Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Oh my. I was unprepared for all the feelings.

Where do I even begin?

 

This story of three awkward teens who discover that they can do magic using music was completely absorbing and nothing like I was expecting. It deals with the chaos of being a teenager, with being haunted by the past, and with power and consequences, but ultimately, it’s a love story and, what’s more, one that I really quite enjoyed, (shhhh, don’t go telling anyone!).

Meche, Sebastian and Daniela don’t fit in at school. They’re not cool, they don’t come from wealthy families and they don’t conform. Meche is an angry, hard-edged fifteen-year-old who’s into music in a big way; Sebastian is a serious-to-the-point-of-sullen reader and doodler, and Daniela is still happy to play with her Easy-Bake oven and loves soap operas and romance novels. Perhaps they were friends out of necessity to begin with, but there is evidence of real affection between them all, even if it is under cover of snark most of the time. They were, for me, immediately likeable, because despite all their (mostly Meche and Sebastian’s) sarcasm and cutting remarks, Moreno-Garcia shows us their soft underbellies too, (and, quite frankly, reading teenagers on the page is much easier than having to deal with them IRL where being relatable is absolutely not their aim).

Perhaps this is the most impressive thing about this novel, that the author is able to create such well-drawn characters in what appears to be a fairly stereotypical set-up, (because the ‘discovers they can do magic and uses it to improve their social status’ storyline definitely has a been-done-before vibe on paper). The details save it. There are no place-holder characters, I swear I could smell Mexico City while I was reading, and the direction the story goes in takes us somewhere new. Yes, these teens experience many of the events and emotions that all teens do, but they are idiosyncratic enough that the reader cares very much about how they will deal with it.

Certainly, I wouldn’t have gotten so emotional if I didn’t care about Meche, Sebastian and Daniela. And, dagnabbit, Meche is mean. After the halfway point in the book it was like she was trying to destroy everyone with words, Sebastian very particularly, as she desperately tries to stop her world from falling apart (my reading notes are mostly punctuated with “Ouch Meche!” and “Holy crap that’s mean!”). How I still felt any kind of understanding and affection for her can only be seen as a testament to great writing. As is the almost physical pain I was in as the 1988 strand of the storyline reached its dramatic conclusion.

 

(Wow, writing this without spoiling anything is proving a bit difficult…)

 

So, I should mention that. Not the spoilers, the two timelines.

I still can’t make my mind up how well the two parts of the story sat together.

Bear with me here, I’m thinking as I’m typing…

…We begin the book with Meche in 2009 as she returns to Mexico City for her dad’s funeral. This return to her old home is the catalyst that brings back her memories of the events of 1988, which we then read with occasional interruptions to see how 2009 Meche is faring in sorting out her late dad’s record collection. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a tried and tested structure. But something in the feel of the two sections isn’t quite right. The 1988 storyline is vivid for me, I can picture it all, Meche and Sebastian and Daniela feel authentic and present. 2009 though, is less … something. Meche is about thirty-six here, and yet she is still as spikey and mean as she was as a teenager. She has yet to make any kind of peace with the events of twenty years before. And maybe people do get stuck in a particular way of being like that, but I think I expected more of her. I don’t know.

I liked, however, the complete mundanity of 2009. Meche’s grandmother Mama Dolores says that magic is for young people, and the grown-up Meche, Daniela and Sebastian don’t even mention what they did as teenagers…

Oh, I see it! What with Mama Dolores’ hinted-at-but-untold story and the feeling of magic and possibility – the warm records, Sebastian’s strange future flashes, the golden tendrils – the 1988 story has a whole added dimension that is missing from the 2009 strand. That’s what’s off for me – I miss the magic! The two timelines feel, ever so slightly, like two different stories because of it.

 

If I struggled with anything consciously, on the other hand, while reading Signal to Noise, it was the music referencing. While my best friend at school, my husband and my other brother were/are deeply into music, I just don’t get it. There are two categories of music for me – the stuff I like and the stuff I don’t (assuming, of course, that I’m in a musical mood to begin with) – but for them it is a language all its own and their choosing what music to listen to, which track would perfectly complement the previous, is almost reverential. I find this fascinating and Meche’s absorption in her musical choices was so familiar that while I can’t say I appreciated any deeper meaning in any of the tracks or albums mentioned throughout the book, I still enjoyed that they’d be significant to someone. And her love of music is definitely evocative of that period of your life in which everything you discover for yourself is new and meaningful and so important to the you that you are uncovering.

 

So, yeah. This was a good book. It made me feel a lot. It’s not a book I have any inclination to reread because I think it’s said to me what it needed to say. I would certainly recommend it and I’m very interested to read more by Moreno-Garcia … particularly because, from what I’ve heard, she writes something different each time. I suspect there will be, for me, a favourite Moreno-Garcia book and then the rest of them.

Let’s see how that prediction pans out …

 

 

Lady Mechanika: The Mystery of the Mechanical Corpse by Joe Benitez & Peter Steigerwald

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Just take a look at the cover of this graphic novel for a moment. The kind of overt femininity seen here usually puts me right off, (mostly, it’s the boobs. I am suspicious of boobs). So when my husband received the first two volumes of Lady Mechanika as a Christmas gift I was absolutely uninterested. Took one look at the covers and made all sorts of judgements, the conclusion of which was that this series would not be for me.

However, during lockdown, when I was struggling to read, I went foraging through our comics shelves and dug out Lady Mechanika. And, well, I was wrong. This was a fast and funny adventure that is one hundred percent committed to its aesthetic, but also to its story. The exploits I was expecting did not materialise (in other words, everyone kept their clothes on and there was no kissing or *ahem* tomfoolery) and instead I found myself immersed in a steampunk wonderland in which dark and dastardly deeds occur with great regularity and Lady Mechanika kicks arse just as often.

