BOOKISH SHANGRI-LA by Maddalena from Space and Sorcery

Updates

Fellow book blogger JonBob is celebrating the first anniversary of his blog – by the way, Happy Blog-versary! 🎂 – and he was so kind to ask me for some help with the festivities by writing a guest post, which is both a delight and a privilege for me. And what better way to get into the spirit of things if not by talking about what makes this community one of the best and most welcoming in the whole Web?

The Internet is an amazing place for finding information and meeting with people who share our same interests, bridging vast distances and canceling borders, but it can be also a battle ground for conflicting points of view, the heat of those battles made even fiercer by the anonymity afforded by a remote connection and the possibility of letting the worst humanity has to offer out in the open, unchecked and unrestrained.

I have been lucky enough in my journeys as I pursued my “infatuations”, and never truly encountered mean-spirited people whose sole goal was to seed discord: for example, at the time I was following a few discussion groups on Usenet (ancient history, I know…), there were the so-called trolls, who liked to foment virtual skirmishes, or flame wars, by simply dropping a controversial opinion and then watching the ensuing mayhem from the sidelines. We learned quickly enough that as long as we ignored them, they would soon vanish.

Now the debate, when it occurs, is much more heated: people appear to enjoy taking sides – no matter the topic – in a vicious way that is the sad reflection of the “us vs. them” mentality that seems to have taken hold of the world in a form of collective madness. Those trolls of old have evolved, and probably it’s because some mad scientists altered their DNA to make them more aggressive…

But there are a few islands of peace in the Web, and the book blogging community is one of them – what’s more, my experience with it showed me that it’s one of the most welcoming, easy-going and above all relaxing you could find in cyberspace.  Much depends, I believe, on the way book lovers are structured, the way our passion for reading shapes us: our favorite pastime is to sit comfortably with a book in our hands, and through those books (particularly if we enjoy speculative fiction) we visit and envision new worlds, new cultures, new ways of facing issues. It would not be an exaggeration to say that those stories broaden our minds, opening them to infinite possibilities: the end result is that we are more ready to accept a different view, or at the very least to take it into consideration without judgement or scorn.

And that’s the beauty of this community: the respect we have for the stories we read translates into the respect we hold for our fellows’ points of view, even when they differ from ours. Each time a controversial book is discussed, or an unpopular opinion voiced, there is no danger of… armed conflict: the worst that can happen is that we can agree to disagree, and move on. It’s a rare and precious gift, because we can approach this community with the certainty that it will offer us a pleasant, relaxed experience – and in these times you can’t certainly take that for granted.

So, as we celebrate the first anniversary for JonBob’s blog, I wish for it to be only the first of many more in this amazing and inspiring world of books.


You can follow Maddalena on Twitter @Maddalena_T55 and on her blog Space and Sorcery, where she enjoys losing herself in the imaginary worlds of SFF.

Review: BAPTISM OF FIRE (The Witcher #3) by Andrzej Sapkowksi

Book Reviews

Ah, feels good returning to my poorly-written guilty pleasures haha. I’ve had complicated feelings about The Witcher books so far. They’re not very good and I wouldn’t for a second recommend anyone actually read them, but I sort of enjoy them regardless. I dunno, they just have a kind of raggedy charm, like an old scabby dog that just wants to be your friend. Having read the two short story collections and the first two novels, how did number three fare?



Not as entertaining as the first two novels unfortunately, though still enjoyably shit. At the end of Time Of Contempt all hell broke loose and I was ready for things to kick up a gear in BAPTISM OF FIRE, with lots of intricate kingdom politics and armies on the move, scheming mages conniving behind closed doors, and Geralt maybe finally becoming…interesting? We get some of this in a very patchwork sort of way, but what I really got struck by was just how much the pace of this book slooowed everything the fuck down. Like too much. Geralt actually just spends most of his time being injured, slowly trying to make his way to Nilfgaard in pursuit of Ciri, though meeting quite the colourful cast of characters along the way which, admittedly, was very enjoyable.

First he meets Milva, a baller archer who stalks the forests of Brokilon. She’s not very interesting actually but we do get an absolute treat when Sapkowski uses her knowledge of archery to give us a much-too-long lesson on composite bow craftsmanship. It was totally self-indulgent and absurd but I lived and loved and laughed while reading it. Anyway, she joins the party for this book and decides to travel with Geralt. Obviously Dandelion turns up, everyone’s favourite misogynist (I’m still bitter about his antics in the short stories), as well as a medicine man harbouring a dark secret who becomes an unlikely ally. My favourite addition to the troupe though was the dwarf, Zoltan Chivay, and his band of mercenaries, who provide some good old rollickin’ humour.

