Monday, June 24, 2019

Book Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (The Dark Star Trilogy, #1)Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliant, disturbing, intense, elaborate and ingenious are all words I'd use to describe Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Marlon James has taken the epic fantasy genre to a new level and in a different direction that feels uniquely his own. The setting is rich with African influences, supernatural beings like I've never seen/heard of before, and a brutality that reflects what life would really be like in a society filled with shape shifters, witches, demons, zombies, vampires and so much more. Many of these creatures are called different things and it was engrossing to learn about new legends, myth and lore that James borrows from.
While this book dragged at times and had me flipping backwards to re-read sections (so many names!), and briefly hit/passed my 'ick' gore threshold; Black Leopard, Red Wolf is already on my favourites shelf and I cannot wait to read this dense masterpiece again, never mind the rest of the series.
So let's get into the details of this 600+ page monster...

Please note: that the quotes below are EXACTLY as written in the published book. I did not make any grammar or spelling mistakes. Instead this is the style of certain characters speech.

Characters & Lead Narrative
Our lead man is Tracker. We experience the entire story via his narrative. He is actually telling the story to a inquisitor (like Interview with the Vampire) after the events have transpired. So you can be reassured from page 1 that he at least lives through everything that transpires (as it's all history to him). Tracker has no 'real' name but is known far and wide as 'the man with the nose' of a wolf. Able to distinctly smell people, items, excrement, really anything at any given time in any place he is present at. While we see Tracker on his own and with a single companion at times the bulk of the story is him and a host of characters. Most aren't assembled until we hit Chapter 10 (just past 200 pages). This unlikely group of travelers is called a fellowship at one point. Thanks for the direct Lord of the Rings LotR) reference James! For the avid reader there are at least three more references I picked up on through the course of the book that are clear LotR references.
Each of our characters in the group is representative of a traditional archetype with a twist. We have the gentle but deadly strong giant in our Ogo. An unrelentingly harsh woman in the Moon Witch. A man who is more animal than human in the Leopard. The prefect soldier who is so in love he can't see anything beyond his desired. And mercenaries that remind us all that eventually every society is the same; it's all about the money (insert Han Solo reference here). Oh, and did I mention a couple of them are former lovers or bed partners with Tracker? This makes for some fun exchanges between our manly men.
The non-fellowship characters are unique but also archetypes in their own way. Vampires/zombies with a twist:
"the living dead with lightning running through they body where blood used to run"
A water being that loves to trick everyone. An assassin who can control people's minds (scary right?!). And just in case that wasn't enough to try and get your head around there are disfigured children (including one made of blue smoke), and the Ten and Nine Doors that can magically transport characters from one area to another. Albeit there are some 'gotcha's' to any magical use...
The narrative is told by Tracker; although at times you can easily forget this as there is still dialogue and descriptions like a traditional novel. Similar to Lestat's interview story it is a little surprising that Tracker has (what appears to be) perfect recall of all the events. Interestingly I suspect (hope) this point will come up in the future of this series where perhaps the question is asked about whose 'version' of the events is truthful. For the purpose of just reading this book you will need to accept that Tracker is telling his story with great detail as he remembers it.

The Story
Some might argue this book is about the reason our fellowship exists (to find a boy and return him to his mother); but I would argue it's really the story of Tracker's transformation from what he was 5 years prior to what he has become at the time he is telling the story. I especially feel this way as the fellowship isn't even formed or an understood plot point until after page 200. Additionally, there is such a breadth of change in our lead character that at times it's hard to remember whose side he's on (if Tracker has one at all?). Because of this the plot felt lost to me at times (or I just didn't care?); but at the end to all comes back to the missing boy. I did appreciate that the ending ensured I remembered the plot and reason for the story post Chapter 9.
At times I felt like the narration aspect was lost (the exact same mistake Anne Rice made ironically); but overall that didn't bother me much until the last 100 pages or so. I think a couple more reminders about who was telling the story and to whom (Tracker to the Inquisitor) would have been prudent in the last 200 pages. It might have broken up the story a little. But honestly a breath or two wouldn't be all bad as we approached the very intense ending.

Names, Maps and Language... oh my!
Let's deal with three specific things I loved or hated.
1) Names: there are a crazy number of names or descriptive words that are similar to names in this book. For example just in the 'S' category we have: Sadogo, Sogolon, Sangoma, Sagomin, Sasabonsam. Now some of those are names and others are words that describe a type of monster, place or witch. But when you are struggling to remember any of the terms being used it can give the reader a headache. I definitely cursed James a few times for not explaining better who and what all these things were continually through the story. Thankfully for our main characters there is a list of names and who they are (and the location we first meet them) at the front of the book. I flipped to this a few dozen times (at least) while reading.
2) Maps: who doesn't love a good map?! There are over a dozen beautiful maps in this book. From our introductory kingdom/continent look (with magical doors marked and all!) to a map of each place or city/town that is visited at the beginning of each chapter. This helped me immensely to orient myself each time a door was used and near the end as things moved very quickly.
3) Language: a lot of our characters are lesser educated (to say the least) and so their language is stilted, lacking grammar or just flat out awkward. This meant I had to read a lot of dialogue lines a couple times. But it also gave me some really unique quotes; including this one (said by my fave character):
"How you keep to memory what the world tell you to forget."
Certainly this slows down the reading experience. But given how much content and action there is in James book it might be a good thing to read it all a little slower. I felt it gave a genuine voice to each character as none of them use language in quite the same way.

Social Issues
The breadth of issues that James touches on are far too many to discuss here. But some of the key points driven home include what is it that causes divisions amoungst the people of the entire Kingdom. These include (but are not limited to): sexuality (not everyone is okay with non-hetero choices), race, magic use, shape shifting, deities/religion, power and morality. What is a definite focus during Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that it's not always obvious what is morally 'correct' and that being on the 'right' side will likely end in an untimely death for the average person.
What is also investigated is why people just don't care anymore about the perception or interpretation of their actions. Sometimes you just want to do something. This line from Tracker sums up this desire well:
"On the way there I was hoping to meet a demon, or a spirit of someone who would feed the hunger of my two new axes. I truly wanted a fight."
There are many times when I found myself accepting what could otherwise be quite horrific as just the way this world is. And recognizing that our characters have had it hard enough without needing to analyse every decision to determine it's acceptability.

