Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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