It helps that Benitez’s artwork is just beautiful. Outfits, furnishings, vehicles and environments are all given loving attention and Steigerwald’s palette is suitably moody without ever being dull. You could take any single page from this first volume and frame it, it’s just that gorgeous.

Lady Mechanika herself is “England’s elegant and virtuous heroine”, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. She is a seamless blend of organic and mechanical parts, created by … she knows not who. Her unique physiology means that she is more robust than ordinary folk and she uses her strength and agility for Good working as a private investigator. When a dead girl turns up sporting similar mechanical appendages to Mechanika’s own our lady heroine is immediately on the case, hoping to discover something about her own origins at the same time as achieving justice for this latest victim. Her investigations see her infiltrating the Ministry of Health, crashing a masked ball aboard an airship, visiting the circus, and fighting tons of bad guys and gals along the way.

The unanswered questions are many and varied. Nika has no memory of the time before she was a mechanical hybrid, but we meet someone from her past, the decidedly gone-to-the-Dark-Side Katherine, who gives us some tantalising glimpses of the road she has had to travel to become Lady Mechanika. Her creator is the big mystery – could it possibly be the shadowy “Engineer” Mr Cain who seems as intent on retrieving the dead girl as Nika is herself? Or is he just another creation? – but so too is the dead girl. While we know where she has escaped from and, later, who she was, we are left hanging over the question of her blood and her eventual fate. There is more to her story than we’ve yet learnt.

We’ve barely scraped the surface of this world either. Yes, it’s an alternative late 1800s in which steam-powered and clockwork innovations have transformed everyday life, the landscape and people themselves, but it is also a world of magic, demonic creatures and superstitions. I like the blend a lot, but, heck, I want to see so much more! The location for this first volume, Mechanika City, is “the most advanced city in the entire British Commonwealth” which naturally begs the question: what’s the rest of this world like? And having seen the cover for the second volume, on which Nika is sporting a very desert-nomad kind of outfit, hopefully that question will soon be answered.

And speaking of outfits … (smooth segue, huh?) … I do have to tip my hat to Benitez for Nika’s wardrobe. Wikipedia tells me that her style was inspired by steampunk model Kato – which may explain the impressive amount of detail lavished on it – but all of the characters are fabulously dressed at all times and the whole volume could serve as a steampunk look-book for costume designers. While I’m not interested in wearing incredible outfits, I do have a penchant for great costumes and everything within these pages looks awesome. Utterly and completely impractical, but awesome nonetheless.

So, should you read it? Well, it’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I found it entertaining and funny in places (Nika’s swearword of choice particularly made me snigger repeatedly), but definitely on the light side (I should probably mention that it’s quite bloody in places; when I say ‘light’ I mean not too complex for the brainbox). The story was self-contained and punchy, the world-building was excellent, the characters interesting enough that I want to know more. It’s USP would be the incredible artwork throughout, which is just such a feast-your-eyes treat. If you can get past the boobs (it’s not even just the heroine, everyone in the story is so darned busty, for goodness’ sake!) and you want to fall into an adventure for the afternoon, you could do a lot worse than this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun for Monday: The TBR Tag

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I found this tag over at Panic at the Book Store while idly browsing yesterday and decided to do it on a whim. Very possible that I will tread some old ground here, but that’s the sort of mood I’m in today. (Full disclosure: by ‘today’ I mean Sunday which is the when I am writing in, which will be yesterday by the time this post goes live. Who knows what mood I’m in today, by which I mean Monday … *grins slightly manically*)

 

How do you keep track on your TBR list?

I don’t particularly. I write down the titles of interesting books as I become aware of them, and more recently I’ve started adding a note alongside so I know where I heard about it (there’s a small handful of bloggers responsible for the majority of the books on my tbr lists – looking at you imyril, Lynn, Dina, Ola and Piotrek, Little Red Reviewer, Orang-Utan Librarian, Mogsy and Tammy … the nefarious nine!) And these lists are at the front of each year’s notebook, but that’s about as organised as it gets. Periodically I go back through one notebook or another and cross off anything I’ve read or changed my mind about in the meantime, but I make no concerted effort to read through these lists and I buy or borrow as and when I can.

 

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

I don’t read ebooks at all, so it’s printed material all the way for me. And a couple of audiobooks on my library app.

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How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?

Unless I have promised to read something (and I am trying not to do that because I end up feeling resentful when I feel I have to read a book) I pick things according to mood. That’s my excuse for the ridiculous number of library books I currently have stacked up on the stairs: I might not be in the mood for anything I own!

I’ve mentioned before that I think very much in colours/images/impressions, so when I’m picking something to read I think about what colour I’m feeling most and what colour I want to feel and pick the book I think most likely to achieve that. It works for me.

 

Name a book that has been on your TBR the longest.

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It’s still Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill!

 

Name a book that you recently added to your TBR list.

Most recent was How To Rule An Empire and Get Away With It by K J Parker, because of the Witty & Sarcastic Bookclub’s review here, and Morlock Nights by K W Jeter because of a Steampunk rabbit-hole I’m currently scrabbling down.

 

Is there a book that’s on your TBR list strictly because of its beautiful cover?

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Not only because it’s got a lovely cover, but I really do dig the cover for The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss. The same goes for Deeplight by Frances Hardinge.

Oh, and I only bought the first couple of Lady Trent books because of the dragons on their covers. Just lucky they’re turning out to be good stories too.

 

Is there a book on your TBR that you never plan on actually reading?

I did a purge during lockdown, so at the moment, no.

 

Name an unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for.

