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.]

Binti: The Complete Trilogy

BintiBinti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: Earth, Ooma Uni, and spaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 358 pp

Published by: Daw

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Binti is a young woman from Earth, a member of the Himba people of Namibia. She is what is known as a master harmonizer, a person who has a skill in bringing balance to all, usually through math. Her role is to succeed her father as her tribe’s master harmonizer. However, that is upended when Binti is accepted into the prestigious Oomza Uni, an entire planet devoted to learning. Binit runs away against her parents’ wishes to study, but while her ship is en route, it is attacked by the warlike Meduse, leaving her the traumatized only survivor. Binti eventually forms a bond with Okwu, one of the Medusae from the attack, and a link is created between their two peoples, paving the way for an unusual peace.

I read these novellas in the form of an omnibus paperback, so I can’t really separate the three stories in my mind. To me, they’re all one story. But, as always, I am impressed with Okorafor’s skill in creating such rich characters and culture in a relatively short span of pages. The Himba people are not fictional; they have a long and complex culture from which Okorafor could draw. But she fleshed out the people in ways that made them entirely real. I cared about every character on the page, which is a rare thing for me. 

I loved Binti’s search for herself, her bravery in leaving the only home she’d ever known in an attempt to create a different life for herself. The act of leaving home, becoming independent, learning new things about yourself is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. I feel bad for people who never experience that in any way. 

The ways that humans and the Medusae were at conflict and how they resolved their problems is sadly still a relevant metaphor for human society as a whole. We seem plagued with people, whether groups or individuals, who only care about enriching themselves or enforcing their agenda and worldview. There isn’t enough peace anywhere. So much can be said about this but, as I’ve said for years, SFF is an ideal medium in which to discuss real-world issues. Binti is no different. There were many themes that made me think: home, community, identity, conflict, colonialism, friendship. I’m sure examinations of these themes and more could be made, and wind up longer than the book itself. I love that; books that make me think while also providing a good story are to be treasured.

Overall, I liked this story, though I think I enjoyed Okorafor’s other works that I’ve read a little more. This trilogy (plus the short story included in the omnibus edition) seemed to focus more on how to fit in social issues than how it impacts the plot, so I think there are some gaps that need to be filled. But still, the Binti trilogy is a terrific story and one I definitely recommend. 

Favorite lines:

  • Will his happiness kill him? (Okwu asked this without a hint of irony or sarcasm. Me, too, Okwu. Me. Too. Deeply suspicious of happiness.)

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

the hundred thousand kingdomsThe Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin (Website, Twitter)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: the city of Sky

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Cassaundra Freeman

Source: my own collection 

Length: 11:47:00

Published by: Daw 

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Yeine Darr is the daughter of a disgraced noblewoman of the Arameri, the rulers of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Their seat of power is in the city of Sky. Yeine is summoned to Sky by her grandfather, her mother’s father, who is also the ruler of the Arameri. To her utter shock and horror, he names her as one of his three heirs to the throne. Now she will be expected to compete against two cousins she never knew for the throne. While she is learning the ways of Sky, rife with political machinations and corruption, Yeine also learns that several gods are held by the Arameri as slaves after they lost to the god Bright Itempas in the Gods’ War. Now those gods are bitter, unsurprisingly, and they have a plan to help Yeine win in her struggle for the throne.

This first instalment in Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy is, in many ways, a pretty typical fantasy narrative: a young warrior woman loses her family, is named an heir to the kingdom, falls in love with a god, is used as a pawn by a variety of people, and eventually is victorious. But Jemisin sort of upends a lot of traditions as well, which was her stated goal in writing her novels. 

The people who were the ruling class, the Arameri, were the highest class because the high priestess of the goddess Itempas was an Arameri when the Gods’ War occurred millennia ago. So that part makes sense within this story. I really like how Jemisin then creates a society that is more and more corrupt the closer one gets to the gods. I don’t think it is untrue at all here, but it is certainly not what most people want to believe. This story tackles it head-on. 

