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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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!

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.

Wild Embers

wild embersTitle: Wild Embers

Author: Nikita Gill

Summary: You cannot burn away
What has always been aflame

Wild Embers explores the fire that lies within every soul, weaving words around ideas of feeling at home in your own skin, allowing yourself to heal and learning to embrace your uniqueness with love from the universe.

Featuring rewritten fairytale heroines, goddess wisdom and poetry that burns with revolution, this collection is an explosion of femininity, empowerment and personal growth.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: It is a well-established fact that i have a tumultuous relationship with poetry. Some collections have struck a chord with my so deeply I’ve wept, others have left me completely baffled and unmoved. This book? This book did both, and a little more.

I read the book over several months, because my ability to finish a book has been severely hampered the last couple of years. That may have played a part in why my opinion is so divided, but if so it is a minor factor.

The first half of the book, I devoured. I was underlining and annotating almost every other poem. There was so much that resonated for me—so much that spoke to me, meant something to me, gave words to my own feelings. Several poems reminded me of songs and sentiments expressed elsewhere, and felt warm and familiar for it. I wrote the lyrics beside them, joined them in my mind and let them share space in my heart. And i love that feeling.

The second half of the book was more hit and miss for me. There were still some strong poems. Still moments where i was moved to underline and mark and make notes. There were some that were not bad, but that simply didn’t speak to me personally. And then there were some that… fell far, far short.

Unfortunately the poems that missed the mark for me missed hard. They didn’t leave me feeling nothing—they left me feeling angry and alienated. While i loved the re-written fairy tales, recasting the damsels in distress as heroes who fight for themselves, i baulked with distaste at equating womanhood to being in possession of a womb and being able to create life. I am much more than my reproductive system, and my worth and meaning will not be reduced to that alone.

There were far more poems i loved than poems i didn’t in this book. If there had just been a selection that didn’t quite hit my own emotions, I’d have given this book four stars. However, the handful of poems that I actually found disagreeable and crass weigh heavier than the pages they are printed on, and I cannot overlook them.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Title: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Author: Douglas Adams

Summary: One Thursday lunchtime the Earth gets unexpectedly destroyed to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. For Arthur Dent, who has only just had his house demolished that morning, this seems already to be more than he can cope with. Sadly, however, the weekend has only just began, and the Galaxy is a very strange and startling place.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: After failing spectacularly at reading during 2020, i have set my sights incredibly low for 2021. I have a goal of six books, and the low-pressure of ensuring those books are whatever i want. Graphic novels, short story magazines, and novellas? Yes please.

Which brings me to my first book of 2021: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’ve seen the film, so I knew the basic plot. Science fiction is pretty much my favourite genre (if you’re making me choose!). I know it’s light-hearted and silly. And, obviously, it’s short. I started reading it on the first of January with the only aim to finish it by the end of the month. Yay me–I managed it!

Overall, I really enjoyed it. It has plenty of chuckle and snort out loud moments (nothing quite as strong as a laugh). The dialogue was perfection–so simple, with characters repeating themselves and stating the obvious and just… being real, i suppose. It was (pardon the pun) down to earth, relatable, and made for easy reading.

The characters are fun, and while the book as a whole is quite cheerful, it does touch on a couple more serious things. Namely Zaphod’s discovery that he has messed with his own brain and memories, and Marvin the robot’s depression. My favourite character by far is our main lead, Arthur Dent. He’s just… so… frank? Restrained? Unassertive? British? He somehow both doesn’t at all keep up with the new world around him, and also keeps up so well he gets ahead of it a time or two. And, of course, there’s my favourite line:

Arthur blinked at the screens and felt he was missing something important. Suddenly he realised what it was.
“Is there any tea on this spaceship?” he asked.

For a book set in space, it is very British, and I can’t deny I love that about it.

My main issue with the book is how hard it’s trying. To be silly, to include random facts, and to elbow in little stories. I enjoy silly random facts and stories as much as anyone who picks up this book knowing what they’re getting into. But. But i like them to be relevant to the story, not just a random aside. This links in strongly with my dislike of footnotes; I just think if it’s important enough to mention–put it in the main body of the bloody story. This book bypasses that issue by putting random snippets not at all important in the main body of the story. It did feel like being forced to read footnotes and i kind of hated it.

