Two fantastic fantasies

>> Tuesday, October 16, 2018

TITLE: The Thief
AUTHOR: Megan Whalen Turner

A scruffy thief called Gen is brought out of jail by the King's advisor for a mission: stealing an object that will change the fate of kingdoms. Together with the advisor himself, a couple of apprentices and a soldier, Gen travels to the kingdom of Attolia, where the mysterious object is.

I don't want to say too much, because the best thing about this book are the constant surprises. There are some great twists and turns I never saw coming. Nothing is quite what it looks like with Gen. I guessed one thing, but definitely not everything, and even as things not quite right kept happening, which should have been clues that more surprises were coming, I kept gliding right over them.

Hmm, actually, the best thing about the book was probably Gen himself. He's irreverent and hilarious, but he's got an extremely honourable core, and you come to care for him quite deeply.

The setting is also wonderful. It's sort of reminiscent of Ancient Greece, with a very well-developed history and mythology. Just excellent all around.


TITLE: Bitterblue
AUTHOR: Kristin Cashore


Bitterblue is the third book set in this particular universe. We were introduced to the evil Leck in Fire, and then got a look at his reign as King of Monsea in Graceling, where we also saw him get killed. He left behind a traumatised kingdom and a very young daughter, Bitterblue, who ascended to the throne.

Bitterblue is now older, and ready to take over responsibility for her kingdom from her advisors. It's not a tale of action and adventure and derring-do, but a quiet, somewhat somber tale of a serious young woman seeking to become a good queen and help her kingdom finally heal from the trauma inflicted by her father. I found this extremely touching. It's hard, with some moments that are very uncomfortable to read, but it also feels cathartic.

The book is also a bit of a mystery, as we find out more about what exactly happened during Leck’s reign. It’s a really great mystery, as well, especially because at first it doesn’t seem like there’s a mystery at all. It all comes out really slowly and gradually, and the reasons things were still hidden make sense.



I was just trying to read about Finland

>> Sunday, October 14, 2018

I read these two earlier this year, right before moving to Helsinki. My main interest in them was reading more about what was about to become my new home, which may be why they didn't really work for me.

TITLE: Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home
AUTHOR: Malachy Tallack

Mallachy Tallack has spent a lot of his life in Shetland. Shetland is on the Northern Hemisphere's 60 degrees parallel. In this book he travels round the world, exploring the different places where this particular parallel hits land. First to Greenland and Canada, through Alaska, and then Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

There are some interesting bits and pieces, but this was really not what I wanted. I've been finding this more and more in non-fiction, both in books and in TV, where it seems to be frowned upon to just have it be about the particular topic, and there's more and more emphasis on the person creating the work. You get a bit about the topic that drew you in and made you buy the book or watch the programme, but this comes along a big helping of "the journey" of the creator, or their musings on whatever... grief, the loneliness of modern life, environmental degradation. The thing is, most times, I don't care! That was the case here. The personal stuff was not why I picked up the book. I wanted to know about these places! Seriously, this approach seems to be everywhere. Have you ever searched for a recipe online and ended up having to read through paragraphs and paragraphs about how the writer's daughter loves this food and how the first time they made it it reminded them of their childhood? Well, that, but in a more literary style.

If the musings had been what I was after, I may have enjoyed this book. As it was, I didn't much. To be completely fair, there is a hint of what's inside on the back cover blurb. I should have read it more carefully and avoided.


TITLE: Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North
AUTHOR: Horatio Clare

In Icebreaker, Clare jumps at the chance to spend some time on a working Finnish icebreaker. Not while it's on shore for the summer, but right in the winter, as it trundles along freeing stuck ships and helping get them to where they need to go.

To an extent, this suffers from some of the same problems as Sixty Degrees North. I wanted to know about icebreakers, but even though pretty much the entire book takes place on an icebreaker, there wasn't enough about icebreakers! I read the whole thing and I don't feel I completely understand how the whole system works.