The world building in this novel is amazing. That is one of the best things about Jemisin’s writing. I did find it a little hard to keep track of at times, which might be partly because I listened to the audiobook rather than eyeball reading this one. Sometimes the dialogue was not well marked that I could tell, so I wasn’t sure who was speaking for kind of big sections of discussion. But I’m not sure, again, how much that is a function of listening to the book instead of reading it. 

In line with the rich world building are many, MANY different themes. Off the top of my head, there is slavery, colonialism, racism, power, tradition, and religion. These are intricately woven throughout the entire narrative in ways that are sometimes startling or subversive. It’s a great way to get readers to think about many things we believe and hold dear without really knowing WHY we do. So many traditions in this novel were followed simply because that’s what has always been done, which is of course why something is a tradition. But if a tradition blows, then you should change it or abandon it. Columbus Day, for example, isn’t a traditional holiday we should still be observing in the 21st century. It is being replaced in many states by Indigenous Peoples Day, which is far better. Change can be a good thing. 

Every single character in this book is richly nuanced and complex with the exception, I think, of Scimena Arameri, Yeine’s cousin and another potential heir. She was all hate and bitterness, all the time. I’m not too sure why this one character was so one-dimensional but I’m sure Jemisin has her reasons. I may have just not picked up on what it was. She was an easy character to despise, though. Otherwise, the rest of the cast was really interesting, even those who you don’t like. 

Looking forward to getting into the second book!

The Second Blind Son

the second blind sonThe Second Blind Son by Amy Harmon (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: Saylock

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Rob Shapiro

Source: my own collection 

Length: 15:58:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Second Blind Son is a sequel of sorts to Amy Harmon’s earlier novel, The First Girl Child. I say of sorts because this story ran concurrently to the events of TFGC, rather than portraying a continuation of that story. In this, the focus is on Hod, a blind man who is raised to be a Keeper of the Temple by Arwin, a cave keeper. Arwen has taught Hod how to listen, smell, feel in ways that are uncanny to help him compensate for his blindness. As a result, Hod is adept at hunting and fighting through the use of his heightened senses. He can identify the heartbeats of individual people, their specific scent, and so forth. And then one day, he rescues a girl who washes up near his cave from a shipwreck. Ghisla is the sole survivor from her people, the Songers, whose voices are ethereally beautiful, and she wants to die. Slowly, she and Hod become the best of friends and, when she uses a rune carved upon her hand, Hod is able to see. Their paths are often separated but they retain their connection through the years, through political upheaval, and across vast distances.

I loved this book so much. I really liked the way it wove into the earlier story of TFGC and made you remember events from that story alongside this new one. I hadn’t realised it was that sort of timeline, so I kind of wish I had reread TFGC before jumping into this one, but it in no way hindered the ease of following the story. It is just a thing I would have done to refresh my own memory. And yes, it can probably be read as a standalone, but I truly think readers are short-changing themselves not to read TFGC first. Not only will you become familiar with the world of Saylock, but the characters from that book who make appearances in this one are familiar and welcome. You’d miss out on that if you only read TSBS as a standalone.

The narration was excellent as well. The narrator did some different voices for various characters, but only enough to differentiate them within the scene. He didn’t go crazy with melodrama, he just read the story in an engaging way. There were times when he sounded just like Tuvok, though, so that was a bit of cognitive dissonance. I kept expecting Star Trek. 

The character development throughout was decent, though I would have liked to get more scenes with the other Daughters of the Temple. They were an important part of the story but I feel like I didn’t get to know them very well. Maybe future Saylock books will focus on them more in some way. Ghisla becomes one of the Daughters when she is forced to leave Hod’s cave and is given in lieu of a clan chieftain’s daughter to the Keepers. There, she is known as Liis of Leok and no one learns her true identity. Hod is the only one who knows her real story. Also, YAY for the book sample on Amazon having the spelling of characters’ names! I would not have gotten some right from just listening to it.

I thought it was interesting how King Banruud was a hateful, horrible person but Ghisla could help keep him from raging too much with her music. I don’t remember his madness at all from TFGC, but here it struck me as horrific, persistent tinnitus. I know that can make people crazy – mine sometimes wakes me up – but if one is already crazy and cruel to begin with, what new horrors could the condition bring about? Doesn’t make his actions at all ok, but I thought it was an interesting reading of madness. 

