Sceptical Reading

Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Palate Cleansers

Novellas and short stories are a great way to read something new and refreshing in between the chunksters. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have depth. Here are a few I’ve recently finished.

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler, publishing day 25 May 2021. Kas is on a fact-finding mission to old Earth. She’s drawn to the battle-bot fights for scholarly interest, which then leads to her being drawn in much deeper – literally and figuratively. A sci-fi novella about friendship, diplomacy, love, and well-choreographed robot-fights. It’s amazing to see how well Wexler manages this story in only 150 pages! Also, great cover! 4/5 Harpies

The Quest for the Holy Hummus by James Allison is the first book in The Chickpea Chronicles, publishing day 12 March 2021. When vegan dragon George goes to Peopleville to get his beloved hummus from Julian Pinkerton Smith’s organic food store, things go foreseeably wrong. It’s a short witty introduction (think Pratchett, Atkinson, Monty Python) to the two characters and the world the following six stories are set in. 3/5 Harpies

The Past is Red by Catherynne M Valente, publishing day 20 July 2021. Tetley loves the world. Tetley tells the truth. Both these things get her in so much trouble. This is the story of a very optimistic girl that embraced its dystopian home, Garbagetown, and eventually ended up learning one secret too many and becoming a jaded outlaw. Still, she doesn’t give up hope. A very optimistic, yet also slightly disturbing novella that makes you think. My one point of criticism, it was sometimes hard to follow the timeline. 4/5 Harpies

May Buddyread Reveal

Happy Anniversary to our Buddyread round! The first buddyread book, King’s If It Bleeds, arrived in May 2020. Deciding to have a curated book sent to us each month was one of the best ideas born from the first Covid lockdown.

Our May Buddyread, the anniversary book if you want to call it thus, is Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister. It’s a Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy. Publishing day 11 May, 2021.

Here’s a quote that should sum the book up quite nicely:

A stressed zillennial lesbian fights gods, ghosts, gangsters & grandmas in 21st century Penang.

Zen Cho (Twitter, 08 Dec 2020)

Nophek what?

Well, Nophek Gloss. Written by Essa Hansen, this book has been on my TBR since before its release. If you have absolutely no idea what the title means, don’t be afraid, it’s intentional and you find out soon enough.

Prepare for an action-filled ride through space and emotions, though. This book starts strong, and has difficulty letting you take a pause during the 400 pages.

Somehow, it also takes every step on the hero’s journey without becoming boring. I don’t know if this was intended as a standalone novel at first and then evolved into a series, but it feels like it. But you can certainly read it as a standalone novel. I note this only because it is my only point of criticism: the book feels a tad too filled, there is so much in it. So many topics are discussed, and there are so many steps in the journey of the main character, and this at barely 400 pages. So you might feel a bit overwhelmed.

4/5 duckies, and big recommendation, and I will for sure pick up the next one.

Djinn Steampunk

P. Djèlí Clark has come up with an alternate history, urban fantasy, steampunk Cairo that is a place I want to read more of.

After reading the two short stories, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 several weeks back, I was truly happy to have been approved for an ARC of Clark’s full sized novel A Master of Djinn set in this steampunk Cairo, publishing day 11 May 2021.

Together with Agent Fatma, who had to fight a rogue clockwork angel in A Dead Djinn in Cairo, we are trying to solve the mystery behind the death of the members of a secret brotherhood. The possible culprit is no other than al-Jahiz, the very person who brought the djinn back into the human world about fifty years ago and then vanished.

Fatma, her lover Siti and her new, and definitely unwanted, rookie partner Hadia are trying to find out who the black man with the golden mask truly is. An endeavor that lets them not only team up with some of the characters we’ve already met in the prequel short stories, but also with new-to-the-reader djinn, gods, and other members of the Cairene underworld.

The mystery itself I had figured out long before the agents and police. But, and that’s what sets a good mystery apart from a mediocre one, at least for me, I stayed for the characters and their banter, for the carefully thought through world that Clark painted, for the clockwork angels, and djinn.

There is a third prequel short story The Angel of Khan el-Khalili, set between Dead Djinn and Tram Car, which I fully intend to read as soon as I have finished writing this review.

It’s that time of the month…

…when I can sit outside and read in the sunshine.

Well, so far I’ve been reading outside just once, wrapped up very warm. And the temperatures still aren’t what I’d expect May to be like, but warmer weather has been forecast.

Warmer and longer days might get me to read some more. I’ve spent way too much time in front of the telly lately. And don’t ask, nothing new, nothing exciting; I have kids, who, even as teenagers, like re-runs.

