The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (Website)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: mystery

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Robert Glenister

Source: my own collection

Length: 15:54:00

Published by: Hachette Audio (30 Dec 2012)

Cormoran Strike is a private detective living in London. Typically, he investigates missing people, extramarital affairs, and the like. But when Lula Landry, a supermodel, falls to her death in an apparent suicide, her brother begs for Cormoran’s help to investigate. He is convinced his sister didn’t jump but was pushed, that her death was a murder. Cormoran takes the case and is rapidly enmeshed in the world of high fashion and the ruthless, greedy people Landry had surrounded herself with.

Robert Galbraith (AKA JK Rowling for anyone who’s been living under a rock) delivers a thoroughly tepid story that really drags in spots. I truly don’t know what all the hype was about. The plot was actually quite boring and predictable, despite being overly convoluted at parts. My opinion has nothing to do with wanting her to write more like Harry Potter. It is an adult mystery, so I don’t really know why so many people gave her negative reviews because it wasn’t written like Harry Potter. Helloooo, it’s a totally different genre! Even so, it was deadly dull in general. I only kept listening because it ticks a box for a reading challenge task.

Strike seems in many ways like the opposite of the usual private detective. He’s described as kind of short and really hairy. He is not handsome, and frankly, even if he were, his excess hair, described as a pelt or like a coconut mat, would take care of that. Yuck. I don’t really get why Rowling would want her protagonist to be kind of gross, unless it is just to make readers (and characters) focus on his skills rather than his looks. Which, if so, well done on the social commentary about the shallowness of modern society! If not, then just why? I did like that he is a protagonist with a disability, and that the disability wasn’t a constant focus of the narrative. It just was the way he was. The occasional reference to his aching stump or badly-fitting prosthesis was about it; Strike isn’t defined by his disability. 

In other ways, Strike is entirely typical – down on his luck, broke, difficult relationships with all the women in his life, ex-soldier, more competent than the cops or than anyone gives him credit for, with a sassy but highly competent assistant who kind of has a flame for him. It is very cliched.

I wanted to like this one, I really did. I wanted to see Rowling write an adult novel that grabbed my attention and was pleasingly complex. But I was disappointed. This was the first adult novel of hers I’ve read and it doesn’t inspire me to read any more. The narrator did a good job on this, but that was probably the best part of the book for me.

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the BonesSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (Website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as an: hardback

Source: library

Length: 261 pp

Published by: Bloomsbury (30 Aug 2011)

Salvage the Bones is technically a story about Hurricane Katrina. Really, though, it is about one family, the Batistes, living in extreme poverty in southern Mississippi. Narrated by Esch, the pregnant 15 year old only daughter in a family of boys, the 12 days of the story leading up to Katrina making landfall explore the family dynamics and dramas of Esch’s life. 

****All the spoilers below!****Read More »

All Systems Red (MurderBot Diaries #1)

All Systems Red MurderBot coverAll Systems Red by Martha Wells (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a: paperback

Source: library

Length: 144 pp

Published by: Tor.com (pub date)

I read this as part of a reading challenge and was delighted by it. A group of scientists are on an unnamed and unpopulated planet to do surveys for possible future colonization. Per company policy, they are required to have a SecUnit with them, a sentient artificial life comprised of organic and mechanical components. Its job is to provide security to the humans in the group. When they discover that another survey group on the other side of the planet is not responding to communication, they take SecUnit with them to investigate. There, they learn that that group’s SecUnits have gone rogue and killed all the humans they were supposed to protect. What none of them anticipates is that the SecUnits were hacked by a group that wants the humans on this planet dead so they do not discover an area of huge importance. 

This was a super fun read. I LOVED SecUnit, who had secretly hacked its own governor software so that it was fully independent and sentient. It calls itself MurderBot, because that is what it thinks it is best at. MurderBot is totally introverted and socially awkward, so right away I bonded with it. I love that a robot or synthetic lifeform is anything less than perfect, and in such a realistic way. It hates talking face to face with humans and it just wants to be left alone when not on duty; when on duty, it just wants to do its job and also be left alone. Me, too, MurderBot. Me, too. 

This was really a story about what it means to be human. MurderBot is one of the most human characters in the story, and really in many other things I have read recently. 

