Posted in Literature

Read: The Arkhel Conundrum

The Arkhel Conundrum (Tears of Artamon, #4)The Arkhel Conundrum by Sarah Ash
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the original trilogy shortly after publication and discovering there was to be a new instalment in the saga was a wonderful surprise. After 14 years, I certainly hadn’t expected a new book in the series! That’s also a reason I delayed reading it. ‘What if it spoils the memory of the originals? What if my tastes have changed and I don’t like it?’ I was both excited and anxious to read The Arkhel Conundrum and in the end I needn’t have been worried: it is every bit as excellent as the first three books.

The rear cover has a quote comparing Ash to Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time) and George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) and rightly so; she is an expert in weaving a tale of epic proportions with a wide cast, all of whom are well-written and fleshed out, without falling foul of overly complex plot threads.

Yes, you will almost certainly need to read the Tears of Artamon in full in order to appreciate The Arkhel Conundrum as there are references back to events in the previous books that you might not understand without reading them. You could go in straight at book 4 and get by with what’s in this book alone and still enjoy the new story-lines but I heartily recommend the trilogy as it is excellent.

In this instalment we meet back up with Gavril and Kiukiu and start the story in earnest almost a year after the end of Children of the Serpent Gate and after the birth of their daughter who, it turns out, was conceived before Gavril was freed of his dragon-demon Khezef. Little Larisa is a very special baby and once Elder Ones and Heavenly Guardians alike discover her existence, she becomes very popular indeed.

Emperor Eugene, in the absence of his mentor and magus Kaspar Linnaius, launches a competition to construct a flying craft, which accidentally opens him up to new threats. We’re also introduced to a handful of new characters, including Toran Arkhel and Gerard Bernay, who feel like we’ve known them long before this book, such is the strength of their characterisation.

In the high/epic fantasy style there are different plots weaving together towards two climax points that are expertly done and I foresee those two story-lines coming together in a 5th book. PoV shifts between chapters so that we can feel and experience the world from different character perspectives where even seemingly minor characters are still key to the overall story.

I feel I cannot proselytise about this series enough. I loved it when I first read it and still love it now. I look forward to the next book and won’t be quite so anxious to keep going next time! 

This was my 42nd book of 2020.

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Posted in Literature

Read: Invisible Differences

With lovely art style and a story told with compassion, Invisible Differences is about a woman in her late 20’s being diagnosed with Asperger’s in a country that doesn’t give it much credence where misinformation is rife. While Marguerite’s story is centred around autism, this is a story that anyone with a form of neuro-divergence can recognise themselves in and find a bit of comfort in seeing Marguerite triumph.

It is also wonderful as an educational tool to explain what living with ASD (or generally being neuro-atypical, or having a chronic condition) is like in a way that isn’t condescending or light-footed. It’s perfect to evoke an empathy and understanding in others who may not have first hand experience of conditions like this. To those of us who have, Dachez leaves us a heartwarming note at the beginning of the book to remind us we shouldn’t hold ourselves to the standards of others and to live our lives without fear. Something we could all do with being reminded of now and then.

I see a lot of myself in Marguerite: sensitive to noise, drained by social interactions and the spoon theory as well as some of the negative interactions she goes through before officially receiving her diagnosis. The uplifting outcome is all the better for knowing this is a true story of the author and her artist friend.

This has been a translation from a French original and I didn’t detect any jilted phrases along the way so excellent in every respect.

With thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for offering an ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) in exchange for honest reviews.

Invisible Differences’ English edition is set to be published 18 August 2020 from Oni Press.

You can also see this review on GoodReads, here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/33265375-rai-fg

Posted in Literature

Reading Challenges 2020

Here we have my 2020 list of prompts and a few reading-related challenges too. Prompts have been cobbled together from a variety of sources (mostly POPSUGAR, BookRiot and Modern Mrs Darcy) and a couple of my own devising.

