Dracula

Dracula book coverTitle: Dracula

Author: Bram Stoker

Summary: We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.

Earnest and naive solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to organise the estate of the infamous Count Dracula at his crumbling castle. Finding himself imprisoned, Harker experiences all manner of supernatural horrors until he eventually escapes to be reunited with his fiancee Mina. Meanwhile in England, Mina’s friend Lucy has been bitten and Mina herself is under threat from the Count as he attempts to quell his appetite for human blood.

Arguably the most enduring Gothic novel of the 19th Century, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is as chilling today in its depiction of the vampire world and its exploration of Victorian values as it was at its time of publication.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I started reading Dracula way back at the beginning of May with thousands of other people via Dracula Daily. An email subscription that sends you the journals and letters the book consists of in chronological order on the day they’re written. It was a really fun and well-paced way of reading what can seem like quite an intimidating novel. The shit posts, memes, and general community fun that it inspired on tumblr in particular was a wonderful companion to the reading.

There are several storylines in the book that gradually converge, which is something I very much enjoy in fiction. Seeing these characters that I’ve grown fond of meeting and worlds colliding. I mean, the circumstances of a blood-sucking creature of the night attempting to recruit isn’t the most wonderful way to begin a friendship, but they make it work!

My good friend Jonathan Harker is our first main character, and it was easy to like him. He’s noting all these strange and unique things about his host, Count Dracula, but brushing them off while I’m there mentally screaming at him about the very obvious elephant vampire in the room. My two very favourite characters are Mina, Jonathan’s wife, and Van Helsing. They are honestly the only two with any sense and respect each other a lot. And okay, I have a soft spot for Quincey whose head is “in plane with the horizon” but the four young men are mostly just muscle and money.

Despite that, though, there is a fair amount of misogyny. “Poor Madam Mina, we must protect her” etc, etc. As if they would have got anywhere without her, honestly. It’s certainly a product of its time, though, and Mina is a badass, so I’m willing to not hold it against the book… too much.

What I will hold against it, though, is how flipping verbose it is. Long paragraphs of overly wordy dialogue (mostly from Van Helsing; he loves the sound of his own voice, and I love intelligent fictional characters with an ego), which was so unnecessarily dense that it has to be summed up by another character afterwards.

The thing I enjoyed most about the book were the details that we now take for granted in stories about vampires, and seeing where all these tropes and cliches first came from. Sleeping in coffins, transforming into a bat, having to be invited in, an aversion to garlic. And seeing the details that have changed over the years into other things. Daylight being fatal for vampires, when in fact Dracula walks around fine during the day but is simply at his most powerful during the night; holy water when in the book they use holy wafers (which is objectively hilarious).

I actually fell behind with the Dracula Daily emails at the start of October, when my life got busy and the entries got long. I ended up reading my physical copy of the book to finish it, as seeing how much was left help me motivate and pace myself.

My biggest critisism, towards the end of the book as Mina was travelling through Romania towards Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, was Stoker’s missed opportunity for a callback to Jonathan’s original journey at the start of the book. Imagine it. Mina partaking in local cuisine and thinking to herself: “So this is the paprika Jonathan wrote of in his letters… it’s not that spicy.”

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The Sundial

Book cover of The Sundial by Shirley JacksonTitle: The Sundial

Author: Shirley Jackson

Summary: From the sky and from the ground and from the sea there is danger; tell them in the house…

Mrs Holloran has inherited the great Holloran house on the death of her son, much to the disgust of her daughter-in-law, the delight of her wicked granddaughter and the confusion of the rest of the household. But when the original owner – long dead – arrives to announce the world is ending and only the house and its occupants will be saved, they find themselves in a nightmare of strange marble statues, mysterious guests and the beautiful, unsettling Holloran sundial which seems to be at the centre of it all.

Shirley Jackson blends sinister family politics and apocalyptic terror in a masterpiece of the macabre.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I have a shelf full of Shirley Jackson novels, but similar to my collection of John Wyndham and William Golding books I’ve been rationing them, knowing there won’t be any more. But I decided it was time to pick another one up.

It was the blurb that made me choose to start reading The Sundial. Shirley Jackson writing an apocalyptic horror? Yes, please. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, because as with every Shirley Jackson novel it is more of a psychological horror.

