bodice ripper” romance tradition – very overwrought phrasing, terrible dialogue, intrusive narration, and all-round poor sentence construction. It’s why I’ve always liked the idea of historical fiction, but so rarely actually read it.

Mantel makes it clear that historical fiction can be well written, even excellently written. All the “he, Cromwell” repetition aside, this is an extremely well crafted novel about Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry VIII’s court.

There’s some time hopping at the beginning, which is something of a pet peeve of mine. Not to mention that the beginning – when the reader is already disoriented and trying to work out who everyone is supposed to be – is the absolute worst time to fuddle with chronology like that! There are other ways to keep readers engaged through backstory!

But the time hopping seemed to fizzle out about a third of the way through, and the rest of the narrative was fairly straightforward.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Henry VIII’s court, apart from the broad strokes outline and Moore’s Utopia, and this was a fantastic primer. That world feels far more familiar and real to me now, and I appreciate that.

A common praise in reviews of this book is that Mantel does an excellent job of getting into Cromwell’s head, and that is absolutely true. He feels like a complex, real, living person. His pains – particularly the loss of so much of his family to the ‘sweating sickness’ – are viscerally conveyed, as are his drives and his joys.

This is an excellent – if rather long – book that breathes life into the history it is based on.

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The Sacketts #4: Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour

Read: 22 January, 2017

I picked this up without realising that it’s part of a larger series. In fact, I didn’t realise it at all until I had finished the book and went to GoodReads to see what other people think of it. Point being, this works perfectly well as a stand-alone.

It follows the story of Jubal Sackett, son of Barnabas Sackett, as he travels ever farther west – intent on seeing whatever is beyond the next horizon. On the way, he receives a quest to find a princess, makes friends, makes enemies, and falls in love.

It’s a bit of a meandering tale. When Jubal receives the quest to find the Natchez princess Itchakomi, I thought that would be the focus of the story. But then it seemed to be about defeating the antagonist Kapata. But then it seemed to be about finding a place to settle down and build a trading post. But then it seemed to be about finding one of the few remaining woolly mammoths. But then it seemed to be about dealing with the Spanish, and finding himself in the middle of a conflict between two Spanish soldiers.

The book always had a next horizon, a next quest, a next goal. All the quests that are introduced end up resolving by the end, but their lack of interconnectedness left the ending rather open – it’s obvious that there will be more, even if they aren’t told. As someone who likes tighter narratives, this bothered me a bit.

I was also a little disappointed into the survivalism aspects of the novel. I’m a bit of a survivalist fan – I cut my reader teeth on books like My Side of the Mountain and My Name is Disaster. I just can’t get enough of nitty-gritty stories of people surviving alone in the wilderness. Jubal had a lot of that, the focus tended to be Man vs Man, rather than Man vs Nature.

I did have fun with the book. I kept it on my phone as an emergency audiobook, to listen to while getting changed at work when I didn’t have have my normal audiobook to hand, for instance. Its slow, somewhat episodic narrative is perfect for these sorts of short burst readings, when I don’t need more than just a broad recollection of what’s already happened. The book is interesting in the moment, rather than as a whole.

I found the character of Jubal himself to be rather interesting. He’s the survivalist, but he’s also quiet, reserved, a reader. He often comes across more like a younger boy than a man, especially in how long it takes him to pick up on Itchakomi’s rather obvious flirtations. Even in his friendships, he seems somewhat emotionally immature. It felt like the book was written for a younger audience, with the main character’s emotional experiences being made relatable for that audience.

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