BOOK REVIEWS

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

Where the Wild Ladies Are is a collection of short stories that traditional Japanese folktales a modern and feminist twist. The premise behind these stories is certainly interesting and I would probably recommend it even if it didn’t quite ‘work’ for me. Most of Aoko Matsuda’s stories are interconnected as they feature recurring characters and places. I quite liked this aspect of the collection as I was curious to discover how certain stories were related to other ones. The surreal atmosphere and zestful tone lend this collection a rather offbeat quality that brought to mind authors such Kevin Wilson and Hilary Leichter. These stories are unapologetically weird as they are populated by quirky characters facing some peculiar scenarios. Ghosts seem to be the norm and many characters undergo fantastic transformations.

My favourite stories were the very first two in the collection. One stars a woman who has been recently ‘dumped’ by her boyfriend. She spends time and money in order to enhance her looks (hair removal galore) but finds herself questioning existing beauty standards when her body hair begins to have a life of its own…and yeah, she also happens to talk who to her aunt who is a ghost. The following story has a vaguely Kafkaesque feel to it as it focuses on a unemployed man who finds himself answering the door to an unusual sales duo. The subsequent stories, in comparison, were very uneven. They had some interesting elements but they would eventually peter out, leaving me kind of wanting more and questioning what was the point of story itself. The writing was okay. It wasn’t particularly funny or insightful. The feminist ‘twists’ were kind of there…but kind of not. At the end we get brief summaries of the folktales that inspired each chapters but I still could not really see how Matsuda’s stories were all that empowering for women (yes, she acknowledges sexual misconduct in the workplace or that woman are often regarded as wives or mothers but acknowledging these things hardly means challenging them).
Still I do think Matsuda presents her readers with a vivid portrayal of Japanese culture and society today. If you enjoy eccentric stories with a dose of magical realism you might want to give this collection a chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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For the most part The House of Silk was an entertaining read. Horowitz captures the essence of the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and Watson so that readers will find his portrayal of these two famous characters to be all too familiar. As per usual Horowitz also cleverly combines more than one mystery together, throwing in many literary devices that have become conventions of the detective genre (ie. red herrings).

Readers, alongside Watson, will be for the most part in the dark when it comes to Holmes’ idiosyncratic investigations. This was intentionally frustrating, and more than once Holmes fails to explain his investigation to his friend—and by extent us. Still, I was intrigued by our duo’s exploits, and by the way two seemingly unconnected cases intermingled with one another.
Horowitz’s humour and wit are as per usual present and a source of great amusement. Although I was captivated by the fast-pace and evocative narrative, I was frustrated by a certain plot point (view spoiler) and it seemed that the latter half of this book could have been paced better.

Although Horowitz’s has created a realistic and richly described historical setting I appreciated the way Watson’s narrative and running commentary reflect contemporary sensibilities…and given his modern audience Horowitz is unafraid to tackle the darker aspects of the society he writes of.
In spite of a few minor quibbles, I’m glad I read this and I recommend it to fans of detective fiction, even those who aren’t all that familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle‘s work.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — book review

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In spite of the beautiful attention that Gods of Jade and Shadow pays to the function of myths and deities in our everyday lives…this turned out to be an unexpectedly juvenile read…

The swift storytelling found in Gods of Jade and Shadow might not appeal to those readers who prefer slower and more in depth narratives such as The Song of Achilles. Here there is a focus on the action or better yet on the quest undertaken by our protagonist. Scenes rarely featured the same backdrop since the various characters keep moving from one location to another which in turn leads to underdeveloped settings. The various places and characters-human and non-encountered by our protagonist(s) are often breezed through so that they have little time to leave an impression on the reader. Having finished this book a few days ago I recall not one of the characters that Casiopea and Hun-Kamé encounter…which isn’t a good sign.