Keeping Hod and Ghisla apart in distance but giving them the means with which to communicate with each other was a great touch. It allowed them to grow and mature, and their relationship did likewise. The rune magic that helped them speak to one another really keeps things humming along for readers so we can sense their desire to be together but we don’t get bored by the separation. 

Probably there is a message in there about how true love doesn’t need to see to recognize one’s beloved. Or something. Ick. I don’t really do romance, though I find this sort of non-melodramatic, non-bodice-ripping romance within many fantasy novels to be entirely acceptable. 

Overall, a thoroughly lovely story, nicely paced, and I can’t wait to read more of Harmon’s fantasy novels!

Elatsoe

elatsoeElatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: MG fantasy

Setting: slightly different America/ Texas

I read it as a(n): audiobook, then switched to a physical book

Narrator: Kinsale Hueston

Source: public library 

Length: 09:01:00 / 360 pp

Published by: Dreamscape Media (22 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Elatsoe “Ellie” is a Lipan Apache who is able to raise the ghosts of dead animals. She comes from a long line of family members with this talent, back to her great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who her family calls Six Great, also Ellie’s namesake. Ellie’s constant companion is the ghost of her dog, Kirby. When Kirby freaks out, Ellie soon learns that her cousin Trevor was killed in a car accident, but it was a cover-up to his murder. When Trevor’s ghost visits Ellie and asks her to help take care of his wife and baby son, Ellie and her best friend Jay try to figure out what really happened to Trevor, and how a white man called Abe Allerton from Willowbee, TX is involved. Dark, ancient secrets then threaten to consume Ellie and all her family as she digs deeper to uncover the truth about Trevor’s death.

There was a lot to like about this book. For one thing, I think it’s good that Ellie identifies as asexual and not one person in her circle gives a toss or makes a big deal out of it. It is just pure acceptance and it is part of who she is, no questions asked and no one trying to tell her she’ll change her mind once she’s older. 

There was also a lot of tradition and stories from Ellie’s Apache heritage. I know absolutely nothing about this, so I’m just going to assume that it is at least partially true, considering that Darcie Little Badger is Apache herself. The elders, the way they are so highly respected, and the various stories are all awesome.

Related to Ellie’s knowledge of her Native culture is her experience with racism. That is not a pro – for those sitting in the back, racism is bad! – but the discussions that came with her experiences are important and necessary. I liked that Jay was shown as a generally real, clueless white dude who has never had to experience racism of any kind. He means well and doesn’t have a mean or racist bone in his body, but he is utterly unaware of why he would have to convince a store clerk to sell him anything because “we haven’t done anything wrong.” Ellie’s response to him is somewhat amused eye rolling, which in real life doesn’t help much of anything, but in the story, it gets the discussion onto the page for readers to ponder over. 

Also, how can a story involving the ghosts of fossilized animals not be cool on at least some levels? Ellie brings back the ghost of a trilobite, for fuck sake! And there’s a wooly mammoth ghost! That is rad!

There was a lot, though, that I definitely did not like, and I mostly feel that it outweighed the good things that I did like. For one thing, this book was marketed as a YA. However, it read as way, way younger than that. Middle grade would have been far more accurate. I often had to remind myself that Ellie and Jay were both 17 and nearly through with high school. For example, when the ball at Allerton’s mansion was in swing and vampires were killing, Jay’s older sister wanted to keep Ellie from seeing. She responded that she and Jay were at least at a PG-13. Um, yes. Considering that you are actually 17, it would make sense that a PG-13 scene would be something ok for them to see. I mean, what? 

Also, Ellie and Jay are described as being best friends from birth, having met when their mothers were in the same birthing class. And yet they don’t know some very basic things about each other. Out of the blue, Jay tells Ellie he is a descendant of Oberon and that was a huge surprise to her. You wouldn’t know your best friend is descended from the most famous fairy king ever? Really? And Jay didn’t know “Ellie” is short for Elatsoe. Things like that are little facts about a person you learn when you are first becoming friends, not when you have grown up with someone. At one point, Ellie asked Jay if he had other sisters. The way it was written made it unclear if she was joking in that moment or if she was being serious. Given the lack of knowledge they have about each other, I think the confusion is understandable. Which leads me to the next reason I didn’t like this.