Rai’s Reading Challenge Prompts 2020:

  • A ghost story
  • A story with dragons
  • A book that’s published in 2020
  • A book by a trans or nonbinary author
  • A previous Goodreads Choice award winner
  • A sci-fi/fantasy novella (< 150 pages)
  • A ‘doorstopper’ (> 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman
  • A book you picked because the title caught your attention
  • Read a banned book during Banned Books Week
  • A book published in the month of your birthday
  • Read the last book in a series
  • Read a retelling of a classic, fairytale or myth
  • A book gifted to you
  • A book you chose because of the cover art
  • A book outside of your (genre) comfort zone
  • A book with a queer character/s
  • A book with a disabled character
  • A book with a 4 star rating on Goodreads
  • An audiobook
  • A book that has been on your TBR since 2017 or earlier

Reading-related Challenges:

  • Only buy myself secondhand books
  • When buying a new physical book, ‘destash’ an equal number of books to make space on the shelves
  • Show up to a Book Club at least once

Goodreads Challenge: 24 books

6 ‘Must Read’ TBR 2020:

  • The Obelisk Gate (audiobook)
  • The Arkhel Conundrum
  • The Priory of the Orange Tree
  • Reality is not what it seems
  • Daughter of the Empire
  • The Twelve
Posted in Literature

Reading Challenge 2019: wrap-up

Part way through the year I compiled myself a list of prompts and stipulations as reading challenges. Now that we’re at the end of 2019, it’s time to see how I did!

Core Challenges: 5 points each

  • A book with ‘cat(s)’ in the title: ‘If Cats Disappeared from the World’
  • Set in space: ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’
  • Set in Scandinavia: ‘The Twisted Tree’
  • Published this year (2019): ‘I Know Everything’
  • Published before you were born: ‘The Wasp Factory’
  • A ghost story
  • A story with dragons
  • A non-fiction book: ‘We Should All be Feminists’
  • A comic or graphic novel: ‘Wolverine: Infinity Watch’
  • A translated book: ‘If Cats Disappeared from the World’
  • A book you know nothing about: ‘I Know Everything’
  • A book someone recommended to you personally: ‘The Wasp Factory’
  • Tagged LGBT on Goodreads: ‘They/Them’ & ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’
  • A debut novel: ‘The Wasp Factory’
  • A sequel: ‘Head On’
  • …with a two word title: ‘Ghost Wall’
  • An audiobook: ‘Lock In’
  • …from an author from Asia, Africa or Latin America: ‘If Cats Disappeared from the World’
  • A book over 500 pages long: ‘Killing Floor’
  • …that is also (or shortly will be) a movie/TV Series: ‘Sharp Objects’

TOTAL: 90/100

Bonus Challenges: 10 points each

  • A multi-author book (translators don’t count): ‘They/Them’
  • …in a genre you don’t normally choose
  • Read more than one translated or International book during the year: ‘If Cats Disappeared from the World’ & ‘We Should all be Feminists’
  • A book you’ve owned for more than 5 years (and haven’t read yet): ‘Play Dead’
  • A “book to read before you die”

TOTAL: 120/150

Know Thy Enemy Ultra Challenge: 50 points

  • Read a book by an author you actively dislike

GRAND TOTAL: 120/200


The two ‘Core’ challenges that I didn’t get done (ghosts and dragon) I will put into the list of prompts for a 2020 Reading Challenge along with whatever else I can think of or lift from other people’s challenge lists.

I did have an author in mind for the Ultra Challenge and may try and read them next year.

Overall I think I will ditch the multi-tiered approach with different point values and go for a much simpler, single list for 2020 as while 90/100 sounds good; 120/200 doesn’t sound as good.

My Goodreads Reading Challenge target is 24 books and I’m going to pick 5 or 6 titles that I will say I definitely want to tackle in 2020. I plan to do a separate post delving more into the new challenge list and my reading aims for the year as I’ve got a couple of reading-related ideas to explore too. Good luck to everyone else out there with your reading goals for 2020!

Posted in Literature

Read: Sharp Objects

One thing that you might not glean from the blurb is that some of the content might cause discomfort for some readers. Here’s a big ole CW for you: sex, rape, self-harm, drug and alcohol misuse, child abuse/murder, and teeth.

Beyond that, this is a fairly standard thriller. Admittedly not told from the perspective of the police, instead from Camille the journalist, but it’s still predictable in terms of the ‘Whodunnit’ part of the plot. The clues Flynn leaves are big and obvious and I found myself wanting to reach in and shake Camille for being so blind to it all on several occasions. Perhaps that is the point? To show how we do not wish to believe the worst in the people we know, no matter how much evidence there is.

Camille is a walking litany of self-harm (sex, drugs, alcohol, sharp objects…), which I found a little difficult to read at times as she tries to defend her decisions as rational. This is a commonality I found with The Grownup, both protagonists are very sexual and use sex as a way to get what they want (as is one of the key supporting characters in Sharp Objects) however there is no criticism of this and how a society puts women in a position like that has something deeply wrong with it. Because of this, I can’t quite tell if Flynn is trying to be a pro-sex feminist, reclaiming it for women to wield or whether she’s playing into patriarchal rhetoric.

