BOOK REVIEWS

The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Reader showcases Gaiman’s range as an author. Gaiman moves between genres and tones like no other. From funny fairy-talesque stories to more ambiguous narratives with dystopian or horror elements. While I have read most of his novels and a few of his novellas I hadn’t really ‘sunk’ my teeth in his short stories. The ones that appear in this collection have been selected by his own fans, and are presented in chronological order. While it was interesting to see the way his writing developed I did not prefer his newer stuff to his older one. In fact, some of my favorite of his stories are the ones from the 80s and 90s. Even then his writing demonstrates both humor and creativity. Some of the stories collected here read like morality tales while others offer more perplexing messages. Many of his stories revolve around the act of storytelling or have a story-within-story structure. At times he retells old classics, such as Sleeping Beauty, while other times he offers his own take on Cthulhu, Sherlock Holmes, and even Doctor Who. A few favorites of mine were: ‘Chivalry’, ‘Murder Mysteries’, ‘The Goldfish and Other Stories’, ‘The Wedding Present’, and ‘October in the Chair’. If you are a Gaiman fan and, like me, have not read many of his short stories you should definitely consider picking this collection up.


my rating:
★★★★☆

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The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Once upon a time…
The Magic Fish is quite possibly one of the most beautiful, poignant, and awe-inspiring graphic novels I have ever read. The story takes places in 90s America and we follow Tiến, a young boy, who loves reading fairy tales with his parents. Tiến’s parents are refugees from Vietnam and cannot speak English as fluidly as he does. This language barrier makes it hard for Tiến to confide in them that he is queer.
The mother/son relationship in The Magic Fish is complex and moving. The bond between mother and son is rendered with empathy and sensitivity. The three fairy tales Tiến reads in the course of the narrative allow him to connect with his parents, in particular his mother.
Although each story is inspired by an existing fairy tale, Trung Le Nguyen presents us with three unique takes which perfectly complement Tiến and his mother’s stories. The first two tales are based on variants of ‘Cinderella’ (the German ‘Allerleirauh’ and the Vietnamese ‘Tấm Cám’) while the last one is a reworking of ‘The Little Mermaid’. I loved the different aesthetics of these tales: the first one has a Europeanesque setting, the second one seems to take place in 1950s Vietnam, and the last, this according to the author, juxtaposes the mermaid’s realm, which has elements from Hong Kong wuxia films, with the human one, 1980s San Francisco.
Trung Le Nguyen’s illustrations are stunning (they reminded me of Moto Hagio and Daisuke Igarashi). I loved the way in which each narrative had a distinctive colour palette.
Trung Le Nguyen set out to tell a specific story and he definitely succeeded in doing so. The Magic Fish is simply stunning and I will definitely pick up whatever Trung Le Nguyen writes/draws next.


my rating: ★★★★★

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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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Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye — book review

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“But what does normal even mean? Who decided that? And why are gay teens still forced to keep secrets and live double lives?”

It seems I’m not an Ice Queen after all…this book melted my heart.
Date Me, Bryson Keller is an incredibly sweet and thoughtful YA romance that can be easily read in one sitting. Before I move onto my actual review however I wanted to address some of the bad rep this book has been getting. Some reviewers (who haven’t even read it) are insinuating that this book is a rip off of Seven Days a BL manga. The two works do share the same premise and Kevin van Whye acknowledges this in his author’s note. In fact he says that a number of stories influenced him:
“I owe a great debt to all of them, including the Norwegian web series Skam (particularly season 3), To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (as well as the film adaptation, Love, Simon), the manga Seven Days: Monday-Sunday by author Venio Tachibana and illustrator Rihito Takarai, and the ’90s romcom She’s All That. Date Me, Bryson Keller is my #ownvoices take on these prior works.”
YA romances are not renown for their originality so I’m not sure why some are crying ‘outrage’ without even having read Kevin van Whye’s book. His novel reworks the ‘popular guy dates different people each week’ premise of Seven Days. These two works have very different characters, settings, and themes (also, most BL and GL mangas do not realistically portray the struggles of those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community).

Anyway, moving onto my actual review: Date Me, Bryson Keller is a delightful and surprisingly heart-rendering read. Kai Sheridan narration is compelling and I deeply felt for him. In spite of his awkwardness he’s capable of admirable self-respect. Due to a dare the most popular boy his private school has to date someone new every Monday. The first person to ask him gets to date him for a week. Although Kai wants to keep his head down, and is not ready to tell his friends and family that he’s gay, he finds himself asking Bryson out. To Kai’s surprise Bryson agrees. Over the course of the week the two secretly fake date. They meet up in the morning, go out for breakfast together, study together, and quite quickly they get to know each other. As Kai’s feelings towards Bryson intensify he begins to question whether they are reciprocated.
To begin with this struck me an impossibly cute and lighthearted story. Bryson is an actual Cinnamon Roll™ and it was so refreshing to see his relationship with Kai develop without any unnecessary angst. I also really appreciated Kai’s character arc. Things do eventually take a turn for the worst, and Kai has to deal with a lot. Through Kai’s story Kevin van Whye dispels this myth that homophobia’ no longer exists or that if it does it never originates from young people. Kevin van Whye maintains a wonderful balance between love story and coming of age, and alleviates the more heart-rendering parts of his novel with humour. The interactions between Kai and Bryson had me smiling like an idiot.
I will definitely be reading this again and I’m looking forward to Kevin van Whye’s next novel.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales — book review

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“It was late afternoon, on the very last Wednesday of August, when I realized Disney had been lying to me for quite some time about Happily Ever Afters.”

