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!


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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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Wyrd & Wonder May Wrap Up

Updates

Well that was an absolute blast! My first Wyrd & Wonder is over and I read some great books and met some even better people 🙂 I did have a tentative TBR I aimed to get to, which included nine books. That was kind of ambitious to begin with to be honest, as nine books in a month is actually kind of a lot for me and I only ended up reading two off the list (technically two and a half because I set Foundryside to one side for a while because I absolutely hated it with the fiery passion of seven hells, don’t @ me).



I kicked off the month with a re-read of Melissa Caruso’s THE TETHERED MAGE, book one of her Renaissance Venetian-inspired flintlock fantasy series Swords and Fire. I re-read this because A) it’s awesome, but B) because I never got round to reading book three of the series so it gave me a nice excuse to refresh my memory and write a review, which you can have a glance at if intrigue, fire warlocks and court drama sounds like your cup of tea. I moved on to A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO after that and I feel like I might have a new auto-buy author in P. Djèlí Clark if his other stuff is this good! A detective solving a murder in an alternative turn of the century Egypt, where djinn have crossed the borders between worlds after the fabric of space was torn asunder. With shades of steampunk and weird cosmic horror shit thrown into the blender. *Chef’s kiss*. THE GRAND TOUR was a collection of short horror stories that I got an advance copy of from the good folks at Apex. It was the first E. Catherine Tobler stuff I’d read and I’m really glad I discovered her, because some of these stories are simply phenomenal. I believe I described it as ‘horror with a heart’.



AMBERLOUGH was my favourite read this month. I was blown away by this glitzy spy thriller featuring some incredible character writing. Having just recently finished Jade City and Jade War by the master of character Fonda Lee, I feel like my bar for good character writing is pretty high right now, so the fact that Lara Elena Donnelly still managed to be this impressive should tell you just how great this book is. OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS was an ARC of Aliette de Bodard’s upcoming stabby court drama murder mystery and it will come as no surprise to anyone that I loved it! Aliette de Bodard is a firm fave of mine and I’m almost guaranteed to enjoy anything she writes. My final Wyrd & Wonder read was KINGS OF THE WYLD by Nicholas Eames, proud holder of the Fastest Book To Make Me Cry Award. This was just great fun and also really touching. An unapologetic fantasy romp featuring all the Dungeons & Dragons tropes and party shenanigans, from absent-minded wizards and enchanted weapons to terrifying wyverns and villainous characters that are villains for the sake of being villains (but not quite).


Before I head off I just want to say a massive thank you to Imyril, Jory and Lisa for organising Wyrd & Wonder. It’s been such great fun and I’m so happy to have discovered a bunch of new blogs and met some cool fellow bookwyrms to nerd out over all things fantasy with. Counting down to next time already 🙂


Reviews:

A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO by P. Djèlí Clark
THE TETHERED MAGE by Melissa Caruso
STORM FRONT by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #1)
JADE WAR by Fonda Lee
THE GRAND TOUR by E. Catherine Tobler
AMBERLOUGH by Lara Elena Donnelly

Other posts and updates:

My Wyrd & Wonder TBR 2020
Humble Beginnings: My First Fantasy Book
The Best Things Come In Three: The Books of D&D
Books I Can’t Wait To Read
Get To Know The Fantasy Reader tag


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Review: THE GRAND TOUR (A JACKSON’S UNREAL CIRCUS & MOBILE MARMALADE COLLECTION) by E. Catherine Tobler

Book Reviews

One of my New Years Reading Resolutions was to read more small press fiction. The vast majority of the small press stuff I’ve read has been from Apex, a small press publisher of weird science fiction, fantasy and horror. This collection of short stories falls pretty firmly into the horror category, though there’s smatterings of science fiction thrown in there for good measure. THE GRAND TOUR tells the stories of the performers and hangers-on of a travelling circus seemingly not bound by the laws of time and space. Each story takes place in a different time and location, from silver rush Colorado, 1880 and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, 2001, all the way to ‘your hometown’, 1946. While some of the participants come and go with the times, others don’t seem to age or change much at all, ever-present fixtures of Jackson’s Unreal Circus & Mobile Marmalade.



This is a pretty great book. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of short story collections, but my experience so far has been that some stories definitely shine more than others, and while that was definitely the case with THE GRAND TOUR, every story was, at a bare minimum, a good, enjoyable read and some were actually pretty incredible. I will say it took me a couple of stories to feel like I’d really settled in, possibly because the first story (Vanishing Act) set some expectations that weren’t consistent with the rest of the book. Vanishing Act is the story of Rabi, Vanisher and Vanquisher Extraordinaire, who can make coins and the past vanish before your very eyes. This story was good, though not one of the better stories and I think the collection should perhaps have opened with one of the stronger entries, especially as this is more of a supernatural science fiction story and the rest of the book is very much horror, or horror-adjacent.

The next few stories follow two conjoined twins, who are part of the carnival, tracing their story from life into something not quite life and beyond. These stories are really quite fascinating, as we get to follow them on this journey, feeling very differently about them at different points along the way. I ran the whole gamut from compassion, to pity, all the way to downright abhorrence and back again. These are the stories where I started to really settle in, and by the time I got to Blow The Moon Out I was fully invested, but still not quite ready for this incredible story, following the journey of four young friends braving the horrors of the forest at night in order to visit Jackson’s Unreal Circus.