The Sundial is about a mixed group of well off people living together in ‘the big house’. There are friends, there are family, but no one really seems to like anyone else. When most of the residents find themselves facing eviction from the house, one of them suddenly has a visit from her long-dead father to tell her the end of the world is coming. It’s okay, though, he built the house and those that remain in it will be safe.

So begins the chaos of a group of people begrudgingly entertaining a middle aged lady’s frightened hallucinations and the slow meander they take into believing them, stockpiling supplies, saying goodbye to everything they knew, and readying the house for the coming end of days and ushering in of the new world.

What makes this story for me are the characters. I didn’t like any of them, really, though they would annoy me more or less in turn. But the way they hate and interact with each other was highly entertaining. The standouts are Mrs Holloran, the new owner of the house whose malicious ego knows no bounds; Aunt Fanny, who is proud and lonely and clinging to the visions of her father; Fancy, a sheltered and only slightly homicidal young girl; and Essex, a not-so-young-anymore man who pays for his keep with backstabbing and gossip.

How they all manipulate each other, show open animosity, but still somehow mostly get along is… fascinating. And seeing them on this journey to accepting the world is going to end, what that means to them, and how they hope the new world and they themselves will be changed… It’s equal parts meaningful and ludicrous and I loved it.

My favourite part of the book was Julia, one of the young women, trying to leave. She had travel arrangements made for her and found herself on a(n unexpectedly solo) journey out of town. With the creepy taxi driver and her disappearance into the fog reads like a slasher horror. It could have been a self-contained short story and I wanted more of it.

For a psychological end-of-the-world horror story, I perhaps laughed a little too much, but as the reader I could enjoy the comedy in those moments the characters couldn’t. What I could also see, that the characters couldn’t, is that they were shielding themselves from the outside world and whatever catastrophe might be coming, when all along the real horrors lay inside the house with them.

Annihilation

Annihilation book coverTitle: Annihilation

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Summary: Welcome to Area X. An Edenic wilderness, an environmental disaster zone, a mystery for thirty years.

The Southern Reach, a secretive government agency, has sent eleven expeditions to investigate Area X. One ended in mass suicide, another in a hail of gunfire, the eleventh in a fatal cancer epidemic.

Now four women embark on the twelfth expedition into the unknown.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: Weird. That would be my one-word review for this book. I like weird. It’s about four women who enter the mysterious Area X to investigate where previous groups have tried and all met unfortunate ends. Seems like a pretty neat set up for a science fiction novel, except it is so much more than that.

It’s certainly science fiction, though not your typical kind. There is no newfangled technology. No spaceships. No aliens. It is speculative science fiction, in that almost everything is simply conjecture because we don’t know anything. Area X covers a small coastal village and the surrounding areas. There is some sort of border. Strange things go on within the border of Area X. That’s it, that’s all we can really know for certain. Everything else is purely speculation. Even the “facts” given to the women entering Area X are questionable. Even their own experiences and accounts  inside Area X are unreliable. And I found that absolutely fascinating.

We never learn anyone’s name. The four women are simply known by their professions. The biologist (our narrator), the surveyor, the anthropologist, and the psychiatrist. Even other notable side characters are not named (the linguist, the crawler, my husband, the lighthouse keeper…). And as people (past and present) lose themselves in Area X, never knowing their names makes a kind of poetical sense.

I’m trying hard to talk around things, so as not to spoil anything. It’s very difficult.

There were many layers to the story that I really loved. It’s a science fiction mystery—what the hell is Area X and what is happening there? But it’s also a character study of our main character, the biologist—her desire for solitude, her preference to stand apart and observe, her reticence to open up and share herself with others. And it is also about the biologist’s relationship—how she and her husband tried (and failed) to understand each other, what kept them apart, and what pulled them together. And all these things, too, link back to and provide further depth to Area X.

Annihilation is a very well-crafted story. One that I will be thinking about for a while yet. I love how open everything is. We are given so many clues and so much information, but absolutely no answers. As wildly as the biologist observes and speculates, that’s also all the reader can do.

As much as I’m looking forward to reading the other two books in The Southern Reach trilogy and gaining a little more reliable information, I also hope we’re left with plenty of questions and room to ponder and theorise. For me, that’s the fun part.