Plus, the book felt a little bit boring. There are pages and pages of extremely non-scintillating conversation with members of the crew. They all seemed like a nice bunch, but bless them, not great conversationalists. Underwhelming.



Women of the Dunes, by Sarah Maine

>> Friday, October 12, 2018

TITLE: Women of the Dunes
AUTHOR: Sarah Maine

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

SETTING: Contemporary, 19th and 9th century Western Scotland
TYPE: Fiction

On the rugged, sea-lashed coast of west Scotland lies Ullaness: home to the Scottish legend of Ulla, a Viking woman who washed up on Scottish shores centuries ago. The legend will bring the stories of three different women together...

In AD 800 there is Ulla, lost in a foreign country after her lover is brutally killed. Ellen, a servant-girl in the 1800s, catches the unwanted attentions of the master of the house's lascivious son. And, in the present day, there is Libby - an archaeologist who is determined to uncover an age-old mystery.

When a body is excavated from Ullaness - the body of someone who was murdered long ago - the mystery deepens, and the fates of the three women become ever more tightly bound.
Just like The Boundless Deep, which I recently reviewed, this is the kind of book I love, a story about women in different time periods, their lives tied together in some way.

In the present day, Libby Snow is an archaeologist. She's soon to be part of a project to excavate a burial mound in the remote island of Ullaness, in the West Coast of Scotland. Libby has a personal connection to the area: as a child she spent a lot of time in Nova Scotia with her grandmother, who loved to tell young Libby stories passed on by her own grandmother, Ellen, who had been born in Ullanness herself.

Ellen had worked as a domestic servant in the manor, and she was the one who immigrated to Canada at some point in the 19th century. Ellen loved to entertain her granddaughter with stories about the island's legend, which featured a 9th century viking woman, Ulla, and a monk Odrhan (her lover? protector? friend?), and in turn, granny passed all those on to Libby. But Ellen also spoke about other things, including mentions of a "murder that had been done", and Libby has heard of those as well.

A few weeks before the dig is due to start, Libby decides to pay a quick visit to the island. Mostly it's that she wants to get the lay of the land, but there's something else on her mind. She's recently received from her grandmother a clearly very old cross, something that is supposed to have come from Ellen. And the cross is suspiciously similar to a chalice that used to be part of a medieval cache found on Ullaness, and which has been recently stolen in a mysterious burglary. Libby is a bit worried. How did Ellen come to have the cross? Did she steal it? She's not quite sure what she should do with it, but part of her hopes visiting the island will give her some ideas.

But the visit to Ullaness is more eventful than she was expecting. First an unexpected meeting with Rodri Sturrock, brother to the man who owns the manor and the land the excavation is supposed to take place on. Rodri is his brother's agent, and the bloody-minded man Libby and her colleagues have had so much trouble getting agreement from. And then, after a bit of a storm, Libby discovers a body in the area her team is meant to excavate. It's not a recent one, likely Victorian. And suddenly Libby is remembering Ellen's mutterings about murder.

Most of the time is spent in the present with Libby (and Rodri), but interspersed with her story, we get the story of Ulla and her monk, as well as that of Ellen. The former is very short, but the latter is a lot more developed. Ellen is a maid at the big house, and when the two sons of of the house arrive, it's a mix of good and bad news. One is a predatory piece of shit, and she's rightfully scared of him, while the other is a very nice, caring man, and Ellen has a bit of a crush on him.

I particularly enjoyed the present-day story, which is what takes up the biggest proportion of the book. Libby quickly becomes entangled in the lives of Rodri and two women, Alice and Maddy, who are his friends and business partners. They become her friends, actually, and it was really nice to see. Libby is not the most deeply developed character ever, but there's certainly the impression that she's been a bit lonely in the past. Growing up she was quite unmoored from family, forever moving between different relatives, so being adopted by these people is a new experience for her, and clearly one she enjoys.

