BOOK REVIEWS

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

“Like I said already, I hunt monsters. And I got a sword that sings.”

Ring Shout is an action-driven historical novella that combines horror with the kind of anime that have magical swords & monsters-posing-as-humans in them. The story takes place in Georgia during the 1920s and follows a group of black women who hunt monsters who take the form of KKK members. This is neat concept and I would definitely encourage other readers to pick this one up (I particularly recommend the audiobook version as I found Channie Waites’ narration to be spot on). The story did strike me as a rather rushed and somewhat formulaic. Maybe I shouldn’t have read this so soon after finishing another novella by P. Djèlí Clark but Ring Shout shares much in common with his other work. If we leave the setting aside we have a young woman who is the ‘chosen one’ or happens to be the ‘only one’ who can save the world. The stakes, dare I say, are too high for such a short format. If this had been a full-length novel, I wouldn’t have minded as much. Here the side characters have rather one-dimensional personalities (we have the joker, the handsome love interest, the more level-headed in the team, the German who is Marx aficionado, three aunties reminiscent of the Moirai). Still, at least they had personalities. The main character, on the other hand, is very much defined by her ‘chosen one’ role. Nevertheless I obviously rooted for her as she slays KKK monsters.
While it wasn’t a particularly thought-provoking novella (the whole discussion on good & evil was somewhat condensed) it makes for a quick and relatively gripping read starring badass black & queer girls/women. There is gore, some pretty-epic fight sequences, a few moments of respite, and a lot of banter. The author present his readers with some real creepy visuals (the mouths, enough said) and some subversive ideas. Overall, if you are new to his work this is definitely worth checking out (it will make for a solid Halloween read).

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

This is the third novella I’ve read by P. Djèlí Clark and once again I find myself loving his building but not his story or characters. This novella is set in an alternate 1912 Cairo where djinns and angels are the norm. world happens to be the home to djinns Egypt, . In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Our protagonist is Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the classic ‘spunky’ female lead who is has to ‘forge’ her way in an all-male environment, whose latest case involves the apparent suicide of a djinn. Alongside Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr, the classic ‘set in his ways/not so concerned by his job’ male counterpart to this type of female lead, Fatima questions and is confronted by otherworldly and potentially world-destroying beings.

The setting is the most unique and strongest aspect of this novella. The storyline is fast-paced and was too action focused. I would have preferred a slower narrative, one that would have allowed for more interiority from the characters. Still, this was an overall quick and relatively entertaining read and I probably would recommend it just the world-building alone (I mean, we have clockworks angels!).


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — book review

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“IT WAS DUSK – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was one of my favourite books as a child. We have a winter-y and atmospheric setting, an evil governess who alongside some other knavish characters is up to no good, intrepid children—possibly an orphan or two—who outsmart wicked adults, and, last but not least, wild and ferocious wolves.

The fairy-tale elements and imagery contribute to the novel’s simultaneously cozy and spine-tingling atmosphere that really brought to mind Jane Eyre (the first part of the novel, when Jane is a child).
Set in an alternative history of early-19th century England, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase follows the adventurous of two cousins as they try to escape from the evil clutches of their new governess and her cronies. We have bold Bonnie, daughter of Sir Willoughby, and her more timid cousin Sylvia who is an orphan and was raised by her frail aunt. When Sir Willoughby takes his wife onto a voyage for her health, he leaves Bonnie and Sylvia at Willoughby Chase. The two girls soon realise that their new governess Miss Slighcarp is up to no good. What follows is an engrossing adventure starring two brave children, train rides across dark forests, wicked governesses and teachers, a horrid boarding ‘school’, and many dangerous treks across forests teeming with wolves.

Aiken’s deceptively simple language ingeniously conjures Bonnie and Sylvia’s adventures in a way that reflects their ‘young’ point of view. The adults have a certain Dickensian quality to them that is apparent through their names and appearances.

There is so much to love in these pages. We have snow, sumptuous meals, hidden passageways, shipwrecks, and daring escapes. In spite of the many injustices Bonnie and Sylvia are made to experience, there is always an undercurrent of hope in this narrative.
Perhaps I love this novel so much because it speaks of my childhood, perhaps I simply recognise for what it is (a truly lovely and entertaining tale).

my rating: ★★★★✰

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HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON: BOOK REVIEW

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars of 5 stars

You would think that dragons + the Napoleonic Wars = entertaining story . . . yet His Majesty’s Dragon managed to be consistently boring.
I was expecting something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown but I soon realised that His Majesty’s Dragon lacks the spark that animates those novels. 
Novik is a good writer but she seemed to be restricting herself to the same two or three scenarios throughout the course of her novel. It seemed that Novik was focused more on making the dialogue and Laurence’s reactions believable (as to be consistent with the time the story is set in) than to write an actual story. If I were to replace the dragons with any other animal, eg. horses, very little would change. These dragons lacked the fantastic or alluring aura that dragons should have. I understand that within this universe dragons are ‘normal’ but the story could still make them interesting. Novik’s dragons are basically giant winged cats.
The story, if I can call it that, revolves around this Laurence guy, a good old 17th century man (so he is obviously both righteous and conservative) who ends up having to give up his life at sea so he can become an aviator…his new ride is Temeraire a relatively cute dragon who talks in a contrived manner…but hey. Laurence washes his dragon, he rides his dragon, he has some minor quibbles with other aviators…and that’s that.
The plot was mainly concerned with ‘theory’ and not practice. The characters discuss strategy and tactics, they have a few fights, but all of these scenes lacked the sense of urgency and or suspense that they should have .
This concept would have worked better in a novella rather than a full length novel. The story is boring, the dialogues are monotonous, and the characters are just as bland as the dragons. There are a few scenes that I could consider ‘cute’ but they didn’t really make up for the rest of the novel.
Lastly, in spite of the seeming accuracy of the time (dialogues & customs) I don’t think Novik evoked the 17th century really well. Her depiction of this period is flat and the story lacks a sense of place. And, what about the actual war? Laurence – or any other character for that matter – has very little to say about it…
If the author wanted to take a lighter approach to the Napoleonic Wars then perhaps a bit of humour could have salvaged her story. Jane Austen, for one, knew that wit could go a long way…