 

Gender Queer

Gender Queer book cover

Title: Gender Queer

Author: Maia Kobabe

Summary: In Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe has crafted an intensely cathartic autobiography about eir path to identifying as nonbinary and asexual, and coming out to eir family and society. By addressing questions about gender identity–what it means and how to think about it–the story also doubles as a much-needed, useful, and touching guide.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: This book was handed to me by my partner only a few days ago with the instruction to read it. I could have finished it in one sitting, but I paced myself and made it last three. Still very much devoured it.

A comic memoir sharing Kobabe’s journey with eir gender and sexuality, it was immediately a warm, open, and safe place e was creating with this book. By page 40 I had found several things very relatable. By page 87 I had laughed out loud numerous times. And by page 222 I was crying (a good sign for me and books, apparently).

Spanning childhood all the way to adulthood in a rough chronology, Kobabe takes us on eir path of self-doubt and self-discovery. The artwork is deceptively simple yet evocative, the designs fun and interesting, the dialogue and turns of phrase vivid and witty. It was a joy to be swept along in eir story.

I would like to think that everyone could relate to at least some of Kobabe’s early experiences, but I might be being naive in that assumption—simply because I related to parts of eir story, doesn’t mean everyone will. But I do hope those that can’t relate can at least begin to understand.

A lot of the analogies and metaphors Kobabe uses to express eir thoughts and feelings around eir gender and sexuality were liberating to my own. While others weren’t relatable to me, they did help me comprehend and sympathise with the struggles others go through.

This really feels like a required-reading book, and covers things not often discussed openly (or at all) in such thoughtful and accessible ways. I thoroughly enjoyed and high recommend it.



To Be Taught If Fortunate

To Be Taught If Fortunate book coverTitle: To Be Taught If Fortunate

Author: Becky Chambers

Summary: In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the galaxy transform themselves.

At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. With the fragile body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore exoplanets long suspected to harbour life.

Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit, and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of her journey, in the hope that someone back home is still listening.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: Becky Chambers has long been an auto-buy author for me, even if I am a little behind on the reading. I finished her Wayfarers series not too long ago, and next up was this novella. In case the five star rating isn’t indication enough: I absolutely freaking loved it.

To Be Taught If Fortunate is heavier on the science aspect of science fiction that her previous books, but it is all explained in lay terms, and then built up to explore larger concepts and themes. Those concepts and themes then ultimately lead back to humanity and the big questions of life in general and. It’s just. Perfect.

The book is set over 100 years into the future, where the world’s space program has become crowd funded. It focuses on four people saying goodbye to life as they know it on Earth and heading off to explore suspected life on four worlds far away from our planet. The process involves long periods of torpor, time slipping by both faster and slower, and physical body modifications to help adjust to living on other moons and planets. Of course, it is the psychological tolls of these experiences where the true heart of the story lies.

I was fond of all four characters. All unique but all relatable in their own ways. What set them apart, what excited them, how they dealt with things, how they supported each other. It was absolutely wonderful and I could have read about them all for hundreds more pages.

What stood out most for me with this book were the emotions. For a story with a lot of science, it’s all so intrinsically rooted in the human experience and there wasn’t a section I read during which I didn’t cry. This story made me feel so much. I was almost full on sobbing by the end.

Talking of the end… well, I don’t want to spoil it. But it was my favourite kind of ending. So many questions and not enough answers. I’m still thinking about it now. About the possibilities and what they would mean.

I just really bloody loved this one, okay?

Terrible Means

Terrible Means book coverTitle: Terrible Means

Author: B. Mure

Summary: In the city of Ismyre, something is stirring.

In B. Mure’s prequel to their Ismyre series, an aristocratic businessman reveals the latest must have: a pillar of crystals that when placed within a home allows for the creation of beautiful illusions and more powerful spells to be performed.

But when a strange imbalance emerges in the world’s ecosystem and magic, Henriett, a disgraced biological professor whose plants start inexplicably dying, and Emlyn, a young magician, find themselves working together to discover the source.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This is the second book set in the fantasy world of Ismyre. I read the first a few years ago now and loved it. I’ve had this one on my shelf for a while, quietly moving up in my to-read pile and it finally made it to the top.

While the first book in the series was mostly beautiful, quiet moments between characters and minimal plot, this book was mostly plot with a few significant moments between a whole new cast of characters. It was different, but also the same.

