What I read in February

 

Midnight Never Come
Marie Brennan, 2015

A faery tale court beneath London mirrors the court of Queen Elizabeth 1, thought Onyx Court is far more dangerous. Courtiers are killed at Suspiria’s leisure and faeries must tread carefully to avoid arousing her wrath.

Lady Lune has already fallen from grace, and plans to redeem herself on a mission in the human court – she must get close to Elizabeth’s Spymaster Walsingham.

Michael Deven, an agent of Walsingham, has begun to suspect a ‘hidden player’ in Elizabethan politics and comes closer to the truth of the faery court than anyone has before.

This is a slow-moving tale of political intrigue across the two courts, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns and a gripping finale. With three more books to come, I’m looking forward to further exploration of the faery world.

Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho, 2015

This promises to be as beautiful in paperback as it is in hardback! I 100% judged Sorcerer to the Crown by its cover, and I’m glad I did as it’s one of my new favourite books. I love comedies of manners, I love alternate histories with magic in them, and I love stories of outcasts finding their happy places – Sorcerer to the Crown is all of these things, and there’s even some riding around on clouds.

Zacharias is the Sorcerer Royal. Rescued from slavery by his predecessor, Sir Stephen, he faces racism and prejudice almost every which way he turns. To make matters worse, rumours abound of his having killed Sir Stephen and destroying his familiar, Leofric.

Prunella is a serving girl cum assistant teacher at a magic school for girls – although it is more an anti-magic school, as girls with an aptitude for magic are supposed to be learning how to quell and subdue and their powers. Of course, they pick up a lot of spells and knowledge along the way. Prunella is one of the most gifted, but her plan is to find a wealthy husband so that she can live a life of relative peace.

When Zacharias is roped into giving a talk at the school, Prunella seizes her chance to escape, and wangles her way into becoming the ward of the Sorcerer Royal. Along the way she discovers more about her past and unlocks her heritage, navigating the society of Regency London while learning magic. She faces a multitude of trials including disdain for her class and ethnicity, derision as a woman learning magic, and ultimately, a boss fight.

The finale comes in the shape of an epic dragon battle which is both fearsome and funny, much like the rest of the novel.

Weatherland
Alexandra Harris, 2015

It took me two months to read Weatherland, which is an unusually long time for me. Every few pages I needed to pause for a day (or more!) while I absorbed it. Every line is packed with #facts about artists, writers, meterological information and history.

While it sounds like an expansive read, the tales told in this tome are all of an intimate sort, just as weather affects us on a global scale, yet we all experience it on our own personal terms. I found her theory that our perception of the weather of certain time periods comes from art and literature interesting. This is illustrated primarily by the Victorians, with their weather having a reputation for being damp, foggy and dull. Bleak House is described as being ‘the dampest house in literature’, and the Gothic Revival is blamed for its influence. Life in Victorian literature becomes ‘dimly lit for preference, even when not be necessity’.

Having an intimate knowledge of World War One literature (an A-level module’s worth really) I was surprised that this era only takes up a few hundred words of this otherwise incisive work, but I assume that anyone with an intimate knowledge of say Shelley or Wordsworth would be wondering at their minimal inclusion in the same. Racing through the centuries from the 8th (or 9th) right up to present day, there is a lot to cover but the references are extensive for anyone looking for further reading.

Thief’s Magic
Trudi Canavan, 2015

Don’t buy this book though, get it from your library if you think you’d like to read it. If you enjoyed The Black Magician trilogy, I don’t think you’ll enjoy this. But if you enjoyed The Traitor Spy Trilogy then perhaps you will also like this, the first book in the Millennium’s Rule Trilogy.

Some books do well from being very simply told, but in the case of Thief’s Magic the characters fall completely flat. There is a lot going on in this tale, and the world(s) are intricately developed with an incredible amount of detail having gone into the magic and technology. However, the characters almost seem to be robots, acting very dispassionately with little thought given to the consequences of their actions. Canavan tells us that they feel fear or love, but we rarely feel their emotions along with them. Every plot point seems to unfold inexorably, as if every move made by the characters was planned beforehand and there was never any doubt as to the outcome of their behaviours. (Obviously, this is the case! But I feel that a good writer will do their best to make their characters more afraid of an uncertain future.)

There are a few moments in Thief’s Magic (and in The Traitor Spy Trilogy) where actions speak louder than words and the reader can feel along with the characters, but it soon devolves back into a dry descriptiveness which feels more like a history lesson than an exciting action-adventure novel.