This story was matched by Lady Marmalade. Beth’s famous marmalade is referenced in many of the stories preceding this one, and while hints are dropped about its strange, memory-inducing qualities, this is the part where the titular Mobile Marmalade element begins to make sense. And while there’s still an element of horror to this story, I honestly just found it very wistfully emotional and teared up a couple of times during this one. A beautiful story that highlights the literary range Tobler is clearly capable of. There was a large element of this to the story Every Season as well, which tells the tale of a man long drawn to the idea of the circus as somewhere he feels he can truly express who he is without judgement or reproach.

All in all, this collection definitely has that dark overtone that I’ve come to expect from a lot of the stuff Apex publishes but there really is a lot of heart to this collection as well. As my first foray into E. Catherine Tobler’s fiction, I was very impressed and will definitely read more from her. This is a strong recommend from me.


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Hey! Watcha Readin’: Weekly Reading Update 20/05/2020

Updates

Welcome to Wednesday bookwyrms. I’m actually starting to get consistent with these weekly updates now; makes me feel like I’m starting to get the hang of this book blogging thing after…oh, eight months. Anyway, I have quite an eclectic collection this week. Everything I’m reading feels so different from the thing that preceded it. We’ve got a collection of short horror stories; a grand, epic, swashbuckling historical melodrama and a good rock solid epic fantasy. I also just finished AMBERLOUGH, a spy thriller set in an alternate early 20th-century secondary world, so I’m really doing the rounds of the genres at the moment.



Recently Finished: THE GRAND TOUR (A Jackson’s Unreal Circus & Mobile Marmalade Collection) by E. Catherine Tobler
This is an ARC I got from the fine folks at Apex Book Company and although I hadn’t read any of E. Catherine Tobler’s stuff before, I’ve been very impressed with the quality of fiction coming out of Apex, and the premise of this book piqued my interest enough to be very keen on getting an advance copy. I wasn’t disappointed. While somewhat difficult to categorise the collection as a whole, it’s definitely closer to horror than anything else, with a smattering of science fiction thrown in for flavour. As I’ve come to expect and love about the kind of fiction Apex publishes, it wasn’t standard fare; these stories are odd, bordering on the bizarre at times, but very well-written and deeply engaging.

Currently Reading: THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas
I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this yet! I actually started reading it at the start of May with my pal El from Ink and Plasma, with the aim of reading a bit every day alongside whatever else we’re reading. Cos folks, this is a loooong book. I’m currently listening to it on audio, cos I often find it easier to digest long books that way, but I’m fairly certain it’s around 1300 pages long. A chonker if ever there was one. If you’re not familiar with this classic story though, I’d really encourage you to overcome the intimidating length and give it a go. It was written in 1844 but still reads incredibly well, and tells the tale of Edmond Dantes, a young ship captain betrayed and wrongfully imprisoned for treason, who seeks the ultimate revenge against those who wronged him.

Next Read: A KING’S BARGAIN by J. D. L. Rosell
I signed up to read this as part of the Storytellers On Tour blog tour for this book. It’s the second tour I’m taking part in alongside them and had a blast last time reading and reviewing the urban fantasy thriller UNDER ORDSHAW by Phil Williams. A KING’S BARGAIN is in the more classic fantasy vein, which I really haven’t read much of for quite some time, so I’m looking forward to getting back to the roots of the genre. A KING’S BARGAIN is the story of Tal Harrenfel, a legendary warrior who, after decades of hunting warlocks, monster and mythical beasts, just wants to settle down. But then he meets Garin, a village boy who wants to make a name for himself, and receives an unexpected visit from a mysterious stranger. Tal and Garin begin a journey across the kingdom, becoming embroiled in the plots of monarchs, on the frontlines of an ancient war, and at the mercy of a fabled sorcerer.


If you want to take part in WWW Wednesday, hosted by Taking on a World of Words, just answer the following questions:

What have you just read?
What are you currently reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

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Review: PET SEMATARY by Stephen King

Book Reviews

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
LIKED IT

A disturbing, slow burn horror that sinks it’s claws in and drags you to a blood-curdling conclusion. Reading this book I felt like the proverbial frog in a pot of water, slowly being boiled to death, except I knew what was happening and was powerless to do anything about it.

This is the second Stephen King book I’ve read. The first one was his debut novel Carrie, which I thought was an interesting story even if it wasn’t particularly well executed. I was much more impressed with PET SEMATARY. It tells the story of the Creed family (Louis and Rachel, along with their young kids Ellie and Gage – and Ellie’s cat Church) who move to a big house in Maine when Louis lands a job at the university campus health centre. They meet their elderly neighbour Jud, who warns them to be careful of the busy road that runs by their house, as the heavy trucks have claimed the lives of many a pet dog or cat. He even shows the family the pet cemetery (misspelled ‘sematary’) behind their house, where the local kids bury their deceased pets.

