Sceptical Reading

Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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.

April Buddyread Reveal

Our next buddyread book has arrived, and it is Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley. Just look at that gorgeous cover!

The blurb and the line “This is a place where we can be alone, together” on the cover give you a kind of peaceful, found family vibe. After the year we’ve had, this seems like something we all need – although a past war between Earth and Qita also seems to play a major role in the story and resulting conflicts may disrupt the peace.

The space inn setting alone seems like a nice palate cleanser after our last buddyread, and I’m very much looking forward to start reading it.

All we need is a little Grace

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, publishing day 04 May 2021.

The story is about scientist Ryland Grace who wakes up aboard a spacecraft. He’d been in a coma, he has amnesia. All he knows is that he is a scientist on a suicide mission to save Earth, and by that, mankind from the next ice age brought on by strange microorganisms feeding off the suns in our galaxy. Yet, out there in space, about thirteen light years from Earth, there is a star that is not affected by these microorganisms. Why?

As the story unfolds and our hero regains some of his memories, we learn that Grace is a junior-high science teacher. And that is basically why the science in the book is easy to understand, the science teacher explains it very well. We also learn that the microorganisms feeding on our sun dim the energy output of the sun and that Earth has about three decades before the effects cause an ice age. All nations have to work together and strangely enough they do.

Earth needs Grace’s scientific expertise, but also relies on the fact that he is willing to plough on although he is on a suicide mission. A fact that Grace struggles with throughout the story. But he also knows he’s the only hope Earth has. Again, Weir writes the story of a hero alone fighting for survival, this time survival of all the life on Earth.

I enjoyed the book, apart from a bit of a lull period between 40% and 60%. Nothing much happened other than science and playing Robinson Crusoe in space, in the Arrival version. AKA, the hero meets an alien and they need to understand each other to work together.

[Mini-Rant about one plot point. SPOILER ALERT!]

When in Arrival we have a linguistics specialist who tries to communicate with the aliens, here we have a high-school science teacher encountering an alien species. An alien species he then works together with to find a solution to the microorganism problem. Working together means having to communicate. So, over a few days they learn each other’s language?! No big deal?!

It seems our hero has perfect pitch and a knack for languages. Some people have this knack, here though it feels not exactly forced but false. For example, there’s the scene where Grace meets another scientist for the first time and after a few words exchanged he knows the scientist is from Norway. Wow! Quite the feat. Anyone else might have said they are from Scandinavia, and then followed that up with a question as to which part of Scandinavia. Add the alien language, made up of melodies/strung together single musical notes rather than actual words and you have the by far most unbelievable part of the whole book. Why? Well, I used to teach English as a Second Language to scientists. A lot of my students kept telling me that learning languages had never been easy for them and that that was why they went into sciences. To make it more believable, I would have liked to see Grace struggle more with grasping the alien language. It would have made this learning process a bit more natural.

It’s that time of the month…

…when Spring has sprung and the pollen are flying.

March was another strange month. I have read books, mainly audiobooks, but this was more to soothe my mind than actually please my craving for new stories. Can we please end that Twilight Zone episode about a pandemic? Or is someone playing Jumanji? Still?

I haven’t finished many of the books that I set out to finish; Chilling Effect is still lying on my bedside table, I read a few pages but then was distracted by rakes and debutantes (aka The Smythe-Smith Quartett books by Julia Quinn). I struggled through March’s buddyread The Absolute Book; and have only skimmed through Underland, let’s hope that’s enough for book club night.

I bought The Octunnumi. It’s a book whose secrets are very well hidden. All I knew about the book before purchasing it, and all I know about it at this moment, is what is on the website. I might have bought the cat in the bag. I might have found a gem. I strive to find out in the next days. For now, let’s just applaud the publishers for their marketing strategy.

In further news, I’ve read the sixth book in the Veronica Speedwell series, An Unexpected Peril. I’ve also finished Fugitive Telemetry, the sixth Murderbot story which will be out in a few weeks. I started Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Every Heart a Doorway was interesting, but it didn’t make me stop everything else to read the rest of the series.

My current read is a review copy of Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir’s new book, publishing day 04 May 2021. I’m trying to savour it, but I want to fly through it too; not at FTL, though. Some people might find it a bit science-heavy, but I like it. It doesn’t only have lots of centrifuges in it, but space travel boosted by a very unexpected fuel, and the one man who might be able to save all humankind -as soon as he recovers his memories- encounters aliens. Final verdict to come, but so far I am leaning towards better than The Martian.

The Shelf of Shame currently holds 120 eARCs; a recent count of the physical TBR came up with a figure that’s closer to 200 than 100. For my PennyPerPage challenge – get one penny/cent for every page I’ve read and balance it against every penny/cent I spent on books – I’m still in the blacks, although I bought a lot of books in March. Ergo, I am reading more pages than I am spending; I count that as a win.

March Buddyread

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox, originally published September 2019, is an absolute brick of a book. With 630 pages, you get a lot to read and think about.

Warning: This is more a rant than a review, and as such it contains what some people might consider spoilers.

To be honest, neither of the three of us liked the book. Reading the first part of the book we all agreed that it gave us a sense of Déjà-Vu. We were reminded of The Da Vinci Code -we even went so far as to say Da Vinci Code with Fairies-, American Gods, The Starless Sea and a bit of Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffery series.

The second part then picked up some speed when a detective, Jacob, was on the main character Taryn’s heels. He was looking into the murder of Taryn’s sister’s murderer. Taryn also introduces her book. A book about books, but the only really important part in Taryn’s book is a scroll box named the Firestarter. When Taryn and the detective get plunged into fairy land, we didn’t bat an eyelash, we were still fully on board. But then,… then the book just took a turn for the worse.

What followed were long descriptions that more often that not seemed to make no sense at all and just bogged down the main story. Also: Can someone please explain why we have this mishmash of different believe systems? What’s the Christian concept of Hell to do with Celtic mythology? And what the BH do Hugin and Munin and Odin and Mimir have to do with this? And since when is Mimir a norn? Without prior knowledge about these systems, we would have been even more confused.

Naturally, we started discussing this. We could not come up with a reasonable explanation other than, it’s weird, we might have to live with it.

Ploughing on, and that is what it felt from then on, we went back and forth within the chapters we were reading and re-read passages, just to still be confused by events and discussions that seemed to have happened off the page.

We considered bailing. Then TheLadyDuckOfDoom went ahead and skimread to the end. Pre-warning that we’d encounter a passage where over more than ten pages nothing much happens but Taryn and Jacob trying to lift something. No wonder the book is so long!

In the end, we find out what is inside the Firestarter scroll box and why it is so bloody important – ridiculously anticlimactic. We finally find out what The Absolute Book, the book is named after, actually is. And there is an interesting and rather weird attempt at solving climate change with magic.

Final conclusion. The Absolute Book was absolutely not our cup of tea, but lots of tea was drunk during the reading process, and gin. From a certain point on tea just didn’t do it anymore.

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: This book tries to be everything at once. It gets so lost during that. It should have focused on fewer things.

Page 1 of 14

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén