Friday, 20 January 2017

Review | The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

by Isabel Greenberg

My Rating:

From the author who brought you The Encyclopedia of Early Earth comes another Epic Tale of Derring-Do. Prepare to be dazzled once more by the overwhelming power of stories and see Love prevail in the face of Terrible Adversity! You will read of betrayal, loyalty, madness, bad husbands, lovers both faithful and unfaithful, wise old crones, moons who come out of the sky, musical instruments that won't stay quiet, friends and brothers and fathers and mothers and above all, many, many sisters.

If you say: lesbian retelling of The 1001 Nights, I say: gimme gimme gimme!

When it comes to fairy tale retellings I usually end up reading the Brothers Grimm with a fresh lick of paint, so to read a story inspired by The 1001 Nights instead is always refreshing. To read a retelling with the added twist of LGBT+ protagonists is even better - frankly I think we need more LGBT+ retellings in the world.

I haven't read Isabel Greenberg's The Encyclopedia of Early Earth but I know it was very popular upon its release, but I heard so many people talking about The One Hundred Nights of Hero, and plenty of people including it in their list of favourite reads of 2016, that I couldn't resist picking a copy up for myself. It's been a while since I read a graphic novel and reading this one was like reading Through the Woods meets Nimona: it's a gorgeous tribute to the power of storytelling (and what is The 1001 Nights if not a testament to the power of a good story?) that's both bittersweet at times and brilliantly funny at others.

Hero and Cherry are lovers in a land where women are second-class citizens, and when Cherry's idiot husband makes a horrible bargain with his idiot friend that said friend won't be able to seduce Cherry over the course of one hundred nights, Hero, who works as Cherry's handmaiden, tells the 'gentleman' stories that distract him from his less-than-noble quest. The novel subsequently weaves in and out of stories with women at their centre, stories that are both dark and whimsical.

I love the clever ways the stories link to one another, the way they cross the line between fantasy and reality in Hero and Cherry's world, and the art style is lovely. Reading this has definitely made me want to check out more of Greenberg's work in future.

I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about the ending, but I had to give The One Hundred Nights of Hero five stars; it's funny and heart-warming and just so darn good. If you haven't read this yet, I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

This Week in Books | 18/01/2017

This week I'm joining in with Lipsy @ Lipsyy Lost & Found to talk about the books I've been reading recently!

Now: I received an eARC of Mark Lawrence's latest novel, Red Sister, from NetGalley and I'm starting it today - I want to get to it in plenty of time ahead of its release in April because I can be quite bad at reading the books I get on NetGalley. I haven't read any Mark Lawrence yet but I'm all for a story about assassin nuns, so I'm hoping to enjoy this one.

Then: I read The Fifth Season and I don't think I've recovered yet. What an adventure! I got myself  a copy of The Obelisk Gate after I finished this, but I'm going to give myself a little break before I dive into that one. Look out for my review of The Fifth Season in the next couple of weeks!

Next: After two fantasy books in a row I think I'm going to be in the mood to read something completely different, so I think I'm going to pick up some non-fiction and read Samantha Ellis's new book, Take Courage.. I loved her memoir, How to Be a Heroine (reviewed here), and I love Anne Brontë, so I've been looking forward to this one. I'll see what I'm in the mood to pick up, though, because I still need to read A Closed and Common Orbit and I'd like to read Homegoing soon, too.

What are you reading?

Monday, 16 January 2017

Review | Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

by Nnedi Okorafor

My Rating:

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti's stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself - but first she has to make it there, alive.

I've been meaning to read something of Nnedi Okorafor's for a while now. She's very popular in the realms of SFF and so much of her work seems to deal with themes that I love to read in my fiction, while also dealing with fantastical characters and places influenced by Africa as opposed to all the American and European-based fantasy and science fiction out there. Binti won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in last year's Hugo Awards so I was eager to check it out, especially as I don't read many novellas and I was hoping this story would give me the same kind of vibe I got from Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I love very much.

Like The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Binti is a piece of science fiction that explores how we react to and treat cultures different to our own, and how mutual respect can lead people from war to peace, but I found it to be a much darker story than Chambers'. This isn't a bad thing and is truly no surprise considering the situation Binti finds herself in after she flees her homeland to attend university, something her people never do, on a ship that is doomed when it finds itself caught in the crossfire of a war that has been raging on for years.