LAME DIALOGUE! OMG so lame. Ellie and Jay would literally be in media res and trying to fend off bad guys – and they engage in witty banter? Which isn’t actually witty? No. Just no. It might have worked if this was something like The Princess Bride or Indiana Jones but here? It just came across as immature. Also, one character made actual use of the phrase “meddling kids.” Like from Scooby-Doo. The dumb witty banter would have been fine in that children’s cartoon as well. But here, it kind of just smacked of the author needing to work on aging up her dialogue a lot more. 

And finally, the audio book. I had started this as an audio book. The narrator was so awful that, if I hadn’t been reading this for book club, I would not have bothered to continue. Since it WAS for my book club, I got a hard copy from the library and read that instead. It was better and far more interesting to eyeball read it. I would not listen to another book read by the same narrator. She made what was already a mediocre book for me almost unbearably boring. 

So ultimately, this was a solid meh for me. I didn’t hate it, I think it had some good things in it, but I definitely did not love it. 

All that said, I did find Little Badger’s short storyNkásht íí online. I thought it was pretty good.

Dark Matter

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: several different variations of Chicago

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 342 pp

Published by: Crown (26 July 2016)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jason Dessen is a physics professor at a small college in Chicago. Years ago, he’d had a promising future as one of the brightest young scientists in the world. He gave it up, though, in favor of living a quiet life and making a family with his wife. Then, he gets abducted and ends up in an alternate Chicago, looking at an alternate life. Now he has to figure out how to get back to his actual life in his own reality – or decide if he even wants to. 

This was a fast-paced, fun read full of “what ifs” and hypotheticals. It makes you think about the choices you make in your life and ponder the consequences of having chosen one way over another. What happens if you, as Jean-Luc Picard once did, start pulling at the threads that make up the tapestry of your life? 

akata warrios

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 477 pp

Published by: speak (3 Oct 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny Nwazue is a Leopard Person, AKA Nigerian witch. In the aftermath of defeating the evil masquerade Ekwensu, Sunny is spending her time studying with her mentor and learning how to read her magic Nsibidi book. She soon learns of an existential threat to humanity, centered in the town of Osisi, which exists both in reality and in the invisible spirit world. Sunny goes on a quest to save mankind, aided by her friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and her spirit face, Anyanwu.

Okorafor’s characters are ALL delightful and well developed. I fucking love Sunny and her friends, and am fascinated by the intersection of history, myth, and folklore that these books portray. The adventures and challenges Sunny faces are crazy fun to read and show kids overcoming obstacles, learning to be independent, becoming supportive friends, and strong leaders. Love it! Rumor has it that there’s a third book in the works for this series; I really hope that is true and that it will come out sooner rather than later. 

Eleanor Oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 327 pp

Published by: Pamela Dorman Books (9 May 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Eleanor Oliphant is a woman struggling with other humans. She appears to be on the spectrum, is highly structured, dislikes being touched, and generally prefers her own company. Sometimes I wonder if I, too, am on the spectrum. I identified with Eleanor in some very uncomfortable ways. Anyway, a wrench is thrown into her routine when she meets Raymond, an IT guy at her work who insists on befriending her. They share a further connection when they both assist an elderly man who faints on the sidewalk. That connection impacts them both in ways no one could have predicted. I don’t mean romance. That’s boring and predictable in most books. This isn’t that.

I loved this book. One of my top reads of 2021 so far. Eleanor has a terribly sad history, which readers piece together slowly with tidbits of information parsed out over the course of the book. Raymond is a proper good guy you can’t help but like. The novel is about the various ways we can destroy ourselves but then usually we get by with a little help from our friends. 

Girls in the Garden

Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell (Twitter, Insta)

Genre: mystery, I guess

Setting: London

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 313 pp

Published by: Atria (2 July 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

This was a solid meh for me. I enjoyed it well enough to finish it, the writing was fast paced and held my attention. But it maybe wasn’t a mystery? Especially since the answer is literally in the title? I figured this out like in chapter two; I think it would not come as a surprise to anyone who has been or lived with teenage girls at any point. Teen girls can be real assholes. 