Who is Black Leopard, Red Wolf written for?
You may be wondering at this point who the primary audience is for this book. Let me be very clear here: THIS IS NOT YOUNG ADULT. Not at all. Nothing about this is appropriate for anyone under the age of 18 (maybe even 21 to be totally honest).
This is a story for those who love epic, elaborate books (like Gardens of the Moon or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). This is for those who are tired of the typical romance, good vs. evil and obvious outcomes. Black Leopard, Red Wolf challenged almost every value I currently have. I loved it's ability to make me think and consider things from a different (and sometimes very morally questionable) perspective. If you want a story that pushes boundaries at every turn, with a cast of lovable and yet hate-worthy characters then this is probably the book for you.

One suggestion when reading the story: do not try to figure out all the things happening. You likely won't be able to piece out any of the insanely complex mysteries in this book to start with. I gave up and used the advice a friend gave me years ago when I went to see Inception (movie with DiCaprio) for the first time: just enjoy the ride. Analyse and consider after or on your next time through the content. I am greatly looking forward to my re-read(s?) and linking so many more things together.

Can you handle it?
Maybe you think this book might be for you but you are concerned about if it's going to be 'too much'. Let me say that without a doubt this is a depraved, disgusting, morally reprehensible, wicked world James has dropped us into; but consider the genius of an author that can write a scene so intense you actually feel ill or turned off. For me this shows crazy literary talent!
For those willing to give it a chance, if you can handle and get past Chapter 8 you'll be fine for the rest. Chapter 8 is the pinnacle of the gore. It doesn't get worse. It is note worthy that our core group of characters consists mostly of gay men (representation!) and there is a fair bit of sex talk between them. Now for those that aren't male or haven't been privy to a true male sex 'chat', let me warn you; it's not necessarily flattering (to anyone or any gender or sexuality). It's harsh, crude and well truthful. Sex is messy and pretending it isn't is just naive. These characters certainly don't hide the reality of m/m sex. One of my favourite parts of James writing is the constant banter between our characters; especially the male past-lovers.

On that note here is my Warning for those who are thinking, wow this book sounds amazing. I am hesitant to recommend this book to anyone (and yet want to recommend it to everyone all the same). I cannot predict your response to the torture and darkness James has given us. All I can say is I think it's brilliant; I love it's dark, gritty portrayal of what life might be life in a less organized society. If you read it and have nightmares or are turned off please don't blame me. You were warned.

On that note, a rant...
To those who claim anyone who likes this book (never mind loves it as I do) must be depraved, awful, horrible, morally abject or just downright evil people; I'd like to remind you that our world is just as awful as this one.
And that you should consider these points:
1) Enjoying this doesn't make me a psycho serial killer. The same as watching CSI doesn't make you a murder expert or obsessed with dead bodies, even though every show starts with a dead person (speaking of morbid...); nor does my love here even remotely infer that I am similar to our characters. It merely means I am entertained by the content. For the record I hate super gory movies. I still have nightmares about House of a Thousand Corpses. Reading content and seeing it are very different activities for my brain and I can handle a lot more when I read something than when I see it on screen.
2) Our world is a brutal place. Many of us, including myself, are able to disassociate from the awful things that happen on Earth daily in order to survive. But that doesn't mean they aren't happening and that we should allow ourselves to forget what people are capable of. Everything that happens in this book (that isn't related to magic or supernatural) is 100% plausible in real life. People do these types of awful things. Everything James writes about is an event that has likely happened (at least once) to a human or animal in real life.
3) This is fiction and it's okay to like any fiction. It is your choice to engage in nicer stories and I respect that. But I also expect others to show me the same respect. I don't think much of contemporary romance novels; but that doesn't mean I think all people who read them are fluffy, love-sick women. See what I mean? I can enjoy literature without personally embodying the subject matter or having the tone of the story represent me as a person.
4) Respect is important and I expect it to be given for ALL tastes. No one is forcing this book down your throat; it's not 'required reading' so don't pretend it's existence is abhorrent or an issue. If you believe that it is a problem that this was published then you have just jumped on the banning books bandwagon (and I don't believe the average reader condones this practice). We (should) live in a world of free speech; even when that speech is repulsive to some people it must still be permitted.

A quick side story... When I was 15 years old and first read Game of Thrones I thought it was the best book in the world. And at that time for me it was. Elaborate, epic fantasy where characters actually died and awful things happened (even to children) was what I craved. Teenage me would have died to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf (and shouldn't be allowed to until at least 16 or older!). I feel like I found in this story a darkness I knew (even back then) existed in our world and occasionally with myself and others. Today at 37 I can definitely say that James has provided me with a story I didn't know I needed so badly. Over the years I've come to find some connection with other grim-dark epic fantasy books including: Sara Douglass 'Wayfarer Redemption' series, Scott Bakker's 'Prince of Nothing' series and (of course) Game of Thrones. Generally I loved these books because 'evil' won, people were killed and NOT brought back, and that each of them delves into the idea of the 'good guy' losing (either the battle or themselves). Ironically none of these are my favourite fantasy series; but they hit a dark place in me with their mood, setting or characters. In Black Leopard, Red Wolf I feel I have found a story that really spoke to me. Even James lack of female representation is acceptable to me as, let's face it, most women (including me) couldn't play with the boys on the turf established by James. To feel the greed, lust, arrogance and other emotions of James characters has allowed me to remember that it's okay to be a little dark inside; and has reassured me that the average person may also have this blackness inside them and still be a (generally) good, functioning member of society.