Hahahahahahaha! I have enough trouble keeping up with my own interests, moods and whims, without putting myself under further pressure by signing up to read ARCs! I mean, I have the utmost admiration for those of you that do read ARCs, but I have no idea how you’re managing it! *tips hat*

***THIS JUST IN: I did request an ARC a couple of weeks ago as a dare to myself, and would you believe it the darn thing arrived in the post this morning?!! So I now feel obliged to inform you that I am going to be reading Shadow in the Empire of Light by Jane Routley pretty soon … and I’m terrified!***

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Is there a book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you?

Oh heck, there’s tons of those!

Perhaps the series I feel most annoyed/upset/ashamed not to have gotten on top of is all those Realm of the Elderlings books by Robin Hobb. Some of them have been on my TBR pile almost as long as Mr Hill’s debut novel.

And I do feel some frustration when everyone’s reviewing something I’m clearly going to love and all I can do is add it to the list because our house is only tiny and there really isn’t any more room.

 

Is there a book on your TBR that everyone recommends you read?

That’s almost the same question as above, isn’t it? I used to have a copy of The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak on my TBR pile, but I got so annoyed by people telling me I must read it that I took it to a charity shop. I love people to enthuse about books, but I hate to be pushed into reading something. I’ll get to it when I get to it, you know?

 

A book on your TBR you’re very excited to read.

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All of them, when I’m in the right mood. I worked out last weekend that I have 187 as yet unread books on my TBR pile (not including those borrowed from the library) and that if I dedicated myself just to reading them and nothing else, it would take me 3.9 years to read them all. Which is both sobering and kind of thrilling all at once.

I guess the book that is looking the most alluring right now is The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard because imyril said some very good things about it, and the rest of the trilogy and both she and JobBob recently reviewed de Bodard’s Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders which just made me even more interested and slightly cross that I hadn’t come across this series of books before now.

 

The number of books on your Goodreads StoryGraph TBR shelf.

62 so far – I’ve made the switch from GR to the StoryGraph Beta. I never used the Goodreads TBR shelf because it stressed me out having another list kicking around on the internet that didn’t correspond to any of my written ones, but dagnabbit, StoryGraph caught me at a weak moment and the recommendations are really very good.

And I really like their logo!

 

So that’s me. Please consider yourself tagged if you fancy having a go!

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Witch (volumes 7 & 8) by Chihiro Ishizuka

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This week has very much been about me trying to get my head around things. Things in the world, things at work, things in my personal life – not one of the concentric circles the represents life as I know it has remained untouched. As a result, reading hasn’t really happened. Pages have been turned, words have been seen, but … nothing’s really gone in.

My fallback has been Ishizuka’s Flying Witch. The gentle humour and charm of this manga series continues to capture my imagination with its beautiful pen work and its focus on the small details of everyday life, those things easily overlooked in the hustle and bustle like a good meal and the time to enjoy it, or the loveliness of the natural world. It continues to be happily bonkers as well. Akane’s teleportation incident, the Harbinger of Summer working as a yakisoba vendor, the wizard with a robot familiar and the territorial owl who takes exception to Makoto’s presence in his orchard, along with a whole host of other daft goings-on, keep the story interesting and light.

The cast of characters keeps expanding with every volume and added to Makoto’s ever-growing circle this time round are Inukai’s sister and nephew, an enthusiastic reporter and her cameraman, the wizard Enigumo, a samurai ghost and a wonderful gaggle of Makoto and Nao’s school friends. I keep thinking I’ll get them all mixed up as the cast gets bigger and bigger, but somehow they all manage to remain distinct. What’s more, the lovely family vibe that this manga series started out with continues unabated, no matter that the character list is now a good three or four times larger than it was at the beginning.

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Yes, the artwork continues to be ridiculously beautiful!

 

It’s been interesting to see how the magic in these books has also grown to encompass so many different aspects – robots and technology are embraced as fully as enchantments, spells and the innate power of each witch; potions are prepared and tricks are pulled, just as space and time are manipulated. I love it all. In past volumes there have been giant flying whales and creatures from other realms, in these most recent two we are shown secret pathways that link distant places more closely, and a pervasive mechanism that protects witches and magic from discovery.

What remains most especially delightful about these books is all the goofy little moments and details that happen around the main storyline. While the books follow a loose subject-for-this-episode structure, the charm and fun of this manga lies in the gaps. Sure, in volume 8 it’s all about Makoto’s finally learning what her element is as a witch, but the stand-out moments are Kazuno showing Chinatsu and Kei her “gust” move, Anzu’s meeting the samurai ghost (and all the cats!), Makoto and the banana and Chinatsu and the ice, and enjoying a magical glass of whiskey; not to mention Makoto’s attempts to make friends with a local owl. And that was a fairly sedate volume compared with book 7 in which we’re treated to Akane’s impressive appetite, then fireworks, sweeties from the Harbinger of Summer and Chinatsu’s unusually soft cheeks; Al’s tiny bedroom (oh my goodness), the fish market, baby mandrakes, and a great many monkeys.

The lovingly drawn food keeps me coming back for more just as much as the adorableness of Makoto and her family and friends. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household in which fresh food and made-from-scratch dishes was normal and down my maternal line the preparation and enjoyment of food was a big part of how love was expressed and shared. So, this series’ focus on food as something that brings people together around the table just makes my heart all fluttery every time. Half the dishes depicted I wouldn’t eat if put in front of me because they’ve got meat or fish in them and they still make my mouth water.

In case it wasn’t clear (??!) I am still loving Flying Witch. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep posting about this cheerful and delight-filled series before I run out of new ways to say what I’ve already said, but know that every time there’s a new volume released there’s me gleefully squeeing and hugging said volume to my chest as soon as it arrives in the post.