That said, I didn’t hate this book at all. Just wasn’t surprised. I do plan to read other books by this author. Maybe if there are ones that aren’t centered on teenage girls, those will not be as easy to solve. Plus, if they’re all set in Britain, I’m down for that. I’ll read just about anything set in Britain.

Love After Love

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud (Twitter)

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: Trinidad and NYC

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: public library 

Length: 327 pp

Published by: One World (4 Aug 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Betty Ramdin is a young widow raising her son, Solo, on her own. Like, solo. In need of a little extra income or help, she takes on a boarder, Mr. Chetan. The three of them become their own unique little family until one day, Solo overhears his mother telling Mr. Chetan her darkest secret. Solo, like the little shit he is*, takes off to NYC to live with his paternal uncle as an undocumented immigrant. Mr. Chetan becomes the glue that tenuously holds the family together, until his own secret comes to light.

I read this for my book club, which is good because on my own, there is no fucking way I would have even looked at a book titled Love After Love. It sounds like a romance. I do not do romances. I’m glad I read it because it is on my top books of 2021 now. All the characters were richly developed, even if they were little shits. It was also interesting – and sad, sometimes – to see a glimpse of life in the Caribbean. Would definitely read more by this author!

*Solo isn’t a shit because he is undocumented. I am in favor of granting amnesty and Social Security numbers to everyone who wants to be here who doesn’t otherwise break the law. Solo is a shit because he is a spoiled, myopic asshole who could use a good ass-kicking.

The Lady Jewel Diviner

The Lady Jewel DivinerThe Lady Jewel Diviner by Rosalie Oaks (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy/ cosy mystery

Setting: Georgian England/ Devon coast

I read it as a(n): digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 266 pp

Published by: Parkerville Press (11 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Miss Elinor Avely finds herself exiled on the Devon coast with her mother and brother after her reputation was ruined in London in a most public fashion. Accused of stealing a jeweled necklace, she self-destructs further when she shuns Lord Beresford, who tried to save her by declaring before one and all that she was his fiancee. Exiled from society, Elinor is determined to keep her head down and be a dutiful daughter. Until, that is, her evening is interrupted by a bat flying into her room, turning into a tiny, naked woman, and demanding to be fed a sheep. The two form an unlikely alliance when a local man turns up dead, piles of jewels and gold are missing and presumed smuggled over to France to pay Napoleon, and the identity of an English spy may hit too close for comfort.

This was an entirely agreeable cosy mystery. Or cosy fantasy. Either one would be accurate. Honestly, though. Who wouldn’t adore a Regency cosy mystery fantasy romance? Elinor is a typical figure in many Regency romances and mysteries. She is curious, intelligent, and not at all afraid to speak her mind. If only Lord Beresford could appreciate that about her! Or does he? 

Aldreda Zooth, the tiny bat-woman, is a vampiri from France. She is in England to search for a necklace that belonged to her lost beloved and she convinces Elinor to help. Elinor is what Eldreda calls a Diviner, one who can find hidden objects by a sixth sense. This is, of course, what led to Elinor’s disgrace in London – she found a necklace but was accused of stealing it. Elinor agrees to help Eldreda but they are soon both drawn into an intrigue. Elinor gets to display her bravery and intelligence in several instances, but is still able to be a damsel in distress. Eldreda is an ideal chaperone, even though she is fairy-sized, and is a plucky and fun character.

Elinor’s brother, Perry, is a bit flat in terms of character development, but I really don’t think it matters a whole lot since he is not the main attraction of the novel. He is in it enough, though, that a little more depth for him would be appreciated. Perhaps this will come in future books, as the second in the series is set to be released on 1 March 2021. 

I will definitely be on the lookout for that book as well as others by this author. A light, somewhat silly, cosy mystery is exactly what I needed to read as pure escapism. Enthusiastically recommended.

Catch-Up Round: A Cook’s Tour and The Deep

A Cook's TourA Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Genre: food memoir

Setting: global

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 274 pp

Published by: ecco (30 July 2001)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Just like his various TV shows, this book takes readers on a global tour with Anthony Bourdain. He travels, eats, gets drunk with the locals, and writes about it, which is basically my dream job. He covered regions from Russia to Mexico, the UK to Asia, and many places in between in search of the perfect meal. 

