Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a(n): hardback

Length: 320 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Klara is an AF, or Artificial Friend. When the story opens, she’s in a store with several other AFs, waiting to be purchased so they can be a child’s companion/nanny/caregiver when their parents are busy working. Klara and friends are given turns sitting in the front display window where they are easy to see and can get the full benefit of being in the sunlight. The sun takes on the role of deity to the apparently solar-powered AFs so getting to be in the display window gives them not only a better chance to get charged up but more time to see the sun directly. Eventually, Klara is purchased for a girl called Josie, who has an unspecified disease that is likely to kill her. 

Klara learns the routines of her new household and how to care for Josie. In this particular, Klara is uniquely suited to be Josie’s AF since Klara is keenly observant, a trait not shared by most other AFs. Because of her ability to observe, Josie’s mother approached Klara with a strange request when it becomes clear that Josie isn’t likely to survive much longer. Klara agrees, but she also takes it upon herself to try to strike a deal with the sun to save Josie. 

There are a lot of complex ideas and themes in this book, which I totally expect from Ishiguro. We could discuss what it means to be human, religion, eugenics, or obsolescence. But here’s the thing – I didn’t care enough about any character in this novel to really want to do that. I found Klara to be utterly boring, Josie to be shallow and vapid, and her mother disengaged. The only character who seemed at all relatable was Josie’s friend Rick. He is an “unlifted” kid, whatever that means. It seems to be some kind of genetic enhancement to make them smarter. As a result, unlifted kids tend to be denied entry to schools or other opportunities, but the lifted ones seem to have potentially deadly side effects. It seems very eugenicist. 

The thing I thought was the most interesting was Klara’s anthropomorphization and deification of the sun. It became a living thing to her, capable of making decisions and deciding whether or not to save people from death. The deification was always present in Klara, so maybe all the AFs are programmed with a basic belief in the sun as a god. That’s super interesting since religion is entirely a man-made construct anyway. But it also was painfully ridiculous at times, the way Klara begged the sun to help Josie or to notice her, promising to do good things in return for the sun’s help. I never got a sense that Klara actually felt emotions, so her asking the sun to heal Josie felt flat rather than touching. The whole thing could easily be read that religion is similarly silly and useless as Klara’s devotion to the sun. Ishiguro himself is officially Zen Buddhist but says he and his family were really without religion; they just said Buddhist because it was required at the time for a religion to be on the birth certificate (NPR). This whole part of the novel makes me think that he was commenting on religion as an unnecessary, man-made construct, or that Klara’s programming could be analogous to the human need to find patterns and meaning in everything, the so-called “god gene” on a robotic level. For me, this was the most interesting part of the novel.

I was really disappointed with this book overall. Never Let Me Go it was not. That book was amazing and deep and dense. Klara and the Sun, by contrast, felt shallow. I’m not sure if that’s because Klara was the narrator and I found her to be supernaturally boring or if I just didn’t like it or what. Whatever it was, it made me want to reread NLMG to wash the taste of this one out of my brain. 

Reference:

“Kazuo Ishiguro Draws on His Songwriting Past to Write Novels about the Future.” NPR, NPR, 17 Mar. 2021, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/978138547.

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The Family Upstairs

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
Genre: mystery
I read it as a(n): hardback
Length: 338 pp
Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Libby Jones has always known she was adopted. But upon her 25th birthday, she discovers she is apparently the sole remaining inheritor to a very large home in London’s posh Chelsea neighborhood. She also learns that her birth parents hadn’t really died in a car crash; they committed suicide in a cult. As Libby discovers more and more about her family’s dark history, with the help of a friendly investigative journalist, she finds herself enmeshed in a web of lies and deceit that could alter her entire life.

This was a fun piece of brain candy. It’s the second I’ve read by Lisa Jewell and so far I’ve enjoyed them both. I didn’t think there was a ton of character development but that’s ok. It’s a plot driven story and super in depth characters with a lot of growth throughout the book isn’t necessary for this to be a good read.

I’ve always been fascinated by cults except the cult of personality surrounding a certain orange former president. I know there are plenty of smart people who get sucked into cults so it’s weird to me how otherwise intelligent people can buy into shit like that. The cult in this story was small – just one disgusting but charismatic man and a few couples and small families – but the dynamics and deterioration from normal into crazy was horrifying and interesting all the same. Cults, man. They’re fucking weird.

Anyway, I liked the book, I’d read more by this author, and it was a nice diversion for a long weekend.