Given some of the issues I had with the book and the predictable perpetrator I don’t feel I can give this more than 3 stars. Entertaining enough but has it’s problems.

3/5

See this review on Goodreads here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3086425953

Posted in Literature

Read: The Twisted Tree

I picked up The Twisted Tree because it was a) cheap, b) fairly short and c) set in Norway. It sounded interesting and the cover art helped a little too. I was intrigued how the setting would interact with the story and to that point I hadn’t read much set in Scandinavia. I admit points a & b appealed because I felt I was falling behind on my Reading Challenge and needed a bump; nevertheless I ended up enjoying the book more than I expected.

We follow a young teen, Martha, who has had an accident leaving her blind in one eye and with some facial scarring. Not only that, she has begun to sense things whenever she touches others’ clothes: feelings, memories & intent. Her accident happened at her Grandmother’s cabin in northern Norway, when falling out of a big tree that her Grandmother tends to, and she hasn’t been back since. After writing her Grandmother a host of un-replied letters asking about her new found sense, she travels to the cabin my herself.

What she finds when she gets to the cabin isn’t what she was hoping for. She meets Stig, a teenage boy who has also run away from home, and together they face some terrible monsters – both real and metaphorical – before Martha has to truly embrace her new ‘condition’ in order to save their lives.

This is a well-written supernatural tale that anyone with even a passing interest in Norse mythology should pick up. It isn’t quite ‘horror’ and it isn’t quite ‘coming of age’ but the book does have elements of both. It deals with a line of women who have a shared heritage to protect and what might happen if the chain through the generations is broken. It also looks at the repairing of mother-daughter relationships and, in particular, where the child is guiding the adult through a complicated situation.

The character building by Burge is very good and the story is well-paced and engaging. It is a quick read at 180 pages and still a perfectly formed story that left me wondering where these characters would end up next.

4/5

 

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Posted in Literature

Read: Ghost Wall

Ghost WallGhost Wall by Sarah Moss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Blurb
I found the blurb for this book, with hindsight, a little misleading. Similarly it’s classification in ‘Horror’ fiction and whatever algorithm suggested it to me having just finished a ghost story. If you find yourself thinking this is a ghost horror; it’s not. There are no ghosts nor any supernatural goings on. To me, expecting a ghost story I was a little disappointed – more on what’s actually in the book later.

The Prose
This is written in what I can only think to describe as continuous prose. There are no speech marks and no new lines for dialogue. There’s internal and vocalised dialogue mixed in together that is hard to differentiate. It is one long train of thought from the narrator, Sylvie, and it does get hard to follow. I was OK dealing with it around 70% of the time and the remainder I found myself puzzling, re-reading and ultimately being jarred out of the flow of the story. This meant I couldn’t fully engage with the story because of both content and style.

The Story
*THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS*

As I mentioned before, there’s no ghosts. I kept reading in the hope that some would appear once the eponymous Ghost Wall was constructed by the characters. Still, no. Instead the story is one of domestic abuse and violence enacted by Sylvie’s Dad on both her and her mother. The setting of an experiential archaeology field trip is superfluous to the central story of the abuse and the story could have been set anywhere. I found a lot of it an unpleasant read – with a knot in my stomach and a desperate desire to jump into the story and talk some sense into everyone involved. I was frustrated and angry.

That is the greatest success of this book: that it makes you feel angry and awkward and impotent at the plight of two women being physically and psychologically abused. It is also for this reason I find it a little disrespectful to classify the book as ‘horror’. Not to the author, or the book, but to the real people in real life who have to suffer like Sylvie and her mum. Those situations are horrifying and they are real. I know it’s unlikely the exact events of Ghost Wall have happened in real life but many similar things have – and they are not ‘horror’ fiction.

Overall
It is a realistic account of domestic abuse and especially how it can mess with the victim’s mind. If you weren’t expecting that, then be aware this won’t be a pleasant read. The style of the prose is hard to stick with and you may get lost along the way. The story ends just as Sylvie might be getting a chance at something better – and I want to read about that – which was a little frustrating as well. The blurb and classification of the book are a bit off; do a bit more research than I did and read through other people’s reviews – don’t just look at the average rating.