Ciri, meanwhile, is absolutely nowhere near where Geralt thinks she is, having made a home for herself with the notorious group of brigands known as The Rats. I really like the direction Ciri’s story has forked off in, it’s far from the noble hero coming to the rescue of the helpless princess; for one thing Geralt is totally mistaken as to her whereabouts, so he’s actually not coming to rescue her at all, but also Ciri trained to be a witcher herself and, despite being a politically-important princess, is becoming quite a brutal criminal on the fringes of society. I really can’t tell where her story is going, but I’m intrigued to find out.

The part of this book I found disappointing though was the newly-formed Lodge of Sorceresses. Philippa Eilhart founds The Lodge after leading the coup against The Brotherhood of Sorcerors. The idea itself is amazing. A disparate group of female mages from conflicting sides of the nascent war coming together to set aside their political allegiances and elevate the cause of magic above the interests of petty kingdoms. It has so much potential for the various members to be distrustful of one another, for backstabbing, fear of backstabbing and all the conflict that could arise with it. All this conflict actually does play out but it’s made very difficult to buy into because Philippa Eilhart just straight up tells all the members her plans before they even know why the first meeting has been called and (crucially) before they’ve agreed not to go straight back to their respective kingdoms and spill the beans to the various kings. It made no sense! None, not a bit. Throughout all these scenes I was left scratching my head about whether I was missing some vital piece of the puzzle that allowed all this to make sense. I’ve read enough Sapowski now though to know I probably wasn’t haha.

You know what though, I still enjoyed this book despite its many flaws. There’s a big part of me that wishes I could read Polish cos I can’t shift the feeling that a lot of my criticisms of this series stem from translation issues. Not all, but certainly a sizeable chunk. Regardless, I’m gonna carry on reading these books to the bitter end; they’ve got a hold on me that I can’t quite shake. I enjoy them, even though they’re a bit shit, and I’m quite happy with that 😀


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Readers’ Glee; or a Reader of Older Books Reflects by Mayri aka bookforager

Updates

Hi! I’m bookforager and JonBob has very kindly given me leave to take over this little portion of his blog today as part of his first blogiversary celebrations. Thank you so much for having me over!  Now, before I start blathering please join me in raising a glass to JonBob and wishing him a very HAPPY BLOGIVERSARY and many more to come. Woo!

My husband and I love junk shops. And second-hand bookstores, and charity shops. In a world seemingly obsessed with the new, the bright and the shiny, we must have some kind of jumble-sale gene because we both get far more of a kick out of rummaging through piles of old tat than visiting pristine stores in which goods are sorted by size, colour and category. And when it comes to books I could blather on forever about the beauty of preloved volumes, with their comfortably broken-in spines, thumb-softened pages and scumbled edges, but in a Herculean feat of self-control I am instead here to witter about some of the joys to be had from reading older titles; those books for whom, alas, the publicity train has now passed on, who find they must now fend for themselves in the cold shadows of their newer, more sparkly brethren.

Joy #1: Recommendations

One of the delights of belonging to the blogging community is that you can get recommendations for absolutely anything. Fancy reading something about space monkey pirates? Someone out there will know just the book for you. Maybe you’ve just read and loved the latest steampunk sensation, someone else will tell you about a book published twenty years ago that your book was riffing on. Recommendations can only ever deepen and broaden our reading. More importantly perhaps, they create connections between us, lines of communication, and they keep the conversation – between books, between eras and between readers – alive.

Joy #2: Anticipation

Sure, there’s an element of anticipation in all reading, but what I’m thinking of here is that very specific feeling of excitement and expectation that comes from having read your very first book by an author and knowing that there is a back catalogue to explore. I am currently reading my second Tim Powers book and am feeling this heady pleasure right now. The Anubis Gates bowled me over, but it could have been a fluke, his one great book in an otherwise mediocre oeuvre. Now, reading Hide Me Among the Graves I am practically bouncing up and down with glee because I’m loving it and at the same time anticipating how much fun I’m going to have reading the rest of his work. There should be a word for this feeling.