For May I have planned to finish what I had started months ago. Wait! I think I said that before. I must make it happen. It’s just so much easier to pick up a new book than a book I had previously started.

Now, you must think me either very fickle, or think I’m reading only boring books. I’d like to believe it’s neither. In most cases the books I have started are so interesting that I want to prolong my time with them as much as possible, hence I pick up a romance in between chapters. These days – and I am totally blaming the current situation – one romance usually leads me to picking up the next interesting looking book, and the next. And whoops, a week or two have gone by without me reading more than a few chapters in the book I had been dying to read. It’s weird and it’s annoying.

So, I solemnly swear that I’m up to being good this month -well, okay, maybe the first ten days of the month? I am going to ignore all the tempting new books and old books and shiny covers and enticing narrators and concentrate on the *mumbles figure* books I have yet to finish. Wish me luck! I feel stressed already.

Among that mumbled figure of books is P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, which will be published on 11th May. It’s the first full-sized novel set in Clark’s alternate history/urban fantasy/steampunk Cairo, where agent Fatma has to find out why an imposter of al-Jahiz, the most important man in history, is using unfathomable magic to kill the members of a secret order and is trying to rile the masses against the social oppression of the modern age.

I might even read it outside, once the sun comes out.

Quick reviews

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth Durst, a middle-grade fantasy adventure, publishing date 15 June 2021. The two sisters, Even and Odd, share their magic. Even loves magic, practices every chance she gets, Odd seems to have come to dislike magic and is wondering where she fits in. They encounter a young unicorn named Jeremy, who thinks he messes up everything. Together the three of them want to find out why the gate between the magical world and the non-magical world doesn’t work anymore. Which will, inevitably, lead them to confront their current problems and overcome them. Solid middle-grade story with humour which will keep young readers entertained.

Skelton’s Guide to Suitcase Murders by David Stafford, publishing day 22 April 2021. This is the second book in the Arthur Skelton series set in UK in the late 1920s. Barrister Arthur Skelton has an instinct when it comes to people being wrongfully accused of a crime. In this case, he tries to safe the neck of a doctor who it seems has murdered his wife and disposed of the body in a suitcase. All the evidence points to the husband, of course. Skelton thinks otherwise and sets out to proof his theory. The novel can be read as a standalone, I’m curious though and will certainly read the first book soon.

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo, publishing day 30 March 2021. The second book in the King of Scars duology; or the seventh book in the Grishaverse. We’re back in Ravka and Fjerda, and we even get to go back to Ketterdam for a short stint. It was a fitting end to Nicolai’s storyline. I liked this duology, and the Crows, more than the original Grisha trilogy. Bardugo is really good at more mature characters; and I’m counting the Crows here too, because, to me, they all feel older than their apparent late teens. There is a hint at a possible future adventure involving the Grisha and the Crows. Yes, please!

The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, published 2 August 2011. This book had been on my TBR for an eternity. I’m glad I’ve finally read it. I struggled with the pacing, it’s rather slow. The story of a quiet village blaming a newly arrived stranger for their ill luck is bumbling along. The heroine of the story is probably the only character in the book that is actually fleshed out in parts. The other characters fall a bit flat. It’s an okay read, but if it had been by first Schwab, I’d have stopped reading her books.

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston, publishing day 8 September 2020. Unfortunately, this wasn’t for me. The poetic style and the epic story just couldn’t draw me in. It’s probably me, not the book. I struggle with those two descriptors: epic & poetic.

Skyward Inn Review

This month’s buddyread Skyward Inn by Aliya Whitely was read much faster by us than initially planned. The other two had it devoured in days and only me, the LadyDuckofDoom, lingered because I recently moved and had to pack a ton of books into a ton of boxes.

The book is supposed to be a retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which I haven’t read, and probably never will. So I can not tell you anything about the connection between the two books.

What I can tell you about is how the book reminded me some of Ursula LeGuin’s works. Whitely’s work reads much faster than LeGuin’s, but in the end, I got a similiar feeling from Skyward Inn as I got from some books of the Hainish Circle.

The story focuses on one family in the Western Protectorate, a region that has turned its back on technology. The rest of the world seems to be obsessed with trading and slowly colonizing Qita, a planet with sentient life. The path to Qita was mysteriously opened by the so called Kissing Gate. The mother of the family, Jem, runs the Skyward Inn with the only other Quitan, Isley, in the Western Protectorate. Her son Fosse was raised by her brother while she was away, signed up many years to deliver peace messages all over Qita. Telling more would spoil the story.