The stakes in this section are not really about the investigation into the past. I had expected the events of Ellen and Ulla's lives to have some bearing on Libby and her life, but they don't really. In the present-day section, the big thing that's going on is the threat to Rodri and his friends and to the estate itself from Rodri's brother and his wife, who are seemingly determined to bleed the place dry. There are some surprises there, and some of them are unexpectedly dramatic (possibly in a way that didn't quite go with the tone of the book that well).

The mirroring I was expecting in Libby's life actually takes place mainly between Ulla's story and Ellen's. The patterns repeat themselves there, and both are very sad stories. We know things will end in tragedy, given Libby's find, but not quite how. I was a bit less interested in these stories, but they were ok.

On the whole, this was quite an enjoyable read.



Broken April, by Ismail Kadare

>> Wednesday, October 10, 2018

TITLE: Broken April
AUTHOR: Ismail Kadare

PAGES: 218

SETTING: Early 20th century Albania
TYPE: Fiction

From the moment that Gjorg's brother is killed by a neighbour, his own life is forfeit: for the code of Kanun requires Gjorg to kill his brother's murderer and then in turn be hunted down. After shooting his brother's killer, young Gjorg is entitled to thirty days' grace - not enough to see out the month of April.

Then a visiting honeymoon couple cross the path of the fugitive. The bride's heart goes out to Gjorg, and even these 'civilised' strangers from the city risk becoming embroiled in the fatal mechanism of vendetta.
Why did I read this? Bit of a long story. A couple of years ago I read and loved Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic. The book is set in Corfu, but much of the suspense plot revolves around Albania, sort of the North Korea of its time, the forbidding snowy peaks of which loom right over the water. Something about that really captured my imagination, and last year I decided to go there for a holiday. Snowy peaks were in my mind, so I decided to do some hiking up in the mountains in the North.

So then I wanted to do some reading about Albania. There are not a lot of travel books about the country, so I quickly switched to fiction by Albanian authors, and the obvious place to start was with Ismail Kadare. And as luck would have it, the first book that most people recommend (one of the few of his books considered "accessible" by those who know his work) is Broken April, which happens to be set in the very area I was planning to visit, albeit several decades previously.

Broken April was written in the late 70s, but it's set in the early 20th century (I would guess!). The central government is pretty much non-existent in the mountains of Northern Albania, and villagers abide by a code called the Kanun, a literal written guide on how life should proceed. Most of it is mundane and boring, but some is not, like the parts that concern blood feuds.

One of the central characters is Gjorg, a young man from a family that has been involved in a blood feud with another for many, many years, maybe even generations. The origin of this blood feud is linked with another central Kanun teaching, the treatment of guests. Basically, guests are precious and the honour of the family sheltering a guest is at stake in their protection. If someone kills them, then the hosts are honour-bound to avenge the death. And having killed the killer, the now-dead person's family is honour bound to avenge them as well. That is what happened in the case of Gjorg's family, and even though the original guest was just a stranger who had asked shelter for the night, for generations these two families have been killing each other, one person at a time, in strict turns.

It's now Gjorg's turn, and as the book starts, he has just killed the man who killed his brother. He knows someone in the man's family will now hunt him down, kill them, and the cycle will continue. He's got a bit of time, since after a blood feud kill the killer is granted something called besa, a period where the feud is suspended and he won't be killed, and during which he can do things like settle his affairs. But the first thing he must do is visit the Kulla of Orosh, the castle of the regional strong man (can't think of a better term) who is the guardian of the Kanun, and pay a blood tax. It's a long walk from the village and he sets off, unsettled about what's coming.

The other central characters are a newlywed couple, Bessian and Diana. They are both cosmopolitan, educated people from Tirana. Bessian is fascinated by the accounts of life in the Northern mountains. He finds it all very exotic and exciting (and this is as patronising as you might imagine). He decides that for their honeymoon, he and Diana are going to travel in the area.

Obviously, our three travellers' paths will cross, and this will set off a tragic chain of events.

As a portrayal of a way of life and a place and time, this works really well. The oppressiveness of living under a system where your destiny is determined by events set in motion generations ago is overpowering and vivid.