Joy #3: Discovery

Is this not every bookwyrm’s dream? To discover that unknown, unheard of slice of awesomeness in a bookstore, drawn to it as if by an invisible force or perhaps by its truly terrible cover, and have it become your favourite book of all time? To guard the secret of it, maybe, and only share your knowledge of it with those you deem worthy?
No?
OK. Just me then.

Joy #4: The Great Winnowing

Surely we all do this to some extent: letting the world do some of the work for us when it comes to choosing what to read? Yes, I’m seeing all those new releases and drooling over them along with everyone else, but due to money, time and attention span I couldn’t possibly read them all, even if I only read brand spanking new books all the time. So I wait. I buy a few, I make tbr wish-lists that run on for pages, and I keep an eye on what my bloggy friends are saying about the rest. And I see what survives. I’ll go back to those wish-lists twelve months later, or twenty-four, and see which books are still getting mentioned in lists and tags and suchlike, which books have won awards or sparked the most discussion. (I also like to see which books make it onto my lists multiple times because I’ve forgotten that I listed it previously … these are nearly always guaranteed purchases: why did I keep forgetting this title? Was it aliens? Am I the unwitting victim of a mind-control experiment? I should probably read it and find out what They don’t want me to know!)

Joy #5: Serendipity

And sometimes I believe a book does just show up at the right time. This might sound like wishy-washy nonsense to you, but I came across many of my most important, favourite reads not when they were new and shiny, but when I needed them. The Hobbit and I crossed paths when I was about nine years old, bullied mercilessly and hating school, and unsure of how I was supposed to fit in. I picked it up because it had a dragon on the cover and reading it was like being given a doorway to a magical elsewhere. It was respite in paperback. The books that cross my path, no matter their age or condition, so often come at just the right time, when I’m most open to the story they have to tell me. It’s a pretty great feeling, even if it is all in my head.



Joy #6: Rereading

Last, but not least, there is the delight and comfort of rereading. I know this isn’t a popular choice. I know there are so many books out there that rereading can be seen as time wasted, but, for me at least, rereading offers the unmitigated pleasure of returning to an enchanted place (and armchair travel is not to be sniffed at in this world of pandemic and political horror), reacquainting myself with beloved characters, and often seeing things I didn’t see before.

What about you, dear reader? Do you read older works, or are you all about the new? Do you think books are in conversation with each other and with the world, or do you think they each stand alone? And (I dread to ask) … do you reread?


You can find Mayri on Twitter @bkfrgr and on her blog, bookforager, where she writes wonderful book reviews and is always super friendly, despite claiming to always be late to the SFF party.

Review: GOLDILOCKS by Laura Lam

Book Reviews

The Earth is in environmental collapse. The future of humanity hangs in the balance. But a team of women are preparing to save it. Even if they’ll need to steal a spaceship to do it. The elevator pitch for this book perked me up instantly. Imminent climate catastrophe, a crack team of all female astronauts and grand theft auto on an interstellar scale? I’m in. Sadly, this story just didn’t end up pulling me in. Usually if I don’t enjoy a book it’s because I think the writing is bad or the characters are two dimensional, some craft reason I can point to and say here’s is why I this book isn’t good. With Goldilocks though, I don’t even think it’s a bad book; it just didn’t work for me. Let me try and pick apart why.



First off I just didn’t get the narrative structure right off the bat. The book opens far after the events of the main plot line of the book have taken place, with the main character, Naomi Lovelace, in the throes of old age, finally relenting to tell the full story of her life to her daughter, who is ostensibly the narrator. I’m not against that in principle, but it felt so out of place here given that the rest of the story is just told in close third person from Naomi’s perspective and there’s no more reference to this narrative device until the final chapter, when whoops, we’re reminded again that this was Naomi’s daughter telling the story all along. I just found it incredibly jarring and pointless. On top of that, just before we dive into the main story, there’s the old “We’ll start at the beginning” line, except it’s really not the beginning at all because the story proceeds to jump back in time again to many years prior. Look, I love a good non-linear story as much as the next guy and think it would still have worked well here, if it wasn’t for the first chapter that just made everything afterwards feel weird to me.

Another unfortunate aspect of the story being told via an intermediary and far removed in time from the events of the story was that I just didn’t feel connected to what was happening from the get go. There are other books that have done this well (Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune does it masterfully) but for me Laura Lam just didn’t quite manage it. I actually think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if I hadn’t immediately been thrown off in the first few chapters.