I’m not going to overtly spoil anything in this review, but King makes no secret of the dark direction this story takes right from the outset, and if you read between the lines you can probably guess where this is going. Even as it became increasingly apparent what he was doing with it I found myself thinking “He’s not going to take it there is he? That’s dark”.

Oh how naive I was.

As more of a science fiction and fantasy reader it was interesting to see how differently this book read to my usual fare. In SFF a lot of the tension comes from uncertainty, from not knowing how things are going to turn out or if the protagonist you’ve came to love so much will make it through unscathed. In this book the opposite was true. It was obvious for most of the book what was going to happen and it was the dread of helplessly watching it unfold that caused the tension. I don’t read much horror so I don’t know if this is representative of the genre as a whole or if Stephen King is just particularly good at it, but PET SEMATARY is saturated with a pervasive sense of dread that hangs over the story from start to finish. And this is done with very little in the way of gore or gross-out horror which, while definitely having its place, is often a cheap and easy way to deliver scares to an audience.

The story is built on a supernatural premise, but fear, loss and grief are the true horrors of this book. Again, nothing I’m going to talk about is really a ‘spoiler’ because it’s all signposted throughout the book, but you might want to skip ahead if you like to discover everything in the reading. The most interesting part of the story for me was Rachel’s fear of death and the lasting psychological impact it had on her since she was a child. The story delves into our relationship with death and with the human psyche on an individual level through Rachel’s relationship with her sister Zelda, who suffered with spinal meningitis and died a slow and lingering death when they were both children. Rachel resented her dying sister and, far from being the ‘perfect victim’, Zelda was a hateful and spiteful person on her deathbed and Rachel is burdened with the guilt she feels at being relieved that her sister finally died. This contrasts with how, as a society, we tend to idolise the dead – ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’, so the saying goes – and it pulls the curtain back on the idealised facade that is our treatment of death.

The novel as a whole tackles some disturbing aspects of human emotion, subjects that rightly made me feel deeply uncomfortable as a reader. What makes King such a good writer is that none of it is done in a pretentious or grandiose way. Instead we see an ordinary family dealing with loss and grief in a very relatable way, even if as readers we want to shake them at times and tell them to get their shit together, if for no other reason than to stop the inevitable juggernaut of horror we can foresee but they evidently cannot.

PET SEMATARY is a good book. It’s definitely convinced me to read more Stephen King and heightened my interest in horror as a genre, both for entertainment and to familiarise myself with the conventions of horror writing, which are evidently much different from the SFF style I’m familiar with. If you’re looking for some pretty dark and emotionally heavy horror this Halloween definitely give this book a read, though if you want something a little more conventionally ‘spooky’ and lighthearted, you might want to put it off for a while.

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Hey! Watcha Readin’: 16/10/19

Updates

Hey everyone and thanks for stopping by for another weekly catch up 🙂 I’ll be using WWW Wednesday hosted by Taking on a World of Words. And hey, get involved! Answer the three questions below and let me know what you’re reading this week.

What did you recently finish reading?
What are you currently reading?
What will you read next?

Recently Finished: PET SEMATARY by Stephen King and SWORD OF DESTINY by Andrzej Sapkowski
PET SEMATARY was my October horror read and my second Stephen King book. I’m still a newb to horror literature though so it was interesting to see how differently it’s written compared to other speculative fiction. A lot of the dramatic tension in sci-fi and fantasy comes from not knowing how things are going to turn out but here King practically signposts the ending of the story the whole way through and the tension builds from the experience of being drawn into that inevitable conclusion. I enjoyed PET SEMATARY, even if it didn’t particularly blow my mind. SWORD OF DESTINY, on the other hand, was a difficult read. I slogged through it but my god, Sapkowski has women issues. The man is obsessed with tits. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll have seen me posting some of the more cringey excerpts from this book. I am going to continue with this series, simply because although this was the second instalment chronologically it was the first to be released and I thought the second book he wrote was a bit better. I’m giving Sapkowski the benefit of the doubt here and hoping the next one is a decent read.

Currently Reading: FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
This is one of those ‘classic’ books that’s been on my TBR for years and I picked it up in a Kindle sale a few months ago. From what I know about FAHRENHEIT 451 it’s a classic dystopia in the vein of Brave New World and 1984 that tells the story of a future society where books have been made illegal and firemen are employed to burn literature and the houses of those who dare to still read them. Unfortunately for me I started a new job this week and haven’t got much reading done yet. I literally read about ten pages last night before I got too sleepy to continue so not much to report yet.

Next Read: THE ROSEWATER REDEMPTION by Tade Thompson
I’ve been excited for this release ever since reading the first two books in the Wormwood series! This is some seriously good effing sci-fi everybody. Aliens. Pseudo-zombies. Biopunk noir spy thrills. It’s got everything and Tade weaves it all together masterfully. Just go read my reviews of ROSEWATER and THE ROSEWATER INSURRECTION and see for yourself how much it’s possible for one man to gush about a book.

That’s what I’ve got planned this week.
What are you folks reading?

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned?
Get involved with WWW Wednesday either on your own blog or in the comments!