Overall
Any book that takes me 23 days to read, and which I can still say I loved, must be amazing. My husband believes this is the longest I've ever taken to read a book in 10 years; not including one year when I was in and out of hospital. He may well be right. And yet I want to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf again right now; even if it takes another 23 days. How crazy!
All that said, I will confess I have not read anything other than short stories (all of which I loved) by Joe Ambercrombie, John Gwyne, Mark Lawrence or Glen Cook. But let me assure you they are all on my TBR and have been for sometime. A consideration that I thought of; maybe Black Leopard, Red Wolf came along at a point in my life when it just fit perfectly. Certainly Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel did that for me in college many years ago; it was just the perfect book for that point in my life and remains a favourite still today. Same as GOT as in my story above.
The moral crisis in our world, that is played out every day in the news, has been grating on me for years; and so I appreciate Marlon James reminding me that my small slice of the world could *always* be a lot worse. Maybe even worse than I ever imagined. I also appreciate his willingness to publish something so deep and dark knowing that many people might consider him awful because of where his imagination takes this story.

Last note, I did something unusual with this book; these days I have a rule about starting epic fantasy without knowing there is a completion in the future. GRRM has burned me so bad over the years that I have actually changed how I select my fantasy reads. I broke this rule here because I just had to know what the buzz was all about. I just hope James doesn't break my heart and mind by never publishing the rest of the story. Although interestingly... unlike GOT I could actually accept the ending here as a stand-alone. I'm dying for more; but if nothing more was written; at least there is a certain dark ambiguity that book 1 leaves off on which makes it an ending of a particular quality.

As always my highest compliment is to purchase a print copy of a book for my bookshelf after reading an ARC or library version (I read the hardcover from my library on this one). I am definitely getting a copy of this book. In fact I'm already perusing online to see if I can get a signed first edition hardcover copy to put next to my first paperback edition of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and my signed by George R. R. Martin (I met him long before HBO had their contract) Game of Thrones hardcover.
I'm really not kidding when I say that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that damn good and I'm very confident that it will remain a favourite in the future for me. Even if it's a little hard to take at times and consumes a fair chunk of reading time.

Follow me on Goodreads

Monday, June 17, 2019

Book Review: The Moon is a Silver Pond


The Moon Is a Silver Pond
by Sara Cassidy


My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am missing the boat on this one. I do not understand at all what the comparison is between the moon, a pond, button and pail of milk... except that they are all circular?
There is no context to this children's book and so it feels odd. It's really just a bunch of random circular items someone wanted to draw, I assume.

The illustrations are very nice; but I need more story than what is here. Or at the very least a way to draw all the items together. Suggestions would be to have the last page show the items inside the moon? Or an opening page that has someone asking the child to find things the shape of the moon? Just something to give some context to this collection of cute illustrations.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
Follow me on Goodreads

Friday, June 14, 2019

Book Review: Melt


Melt
by Selene Castrovilla


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall a well written and impactful teen story. There is no relation to the Wizard of Oz, and in fact I question the use of Oz at all (more on that below); but that doesn't retract from the fact that the writing is good, the teenage voices are authentic and the message is one always worth saying to anyone, just in case.

Trauma & Abuse
Yes this is a book about traumatic things. They are described, discussed and ultimate drivers for the climax and ending. When you are reading a book like Melt it can be difficult to remember that all the things that seem illogical or 'backwards' that our characters say are likely exactly how people feel in that moment. It's easy to judge from the outside. Melt does a wonderful job of rationalizing behaviours that we all 'know' are poor choices; but let's be truly honest here, knowing and believing in any scary moment are two totally different things.
I commend Selene Castrovilla for not backing down and making her characters seem like perfect John Green angels or teens that are stronger than everything. There is no pandering or gloss to Melt. This is straight-up a story about abuse and how it affects everyone touched by it in different ways.

Teenage Voices
For some of us, myself perhaps included, we are getting a bit far away from being teenagers and so we tend to forget what it might feel like when we were 15-18. Others perhaps had some traumatic moments during those years (let's face this is maybe the most difficult stage of life) that have made us soften the memory or we like to believe we were smarter than the average bear. Likely none of that is true.
In Melt, we get a very authentic voices in the two lead teens (one male, one female). Each are annoying and frustrating in their own way (like real teens can be). And each have their own unique perspectives on the situations they are in. What's always interesting about POV chapters that swap back and forth is that you get the same experience from each persons perspective. This really changes how you might feel or even view the situation. Castrovilla does a wonderful job of swapping these two POVs at the right time and keeping the teen angst at a place that feels authentic. Her use of stilted language and mechanism to even change the grammar and layout between our characters is a clever writing tool to make the reader feel more like that teenage would.

Perfect Ending
This is not a fairy tale. There is not necessarily a 'and they lived happily ever after' moment. Instead we face a reasonable, realistic, open door ending that allows any number of things to happen. But it's enough of an ending to provide closure for the reader. The progression of each of our characters is obvious both in what they say it and in how the grammar and layout of their voices each changes.
It also helps that, as I suspected from the beginning, there is an author's note indicating that the circumstances of our story are based on true events. This goes back to the authenticity of, not only our characters, but of the extreme situation they are put in. It just feels like a true story throughout. Between the nuggets of real-life events and the set-up of the writing structure (our boy rarely has a full sentence or thought on one line in the text) it pushed me into feeling the mood and head space of our two teens.

The Issues
While a four-star review is a very good rating from me, I know people can't help but wonder why not five given the praise above. It actually comes down to two very simple things for me.
One, the use of Wizard of Oz was unnecessary and feels like a marketing ploy. As someone who adores Dorothy and her story I felt like it was being used as a crutch to make the book stand-out from other independent books. I normally wouldn't forgive this type of use of a classic; except the story is genuinely good enough that it's not as major of a factor to the overall story as it might have been. Remove all the Oz references (but keep the lead gal's name Dorothy) and it wouldn't change the tone or story in any way. For me, that begs the question of why use it at all?
Two, our main characters are a little too isolated for me. I would have liked to see more of the friendship fall-outs and social complications the relationship of our two teens would create given the the intimacy and closeness these two characters begin to have. Additionally the family dynamic for our girl was stilted and cliche. The 'only child that loves her parents, tells them everything; but then dates a bad boy and never talks again' story is very overdone in my mind. I'd have liked to see there be more genuine interaction between the characters, their friends and family.
In the same vein as with our leading gal, I wanted to have at least one scene between our leading boy and his mother; or maybe even with his brother. There was too much isolation in the story given that there were other witnesses around who were party to intense moments. Silence outside the home is one thing (and certainly common in real life); but silence inside the home amoungst those who need each other for support felt a bit too false to me.