That being said, the content of the plot and the detail of the world building was super interesting. From massive sea walls off the coast of California to slow the rising sea levels to state-mandated mask-wearing (ahem) to protect against air pollution and from vat-grown babies to an operational Alcubierre drive to achieve FTL travel, there’s a lot going on in the background of this story. Some of it is done well and I appreciated the detail, but parts also felt a bit too hasty and left me feeling a bit unsatisfied with what could have been explored. But hey, Laura for sure knew what story she wanted to tell and it’s not objectively bad that she devoted more time to exploring the parts she wanted to explore. The one thing I felt really did deserve more attention was just how the women managed to steal a fucking spaceship without anyone noticing or being able to stop them in time. Launching a shuttle isn’t like hotwiring a car, that shit’s gotta take time and set off all kinds of instruments and technological gadgets that’s gonna alert someone. It’s kind of waved away as AI took care of all the stuff required for launch which, ok fine, it’s a plot device and there’d be no story if these guys got busted before getting the shuttle off the ground. I just felt, given how much detail was put into other aspects of the story, this part felt a bit too rushed and hand-wavy.

I think an inevitable repercussion of having a wobbly start with a book is that it makes you less forgiving of other minor things you may have otherwise been more forgiving of. Psychologically it means that once you’re a bit down on it from the start, it’s much harder for the story to dig itself back out of the hole and get you back on track. I’m consciously aware of that, which is why I would still recommend this book to certain people despite not really enjoying it myself. Comps for this book have described it as The Handmaids Tale meets The Martian and that sounds pretty darn accurate and, while I personally just didn’t manage to gel with it, I think if you’re looking for a bit of a dark, feminist, near-future science fiction story there’s definitely a lot to like in here for you.


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Review: MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Book Reviews

It’s Mexico, 1950s. Noemí Taboada receives a letter from her recently-married cousin, claiming her husband is poisoning her and that she hears voices in the walls of the dilapidated, isolated family mansion they’ve removed to. Noemí agrees to travel to the mansion, aptly named High Place, up in the hills and abandoned silver mines of Triunfo. There Noemí discovers her cousin is certainly not herself and the family she’s married into harbour sinister secrets and a murky past that she must uncover, or she may never leave the house at all.



MEXICAN GOTHIC has solidified the gothic genre as a new found love for me. I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein many years ago and just didn’t get it (looking back I fundamentally misunderstood it I think) so it wasn’t until I picked up Jeannette Ng’s dark gothic fantasy Under The Pendulum Sun last year that I read anything remotely like it again. I loved that book and I’m so grateful for it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have paid much attention to this book when it came out – and MEXICAN GOTHIC turned out to be an absolute dread-inducing delight.

Moreno-Garcia’s writing is a master class in invoking a claustrophobic, paranoid feeling in the reader’s mind, expertly mirroring Noemí’s spiral towards an increasingly sinister and surreal Stockholm Syndrome under the roof of High Place and its ageing eugenicist patriarch, Howard Doyle. The setting is just as much a character as the people in it and the writing gives the house a menacing and confining aura whose presence weighs on you throughout the story. So much so that in the brief interludes when Noemí manages to escape to visit the nearby town, I could practically feel myself breathing easier, as if I’d been almost suffocated the whole time she was stuck between the watchful gaze of the walls of High Place. Moreno-Garcia uses language in clever ways to invoke this feeling. When Noemí is walking the darkened corridors she feels she is being watched by the family portraits and Moreno-Garcia uses active verbs to make us feel it with her. This is the kind of writing that sets good writers apart from great ones; knowing how to manipulate language to invoke the feelings of your characters in the reader is something that makes me sit up and take notice.


There was a woman, her hands tightly held in her lap, her light hair pinned up, who regarded Noemí with large eyes from her picture frame.


Noemí tried to think of the house filled with the noise of children’s laughter, children playing hide and seek, children with a spinning top or ball between their hands. But she couldn’t. The house would not have allowed such a thing. The house would have demanded they spring from it fully grown.