Whether it was ever quite as portrayed is another topic, though. In one of our first walks in Albania we visited a kulla. Kullas are stone towers where men involved in blood feuds could take refuge when they were the ones being hunted, and this was one of the very few left intact.

I had a really interesting conversation with the guide there about Broken April. He said that Kadare had an agenda when writing this, and that his point was to portray the Kanun as negatively as possible. His portrayal of the Steward of the Blood at the Kulla of Orosh as someone whose job is to make sure there are enough blood feuds active, so that money keeps rolling in as blood taxes, seemed to rankle particularly. Certainly, when the guide spoke about the Kanun to our group he emphasised all the different ways to reach reconciliation much more than you see in Broken April. He also gave a couple of examples of things that, he said, are used in the book to imply barbarism, when they are anything but. One example was the tradition of a bride's family including a bullet in her dowry when sending her to her new husband. The meaning in the book is basically "if she betrays you, use this bullet to kill her. You have our support". The guide said that it actually meant "We trust you so much that we trust you with the life of our daughter". Hmmm.... Still, food for thought.

As much as I liked the setting and 'world-building', the story itself wasn't quite as successful for me. Gjorg's storyline did make psychological sense, but I found it very hard to understand Diana, and that made some of the action pretty frustrating.


PS - I can't resist including a couple of bonus pictures from Albania :)


Rye and Mirrors

>> Monday, October 08, 2018

A couple of books by Agatha Christie today. I read all of hers as a young teen, and I'm really enjoying revisiting them in audio. They work perfectly as short palate-cleansers in between more intense, heavy audiobooks.

Both of these feature Miss Marple, whom I'm a big fan of. Just as big a fan as of Hercule Poirot. I really can't decide on a favourite between the two.

TITLE: A Pocket Full of Rye
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

The first victim was a rich businessman, dead after drinking poisoned tea. The second was his wife, also by killed by poison. She had previously been considered the main suspect in her husband's death. And then the third victim, the maid, strangled in the garden. It is the last murder that brings in Miss Marple, as the maid had worked for her several years back.

On finding out that one of the most baffling aspects of the crime is that the first victim was found with some sort of grain or cereal in his pocket, Miss Marple realises it's rye, and that there are all sorts of other clues that also point towards a particular nursery rhyme. You know the one... "Sing a Song of Sixpence, a pocket full of rye..." Not least, the maid being killed as she was hanging clothes to dry and being found with a clothespin on her nose ('pecked off'), and the family's ownership of a mine in Africa called the Blackbird Mine. Is the family being targeted by a nursery-rhyme obsessive serial killer?

The truth is much more interesting than that. There are plenty of red herrings along the way, and the resolution is both clever and one of those satisfying ones that make complete sense when you look back. The characters are very well done here, as well. A really good one.


TITLE: They Do It With Mirrors
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

Miss Marple visits an old friend, Carrie Louise Martin, at the request of her friend's sister, who thinks something is wrong and Miss Marple is the only one who can figure out what. Carrie Louise's current husband, Lewis (she's had several, and accumulated a variety of relatives, many of whom are living with her as well), has turned their house, a large Victorian mansion, into a institution to rehabilitate "young delinquents".

It all seems like a recipe for trouble, everyone seems to think, and trouble does occur. One of the boys shoots at Lewis, but when the metaphorical smoke clears, it's someone else who's dead.

This was fun, but not a favourite. This is one of the Christies where the point really, really isn't the characters (who are a bit flat -with the exception of Miss Marple, who is in great form), but the plot. The plot makes for a very clever puzzle, super ingenious, but ultimately one that doesn't quite stand up when you think about it too much. I found it a bit unbelievable that the culprit would choose to go for such an unnecessarily complex method, so reliant on other people behaving in particular ways and therefore so risky.

Still, a very entertaining book while I was reading it.