Of course, only having one female character and all the action happening at the very start and very end of the book didn’t help either.

But still, overall it was a good read. As light-hearted and fun as i’d expected, if not quite as outstanding overall as i’d hoped. I’ll probably give the next book in the series a go, mostly because i have no idea what happens in the sequels, and that could be even more fun.

Northern Lights

Title: Northern Lights

Author: Philip Pullman

Summary: Lyra Belacqua lives half-wild and carefree among the scholars of Jordan College, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle – a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armoured bears.

As she hurtles towards danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, the biggest battle imaginable.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: The first book I’ve finished in 2020! Yes, it’s July. This year has been and continues to be A Struggle. Reader’s block is absolutely a thing. After starting and not finishing several books, I decided to give an audiobook a try. It came with its own problems, but I finished the thing, so it’s a win.

I had seen the recent BBC adaptation of this book, so knew the plot. I was actually counting on that to help me with actually finishing the book. And in fact, in some ways, it helped me enjoy the book more. Knowing what was coming, namely the tragic end for one of the characters, made moments earlier in the book and leading up to it hit much heavier than they would have. I was actually crying at a couple of points, understanding the meanings behind things and how certain aspects played out.

The book was actually quite dark, which I enjoyed. There were a few moments where I winced, thinking of younger readers experiencing the clear violence and trauma. But I do think it’s important that the book doesn’t shy away from it, either. It’s exploring the importance and anguish of the fantasy concept of having a daemon, and allows the reader to understand and connect with that deeply.

For me the characters were mostly very clear cut good or bad. Which is fine, though I prefer the morally grey. I loved Lyra, our lead character. She has such passion and intelligence and determination. I loved Roger, her best friend and side kick, and how they would obviously do anything for each other. I loved Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear, with his wisdom and kindness and strength. I hated Lord Asriel and the size of his ego–he might have been intelligent, but he was cruel. I hated Mrs Coulter and her false affection and manipulation. I didn’t hate, but found myself disliking Lee Scoresby and his brash American-ness. Though I am hoping some characters will become more complex and interesting over the course of the sequels.

What I enjoyed most were the main themes of the story. Daemons and the connections humans share with them. Dust and where it comes from and how it affects people. Parallel universes and trying to reach them. These and the characters I loved will be what draws me back to listen to the sequels. I’m quite excited about them, now I have no idea about where the story goes.

Doctor Sleep

Title: Doctor Sleep

Author: Stephen King

Summary: Following a childhood haunted by terrifying events at the Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance has been drifting for decades.

Finally, he settles into a job at a nursing home where he draws on his remnant ‘shining’ power to help people pass on.

Then he meets Abra Stone, a young girl with the brightest ‘shining’ ever seen. But her gift is attracting a tribe of paranormals. They may look harmless, old and devoted to their Recreational Vehicles, but The True Knot live off the ‘steam’ that children like Abra produce.

Now Dan must confront his old demons as he battles for Abra’s soul and survival…

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: I re-read The Shining before i dived into this book, and I’m honestly not sure if that was a good thing to do or not. Immediately it’s obvious that King’s writing style has improved in the years between books. It’s just more natural and I was instantly drawn into the world, the familiar characters, and the aftermath of The Shining. My hopes were quickly set quite high.

The Shining is a tough act to follow, and obviously King knew that. Doctor Sleep felt quieter, to me… and I liked that. It’s not trying to out shine (pun intended!) its predecessor, but do something different while expanding on the supernatural lore of ‘the shining’, as well as the nature of addiction. And the first half of the book had me hooked. Seeing Danny Torrence as a boy, dealing with the trauma from The Overlook and the ghosts that followed him (figuratively and literally); growing up and dealing with the trauma less-well, turning to drink. The story really gets going when Dan finds himself in Frazier, knowing this is where he needs to be.

This book has a lot more characters than The Shining. The Shining was limited to the Torrances–a family of three–and a few supporting characters(/ghosts), but Doctor Sleep has Dan, Dan’s friends and colleagues, Abra and her family, as well as the numerous members of the True Knot. They are a lot to keep track of at first, but the main players soon stand out. Billy, the first person Dan meets in Frazier, was an instant favourite for me. He was just so pure and lovely, and i was immediately thinking, “he’d better survive this book!” Another favourite was Concetta, Abra’s grandmother. A poet, a strong and independent woman, and just so level headed and no-nonsense.