The book is also littered with allusions to real life classics of gothic literature, including Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as Jayne Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I’ve never read Jayne Eyre, but I’m still familiar with the story and themes simply through a process of cultural osmosis and from that limited baseline I think Mexican Gothic takes a lot of inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s social commentary on feminism, sexuality and class and updates it for the twenty-first century, yet still makes the themes relevant when the story itself is set in the 1950s. I don’t know if this was a deliberate theme of the book, but it felt to me it was saying that, despite the social advances in intervening years, women still put up with a lot of the same shit that decades of ingrained sexism has instilled in society. There’s a lot of overt sexism in the book, from Virgil Doyle pronouncing that Catalina is his wife and he decides whether she leaves High Place or not, even when her mental well being is at stake, but also a lot of subtle social interactions that highlight the myriad ways men interact with women in belittling or dismissive ways. For instance, Virgil making a slightly inapproapriate comment with sexual undertones that makes Noemí uncomfortable and yet she doesn’t say anything “because it wasn’t really that bad of a comment, a few words, and she didn’t wish to start a fight in the middle of a dark hallway over what amounted to almost, but not quite, nothing”.

I particularly liked the book’s exploration of class and how wealth and ownership is such a massive instrument for the wealthy to lever their power. The Doyle family historically owned the defunct silver mines in the hills around High Place and an important sub-plot in the family’s history is their repression of a labour strike when the miners downed tools amidst an epidemic that was killing a large proportion of the workers (seems particularly apt now, in the Covid era where some sections of workers are rediscovering their power by going on strike in protest at lack of protective equipment). This element of the story highlights the racism and white supremacy of the ruling class in post-independence Mexico. Howard Doyle is particularly overt in his racism and passion for eugenics and doesn’t mind Noemí knowing it. There’s even some dark humour in parts of the book when Noemí wonders if he keeps a pair of calipers to measure his guests’ skulls. The Doyle family are particularly hung up on the Mexican Revolution, which they lament as taking everything from them, despite their continued exploitation of Mexican workers to profit from the riches of the silver mine.

There’s a lot of great social commentary in this book and the writing is superb, but the plot and character relationships are also top notch. The slow burn unravelling of the story, the Doyle family’s sordid, shady history and Noemí’s relationship with Francis, the one seemingly-decent member of the Doyle family all weave together to tell such a compelling, eery story that on many occasions had me shuddering and mouthing oh my god at the sheer creepiness of it all. It’s paced so perfectly and I’m awed by how natural it felt that a story beginning with a young socialite leaving a party in Mexico City ended up in the utterly messed up place it did. MEXICAN GOTHIC is excellent and a solid recommendation from me.


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Birthday Build Up

Updates

Hi folks, just a very quick update for you all to let you know that this coming Sunday is going to be Parsecs & Parchments’ very first birthday! And to celebrate I’m gonna be posting every day this week with a glut of reviews and guest posts from some of my fave bloggers and bookish folks from the community.

On top of that, Rin from The Thirteenth Shelf is also hosting a giveaway of some beautiful SFF art! Her post highlighting some of her favourite artists is already up. Go check it out and enter the giveaway here.

So I hope you’ll join me in the festivities this week and raise a glass in honour of a whole year of P&P. Here’s to many more.



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SFF prints and ART GIVEAWAY by Rin from The 13th Shelf

Updates

Happy birthday to Parsecs & Parchment! Throughout my time in the SFF book blogosphere, Jon’s blog has been a must-read for me, as his stamp of approval is rare and hard-earned. He’s introduced me to some fantastic authors that really made my year, and my TBR is littered with his top recommendations. I’m honored that he has asked me to write a guest post to help him celebrate his blog’s anniversary.

My own blog, The 13th Shelf, is not just about sci-fi and fantasy books. I think one of the best things about SF&F is that it’s a genre that has affected all sorts of media and art forms. I love how the limitless potential of speculative fiction finds its way out of book covers and into our lives in beautiful and inspiring ways.

Today I’d like to share some SFF art prints to decorate the walls of your reading spaces, and in celebration of Parsecs & Parchment’s birthday, I’d like to host a giveaway for one of the prints featured here. Read the rules and requirements at the end of this post!


Last Studio – Travel Middle Earth Print Set, $40 USD for eight 5.5″ x 7″ prints

Rather than the somber greens and grays of a Peter Jackson movie, these depictions of classic Tolkien locations pull inspiration from American mid-century animation styles to show Middle Earth as a bright and vividly detailed world that would not be out of place in a 1950s Disney movie. Framed together near your favorite reading nook, they bring a refreshing pop of color to SFF shelves that are often rife with book covers dominated by blacks, blues and washed out pastels.