Nimona
Noelle Stevenson, 2015

Monster girls unite! You should absolutely go out and buy this immediately. Nimona is a cute chubby chick who is also occasionally a shark, a little red cat, a giant fire-breathing dragon and is sometimes referred to as a shapeshifter. The story is an excellently quirky take on the Villain/Sidekick dynamic which also skewers the Good Guy/Bad Guy setup.

This is a supercute graphic novel which explores friendship, rivalry, trust and also what it means to be a monster, when being told you are a monster is all you’ve ever known.

I also read a couple of Steve Berry novels this month which are historical adventure romps along the lines of National Treasure and Dan Brown which I love and no-one can take them away from me, but I’m not going to review them fully because they are by a man and by all accounts he already does pretty well for himself.

What I read in January

January was a good month for me, reading-wise. In real life, I fell over on Boxhill which meant my joint issues flared up, so I was home sick for a couple of weeks and then I gave notice at my job after they informed me my job role was being ‘retired shortly’.  So now I have plenty of time for reading!

I went with a mixture of new and rereads this month as I continue to fill the gaps in my shelves, and spend my Christmas Waterstones vouchers!

The final book in the All Souls Trilogy came out while I was on my book buying ban, so having picked up The Book of Life I had to reread the first two as well. A Discovery of Witches is an incredible and in-depth introduction to the world of witches, vampires and daemons which Deborah Harkness has wrought, but Shadow of Night is still my favourite, even after reading the finale. Diana and Matthew go back in time to the court of Queen Elizabeth, they travel to Prague, and stay with Matthew’s father in France. I love reading historical fiction, particularly when laced with magic, intrigue and adventure – or the hunt for a valuable book – and Shadow of Night ticked all those boxes for me.

My Mum finally finished Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear and returned them to me over the holidays and I reread them the first chance I had. Despite claiming after A-Level that I never wanted to hear anything about WWII ever again, these are two of my favourite books. They follow the fates of three time travellers from 2060 who are visiting the 1940s to study various aspects of the WWII home-front. Evacuees, shop girls on Oxford Street, the heroes of Dunkirk, the women of the FANY, the fire guard of St Pauls and more. The level of tension is ramped up for the time travellers – while they can memorise every dangerous area to avoid during their trip, they find themselves trapped in the 1940s, having to find each other, survive the war and try to find a way back to 2060. They’re nail-biting, absorbing, exciting and informative all at once!

I need to read The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard again soon, I think. There was so much to take it, and I basically devoured the book in a couple of days. Set in a ruined Paris, we’re quickly introduced to Phillipe and Isabelle, with little idea who they are or what they are capable of – both mysteries which gradually unfold throughout the immersive plot. I was consumed with curiosity that I raced through fallen angels, mysterious warriors, dragons, ruined department stores, addicted alchemists, gothic cathedrals and political intrigues, and I was left bereft at the end! I’ll be writing a longer review of this soon.

Another one to devote a longer post to later is Nnedi Okorafor’s LagoonAliens come to earth and the first creatures which they meet are the sealife off the coasts of Lagos, Nigeria. Having given the sea creatures everything they want, the aliens turn to humans, kidnapping three people who meet seemingly by coincidence but it transpires throughout the story that they are each special in their own way.  I generally avoid gritty novels with guns and riots, but this was so well written that I had no intention of stopping reading. It reminded me a bit of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which starts off urban and detective and eventually descends into a particularly harrowing scene which gave me nightmares for a while.

Finally, I have been wanting to reread Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy for ages, but never got around to getting hold of Clockwork Angel until now! I much prefer The Infernal Devices to The Mortal Instruments. They’re set in Victorian London, there are clockwork creatures, and the heroine manages to rescue herself on more than one occasion.

It occurs to me that most of my historical knowledge comes from reading historical fiction, much of which is fantastical. I’m currently reading Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan, which is also set during Elizabethan times, and all I have to compare it to is Shadow of Night  for accuracy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Non-Fiction in 2016

One of my self-imposed reading challenges this year was to read 12 non-fiction titles; one a month. Since I usually manage about one a year this will be a definite step up! However, we’re no more than three weeks into 2016, and I think I will have to reduce the final number of non-fic titles which I hope to read.

My January non-fic book is Weatherland by Alexandra Harris; a truly wonderful book about the changing ideas of weather throughout English culture, told through art, sculpture, plays and poems. I’m roughly 100 pages through the 395 page tome (not counting the biblio & notes!) and while I could charge through and finish off 295 packed pages in the next two weeks, I don’t think I would really be properly absorbing it.