I think I might have to buy these for my own collection rather than getting them from the library. I just really enjoyed it.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  •  Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. 
  • I thought it was likely that the only supplies we would need for DeltFall was the postmortem kind, but you may have noticed that when I do manage to care, I’m a pessimist.
  • What was I supposed to do, kill all humans because the ones in charge of constructs in the company were callus? Granted, I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked the real ones, but you can’t have one without the other.
  • …Dr. Mensah, my favorite human.

The Distant Hours

The Distant HoursThe Distant Hours by Kate Morton (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction/ mystery

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Caroline Lee

Source: my own collection

Length: 22:31:00

Published by: Bolinda Publishing (26 Oct 2010)

Edie Burchill never really understood her mother. But the arrival of a letter, lost for 50 years and addressed to Edie’s mother from Milderhurst Castle, sets Edie on a mission to discover the mysteries of her mother’s past. Mystery mixed with a bit of the Gothic and the romantic, the plot takes Edie back to Milderhurst Castle, her mother’s home during the evacuation of London’s children during the Blitz. There, she meets the sisters Blythe, twins Persephone ‘Percy’ Blythe and Seraphina ‘Saphy’ Blythe, and their younger sister Juniper. Edie digs deep to discover why her mother is so reluctant to talk about her time at Milderhurst, why the abandonment of Juniper’s fiance in 1941 sent her mad, and what the twin sisters are really hiding. 

This was a solid Gothic mystery, though not one of my favorites. It seems like it has all the requisite components of a very good Gothic mystery, but something was just lacking. I think there was often too much telling and not showing, what must have been pages of no dialogue (listening to it on audio makes it a little hard to tell), and then the denouement was kind of flat and not really a surprise. 

I didn’t really like Edie very much. Not that she was a bad character or anything, she was just rather boring. Maybe this was intentional on Morton’s part because the sisters Blythe were certainly NOT boring. Maybe Morton did that so she could highlight the eccentricity of the sisters. Whatever it was, I did very much enjoy the sisters. The writing style itself was also nice. I like the florid style of Gothic literature, and while this wasn’t exactly florid or fully Gothic, I liked the atmosphere Morton created all the same. 

This was my first read from Morton and, while I didn’t care for some aspects of it, I liked her writing and am happy to give her other books a go. 

#NotYourPrincess

#NotYourPrincess cover#NotYourPrincess edited by Lisa Charleyboy (Twitter, Insta) and Mary Beth Leatherdale (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: nonfiction, women’s voices

I read it as a: hardback

Source: library

Length: 109 pp

Published by: Annick Press (12 Sept 2017)

A collection of poetry, essays, art, and songs by Native American women, this slim book contains multitudes. Some of the entries look into the past, into abuses and humiliations the creators or their family endured, and some look forward into a more hopeful future. A nicely eclectic collection.

I like the glimpse into the experiences of American Indian/First Nations women. It is horrifying how badly they have been treated and difficult to read. But I think the best way to learn more and educate myself about things I have no experience with is by reading the experiences of those who have gone through it. It sounds trite to write it out like that, but it is a fundamental part of how I read now; I do not know the experiences of Indigenous women or Black women, and I can’t really understand what it is like to experience the racism or fear or humiliation that so many of them have endured. Reading about it in their own words is the best way to learn.

I liked how varied this compilation was. However, I found the actual format to be off-putting. It is a physically huge book, like a giant magazine or something, and is impossible to stuff into a purse. If I were a student wearing a large backpack everyday, that would be one thing. But the dimensions of this were 9×11.5 inches and it’s just…big. Also, while the individual contributions were all excellent, the book as a whole didn’t feel like it had a proper flow to it to blend and merge from one section to the next very easily. It actually felt somewhat incomplete, as though there were pieces missing from each section as well as from the overall book. It sadly makes me a little hesitant to pick up another book edited by Charleyboy. 