A Dance with Fate

A Dance with Fate by Juliet Marillier

Genre: historical fantasy

I read it as a(n): paperback

Length: 491 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The second installation in Marillier’s Warrior Bards series begins with a fighting competition and tragic accident. Liobhan, daughter of Blackthorn and Grim, and Dau, both Swan Island warriors, are participating in a training exercise when Dau slips, hits his head hard, and wakes up blind. Dau’s father, a local chieftain, blames Liobhan and demands that she serve a year as a bonded servant in his household as payment, along with a handsome sum of silver coins. Liobhan readily agrees to that, even though she knows Dau’s blindness was an accident. Dau’s father insists, too, that he be returned to his family home to be cared for. This is a problem since Dau’s family, in particular his older brothers, are sick twists who love to hurt people. Going to his family’s home is the very last thing on earth Dau wants to do. But his chieftain father prevails and Dau is packed off home along with Liobhan, who is already being treated like a slave. During their time there, Dau and Liobhan have to learn to navigate the family dynamics, survive their abuse, and in the process, uncover a deep and dangerous secret involving the Crow Folk.

I have yet to read a book by Juliet Marillier that I don’t like. There are some I like more than others but I unreservedly recommend all of her books to anyone who likes the historical fantasy genre. This one was another hit for me. I liked the way the character development happened, especially with Dau. I thought it was interesting how he learned to adapt to his new circumstances and how his Swan Island training carried him through even the worst times. Seeing very strong characters like him and Liobhan become more vulnerable is always a thought provoking experience for readers. 

This novel was told from the POV of Liobhan, Dau, and Liobhan’s brother Brocc, who lives in the Otherworld, married to the queen of the fae. I generally enjoy when stories alternate perspectives like that, and this was no different. I didn’t like the parts with the Otherworld as much as in the “real” world, I think because I just don’t like the queen, Eirne, at all. I do think Brocc is an interesting figure and love that his voice can be a weapon or a balm. I like, too, Rowan and True. But unless the Otherworld time was primarily with those three, I didn’t care much for those characters or what happens to them, mainly because Eirne is such a dick. I suppose that is a sign of good writing, though, that I feel so strongly about a fictional character! 

I’m off to read the third book in this series, A Song of Flight. I hope Marillier writes a new book soon. I get so happy when I get to read her work!

Hyperion

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a(n): paperback

Length: 482 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The planet Hyperion is under threat, partly from a brewing interstellar war and mainly from the Shrike, a quasi-mythical creature from the planet’s Time Tombs. The Church of the Shrike allows a certain number of pilgrims each year to make a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs and to make a wish to the Shrike. However, given the war and the fact that the Shrike is now loose and wreaking murderous havoc on Hyperion, only one last group of pilgrims will be permitted. Seven people with wildly different backgrounds have been selected to travel on the final pilgrimage. Along the way, they share their stories of what led them to be selected.

This book is basically The Canterbury Tales in space, so naturally I really liked it. As with the Tales, there were some stories I found to be more interesting than others and one I just didn’t really get. I think my favorites were Sol Weintraub’s and Brawne Lamia’s. Probably my least favorite was the Consul’s. Everyone else’s was fun and interesting to varying degrees. 

Giving the characters their turns to tell a story allowed Simmons to give more depth to each character than maybe he could have if he had simply told a story from 3rd person omniscient. I liked the different narrators and think he did a great job with creating a unique voice for each pilgrim. 

I had a hard time picturing some things in the settings, though. Like farcasters. Are they like doors but you go through and go to a different planet? And the actual planetary settings never quite gelled in my head either. Maybe I was distracted when reading parts of this or something but I wanted more in that regard. “New Earth” doesn’t mean much to me. Is it a place just like Earth or is it just called that because that’s where humans landed after Earth Actual was destroyed? 

Similarly, I wanted a little more depth on the politics of the story. Maybe there is more detail in the second book but I wanted to know more about all the machinations, how the AIs and Ousters fit in (and who WERE the Ousters? Are they other humans who want nothing to do with the Hegemony? Aliens? If they’re humans, why are they apparently so much more advanced than the other humans?), and why there was a spy. I actually feel like it might have been better to leave at least some of these things out entirely and just focus on the pilgrims but then it would make one pilgrim’s story less relevant. 

The things I felt were lacking, like an actual resolution to the plot once the pilgrims get to the Time Tombs, can be overlooked if you figure the journey rather than the destination is the important part. But even with a plot that is supposed to span across a few books, I feel like each book ought to have a solid conclusion that leaves readers largely satisfied if they choose not to continue the series. I do feel somewhat unsatisfied with the ending since they arrived at the Tombs and then…what? We don’t get to find out. I did truly enjoy the book, but it left me hanging and that makes me crazy. 