The story is predictable and follows a repetitive pattern in which our cinderella-like main character Casiopea unwilling joins a former god, Hun-Kamé, who will be able to regain his rightful role as ruler of Xibalbla only after he finds certain ‘items’ (which are conveniently stored in places he knows of and that are fairly easy to reach). The story in its simplicity seems more fitting in a middle-grade novel rather than an adult one, and in fact, I would have actually preferred it if this book had been clearly aimed at a younger audience.
Another criticism I have is that it should have been more decisive in its tone, darker as Valente’s Deathless, or as tantalisingly ingenious as Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series, or even as satirical and fun as Zen Cho‘s Sorcerer Royal duology. But the tone in Gods of Jade and Shadow remained rather inconsistent, which is a pity since there are many occasions where Moreno-Garcia’s writing style does really echo that of a skilled storyteller. The narration at times evoked that of a fairytale yet in certain instances this omniscient narrative seemed rather simplistic and often reached clichéd conjectures.

The setting only comes into focus when the narrative explicitly addresses some of the trends of the twenties…mentioning a couple of times the popular dances and haircuts from this period does not render the time in question. At times it did so by literally blurting out these trends on the page:

Mexico City in the 1920s was all about the United States, reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace. Charleston! The bob cut! Ford Cars!”

I wanted more of the vernacular (which I know is difficult since the characters are not speaking in English but I’m sure that there are differences between contemporary Yucatec Maya and the one spoken in the 20s). The story could have easily had a modern setting as the only thing that truly emerges from this historical setting is that our protagonist as a woman has little control over her life.
Another thing that detracted from my overall enjoyment of this story was the over use of exclamation marks (“It was not possible. He was ruler of Xibalbla now! Nothing could change this, nothing could ruin his plans.”) or when the narrative used expressions such as ‘oh dear‘ (“That might be a relief, since she did not understand what they were supposed to do in the city, and oh dear, she wasn’t ready for any of this.”).

Perhaps this was done to lend immediacy to the events narrated or to give urgency to certain moments or thoughts but it seemed a bit contrived and was not handled all that well.
As the story focuses on the quest, the characters seemed rather flaky. Casiopea was the typical heroine of certain YA fiction, she is kind and just yet has endured many wrongs (alienated from the rest of her family, made to their bidding, etc…). Much was made of her ‘temper‘ so much so that I kept excepting a trace of it but found none. I’m not sure why her will was emphasised so much, and in often such cheesy lines:

She was wilful, daggers hidden beneath her muttered yeses, her eyes fixing on him, slick as oil.

The romance was unnecessary and ‘blossomed’ out of nowhere. It made a potentially interesting character into a love interest, turning yet another dark and powerful death god into little more than eye-candy.
In spite of all these flaws I still enjoyed those passages which solely focused on reiterating Mayan mythology. It was in those moments that the narrative really brought into focus the events and figures it spoke of. And there were certain descriptions that had a nice rhythm but these were far too few.

There was the slim veneer of civilty to his actions. He spoke unpleasantries, but in the tone of a gentleman.

Overall, I’m not sure I do recommend this one.
Cho’s fantasy-romp series (Sorcerer to the Crown & The True Queen) offers a similar type of fast-paced storytelling but with much more historical detail, while N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season creates a much more complex and compelling narrative that addresses dynamics between humans and divine beings.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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Beautiful by Juliet Marillier — review

In Beautiful subverts fairy-tale storylines by making her heroine a troll princess. Hulde is in fact the sole daughter of a tyrannical queen who terrorises those around her. In spite of its title, the story is not concerned with beauty: Hulde knows that humans are afraid of her. Trolls are seen as hideous creatures and throughout the course of the story’s three acts Hulde will have to reconcile herself with her appearance and her position as (view spoiler).612XkHP-AnL._SL500_
I’ve read many of Marillier’s books and it was refreshing to read of a protagonist who isn’t stereotypically beautiful. I also like the way bravery is what Hulde aspires to, rather than beauty. She constantly tries to better herself and ultimately learns that to be brave also entails trusting others.
Marillier pays particular attention to storytelling itself and in her adventures Hulde often draws strength from old tales of brave heroes and heroines.
Although this was an enjoyable read, with some interesting takes on certain tropes, I found the story to be less complex than some of Marillier’s other novels…perhaps because this is an audible original so Marillier kept things ‘simple’ for this type of format or maybe because this was the spin-off of a short story she’d written…longtime fans of Marillier might find this story to be less layered than her usual.
Still, this is a short audiobook and makes for a short and entertaining read.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

