Sceptical Reading

Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Tideline – by Elizabeth Bear, read by LeVar Burton

I’ve always enjoyed reading Elizabeth Bear, and recently, I’ve been slowly reading through her short fiction, compiled in The Best of Elizabeth Bear. Tideline, specifically, won the Hugo and the Theodore Sturgeon Award in 2008.

I don’t want to give too much away about the story of Tideline, I think it is best experienced without much information. But I will quote the introduction by C. L. Polk in The Best of Elizabeth Bear:

“Tideline” is a heartbreaking, beautiful story about family and remembrance that pairs up a warmachine and the boy who found her…

C. L. Polk, The Best of elizabeth bear

When reading short fiction, I always check LeVar Burtons Podcast for the story. And there it was, read in 2020. Hearing this story was one of the most intense audiobook experiences in my life. The story is not only read, through subtle sound effects and the different voices LeVar Burton gives the characters and the narration, it feels like so much more. And all that in 45 minutes. I cried at the end. And after that, a little bit more.

If you have some time, or want to give short fiction a try, I cannot recommend this enough.

News from the Belvedere

Or, the sixth book about the sleuthing adventures of Veronica Speedwell and Revelstoke Templeton-Vane. At the beginning of An Unexpected Peril by Deanna Raybourn, published 02 March 2021, Veronica and Stoker are helping setting up an exhibition in honour of a female mountaineer who died in an accident climbing the legendary ‘Teufelstreppe’ [fictitious mountain in a fictitious Alpine country].

As can be expected, they find evidence for the mountaineer’s death having been murder. Trying to investigate this, at Stoker’s loud refusal, leads the two of them down a very interesting path indeed; Veronica has to impersonate a head of state, while Stoker has to try and keep her alive as death threats arrive.

If you’ve read the previous five books, you know what happened at the end of book five, A Murderous Relation. If you further think that those events, which I am not going to spoil here, might influence the dynamic between the duo, you are wrong. The two of them still banter, the air between them still crackles, and it’s still great fun to read.

Okay, I’m going to say it, I love Veronica and Stoker. But I didn’t love this story as much as the ones before. For the main part, the twists were very predictable. When the previous books mentioned to surprise me here and there and I couldn’t put them away until I had read the story, this instalment I kept putting away for other books.

Anyway, the last lines hint at another story for Veronica and Stoker, and I will gladly come back to Victorian London to investigate whatever Deanna Raybourn has thought up for them.

Where You Come From

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.

A bunch of quick reviews

Without further ado…

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells, publishing date 27 April 2021.

Murderbot being Murderbot, it is not easy for it to interact with humans. But it has to find out about the dead human. A dead human it did not kill, thank you for asking. So, it’s playing Sherlock on a space station. Making new friends along the way, of course.

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes, published 02 March 2021.

This collection of fantasy and contemporary fiction short stories was a bit ‘yeah and meh’. Some of the Jewish ‘own voices’ stories were really really good. Yet reading some of the more speculative fiction stories, I felt a bit lost. Strong stories nonetheless even if they might make you feel uncomfortable.

The Stolen Kingdom by Jillian Boehme, published 02 March 2021.

This was surprisingly good for a rather generic YA fantasy romance. Boehme managed to make her characters and their love story believable by letting them both acknowledge that they had known each other only for a short time. A further plus: it’s a standalone that delivers a solid story in less than 350 pages.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, published 02 March 2021.

A historical fiction using the split timeline trope. I liked the storyline about the apothecary set in the late 18th century. Nella has a secret apothecary shop, she’s helping women who find themselves in ‘tricky’ situations. Until a chance encounter with 12 y/o Eliza sets the wheels of fate in motion, which lead to Caroline from Ohio. On a trip to London she finds an apothecary bottle while mudlarking in the Thames. She starts researching about the bottle and the apothecary. The story would have been just as interesting without the contemporary storyline, which was rather ‘meh’ compared to the historical story.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark.

Both short stories are set in an alternate Cairo in the early 20th century. Otherworldly beings are just as normal as the Ministry of Alchemy. In A Dead Djinn in Cairo, Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi is trying to solve a murder disguised as suicide and finds herself digging so much deeper that she encounters clockwork angels and a plot that might implode time itself. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 brings us back to Cairo, this time “Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr shows his new partner Agent Onsi the ropes of investigation when they are called to subdue a dangerous, possessed tram car. What starts off as a simple matter of exorcism, however, becomes more complicated as the origins of the demon inside are revealed.” I enjoyed both short stories and I am looking forward to reading the full novel A Master of Djinn (expected pub date: 11 May 2021), which has been idling on my ARC shelf for some time.