Prints by Ulla Thynell (pictured above: Blooming Forest, $28 USD for 18” x 13.” Pictured below: Dragon Hills, $28 USD for 19” x 11”)

Thynell’s whimsical watercolors evoke all the nostalgia of vintage picture books, with faraway castles, dragons and unicorns set amid dreamy, ethereal forests—perfect for anyone whose love of fantasy blossomed in the illustrations of hand-me-down children’s books.



Pop Chart specializes in…well, charts. Big charts, with an insane amount of detail. They have an interesting collection of book-themed posters (including scratch-off prints for those wanting to read 100 classics), but for the SFF set, the Harry Potter posted is a fun choice. (If adult fantasy is more your thing, check out their Game of Thrones print, which illustrates everything from the armor, weapons and crowns of all the houses to their castles and horses.)


Stephan Martiniere’s archival prints, $30 USD for 13” x 19” (pictured left: Elantris, pictured right: Dark Forest)

Stephan Martiniere is one of my favorite concept artists—and perhaps he’s yours too, and you just don’t know it. There’s a good chance you own his work, and it’s sitting somewhere on your SFF book shelf. His fantastically detailed art graces many of the most well-known speculative fiction books of the past 10 years, and it’s not hard to see why. He offers high-quality prints of all his book covers, allowing you to decorate your wall with the scenes and landscapes of some of the best contemporary SFF.


PARSECS & PARCHMENT’S BIRTHDAY SFF PRINT GIVEAWAY

PRIZE: ONE of the following:
Last Studio: one Travel Middle Earth Print Set, (8 prints total, 5.5″ x 7″ each)
Ulla Thynell: one (size small) unframed print of your choosing (see options)
Popchart: one Magical Objects of the Wizarding World (print only) OR one The World of Ice and Fire (print only)
Stephan Martiniere: one 13″ x 19″ unframed print of your choosing (see options)

TO ENTER: Hop on over to JonBob’s Twitter account and follow, like & retweet the pinned giveaway post. That’s it 🙂 If you know which print you’d like if you win, comment underneath. Oh, and there’s a bonus entry if you also follow the blog. The winner will be announced on Sunday 20th September. Good luck!

REQUIREMENTS: US only (sorry non-US folks)


You can find Rin on Twitter @13thShelf or over at her blog The Thirteenth Shelf, where she writes succinct reviews of books and book-ish things for the busy reader. She loves tea, mathematics, cats, French & Japanese cuisine, paranormal podcasts, journaling, enamel pins and abstract art.

Reading Update 09/09/2020

Book Reviews

Recently Finished: MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I pre-ordered Mexican Gothic months ago, was so excited the day it came out and predictably, in true book blogger fashion, only just got round to it this weekend gone. Mortified I waited so long though cos it’s so good! Creepy and atmospheric and weeeird, it’s only the second book I can claim to have read in the gothic genre after being wonderfully horrified and disturbed by Jeanette Ng’s Under The Pendulum Sun, so I can’t claim to be well-versed or steeped in the genre, but this felt like an inspired take. I’m really keen on reading some of the inspirational material, like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, to get a real appreciation of gothic storytelling and its modern iterations. The slow, atmospheric building of dread in these stories is something I’ve realised I really love.

Currently Reading: GOLDILOCKS by Laura Lam
This is a book that has such a cool-sounding premise. A group of female astronauts steal a spaceship after the mission is taken from them by a Handmaids Tale-esque government and head to the first practically habitable exo-planet to establish a new society. Sadly I feel like it’s not living up to expectations so far. It’s not a bad book per se, it’s just not really grabbing me you know? I’m also having some major issues with the politics of the book, in that it so far it’s seemed to advocate the if only we had more female CEOs brand of feminism, which is just utter trash. It’s possible I’m misguided about that though, cos I’ve just reached a point where the direction of the story has taken a sharp turn and might actually be about to pull me in. Let’s see eh?

Next Read: THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING by Alexis Henderson
Aaaarghhh! I’m really in the mood for creepy horror stories right now and I’ve been itching to read The Year of the Witching for months. It’s got spooky dark woods, it’s got the legacy of four murdered witches and a puritanical Church with a dark history to unearth, bound up in a story about fighting patriarchy and corruption. I can’t wait!


Let me know what you’re reading and if you enjoyed this update follow the blog to never miss a post!