Overall
I think there is a very good story here. It's not overly complex, it's honest and it's not difficult (or too long) to read. This is a good book to leave around for teens to find or stumble upon. Unlike teen books like Go Ask Alice where the shock value is the driver; Melt has a more balanced approach and gives the characters more room to feel real. Because it's based on true events there is also the obvious respect and authenticity that parts of this story are someone's history. They are someone's trauma they had to deal with. And while that may be easy to type out or even to read; it is far from easy to live.
If nothing else hopefully this story gives some perspective for readers of: things they should be grateful for, tips for spotting warning signs of domestic abuse or alcoholism, or even the nerve to place a copy of this book in someone's hands or where a needy teen might find it. Just maybe someone's life will be changed when they read the rationalizations and authentic voices of these characters. It only takes a slight change in perspective to motivate an action.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book via BookSirens. This is an honest and unbiased review.
Follow me on Goodreads


Book Review: Not One of Us (Anthology)

Not One of Us: Stories of Aliens on Earth by Neil Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As is the case with most anthologies, not all the stories were good but most were decent. A couple stood out as amazing. There are some really great quotes/snippets in these stories that I've shared below.
Consistent throughout each story in Not One of Us anthology is that there are no green men, humanoids or aliens like we traditionally think of. These are truly 'alien' beings from the dark creatives minds of each writer (and lets face it way more likely to be what we might encounter in real life!). Some are bug-like, others are monstrous, more blob-esque or didn't even have a physical or perceivable tangible form! My imagination was pushed to its limit by these alien forms, societal beliefs, and even their methods of communication.

Story 1: Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman
If only I were half as creative as this writer! What an odd, yet meaningful story. A solid way to kick-off what becomes a very mind-bending anthology.

Story 2: Laws of Survival by Nancy Kress
An odd story. We are solidly in the territory now that 'alien' is not an archetype or in any way typical for this anthology.

Story 3: At Play in the Fields by Steve Rasnic Tem
”Sometimes the best thing is just doing the only thing that’s left.”
What you do when you appear to be at the end of civilization. Not bad but was missing some substance.

Story 4: Ants of Flanders by Robert Reed
A very engaging story; even though it has some large, difficult to digest concepts in it.
"Adventure is the story you tell afterwards. It’s those moments you pick out of everything that was boring and ordinary, and then put them on a string and give to another person as a gift. Your story.”

Story 5: Taking Care of God (translated) by Liu Cixin
This is not what you might expect based on the title. I really enjoyed this story about aliens that 'created us' returning to Earth thousands of years later. It has lovely language and style. A wonderful translation!
"In this universe, as long as you’re patient, you can make any wish come true. Even though the possibility is minuscule, it is not nonexistent."

Story 6: Water Scorpions by Rich Larson
Written by a fellow Canadian whom I'm familiar with! Sadly I didn’t really get this one. But there was a bit of a creepy-crawling ick factor that might have been most of my problem. Sometimes my brain just won't cooperate or allow me to imagine something.

Story 7: The Three Confessions of Jessica Churchill by Kelly Robson
Robson, another fellow Canadian, is a sci-fi author I’ve been meaning to read for some time now. If this story is any demonstration of her writing she is well worth reading! I loved the legit Canadian tidbits and settings in this one. Alongside the contrast of real catastrophic events against that of the events our lead gal is experiencing. Very clever and well done!

Story 8: Men Are Trouble by James Patrick Kelly
There is a great irony, given the title, that there is not a single man in this story. It was okay. I didn’t love it or hate it. Mostly meh on this one. Part of me can't help but wonder if perhaps the author doesn't really get how women feel and made too many presumptions?

Story 9: They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass by Alaya Dawn Johnson
*yawn* this one was sooo boring. Also it’s a poor editorial choice to put two stories where pregnancy/conception are the main topics. Neil Clarke should know better.

Story 10: Bits by Naomi Kritzer
Best story yet! Well only because it’s the most amusing and yet makes perfect sense when you really think about it. Bits is about a squid-like alien that comes to Earth and integrates with us. Including having relations (a.k.a. sex) with humans. Now (of course) our 'bits' don't match-up quite right. So a company starts making silicone-like sex organs that are compatible for the aliens and humans to enjoy one another. Seriously hilarious but also genuinely truthful in the necessity that pleasure plays in happiness and general existence of humans (and maybe aliens too).

Story 11: And Never Mind the Watching by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
Alien or covert way to gain knowledge of everyone’s life? Either way these glitter frogs gain access to everywhere, literally. This is a story that I could actually see being true. At its core it’s about teenagers wanting to get away from it all. And let's face it, if we had aliens (in any form on Earth) I can definitely see many teens wanting to run away with them. No questions asked. Adolescence is a tough, tough time and a ride in a spaceship could easily seem like the answer; especially when you feel you have no other options. This is also a statement on societies inability to really help those in abusive situations or whom become homeless just to stay alive. A sad, yet kind of bittersweet story in the end. I really liked this one and it stuck with me long after I read it.

Story 12: Dark Heaven by Gregory Benford
This is the longest story so far; as well as the most boring. There is so little alien involvement in this story that it's a stretch to even consider it remotely appropriate for this anthology. While the major (eventual) plot point involves aliens; the first 70% of the story is just a detective investigating a homicide. A murder mystery is not my cup of tea on a good day; and certainly not when what I'm expecting (and frankly hoping for) is odd alien-esque stories. Give our annoyingly broody detective an alien sidekick and maybe we can talk...

Story 13: Nine-Tenths of the Law by Molly Tanzer
This is an interesting little story of a married couple who are having problems; and one night the husband spices things up. Except the husband may not really be the husband anymore. Talk about alien's learning how humans interact! A very good (and very adult) short story about trust, relationships and marriage.