The art has the same dreamy quality, with the simple colour palette blending together and stark contrasts in turn, creating such a variety of moods. And the line work keeps the same casual almost haphazard style while also being incredibly detailed. I remain in awe of the art and any frame or page would look gorgeous framed and hung.

Now, the plot. This is a prequel to the first book, so goes some way to expanding on the slices of story there. We see the rich and influential residents of Ismyre throwing lavish parties and enjoying the novelty of newly discovered crystals that enhance people magical abilities. At the same time people in smaller towns and villages further afield are experiencing dying plants and rivers turning black. Could these things be connected? (Spoiler: they are!)

I read the first book over several days, fully wanting to appreciate and spend time in the scenes portrayed. This book, though, I devoured almost in one sitting, the plot fully driving the book on. I adored it.

There are two more books by Mure set in Ismyre, and I look forward to losing myself in them soon.

terrible means 01 terrible means 02

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki's Delivery Service book coverTitle: Kiki’s Delivery Service

Author: Eiko Kadono

Summary: When Kiki lands in the town of Koriko she uses her trusty broomstick to start a flying delivery service. Although the local people are a little wary of having a witch in town at first, they soon come to rely on her to deliver their parcels. No job is too big or too small for Kiki and her wisecracking cat Jiji, but some deliveries are much tricker than they seem…!

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films and I think I knew, somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, that it was based on a book. My other favourite Ghibli film, Howl’s Moving Castle, also is and I read that book ages ago now. Yet still, it took me by chance spotting this book on a table in the children’s section of Waterstones to think, “Of course it was a book first,” and, “I should definitely read it.” I bought it on the spot and couldn’t wait to get cracking on it.

Having seen the film first (and several times) before reading the book, a lot of my opinion is based on its comparison to the film. Which might have been unfair to the book, if it weren’t for the fact all the comparisons and all my opinions are positive!

Immediately it’s clear to see the film captured the mood and vibe and essence of the book really well. It is light and whimsical and full of fun. Actually, the book is more of all of those things, because the film added a deeper layer to the coming-of-age aspect of the story. Which, of course, I love, but it was also nice just reading a truly happy story.

The plot of the book is very simple. Young witch makes her way in the world by moving to a new town, making new friends, and delivering things on her broom. Each chapter is a new delivery adventure. It’s so simple and so lovely. I smiled a lot while reading this, and it had me laughing out loud a few times.

I loved all the characters, but my favourite is Jiji. He’s very similar to how he is the film. Full of slightly insecure snark and fragile ego. I was hoping against hope my favourite of his lines from the film would be in the book, but it wasn’t. However, there was a line that’s not in the film that I absolutely adored. It’s Jiji’s reaction when they first spot the sea…

“What, so it’s just a big puddle?” Jiji seemed dissatisfied.

There was artwork in my edition of the book, which was also fun and full of whimsy. The pages with illustrations were definitely the ones that got more of my attention. I wish they all could have been in colour like the cover, but alas.

kiki illustration

Having found reading a real struggle in recent years, this book was like a breath of fresh air. I don’t care that it was familiar because I’ve seen the film. I don’t care that it’s a children’s book. I don’t care that it’s got lots of pictures. I care that it’s invigorated my motivation for reading. I care that it’s made me want to pick up another book. I care that it made me happy.

Black from the Future

Black from the Future book coverTitle: Black from the Future

Author: Various

Summary: Black From the Future: A Collection of Black Speculative Writing encompasses the broad spectrum of Black speculative writing, including science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and Afrofuturism, all by Black women writers.

Editors Stephanie Andrea Allen and Lauren Cherelle have gathered the voices of twenty emerging and established voices in speculative fiction and poetry; writers who’ve imagined the weird and the wondrous, the futuristic and the fantastical, the shadowy and the sublime.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: Speculative science fiction and fantasy short stories and poems written by black women—how could i not want to read this book? I’ve been picking it up and reading a story so sporadically since i started it that it’s taken me months so finish, but that’s the beauty of short stories!

There are a lot of great stories in this collection. I loved starting them not knowing where they going—where on the speculative/science fiction/fantasy spectrum they would fall. The book started strong with a story about a mother and daughter taking refuge while on the run… and who may or may not be vampires.