Only Mostly Devastated tells a cute but extremely formulaic story that is as memorable as a teen coming-of-age movie (possibly of Netflix variety). I really wanted to enjoy this but I found the story to be unimaginative, the plot is uneventful and, with the exception of Ollie and Will, every single character struck me as being little more than a stand-in for a certain issue.

Positives
✓ Sophie Gonzales’ simple writing style effectively conveys Ollie’s various thoughts and experiences. Rather than loosing herself in a purply metaphors Gonzales has opted for a more direct and plain prose and this first-person narrative is perhaps the most accomplished aspect of Only Mostly Devastated. Ollie hooks readers in, right from his opening lines, and keeps us entertained and engaged throughout the majority of the novel.

“Thankfully, Mom and Dad raised me to aim low, to encourage a healthy contentment in hitting par.”

Ollie’s is an amusing narrator. He is fairly awkward, very sweet, and has a lovely sense of humour. He shows self-awareness and self-respect (two things that are often MIA in a YA main character). While he does use acronyms (I had to google D and M) and makes plenty of references to popular culture, these were well incorporated into the narrative (they didn’t come across as just random insertions). If anything they made him into a believable teenager.

“A week later, and I was still getting lost more often than the girl in the Labyrinth movie, except I didn’t even have David Bowie in tights as a reward for my efforts.”

✓ The Grease-inspired story had potential. This ‘Will isn’t the same after the summer’ scenario created a good amount of tension and angst. Ollie is confused and hurt by Will’s change of character (from a sweet and sensitive boy into an obnoxious class clown who doesn’t want to be seen with Ollie).
The relationship between Ollie and Will was well developed. While Ollie doesn’t excuse Will’s behaviour (“I’m a dick because I’ve always been a dick around my friends wasn’t really an excuse.”) he doesn’t pressure him to make their summer romance public knowledge. Ollie, quite rightfully, finds it intolerable to be someone’s ‘dirty secret’, yet he also understands the difficult position Will is in (“No one deserves to be outed against their will.”). In spite of their disagreements and different attitudes, readers can see just how much they care for each other. They share many tender moments and I thought that their ups-and-downs were very realistic.

Negatives
✗ The storyline starts well enough but soon fell into a predictable path. We have a certain number of subplots following Ollie’s friends and his aunt which were so thinly rendered as to have little impact on the overall story.
Ollie’s friends and his aunt seemed to exist only so that the novel could address certain hot topics. Sadly these characters were reduced to the issues they were contending with. Take Ollie’s new friends: they just happen to be the three people he gets to know on the first day. One is there so the novel can include a hurried, and extremely superficial, discussion on body positivity. She has few lines and they mostly have to do with her appearance/body/diets+exercise regime…her personality was mostly non-existent. She was defined by this subject matter. Another one of his new friends (the girl who decides to nickname our protagonist Ollie-oop on the very first day…who does that?! Someone from Riverdale?) exists so the story can include an ‘its okay to fail/keep trying’ message. And then we have the girl who had the potential to have a more defined personality (not a good one but still) ended up being portrayed as a rather clichéd bully-with-a-heart. These three girls were poorly developed and rather unbelievable. Ollie’s aunt (and her illness) seem to have been included only as an inciting plot-device…which isn’t great as it is a cheap way to try to make your readers feel sorry or sympathise with Ollie (he didn’t need this extra dose of sad).
Ollie’s parents are so unimportant and ‘unwritten’ as to be closer to two nebulous entities than to two human individuals. In her first appearance Ollie’s mother tells him that they will be moving to a new state and he can’t complain because she has a lot on her plate. Which…yeah. After that she has a few lines about ‘energy’ and such. Ollie’s father makes his first appearance around the 40% mark and tells him off because he is stressed. After that I’m not sure he does or says anything of notice. They were like the adults in Tom and Jerry..cut off from Ollie’s story, barely in the picture.
✗ Ollie’s ‘old’ friends disappear after one video call…clearly they had a very meaningful relationship with Ollie.
✗ Will’s two ‘dude friends’ were as poorly developed as the rest…
✗ That ending was way too cheesy (even by rom-com standards).

Teens who haven’t read a lot of YA might find more enjoyable than I did…but readers who aren’t keen on plots that rehash tired elements from high-school dramas might be better off skipping this one.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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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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