The Queen of Sorrow, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Saturday, October 06, 2018

TITLE: The Queen of Sorrow
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

PAGES: 419
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: World of Renthia
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Follows The Queen of Blood and The Reluctant Queen

The battle between vicious spirits and strong-willed queens that started in the award-winning The Queen of Blood and continued in the powerful The Reluctant Queen comes to a stunning conclusion in The Queen of Sorrow, the final volume of Sarah Beth Durst’s Queens of Renthia trilogy.

Queen Daleina has yearned to bring peace and prosperity to her beloved forest home—a hope that seemed doomed when neighboring forces invaded Aratay. Now, with the powerful Queen Naelin ruling by her side, Daleina believes that her dream of ushering in a new era can be realized, even in a land plagued by malevolent nature spirits who thirst for the end of human life.

And then Naelin’s children are kidnapped by spirits.

Nothing is more important to her than her family, and Naelin would rather watch the world burn than see her children harmed. Blaming the defeated Queen Merecot of Semo for the kidnapping, Naelin is ready to start a war—and has the power to do it.

But Merecot has grander plans than a bloody battle with her southern neighbors. Taking the children is merely one step in a plot to change the future of all Renthia, either by ending the threat of spirits once and for all... or plunging the world into chaos.
NOTE: spoilers here for the first two books in the series. Don't read further if you haven't read them. The books in this series don't really stand alone, so you should really be starting with book 1. Links to my reviews above.

The first two books in this series were great. An imaginative, fresh world. Strong female characters, each strong in her own way. Action, danger, emotion, everything. This last one is good, but it doesn't quite end the series with a bang. I mean, it doesn't end it with a whimper, either. It's just good.

The action picks up where book 2 left off. Daleina and Naelin are adapting to sharing the queenship of Aratay. They seem pretty complementary: Naelin supplies the raw power, while Daleina, for all her youth, brings the the measured thoughtfulness and experience. But the threat posed by Merecot over the border in Semo is not over. And that's all I'll say about the plot, as it's much more fun to read it without knowing what is coming!

There is certainly an external plot here, but what I like so much about this series is that the way things play out is driven by character. Our three powerful women act and react in ways that reflect who they are. And what they are is real and flawed. Naelin is extremely powerful and a good person, but she's a crap queen. She cares more about her children than about her kingdom, and makes no bones about it. Merecot is basically a charming psychopath. The ways she acts in the book are sometimes counterproductive and she could get much more by asking nicely, but she would not be generous herself and do something without getting something in return, so it doesn't occur to her to ask. Daleina is probably the least flawed of the queens, but she is a little bit too trusting sometimes, to eager to see the good in people.

The interactions and dynamics between all these characters are what makes the book tick, and I enjoyed reading it. There's romance and action and cool world-building, but it's all in the background behind these well-developed and interesting characters, and that works perfectly.

As for flaws... well, I mentioned about Merecot being a charming psychopath. Well, there are two such characters here, she and Hamon's mother, Garnah, who's now been elevated to Queen's Poisoner, despite Hamon's protestations. They kind of steal the show here, because they really are very charming and funny, and I'm not sure they should have been quite so cool. Naelin and Deleina feel a bit earnest and uncool in comparison, which I'm not sure is the best choice for the story.

Still, that was a minor issue. This was an excellent series, and I will look forward to seeing where Durst goes next.



Looking into the (near) future

>> Thursday, October 04, 2018

Two books set (or partially set) in the near future. They also share a non-traditional, somehow fragmented structure.

TITLE: Tell the Machine Goodnight
AUTHOR: Katie Williams

For some reason, this somewhat reminded me of Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Probably the structure, which was sort of like a collection of vignettes, almost short stories, from the points of view of various people in this world, some of whom we return to, some of whom we don't.

The first one is Pearl, a woman who works for a company that offers consultations with a machine called Apricity that, based on a swab test, tells people the things they need to change in their life to be happy (this could be anything... learn a language, cut off contact with your sister, cut off the tip of your left index finger). Then comes one from the POV of her manager at the company, who gets drawn in by another manager, a rising star, into using a pimped up Apricity machine to get ahead in his job. Then there's one from the POV of Clark, Pearl's son, who is helping a friend find something out, and comes up with a way to use his mum's Apricity machine to do so. So, you get the picture, a sequence of lightly connected vignettes, all somehow using the concept of the Apricity machine.