A lot of the stories in the book are quite out there, and i love that. A woman and her time travelling bird wife trying to go to back change her relationship with her mother, a hairdresser with six hands who changes your life and eats your nightmares, a shop that sells nothing but salt and take hair as payment.

Others had more horror elements to them. The aforementioned vampires, a woman using a home AI device to care for her unborn child but not her pregnant wife, a factory explosion causing daylight to become harmful to women, a young girl turning the tables on a would-be abuser and cooking him for her family’s dinner.

There are so many really great ideas, and that they are written by and about the experiences of black women is a very much at the forefront of most of them. It’s clear the writers are taking their own experiences and turning them into bold, passionate stories with wonderful well-rounded characters, and such a lot of heart.

The only things that bring the overall rating down for me are the poems, which. Well, is certainly a me-issue, as I have a very turbulent relationship with poetry. The ones in this book simply weren’t for me. Some of the writing in places was quite amateurish, though not necessarily in hugely detrimental way. It just left me with an less polished impression of the book as a whole.

I will certainly be checking out a few of the authors in the book to see what other things they have written. Hopefully plenty more weird and wonderful stories to enjoy!

Binti

binti smallTitle: Binti

Author: Nnedi Okorafor

Summary: Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itselfbut first she has to make it there, alive.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I read and enjoyed Okorafor’s Lagoongosh, five years ago now! I had mixed feelings on that book, mostly thanks to my own expectations. I’m a little sad it took me so long to pick up another of her books, because I loved Binti!

Binti is a short book at only 90 pages, but those 90 pages pack a lot of world building, character exploration, and story. It felt significantly longer than it is and most definitely in a good way!

Binti is the main character, ostracised from her home for sneaking away to go to university, she is an outsider in every way. I liked her immediately. There are quite a few other characters mentioned in passing, but only a couple we spend any significant time with. Okwu is the other important character, and even though at first there is strong animosity between them and Binti, I liked Okwu immediately.

Considering most of the story is spent on a spaceship, and a significant portion with Binti confined to one room of that ship, we get such a sense of several different worlds. Binti’s home world, Oomza University, as well space travel and how it works (living, breathing spaceships? I want to know more!). We also hear about multiple cultures and species, how war has spread between them, and how even through all their differences the motivations and emotionsthe good and the badare so very recognisable and relatable.

It’s just a great story told beautifully and succinctly. I can’t wait to read the sequel and to see more about Binti and Okwu, their time at university, and the worlds only glimpsed so far.

Disturbing the Beast

distrubing the beast smallTitle: Disturbing the Beast

Author: Various

Summary: The best of women’s weird fiction

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I love short stories. I love weird fiction. I love women-led narratives. Of course I supported this book on kickstarter. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but that’s because I have a lot of unread books, and also because I haven’t been reading much these past couple of years.

I should have loved this book. And I did love some of the stories. Dolly, about a woman who was cloned to re-live the life of the girl she was cloned from, and Burning Girl, about a literal girl on fire, were stand-out stories for me. They both explored the characters’ lives, freedoms, and autonomy (or lack thereof). Their sense of self and of hiding part of themselves for the benefit of others.

The concepts of these two stories in particular spoke to me, but they also stood apart from the rest for another reason. The women in these stories and their plots weren’t defined by or dependent on the men in them.

Almost (almost) every other story in the book included women whose lives and choices were dependant on and affected by men. A woman who consumes men, a woman whose lineage descended from an act of sexual violence, women literally knitting themselves husbands, a woman whose touch becomes electric following the death of one man and returns to normal after she saves the life of another man.

These stories weren’t bad, but I am quite tired of women’s stories, women’s lives, and women’s purpose being defined by the men in them.

One of the stories that I loved and couldn’t stop reading was Wrapped, about a female Egyptologist who discovers the tomb of a lost female pharaoh. The way the story of the pharaoh and the Egyptologist run parallel, like history repeating itself, was well crafted and left me with strong emotions. The men in the story were used to illustrate the inherent sexism and control women have experienced for centuries, rather than any driving force or meaning to the main character as an individual–they helped or hindered her, they did not define her.

While I would certainly look out for stories and books by several of the authors in the future, overall the collection as a whole feels just slightly amateurish. That’s not a criticism, though. Simply an observation. An observation I think would benefit the reader and the stories if you know in advance.