I love Okorafor's imagination, particularly Binti's culture and how it's viewed by outsiders versus people like Binti who understand the importance of her people's customs and traditions. To be honest I wanted to know even more about Binti's life before she left for university; I wanted to meet her family, to see what life was like at home for her and how she fit into her society and what everyone she knew at home thought of her and how she'd ended up applying to university in the first place. In fact I'd've liked Binti to be longer in general, because I enjoyed what I read but there was so much that I felt could have been explored more that the novella left me a little dissatisfied; I felt as though I didn't really get to know Binti's friends very well at all or what her relationship with them was like, which made it difficult to feel emotionally connected to the story during its darker moments.

In general I felt as though everything was wrapped up a little too quickly for my liking - I was particularly frustrated with a section near the end of the novella where Binti accepts something about her being physically changed without her permission more easily than I was expecting her to - so I'm looking forward to the sequel, Home, which is being released at the end of this month and I'm hoping will explore a lot of the things I was hoping would be explored in this novella.

All in all I didn't fall head over heels in love with Binti as I was hoping to, but I still really enjoyed it and I think Okorafor is completely worthy of all the praise she's been receiving for it. I think this was a great introduction to Okorafor's work and I'm definitely planning to read more of her work in future - I've got my eye on Akata Witch.

If you want to read science fiction that explores cultural differences and is less Americanised than so much science fiction out there, I recommend picking this up and giving Okorafor a chance. She's a much-needed voice in the realms of SFF and I can't wait to see what she does next because Binti is full of potential.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Review | The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

by Emma Donoghue

My Rating: 

An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story.

Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, The Wonder—inspired by numerous European and North American cases of “fasting girls” between the sixteenth century and the twentieth—is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.

I've been meaning to read some Emma Donoghue for a while now. She's most famous for Room, which she also adapted into a screenplay and was subsequently nominated for an Oscar for, but she's also an author of numerous historical fiction titles, and I'm sure you all know by now how much I enjoy my historical fiction. Thankfully, I enjoyed this too.

The Wonder takes place in 19th century Ireland, where English nurse Elizabeth 'Libby' Wright has been sent to watch over a young girl who is living on no food and has been doing so for longer than should be possible. Is eleven year old Anna O'Donnell really living off manna from Heaven or are she and her family tricking the public into making their home a site of pilgrimage that people will pay to visit?

The first thing I must say about this book is that I think it's been a victim of dishonest marketing. Frequently I've seen The Wonder described as a 'psychological thriller' and it isn't - it isn't even a thriller. Dark Places is a thriller, The Wonder is straight-up historical fiction and that's fine if you haven't picked it up expecting an atmospheric, fast-paced mystery. If you're a fan of quieter stories, more along the lines of Burial Rites than Gone Girl, then I think you'd enjoy this novel. The Wonder is a very slow book - though it certainly picks up at the end with a finale which, though I liked, I wasn't entirely sure suited the tone of the rest of the book - and it did become fairly repetitive after a while as Libby's days bled from one into the other, so don't pick this up if you're expecting something action-packed.

As is so often the case in historical fiction, our heroine is strong, intelligent and appears to be hiding a secret from her past that has distanced her from the rest of her family. In all honesty I got a little bored of Libby's secret towards the end of the novel, especially as I had a sneaking suspicion (ultimately proven to be correct) that she hadn't actually done anything terribly wrong, though of course I'm looking at her from the perspective of a woman in the 21st century. Even so I don't think her secret really warranted so much secrecy, at least not between Libby and the reader, but despite all that I still found Libby an engaging heroine. In fact one thing I liked about Libby a lot was that she wasn't a shouting, screaming suffragette - don't get me wrong, I love me some shouting, screaming suffragettes - but it was nice to see a heroine who was a little quieter, more serious than fiery.

It's revealed very early on in the novel that Libby worked under the tutelage of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War and I was wary that The Lady with the Lamp would overshadow the story, but any allusions to her were used sparingly and I liked the way she was portrayed; she wasn't deified, at least not by Libby, and that made all the difference.

Our secondary heroine is Anna herself, who's a charming little girl. It can be difficult to write children, and especially difficult to write nice children without writing a saccharine book, so it's a testament to Donoghue's writing that Anna is a very likable little girl. I loved the recurring theme of food that surrounded her, from Ireland's Potato Famine to fasting in the Christian faith and the idea of surviving on 'manna from heaven'. My only problems with Anna are less with Anna herself and more with the people around her, and these were problems that persuaded me not to give The Wonder a higher rating than three stars.

