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.
Who are you, when your native country does not exist any longer? In Herkunft, his work of biographical fiction, author Saša Stanišić tries to find an answer to this question. The original version won the German Book Prize in 2019 and is now scheduled for release in English in November 2021.
He takes the reader on a journey from Germany to his birthplace in former Yugoslawia, using anecdotes and sometimes fictitious means to reflect on how a coincidence like your birth can have an effect on your life.
Ultimately, it is a book about how memories shape your identity. As his grandmother’s memories are fading due to dementia, Stanišić takes stock of his own. They are humorous, heartwarming and even the serious ones feel like an easily acceptible part of life. Especially the parts about his coming of age in Heidelberg stand out.
While books written in German often feel very rough and chopped, Stanišić uses the language with poetic skill. I also enjoyed his book Before the Feast (Vor dem Fest), but Herkunft really managed to get me excited about his style of writing. Also, there are dragons. Saša Stanišić has now earned his place on my auto-buy list.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood takes a well known story and tells it from a new and enlightening perspective. I guess everyone has at least heard of Odysseus and his journey home after the Trojan War. But what do we know about his wife Penelope, other than that she is supposed to be the very image of a faithful wife?
While her narrative is usually mainly reduced to the fact that she waits for twenty years for the return of her husband, Atwood rightfully takes a stand that more should be said. From Penelope’s perspective we learn about the things she has to do to manage the kingdom on her own – for example fighting off suitors with the help of her most loyal maids – and other hardships she has to endure. Meanwhile, Odysseus is still off somewhere having adventures (some of them with goddesses).
Once Odysseus is back on Ithaka, he kills the suitors besieging his house and wife, and also the maids he believed to be unfaithful. The maids are a central element of Atwood’s story. She uses their voices as a Greek chorus, which is an element I really liked. In this version of the story, the maids only seem to be unfaithful to support a plan of Penelope that in the end protects Odysseus.
Penelope’s story is told in a very poetic, playful and most of all realistic way that adds so much to the Odyssey narrative. I almost always enjoy myth retellings, and this one really stood out.
This little short story (21 pages) packs quite a punch! But since it’s by Roxane Gay, who would have expected it not to?
In the alternate reality of Graceful Burdens, you have to pass a genetic screening to be allowed to have children. Those who fail can only numb their desperation and longing by checking out babies from the library. Yes, a two week loan, no, renewals are not allowed. One has to wonder – where do these library infants come from?
When the main character Hayden decides to use the library, she gets swept up by an organiziation trying to change things and starts to see their society and her life in a new light.
The story’s tone reminded me a lot of The Handmaid’s Tale and I would have gladly read a full-length novel set in this terrible world.
One of the first books I picked up this year is Queenslayer by Sebastien de Castell, the fifth installment in his Spellslinger series. It’s been some time since I read book four – June 2019, to be exact.
This series is a perfect pick if you are tired of all the “chosen one” narratives out there. While the main character Kellen is from a powerful mage family, he only ever managed to master a single spell and on top of that is cursed with mysterious markings on his face. These are called Shadowblack, and the search for a cure is one of the driving forces throughout the series. Another big part is the relationship Kellen develops with a cursing and rowdy squirrel cat, Reichis. While threatening to basically eat everyone’s eyeballs, this familiar – no, sorry business partner – is probably the main reason Kellen is still alive in book five.
Other than the previous books, the pacing was quite slow for about two thirds of the book, which made the ending feel really rushed in contrast. The general idea of having a fairly incompetent main character is still fun, but starts to lead to a very generic and repetitive plot. It is getting harder and harder to believe that Kellen has managed to survive this long against powerful enemies with only a single spell and a murderous squirrel cat. Sadly, this is the weakest instalment in the series so far and felt more like a novella between two primary works. I hope this is justified by being the buildup to a grand finale. I want to finish the series with the last book, Crownbreaker, at some point in the next couple of months to see if it pays off.
Sword of Destiny is the second short story collection I’ve read in the The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Not the second in general though – that would be Season of Storms, which I have somehow managed to skip. No need to worry though, I already ordered it.
At first, it was hard for me to get back into the world, and to build a connection with the characters. Well, considering I skipped a book it kind of makes sense. But after the first two stories, I was completely engaged and the book became a page turner. The recurring presence of mainly Yennefer, Dandelion and Ciri connected the stories much better than in The Last Wish, the first story collection set in the universe. While scenes with Ciri are quite emotional (for the reader, for Geralt not so much), scenes with Yennefer give food for thoughts on morale and determination. And every scene with Dandelion is basically a lot of fun. It felt like the focus for this installment shifted from monster-slaying to character development and it worked out really well.
Since the books were originally written in Polish, I decided to pick up the German translations and can highly recommend them. Erik Simon did a really good job. I’m now eagerly awaiting Season of Storms to finish the short stories. After that, it will be interesting to see if the novels also work that well for me.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was my first finished book of this year and it was a really good one. It is a historical fiction novel set in the small island town of Vardø, Norway, and is based on the real event of a sea storm in 1617 which killed most of the male population while they were out fishing. While this event alone could make for a really interesting story, it is the witch trials – the first in Norway – following the storm that make this book a hard but rewarding read.
The story follows two main characters. One of them is Maren, who had to witness the death of her father, brother and betrothed during the storm. We follow her struggles as she has to adapt to the new life with the rest of the women of Vardø. While still coming to terms with the trauma of losing so many people, they have to fend for themselves in order to stay alive. The second point of view is that of Ursula, wife of the new comissioner coming to Vardø. He is supposed to assist the appointed minister to keep the women on a tighter leash.