Review: RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

This book is off the scale magnificent. It’s taken me about ten weeks to feel ready to even try and talk about how much it blew me away, and even now I can feel myself getting overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to do it justice. RING SHOUT tells the story of Maryse Boudreaux, a young black woman who runs bootleg whiskey through prohibition Georgia with her pals Sadie and Chef, respectively a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and veteran WWI Harlem Hellfighter. Oh, and she also fights evil monsters called ‘Ku Kluxes’ with a magic sword that she summons from another dimension. Now if you’re anything like me that right there is enough for you to abandon this review right away to go buy a copy of this book (you should totally do that by the way – every second you’re reading this review is another second you’re not reading RING SHOUT) but there’s so much more to talk about and I need to release the pressure valve cos I feel like my chest has been about to explode with adoration ever since I closed that final page.



Okay okay okay, I can feel myself getting over-excited and this has the potential to become an incoherent stream-of-consciousness squee-fest, so I’m gonna do my best to rein myself in and speak with poise and grace about what makes this book so damn incredible. First off, there’s the over-arching concept of the book. D. W. Griffith was a real life film director who made a notoriously vile, racist film called Birth Of A Nation in 1915; Clark reimagines him here as a sorcerer, and his film a spell that draws power from the racist hatred that is so prevalent in early 20th century America (and let’s be real, in modern day America too). The Klan are the footsoldiers of this movement and have a plan to unleash Hell on Earth. What I love about this concept is that this spell isn’t the cause of the racism portrayed in the book, as can often be the case in some SFF books where the social evil is represented as the result of some outside intervention. In this case it simply feeds on the power of the bigotry that already exists. It doesn’t absolve people of responsibility for their racism. I don’t want to say too much more about this aspect of the story because it’s so tied in with plot development, but trust me when I say that Clark uses this concept and takes it to a truly dark and horrifying conclusion that kept me transfixed from beginning to end.

As a work of art RING SHOUT is superb in every way, but as a story it’s the characters that bring it to life. Maryse is a hero that I just gelled with instantly. She’s a magic-sword-wielding monster hunter who runs bootleg whiskey for eff’s sake, but she’s also a righteous hero and a complicated person who lives, loves and makes mistakes. I loved her comrade-in-arms Chef, a veteran of The Great War whose prized possession is a knife she took from a slain German soldier. The opening chapter takes place in a cotton warehouse and it’s this setting, combined with the object of Chef’s knife, that serves as a poignant reminder that throughout the story that follows, with all its racism and violence against Black people, that it was Black folks who built America and Black folks who also fought and died to defend it. Sadie the sharpshooter is wonderful too. Every single one of Clark’s characters are incredibly well-developed, fully-realised people with so many facets to their personality (a remarkable achievement in the limited word count of a novella by the way) and not one of them fits the caricature of how women (and young Black women in particular) are often represented in stereotypical media portrayals, but I think Sadie, above all, is the best representation of this. She swears, she flirts and she’s a crack shot with a rifle. There’s a great scene where she, Maryse and Chef are driving through town and see a poster for Griffith’s film; Sadie leans out the car window to hurl abuse at it and Maryse’s reaction is simply ‘Can’t say I blame her’. This scene in particular hit me hard because there’s always that argument that’s brought up whenever we talk about historic racism, that ‘times were just different back then, people thought racism was more acceptable’, when what they really mean is white people thought it was acceptable. And this just lays bare who we centre whenever we discuss these things because – shock, horror – there never was a time when Black folks thought racism was acceptable.

As a quick aside, when I started reading P. Djèlí Clark’s books, I wasn’t prepared for the level of dark horror that he incorporates into his fantasy. There’s definite Lovecraftian vibes to his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and some quite chilling horror in his associated novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His books are often billed as ‘dark fantasy’, and while that’s definitely true, I don’t think it captures the level of horror that’s present in his stories. RING SHOUT takes that to the next level; genres are fickle things, but if you’re going into this thinking it’s just dark fantasy, be aware that horror is absolutely front and centre in this book. Also, since I mentioned Lovecraft, that guy can get fucked but he also wrote some existentially terrifying stories. Gore horror and jump scares can get in the bin, that’s the sort of horror I love; the stuff that leaves you questioning your place in the universe, how you exist and relate to powerful forces you have no control over as an individual. P. Djèlí Clark is the anti-Lovecraft, but also the antidote to Lovecraft because he takes the best of that kind of storytelling and energises it with much more intelligence and talent while challenging the racism that overshadows Lovecraft’s legacy.