Flying Witch Mandrakes Boom

 

 

 

 

 

 

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

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As comforting as the previous two Wayfarers novels and as thought-provoking, Record of a Spaceborn Few continues to explore broad themes through smaller, everyday stories. Throughout these books I’ve felt that Chambers wants to mostly show the best that people can be, and as I am always ready to read that she remains a great fit for me.

So, let’s be absolutely clear: I enjoyed this a lot. My mistake, when I read A Closed a Common Orbit was to expect more of the characters from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and to find it wanting because they weren’t there. While I didn’t make that same mistake this time round, this book has also helped me to appreciate its predecessor. I see now that Chambers is telling different stories and approaching different themes in each book, just using the same universe as the setting. I get it now. And that makes me want to go back and reread A Closed and Common Orbit without the expectations I brought to it the first-time round. I loved it then, it’s not that I didn’t, but I’d like to go again knowing what I know now.

Of the three books, this latest volume has the loosest plot. If you’re looking for one connective storyline, there isn’t one. What there is is a cohesive theme. Each of the characters we spend time with here – Tessa, Isabel, Eyas, Kip and Sawyer – have reached a point of change in their lives. They don’t know it exactly. They experience the frustration, excitement, confusion, doubt and anticipation that any of us do when we know that something isn’t quite right, that something has to change, but don’t yet know what or how. It’s a fascinating thing to do, to take a group of unconnected characters and build a story around their state rather than around events they are involved in, and I really liked it.

Perhaps I was more interested in some characters than others, but that’s nearly always the case. I was utterly engrossed in Eyas’ life and work as a caretaker for the dead and how that role was a part of her identity no matter whether she was at work or not, and her struggle to find a meaningful way forward was something I could identify with. I was also really into Isabel and Ghuh’oloan’s interactions, not just because Chambers writes great aliens, but because I love the whole clash-of-cultures thing wherever I find it. I felt for Tess and Kip, but couldn’t delve so completely into their situations; they just didn’t grab me in the same way, I guess. As for Sawyer, I felt for him too, very much, but I was equally troubled by his naivety.

Sawyer and the Harmagian Ghuh’loloan are the only two outsiders in the story and their points of view as immigrant and guest respectively help to round out the examination of the Exodus Fleet’s utopian way of life. As a group of generation ships that have had to leave their planet behind without knowing its ultimate destination, the Fleet has had to adopt closed loop recycling, a barter system instead of currency and a strongly cooperative social structure. In the Fleet no-one goes hungry, no-one is homeless, and everyone does the dirty jobs at least some of the time. Great pains have been taken to make life as fair as possible: there are no rooms with a view or penthouse suites, all accommodation is identical; there are no changing fashions, all clothes are repaired and remade again and again. But however fair, still there is an insularity that is stifling the Fleet’s children and hurting those wanting to join it. And with Humanity having been accepted into the Galactic Commonwealth, the Fleet is now only one option among many for its people.

Which begs the question: can any society be utopian when exposed to other models?

Chambers doesn’t argue for or against any one way of life. Instead she posits that each person/family/community has the right to choose what works for them, and to choose again as circumstances change. No matter where we find ourselves, we will develop and evolve traditions to create a sense of home and belonging.

There are so many lovely moments in Record that speak for all aspects of belonging, whether as a guest or a friend, part of a couple, a family or a community. Chambers is a master at this capturing of small moments full of heart, like Isabel and her wife Tamsin enjoying the Sunside ride; Eyas in the old theatre; Grandma Ko’s jokes during Kip’s telling-off; and Tessa dealing with her children’s absorption of swearwords. And, of course, she makes great use of that most important symbol of welcome and belonging: FOOD. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet had me salivating for bug burgers because, dagnabbit, Chambers has got a feel for food. Well I was right back to dribbling again here, this time for bean cakes and cricket crunch, salt toffee, pocket stuffers and sintalin. Seriously, I love books that describe both the preparation and enjoyment of food, but there should be a rule that they include recipes.

 

I see the question about good gateway SF posed fairly regularly on the interweb and feel that Chambers’ Wayfarer series is kind of perfect. They’re books that explore ideas, which is perhaps my favourite thing about the genre, but in an incredibly relatable way. In The Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet she explores the concepts of found family and belonging, in A Closed and Common Orbit the concept of selfhood, and here the concepts of community and change. All of these ideas are part and parcel of being human. That she also continues to champion tolerance and compassion throughout is just the icing on the cake (mmmmm, cake).

 

And so, can we all just take a moment to appreciate the absolute awesomeness that is Becky Chambers?

 

 

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

Fun for Monday: The Inside and Out Tag

 

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It’s a very Mondayish Monday today, so here’s a tag I saw The Irresponsible Reader do a while back here (check out his alternative title for this tag) and that The Tattooed Book Geek also had a go at here with hilarious results.

I am a lot less funny.

 

 

Inside flap/back of the book summaries: Too much info? Or not enough?

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I am finding nowadays that I rely more and more on everyone’s blogs about awesome books and less and less on book jacket blurbs, but mostly summaries are about right, I think. There’s been the odd summary that’s given away something crucial, or something I felt would have been more fun to discover as I read, but for the most part I am content; (alright, let’s face it, I’m content because, by the time I actually get round to reading the book, I’ve forgotten what the blurb said and have only remembered a vague impression such as “pink” or “moody”). Saying that, Agyar by Steven Brust (which I tried, unsuccessfully, to talk about here) shouldn’t have come with any kind of summary at all because on the back of my copy it immediately mentions the thing that you’re supposed to work out for yourself. Like, the joy of the book is coming to a particular conclusion for yourself, not being told right out on the blasted jacket. Grrrr.

Anyway, I quite enjoy picking up a book and starting to read it without looking at the blurb at all, which is the kind of luxury that can be afforded with a library membership.

 

New book: What form do you want it in? Be honest: Audiobook, eBook, Paperback or Hardcover?