The comissioner’s arrival deepens a divide that has begun to emerge between the women. There are the kirke-women, going to church and praying and focusing on womanly and godly behavior – and there are the rest of the women, taking on “male” tasks like fishing to keep the community alive. Maren faces the divide even in her own home, as she is left with her mother, her sister-in-law and her newborn nephew. While her mother leans more and more toward the company of the kirke-women, her sister-in-law is one of the native Sámi people which are increasingly suspected of witchcraft due to their rites and rituals.
Ursula has come to Vardø trapped in her loveless marriage to the cruel commissioner. On her way from Bergen, she envisioned a place of sisterhood to help her through her loneliness. She finds a safe haven in her growing bond with Maren, while around them conflicts are growing and finally erupting.
The writing is wonderful and lyrical, capturing the harsh setting while still providing sources of light and hope. Although this is a historical fiction novel, the tone and style reminded me a bit of last year’s buddyread of The Once and Future Witches.
While the beginning and the end of the book are really fast paced, the middle is more character-driven to illustrate the connection developing between Ursula and Maren. The difference in pacing gives the feeling that the middle drags a little, but I still enjoyed seeing the relationship between the two women grow. The commissioner is a character that fills you with dread right from the outset, and the feeling grows the more you get to know about him. Religion is once again used as a tool of oppression here. Especially in the unfolding of the conflicts you really start to question how people really could believe all the accusations thrown at the supposed witches.
We all can agree that 2020 was… well, let’s say challenging for all of us. I wonder what this year has in store, but taking a bookish look at it is a sure way to get our hopes up. So, here we go.
I am sure our monthly Buddyreads picked by the Otherland staff will continue to be a source of joy and lead to interesting discussions with my fellow Sceptres. The next Buddyread delivery will be accompanied by some other books I ordered, so the year is off to a good start.
Usually I’m not really good at keeping track of new releases, but there are some I am really excited about:
Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee
two new Becky Chambers books, the fourth Wayfarer book will even get here as a signed preorder thanks to TheLadyDuckOfDoom
Broken by Jenny Lawson
Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
Apart from that, there are a couple of books already waiting on my shelves that I finally want to get to:
Dark Age by Pierce Brown – I excitedly preordered a signed edition back in 2019 and it has been waiting for me ever since
Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb, to finish the Farseer trilogy
5 (!) books by V.E. Schwab
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy and Warbreaker
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin – also signed, also silently judging me from its place on the shelf
As always and against my better judgement, I also get really excited about reading challenges at the beginning of the year. The Goodreads challenge is the only I’ve really stuck with in the last couple of years, but I always take a look at Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge and the Popsugar Reading Challenge. I usually plan books for most of the categories in January and forget all about them by April at the latest. But still, the planning is a whole lot of fun.
Our December Buddyread was Burning Roses by S.L. Huang and it once again confirmed my theory that you can never go wrong with a Tor novella.
If you are into fantasy retellings, this one delivers quite a lot of them in such a short form. Our main characters are Rosa and Hou Yi, both middle-aged and based on Red Riding Hood and the Archer. They embark on a quest, and on their way face themes of motherhood, belonging and redemption. I won’t tell you more about the plot, because that would spoil a big part of the book. I enjoyed seeing more experienced characters in this story, both of them with a fully fleshed out backstory. Amidst the flood of YA fantasy books, this felt like a breath of fresh air. Their life stories are told as adapted versions of well-known Brother Grimm tales and will please everyone ready for a fairy tale.
After getting a glimpse of Huang’s writing, Zero Sum Game has risen higher on the never ending TBR list.
TheRightHonourableHarpyEagle’s main reason why I found it hard to get into this book was that my grandmother’s name was Rosa. My mind kept inserting a picture of my grandmother, in her usual attire (a hooverette over a thin wollen pullover and a long pleated skirt, sensible brown leather shoes, and her hair in a tight bun), whenever the name Rosa came up. Hilarious when in combination with a gun in a fight scene, yet annoying. It has never bother me before, seeing the name of a family member in a book. Very strange. Add to that my usual struggles with fairy tale retellings. It’s definitely a problem of “it’s me”; it’s just not my cup of tea.
Robert Merle’s The Island is based on the fate of the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn Island and once again shows that a hunger for power begets quite a lot of blood. While not completely out of my comfort zone, it took someone close to my heart to put it into my hands. I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across it myself, given my somehow strained relationship with French authors.
After killing their cruel and sadistic captain, the mutineers aboard the Blossom need to avoid British persecution. Those directly involved in the mutiny therefore sail toward an uncharted island, determined to build a new home there. They stop in Tahiti, picking up several men and women of a tribe befriended by the main character Adam Purcell. But even before reaching their island, conflicts between the British sailors and Tahitians are starting to brew. One of the main reasons for dispute will prove to be the fact that there are less women than men and that their “distribution” hence leads to jealousy and rage. Combined with a decent supply of gun power and cultural differences, a predictable racial war ensues.
Merle’s writing style is very detailed and analytic, often discussing every possible outcome of a debate before the character has even uttered a single word. It’s not a style to really relax your brain, but enjoyable nonetheless. While the plot itself is easy to predict, the book keeps you hooked with extensive character development and moral considerations.
Would events have turned out differently if the most power hungry of the British had been killed early on? What kind of society would have emerged, if the whole crew had taken to Purcell’s approach of treating the Tahitians as equals? What if the women had been allowed to select their partners on their own, instead of being distributed like cattle?
After dipping my toe into this part of Merle’s work, his next book on my list will be Malevil. It will be interesting to see how his writing fares in a (dystopian) science fiction setting.