This will be a super short review. I loved this book. I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 just because I thought the Russia section was overly long, and there were a few places where he seemed to have run out of words and kept using the same one over and over. That is bad editing, not really Tony’s fault, though. One of my favorite parts was in the Russia section, though, where he went into the frozen pool. LOL! 

I read this to complete a Read Harder task (read a food memoir about a cuisine you’ve never had before). I have had many of the cuisines in this book, but not all of them. I can honestly say I’ve never had any kind of Russian food, and some of the UK food. Though last time I was there, I did try black pudding and thought it was delicious. Anthony Bourdain is the reason I tried it. I wanted to read this book again now because I still miss him. 

The DeepThe Deep by Rivers Solomon (Website)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: the ocean deep

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 166 pp

Published by: Saga Press (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This was a super original fantasy set in the Caribbean. The Wajinru are basically mermaids, the water-breathing descendants of pregnant slaves who were thrown overboard through the Middle Passage. They live almost entirely in the present, with all their culture’s collective memories housed in one Historian. Once a year, all the Wajinru gather inside a huge room built specially for the gathering and the Historian, Yetu, passes all the memories to the other Wajinru. Yetu, though, is highly sensitive and being the receptacle of all the horrible memories of her ancestors is a burden that is killing her. She has to decide whether to leave her group and let the memories remain in the others or if she is willing to sacrifice her life for the wellbeing of her whole community. 

I did like this novella a great deal, though I found it kind of confusing in some parts. Once I got the Wajinru culture figured out, it got easier, though some of it was pretty nonlinear and threw me off a little bit. Overall, this story was complex and well-crafted, especially considering how short it is. The world-building was awesome.

Akata Witch

Akata Witch paperback cover

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy, MG

Setting: Near Abuja, Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 349 pp

Published by: Viking Children’s (14 April 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny is a young American girl born to Nigerian parents. Although she was born in New York, her family returned to Nigeria when she was 9 so that Sunny and her brothers could grow up knowing their culture and heritage. Sunny doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, since in America she is considered Nigerian, and in Nigeria she’s considered American. Everywhere she goes, she is albino. She can’t go in the sun and carries an umbrella with her everywhere. She can’t play soccer except sometimes at night with her brothers. And on top of it all, now she is seeing visions in candle flames. 

Her childhood friend, Orlu, and their neighbor Chichi discover that Sunny is a talented witch, for lack of a better term. So are they, and Sasha, a friend from the US who was also born to Nigerian parents. The four of them make an oha coven, a group of people whose magic and physical traits are perfectly balanced. Their mentor begins training the children and helping them to learn the extent of their juju. However, none are skilled enough to take on a brutal murderer of children who is himself a highly advanced juju man. And yet, they must confront him not only to save innocent lives, but to prevent an ancient and terrible being from being brought forth into their world.

A super fun and speedy read from Okorafor. The descriptions of Nigerian culture are evocative and rich and, even though this story is at its heart a fantasy, I feel like I was able to learn a bit about Nigerian culture by reading it. My favorite parts were where there were food descriptions. We can learn so much about a place and people through the food they serve. I absolutely am inspired now to look up some Nigerian recipes and give them a try. 

There was a strong theme of the bonds of friendship throughout this novel. Without friendship and trust, none of the kids would have survived the various magickal events and tests they endured. As they mature, I think the idea of their perfectly balanced group is that they will pair off into couples, thus strengthening the magic of the entire group as well as individually. I’ll see if I’m right when I read the sequel, Akata Warrior

So far, this is 5-0 in favor of Okorafor! I’ve read all three Binti novellas, Who Fears Death, and now this one and have really enjoyed all of them. That’s almost unheard of for me. This one is a younger book than I would typically read, but I still liked it a lot and it covers one of the Read Harder tasks. Recommended for all who enjoy fantasy, especially if you are looking to branch out and find books set somewhere other than the US or Britain, and who like to learn about various cultures.

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.”