I would give it 3 stars in honor of the women who contributed to it, but the book itself as a whole would probably only get 2. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Patriarchy is quite simply the systematic oppression and regulation of women’s bodies, minds, and spirits. … In Indigenous culture, Indigenous women and girls are sacred, known as life-givers, as independent, as autonomous, as decision-makers. (“Reclaiming Indigenous Women’s Rights”, Nahanni Fontaine (Anishinaabe), p 25)
  • “I rather you be terrified than think,” she warns, “that you can beat the wrath of Mother Nature.” (“Falling,” Natanya Ann Pulley (Navajo), p 36)
  • You are allowed to cry/ You are allowed to scream/ But you are not allowed to give up./ If you ever need a hero/ Become one. (“Dear Past Self”, Isabella Fillspipe (Oglala Lakota), p 98-99)

 

Bright Blade (Byrhtnoth Chronicles #3)

Bright Blade coverBright Blade by Christine Hancock 

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 398 pp

Published by: Madder Press (8 Oct 2019)

Thegn Byrhtnoth owes allegiance to his lord, Ealdorman Athelstan, and his king Eadred. He is, however, less than thrilled to be ordered to participate in Ealdred’s attempt to retake the Northumbrian kingdom from the self-styled King of York. In the war, Eadred pits his army not only against the political North, but its people as well, giving his soldiers free reign to plunder, pillage, and rape indiscriminately. Byrhtnoth has issues with this, partly because it goes against his personal sense of honor. When Eadred assigns him to repair ships in Devon to bring to the war effort, Byrhtnoth finds himself in the middle of a battle to revenge himself upon a man who harmed his wife (in a previous book) and a quest to find his long-lost father. 

This novel is the third in the Byrhtnoth Chronicles series. While it was very readable and told a fast-paced story, I don’t think it is really good as a standalone. There are references to events from the prior two books that attempt to fill in the gaps, but it wasn’t really adequate for readers who haven’t read the whole series. Additionally, there were a few anachronisms, such as the term ‘girlfriend,’ which didn’t come into use until the 20th century. These are relatively minor quibbles, though, as the plot and action were engaging and the characters are generally intriguing enough to make readers want to learn more about them and what happens in their lives. 

The historical detail in this novel was precise and layered. I enjoyed reading about the Anglo-Saxon culture and the ways in which their political system worked. Some references to other very well-known texts, such as Beowulf, added depth to the story. Additionally, the details of the treatment of one specific wound (which I won’t detail further to avoid spoilers!) aligns with archaeological evidence from the Wharram Percy site, to the northeast of York. It always thrills me to read historical fiction that blends in actual practices and is based on evidence from the historical record. 

I didn’t see a lot of character development in this novel, but much of it may have occurred in the previous books. The story and writing were compelling enough that I plan to backtrack and read the first two installments in the series. The writing itself and structure of the book draw readers in and encourage them to keep reading, as the chapters are quite short. 

Overall, a very pleasing read about one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon lords. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and the fourth book, anticipated later in 2020.

The Reckless Oath We Made

The Reckless Oath We Made coverThe Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood            (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as a: hardback

Source: BOTM Club

Length: 436 pp

Published by: Putnam (20 Aug 2019)

Zhorzha ‘Zee’ Trego means well but still destroys everything she touches. She is a wreck, works menial jobs, and runs dope on occasion to make some extra cash. While in PT from a previous motorcycle wreck, she meets Gentry Frank. Gentry is on the spectrum and is convinced that he is a knight who is sworn to champion Zee. Together, they get swept up in a tragedy of events revolving around Zee’s sister and nephew, and choices they make will alter the rest of their lives.

This novel was a little like Gone Girl in that, with the exception of Gentry, there really wasn’t one likable character in the lot. But it was a terrific story and I couldn’t put it down. Zee is nothing but a hot mess and it is really frustrating to read. She is smart and could do so many better things with her life than wait tables and do the occasional drug run. Not that there is anything wrong with waiting tables, but I still feel bad for her and frustrated that she isn’t really trying to do something better when she has the talent / intelligence to do so. Maybe that is my own privilege talking but I just don’t get why someone in her position wouldn’t want to at least try to do something like go to college and get into a better socioeconomic status. She is really her own worst enemy and seems determined to make many of the same mistakes over and over. 

I loved Gentry. He is on the spectrum, speaks only in a quasi-Middle English dialect he learned from the SCA and medieval texts he reads, and is utterly convinced he is a knight whose purpose is to serve ‘Lady Zhorzha.’ He is well read and so imaginative. It was so sad to hear that people wanted to make him take meds to force him to talk ‘normally’, whatever that is, and to silence the voices he had. Hearing voices sounds scary to a lot of people but Gentry’s are harmless, as is he, and I am willing to bet a lot more people hear voices than will admit to it and do just fine. Maybe it’s because I am a medievalist, but I just had a big soft spot for Gentry and frankly think it would be fine by me if more men acted chivalrously. 