Firstly, there's a romance in this book that I wasn't expecting. The romance itself I actually don't have a problem with; Libby's love interest is a journalist who's covering the story of Anna's miraculous survival despite her lack of food and it was really refreshing to read about a journalist who doesn't fall into the 'evil journalist' trope. My issue was more that I wasn't sure if the romance was necessary to the plot. It certainly didn't ruin the book for me, I actually liked the two characters together a lot, but it made the book feel like it was more about Libby than Libby and Anna; as the story wore on Anna began to feel like more of a sidekick in Libby's story than the star of her own, if that makes any sense at all.

Anna also has a secret of her own - after all Libby's there to see if she really can survive on no food or if her starvation is linked to something more sinister - and I'm still not sure if I'm satisfied with the way it was handled. I won't give anything away, but her secret is revealed fairly late in the novel and while Libby tries to do something about it, and rightfully so, it seems to be brushed under the carpet very quickly for something so serious. If you've read The Wonder hopefully you'll understand what I mean.

That being said, I did enjoy the relationship that develops between Libby and Anna; they're a very sweet duo and their friendship develops very naturally. Libby doesn't make herself easy to get along with but Anna gets under her skin, and under the skin of the reader, in a way that doesn't make her feel like a watered-down (and less annoying) version of Pollyanna. Through Libby Donoghue explores the darker side of the church, willing to exploit a starving child to attract pilgrims in a country that's already no stranger to starvation, but Ireland itself isn't portrayed as a 'bad' place, which I appreciated.

If you enjoy your historical fiction and you like slow, quiet stories I'd recommend checking this one out. Regardless of the few problems I had with the story I do think it's written very well, and I'd be interested in checking out more of Donoghue's fiction in future.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

This Week in Books | 11/01/2017

This week I'm joining in with Lipsy @ Lipsyy Lost & Found to talk about the books I've been reading recently!

Now: I'm just over half-way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, and I'm enjoying it so far. It's so refreshing to read about a place I know very little about and to read about it from the point of view of someone who actually knows what it's like. It's whetting my appetite for Adichie's novels.

Then: I was very kindly sent a review copy of McTavish Manor by the author, who I met at uni, and read this chilling novella over the weekend. Look out for my review later this month!

Next: I was planning to read one of my Netgalley reads next, and I would like to read one of them this month if I can, but then Natalie @ A Sea Change recommended N. K. Jemisin to me. I looked her up and ended up scouring through so many five star reviews of The Fifth Season that I couldn't not pick it up, so it's now waiting patiently for me on my kindle. I've actually read the prologue already and loved the way it's written and I'm so bloody intrigued, but I had to put it down so I can finish The Thing Around Your Neck first.

What are you reading?

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Top Ten Tuesday | Shoulda Woulda Coulda... But Really Shoulda

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week you compile a list of ten books which coincide with that week's theme. You can find everything you need to know about joining in here!

It's no secret that 2016 was an absolutely rubbish reading year for me; I read half the amount of what I read in 2015 and, what's worse, there wasn't much I read that genuinely wowed me. As I'm sure you can imagine there were plenty of 2016 releases I ended up not getting to during 2016 and I'm hoping I can cross them off my TBR sooner rather than later!

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers: Considering The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (reviewed here) is one of my favourite books of all time, I don't know why I haven't read this yet. I think I loved TLWtaSAP so much I've been nervous that A Closed and Common Orbit won't be as good, but I won't know until I try and, frankly, I'm excited to read a story about two ladies in space.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: This is one of those novels I've heard nothing but good things about so I'm hoping to get to it soon, as with every other book on this list!

The Muse by Jessie Burton: I enjoyed The Miniaturist (reviewed here) way more than I was expecting to and I think, like A Closed and Common Orbit, I haven't picked up The Muse yet for fear that it won't live up to my expectations. I do love stories about art, though, so I'd like to get to this one at some point in the coming months - especially as I've owned a copy since its release!

A Tyranny of Petticoats ed. by Jessica Spotswood: I love historical fiction centred around women, which is why it makes no since that I haven't read this anthology yet. My only excuse is that the only other anthology I read in 2016, Summer Days and Summer Nights, I ended up DNF-ing. March is Women's History Month, though, so I think I'll aim to read it around then!