The Apricity machine is a really interesting concept to play with. The book is set about 20 years in the future, but the themes speak very clearly about today, about the ways we try to pursue happiness by trying all sorts of gimmicks, rather than going along more slow (but boring) paths. I enjoyed it, but I would say it felt ultimately not quite satisfying. I was hoping there would be something that tied everything together in the end (at least a bit), but instead, it felt like things were sort of left hanging.


TITLE: Speak
AUTHOR: Louisa Hall

Speak follows 6 characters living in different times and spaces. There's the diary of a girl travelling to America from England in the 1600s. In the current day, there's a scientist working on an artificial intelligence programme and struggling to connect with his wife. There's letters sent by Alan Turing to the mother of a recently dead friend. Some 25 years into the future, writing his memoirs in a prison, there's a man who created something called "babybots", dolls with AI that many children ended up attaching to and becoming ill, seemingly as a result. There's a transcript (evidence in the babybot trial) of girl talking to an AI after her babybot was taken away. Finally, there's a babybot on the way to being destroyed.

Some of these storylines connect quite clearly (the link between the 3 characters in the future is obvious, but there's more. For instance, the scientist's wife edited and published the 17th century young girl's diary. The artificial intelligence programme created by the scientist builds on Turing's work. And so on).

I was really excited about this book at the beginning. It was reminiscent of Cloud Atlas (purposely, I would say) and I was hoping it would be as good. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The themes were potentially interesting: the way communication and technology interact, the difficulties of really connecting with other humans. But I didn't feel Hall did all that much with them. Or maybe I just wasn't able to get beneath the surface of the different stories.



Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw

>> Tuesday, October 02, 2018

TITLE: Five Star Billionaire

PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Contemporary China
TYPE: Fiction

In the Man Booker prize-longlisted ‘Five Star Billionaire’ Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for themselves in sprawling Shanghai.

Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.

In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping the new city experiences all over the world, and their effect on myriad individual lives.
This year for the first time, after several consecutive years of reading as much as I could work through of the Man Booker longlist, I've mostly ignored it. I started to make the attempt and tried to read Snap, but I really didn't fancy most of the rest. Sunita's reviews have made me reconsider reading a few of the others, but mostly, I'm unenthusiastic. So instead, here's a review of a book from another year's longlist.

I bought this one a few years back, on the year when it was on the longlist. It was one I was looking forward to reading, but when it wasn't on the shortlist it kind of got lost in my TBR. I came across it again after DNFing a couple of disappointing books and it felt like exactly what I was looking for.

Five Star Billionaire follows a group of Malaysian people living their lives in the fast-paced capitalism of Shanghai. They're a mix of people trying to make it and people dealing with having made it. There's Phoebe, a young girl from a rural village who moved to China for an excellent job that disappeared on arrival. There's Justin, the scion of a rich family dealing with the pressure of having to save their real estate empire. There's Gary, winner of a talent competition trying to cope with sudden fame. There's Yinghui, who by her late 30s has built a successful career and is struggling with those around her think that unmarried women her age are, by definition, to be pitied, however successful they may be (and oh, how I identified with that!). Finally, there's Walter, immensely rich and trying to sort out his legacy, the linchpin of the novel, whose actions affect each of the previous four.

This is not really about the characters but about life in the new China, a fast-moving (so fast-moving that it may have changed drastically in the 5 years that this book has been out), merciless world. The characters all connect superficially, but struggle to make deeper connections. And in the end, each of the four younger characters needs to make a choice.

The book employs a loose "self-help book" structure, with chapter named things like "Move to Where the Money Is" and "Choose the Right moment to launch Yourself". I enjoyed figuring out how the content of those chapters would give us a twist on their titles. I note that this came out at about the same time as Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, so there must have been something in the air right then :)

Interesting book, definitely worth a read.



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