Story 14: Five Stages of Grief after the Alien Invasion by Caroline M. Yoachim
This is an okay one. It's not really about aliens; so much as it is about a result of their arrival and unintended consequences on humans. I'm not really sure there is a lot here that stands out to me but I did enjoy this quick read well enough.

Story 15: Time of the Snake by AM Dellamonica
Great, quick, action packed story. And love to see a lesbian writer included in here! LGBTQ+ rep has been really good all around in this anthology in fact. Kudos to Neil Clarke for finding some ensuring good diversity.

Story 16: The Fear Gun by Judith Bergman
This story could easily be adapted into a book or even series. So much potential! It reminded me a bit of Wayward Pines. I don't want to give anything away as this one is so good. I just wish there was more of it!

Story 17: Tendeleo’s Story by Ian McDonald
Any avid follower of sci-fi stories (especially novellas, shorts, etc) will have heard of Ian McDonald and be familiar with his genius sci-fi writing. McDonald is skilled at taking a basic, seemingly everyday concept, and twisting it on its head. Here he tells the story of refugees and their plight. However unlike so many refugee stories this one has an ending/twist I absolutely did not expect! McDonald is a master at giving new perspectives. Suddenly you find yourself really thinking differently about a situation without even realizing you might have felt otherwise before the story was laid out for you. Honestly brilliant.

Story 18: The Choice by Paul McAuley
I’m clearly missing something on this one as I didn’t get the point at all. Maybe following McDonald hurt this stories chances. I dunno just wasn't there for me.

Story 19: Passage of Earth by Michael Swanwick
I had to look up words, how fun! They were medical/scientific terminology related to worm anatomy, so everyday practicality is low, but still exciting to learn new words. :)
This story is beyond shiver worthy if you don’t like insects, mud or worms. I read it at home and halfway through retrieved my boa constrictor (Bowie) to sit with me to make me feel safe (he'd eat those icky worms!). If you can get past the possible ick factor, this is a very original and well written story. I’m definitely going to keep Swanwick on my list to read again; even if I have nightmares of giant sentient worms that devour me and my pet snake.

Story 20: Reborn by Ken Liu
”Just because something is true doesn’t mean you stop struggling.”
A very deep story about how humans are more than the sum of their history. For example, a murderer can still be a good husband or father irregardless of his murdering past. In Reborn, an alien race comes to Earth to assimilate with us and yet we fight back (as that is what humans do it seems...). We fight even in the face of a truth we don’t want to believe or hear. This is a weird story but has something unique to it. It reminded me a little of Altered Carbon in that it's about our humanity and willingness to accept what may seem counter intuitive.

Story 21: Story of your Life by Ted Chiang
This reminded me of the movie Arrival (I have not read the book). It’s entirely focused on learning an alien language. It has some really cool linguistic science in it but sadly doesn't deliver at the end. Any drawn out, slow story like this (with a lot of fancy words) needs to have a punch of an ending or some sort of twist. This one missed that for me. It's too bad as I would have loved to see the final story really grab me.
Were I putting the anthology together I'd put McDonald's or Swanwick's story last. Each left a lasting and punchy impression on me. I like to have an anthology end strong so I don't immediately forget all the stories in it.

Overall
I really enjoyed the majority of these stories. The best part of all of them was the lack of defined gender roles put onto our aliens. Because to assume aliens would be female or male would be very arrogant of humans. It was clear that there were no rules given to these writers in advance to keep things within a certain societal context; sexually, physically or emotionally. This gave a lot of depth to the stories that you don't always get in collected anthologies. I would definitely recommend this set of stories for anyone into sci-fi and for those wanting to dabble in true alien fiction (not just little green men stories).

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Follow me on Goodreads

Monday, June 10, 2019

Book Review: The Oddling Prince

The Oddling PrinceThe Oddling Prince by Nancy Springer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So close to 5-stars. If not for two major plot points that really annoyed me near the end it might have made the coveted 5-star list. The Oddling Prince is compelling and has lovely writing; as I would expect from someone as experienced as Nancy Springer. There are some trips along the way in the story; but overall this is a great little book. Perfect to start a middle-grade reader off in the fantasy genre.

Plot Points
There are a few moments in this book that really irritated me. The first is that we start off with a lot happening and no clue what is really going on. It takes about the first 20% of the book to really give context to why on earth some random elf comes and saves a king that he does not answer to (not a spoiler as it happens in the opening chapters).
Then we are led into the typical 'back story' fill-in to catch us up. And it's done as flashback story being told to us. For those not aware this is a terrible way to give major plot points out! Yes even though Tolkien did it a lot; that doesn't mean it's a good literary choice.
The final plot point that annoyed me I can't tell you about... it's a major spoiler. But, if you know my pet peeves in writing, you'll know that anything that's convenient or 'too easy' in plot really bugs me. Unfortunately Springer copes out and nearly ruins the whole book for me. But I got over it and would gladly continue on with the subsequent books in the series after getting to the end. It may also be that Springer chose to 'dumb-down' the story because of the age group it's geared at. I don't agree with this tactic (as kids are way smarter than we give them credit for usually); but it would make sense given the target age group.

Characters
Springer has always excelled at great character development and The Oddling Prince is no exception. Our two lead males are so well defined that even though their names are so close to one another (Aric and Albaric) I managed to keep them distinctly apart in my head. Normally I would be annoyed by the similarities in their names (regardless of the reason) but because they are so clearly separate people with distinct personalities and dialogue I did okay.

Not a Romance!
Now you may laugh at my assertion that this is not a romantic story. It's actually quite emotional and has a lot of loyalty and love involved in it; but it's between two brothers and their parents, as opposed to with a romantic partner. I liked that the focus was on family and how it's sometimes difficult to reconcile people's actions with our love for them. This is really the core of what makes this a great book, there is no annoying or messy love interest; just a good clean story with a slightly weird family set-up that any child can likely relate to. Even the best of homes has its flaws and I think there would be a lot of things younger readers would be able to identify with in The Oddling Prince.