Less-great aspects to the characters were the fact that it was the men who see all the action. It’s Dan, his AA BFF, and Abra’s dad who road trip around and confront some bad guys. All the friends Dan makes in Frazier are blokes. We get Abra, who’s strong and sassy and takes no shit. I loved her. But we also have her mum, who’s shown as being very emotional and reactive, compared to her husband. Even Wendy, Dan’s mum and determined fighter from The Shining, is reduced to a woman who needs to be protected by her young son and who smokes herself to death… she deserved so much more. And there’s Rose the Hat and Snakebite Andi… the crazy evil ladies. And of course at least one of them needs a sexual abuse back story that’s passed off as character development. In fact there were several points were all the female characters (bar Concetta; she was too old, but yes including 14-year-old Abra) were unnecessarily sexualised. Might have just been a throw away line… no big deal, you might say… expect there’s no point to it! It’s a throw away line with no purpose but to frustrate the shit out of me and give a hard side-eye the author.

As much as it was interesting to learn more about ‘the shining’ and Abra’s abilities, what I really loved most about the book was the exploration of the human horrors. So, very much what i liked about The Shining, now i come to think about it. Dan’s alcoholism, the depths he finds himself in and his struggle to claw himself out, his AA journey and the friends he makes along the way, and most of all the secret he keeps for so, so long and how it ate at him. It was that story line and its conclusion that i was most invested in and most emotional about.

The True Knot were a fascinating new aspect to the book. An old group (in more ways than one) of people with certain abilities themselves, who travel around the country and feed off of the ‘steam’ that children with ‘the shine’ possess. Rose the Hat, their leader, was especially intriguing and equal parts wonderful and terrible. The group’s entire history and way of life was interesting, and I would love to have read more, perhaps got to know a few more characters. Where the True Knot fell down for me, is as the horrifying bad guys. Yes, they were the bad guys, and yes, they were horrifying… but at no point did i think they’d have a chance of winning. As the reader, i know we know the bad guys aren’t going to win, but the stakes have to be high enough that i worry for the good guys. I was never worried for the good guys. Splitting the group up, a botched kidnapping, along with Rose the Hat’s constant poor decisions and gradual decline into rage and irrationality… the stakes were never high enough.

When i re-read The Shining i had to put the book down and take breaks because it made me so anxious and only increased the tension with every page. In contrast, i found myself putting Doctor Sleep down and not picking it back up for several days at a time. I was enjoying it, sure, but the successful outcome for the good guys was so clearly inevitable that the ride to get there wasn’t that enticing.

The last niggling thing… Abra’s emotions. The rage and the strength were clear throughout the book, and that alone would be interesting to explore. That would make Dan’s advise to her at the end of the book perfect and fitting. No, the thing that niggles me is that smile, those cocky lines, and her enjoyment. She didn’t simply get angry and need to break something… she got angry and wanted to hurt someone. By about two thirds of the way through the book alarm bells were ringing for me. Abra was so, so powerful, but every time she grinned, got sassy, or expressed pleasure in her actions I recoiled a little bit. Honestly, Abra was the scariest thing about this book. I really thought that would have been addressed more than it was at the end of the book. If King isn’t planning another sequel that deals with a grow up Abra turned bad, then this book really dropped the ball on her character.

Overall I did enjoy this book, mostly Dan’s story and battle with alcoholism, and seeing him make a life for himself. I would be interested in another book with an adult Abra… to see how adulthood treats her, like we’ve now seen for Dan. For all the things i’ve moaned about, the things i loved about the book, i loved.

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Title: Record of a Spaceborn Few

Author: Becky Chambers

Summary: From the ground, we stand.
From our ships, we live.
By the stars, we hope.

Centuries after the last humans left Earth, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, a place many are from but few outsiders have seen. Humanity has finally been accepted into the galactic community, but while this has opened doors for many, those who have not yet left for alien cities fear that their carefully cultivated way of life is under threat.

Tessa chose to stay home when her brother Ashby left for the stars, but has to question that decision when her position in the Fleet is threatened.

Kip, a reluctant young apprentice, itches for change but doesn’t know where to find it.

Sawyer, a lost and lonely newcomer, is just looking for a place to belong.

When a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home can no longer avoid the inescapable question:

What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination?