I don’t read e-books, and audiobooks are for books that I’m interested in, but might not otherwise get round to reading (I only borrow audiobooks from the library, I don’t use a subscription service).

I like my brand-new books to be either hardback or paperback, depending on a few things. If it’s a really chunky book, I prefer a decent hardback edition and if I can only get it in paperback, I want the paperback to be a floppy paged one (if I hold it out by the spine like a tray and it doesn’t flex or flop I’m disappointed), so that the binding doesn’t get cracked. (Uncalled for librarian rant: ‘perfect binding’ – which uses glue rather than thread – is the worst thing that ever happened in book production if you ask me; sure it’s made books cheaper and easier to mass produce, but try to read a perfectly bound not-floppy-pages book while waiting for a train in the middle of winter and what you end up with is a broken spine, which really pisses me off. From a professional point of view, we discard far more paperbacks than hardbacks at work because of broken spines, sometimes after only one or two issues, which is absolutely not what we are about. Even though perfect binding is used for hardbacks too most of the time now, those larger pages and that stiffer outer spine at least gives a little more protection to the glued spine within.

Here endeth the rant).

 

Scribble while you read? Do you like to write in your books; take notes, make comments, or do you keep your books clean, clean, clean?

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This is where it gets sticky – yes, I do make notes in some books. Mostly in my non-fiction reading. I do it a lot less than I used to (and when I’m making notes for a blog post I always use a notebook), but still I don’t see books as inviolate objects that can’t be communicated with in this way. And I love to find second-hand books with other people’s notes in them. This might sound a bit fetish-y, but, while I love books as doorways, I also love books as historical objects in which you can find names and dates written, bookplates (*swoon*), notes, old bookmarks etc. I like the idea that the book I’m reading has passed through other hands. That other people loved it, hated it, or were indifferent. I’m not big on socialising, I don’t like crowds, or parties, or concerts (*shudder*), but I do love people. Just from a distance.

 

Does it matter to you whether the author is male or female when you’re deciding on a book? What if you’re unsure of the author’s gender?

I don’t believe it matters to me on a conscious level. I do seem to lean towards female authors more than male. Sometimes I’ll read a book, not knowing the author’s gender the whole way through, but kind of making an assumption, and be surprised when I finally find out that they are not the gender I’d ascribed to them. It’s yet to change my feelings about the book.

On the other hand, whether an author denies the rights of others (in any number of ways) matters massively when I’m deciding on a book. Because, whether I like it or not, the creator and the creation are intrinsically connected for me. Just to put a topical spin on things.

 

Ever read ahead? Or have you ever read the last page way before you got there?

Again, this may lead to hate-mail and unfollows, but yes, I also read ahead very occasionally. Because sometimes I just NEED to know that someone survives, or that the thing I’m terrified of will go away.

 

Organized bookshelves or outrageous bookshelves?

Organised. Alphabetical by author for fiction. By subject for non-fiction (the Dewey Decimal System, with all its delightful little quirks, is still your friend).

What? I work in a library! I can’t help it!

 

Have you ever bought a book based on the cover (alone)?

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Yep. Welcome to Night Vale was just such a pretty purple. I didn’t know anything about the podcast, I just really loved this cover and was in a bit of a funk when I bought it. Fortunately, that turned out just fine for me.

I also bought Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince from a charity shop because of its cover. My only excuse is those dragons, because I’m sure it wasn’t the lady clinging to the puffed-up dude in the foreground. I still haven’t read it. The cover reminded me of the books my friend and I used to hoover up as teenagers, it looks exactly like the kind of thing we’d have jumped on, so I guess I was feeling nostalgic.

 

Take it outside to read, or stay in?

Outside. Inside. At the bus stop. On the bus. At the railway station. On the train. In the park. In the car. In the queue. In most waiting rooms (except the dentists – I struggle just to breathe let alone read while waiting for the dentist). At parties I can’t get out of (fortunately not so many of them these days). In bed. I fit my reading in wherever I can. If we’re talking about my preference however, then at the moment it’s inside, upstairs, under a blanket in my curly-up chair.

 

But enough about me, what about you??

 

 

 

 

 

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

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It is only now that I have put this book down and thought about it for a couple of days that I’ve realised Richard St Vier is not a good person. An incredible swordsman, yes, but nice? Not on your life.

I’m trying to work out why I didn’t really see it while I was reading (there was definitely a moment when I should have seen it). His quiet, mostly calm, don’t-want-to-be-bothered-by-people ways lulled me into a feeling of kinship; his protectiveness for his lover Alec, the fact that he doesn’t like to drink, his dedication to his art and the grace and energy with which he fights, his signature fatal strike to the heart (clean, definite, minimal mess), all put me firmly on his side (because who doesn’t love a quiet badass?). Instead, I should have thought more about what it takes to be a swordsman for hire, what it takes to go into fight after fight knowing that it could be your last. Knowing that you’re only the best until you’re dead.

Anyway, starting at the beginning…

 

Richard St Vier is the master swordsman in the City. His name is known to all, from the slums of Riverside to the gardens and ballrooms of the Hill. He has a strict code of conduct when it comes to taking jobs, which is equally well known. He is a man who keeps things simple in a story that knows the world is complicated.

The City itself is wonderful, both as a physical set for the action and as a political construct. Physically, it is a place of layers. I love that Riverside was once the noble quarter, but that as fashions have moved on (a carriage wouldn’t fit down such narrow streets) its beautiful buildings have been put to new uses, so that once grand residences are now divided up into small apartments, shops, bars and the like. Politically, it’s a place of clear class divisions – Riverside and the Hill only making that divide more concrete – that is run by a Council of Lords taken from the ranks of the nobility, and policed by a City Watch, but only so far: the criminal fraternity of Riverside must fend for itself. It’s a world entire, that runs along strict rules of honour (both the nobility on the Hill and the residents of Riverside have their own codes of honour), courtesy and perceived justice.