Goldenhand by Garth Nix: I was so excited to discover Nix was bringing out another novel about Lirael, but it's been so long since I read The Old Kingdom series that I'm considering re-reading Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen before I tackle this one so I can refresh my memory.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: This book has pretty much everything in it that I love about historical fiction, it was voted Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016, and I've even read about a quarter of it, but I just wasn't feeling it this year and I've heard such good things that I decided to put it down so I could come back to it when I could give it the attention it deserves. Hopefully that will be sometime soon.

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley: 2016 wasn't a great year for non-fiction, especially when compared with 2015, so a lot of the non-fiction releases I was looking forward to I just didn't get to. This is another one I'm aiming to get to soon!

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly: This is another one I'm probably going to get to for Women's History Month if I can't read it before then. I'm really looking forward to the film!

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: I've actually read the first story in this collection and really enjoyed it, but I ended up putting it down for some reason I can't remember. Hopefully I'll return to it soon.

As I Descended by Robin Talley: I have an eARC of this that I still haven't read because I'm not so secretly a terrible person. But this is also an LGBT+ retelling of Macbeth, so I will definitely be reading it at some point soon. I wonder how many times I've said the word 'soon'...

Which books made your list this week?

Monday, 9 January 2017

Review | Burned by Ellen Hopkins

by Ellen Hopkins

My Rating:

It all started with a dream. Just a typical fantasy, but for a girl raised in a religious—and abusive—family, a simple dream could be the first step toward eternal damnation. Now Pattyn Von Stratten has questions. Questions about God, and sex, and mostly love. Will she ever find it? Pattyn experiences the first stirrings of passion, but when her father catches her in a compromising position, events spiral out of control.

Pattyn is sent to live with an aunt in the wilds of rural Nevada to find salvation and redemption. What she finds instead is love and acceptance, and for the first time she feels worthy of both—until she realizes that her old demons will not let her go. Those demons lead Pattyn down a path to hell—not to the place she learned about in sacrament meetings, but to an existence every bit as horrifying.

I'm always interested in books that include religion and religious characters, and as someone who regularly went to church as a child and who still identified as Christian a few years ago, I'm often drawn towards books which feature Christianity in some way, or feature characters who identify as Christian. It's one of the reasons I'm often drawn to books set in nunneries and monasteries, such as C. J. Sansom's Dissolution and Robin LaFevers' Grave Mercy, and to books which feature characters who perform ecclesiastical work.

Ellen Hopkins is a writer I've been meaning to check out for a while now, and I'm ashamed to say I owned Burned for a several years before I finally picked it up. Hopkins is known for writing novels in verse, and is probably best known for Crank which, I believe, was inspired by Hopkins' daughter's own drug abuse. Burned, on the other hand, is a novel in verse about a young girl brought up in a strict, Christian community who is sent away when she has a sexual awakening that embarrasses her family when she begins asking questions and acting out.

So, what did I think? Unfortunately I wasn't a fan.

Burned fell into the trap of presenting me with a stereotypical religious villain, as books like this so often do. Entire books have been written about the negative impacts of religion - although personally I prefer to focus on the comfort it offers people, and I do believe religion has more of a positive impact than a negative one - and while I appreciate there are people who use religion, all religions, the wrong way and the problems with such people should be addressed in our stories, I was a little disappointed that everyone in Pattyn's community seemed to be 'bad' in some way. Her father was misogynistic, violent, abusive and a drunkard, and as Burned wore on he began to feel so villainous that he was bordering on the unbelievable - I half expected him to start twiddling his moustache, and because he appeared that way to me I felt like he was an insulting and stereotypical representation of what some people have actually suffered through.

I also wasn't so keen on the relationship Pattyn develops with a boy she meets when she's sent to live with her aunt, whose name I can't actually remember; not only did it feel like a case of instalove, but I felt like there was also a lot of confusion regarding the relationship between sex and love. Now I know that often when you're a teenager, sex is associated with love (though this isn't the case with everyone), and I understand that Pattyn being shown 'what love is' was supposed to compare the way this boy treats her with the way her father treats her mother, but something about it just didn't sit quite right with me. I recognise that Burned is essentially the story of a sexual awakening, and the trouble Pattyn gets into that leads her to being sent away doesn't have anything to do with her idea of love at all, but she also didn't seem to mature, despite the traumatic things she goes through, to recognise that her relationship with He Who Cannot Be Named would be just as valid if it wasn't a sexual one.

Am I making any sense?

Basically I wasn't a fan of Burned and I doubt I'll check out more of Hopkins' work in future, sadly she's not for me, but I'm glad I tried it and I'd recommend it if you're new to verse novels and want to try one for yourself!