Not Only the Faithful Wife

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.

Graceful Burdens

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.

An Alchemy of Masks and Mirrors – Review

An Alchemy of Masks and Mirrors is the start of The Risen Kingdom, a trilogy by Curtis Craddock, which has been on my TBR for AGES. I finally managed to hunt down a copy of the first book, and decided to start reading it pretty fast. And I was not disappointed. Let’s have a look at the blurb here:

In a world of soaring continents and bottomless skies, where a burgeoning new science lifts skyships into the cloud-strewn heights and ancient blood-borne sorceries cling to a fading glory, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs is about to be married to a man she has barely heard of, the second son of a dying king in an empire collapsing into civil war.

Blurb on Goodreads

If you aren’t intrigued by that, I fear things are hopeless for you. Isabelle is highly intelligent in a world that forbids women to think, has a deformed hand when physical perfection is required by the world’s religion, and has no allies except the musketeer that has been charged with her protection.

Isabelle and the mentioned musketeer Jean-Claude make a stunning duo of quick wits. Both have their unique strengths as they are cast into unknown situations with traitors, conspirators, and unlikely allies.

The author does not make every twist and turn plain for the reader to see, instead, he let’s them guess at the hidden intentions of the players, and he even has some real surprises in store for us. The world is planned out with thought, and has some really interesting aspects – I can’t wait to see more of it. An absolute recommendation.

March Buddyread Reveal

Our trusted booksellers at Otherland Berlin chose The Absolute Book by Elisabeth Knox as the March Buddyread.

While I have heard the name of the book, I knew next to nothing about it. After some googling, it seems to fall into the Mystery and Magical Realism genres, which the cover absolutely resembles.

Also, it is a book about books, and who doesn’t like that?

It’s that time… wait…

… where did February go?

We all know that January is the longest month. If you don’t think so, go and read this mnemonic posted by Brian Bilston. And since February is the shortest month, it feels like it just slipped by. It didn’t. It got buried under homeschooling, a week of heavy snow and lots of appointments. Anyway, it was a very successful reading month for me.

Among the more than twenty books that I read in February were a lot of sci-fi books and novellas. I eventually caught up on The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, and read the fourth Wayfarer, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers as an ARC. I also started the Chilling Effect series by Valerie Valdes.

My daughter and I finished the Ickabog together. For the adult reader, it is very predictable. My daughter, though, liked it very much. She kept begging me to read another chapter. And another. Until it was way past her bedtime.

What am I reading right now? I just started the sixth adventure in the Veronica Speedwell series by Deanna Raybourn, An Unexpected Peril, published 02 March 2021.

I’m trying to finish Chilling Effect, so I can start its sequel Prime Deceptions. I should be reading William Boyd’s Any Human Heart for an online book club meeting tonight. That same book club has agreed to read Robert Macfarlane’s Underland in March, which I’m looking forward to much more than the Boyd book.

The size of #MountTBR and #MountARC shall not be revealed here. Let’s just say, I’m hoping this month will turn out just as good as February, then I might make a tiny dent in both.

What are you reading? Any books you are looking forward to this month?

I heart Murderbot

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells.

Murderbot is a rogue sec unit. It hacked its governor module and could do anything it wants. Like, hide behind its opaque visor and watch endless hours of its favourite TV shows. It still works as a sec unit, tough. And soon Murderbot grows on you, just as it grows on the humans it protects.

I enjoyed this inhuman MC very much. It was wonderful seeing Murderbot interact with humans, basing its communication skills on the TV series it has been watching. Just as fun is seeing Murderbot ‘make friends’ with other bots, drones, and AIs. One of my favourite secondary characters is ART, by the way, the AI of a research transport. I do like its sense of humour.

Over the course of the five stories, Murderbot is evolving, of course. It is learning from its interactions with humans and machines alike. This is not necessarily making it seem more human, but definitely less of a machine designed to kill.

I can’t wait to see what its next adventure will be like. Fugitive Telemetry is going to be out 27 April 2021. I’m practically counting the seconds until the release. Not to mention that I applied for a review copy, which I was approved of only minutes after I wrote my first draft of this post.

As you can see, I’m not the only Sceptre who has a crush on Murderbot. TheLadyDuckOfDoom reviewed The Murderbot Diaries in September 2020.

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