As far as I can talk about the plot without giving anything away, I enjoyed the ever-increasing complications as Richard and Alec get drawn into a power struggle going on at the highest level. There is something delightful (when it’s written as beautifully as it is here) about watching characters getting sucked into dreadful situations and reaching a point where neither you nor they can see a way out. Obviously, I’m saying this with hindsight. At the time I was positively gnawing my fingertips off because Ferris is bad and must not win, and Richard and Alec are good (I had not yet reflected upon their characters at this stage) and must have a happy ending.

Which brings me to Alec. Alec is a mystery. He has an accent that places him in the nobility, but he lives in Riverside with Richard, gambling (badly) and picking fights. He’s bitchy, self-destructive and mercurial. His relationship with Richard had me fascinated throughout the book because while we witness some vulnerable moments between the two, some funny ones and some passionate ones, there is still an element of the unknowable about them. I spent all of the time in their company desperately curious as to whether they’d end up together or apart. Before writing this up I had a quick look online to see what other people had to say about Swordspoint (not wanting to repeat what’s already been said) and I was surprised by how often a dislike for Alec was expressed. I mean, I’ll happily agree that he’s really not all that nice (he and Richard are the perfect couple in that respect – and, sorry, but all the hearts), but he’s funny and unpredictable, and there’s a damage underneath it all that surely deserves some sympathy? (He likes kittens, for goodness’ sake! He can’t be all bad. Compared to Richard he’s an angel. …Seriously, how did I not see it?!).

Kushner’s prose is just beautiful too. (Ah-ha! I blame her beautiful prose!). Her writing is precise, and she communicates a lot with very few words. I have only read one short story by her before this (“The Threefold World” – my notes for which read only “simply told but B.E.A.U.tiful”), but Swordspoint has left me wanting more of her writing. And certainly more of her dialogue! I lovelovelove all the catty back-and-forth and veiled insults, and the double entendres (looking at you, Lord Horn *shakes head*), that had me cackling my way through these pages. So. Much. Fun.

One other thing only sank in for me after I’d finished reading. While the male characters in this world can find love wherever their inclination lies, there are no f/f relationships shown in Swordspoint. I see that, with such a tight focus, the story could perhaps not accommodate a fully-fledged f/f romance, but I’d still have liked to see the suggestion that it was as much a norm as m/m ones. However, women don’t appear to be in any stronger a position in the City than they have been historically in our world and inheritance still appears to be patrilineal, with a wife required to provide an heir irrespective of personal feeling (poor Bertram and Olivia). The duchess of Tremontaine is the only powerful female character in the book, and while she appears to hold political power in her own right as a duchess, I can’t help but notice that the Council of Lords is an all-male group. So, I guess, if a woman’s power is negligible so too are her feelings.

 

All this means is that I was happy to read the first of the three additional short stories in my edition. In “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death” Kushner addresses the question ‘but what about the girls?’ intriguingly, and I was sorry it ended so soon. Knowing that the next Riverside book The Privilege of the Sword continues in the same vein makes me very eager to get my hands on it as soon as I can.

The second short story “Red-Cloak” was Kushner’s very first story about Richard and Alec. It has the merest hint of the supernatural to it and would have intrigued me if it had been the first thing I read about Kushner’s “mad, bad boys”. A nice addition.

And the third story “The Death of the Duke” is a poignant choice as the last word. We meet an older Alec and … and I really can’t say more. It’s a melancholy story and really quite beautiful, and I maybe choked up just a little, but you can’t prove a thing.

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If I ever see a copy of this alternative  Thomas Canty edition I’m gonna pounce on it! So pretty!

 

 

 

 

 

Saga, volume 2 by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples

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So I’m trying to space out my reading of Saga because I think it would be all too easy to binge the nine currently published volumes of this awesome series and then pout, sulk and bemoan the lack of new chapters. Still, reading this has just gone and reawakened all my enthusiasm for this story and the family at its heart. At the very end of volume one Alana, Marko, baby Hazel and Izabel had just received a surprise visit from Marko’s parents, and this volume picks right up where it left off.

 

What struck me most reading this second volume was how beautifully Vaughan and Staples have juxtaposed the various characters’ experiences of war and of love, family and belonging. Marko’s parents Klara and Barr made sure to educate their son at a young age about the war between Wreath and Landfall; Alana and Barr’s first conversation is nothing more than a spat over how the war has impacted their respective lives and families; Hazel talks about how broken relationships are like battles; and the author D Oswald Heist lost his son because of the war. Not to mention Prince Robot IV’s visceral memories/dreams of fighting and his unpredictable and violent nature. The war touches and has touched each and every character. But despite this Alana and Barr take the first tentative steps towards a relationship because of their shared love for Marko and for Hazel; we are shown more of Alana and Marko’s backstory, how they came to fall in love and the role that Heist’s book played in that; Marko has a brief flashback of his father’s encouragement and support for him when he was child; and even bounty hunter The Will continues in his efforts to release the Slave Girl (please please can she choose a name in the next volume?) from Sextillion. Love and connections are interwoven with the violence.

Hazel’s narration from her presumed adulthood continues to be a delight too. Her voice isn’t used too much or too little and always puts a slightly different spin on what we’re seeing on the page. I loved her description of her parents’ “meet-cute” as we see Alana smash her gun butt into Marko’s face, just as much as I loved her talking about the collateral damage of break-ups as we see The Will’s ship take severe damage. And of course, I loved her sarcastic little aside “some dreams really do come true” at the end of a scene in which I can only assume we’ve just witnessed her *ahem* conception. She often balances out scenes that could otherwise be a bit mushy, just as she gives the reader pause during moments of action.