The other non-fiction titles on my to-read list so far are SPQR by Mary Beard, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy, Lean Out by Dawn Foster and Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques.

So, rather than attempt to rush through these carefully researched and beautifully written titles, I’m going to focus on simply getting the most out of each of them. Perhaps I will finish all six this year, and perhaps I’ll still be reading one or two come January 2017. Stayed tuned to find out…

 

My Top Fantasy Books to Read in 2016

After going on a book-buying ban in 2015, you can bet I’ve got a long long list of books to buy in 2016. Since fantasy is my first love, here’s my fantasy list. Some of these were published in 2015, but I haven’t got ahold of them yet – and I’m excited to!

Compared to Trudi Canavan, Lucy Hounsom’s Starborn is a tale of a young woman who flees her superstitious community for the big city, where she must to learn to unlock her magic in order to make right an ancient wrong…This is out in paperback on 28th January.

I’m about to start Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, which I heard great things about, and once I’ve finished that I’ll be onto The Book of Phoenix when it comes out in February. A little more scifi, Phoenix is a genetically altered woman who lives a sheltered life in Manhattan’s Tower 7, where she was grown and raised. When her friend and fellow genetic experiment Saeed takes his own life, Phoenix sets out to find the truth.

The Fifth Season was published back in August 2015, and I’m sad to have missed it then (although I’ll have a shorter wait between Broken Earth novels this way!) N.K. Jemisin is a multi-award winning writer and this will be my first foray into her work, which I’m seriously looking forward to. A post-apocalyptic world which constantly goes through apocalypses? Yes please.

Recommended by Ursula Le Guin and compared to Margaret Atwood, plus being well-reviewed by many bloggers, I’ll be picking up The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan when it comes out in paperback in March. Circuses on the seas sounds the perfect balance of melancholy and whimsical.

Truthwitchby Susan Dennard, just came out in hardback so I won’t be reading it for a while, unless our library gets it in. A story of two friends against a hostile world, it sounds like I will enjoy it when I do. (I also feel like there should be a theme tune for Truthwitch?)

I adore Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series – I just love that dragon – and I imagine Uprooted will be just as good. It doesn’t sound quite as light-hearted and adventurous however as there’s a malevolent wood and a terrifying wizard to contend with, rather than the boisterous battles of the Napoleonic wars.

Mad scientists, two-second time machines, telepathic witches and post-graduate life in a world which is falling apart? I’m ready for Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds in the SkyYou can read the first few chapters at Tor.com here.

100% judging An Ember in the Ashes by its title, cover and the Robin Hobb quote. Discovering that it’s about a woman who turns rebel spy after the murder of her family by a brutal empire and I’m sold.

There’s a unicorn pegasus on the front of Darkhaven and I hear it’s about shapeshifters. Try and stop me from getting this.

The Grisha books are at the top of my favourites list, so I’m ecstatic to discover that Six of Crows is set in the same world which Leigh Bardugo so carefully crafted in the trilogy. The fact that it’s a heist caper is simply the icing on the cake!

Sitting on my hands so I don’t accidentally slip and order Sorcerer to the Crown in hardback (although it’s so beautiful I just might). I’m a big fan of alternate histories with magic, and it’s always amazing to see how differently time periods can be interpreted. Sorcerer to the Crown is set in Regency London and throws together issues of race, magic, fairy lands, war and orphans and maybe I will just order it right now.

These eleven books don’t take into account all the series I’m waiting to finish! The Copper Promise by Jen Williams sequel The Iron Ghost is out, and The Silver Tide will be published in July 2016. Helen Lowe’s The Wall of Night trilogy will finally be complete this month with Daughter of Blood (which means I need to reread the first two from 2012/3!). The Masked CityGenevieve Cogman’s sequel to The Invisible Library was out in time for Christmas. Elizabeth May has a third novel in The Falconer series coming out this year, and I haven’t yet read The Vanishing Throne. I missed The Vault back in November 2014 and had to wait a year before I could pick it up. I’ll be rereading Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series so I can catch up with Mirror Sightand I’ll be first outside Waterstones on the 26th to grab a copy of The Mime Order (I’ve read The Bone Season three times now!)

 

 

 

 

 

Bitterblue: Kristin Cashore

Bitterblue: Kristin Cashore
Published 2012
Buy it here

Bitterblue is the conclusion of the Seven Kingdom novels Graceling and Fire. The story focuses on a question not often asked in scifi & fantasy – what happens once the enemy is destroyed, or the great evil diverted? How does a community recover?