I loved the way Gentry spoke and I don’t think it would be difficult for other readers to get used to it quickly. It’s not like it’s Linear A or anything, it’s just a little antiquated. Frankly, some of the ways Gentry speaks is easier to read than Shakespeare, and he wrote in early modern English. I would imagine it is even easier to listen to on audio than to eyeball read it, especially if one isn’t familiar with Middle English. Just let yourself skim over it or listen with half an ear and don’t worry about it too much, then it will be easy. 

Overall, while this was a frustrating read for many reasons, it was because Greenwood crafted an excellent story with realistic characters. All of them, even the ones I hated, were like actual people I have known. It was very nicely done, easy to read, and I highly recommend it.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Gentry singing a medieval version of ‘Roxanne’ – Roxanne! Thou needst not hang that lantern tonight. Roxanne! Ne wearen that cotehardie tonight.
  • Gentry trying to make friends with Uncle Alva’s guard dog: When I came up behind him, I could hear him doing the medieval version of Who’s a good boy. “Thou art a noble beast. ‘Tis right thou shouldst bristle, for thou knowest me not. But I bring thee meat that we might make amity twixt us.”

Who Fears Death

16064625Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy/ Afrofuturism

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 420 pp

Published by: Daw (1 June 2010)

In a future post-apocalyptic Sudan, genocide between different tribes still occurs. When a woman is raped by the military leader of another tribe, she wanders into the desert, hoping to die. When she discovers she is pregnant, she lives in the desert for years and raises her daughter to be strong and fierce. They eventually move into a town so the girl, Onyesonwu, can attend school. There, Onye learns that she has strange and frightening abilities, able to turn herself into animals or travel a spirit realm. Convincing the town’s shaman to train her, Onye soon learns that a powerful sorcerer is trying to kill her in order to prevent a prophecy from coming true, a prophecy that says Onye is the person who will change the fabric of her society. 

There is so much to unpack in this novel. On the surface, it can be read just as a fantasy/ post-apocalyptic story. But if you pay attention, you can see the seamless manner in which traditional legends, stories, and customs are woven in with technology like computers, capture stations, and GPS. The blending of the traditional and the technological is, I think, a commentary on contemporary Africa. I have never been to any country in Africa, but I know several people who have and from what they say, it seems reflective of various societies. I wonder if the connection to the traditional is simply too strong to abandon, despite the advances in technology available. 

***SPOILERS BELOW***Read More »

The North Water

The North Water coverThe North Water by Ian McGuire

Her Grace’s rating:  out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: John Keating

Source: library

Length: 09:40:00

Published by: Macmillan Audio (9 May 2016)

In the 19th century, whaling ships often set out to the Arctic to bring back whale blubber and the furs of polar bears and seals. Henry Drax is a harpooner aboard the Volunteer, and Patrick Sumner is shipping out as the ship’s medic. Drax is a sick twist and Sumner is a disgraced army surgeon. When Sumner discovers that a cabin boy is being violently raped, and then later discovers the child murdered in the hold, it sets the two men on a collision course during this cursed voyage.

OK, so I know this was longlisted for the Booker in 2016. Neat. And yes, it absolutely had some beautiful writing, particularly when describing the scenery. But holy shit, y’all. This novel was chock full of unrelenting, vicious, gory violence. I am not a squeamish reader by any means, but the abuse and murder of children and cavalier slaughtering of animals, complete with many fully descriptive scenes, is more than I could handle this time. 

I KNOW the depictions of violence and casual disregard for animal life was historically accurate, but Jesus fucking Christ. I think the author was getting off on it or something. For example, the scene where the whalers killed a mother polar bear and captured her cub was horrific. Or this gem: 

Jones nods, takes a fresh blubber spade from the malemauk boat, waits for one of the sharks to come close enough, and then stabs at it, opening up a foot-long gash in its side. A loose-knit garland of entrails, pink, red, and purple, slurps immediately from the wound. The injured shark thrashes for a moment, then bends backwards and starts urgently gobbling its own insides.