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Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld : book review

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Over the course of 500 pages or we become acquainted with what I can best describe as a grating cast of characters. Eligible is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice that seems mostly focused on making fun of how idiotic and delusional its characters are. It soon becomes apparent that this is a satirical work that depicts in a rather exaggerated fashion a family of ‘ancestry’ from Cincinnati. Eligible pokes fun at many modern trends such as dieting, yoga, CrossFit, reality shows, and the list goes on and on.
There were few scenes which managed to be satirical without being 1) irritating and 2) unfunny. Much of the novel’s satire relies on the idiocy of the characters, which ends making them seem only props for exposing certain ridiculous beliefs and behaviours.
As humour goes, these characters were unfunny and the narrative lacked the wit of a good satirist so that much of their silliness remains unchallenged or unremarked upon. Also, it seemed that readers were meant to find these characters funny or amusing merely because they are self-centred and irresponsible.
At times there were some interesting observations made about class and prejudice but most of the narrative seemed concerned with petty squabbles between equally horrible people. Although Liz isn’t as irritating as the other characters, she has these moments of complete stupidity that made her rather unpleasant. Her sisters were awful. I didn’t care for them since they are moronic. They are self-absorbed, careless, offensive…their mother made me seethe with anger. It was hard to believe that they didn’t realise what their expensive ways was costing them…and Liz never really calls them out on their behaviour. She doesn’t even defend herself when she is accused of (view spoiler).
The romance was…okay? Darcy seems to undergo a personality exchange towards the end … he just was boring.
Overall, in spite of its length, this book doesn’t manage to create well-rounded or believable characters. I know that much of what went on in this book was satirical but these characters were the most irritating and detestable characters I have read of in a while…which made me not care about their issues or struggles.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Six-Gun Snow White : Book Review

Untitled drawing (9)Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

“She named me cruel and smirking, she named me not for beauty or for cleverness or for sweetness. She named me a thing I could aspire to but never become, the one thing I was not and could never be: Snow White.”

Valent has given a Western spin to an old European tale. I enjoyed the way in which Valente juxtaposes a gritty setting against her lush writing style, and it is almost unnerving the way she can describe horrible things in such a beautiful way. At times, I did find some scenes and metaphors to be gratuitously graphic.
The first part of this novella was really strong. It is narrated by Snow White herself and she recounts how her father married by force a Crow woman (her mother). The way he fetishes her beauty and appearance was truly sickening, and Snow White is always made to feel ‘other’ and ‘alien’ by her father and his servants .
Snow White’s mother dies and her father (Mr. H) marries again. His new wife (known as Mrs. H) begins abusing Snow White, pretending that she is ‘teaching her the ways to become a woman’. Altering physical abuse with a torrent of dehumanising insults and actions (she bathes Snow White in milk in order to make her skin paler) all of the things that Snow White is made to endure were hard to stomach.
The narrative switches to a third perspective which created a distance between the events of the story and the reader (me). There was almost a joke-y tone which went at odds with the Snow White’s serious narration.
The last part was really…pointless? The story comes across as meandering and unfocused. Characters have few (if any) layers, they share the same bland and unfixed personality, and our main protagonist, Snow White, seems quick to forget Mrs. H’s abuse and acts merely under the command of the narrative. What of her will? She is an accessory to her own story, an object rather than a subject.
All in all, this is the type of novella that carelessly tosses characters about, throwing one too many pointlessly extravagant (or occasionally grotesque) observations that have little impact on the overall story but only serve to distract me from the story’s action. The narrative favours the language over its plot or characters. The beautiful phrases soon become overindulgent and repetitive.
Great concept, poor execution.