Graceling introduces us to the world of the Seven Kingdoms, where people check their children’s eyes every day. Those with eyes of different colours are known as Gracelings, and they are gifted with skills like healing, hand-fighting or even the ability to open their jaw as wide as their head is large.

Katsa is Graced with the ability to kill anyone, and is forced to work as an assassin for her uncle, the King of the Middluns. Driven by a sense that her life could be used for good, she founds the Council which works to undo the work of the tyrannous Randa.

Her adventures lead her to the Princess Bitterblue, daughter of the Graced King Leck of Monsea.

Fire is set a few years before Graceling and takes place over the mountains from the Seven Kingdoms in The Dells, where Monsters roam – brightly-coloured creatures who are supernaturally attractive to humans and can alter their minds. Fire is one such Monster – a woman who despises her own power and the father who tried to teach her to use it to manipulate others.

Bitterblue is the story of a city, a country, and a community coming to terms with years of confusion, terror, and torture. Bitterblue is a young Queen, attended by advisors who are terrified of the past. She knows little of her kingdom of Monsea, and begins to doubt the word of her advisors, eventually creeping out into the city at night, disguised. She soon discovers that all is not as she has been told – and someone is killing off those who know the truth of Monsea’s past, and King Leck’s deeds.

The climax of Bitterblue is harrowing as the truth begins to be uncovered. The events of King Leck’s reign are incredibly dark. I found it difficult to read at times, but there are just as many reminders that friendship and love are as powerful as fear, if not the only things which can defeat it. Katsa and Fire both make appearances in Bitterblue, coming to provide support, advice, and love to the young ruler who has no special gifts other than tenacity, compassion, curiosity.

The theme of trust which runs through the first two novels comes to a head in Bitterblue as people keep secrets to protect others, ultimately doing more harm than good. Bitterblue must walk a fine line in bringing to light the atrocities of the past, while moving forward to heal the country so it might survive in the future.

This is a truly excellent series which deals with difficult and dark subjects in a compelling and absorbing narrative, populated by believable and likeable characters in a richly developed fantasy world.

Reading list

Reading Goals for 2016

I read mostly fiction of the dystopian, historical, adventure, romance, fantasy, paranormal, urban and scifi genres. I read some non-fiction of the political, science and historical genres.

A few of my favourite books are The Secret History, No Logo, The Bone Season, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, and Labyrinths.

I read books written by women, for the most part, with allowances for the occasional man.

My plans for 2016 are to read more books written by BAME authors, read the Man Booker Prize winner, and read one non-fiction book per month.

 

TLDR: I banned myself from buying books, it mostly made me want to buy more books

Last year, I banned myself from buying any new books. After years of living in single rooms and tiny flats, we moved into a two-bedroom place with a large lounge (luxury) and invested in bookshelves. I finally had a place for all my books. They came out of boxes, they came from my Mum’s basement, they returned from friends. My shelves soon filled up with books I hadn’t seen or read for months and years.

At the start of 2015 I went on one last book spree with a Waterstones voucher from Christmas, and then I settled in to reread my little library.

One year and eighty-three books later, my reread is still not finished. I have the All Souls Trilogy to finish, Blackout and All Clear, Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Rose George’s The Big Necessity, The Goldfinch, Bring Up The Bodies, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, plus The Mortal Instruments and prequels still to go.

For the past couple of months I’ve been really desperate to buy a book. I cheated a little bit, filling in the gaps in my collection of Discworld novels on Amazon, and buying Graceling and Fire when I couldn’t find them in the local library. But while I was happy to be going back through old favourites, I could see new books coming out which I desperately wanted to get my hands on.

In 2013 and 2014 I was relatively uninspired to discover new authors. I kept up with series and trilogies which I had already started, like Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, or picked up books by authors I recognised like David Mitchell, Imogen Robertson, Katie Fforde, Jenny Colgan, K.J. Parker, Kathleen Tessaro and Steve Berry. I browsed the local libraries and scoped out Waterstones shelves, waiting for the next book to come out by authors I already knew, and I never made any further effort to discover new authors and new books.

My book-buying ban began with a simple question – what’s the point of keeping hold of all these books if I never read them again?

Now that it’s over, I realise that it was just what I needed to become interested in books again and active in seeking out new authors, new books, new recommendations and reviews – and to start recommending and reviewing books myself.

So that’s what I’ll be doing here. In the next couple of posts I’ll tell you more about the genres I usually go for, and about my reading goals for 2016.