The combined issues I’ve highlighted, for me, detracted from the overall experience. I would still say it was an important read even if I didn’t like it much in the end. It is certainly not an easy read.

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Posted in Literature

Read: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Spoiler: it’s not Earth.

Taken from GoodReads

 

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Surprisingly this came as a recommendation from my mother who is very rarely into SF and she gave me her copy to read after she was done. It took me a while to feel ‘in the mood’ for SF and I eventually picked it up earlier this year (2019) and I absolutely adored it.

It made me think, it made me tear-up, it made me smile, it made me tense and I love the character-driven nature of it all. This is not your average ‘jump in the spaceship and go to war’ sort of SF and it is all the better for it. This is a story about people and it happens to be in space. Gorgeous, interesting people with actual relationships that I really invested in.

I found the inclusion of gender-variance and the exploration of self-hood very natural and not shoe-horned at all. The depiction of the different races’ values and customs was well done and highlights where so much other SF is lacking. Chambers seems to have a mind much like my own in realising SF shouldn’t be so human-centric. We shouldn’t assume alien races would even want to know us let alone change their entire culture to accommodate us should we ever reach the stars.

It doesn’t hurt that the cover art for all three of the series is very tasty and I ordered A Closed and Common Orbit immediately after finishing this one and I cannot wait to get started. Even if you are not a sci-fi person normally (like my mum), this is still well worth your time. It is an enlightening, inspirational and genuine pleasure to read.

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Posted in Literature

Read: The Book at the End of the Year

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay: A Review

As my first completed book of 2019, I freely admit I started it at the end of 2018 (back on 28 Dec) as a group I’m in on Goodreads is having a discussion about it over January with the author. I read this over the course of a week, although if taken without any breaks it was more like 3 days, and surprised myself how quickly I got through it. I was reading the Kindle version having grabbed it fairly cheap over Christmas.

It doesn’t have traditional chapters, which confuses the Kindle reader, moreover it has larger sections broken down into smaller parts that are entitled with the character who’s viewpoint the passage is in. I’m not a fan of labelling the point of view and prefer to figure it out simply from the text itself however in this case it became useful towards the end of the novel when the action ramps up.

The story follows an ordeal that besets Wen and her two fathers, Andrew and Eric, when a group of strangers appear at their remote holiday cabin asking for their help to halt the apocalypse. Violence is inevitable from the moment the sinister Leonard starts asking Wen odd questions in the front yard as she catches grasshoppers and the likelihood escalates as three more strangers appear and Wen runs in to her dads to tell them.

After forceably entering the cabin and restraining Andrew and Eric, Leonard et al tell their tale of visions and instructions that lead them all to this “special family” in the cabin with the red door and that, without them, the world will shortly end. Without spoiling any further goings on, what faces the group is a desperate struggle to grapple with damning information and inexplicable actions.

While an entertaining read, I wouldn’t describe this as ‘horror’ as many others have. It isn’t scary or particularly disturbing; similar to ‘Head Full of Ghosts’, the book looks at what is a variation on events that have almost undoubtedly happened somewhere at some time in modern history. If you find it disturbing that humans can do terrible things to each other then you may want to consider if you are too naive for Tremblay’s work.

Across both ‘Head Full of Ghosts’ and ‘The Cabin at the End of the World’, Tremblay’s prose paints a dim view of organised religion and the part it has to play in the atrocious things people do to one another. While it’s primarily focused on Christianity or adjacent faiths, the impression remains that it extends to all organised monotheist religions prevalent in the world today. Whether this is a reflection of the author or simply an easy thread to pull on to add an extra dimension to his stories, I couldn’t say.

Overall the prose is well written, with the exception of the let’s-hyphenate-a-bunch-of-words-together tendency that crops up a few times throughout the book. If you’ve read ‘Head Full of Ghosts’, you may remember the last minute almost twist at the end and ‘The Cabin…’ has a similar mechanism in the last pages. It made me consider the similarities in composition between the two books and, while they tell two different tales, there are a fair few.

In terms of rating, I find myself perhaps a little too cynical for Tremblay’s books as none of the content surprises or disturbs me as the genre classifications suggests they should. It has made me wonder if the author wrote these intending to disturb or intending merely to shine a light and point out the horrible things that occur in everyday society. While I’d definitely consider reading more of his work, I shan’t expect to be scared by it.

3.5/5

This review is also on Goodreads: here.