The unfolding book is as much a family drama as a speculative mystery, the many layers of the story working very well together. Some of us sci-fi nerds can guess the defining key elements the story is working towards, but that does not prevent the enjoyment of it. At a bit over 300 pages, the book is not that long, either. I would recommend some time to think about the ending, though. It would make a lovely pick for a larger bookclub, too.

16 Ways to Defend a Walled City

After reading K.J. Parker’s novella Prosper’s Demon in January, we decided that 16 Ways to Defend a Walled City should follow soon.

The main character Orhan, a colonel of engineers, is widely out of his depth when the city faces an approaching siege. But he has to take command, since nobody else is willing to do it. What follows is a series of events he would probably never have bargained for. He proves to be cunning and resourceful, and is a great character to spend time with.

The plot of the book is built up in a very entertaining and clever way, and even the enemy on the other side of the wall proves to be a surprise for Orhan. Since the story is told as Orhan’s account of the events, the narration is pleasantly unreliable.

Parker’s writing style once again managed to delight us. Cleverly crafted shenanigans (yeah engineering!) are mixed with scenes that hilariously highlight the absurd paths bureaucracy can take. In one scene Orhan has to hunt down this book’s equivalent to permit A 38. Compared to Prosper’s Demon, the main characters feel quite similar. Which is a very good thing, if you share our fondness for smart, flawed characters and a dry sense of humour. There is also a sequel (How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It) following a different main character. We think it is a good idea to take some time between those books so that Parker’s style does not feel too repetitive.

Agricultural Dystopia

I’m pretty sure this term does not exist, but there is nothing more fitting for Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall. What starts as an idyllic trip to an Austrian mountain cabin has devastating consequences for the unnamed main protagonist. While the rest of her party is on a trip down in the valley, an insivible wall seems to have come down all around her. She is left alone with her cousin’s dog and is suddenly faced with the frightening prospect of mastering everyday life on her own.

The story reminded me of Under the Dome by Stephen King – or maybe the other way round, since The Wall’s German original version was first published in 1963. But despite sharing the same claustrophobic setting, the stories feel completely different. The Wall is told as a written account of the events, so there is a deep personal connection to the main character. Asides from tending some later-adopted animals, there is not a lot of plot. But still the story with its sad sense of doom drags you in. While there are so many dystopias with a lot of action, the quiet and domestic setting in the Alps was almost comfortable and thus really special. You also learn a lot about hay harvesting.

I really enjoyed the audiobook – only to notice in the end that my library hold was the abridged version… seems like I need to pick up a physical copy of the book sometime in the future.

How Not To Die On A Mountain

… is not really something this book will teach you. Touching the Void is Joe Simpson’s account of his highly improbable survival in the Peruvian Andes. Together with his climbing partner Simon Yates, Joe set out to reach the summit of the Siula Grande via the West face. While the ascent was a struggle, bad weather turned the descent into a nightmare.

When preparing for their trip in the base camp (where they left their non-climber companion Richard Hawkins to wait for them, the poor guy), they did not pack enough gas to account for a delay in their progress. Sounds like a bad idea, right? Combine it with terrible weather and you get two very exhausted, cold and dehydrated climbers with no way to melt snow and ice for drinking water.

Disaster strikes on an ice cliff, when Joe breaks his leg in a fall. The descriptions are not for the faint of heart, let’s just say that his tibia ended up in his knee joint which is not a decent place to be. They both know that this is a death sentence for him. Simon’s chances of descending alone would be slim enough, without attempting to rescue Joe. They try it anyway, and Simon lowers Joe by using two ropes tied together to increase their length. Sounds scary? Now try to imagine that they have to repeatedly stop to switch the belaying device from one side of the know to the other, while Joe had to balance on his one good leg.

This works quite well for them. But one disaster just is not enough. Almost having reached safer ground, Joe is lowered over a cliff edge, hanging free with his whole weight on the rope. There was no way to let him down any lower, and he could not climb back up. After supporting Joe’s weight for the longest possible time and with his belaying seat disintegrating underneath him, Simon was forced to make the brutal decision of cutting the rope to save his own life. Traumatized, he reached the base camp alone and had to tell Richard that Joe was presumably dead.

Joe, meanwhile, had survived his fall into a crevasse and began the mind-boggling process of hopping and crawling towards the base camp. His injured leg was completely destroyed and useless by then. Nothing short of a miracle, he reached them mere hours before their departure back to Lima.

This book is filled with technical descriptions of the climb itself and the gear they used, but also offers a very interesting psychological angle. Simon Yates faced a lot of criticism for his decision to cut the rope. People argued that he should have decided to (probably) die with his friend instead of cutting Joe loose to save himself. Joe shows a huge strength of character. He offered comfort and voiced his complete support and understanding to Simon before being even remotely recovered.

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