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: This is the third book in the Wayfarers series, and I absolutely adored the first too. So, of course, my expectations for this one were almost astronomically high. When it took me nearly two months to read this book, I was a little disappointed.

Now, let me start by saying this book isn’t bad. This book has all the wonderful, warm, friendly, and inviting writing of Chambers’ other work. It’s easy to read, curled up with a cup of tea. It has ups and downs, but never so much that it’s stressful or overly tense. It folds you into the pages with its words and you could happily stay there forever.

It has fantastically complex and interesting characters. Kip was my favourite; a teenager ready to really start living his life, but finding himself cautious and unsure of what to do with himself. Eyas was another wonderful character; she seemed wise beyond her years in many ways, but despite having the most respected job in the fleet isn’t happy or fulfilled enough.

It has incredible world building, awesome science fiction, explores engaging concepts, and depicts more unusual lifestyle choices with respect. The fleet is incredible–a collection of huge ships, on which humans live in large and small communities. The way they have adapted to life in space, while still keeping many aspects and traditions from Earth is bizarre and unique. The ideas of being afraid of being on land, of favouring a barter system over currency, of embracing the new while not losing all of the old… these are so interesting to examine and consider. I loved that sex work is a vital part of the fleet and, like most things, is provided free to anyone who needs it, and the reasons people both make use of the service and choose the line of work is thoughtfully and wonderfully done. This is the same for open relationships, communal living, and more much subtler things.

But.

But I’m only giving this book three and a half stars. For all I loved the things above, this book lacked cohesion. Other than one or two small overlapping events, there was no one driving story to this book. That may be wholly intentional. Each of the main characters has their own, smaller story. A personal journey. More like four or five vignettes than a singular cohesive novel. Which, I might have enjoyed more, but for the fact it feels like the individuals’ stories have attempted to be pulled together under some vague all-encompassing umbrella, but misses the mark. I enjoyed the book when I was reading it, but with a lack of driving action, of true stakes, and binding narrative… i had very little desire to pick it up and continue reading it. It was nice, but it wasn’t thrilling. It was well-written and interesting, but lacked any kind of powerful plot. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

Chambers remains an auto-buy author for me, and I do look forward to whatever she has coming next… I just hope it has the momentum A Spaceborn Few was missing.

Little Fires Everywhere

Title: Little Fires Everywhere

Author: Celeste Ng

Summary: In the placid, progressive suburb of Shaker Height everything this meticulously planned, from the colours of the houses, to the successful lives of its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson.

Mia Warren, an enigmatic artist and single mother, arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon, Mia and Peral become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children and drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a disregard for the rules that threaten to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle errupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs Richardson on opposing sides. Mrs Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession with come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family–and Mia’s.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: I read and loved Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, so I was really excited to get hold of her second book and set about reading it.

Compared to the previous book, with its incredible first-line hook, this was a slow burn. The first chapter, starting at the end of the story, sets out a lot of questions about how the book will get us there, but didn’t immediately strike me with a ‘must keep reading’ feeling.

Getting to know the characters, their situations, and their motivations was also a slow process. With eight characters at the forefront of the narrative (plus a few more important ones introduced along the way), this was important ground work, and the set up was worth it for the pay off. But it was still challenging to get past that and really get into the story.

It wasn’t until chapter seven, when we properly meet the elusive Izzy, that things really picked up for me. Ahead of this we’d met the other members of the Richardson family, all of whom were well-do-to, average, and utterly boring. Of course there was also the Warren mother/daughter duo who, while not exactly driving the plot along, were more interesting and mysterious. It was Izzy, though, with her fire, independence, caring, and no-shits-to-give attitude who really intrigued me.

The title, most obviously and as revealed in the opening chapter, refers to how the fire at the Richardson’s home was set, but more accurately it is about the smaller plots of the book. The simmering, unspoken feud between Mrs Richardson and Mia; the family dynamics of the Richardsons; the teenage drama, hormones, and life-changing mistakes of all the children; the legal proceedings and claims to an abandoned baby; and–most fascinating to me–Mia’s history. These were the real little fires, everywhere around Shaker Heights.

I loved the overall ending–how all those little fires burnt and spread and changed everything forever. But most of all I loved how open a lot of things were. We know the ideas people head, where they planned to go and what they hoped would happen, but we can’t follow them there. I like to imagine the best for Mia and Pearl and Izzy… I like to imagine the others will get by, but never in quite the same way.