Overall
While not the best book in the world, The Oddling Prince is a solid read. It's quick for the avid reader and has some cute little moments. It can be a bit Lord of the Rings-ish at times--and there isn't anything mind shattering here for plot or characters--but it's perfect for any little boy or girl to read and get a flavour of fantasy. It would also be great read-aloud by a child or adult to a child. Springer has delivered exactly what I hope for from this level of story.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Follow me on Goodreads

Monday, June 3, 2019

Book Review: Dear Mrs. Bird

Dear Mrs. BirdDear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charming, endearing and just lovely. I couldn’t put it down! It’s rare to find a gem about average people in WWII; but thanks to A.J. Pearce we have a solidly written and well put together story. All the characters felt like real people I could know or could even be me if I had lived at that time!

Characters
Our leading lady is just wonderful! I feel like she and I could be the same person; or at least kindred spirits. Her internal dialogue to herself is so similar to how I 'speak' to myself that it was almost scary. I'll confess that this lady is much wittier and funnier than I am. As a late-teen/early 20's woman during WWII our lead is torn between her 'obligation' (as per society) to marry and settle down versus her desire for a career. The man she is engaged to doesn't want her to work in the future (once married) and this is a conflict for her because she feels she can make a difference (even if small) in the war effort by supporting those at home via her writing and isn't sure she ever wants to be just a housewife. On this I do not blame her!

"Dream" Job
I'm always reminded of The Devil Wears Prada (book or movie) when anyone talks about dream jobs. I once thought I had a dream career and job; working as a magazine Art Director. Little did I realize when I started out in it that it would become crazy stressful career (didn't seem to matter where I worked) with crazy deadlines (leading to late 2 am nights at the office; only to get back up and be there at 8 am!), unreasonable requests (from advertisers, publishers or editorial staff), a poor wage, and almost none of the 'glitz and glamour' that everyone thinks it will be. And so just like my personal experience, and that seen in The Devil Wears Prada, our leading lady discovers that perhaps magazines and editorial writing is not all it's cracked up to be.
Funny how those dream jobs are rarely as wonderful as we make them out to be initially. Like me this leading lady is caught up in being young and idealistic. I loved the progression of her realization that perhaps this job isn't all she had hoped for, nor was it ever going to be. From day 1 she knows it's all wrong (so this is not a spoiler) and yet deludes herself for some time. I think we all do this sometimes in the hopes things will suddenly improve (and sometimes they do; but generally they don't).

Morals & Ethics
It may seem odd to have a book set during WWII talking about morals and ethics that are not at all related to Hitler or the Nazi's; however, Dear Mrs. Bird is that book. The ethics seen here are all about determining when you are 'helping' people and when you are just interfering. There are also discussions of what 'professionalism' entails at any given job. Pearce will challenge you at every step to decide what is moral and what isn't; and even at times place the reader and our leading lady in an unwinnable situation (the 'kobayashi maru' for those Star Trek fans out there; except cheating isn't always a way to win...). This book reminded me that a desire to help is sometimes not enough to justify our actions.

Overall
The characters, setting and situations of Dear Mrs. Bird are so well done I can't decide which elements I liked best of the book. All of our supporting characters feel well thought out (even those we barely meet but refer to a lot), the realities of food stamps/rations, bombings in London, shelters, injuries, night clubs and romance are all so well balanced and described that I started to think I was the leading lady several times. Pearce captured my imagination and pulled at my heart strings, engrossing me in the story; and then reminded me that the situations are all 'based on truth'. Realizing people actually lived just like this and at any given time the world could return to this is terrifying at it's core. The reality is that the world keeps spinning or at least rent/mortgages are still due (somehow) even when Hitler is bombing your city nightly. Pearce does a beautiful job of ensuring you are aware of how unfair the world is; but also how it just keeps on going with or without you.

Recommended For
Dear Mrs. Bird is good 'first-time' historical book as it's not super dense or full of references in history you need to know. If you've wanted to take a dive into some WWII historical fiction this is a good start to see if you are up for it.
For those who've been reading historical WWII books for some time; I think you'll find this one is unique in that it's not all dreary and depressing (like some WWII books are). It has a unique perspective as the everyday 'new' adult tries to navigate a war-torn society.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Follow me on Goodreads

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Book Review: A Little House in a Big Place


A Little House in a Big Place
by Alison Acheson


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where I grew up in Canada is in a city on the cusp of the Rocky Mountains and the prairies. We traveled a lot to camp in areas that were only a few hours from our home. So many of those trips were spent on the flat prairies of Saskatchewan or Alberta. Like in this book; most roads and homes are built on the major thoroughfares which all have railroads. So trains were always a large part of our trips. Following them, waiting for them, listening to them, etc. In fact one campground we stayed at had a train go through and blow it's horn on the hour, every hour ALL night long. Needless to say we didn't spend more than one night there!

Because of this background I really loved Little House in a Big Place and it's focus on the schedule trains have. They can help keep time for children, provide good safety teaching opportunities and of course, most engineers will blow their whistle (if allowed in the are) when they see children waving at them. It's a bit odd to me that the cover of this book shows the train at night; even though the train is actually seen every morning by our little girl. The idea of an engineer changing routes and leaving his hat behind for the little girl feels so very Canadian! The writer of this story is from Canada; and the illustrator from France. The wonderful illustrations in this are bright and feel perfect fora children's book; while the writing is exactly the right amount of words and has a lovely cadence to it.

There is one odd piece to this book that I think makes a leap/jump that many children may not inherently understand. (spoilers ahead)

At the end of the book we see the connection between the little girl, her growing up and leaving home; and then her singing in a cafe. While this will make sense to adults I'm not sure children will really understand the concept here. I think it would have been better if the story ended with the little girl leaving home on the train. A perfect circular loop that joins the beginning of our girls time watching trains to her ultimately leaving on one. However, as this can easily be explained by the adult reading the story, I am not knocking off a star for it.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Follow me on Goodreads

New Book: The Magic Boat


The Magic Boat
by Kit Pearson


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a bit of an odd children's book in two ways.
First, it doesn't just have words that relate to the picture on the page. For example, the page will talk of an octopus, a seal and a fish. Yet the page only shows the octopus. I don't think this is a detriment necessarily; but it is a bit different than usual. Given the topic of the book is to use your imagination perhaps it's appropriate...