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Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory offers similar feelings as the ones experienced during a rollercoaster: it has its ups and downs but overall it is a mostly enjoyable ride. The book is named after its protagonist, Karen Memory, who narrates her past adventures with a fresh and fun voice. Her vocabulary which is full of slangs and humorous expression give an unique approach to an otherwise predictable storyline. In fact, it is mostly due to Karen being such an engaging and amusing character that make you want to read more.
Karen Memory mostly focuses on Karen’s particularly witty storytelling: she addresses the reader, foreshadows future events and knowing the outcome of her own story she is also able to criticize and comment her own –as well as other characters– previous behaviours and actions. Karen’s ‘unpolished’ prose narrates to the reader her very own story. It is then Karen’s own storytelling and her rather direct narrative style that make certain portions of Karen Memory particularly absorbing.
The heroine of her own story, Karen, could be both incredibly stubborn and insecure. She knows her worth and is capable of recognizing wherever she has acted rashly or not. Her funny and clever commentary make her into an entertaining and likable character that is easy to root for.
The other characters are mostly caricatures of the Old Western genre. However, despite this, the author was able to create an inclusive and likable cast of characters. Karen’s interactions with them can be incredibly lively and funny. Karen’s romantic relationship with Priya, the young girl who sets in motion the chain of events that become Karen’s ‘adventure’ – is perhaps the most noteworthy: it offers something more heartfelt than just a simple easy-laugh.

The plot mostly relies on Karen’s upbeat storytelling. With its ‘Old West’ vibe and the many references to the Western genre, Karen Memory is exactly what it claims to be: a lighthearted and playful adventure yarn. It is far from being a serious and intense read; it’s an action-adventure sort of Western with girls and guns and steam-powered trappings.
The ‘bad guys’ are recognizable as being as such right at the very start of the story. Soon certain scenes seemed a bit repetitive and predictable. So much so that the whole book feels like a series of chase scenes. More problematic is that a lot of the action is just a ‘reaction’: there is nothing complicated about it, the main characters are simply retaliating to the bad guys.
While Karen Memory succeeds in containing larger-than-life heroes, scheming villains, and gritty action it does not offer a complex narrative with difficult characters and provocative concepts. The author favours a fast-snapping plot over deep or poignant themes.
Karen Memory does not have a thoughtful plot or multi-layered characters. The book did feel a bit flat and predictable but in a way it is so because of its wanting to make homage to the ‘Western’ genre. While it does rely too much on the genres common tropes by having a young female protagonist who falls head over heels for a young Indian girl, it does also satirizes it. Steampunk elements also add a nice little touch to the setting, although at times descriptions of these ‘elements’ were a bit unclear.
Overall, Karen Memory reads a lot like a movie. It relies on its quirky storytelling and action scenes rather than including a unique setting or a complex story.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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11.22.63 by Stephen King

There are several reasons why 11/22/63 should not have appealed me. First of all, I’m European. So I knew nil very little about Kennedy and American politics. On top of that, I was born in the late nineties, so I am probably not part of this book’s ideal target audience.
And yet, I devoured this 730 pages long beast of a novel. If it had been up to me, I would have read it in one sitting.
I would recommend just reading its opening chapter before deciding wherever this is the sort of book you would like. Those first few pages really captivated me.

But we never know, do we? Life turns on a dime.

It’s hard to imagine a story that manages not to lose momentum over the course of 700 pages or so. King, however, showed me that, yes, stories like that do exist.
Despite being intimidated by the size 11/22/63, while reading it, I never felt that it could have been made into a shorter novel: every single page is a thread of a rich tapestry. (It sounds corny, but that is what I think).
King has an eye for rendering in vivid details life in small communities. What may seem as a trivial scene, impacts somewhat our understanding of Jake’s ‘new’ world. Seemingly mundane conversations are as important as the more tense, dramatic moments. I loved the way in which King is able to render those ‘small-town’ vibes. The conversations Jake has and what he observes in various neighborhoods made this story very evocative.
There is also plenty of humour. Jake is an amusing narrator whom I found endearing. His relationships with other characters are equally diverting. Him and Sadie… well, I felt very invested in them.
King tops it all with a sense of the Other. The storyline transmits a sense of foreboding into the reader. We know that Jake’s ‘journey into the past’ has consequence (I was equal parts curious and uneased by the ‘Jimla’).
A gripping and complex plot combines with an amusing cast of characters resulting into an engaging novel.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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