And the joyful clubbing of baby seals. Or the near-orgasmic descriptions of whales blowing gobs of blood out their blowholes before they die, to the thrill of the men watching. And the multitude of excrement, both human and animal, or the vulgarity of the language (and believe me, I love a good fucking swear word). Is this really necessary? Again, I know this is the way it was back then, but there are ways to write that and still not be so enthralled with the violence. The gore and violence literally detracted and distracted from the plot. 

I read this as an audiobook and found myself gradually increasing the reading speed just to get it over with. The narrator did a fabulous job of it, though. Five stars to his performance. 

I once read the term ‘dicklit,’ and if ever there was a book to describe that, it is this one. Waiting to see how many men gather to explain why I’m wrong.

 

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls coverA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: YA, possibly a little younger

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Jason Isaacs

Source: my own collection

Length: 3:59:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (23 Sept 2011)

All the spoilers below!

Connor O’Malley is a 13-year-old boy whose mother is battling cancer, only no one really calls it that. She is also dying, but no one talks about that, either. Every night since his mother started her treatments, Connor has had the same nightmare. One night, he wakes up and finds a monster outside his window. He had expected the one from his dreams but it wasn’t; it was an actual monster that comes from ancient British folklore. It tells Connor that he himself summoned the monster because he wants something from it. With each encounter Connor has with this creature, the closer he comes to the truth, painful and bright. 

I confess I bought this audiobook purely because Jason Isaacs narrates it and, since it’s a kid’s story, I figured I could just put it on and not pay much attention to it beyond being delighted to hear Isaacs’s lovely, gravelly British voice reading to me. I never expected that I would actually like the story, which I did, immensely. The story was not about cancer or illness so much as a study in grief from both a young boy’s perspective and his mother’s. It is about how childhood friendships shift during times of tragedy and how we learn who our true friends are. 

I really loved the theme of stories taking on lives of their own. The monster tells Connor that ‘Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’ I like this passage because it shows how stories can be interpreted differently by different people, how each person might take a wholly new meaning from it or react to it in an unexpected way. They may not even anticipate how they themselves will react until the story is told. Connor reacts more and more violently with each story the monster tells. If his situation had been different and he heard the same stories, undoubtedly his reactions would not have been the same. Similarly, when writing a story, I’m sure many authors don’t know exactly where their story will go, how it will end up. I can’t be the only writer who is often surprised by what my characters decide to do. Stories weave themselves into the fabric of culture and inform society at many levels; the monster is just highlighting that fact in ways Connor doesn’t always appreciate. 

Another big theme is truth. Connor’s mother has cancer. Truth. She is going to die. Truth. No one comes out and directly says any of this, beating around the bush about it, even though everyone knows what is going to happen. The monster helps Connor to see that the truth, though often painful, is the only way he can be healed, and that that is why the monster came. Not to heal Connor’s mother, but to heal Connor himself. Connor has to learn that the truth is the only way he can learn to let his mother go and also the only way to live through it. And he has to learn to forgive himself. Everyone lies to themselves sometimes, and to others. It is a human trait to ward off pain and to comfort themselves. But ultimately, facing the truth is the only way to relieve that pain, no matter how pleasant the lie is. 

Learning a little bit of woodlore is always an added bonus. There was a lot of discussion about the yew tree, which is what the monster is. Yew trees are what the dreaded English longbows were made from in the Middle Ages. The tree is symbolic of death, rebirth, and immortality likely because old yew branches that droop to the ground can take root and grow new yew trees and they are incredibly long-lived. There are a lot of churches in Britain that have yew trees around them, particularly in cemeteries. They are highly toxic and their needles can produce fatal results if ingested. The berries are also hallucinogenic and lethal. The tree can also symbolise silence, introspection, and aloofness, possibly because they’re very twisty trees with lots of nooks and crannies for solitary creatures to live in, or for ways to the Underworld in Celtic mythology. The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford would make an interesting companion read, at least her chapter on yew. 

As for the audiobook element, yes, I got it for Jason Isaacs. However, he honestly is an excellent narrator, doing various voices and accents with great facility. His performance draws listeners into the story swiftly and seamlessly. He is one of my favorite narrators, right alongside David Tennant, Simon Preble, Davina Porter, Wil Wheaton, and Simon Vance.

Strongly recommended, especially the audio version. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.
  • Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 
  • Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell.
  • Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” 
  • You were merely wishing for the end of pain, the monster said. Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.”