As a writer, Clark is exceptional. His prose is crisp and evocative, conjuring up images in your head that draw you so completely into the world of his story in a way that makes everything feel that much more real and visceral. A lot of the time in my reviews I talk about plot, setting, character and themes separately, but I honestly have a hard time doing that here because Clark is a master of having all these elements interplay so gracefully that it’s difficult to untangle them and almost feels like a disservice to do so. While each element on its own is incredibly well done, they weave together into a beautiful tapestry that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

I honestly think P. Djèlí Clark is a genius and, simply put, one of the greatest writers alive right now. He makes my chest swell and bones vibrate in awe at his talent. There’s actually a lot more I want to discuss about RING SHOUT, particularly the politics represented in the book, from Marcus Garvey to the Bolshevik Revolution, because there’s a lot to pick apart and is another aspect of Clark’s storytelling where his intelligence looms large and his understanding of the relations between race, economics and political movements is abundantly clear. This review doesn’t do justice to just how much of a groundbreaking author he is. Long story short, put RING SHOUT at the top of your reading list, I promise you it will be one of the best books you read this year.


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Reading Update 28/07/2020

Updates

Hey bookwyrms. You might have noticed I’ve been taking a more lax approach to these reading updates lately; I used to do them every Wednesday but found I’d sometimes end up forcing myself to read when I didn’t want to just to avoid retreading familiar ground each week. Soooo I’m just gonna do them whenever I have new stuff to talk about. I’m not one who deals well with routine anyway. I’m not reading any new books lately, in fact they’re all canny old, so if what you’re really interested in is the shiny new releases you’re not gonna find anything to excite you here. But! If, like me, you think old books deserve appreciation too, then let’s wipe the dust of aeons off those old book covers and dive into some retro fiction.



Recently Finished: THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler
Some of my favourite books have been influenced by the pulp noir genre. Neuromancer by William Gibson for example, one of my all time favourite books, is saturated with the atmosphere and character tropes of noir detective fiction. Classic cyberpunk characters are the marginalised, alienated loners who live on the edges of society and eschew its rules, much like the anti-hero of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP. Private dick Philip Marlowe is the archetypal rough-around-the-edges, booze-guzzling maverick private investigator we’re all familiar with now and is pulled into the shady underbelly of 1930s Los Angeles when he’s hired by an old general to investigate the blackmailer of his daughter. This was a really good book. Didn’t quite make it to being great, but Chandler’s famous no-nonsense prose was very compelling and, given how much I love William Gibson, I was intrigued by the stylistic prose that clearly influenced what came to be a classic of the cyberpunk genre in Neuromancer.

Currently Reading: THE STAND by Stephen King
I’ve mentioned before in passing how I have a goal to read all of Stephen King’s books in order. I’ve been making slow progress with that but, let’s be real, it’s gonna be a lifelong commitment cos that guy has written a lot of books. You may also be questioning my sanity in reading a book about a killer virus that wipes out 99% of humanity while in the middle of an irl pandemic and I really have no answer for you there, maybe I just didn’t think the real world was dark enough. I’m about ten chapters in and enjoying it well enough so far. I have an odd relationship with Stephen King; he has a weird writing style and his books feel like deep character studies more than books with an actual plot and I think he really needs an editor to tell him to shut the fuck up sometimes, but his books are enjoyable, sort of like chewing gum for the brain.

Next Read: THE MURDER ON THE LINKS by Agatha Christie
This section is almost always entirely nonsense cos I love a good mood read, so will change my mind a hundred times about what to read next, but I finished the first Hercule Poirot book a few weeks ago and loved it. I’m a massive Agatha Christie fan boy now and I’m really digging old crime fiction at the mo. THE MURDER ON THE LINKS sees our old Belgian detective summoned to France after receiving a distressing letter with a urgent cry for help. Upon his arrival Poirot finds the letter writer, the South American millionaire Monsieur Renauld, stabbed to death and his body flung into a freshly dug open grave on the golf course adjoining the property. Renauld’s wife is found bound and gagged in her room. Apparently, it seems that Renauld and his wife were victims of a failed break-in, resulting in Renauld’s kidnapping and death. There’s no lack of suspects: his wife, whose dagger served as the weapon; his embittered son, who would have killed for independence; and his mistress, who refused to be ignored – and each felt deserving of the dead man’s fortune. The police think they’ve found the culprit, but Poirot has his doubts. Why is the dead man wearing an overcoat that is too big for him? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse… Love it love it love it.


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