That we finally get to meet Gwendolyn – Marko’s fiancé before he went to war – is also incredibly cool and I’m looking forward to getting to know her and to what she’ll bring to the larger story. I’m intrigued that the author D Oswald Heist has become a part of the tale too. His confrontation with Prince Robot IV was the tensest part of this volume for me (I find the Prince terrifying) and I really hope we’ll get to find out more about him, his son and what inspired him to write Alana’s favourite book, A Night-time Smoke. I also think Slave Girl’s going to be pretty interesting (it’s an interesting superpower she’s got there), so I hope she’ll stick around (and get a new name!).

Staples’ artwork continues to give shape to this incredible and expanding universe and I love her vibrant colourful style. Her skill in capturing characters’ expressions and personalities is perfect, her ability to realise battlefields and planet-sized births, creepy midwives, trolls and local Quietus fishermen equally so. It makes me beyond happy that a series like this exists and I look forward to continuing the journey soon (ish).

Alana Best Book

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun for Monday: The Mid-Year Freak Out Tag

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The Orang-utan Librarian did this tag last week and I’m jumping aboard because I wanna do a tag to cheer myself up (it’s a grumpy Sunday over here as I’m writing – I’ve no idea why). So what better way to do that than with a half-year (already?!) squeeing over books read and books still to read?

Here we go …

 

 

Best Book You’ve Read So Far This Year

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It’s between Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho and This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Don’t make me choose. Both of these were stunning reads in completely different ways. I was super excited to learn today (yesterday by the time this is posted) that This is How You Lose the Time War won the Locus Award for Best Novella.

 

 

Best Sequel You’ve Read So Far This Year

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It absolutely has to be Lirael by Garth Nix. I have just two words for you: Disreputable Dog.

 

 

New Release You Haven’t Read Yet but Want To

Ummm, you all know me by now, right?

I still haven’t caught up on the stuff released in 2019 that I wanted to read (or 2018, 2017, 2016 …). Give me a year or ten – I’ll get round to it.

 

 

Most Anticipated Release for the Second Half of the Year

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Jo Walton’s Or What You Will is coming out in just a few days’ time now and I am all kinds of excited!

 

 

Biggest Disappointment

That humanity hasn’t proved itself more compassionate… wait. You mean books, right? Ok, scrub that last…

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Supercute Futures by Martin Millar was … underwhelming, I thought. It was one of those books I found myself reading with a kind of cold fascination. I wasn’t able to like any of the characters and yet I needed to see how it would pan out all the same. A peculiar reading experience.

 

 

Biggest Surprise

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Thumbs was bought the first two volumes of Joe Benitez’s comic series Lady Mechanika for Christmas last year and I steadfastly refused to read them because of … well, *ahem* … because of the boobs. I thought it was going to be a trashy story (because sometimes I can be a judgmental asshole). But during lockdown, scrabbling for something to read (despite my literal mountain of unread books), I picked up the first volume and … I should probably go find a hat to eat. These graphic novels are great fun!

 

 

Favourite New Author

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I know he’s only new to me, but Samuel R Delany. He was my favourite read for Vintage SciFi Month back in January. Driftglass was a brilliant introduction to his writing and I am really looking forward to reading more by him.

 

 

Newest Fictional Crush

The Finishing School Series

I am currently loving couples who fall into the ‘deadly, but adorable’ category. So right now that’s Sophronia and Soap from Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books  and Richard and Alec from Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint (she calls them her “mad, bad boys” – need I say more?)

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Newest Favourite Character

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Eyas in Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. I just finished this book last week (there’s a post in the offing) and I was sooo into Eyas and her work that I’ve been thinking about her ever since. I really love Chambers’ characterisation.

(Aside: my husband Thumbs has just started reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and I am soooo excited for him … but I don’t imagine it’s easy to read something with someone staring at you and periodically whispering with suppressed impatience “which bit are you reading now?” … so please, spare him a thought).

 

 

Book that Made You Cry

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I said I didn’t cry rereading Jo Walton’s The Prize in the Game.

I lied.

So sue me.

 

 

Book that Made You Happy

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison made me very happy. I expected it to be dark and doomy, and instead (despite intrigues and assassination attempts) it warmed me from cockles to toes.

 

 

Favourite Book to Film Adaptation

*laughs so hard and so long she has to go have a lie down*

 

 

Most Beautiful Book You’ve Bought This Year

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We got Simon Stålenhag’s Things From the Flood at the beginning of the year – that’s probably the prettiest. Can’t really say it’s been a big year for buying books so far …

 

 

What Books Do You Need to Read by the End of the Year?

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Well, I definitely need to read Temeraire by Naomi Novik and Do You Dream of Terra-Two by Temi Oh because I’m going to be buddy-reading these with Alex of Spells and Spaceships and Maryam The Curious SFF Reader respectively. (Coming soon! Watch this space!).

I’m also going to be doing a private buddy-read of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon with my Other Brother soon, as we discovered we both had it on our tbr piles and we haven’t seen each other in … like … forever.

 

Other than that, I don’t really make reading plans as such. I know a lot of you awesome people have these incredible to-read lists for your ARCs and whatnot. Mine is a scribbled list in the front of this year’s notebook and I don’t do ARCs. I’m totally bumbling about in the background while everyone’s being professional and organised. And that’s the way I like it.

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This is how a bookforager do

 

But enough about me, what about you? What have your favourite books been so far this year? Your prettiest purchases? What are you looking forward to being published in the next six months?

 

 

 

 

 

The True Queen by Zen Cho

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I loved the energetic and insightful Regency fantasy adventure that was Sorcerer to the Crown. It left me wanting more Prunella, Zacharias, Makk Genggang, Damerell, Rollo and Aunt Georgiana Without Ruth, and more hare-brained schemes, misdirections and misunderstandings. And The True Queen certainly delivers a lot of what I wanted.