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

What a pity. I was expecting The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter to be a sort of gender-bender take on famous Gothic and Crime classics. Sadly, Goss doesn’t handle well intertextuality so well. She includes too much and the sheer amount of things she tries to drag into her story makes the existence of this novel seem like an excuse to show off all of her favourite classics.
The beginning wasn’t so bad. Mary Jekyll has just lost her mother and is experiencing financial troubles. Some information regarding her now deceased father’s connection to Mr. Hyde brings her into the path of Sherlock Holmes and his associate Dr. Watson. Through both luck and chance Mary ends up meeting Diana, Beatrice, Justine and Catherine. They are all connected through the work of scientists such as Mary’s fathers.
Now…one of my main issue with the story is that it all feels so incredibly easy. Mary manages to accompany Holmes and Watson in their investigations…are we to believe that they would have really let her come along? Especially since she really isn’t as sharp or bright as we are initially lead to believe…?
Mary’s adventures are incredibly repetitive: here she finds Diana, then she meets Beatrice, and then Justine and Catherine…and guess what? They are all connected! And they are all fine working together just a few minutes after having met one another.
The biggest…biggest problem was the writing style. Goss decided to make one of her heroines the writer of this ‘novel’. So throughout we have a constant commentary from the characters, talking about the way Catherine is writing, what she is including etc.
I thought that it slowed the story’s pace and it came across as terribly conceited. A description could be followed by comments such as:

JUSTINE: That’s a lovely description, Catherine.
CATHERINE: Thank you! I’m glad someone notices when I write particularly well.

And Catherine keeps emphasising how ‘new and different’ her writing technique is

JUSTINE: Is the story supposed to be jumping around like that, from Mary’s head, to Diana’s, to Beatrice’s?
CATHERINE: I told you, this is a new way of writing.

Catherine often explains the addition of certain scenes or dialogues:

We’re trying to recount how we all came together, describe who we are. That’s not just the story of how we solved the Whitechapel Murders. It’s the story of us.

Comments of that type made it hard to ‘get into’ the actual narration. Each time I tried to get immersed into the storyline, the commentary pulled me away. The girls bicker about ‘you shouldn’t have added that’ and ‘I didn’t say/think that’. It wasn’t amusing, it was just annoying. It didn’t make the girls more real…it simply made them insufferable. And funnily enough, they all sounded more or less like each other. Their main differences were in their ‘special’ attributes…and their ‘fathers’.

She had only known them for a few days, but already they felt like family, as though they belonged together.
BEATRICE: As we do.
MARY: Despite our differences.
BEATRICE: Or because of them.

In short:
➜The characters were all flat: the characterisation relayed on the ‘names’ rather than actual character.
➜Everyone and everything that happens seemed a mere excuse as to be able to include all sorts of classic ‘monsters’.
➜The story was a sequence of similarly forgettable ‘adventures’. Lots of ‘coincidences’ helped the investigation…
➜The characters go from place to place, without paying attention to their surroundings.
➜The novel is orientated on the ‘investigation’ which didn’t offer any interesting scenes or anecdotes. It wasn’t surprising nor intriguing…Holmes and Watson are more or less caricatures…
➜Certain terms made the historical setting rather implausible. The funny commentary was not funny.

Mary’s blood ran cold in her veins.
CATHERINE: Now am I being melodramatic?
MARY: No […] but as a metaphor, it accurately describes how I felt at the time.

Goss’ seems to be ignoring her story and characters, favouring instead the opportunity to include as many different ‘cult’ monsters and characters into her novel, which is far too self-congratulatory.

My rating: 2.5 stars

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