Second, it implies that you can only use your imagination when you have a friend/another child to share it with. This is a bit of an odd message in my mind. It says that children need to be playing with another child (as Nona is not enough in the book) in order to have a good time using their imagination. I'm not sure how I feel about this message given that there are many children that play on their own.

Author, Kit Pearson, is a very well known Canadian children's/middle grade writer. In fact the first WWII book I read in Grade 3 was written by her (kicking off my love for historical fiction). The Magic Boat is also illustrated by other Canadians; yet the setting could be any beach, anywhere in the world; whether it's near a lake, ocean or sea.
It's also a good book to show that any child of any race can play with one another. This is fairly standard in Canada these days. Canadians are more likely to be upset about a lack of diversity these days than 'upset' by it. Therefore it's very appropriate that our children are of different racial backgrounds; and that we have a boy/girl friendship at the end. These are subtle things that children will not notice; but that help reinforce the lack of noticing we are trying to instill in the younger generation.

Overall I think this is an okay book. I've given it 3.5 stars (and have rounded up to 4) as I like the idea of the story. But one star comes off because of the weird idea that you have to have a friend or another child in order to have imagination fun.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
Follow me on Goodreads

Friday, May 31, 2019

Book Review: Once Upon A River

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, just wow! This is an incredible and beautiful story about a river, people, a time period and real life. I absolutely adored it and am sorry it’s over in many ways. Diane Setterfield immerses us in
a time in which we often say things were 'simpler'. After reading Once Upon a River you will surely agree that the plot, time period and it's people were anything but simple.

Characters
At the core of Once Upon a River are stories about many different characters who all engage each other at different points because their connection to one tavern and one little girl. Some may want to say there is a lead character or select the primary character. I would disagree with them and say there is such a diverse set of POV's provided and that they are all equally as important. Without any one of them the plot would not come together so elegantly; nor would we have the same feel for all different classes, races, genders and positions in this elaborate society.
A few people have indicated that they feel the characters or comments made by characters are racist and/or prejudice. The thing is that this is, of course, true because it is inherently a prejudice time. BUT the real heroes at the end of the story are those who have prejudices held against them and still thrive. Our black (but highly educated and wealthy) man, a female business owner, a crippled mother, and a mentally abused and unstable woman; all play large parts in helping the reader and other characters of Once Upon a River understand how wrong they are to prejudge. It's done in an elegant and appropriate way, in my opinion.

Plot
There is a good elaborate plot here. A little girl is found, deemed dead; and then suddenly awakens alive. Yes it's scientifically possible, and yes it has been documented to happen before. Our little girl is mute and doesn't speak a word; so she is unable to tell her story. Therefore everyone around her attempts to. Interestingly there are multiple stakeholders she could belong to in the area. And of course if you've lost a child for whatever reason you want to gain that child back; no matter the cost. There are some very tough moments in this book that deal with grief, loss, PTSD (although not called that it is obvious), and family dynamics. The little girl sets up an ingenious plot that takes us through the lives of those who live by the river or on it (such as our famous photographer does).
In actual fact the famous photographer character is based on a real person. It was clear to me while reading Once Upon a River that Setterfield had done a lot of research into the river area, time period and daily life of the folks that lived there. This is affirmed when you read the author's notes at the end and gives you an appreciation for how much effort Setterfield has put into this story.

Lyrical Writing
The narrative that Setterfield gives us is so wonderful. As each POV changes we get the a change in tone and educational background. Yet Setterfield somehow manages to weave a lyrical, common voice throughout the story. It's a real feat to do in a novel that changes POVs as often as this one does. It also think it helps keep the reader in the historical time period.

Overall
This was such a wonderful book! I cannot wait to purchase a print copy and put it in my personal library (the highest honour I can give to any book). It has depth, diversity, emotion and above all else tells a story that is compelling and real. That does bring me to advise that there are some tough scenes and moments in Once Upon a River. None of them were too graphic or gory for me; and I felt all were handled within the context and feel of the story appropriately. In a realistic story hard things will happen and I'm glad that Setterfield didn't try to tone down reality. The story is exactly as it should be; whether the moment is difficult for our characters or not.
If you only read one historical (non-war) book in 2019 it should be this one! I'm now off to find every book Setterfield has ever written so I can add them all to my TBR list.

Follow me on Goodreads

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Book Review: Little Bears Wants to Grow

Little Bear Wants to Grow by Judith Koppens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ice Cream!!!
What little kid doesn't want to read about ice cream and bears. :)

This is a very cute book about a bear who wants to grow faster than he currently is. He receives all kinds of (not helpful) advice from others and ultimately realizes that he can't grow any faster than he already is. It has lovely, colourful illustrations that are very pleasant to look at.
I loved the bits with lemonade and ice cream. Every kid wants to believe that eating things will help them grow. How many of us had parents that told us to eat green vegetables and carrots to grow big and strong? Now I wonder how many people still tell their kids that... (lol)

My only complaint here is that it is very short. Like so short you might have to read it five times to your child as it won't feel like it took any time at all. And while short is often better than too long for children's book, and a child could easily learn to read from this book; I still prefer children's books with a little bit more content.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Follow me on Goodreads

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Book Review: Baby Bird


Baby Bird
by Andrew Gibbs


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is super cute. The illustrations are lovely and the writing isn't too complex or too simple. There is a special mix of elements that need to come together for a children's book to be engaging and have staying power. Andrew Gibbs has achieved that in this simple; yet complex story.

We start by learning that baby bird has a little wing. Which means he can't fly, no matter how much he tries. His friend tries to help him out and feel better about things; as well as saves baby bird as his lowest moment. This low moment is a quick panel and the perfect subtle way of saying that it's okay to be sad and angry and low. So long as you have someone to help you back up again! For a children's book to even touch on a low moment is rare and so I love the way it's done in Baby Bird.