The last few days I’ve had a severe headache and lethargy, and all I could really bring myself to do was read, so I actually ended up reading over half of this book in pretty much one sitting. I’m not sure if this has affected my opinions on the book or not, but I do think I might have struggled to read more than a chapter a day otherwise. As it was, I  couldn’t manage much else, so I let myself get lost in this book while I wasn’t well.

While I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Everything I Never Told You, I did enjoy it. Ng knows what she’s doing and crafts a well thought out, intriguing, and genuine set of characters and events. I’ll look forward to her next novel.

The Liar’s Key

Title: The Liar’s Key

Author: Mark Lawrence

Summary: The Red Queen has set her players on the board…

Winter is keeping Prince Jalan Kendeth far from the luxuries of his southern palace. And although the North may be home to his companion, the warrior Snorri ver Snagason, he is just as eager to leave.

For the Viking is ready to challenge all of Hel to bring his wife and children back into the living world. He has Loki’s key – now all he needs is to find the door.

As all wait for the ice to unlock its jaws, the Dead King plots to claim what was so nearly his – the key into the world – so that the dead can rise and rule.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: I read and loved Prince of Fools last year, and I was determined to read this series quicker than I managed to read The Broken Empire series. Which is why The Liar’s Key was the first book i picked up this year. Lawrence’s writing is always clever and an effortless mix of humour and heart. This book was no different.

Our main character, Jalan, was just as much a delightful prick as he was in the first book. Self-declared squeamish coward, but with so much self-deceit he almost has no idea who he really is. He continues to do brave and noble things, while convincing himself he’s selfishly just trying to make his own life easier. I kind of adore him. Snorri is… still very much Snorri. Self-assured, headstrong, and… the regular kind of strong. Dragging his friends across Europe on a dangerous quest to open the door to Hel and find his dead family. Tuttugu i didn’t remember clearly from the first book, but i adored in this book. A kind, soft heart following his countryman and friend into dangerous situations because it’s the right thing to do.

We also get a couple of new characters. Kara, a witch who joins their journey and helps them along the way, but who clearly has something to hide. I loved having a main female character join the group, and i loved her immunity to Jal’s “charms” and advances. Her secrets and unclear motivations were intriguing, but also made me wary of her. Hennan, a young boy they pick up almost randomly and pointlessly along the way… for a long time he was a bit part, barely speaking and adding nothing to the plot. But he grew on me by the end.

Now, this book took me the entirety of January to read. That’s not usual. Most other of Lawrence’s books i’ve finished in 2-3 weeks. But this one… this one took a while to really get going for me. The first half… nothing really happens. Nothing of larger consequence, anyway. It’s a meander. A travel blog. They get into some hairy situations, meet a few folk along the way… but there is nothing significant driving the plot. Only Snorri’s desire to use the key to open the door to Hel and find his family… which isn’t shared by our main character… or any other character. This led to there not being much drive for me to pick up the book to keep reading. I still read regularly, but I didn’t read much each time–only one chapter or less.

I really enjoyed Jal’s dream-jaunts into his family’s past. Seeing his grandmother, the Red Queen, as a young girl so ruthless and ready for action. His great aunt and uncle by their sister’s side, the three of them an almost unstoppable force, even at such a young age. Those snippets gave Jal and the reader so much more information about the war being fought, the motivations, and actions, and just how long the game has been in play.

It wasn’t until about halfway through that things really seemed to pick up some. When their journey brought them to Red March, and Jal saw his home town as the end of his travels. Of course, as the reader, it was obviously anything but. But seeing him trying to slip back into his old life, while finding nothing quite the same as it was and not deriving the same pleasures from it… that was brilliant to watch unfold. The story culminates in Florence, and the last 200 pages were where this book really shone for me–I couldn’t read those last 10 chapters quick enough!

As much as a lot of this book seemed too slow and meandering, it ended on such a high, with a great final showdown of wits and smarts and conversation. It has me very keen to read the last in The Red Queen’s War series. I hope Jal continues to acknowledge his own skills, courage, and caring. I hope he and Snorri get into some wonderfully dangerous adventures. I hope he kills Edris Dean with his own goddamn sword. I hope he just generally saves the fucking day, honestly.