Charm and Strange (CBR14 #20)

Something is going on with my reading this year, I seem to be swinging back and forth between 5-star books and 2-star ones, which means I should have anticipated trouble with Charm and Strange based purely on it falling in my reading order behind Boyfriend Material. This one didn’t make me angry as some of my other two star reads, Always, in December and Seduction, but it flirted with the line.

This 2014 Winner of the William C. Morris Award is designed to be read blind – you aren’t supposed to know more than a very basic description, that it’s the story of a boy who believes that he is a monster and it’s about understanding why. But if you are expecting a straightforward fantasy this isn’t it. This is much more a meditation on the psychology of trauma and how the placement of the “bad” descriptor on a child can destroy their self-perception. For that reason, its both difficult to provide an adequate content warning without spoiling the denouement of the story, but it feels entirely necessary to give one to prepare the reader for what they will encounter within.

This story is primarily in the mind of its protagonist, as he swings back and forth between the now of his time at a Vermont boarding school and the summer he was 10 years old. Normally I am all about a character study, which this falls firmly into, but Charm and Strange felt claustrophobic because the character we are studying, and whose thoughts we are sharing, is so profoundly depressed and isolated, and has suffered such immense harm at the hands of others.

CW: child abuse, sexual abuse, depression, disordered eating, suicide, self-harm.

Latitudes of Longing (CBR13 #33)

Latitudes of Longing

Latitudes of Longing is a book that only made it to my list of books to read this year because of the Reading Women 2021 Challenge. The first task on the list is to read a book longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature which is an award presented each year to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author. I went digging through the lists and Latitudes of Longing was both longlisted and shortlisted in 2018, the first year of the award. Latitudes of Longing is Shubhangi Swarup’s first novel. It’s the kind of first novel that I love, it is the book of someone who really loves written language. Swarup weaves in such beautifully evocative imagery while also being tight and skillful in construction. The book rewards those who pay close attention, and the way Swarup uses language makes you want to pay attention. Swarup uses her metaphors to create the links between the four novellas that make up the narrative.

The book starts with the story of an arranged marriage between two very different people that grows into genuine love. We follow Girija Prasad, a scientist educated in the west, and his wife, Chanda Devi, a clairvoyant who speaks to the trees her husband can only study. Their journey towards love and family is the epicenter of the novel and the rest of the book flows out from it. Swarup’s prose is both the novel’s highlight and what holds it back. On the plus side, there is no sensory detail or wisp of an idea that goes unexplored. Water, time, and topography are all fleshed out. However, while this style of writing can be exhilarating in small doses, it can also lead to fatigue.

Outwardly, what connects these narratives is their geography, the earth around the characters plays the role of an active participant throughout. But the real connecting theme of the book is desire, and what separates each character from what they want. It is also a book full of ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural which can comfortably place this one in the realm of fantasy. But it also leans towards the more science fiction side of things with its in-depth understanding of plate tectonics, forestry, and biology. Swarup builds a world where creation and destruction co-exist, where hard science and magical realism can live side by side. While Latitudes of Longing starts out with great intensity, but somewhere along the way, it loses its strength – but this is still a good read.

The Devourers (CBR9 #12)

The Devourers (U.S. Edition) book cover.jpg

In my reading habits, I do not read too much fantasy. I have never been a fan of high fantasy, those works that are set in an alternate world. I struggled with The Hobbit for years before finally managing to get through the audiobook last year, for example. I do better with “low” fantasy, stories set in the recognizable world which include magical or mythological elements, which is where books like Daughter of Smoke and Bone work much better for me. The Devourers, Cannonball Read’s Fantasy book club pick, should fit into that niche as well, but it really felt genre-defying while I was reading. I described it as historical magical realism in the book club chat, which is something that falls into fantasy, like The Night Circus, which I love, but this book is also working with some larger themes that felt much more akin to lit fic.

The rest of this review is going to jump around a bunch, be warned.

The book has the structure as a story within a story. Our entrance into the larger world of werewolves/shapeshifters is Alok. Alok is a history professor out for the evening when he meets the character who will be known throughout most of the book as the Stranger. The Stranger introduces himself as half-werewolf, hypnotizes Alok with stories of his past, and in a promised second meeting convinces him to transcribe a translation of scrolls for him. The scrolls tell the stories of Fenrir, Gevaudin, and Cyrah.

All that to say that Alok’s first interaction with the stranger made me think the book was dumb. It was not, but its framing device is possibly the weakest part of the entire novel. The book was strongest during the Cyrah centered section in the middle, but the constant POV switching early in the book led me to do a lot of skimming. This, as well as some of the other weaknesses in this book feel like debut novel mistakes to me. Das was going to show us all his tricks up front, but instead it made the beginning of the book simultaneously dense and barren.

Fenrir and Gevaudin are the stories prominent shapeshifters, I felt Das positioned Fenrir both the poster boy for toxic masculinity and a complete denial of self-acceptance and knowledge. Unfortunately, I thought the structure was god-awful. The reader is presented the Alok section, and then Fenrir post rape, and then Fenrir pre rape just made for an unwelcome entry into the larger ideas of the narrative.