This was actually the first book by Simmons that I’ve read but I have a couple of his others. I’m looking forward to those as well. I thought I had read Hyperion years ago but even with my forgetfulness, I don’t think I ever did actually read it. I’m glad I did, not just because it’s basically a sci-fi requirement but because it really was a fun story. I’m trying to go back through a lot of the sci-fi from the ‘70s and ‘80s that I missed and this was one of them. 
Now I’m trying to decide whether I should read the rest of the books in the trilogy or whether I should let it go and actually read more from my ridiculous TBR pile. Being who I am, I’ll probably buy the books and let them sit in my TBR for years before getting around to them, like I did with Hyperion in the first place. LOL.

Bigass Catch-Up Round

I have been extremely lazy about blogging and book reviews lately. I am not sure why, but I am going to try to be better. My goal has always been to do a review for every book I read even if not one person reads my blog, so I’ve clearly failed at that recently. But I am also way too lazy to do a full review for… let me count… 19 different books. So I’mma rush through! Yay, slipshod blogging!

Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre

Genre: fantasy

Length: 9:41:00

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A fantasy set on a ruined Earth, Snake is a healer who, through the ignorance of others, loses one of her most effective and rare instruments of healing. This is the story of her quest to find another. The narrator was a little meh for me but despite that, this ended up on my “top books of 2022” list. 

The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

Genre: sci-fi

Length: 112 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Restless wanderer meets outdated but sentient robot and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Lots of themes to unpack, including LGBT/ace relationships, hate crimes, and what it means to be human.

Children of Men by PD James

Genre: sci-fi

Length: 241 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

The youngest person on the planet is now in their 20s because no one can have babies anymore. Aside from the idea that not having so many freaking babies would be a good idea right now, this was one of the most boring books I ever actually completed. 
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Mona at Sea

mona at seaMona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James (Website)

Genre: contemporary fiction

Setting: Tucson, AZ

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Aida Reluzco

Source: public library

Length: 08:02:00

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Mona Mireles is a 23-year-old recent grad. She has her degree in finance from U of A in hand and a posh job lined up in NYC. Then the recession hit and Mona, like millions of other people, found herself jobless and living back at home with her parents. Cue the angst and entitlement.

I don’t like to be hard on authors, especially debut authors. It is scary to put a large piece of yourself out there for all and sundry to read. It takes a lot of bravery. But this book… there was not one character I cared about, most of them I outright disliked, and it kind of highlights many of the reasons why so many people don’t care much for Millennials. 

Mona is a whiny little bitch for all of this book. She seems to think she deserves to get her dream job right out of college, with zero actual working experience in her field. She whines that she HAD a job lined up but it evaporated when the recession hit. So instead of her fancy job as a hedge fund whatever, she winds up with a minimum wage job at a call center trying to talk people into giving a donation to some charity or other, which she thinks she is too good for. Guess what, peaches? Same thing happened to millions of people, most of whom probably had a lot more usable experience than you. I hate to be insensitive, or sound like a Republican, but you’re not special and the world owes you fuck-all. 

To deal with her angst, Mona likes to do self-harm. She cuts her thighs, where it is easy to hide. But since art is her True Calling, not finance that she just spent 4 years in college working towards (and honestly, how did she go from art to finance? There was very little discussion on that, so it felt like a Plot Twist for the Sake of a Plot Twist), she doesn’t just cut. She is carving a Mona Lisa face into her leg. So, ok. I have no experience with cutting and to my knowledge, none of my friends ever did either. But I have read other books dealing with self-harm by authors who are open about their own self-harm experience. This read more like it was written by someone with a weird vicarious interest in cutting rather than by someone who actually knows what she’s talking about. If I’m wrong, then I am sorry; I do not mean to belittle her trauma. But I just don’t buy it as written. She made it sound cute. If the author has a history of self-harm and this is how she refers to it in her own head, ok. But if not, then it seems really patronizing to those people who do have issues with self-harm and it feels like it minimizes their pain and experience.

All of the characters were shallow and uninteresting in general. I didn’t really find any of them that believable. Maybe I just didn’t care about the plot and that translated into not caring about the characters. I don’t know. Either way, this one wasn’t my cup of tea.