 

Prunella and Zacharias take on supporting roles this outing and we are introduced to two new characters, sisters Muna and Sakti. Washed up in Janda Baik after a storm, neither of them can remember who they are or anything about their lives before waking up on the beach, and so Makk Genggang takes them into her household and her protection. What is clear from the start is that the sisters are the victims of a curse that has robbed Muna of all magic and is slowly erasing Sakti altogether. It is only after they make an attempt to cure themselves that they spark a potentially dangerous political incident and get sent off to Prunella in England.

From the get-go Prunella is her own irrepressible self and I was delighted to see her again, turning some people into rabbits while trying to get other people kicked out of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers for persecuting female thaumaturges. At the same time though, I was a little disappointed. She has so many more duties now that she doesn’t have the time to really pay attention to or help Muna when Sakti goes missing in the Unseen Realm on their way to London. And we don’t really see much of Zacharias at all in this volume. On the other hand, that does mean that we and Muna get to know more about Henrietta Stapleton who, while not as caustic as Prunella, is enchanting in her own distinct way.

I enjoyed very much the parallels between Muna and Henrietta’s predicaments. Both women are prepared to efface themselves for the people they love, Muna for her lost sister and Henrietta for her both her sisters and her parents. Neither are in a position of power and they see the sacrifice of themselves as the only meaningful move they can make. That both of them, with a little help from the other, are able to find another way forward and one in which they are able to continue to be themselves is exactly the kind of story I wanted. The theme of female self-sacrifice via marriage or complete dedication to another person’s (man’s) more important life/work is one that runs through great swathes of the Nineteenth-Century English Literature I read at uni and it really gets my goat.

However, that is not to criticise the love that underpins both Muna and Henrietta’s desire to sacrifice their own needs for those of their families. Cho portrays love and affection with such a deft touch that what could be caricatures of the loud sister and the quiet, or the deeply-in-debt dad willing to throw his daughter away to save himself, are instead more beautiful portraits. Yes, Sakti and Muna have very different temperaments and outlooks (for slightly more unnatural reasons than many siblings), but their affection for each other is real. And Henrietta’s family, all of whom she desperately tries to protect, prove themselves worthy of a lot more trust than she’s given them, (I know I’m being vague, but these are some of the loveliest moments in the book and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone). The love of families (whether born into or found) runs through all the storylines in The True Queen, from Makk Genggang’s household of “witches, apprentices, servants, slaves, bondswomen, poor relations, strays of all descriptions and even a number of lamiae”, to the students of the Lady Maria Wythe Academy for the Instruction of Females in Practical Thaumaturgy, to Rollo and his dragonish Threlfall family.

This book continues in the same vein as Sorcerer to the Crown to question and compare social and cultural norms. The English raja of Malacca, for example, has a brick house (in a part of the world in which wooden buildings are predominant) with “an air of permanence and power” into which “two of the Sultan’s palace on Janda Baik” would fit; and yet the Stapleton family residence in Shropshire “is even grander than the raja’s house” and is only used as their summer home. Without saying anything more Cho prompts us to consider the relative wealth of Malaya and England and how surroundings, buildings, appearances are all a part of the communication of power. Henrietta’s mother wants to use Muna as an exotic curiosity to communicate social status at Amelia’s coming-out ball (because while an English magicienne is unthinkable a foreign witch is desirable – gotta love those double standards), and yet Muna has no wealth or status, no political or social power, and is dark-skinned and female to boot – all things that put her at a disadvantage in her attempts to muster help and save her sister.

And yet Cho achieves all this without apparent effort, without her story becoming heavy or unwieldly. The plot here is as involved as in her first book and while perhaps a teensy bit more predictable, still a joy to unravel; both the new and the returning characters are just as much fun to keep company with and the humour is just as sharp. A lot of my notes are just lines scribbled down that I’d love to be in a situation to deliver:

“I do have a vindictive temper when provoked, and I am fond of getting my revenge, so there can be no harm in my gaining a reputation for being vengeful.”

 

“Her Majesty finds nothing so cheering as a spot of indiscriminate slaughter.”

 

“You had best attend to your rabbits, Damerell. They speak good sense.”

 

“She does not labour under the disadvantage of having parents.”

 

“It is felt now that the practice of eating one’s enemies lacks elegance.”

If only I didn’t suffer so terribly from an inability to speak in front of any kind of audience!

Finally, I shall now squee about the delights I cannot talk about in anything more than the most cryptic of ways for fear of spoiling this bundle of fun for you: the rabbit with blonde curls; “we hardly have an attack more than once a fortnight”; the polong (oh my goodness, loved her so much!); paintings of grumpy old men; the Fairy Queen has lost her Virtu (snigger); Rollo and Poggs (all the hearts forever); the fine ones; the rescue of Mr Damerell (ROTFL); a miniature Aunt Georgiana (aww); Not Henrietta (funny, then creepy, then funny, then creepy); the imps used for lighting – “sometimes they weep” (chokes on a sob); what the Stapleton family knew all along (my heart!); a marriage that fixes everything; and, “for a time there was no need for conversation.” (Oh my heart! Hurrah!).

I have done a great deal of comfort reading this year so far, as so many of us have. Sometimes I feel like I’m not trying hard enough, other times I don’t have the energy to try, let alone worry about whether I am or not. So The True Queen will take its place on the shelf (currently it’s a repurposed shoe-rack, but one day it’ll be a proper shelf) with all my other delightful re-reading material, definitely to be revisited along with Sorcerer to the Crown when times are trying and my spirits are low. Perhaps you’re in need of something like that right now? … May I recommend Zen Cho to you?