Das makes a big and interesting leap in his werewolf/shapeshift story by tying together several different mythologies into one larger myth. It works, but I feel like Das was dropping bread crumbs, or assuming more knowledge on his reader’s behalf than I actually had, which left a lot of unanswered questions and possibilities. The book comes in right around 300 pages, so there was room to expand into the mythos, and specifically spend more time on Cyrah from her own point of view. I wish Das was a little clearer, a little stronger in his world building.

Also, Das works identity throughout the novel and there’s an interesting concept to a second self creating a hermaphroditic nature, but then why default Male? That’s where Das lost me, and even being presented with a shifter who defaulted female did not solve my issues since she (like a lot of how Cyrah was treated) was focused entirely on her ability to mother/nourish. There could have been more here.

The werewolves used their non-humanness as a shield, as a way to protect themselves from any identity attributes that don’t fit into the accepted. Throughout the novel the very behaviors and emotions they are disavowing as human as the ones they are demonstrating. I also was struck by Gevaudin’s struggle with keeping true to his second self’s nature, but his obvious care and affection for others, which should have been something that didn’t happen. Gevaudin presents his arguments against Fenrir as “love is stupid and humans are stupid”. But, Gevaudin is in love with Fenrir and then forms a years long close emotional bond with Cyrah. But again, Das doesn’t completely follow through.

I would like to take a moment and sing the praises of Cyrah: she was amazing. Initially I was concerned that Das would blow the landing on a character first introduced by her rapist, but she’s complicated and angry, hard and fragile. The character overcame my low expectations. Cyrah’s honest appraisal of her situation, both in the micro of the rape and the macro of her life situation made her a fantastic character. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the book served her well. The reader doesn’t get to read more about her and how her friendship with Gevaudin developed after Fenrir leaves for the final time. How did she end up becoming this sort of jungle goddess? Why did her life need to end the way that it did, and what point was there in taking that much strength and power into one being?

Finally, at the end when Alok starts exploring his own gender fluidity I was left more confused than anything else.  Perhaps I simply missed the signposts that Das had laid in, I had assumed that his bisexuality was enough for his fiancée and family to shun him, but apparently, I was supposed to see this coming. Again, I think Das tried too many things, all good ideas, but he just couldn’t balance it properly He needed more pages to do all the things he was attempting. However, I don’t know that I wanted to read more pages.

I think the best parts of the book are when the various main characters -across the multiple timelines- are ruminating on what their lives mean. Cyrah is vested neither in dying or in staying alive, based on her life experiences. Fenrir and Gevaudin are struggling with staying within the stereotypes of their werewolfness. Alok and the stranger are finding their own ways to survive, and Alok is working through the fluidity of his wants and needs. This is all so interesting.

3.5, rounded down.



Daughter of Smoke and Bone (CBR9 #2)

Image result for daughter of smoke and bone

I try to read a little bit of many different genres throughout the course of any given year. However, like most people, I lean more heavily on some genres than others. Fantasy, while one of our most read genres (over 150 pages of reviews!) on the Cannonball Read, has been a slowly growing genre for me. It took some in depth discussions with Ale for me to nail down my problems: I have a very difficult time getting my brain around non-Earth settings, and the tropes, particularly the Quest, do not always hold my attention.

Which brings us to a work of Fantasy that I should have read three years ago when it was gifted to me as part of the Cannonball Read Book Exchange instead of just letting it wallow on my bookshelf. To the best of my recollection I became aware of Daughter of Smoke and Bone all the way back in Cannonball Read 4. Yes, this has been languishing on my to read list since 2012.  But, I was nervous. Then I read My True Love Gave to Me, really loved Laini Taylor’s story in that collection, and felt like I could finally read this… two years ago.

In fact, this book had been on my shelf so long I had forgotten what it was supposed to be about in the first place and actually went in cold. Here is a synopsis from Goodreads for those who want more information than I apparently did.

Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”, she speaks many languages – not all of them human – and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That question haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When beautiful, haunted Akiva fixes fiery eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?”

I absolutely LOVED the beginning of this book. The world that Taylor builds around Karou and Brimstone felt lived in and real. The building out of our heroine felt natural and dynamic.  I was deeply curious about the mysteries embedded in the narrative as Taylor laid in more and more detail. When Akiva arrives on the scene, things only get more complicated and interesting.

The middle section of the book suffered a bit for me (there’s some well-handled instalove, but I automatically have trepidation about it whenever it shows up). The final section while incredibly well played kept one of my favorite characters off page (that feels like a spoiler, but for the dozen of us who hadn’t yet read this book I’m intentionally staying super vague) and had me contemplating a four star rating. Then I immediately looked up the next book in the series, put my request in, and will be picking it up this evening. Any book whose sequel I want to read immediately is a book that deserves to be rounded up to five stars. This is not a perfect book, but it is a brilliantly put together one that left me engaged, entertained and desiring more time with the characters and their journeys. It’s a win, folks.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Wyrd Sisters (CBR6 #46)

I’ve made my first foray into Discworld.