The Deadliest Sin

the deadliest sinThe Deadliest Sin by Jeri Westerson (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: medieval mystery

Setting: 14th century London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 321 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In this 15th (and final) novel in the Crispin Guest medieval noir series, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired to help the prioress of a convent discover who is behind a series of grisly murders of her nuns. They each appear to be related to the Seven Deadly Sins, begging the question of what the victims really had to hide. At the same time, Henry Bolingbroke, the exiled son of John of Gaunt, has returned to England with an army at his back. Crispin once again finds himself in a position where he has to decide whether to support the crowned king or to commit treason again, possibly paying for it with his life this time. 

For the past 15ish years, readers have followed along on adventures with Crispin Guest, former knight and lord of the realm, disenfranchised for treason when he threw in his lot with the supporters of John of Gaunt over King Richard II. He’s gone from being angry and bitter to content and even happy and loving his role as the indulgent head of a very rowdy house full of Jack’s children. He has learned that he is quite able to make a decent life for himself through his tracking skills, and has earned the appreciation of many Londoners by helping them. Certainly, he has done more good for the citizens than the sheriffs ever did, which makes him smug. So it has been fun to watch his progression over the years. 

Same with Jack. He went from being a 10 year old mongrel street urchin who seemed to be on a glide path to the gallows for thievery to a competent apprentice tracker, loving husband, and fun loving father. His character arc was almost as big as Crispin’s and it has been a joy to see how he’s grown over the years. 

Yes, these characters feel real to me. 

The mystery in this novel was a fun and twisty one, full of murder and theft and nuns! With! Secrets! It would have been a great read on its own, but I was so focused on all the stuff with Henry Bolingbroke and Richard II that the mystery sort of fell to the wayside with me on this one. Not because it wasn’t good or anything. I just wanted to know how it would all end! After the mystery was solved, I found myself covering up any part of the page I hadn’t read yet so that I wouldn’t accidentally read too far ahead and spoil myself. I think that is a mark of a terrific story. 

I could tell you how it ended. I could tell you what I thought about it. But then maybe you wouldn’t go out and read these books for yourself, and that would truly be a loss for you. I realllllly think you should read them all. You won’t be sorry you did and then, when you get to this book, you will be on tenterhooks to see what new awful thing Westerson might do to poor Crispin! And then you can mourn the last book in the series. And then you can go out and be excited to read the other books Westerson already has, and look forward to the new Tudor series she’s got in the works!

The Witch’s Daughter

the witch's daughterThe Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston (Website | Twitter)

Genre: magical realism

Setting: Batchcombe, Wessex

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 403 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Bess Hawksmith is a young woman when the Great Plague of 1666 swept through her small village of Batchcombe. Naturally, the bereaved townsfolk need a scapegoat to blame for the losses they suffered. Bess’s mother, Anne, is a healer, so bingo! She must be a witch! The townsfolk round her up, along with another old woman who is a midwife, and hang them. The thing is, Anne really was a witch, and so is Bess. Bess flees and spends the next several centuries (she’s effectively immortal) running both from the memory of the horrific persecution as well as from the warlock who made a deal with the devil to give Bess her supernatural powers. Living a solitary life, Bess eventually finds a kindred spirit in young Tegan, a lonely teen who is drawn to Bess and her energy. But in taking Tegan under her wing, Bess inadvertently puts her in danger from Gideon, the man who has been hunting her throughout the years.

This one was, for me, SUPER slow to start. I almost quit. But then it picked up around chapter 4 or 5 and it was a very fast read from there out. I enjoyed this story a lot, though I don’t think it really had anything too unique about it. It was fairly predictable at the end, but the journey getting to the end was worth the read. I have a particular fondness for the Victorian Era, so I enjoyed that section the most. The bit from World War I was awful (an awful experience, not an awful read or awful writing). I don’t know much about that war, nor about the Battle of Passchendaele specifically, but it was an interesting, if sad and gory, part of the book. 

Overall, I think the characters were fairly well developed, but I’m not sure how much growth they really showed. Bess did mature and became a wise woman, but once she reached her maturity, she kind of stalled out. Gideon was consistently wicked but he was not a Bad Boy kind of character to me. I usually like those. Gideon was more like a cancerous presence to be cut out of a life rather than one who held any real attraction. Tegan was just a regular teen and didn’t really show anything other than that. Which is fine. They all worked for the story.

I think readers who enjoy Sarah Addison Allen or Alice Hoffman will enjoy this book. SAA and AH have more complex characters and richer storytelling, but I do think PB will get there eventually as well.