This is the perfect book for any child that is different or feels like they don't fit in. Be it because of a medical, physical, emotional or mental reason. The end allows us to realize that there are other ways to participate in activities than doing everything the same way all the other birds do.A great book for afternoon reads or before bed. The illustrations are colourful but not too bright and the length is perfect. This solid kids story could be purchased for any child and be appreciated.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Follow me on Goodreads

Book Review: A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories

A Stage Full of Shakespeare StoriesA Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories by Angela McAllister

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm really struggling to imagine an age group that could be defined as 'child' that would be appropriate for Shakespeare stories. Let's face it, Shakespeare isn't just difficult to read in it's original format; but also the death, romance, betrayal, etc. is fairly adult. Maybe an advanced child of 10 or older would like this? Maybe.

Illustrations & Format
There is one lovely part of this book which is the cute illustrations and the over sized format of the pages. However I do wish the layout was broken into a couple columns to make the text less daunting. And the over sized format while fun (and in hardcover this book is heavy!) would be very awkward for most bookshelves. This feels like one of those books meant for a coffee table to spark a conversation. As a cocktail party piece it's perfect. Too bad that's not really what we want books for (lol).

Stories
I felt like each of the stories in the simplistic (and summarized) English wasn't well explained. Reading Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and MacBeth (to take a few of the really famous plays) I felt like if you didn't have context for some of the things happening (ie: know the play plot) then you might miss some key items. Maybe I was skimming as I knew all but three plays in the book; but it just felt like the content was really stripped out. As though the stories are more synopsis of what happens and less of a narrated story. I think kids will struggle with this format as well. It just doesn't draw the reader in.

Overall
While in theory this is a brilliant idea for a republishing of Shakespeare in a simpler format; I don't think A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories really achieves what it should. I expected the format and stories to draw me in and intrigue me (as they hopefully would for children). Instead I found the text daunting with it's full page width (on over sized pages this is just bad design, where are the columns!?) and while the illustrations are adorable they are just not enough. Watching many of the modern movies or takes on these same Shakespeare plays is probably a better use of time to learn the stories outside the original text.
I give this three stars because I love the concept and idea behind it. Plus the book itself has beautiful illustrations; but overall it was quite disappointing and not what I had hoped for.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Follow me on Goodreads

Friday, May 24, 2019

Book Review: Hydranos

Hydranos (The Age of Stones, #1)Hydranos by Constantina Maud

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

DNF @ 16%
This independently published book was just not for me. While it's high fantasy, which is normally my go to genre, Constantina Maud's style is one that I found a bit too difficult to stay in touch with.
As with any review I want to ensure everyone that by no means is my opinion a reflection of how awesome Maud is or her capability to write. It is merely my thoughts. I can tell you that I have had the pleasure of communicating with Maud on a few occasion's and she's an absolute doll. Super nice, patient and totally accepting of criticism. I also want to acknowledge Maud for all the work she does to market Hydranos and her writing. It's not an easy thing to ask people to review your work and then take what they say later at face value in a public forum.

Writing Style
Maud's writing style in Hydranos is of the 'high' literature type; in that there were many words in the opening pages I did not know the meaning of (all of which were cleverly used however!) and time when I found myself re-reading sentences. Not because they were grammatically incorrect; just because they were a bit wordy for me.
For example:
"He had got up and fed a few logs to the hearth."
and
"With Agathon's narration, time passed like ungrounded soil under the vigorous flow of rainwater and thus came the moment when the storm was raging only in the perpetual realm of the past."
Call me a wuss but that's a bit too much effort for me to digest complex writing like this. It's a completely valid way to write; but just not for me when it comes to fictional stories. I barely manage most classics, in honesty, for the same reason. For me reading should not be work or unduly taxing to my brain.

Translated
While we're talking about words and language I think it is interesting to note that Maud tells me the original manuscript was in Greek. It was then translated and proofed by someone in the UK and South Africa. This intrigues me in that one of the barriers to understanding some of the words or language might actually be that a North American didn't also read and provide input to Hydranos translation. It might seem weird but let's face it, yes even us Canadians, are lazy when it comes to language. We'd (generally) much rather simplify language. Even most Canadians drop 'u' from words (the American way) because it's just too much effort to bother; or because spell check tells them it's wrong (lol).

Characters
While I didn't get very far into the story, it was still apparent to me that there is a lot of great character development happening. From the dialogue having a certain tone and style to the internal thoughts we see the story from.
Another note here on language. This is not a book written with traditional dialogue. In some cases the dialogue is embedded into the thoughts or narrative of a person. This is common in older European fiction. I found this a bit stifling and realized I prefer to read dialogue broken out as a scene rather than as a narrative or flashback embedded in the story.

Ellipses
Some of you whom have read a few of my reviews likely noticed that I like my 'lol's' and my ellipses (...) in my reviews. This is a style choice I make and probably drives some people crazy. Interestingly Maud uses a lot of ellipses in her story. In fact I am willing to bet that every single page has 1 if not more ellipses on it. Because of the flow of the narrative from a characters thoughts it works in most instances. But, as an ellipsis (singular still has an 's'!) is rarely used punctuation in most fiction. As such I found it really distracting to see so many on the page. At one point I was glazing over the words as I read and instead just counting ellipses. Darn my wandering mind!

Overall
While Hydranos was not for me, I do believe it is for some readers. You can see many others here on Goodreads like it (including one of my 'buddies' Mary whom I trust and respect!) and so obviously there is a market for this style of literature. For those fantasy readers who like their stories to read like classics or in a 'Tolkien-esque' style I think this is the perfect book to give a chance.
Finally, I am doing something I don't normally do here... I am giving a 3-star rating to a book I did not finish (usually they get one star). The reason is that I think it's important to note that my dislike of the book was solely due to style and not based on the plot, characters, setting, etc. So as not to unfairly bring Maud's rating down I am ranking this one in the middle. Agree or disagree with my choice here as you like; but I hate to one star independent writers who are also working with significantly less resources than 'the Big 5' publishers.

A copy of Hydranos was provided to this reviewer by the author for free. This is an honest review; with no bias given to having received the book for free.

Follow me on Goodreads