There was an article on io9 that described the best way to turn your friend into a fan of your particular fandom. If I didn’t know better I would swear a couple of my friends either read or possibly even ghostwrote this article specifically about getting me reading this expansive fantasy series.

I spent much of my life not reading Fantasy. I don’t know why exactly, but I feel it has something to do with having a tough time building the world in my head. Given what defines fantasy: story, everyman characters, evocation of another world, use of magic and the supernatural, a clear sense of good and evil and the quest it becomes clear why certain aspects just didn’t appeal to me, and that certain ones absolutely do (everyman characters, magic and the supernatural, and a clear sense of good and evil are the ones, if you’re interested).

As an adult reader, whose friends are ALL massive fantasy and sci-fi readers, I’ve decided to expand my horizons and see what happens. So far, so good. I’ve read a couple of Neil Gaiman works and have read two of the three Prince of Thorns books (number three will be read soonish. I’m waiting to borrow it.) And they’ve gotten me on the Discworld bandwagon since it hits my sweet spots: satire and parody.

For those of you who don’t know, Terry Pratchett is the author of over 40 works which all exist in the same universe – Discworld, which is itself part of the multiverse. There are many different series within the overall works, and with them many entrance points. So many in fact that there are infographics to help you decide, here’s one now:

reading threads for discworld

I did not actually pick one of the starter books; Wyrd Sisters is the 6th Discworld book, and the second of the Witches Novels. I should have grabbed Equal Rites which my friend also lent me (along with Mort and Witches Abroad), but instead grabbed Wyrd Sisters first without thinking about it very much. I’ll have to wait and see if that’s a terrible problem later when I pick up Equal Rites next (well, next for my Pratchett reading, I’m going to be reading and reviewing a few other books before then).

In my reading of Wyrd Sisters I noticed Pratchett playing with the power of words (Fool tells us as much) and what effect they have on what we remember, and how much we are influenced by our fictions in relation to our history (and the various amounts of fiction which infiltrate our known history).  One of the big themes in the book, and employed by Granny Weatherwax is headology. Headology is made up by Pratchett, but it’s the shorthand in this book (and I have a bet other Witches Novels) for thinking. And one of my favorite Granny quotes is all about it, that everything can be solved if we stop and think about it.

Pratchett plays with archetypes, most specifically the titular Wyrd Sisters. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick are representative of the three fates, and I really enjoy books that play around with that idea. But they also inhabit the Crone, Mother, Virgin archetypes. There are also Fool and Prince archetypes, and the evil queen. But the characters are far from one dimensional as Pratchett builds them up to deliver the story, and commentary, that he’s telling us.

This is also a love letter to Shakespeare. Two of his more famous plays Macbeth and Hamlet are featured heavily in the plotting of Wyrd Sisters. So much so, that the book’s first line of dialogue is the same first line of the play Macbeth “when shall we three meet again.”  There are also allusions to the play within the play from Hamlet which becomes a linchpin in this story, while the one in Hamlet does not have the desired effect.There are other little nods throughout, perhaps my favorite being that when the traveling  the acting company builds a theater they name “the Dysk” which is a very on the nose reference to Shakespeare’s own Globe theatre.

I highly recommend this to you, and look forward to many years of happily reading along in Discworld.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Prince of Thorns (CBR6 #29)

I blame the internet. Earlier this year I was telling my roommate about a run of books I was in that were great, but sad. She’s dubbed my year as “The Depression Readings”. I mean, to a certain extent this is fair. I have read Burial Rites, The Black Country, Tell the Wolves I’m Home and The Age of Miracles in a 6 week period. That’s a lot of heavy reading, emotionally.

So, at some point she decided that it was her mission to bring some light-hearted reading into my summer and began emailing me with lists from various websites about Summer Books. While on the search she came across an article on Buzzfeed which talked about Prince of Thorns (either this one or this one, I think) and decided to read The Broken Empire series herself. Well, she did, and has now forced them on me. I’m not complaining, but I like to mention to her that these books seem more in line with the “Depression Readings” I was doing before and less to do with her goal of light, happy reads. Oh well.

Prince of Thorns focuses on Jorg, who is quite simply, a bit of a dick. He’s young, he’s tough, he’s got a score (or three) to settle, and he’s leading a bunch of ‘brothers’ around the Broken Empire causing all kinds of mischief. And that’s before he decides to return home after a four year absence. You see, Jorg left home at age 10 (!) following witnessing his mother and brother’s deaths while he was trapped in a bush of terrible thorns which dug into his flesh. He is scarred both outwardly and inwardly, and decides the life of a road assassin is his best choice to avenge these deaths.

Jorg is a bastard of a character, but his saving grace, and what keeps this book in your hand and not back on the bookshelf, is that he’ completely understandable. He’s killed a seemingly innocent bystander? No worries, he’ll explain it in due course and have you on his side, or at least resigned that this was the only possible solution given the world and fight Jorg is in for his life. He’s decided he’ll be king by his 15th birthday, and it’s going to involve a lot of fighting and death.

I say read this book, but don’t get too attached to any of the characters and don’t expect there to be any redeeming qualities in Jorg. You’ll love him while you hate him.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.