Sadie

SadieSadie by Courtney Summer (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: YA/ contemporary fiction

Setting: Cold Creek, CO/ various other shithole small towns 

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 336 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sadie is the story of Sadie Hunter, a young woman who goes missing and is presumed to have run away. However, when it is clear that she has run off after her little sister was horrifically murdered, radio personality West McCray takes an investigative journalism approach into the situation with the intent to make a podcast similar to Serial. He learns that Sadie took off with the intent of finding her sister’s murderer.

This was a fast read and I really enjoyed the format. The chapters switched back and forth between Sadie’s POV and the podcast transcript. I think it kept the story from getting too terribly overwhelmed with the unrelenting hopelessness all the characters carry with them. I’m so incredibly privileged that I don’t have to live in a shithole town with crushing poverty, a rampant drug and alcohol problem, and where the best jobs are working at a gas station. How do people not want to get out of that? It has to be a totally foreign mindset because I think I would do anything to get out. Get a job at Starbucks or Walmart, places that will help you attend college. The lack of interest even to try is beyond me. 

Anyway, Sadie’s story is tragic and heartbreaking and I wouldn’t wish her life on anyone. I usually love a good, ambiguous ending but in this case, I did want to know more. The book left me feeling unsatisfied with the end, as though the novel was incomplete or that the author just got tired of writing and ended it. Even adding in a small clue of some kind could have made it more properly ambiguous. But on balance, I liked this book and think it’s something a lot of young folks would benefit from reading. It’s a great example of how fiction helps to build empathy.

Spinning Silver

spinning silverSpinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Website | Twitter )

Genre: fantasy

Setting: someplace very like Russia

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 466 pp

Published by: Del Rey (2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Miryem’s father and grandfather are moneylenders. Her grandfather is good at it; her father, not so much. Tired of living in poverty and seeing her parents be taken advantage of, Miryem takes it upon herself to begin collecting the debts her father is owed. She is so good at it that the people of her town grumble that she can change silver into gold. This, unfortunately, draws the attention of the Staryk king, a being from a snowy alternate world where gold is precious. He takes Miryem and commands that she change all his silver into gold.

Irina is the daughter of a duke, not beautiful and viewed only as a pawn by her father. Through a set of jewelry with magical properties, Irina becomes beautiful to all who see her, except to the tsar, a young man she’s known since childhood and who is cruel. Naturally, her father contrives to marry her to the tsar.

Wanda is a peasant in Miryem’s town. When her father is unable to pay his debt, Miryem allows Wanda to come work for her family to help repay it. Over the course of the months, Wanda and her brothers become family to Miryem. Their love and aid help Miryem and Irina to rid their land of a horrible demon that is hell-bent on feeding on Irina – unless she can bring him a snow king.

I loved this book. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading it, but I’m glad I did at last. I liked Novik’s earlier novel, Uprooted, well enough, though I remember not being thrilled with the verbal and mental abuse the dragon put the protagonist through. This book didn’t have that. What it does have are three very strong young women who are each, in their own ways, selfless and put the needs of their loved ones, whoever they may be, before themselves. Naturally, I like books that show women banding together for a common goal. Sometimes, it goes overboard and shows them being selfless to the point of overwriting their own needs or personalities, but that didn’t happen in this novel. I think it showed a good and necessary balance between helping others and helping oneself. 

The plot with the tsar and how he got his demon was a great twist. I didn’t see that coming and it added a lot of dimension to his character. He wasn’t just a flat character that is so common in folktales, purely good or purely evil. 

I liked, too, how Novik wove in a lot of Jewish culture and stories with this. I think it was a great blend of cultures and tales – Jewish culture, the girl who could spin straw into gold, and Russian Baba Yaga and Chernobog folktales. I definitely recommend this one. I should check out Novik’s Temeraire series one of these days!

Favorite lines (potential spoilers!):

  • (Irina considering political marriages): But he wasn’t a fool, or cruel. And more to the point, I was reasonably certain he wasn’t going to try and devour my soul. My expectations for a husband had lowered (229-230).
  • I had never seen any Jew but Miryem’s family before except the woman on the line and her son. Now I did not see anyone else. It was a strange feeling. I thought that when Miryem had to go to the Staryk Kingdom maybe it was like this for her. All of a sudden everyone around you was the same as each other but not like you. And then I thought but it was like that for Miryem already. It was like that for her all the time in town. So maybe it hadn’t been so strange (303).
  • But I won’t ever tell you what it is (466). [My favorite last line of a book in a good long while.]